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I had planned for my wife, daughters and I to take a holiday from our home in China to the UK for a few weeks in July. Usually, when people visit us in China from the UK, the cost is around £450 to £500 for a return flight. Looking online, I can see that such tickets are available. However, when I looked at the flights from China to the UK the costs for return tickets were in the £850 to £1,000 range.

This seems unfair. Buying the same ticket on the same airplane results in vastly different prices depending on your origin. What justification is there for airlines to charge double the price for return flights from China to the UK and back as for the return flights from UK to China and back?

As it stands this will end our vacation plans as the cost has gone from an expensive £2000 trip for the family to an astronomical £4000 trip, equal to my entire years salary.

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Are you sure that these are the exact same tickets? Did you look at the prices on the same day? Are you looking at tickets for the same dates? – Karlson Mar 28 '12 at 15:37
can you get someone in the UK to book for you? – rs79 Mar 29 '12 at 14:17
It seems to me that AAA-BBB-AAA is not the same product as BBB-AAA-BBB because, by definition, the flight dates, times, and directions cannot be identical. In the former you fly from AAA to BBB first then BBB to AAA, in the latter, vice versa. The time and dates of flights can dramatically affect their demand. Accordingly, their prices vary. Perhaps there is also a country-of-origin bias to the price of return tickets, but determining that bias apart from the effect of dates requires analysis of a sampling of return ticket prices, not just comparing two complementary return airfares. – alx9r Jan 8 '13 at 21:44
The government imposed taxes do make make tripling of the price, there are likely more factors, such as flying to Amsterdam at a popular time to visit vs flying the other during low season. – Tom Apr 16 at 14:46
I'm not sure that what you heard was correct. I recently booked a round-trip flight from the US to London. The total fare was about $1500. The receipt listed the included US taxes and fees, and they totaled $63. – Nate Eldredge Apr 16 at 14:47

5 Answers 5

up vote 19 down vote accepted

The most simple answer to this is "because they can"!

In most markets International airfares are priced on a directional basis, so AAA-BBB-AAA will be priced completely differently to BBB-AAA-BBB, and it's extremely common for the prices to vary wildly between the two origins.

Sometimes the price different at a point in time is simply due to a "sale" going on at the time, however for most routes it's not uncommon for one origin to almost always be more expensive than the other direction.

For the most part this is simply a matter of the airline selling flights for as high a price as they believe the market can support. Obviously their end goal is to fill as many seats as possible at the highest price possible, and the best way to do that depends significantly on the market. eg, perhaps BBB-AAA-BBB is mostly business travel, and thus they can charge more for the tickets than for AAA-BBB-AAA which is mainly personal leisure travel.

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I think that "because the can" shouldn't be the right answer. Selling the same product at different prices based only on the purchasers origin is frankly just racist. – Rincewind42 Mar 29 '12 at 12:45
I think this answer explains how the two are not actually the same product (last paragraph). They can be different products targeted at different markets. – ibz Apr 23 '12 at 17:36
It's nothing to do with "racism". It's basic pricing theory. You charge the customer as much as you can. In China, customers travelling to London are willing to pay more than customers travelling from London to China; ergo the price is higher. You will probably find the journey is even cheaper if you start your journey in a Nordic country where demand for flights to China is much lower. – Calchas May 15 at 9:32

I have experienced this before. You can actually check if it doesn't make sense to book the return flight as two single flights (that is what I ended up doing). You can also try to use different airlines for inbound and outbound flights to optimize the cost (I ended up doing it).

The reason is that the airlines are allowed to do it, and so they price the round trips originating from different countries according to local demand and competition. I guess when flying from the UK many potential customers are going for holidays and they consider many other countries in the region - which drives the prices down. Travelers from China might be less flexible.

