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Savvy travelers know that the rush of nabbing an amazing mistake fare or unbelievably good flight deal is almost as exciting as the trip itself. But have you ever wondered how the experts do it — or how people who don’t live in areas served by major airports like Los Angeles or New York can get in on the killer deals?
For travelers who live in smaller cities and rural areas, positioning flights are the secret hack you should keep in your back pocket, Sometimes, it makes sense to book an entirely separate round-trip ticket to get to the flight deal’s departure airport, then back home again at the end of your trip. Positioning flights are a perfect way to use up a small stash of points and miles on an airline you infrequently fly — or you can pay cash if you find a cheap fare.
Here’s everything you should know about positioning flights, and how to use them to your advantage for your next big trip.
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What is a positioning flight?
Positioning flights can have two different meanings, depending on who you’re talking to. In commercial aviation, airlines use positioning flights to get an aircraft from its current location to the next airport on its route, typically without passengers on board. And travelers have co-opted the industry term to describe a flight that gets you from your current destination to the airport where your primary itinerary begins.
With positioning flights, your usual goal is to lower the overall cost of your travels, or to give yourself more flexibility with your travel plans. These days, most major airlines will help you price out an itinerary that will get you from Point A to any Point B of your choice. But you’ll often pay extra — sometimes a hefty margin — in exchange for the convenience of ticketing every flight through the same carrier and its partners. When you book a positioning flight, you’re trading the convenience of a single ticket for cost savings and schedule flexibility.
A positioning flight can be domestic or international. In July 2019, a round-trip ticket from Austin to Santorini for my best friend’s wedding would have cost me $3,800 for my dates of travel, or 160,000 United MileagePlus miles. I booked a cheap international positioning flight from Austin and Frankfurt, and paid cash for flights from Germany to Greece. All told, I saved more than $3,400 or 110,000 MileagePlus miles by booking my own flights within the EU — and got to visit Athens and London on my way home as well.
Similarly in 2016, I booked a cheap Southwest round-trip award ticket to Los Angeles to position myself for an epic $250 mistake fare trip to New Zealand. That same flight would have cost nearly $1,300 per person from Austin to Auckland (AKL); instead, each of us paid just under $265 cash after taxes and fees from the award flight.
When does a positioning flight make sense?
You probably don’t need this guide if you live near Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, New York, or any of the other major airport hubs scattered throughout the United States. But for everyone else, myself included, booking positioning flights — especially on points and miles — can be a game changer.
You should consider booking a positioning flight under the following circumstances:
- When a great flight deal is only available from a specific city (or cities)
- If it’s significantly cheaper to book your primary flights from a different airport
- If it’s too much work to drive to the major airport from which the flight deal originates
- If you want to visit another destination along the way without being tied to stopover/layover requirements
But keep these cautions in mind when booking a positioning flight:
- Give yourself plenty of connection time; whenever you juggle two different sets of itineraries, you run the risk of missing your flight and not being eligible for a refund or fee-free change
- Check your travel dates! Then double- and triple-check them again. If you make a mistake, your primary airline is not responsible for rectifying your errors
- Any checked luggage will have to be picked up and re-checked (and paid for again, if applicable) for each flight segment
When a great flight deal is only available from specific destinations
Some flight deals are only available for a specific pair of cities, like my mistake fare trip to New Zealand in 2016. In these scenarios, I like to use Google Flights to price out my options. Adjusting my departure airport from Los Angeles to Austin brought my round-trip total from $250 to $1,284. Since round-trip flights from Austin to Los Angeles usually cost far less than $1,034, I decided to book a positioning flight, and purchase the mistake fare deal as-is.
The best flight deals sell out almost immediately, and you are often competing with thousands of other travel aficionados for a highly limited number of seats. Now that you know about positioning flights, you can relax the next time you see a deal alert for a great fare: Just book the deal first from the recommended airport to snag the deal — then figure out how you’ll get there at your leisure.
If you want maximum schedule flexibility
If you’re visiting somewhere new or far away, it often makes sense to maximize your experiences while you’re already there. Booking your own positioning flights allows you to take advantage of existing travel, such as a cruise sailing, and tack on a few extra hours or days of adventure without worrying about airline change fees. And if you have the freedom to explore as you choose, a positioning flight allows you to decide how and where you want to spend your time.
When I went to Santorini last summer, booking my own positioning flight home from Europe allowed me travel to Athens and London after my wedding obligations were over, instead of locking me into an itinerary I had blindly booked months prior.
Beware of scheduling errors and missed connections
The biggest downside of positioning flights is the inconvenience. When you fly a multi-stop itinerary that was ticketed on a single reservation, your airline is responsible for rescheduling you at no cost if you miss your subsequent flights for most reasons, such as weather delays. But when you book two separate itineraries, your airlines have no connection and thus no responsibility to help out if anything happens.
If your positioning flight is delayed to the point that you miss your departing flight, for example, the airline may charge you a hefty fee to get you on the next flight — or your ticket may be forfeit altogether.
