How To Book Mixed Cabin Itineraries To Score A Deal On Premium Seats

Earlier I shared the list of the next 14 first & business class products I’d like to review. Whenever possible I try to redeem miles for flights, though some of the airlines I want to review don’t partner with major loyalty programs, so that’s not an option. In those cases I typically try to score the best deal on premium tickets using one of two methods:

  • Booking the ticket out of cheap markets that are known for low fares (Cairo, Colombo, etc.)
  • Booking a mixed cabin ticket, with the outbound in first or business class, and the return in economy

Sometimes I’m able to use a combination of both, which is the best of both worlds. While I often just want a one-way in business class because I’m looking to review an airline, there are plenty of other reasons this could be useful. Some people want to fly first or business class in one direction but not the other, yet airlines make it surprisingly hard to book mixed cabin itineraries. In this post I wanted to look at how you can do that.

An example of a mixed cabin booking

I think it’s easiest to explain this in the form of an example. Let’s say I really want to fly Air Italy from Milan to Miami on July 9 in business class. The one-way fare is $1,988. Ouch, that’s expensive.

Meanwhile a roundtrip business class ticket would cost $2,047, which is just $60 more. In this case it would be a no brainer to book a roundtrip.

However, what if you wanted to fly outbound in business class and return in economy, or otherwise just book a one-way in business class? That’s possible — you can book Milan to Miami in business class (and pay half of the cheapest roundtrip business class cost) and then Miami to Milan in economy class (and pay half of the cheapest roundtrip economy class cost), for a total of $1,268. As you can see, you’re paying about $250 more than the lowest one-way business class cost, which accounts for the cost of the return in economy.

How is this possible?

The idea is simple — airlines publish different one-way fares than roundtrip fares. The logic is that they think they can generally get away with charging more for those who are traveling just one-way.

For example, between Milan and Miami, the cheapest roundtrip business class fare is $1,771, while the cheapest one-way business class fare is $1,653 (which is before carrier imposed surcharges).

The great thing is that you don’t actually have to book a roundtrip in business class to get that business class fare. Instead you can typically score that price as long as you travel roundtrip, even if you’re mixing cabins. In other words, if you’re flying in one direction in business class and one direction in economy, you’ll pay half of the cheapest business class fare on the outbound, and half of the cheapest economy fare on the return. This allows you to take advantage of the roundtrip business class pricing without actually flying business class in both directions.

When you look at the fare breakdown of that itinerary, you’ll see that you’re being charged $826 of base airfare for the outbound (roughly half of the $1,653 roundtrip price) and $47 of base airfare for the return (roughly half of the $130 roundtrip price for the “U” fare class).

Note that this won’t always work:

  • Some airlines don’t let you combine fares in this way
  • Some airlines publish one-way fares that are roughly half the cost of a roundtrip, in which case there are no cost savings to be had

How can you look up these fares?

For these types of fares, my favorite tool is ITA Matrix. My strategy is to first find the cheapest roundtrip business class fare around my dates, then I look up the one-way ticket cost in business class, and then I try to combine an outbound in business class with a return in economy.

In this case I’ll basically be “showing my work” for the itineraries above. My first step in this process is to find the cheapest roundtrip business class fare. In this case we’ll say we’re looking at Air Italy from Milan to Miami. I entered the airport codes and then selected “IG” as the airline (the two letter code for Air Italy), and then searched over a flexible period in July.

The cheapest fare is $2,048, which would be for the flights in the above section.

I then searched the cost of a one-way business class ticket.

This costs $1,989, as expected.

This is where the magic happens, where we price out a mixed cabin ticket. Now instead of searching for “Business Class” as the cabin we search for “Cheapest Available.” The trick is what goes in that “Departing from” field. See how to the right of the airline code I entered “f bc=i” in that box? This is the trick to making it work.

To search the mixed cabin itinerary you’d search “f bc=[whatever booking class you want]” which in this case is “I.” I know that because for the cheapest roundtrip business class ticket, that’s what the fare booked into in both directions.

That’s how you end up with this search result:

How do you actually book?