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There are many reasons why fares could be different but looking for LAX-AMS and AMS-LAX return flights in the coming month on ITA's Matrix, the fare for the cheapest flights seems roughly equivalent in both directions, around $850-$900 so I don't think that what you heard is true (if you want to reproduce this or fiddle with the parameters yourself, I was looking for return flights with a 7-day stay, with Los Angeles as “sales city”).

Taking one random flight, LAX-AMS with Delta and KLM on May 4, returning on May 12, I see that the fares themselves are indeed only $760 for a total price of $1373. But a big chunk of the difference is accounted for by something called “DL YR surcharge”, which is not a tax at all but a surcharge imposed by the airline itself.

Here is a full list of all taxes and government-imposed fees according to the website:

US International Departure Tax (US)                               US$17.70
US September 11th Security Fee (AY)                               US$5.60
US Passenger Facility Charge (XF)                                 US$9.00
USDA APHIS Fee (XA)                                               US$5.00
US Immigration Fee (XY)                                           US$7.00
US Customs Fee (YC)                                               US$5.50
The Netherlands Passenger Service Charge (RN)                     US$15.20
The Netherlands Domestic and International Noise Surcharge (VV)   US$0.50
Netherlands CJ (CJ)                                               US$12.90
US International Arrival Tax (US)                                 US$17.7

US taxes and fees are higher than Dutch taxes ($67.50 vs. $28.60) but very far from $700 (total of all taxes: $96.10). All or at least most of them (an in particular the $17.70 departure/arrival tax) apply equally to flights originating out of the country, foreign airlines and flights booked abroad.

Now, airlines often split the price of their tickets in “airfare” on the one hand and “taxes and fees” on the other hand. But that's merely a trick they use to make the fares look lower and go around system limitations or the rules of their own loyalty programs because the largest of these fees (like this “DL YR surcharge” and other “fuel surcharges”) are entirely under their control. That's probably the source of the confusion (which is certainly encouraged by the airlines themselves!).

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N.B. This answer was in response to a merged question I pay triple the price originating a flight from US, L.A.- Amsterdam versus the opposite Am-L.A – Ankur Banerjee Apr 18 at 8:42

You may simply be unlucky here.

Airlines sell tickets according to booking classes within broad categories of economy / business / first class. What may simply be the case here is that for A-B-A flights (UK to China return), tickets are still available in a cheaper booking class, while on the same dates for B-A-B the cheaper booking classes are all sold out. The price jump can sometimes be as significant as you mention. Just to give an example, I was searching for London to Hong Kong air fares with Air China; on the Monday of the week I checked prices, it was 470 GBP return but by Thursday all the cheaper classes had sold out and the price for the same day flights would cost be 850 GBP. (I obviously didn't take it, I found a better deal with another airline.)

My suggestion would be that you do a 'broad' search for flights to see what's the optimum time window to book your flight tickets for.

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This is not the case here. The flights are consistently differently priced on all dates irrespective of how far in advance you try. – Rincewind42 Mar 29 '12 at 12:43
@Rincewind42 I find that odd. On both Kayak and Skyscanner, I find flights that are 500-600 GBP for all months. Just to give an example, I found Aeroflot flights (indirect) for 500 GBP on dates 17 May 2012 to 26 May 2012. I genuinely suggest you to read the 'broad' search flights question, then use the 'fare trends' displayed by sites like SkyScanner or Kayak to find out what the optimum dates are. – Ankur Banerjee Mar 29 '12 at 19:07

One of the primary reason is the brand awareness. A Chinese airline will have better brand recognition in China, thus it's possible to sell the same product at a higher price. On the other hand, when trying to sell the same to people from other countries, the customers may not recognize/respect the brand as good as the airlines in their home country. Therefore, the Chinese airline will need to lower their price in UK to make their flight more attractive to foreigners.

As other commenters pointed out, it's also possible that the demands are not the same: for example, most passengers traveling from China are business travelers (thus are less sensitive about the price), while the passengers originated from UK are leisure travelers. The airline will try to set the price so that they can maximize their profit.

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