Most travel experts suggest booking your positioning flight to arrive in your connecting airport at least several hours in advance — sometimes even as early as a day or two. That will also give you time to explore your city of departure as well. At the bare minimum, give yourself enough buffer time to allow for possible mechanical delays or weather-related changes.
When I flew to New Zealand for $250, my flight was scheduled to depart from Los Angeles after dinnertime. However, I still chose to book a relatively early positioning flight from Austin that arrived into Los Angeles late in the morning. That extra few hours gave me plenty of time to rent a Mustang convertible for the day, and show my family a new city, the freedom to stretch my legs and even enough time to grab a nice dinner before boarding a 13-hour red-eye to Auckland.
If you’re a nervous traveler, it might make sense to purchase an independent travel insurance plan specifically for your trip when you plan to utilize positioning flights. This way, your insurance will cover any potential costs associated with missing your self-booked connecting flights, whether the mistake is your fault or not.
As a final precaution, double- and triple-check your travel times and dates to ensure that you’ve fully accounted for all time zones, date changes, daylight savings and other schedule-related obstacles.
I like to input each flight into a digital calendar tool with all correct time zones included, so I can visually map out the buffer time I’ve allocated for myself. If you’re an app person, tools like TripIt can also help you conceptualize your travels in real time.
how do I find the best positioning flight?
Here at TPG, we always talk about the two main ways you can pay for positioning flights: In cash, or with points and miles.
Planning a positioning flight is otherwise just like planning any other flight you need to take from home to your destination. First, identify the best airport for you to fly into. (Now may not be the best time to fly into Narita to fly out of Haneda in Japan, or into Newark for a flight that departs out of JFK.) Then, run a price comparison to see if it makes more sense to pay out of pocket, or book with points.
TPG has published a number of guides to help inform your decision, but here they are again for convenience:
There’s no hard or fast rule for when to pay cash or points; it’s subjective per person, and even based on your current financial situation. As a basic rule of thumb, I like to pay cash when the flight price is particularly low, and use points and miles when cash prices are high.
If you’re new to the points and miles game, award flights aren’t just for big spenders with dozens of credit cards. For years before I joined TPG, I funded all of my personal travels with just three basic credit cards, by utilizing shopping portals every chance I got. For most positioning flights, you won’t need too many points or miles — and if you have small balances across multiple airlines, you can always purchase one-way flights on different airlines for more flexibility.
Which airlines are best for positioning flights?
The answer to this question has everything to do with where you live (or prefer to travel from). Although I’m not a huge American Airlines fan, I’m consistently impressed by the breadth of their coverage, especially in smaller towns. And if you manage to book one of the carrier’s famed 5,000-mile web specials for your positioning flights, you can get incredible value out of your AAdvantage miles.
I live in Austin, a mid-sized market that’s within a three to four-hour flight to anywhere within the continental U.S. I also have access to three major airports within three hours’ drive from me: Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.
For me, United often makes sense when booking positioning flights because the airline has a hub in Houston; I have both elite status as well as a premium credit card with the airline; and I’m a big fan of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, which means I always have points available to transfer to United if I need them.
Southwest is one of my favorite airlines for multiple reasons — and I’m not alone in this opinion. Specific to positioning flights, the airline offers:
- A large number of available routes throughout the domestic U.S., as well as to Mexico and the Caribbean
- No change or cancellation fees — and itineraries are very easy to change on your own
- Two free checked bags, which is particularly helpful if you’re traveling overseas
- Dynamic award pricing tied to the cash value of its tickets, which often means I spend less points on Southwest than I would on other airlines
In late 2018, I snagged $575 round-trip flights for my first-ever visit to the African continent two years ago. But the sub-$600 fares to Cape Town, South Africa, were only available from major airports, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas or New York.
So instead of driving 300 miles each way between Dallas and Austin, I paid just $49 for a one-way Southwest flight from Austin to LAX — using travel funds left over from a previous trip, no less:
That being said, Southwest doesn’t service every possible market — and sometimes, Southwest’s alternative airports at Dallas Love Field (DAL) and Houston Hobby (HOU) make it difficult for me to connect to my primary itinerary for flights departing Dallas (DFW) or Houston (IAH).
If you’re truly looking to keep costs as low as possible, budget airlines are your friend. Interchangeably called low-cost carriers, these cheap airlines include Spirit, Frontier, RyanAir, Scoot, Tiger Air and more amongst their ranks. If you’re new to budget airline travel, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
I really don’t suggest booking a positioning flight through a low cost carrier unless you have plenty of flexibility and are comfortable getting to your destination as early as a day or two before the next flight.
Positioning flights can open up the world of travel for you, particularly if you live in an area that doesn’t often get targeted for direct flight deals. Just be sure to cross your Ts and dot your Is, especially when scheduling your connection times.
Featured vector image by Dzianis_Rakhuba/Shutterstock.
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