ITA Matrix lets you search flights, but you can’t actually book through ITA. So there are three potential ways to book:

  • Some airlines let you book mixed cabin itineraries on their website, in which case that’s the best option
  • Some OTAs let you search mixed cabin itineraries (I find Kayak is generally the best for this — just use their multi-city feature)
  • You can use bookwithmatrix.com to see what websites will price the ticket; note that this doesn’t always work
  • You may have to go through a traditional travel agent, though once you find one, this should be easy enough for them to book

Can you just not take the return?

The primary intention here is for someone looking to fly outbound in business or first class, and return in economy. For the most part, airlines don’t make it easy to book these kinds of mixed cabin itineraries, even though they’re allowed.

What happens if you just want to fly one-way in business class, though, and don’t plan on taking the return?

This isn’t like hidden city ticketing, where you’re booking a flight from Point A to Point B to Point C and getting off at Point B because the fare is cheaper that way. You’re traveling the entire one-way journey.

There’s nothing illegal about not taking the return, though many airline contracts of carriage require that you have the intent to take the flights you book (proving that is a different story). Everyone has to decide on their own comfort level.

If I were to throw away the return portion of a ticket, I’d generally only do so on an airline with which I don’t have a lot of miles. For an airline you’re booking as a one-off, I tend to think this is pretty low risk, though everyone has to decide on their own comfort level.

Bottom line

I’m surprised airlines don’t make it easier to book mixed cabin tickets, since there are lots of instances where people might want to splurge on business class in one direction and not the other.

Hopefully the above is a good outline of how to search these types of fares on ITA Matrix, as the site does make it easy. The bad news is that you can’t actually book through ITA, so after you’ve found the fare you’ll want, you’ll have to figure out the best way to book it.

Comments

  1. Hey Lucky, awesome guide, thanks a lot!

    Is there a ‘rule’ which airlines allow you to book mixed itineraries?

    Which line refers to this possibility in fare rules?

  2. In addition to Colombo, Cairo, and Milan, what are other cities known for low fares in business or first?

  3. Airlines hate this and will screw the passenger if they get any whiff of what is going on. Even though this is hard to police, travel agencies are not supposed to do this either and can could lose their accreditation if the airline finds out.
    I think you should emphasize a bit more the risk that is involved.

  4. @abracadrabra how is this risky? You can go on AA.com, e.g., and do this right on their website – biz on the outbound and economy on the return. I do it all the time. BA also allows this, right on their site.

  5. “lots of instances where people might want to splurge on business class in one direction and not the other.”

    Red eye to Europe w/ flat bed for sleeping + daytime return flight w/ Y or PE with extra leg room seats for just sitting and watching movies = miles savings.

  6. @Lucky: On AirItaly’s website at this point it is not possible to book a one-way ticket, only a roundtrip for trips between the US and Italy. When you move the mouse’s cursor over One Way, it is grayed out. I called AirItaly, they said that they are hoping to offer one way fares soon.

  7. Excellent information that is very, very useful. I found a great option for a ticket I needed to buy to return to the US from the Mid East in September. I may need to actually call a travel agent because the Book with Matrix site doesn’t seem to work in my case.

  8. I agree, I have been flying UA biz from SFO to Europe, then UA PremEcon on the way back. While still not cheap, it is still cheaper than R/T biz when I’m not all that concerned with biz on the way back.

  9. @Rico you can try but you also have to factor in change/cancellation fees and the possibly repricing the flight to base it on what was actually flown.

    I’d rather just forget about it.

  10. I found that American Airlines makes booking mixed cabins straightforward at AA.com. British Air too: http://www.ba.com. Most others, once you pick the outbound class, your committed.

  11. @lucky This is a really useful item and I’m sure it will help a lot of people. Another application of this that might also help a lot of people is add-on journeys. Say you want to cross the Atlantic from Europe in business but you need an internal flight. Maybe, for example, you find a really competitive fare to New York or Chicago in business where there is a lot of competition but you need to tag on a two-hour internal flight. Suddenly the fare rockets up because the standard ticket search only shows onward journeys in First and you get penalised for that with a very high price when you’d be happy to do a couple of hours in economy. Well, you could just buy separate tickets in economy but you risk a missed connection, which could be especially expensive or inconvenient on the return trip. The better option is to carry out exactly the same time of search you used in your article except when you have found the fare you use a multi-leg search to pair up the components. It won’t always work, as sometimes there won’t be a fare with an economy add-on or the price for economy might still be excessive, but most times you will be able to continue on in economy without paying a high price for premium seats. Also, there’s a much-increased chance of a free upgrade to a comfort or economy plus seat if you have just come off a long haul flight and ask nicely when you are travelling with the same airline, especially if you have status with the alliance.

