I am currently planning a 3-month-ish trip to Thailand-Laos-Vietnam. I plan on leaving from NY in October, and I have no restrictions on the time I spend in the region (yay!)
I plan on flying into Bangkok, heading north in Thailand via train, spend a few weeks trekking in the north. I'll cross into Laos at the Huay Xai / Chiang Khong border, make my way down to Vientianne via the Mekong, then after a flight to Hanoi, take short train rides down the length of Vietnam (stopping/lazing at will along the way).
Since my itinerary is largely unstructured and flexible, am I better off buying a one-way flight into BKK from NY, then purchasing a one-way back from Saigon? Or is the financial penalty for buying two one-way tickets so severe that I'm better off buying a multi-city ticket (NY to BKK, then SGN-NY) and making sure I reach Saigon by my scheduled departure?
This is my first time in the region, and I would love to remain unfettered by any tight schedule.
Thanks in advance for your help!
In most instances, a return will work out a fair bit cheaper than 2 one ways. Why don't you get two quotes for your flights - one for a one-way NYC-BKK and one for the return return back from SGN. The difference will give you a good idea of what you will need to be able to purchase the one-way home whilst in Vietnam for in order for it to make sense financially.
A return ticket will only become more expensive if you end up forfeiting the return leg and buying another ticket home. The cheapest tickets will have the most restrictions so if you think there is a high chance you may extend your trip way beyond the 3 months and have the flexibility to do so, eg fall in love with the region, decide you MUST also make it to Cambodia and so travel via the Vietnamese Delta into Cambodia and then overland back to Bangkok....... maybe flexibility should be your priority over cost. Depends if you are an off-plan kind of guy or deep down feel you will stick to your 3 months (in which case don't try and cram too much in!).
Hope that ramble helps a little!
The difference between a multi-city roundtrip (~$1200) and two one-ways (~$700 each) is significant, but not wildly prohibitive.
My real concern is getting a flight when I arrive in Saigon...is this a hard thing to do? Or will any travel agent shop be able to get me a not-too-expensive flight on short notice? Are they notorious for overcharging/shady dealing?
If you want to be unfettered, then book a one way only.
Returning to NY is really only a matter of booking a flight from a centre that offers reasonable prices. If you have to go to Singapore, a Jetstar or Tiger flight won't cost you much. Similarly, you may prefer to depart from Manilla or Hong Kong.
The point, though, is that if you want to hang loose, then you never know where you end up. For example, you may have entered Yunnan (China) and leave from Shanghai.
When in SE Asia, there doesn't have to be 'have to be'.