If one plans to travel from A to B and then, later, along the same route, from B to A, and one wishes to purchase a ticket for both components of the trip, one will, if one is a speaker of British English, ask for a return ticket. If one is a speaker of American English, one will, under the same circumstances, ask for a round-trip ticket. While the British phrasing is not perfect (as has been discussed elsewhere on this site), the American one is downright puzzling, given that there is usually nothing round about round trips; the route traversed on a round trip is, in most cases, much closer to a straight line than to a circle.

It wouldn't be puzzling if the term round trip were used for a trip such as A–B–C–D–E–A without backtracking on any part of the route, but the term is not reserved for such cases; its most frequent use is for plain A–B–A trips. (Some travel websites, in fact, use round trip only for trips of the A–B–A kind, and characterise those of the A–B–C–D–E–A as 'multi-city'.)

So, the question is: how and why did round start being used for this purpose in American English?

(I am not asking when it started being used for this purpose, except in so far as it may throw light on why that word was chosen.)

  • 3
    A "return ticket" in AmEng is essentially what it means, that is, a ticket that allows a person to travel back/return to the place they left.
    – Elian
    Feb 12 at 6:27
  • 4
    We talk about 'round trips' in British English too, just not in the context of a there-and-back travel ticket. Feb 12 at 9:03
  • 4
    I'm American and I would interpret a return ticket as a one way ticket back to your initial point. I'm assuming that's discussed in your link but now it's explicitly here too.
    – Thierry
    Feb 12 at 14:46
  • Can you edit your title to more closely resemble your actual question?
    – Joachim
    Feb 12 at 15:19
  • This is a question to which you will get many answers, but no answers.
    – Fattie
    Feb 13 at 15:14

4 Answers 4


Wiktionary says this about the etymology of "round trip":

round (“complete, entire"; "forming a circle or cycle”) +‎ trip (“journey”)

Notice, that round is taken to mean not just "forming a circle" but also "forming a cycle", i.e. something that repeats without necessarily having any particular shape or any shape at all.

So the answer seems to be that a round trip is called that, because it forms a closed cycle.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the N-gram of "round trip" vs "return ticket" and it looks like round trip really started picking up steam after the introduction of railroad travel. Both started getting popular around 1850.

  • 5
    +1 for the "picking up steam" line. The first recorded use is in railways and this should be emphasized regarding the "why". The first "roundhouse" was likely built in 1837, which meant the run-round loop track used for return journeys would have already existed (and related expressions for travel entering the common parlance). What's still unclear is when/why, if ever, "return" and "round" deviated.
    – Zairja
    Feb 13 at 3:05

The OED defines round trip as a journey to a place and back again, along the same route.

It’s not terribly puzzling; you have to turn around to go back.

round trip, n., adj., and adv.
A. n. 1. a. A journey to a place and back again, along the same route; (also) a journey to one or more places and back again which does not cover the same ground twice, a circular tour or trip.

round, adv. and prep.
A. adv. I. Expressing actual or implied motion. 5. a. So as to face a different or opposite way; so as to change or reverse direction. Frequently with turn.

around, adv. and prep.
A. adv. II. Expressing actual or implied motion. 6. a. So as to face a different or opposite way; so as to change or reverse direction; in the opposite direction. Frequently with turn (see also the verb).
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

  • 3
    'It’s not terribly puzzling; you have to turn around to go back.' This is a reasonable and promising hypothesis, but more would be needed to convince one that turning around at B is what led people to characterise the whole A–B–A trip as a round trip. Incidentally, the quotation from the OED would probably be more useful if it were limited to 5.a. and 6.a, which are the only parts relevant to the answer.
    – jsw29
    Feb 12 at 16:28
  • @jsw29 — I could further research railroad travel’s "turn around trip" from the nineteenth century to try to connect those dots. Feb 14 at 3:41

The explanation is no other than that that can be given for the so called circular functions, case in which the idea is nothing else than that of a return to a starting point or value again and again, and passing through the same points again; those functions do not always involve a concept of motion on a straight line or on the same curve but many cases exist (spring, pendulum) . In the similar use found in "round the clock" the literal idea of the circle formed by the dial gives the image of a circular motion, but there is no such motion, only the return to a new start in time, and at that, what is really meant is "twice round the clock", which is another abstraction. In this case the symbol that is at the base of the reasoning is round. In the case of "round trip" an abstraction is made, there is no analogy in the way of a round symbol to represent the displacement, and it remains only the idea of the return to a starting point.


There is nothing literally 'round' about 'round trips'. That's not the point.

The phrase simply acknowledges the idea that 'there and back' doesn't necessarily mean 'in a straight line…' nor anything of the kind.

Not in fact oddly, it once seemed strange that many more vehicles went north on the eastern routes from England to Scotland… until someone more sensible joined up the statistics and showed that the difference was made up by people going south on the western routes. Oops!

  • Travelling north on an en eastern route and returning south on a western one is a round trip in an unproblematic sense that would be readily understood everywhere. This question is, however, about the peculiarly American use of the phrase for the travelling along the same route in both directions.
    – jsw29
    Feb 14 at 17:37
  • Sorry you missed both my point, and the fact that seeing travelling along the same route in both directions as a 'round trip' is by no means peculiarly American. If you can find any variety of English that doesn't use that phrase, please Post details! Feb 14 at 23:26
  • Sorry, people, that I didn't bother to put this so simply before and in fact, what's difficult about the idea that on footy or in any vehicle, you get to the destination then 'turn round' and go back whence you started? Feb 14 at 23:28
  • The hypothesis that round trip is derived from turn around has already been offered in the answer by TinFoil Hat.
    – jsw29
    Feb 15 at 15:58
  • Oh… sorry. Do you doubt TinFoilHat, or do you agree with that suggestion? Feb 21 at 20:12

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