  12. Airline pricing is stupid

    recently I flew YVR-PVG-BKK round trip which was cheaper than the exact same YVR-PVG flight

    A round trip flight US-Europe (ex-US) is often vastly more expensive than the exact same flight that starts in Europe

    I’ve bought first class tickets for $10 less than Economy (same flight)

    And so on

    i might position to Europe once then just start buying round trip tickets from there

    Example… position to Paris one way
    Have vacation

    Then do round trip Paris to MSP
    This will get me back to US
    The MSP to Paris will book out a year, which I can use for the next vacation

    Stupid

  13. Thanks Lucky, I have a question regarding lounge access on mixed cabins on same day flights. Im flying BKK-HND-LAX on a Lifemiles award ticket. The BKK-HND portion is on Thai economy while the HND-LAX is on ANA First. Given this, will I have premium check-in and lounge access in BKK? Thanks for your help

  14. Some airlines have a fairly significant “no-show” penalty clause written into their discounted tickets. Not sure how they bill it though.

  15. Actually, this is how I got “hooked” on flying First Class.
    With AA it is easy to book a return flight (as a treat) in 1st Class.
    But unfortunately, now I am “hooked”
    Now, I always just buy-n-fly 1st Class.
    I find a million excuses to justify it ….
    Get away from the riff-raff … just buy the dang ticket … “can’t take it with you” 🙂

  16. You say its alright to throw away ticketing and I generally think its fine though why do you never admit that you throw away ticket as if you don’t I am still waiting for a Hong Kong airlines economy review

  17. howcome lufthansas website wont allow mixed cabin simulation? so annoying as i want to fly business there and first on the return, but cant seem to do that online.

  18. I do this on domestic trips based on the day I’m flying. For example, I’ll do my outbound in first if that flight is during the week, then the return in economy if I’m coming back on a Saturday evening. Saturday is the slowest travel day of the week so decent chance I’ll have the middle seat next to me in economy go empty.

    Another trick I’ve found when flying out of DC, since we have 3 airports. If I want to fly to Asia, often the cheapest J fares are on Air Canada via YYZ. But even there, I can save more by flying out of BWI since they don’t offer business on BWI-YYZ, while they do on DCA-YYZ. I don’t mind economy for that short hop — it’s the longer flight leg where I want business class. (I think AC may have just started offering business on their BWI-YYZ flights, so maybe this no longer works).

  19. Just followed your advice for a trip in Business from ICN to SYD. Cost halved when I added a return in Econ. Amazing.

  20. Can/will an airline really retroactively bill you for the actual itinerary flown if you throw a segment away? Do they really have any legs to stand on from a legal standpoint and would it hold up in a chargeback dispute?

  21. Well, I wanted to do this and fly BA1 from LCY to JFK and back in economy on BA/AA. The prices used to be around 1400 USD for this…cant find anything close to this deal nowadays. Any tips how to mix the BA1? I was always looking for starting point at LCY, never worked out for EDI, GLA, TXL….

  22. I can see how airlines would allow mixed cabin redemptions if the first one-way flight is in economy and then the return is in the premium cabin. When it’s done the other way (premium cabin and then economy), then I can see a lot of people taking advantage of this and simply not take the return flight. I agree though that it really depends on one’s comfort level.

  23. I don’t get the reason not to take the return flight? When do you return? If you do return, but book elsewhere, there’s the money you would have used. If it’s a long flight, who wants to return economy? Plus, I don’t see where most of the US carriers allow this.

  24. Thank you. Great tutorial. It’s easy on some sites like AA but others it’s not so intuitive. This work around will come in handy.

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