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As a travel junkie, I’m constantly looking for the best flight deals. Whenever I’m living closer to a great hub airport like LAX, it’s so simple to find great deals. Whether it’s $449 to Helsinki with SAS, Punta Cana for $329 with American, or Cape Town for $578 with Swiss, there are truly too many deals to take advantage of all of them.
I even snagged an awesome fare from Washington DC to Beijing in business class for under $500!
However, I don’t always live near a hub airport and much of the US doesn’t either. Even if I do live near an airport, that doesn’t necessarily mean that international travel will be accessible or reasonably priced. When I’m living away from one of our main international hubs, I often use positioning flights to access better international fares.
What Is a Positioning Flight?
A positioning flight is a flight that can get you from your home airport to a hub airport, booked separately from your main flight. Even with the extra fare from your home airport, positioning flights can end up saving you heaps of cash since hub airports are often the ones impacted by deals and error fares.
Using a Positioning Flight for a Flight Deal
I have friends and family living in Chicago, so I often use Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) as a starting point for international travel. As a hub for both American Airlines and United Airlines which both have an impressive list of international partners, this generally allows me to catch airfare deals when they happen.
I recently saw a fare deal for economy flights from Chicago (ORD) to Prague (PRG). The flight cost $437! However, I wanted to check and see what the cost would be from a non-hub airport, like New Orleans (MSY). When I checked flights to Prague from New Orleans, for example, a flight on the same date cost $1,580 which is a difference of $1,143. That’s a ton of cash to pay to fly from New Orleans instead of Chicago.
If you examine the above itineraries closely, you’ll see that the international flight segments are an exact match. This means that I would be paying $1,143 more for the domestic legs of the roundtrip fare; essentially a roundtrip itinerary between Chicago (ORD) and New Orleans (MSY).
Sometimes, US domestic flights cost quite a bit more than even some international routes. To check how insane this $1,143 price tag really was, I looked up flights between ORD and MSY for those same dates and the total came out to just $215!
Note that this itinerary would have been in Basic Economy so if I wanted to select a seat or have access to luggage, those fees would be tacked onto the $215 fare for a total of $275. Even with baggage, this isn’t even close to the original $1,143 difference!
By booking two separate flights, a round trip from MSY-ORD (economy ticket price, $275) and round trip from ORD-PRG (economy ticket price, $437), my total trip cost would be $712. That would save me $868 when compared to the single booking, which is totally worth it since I could easily book the same trip again with that savings!
Using a Positioning Flight for an Award Flight
Being able to finally save enough miles to book a dream trip is a wonderful feeling. However, some of the “bucket list” airlines and airline products only operate out of specific airports.
For example, if you are looking to fly Singapore Suites from the United States, you have to fly from New York (JFK) to Frankfurt (FRA).
Etihad operates aircraft from a variety of cities across the US but if you are hoping to fly on the Etihad A380 featuring the famed Apartments, you must depart from New York (JFK).
Cathay Pacific First Class is consistently praised, but the airline only operates out of Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), New York (JFK), Newark Liberty (EWR), Boston (BOS), Washington D.C. (IAD), Seattle (SEA).
Some airline programs allow you to book positioning flights as part of your award ticket, but sometimes domestic availability can be hard to find. You don’t want to miss out on a flat-bed in the sky because you are unable to find award space from Pittsburgh (PIT) to New York (JFK), so in that case, it makes sense to use cash or points and miles from other airlines or credit cards for the domestic leg.
When checking for first-class award availability on Cathay Pacific from New York (JFK) to Hong Kong (HKG), it’s often possible to find last-minute availability. However, when checking availability from Pittsburgh (PIT) to Hong Kong (HKG), the first-class seat availability is likely to be gone. That is often because the system is unable to find award space for the first leg, PIT-JFK, so the entire flight is considered unavailable.
Cathay Pacific is part of Oneworld, so availability between PIT-JFK would need to be available on American Airlines. It would be a shame to miss out on 15 hours in Cathay Pacific first class because you were unable to find an American Airlines award flight for the 90 minute flight from PIT-JFK, so it’s best to just book a positioning flight.
You may book a positioning flight using cash, miles from a different program, or a card such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve® which can erase that small purchase using the annual travel credit benefit. Not a bad workaround!
Tips for Booking Positioning Flights
- If you end up booking your positioning flight and your main flight separately, note that the main airline will not recognize them as a single booking and you will have to collect your baggage and check in for the second segment of your flight. You will want to leave plenty of time to deplane, get to baggage claim, re-check your bags and go through security again.
- If you booked your positioning flight and main flight on the same airline, you can ask the check-in agent if they can “check your bag through”. You would need to provide the check-in agent with both of your itineraries and ask for the agent to link them and check you in for your main flight. This may not work every time, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
- When booking your positioning flight, don’t automatically exclude low-cost carriers like Frontier or Spirit. These airlines can provide great value for a flight that is only a few hours long.
- I prefer to plan my outbound positioning flights a few days in advance of my main international route. This allows for extra time just in case my positioning flight is delayed, but it also gives me some extra time to explore another city. If you have the time, this is a great way to tuck a mini-trip into your larger trip, and make sure you will make your main flight!
- If you have a credit card with lounge access, check out the options at your airport. If you don’t have time to spend a few extra days in your layover city, spending a few extra hours at an airport lounge can be a nice way to kill time. Enjoy access to Wi-Fi, plenty of seating, and endless refreshments.
Even if you are not based at a major airline hub, you can still take advantage of incredible flight deals by routing yourself through the closest one. Using positioning flights can help you book premium cabin dream trips and help you save some significant cash on your next major flight.
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Editors Note: Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.