No major airport near you? Here’s how expert travelers still get amazing flight deals
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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the latest information.
Savvy travelers know that snagging an amazing mistake fare or an unbelievably good flight deal is almost as exciting as the trip itself. But have you ever wondered how people who don’t live in areas served by major airports can get in on the killer deals?
For travelers who live in smaller cities and rural areas, booking positioning flights is 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 and back.
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 ask. 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. To everyday travelers, a positioning flight is a flight that gets you from your current location to the airport where your primary itinerary begins.
With positioning flights, your goal is usually to lower the overall cost of your travels or to give yourself more flexibility with your travel plans. 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 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, Greece, for my best friend’s wedding would have cost me $3,800 or 160,000 United MileagePlus miles. Instead, I saved money by booking a cheap international positioning flight from Austin to Frankfurt. Then, I booked a separate ticket from Germany to Greece.
When does a positioning flight make sense?
You probably don’t need this guide if you live near a major airport hub. But for everyone else, myself included, booking positioning flights 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 this in mind when booking a positioning flight:
- Give yourself plenty of connection time; whenever you juggle multiple tickets, you risk missing your flight and not being eligible for a refund or fee-free change.
- Double-check your travel dates. 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 rechecked (and paid for again, if applicable) when switching tickets.
When a great flight deal is only available from specific destinations
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 enthusiasts 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: Book from the recommended airport to snag the deal and figure out how you’ll get there later.
If you want maximum schedule flexibility
If you’re visiting somewhere new or far away, maximizing your experiences while you’re already there often makes sense. Booking 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. A positioning flight allows you to decide how and where you want to spend your extra time.
When I went to Santorini, booking my own positioning flight home from Europe allowed me to travel to both Athens and London after the wedding. I was happy I wasn’t locked 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 multistop itinerary 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 responsibility to help out if you misconnect.
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 you may need to forfeit your ticket altogether.
Most travel experts suggest booking your positioning flight to arrive at 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. At the bare minimum, give yourself enough buffer time to allow for 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 to Los Angeles. By doing so, I had plenty of time to rent a Mustang convertible, explore the city, stretch my legs and grab a nice dinner before boarding a 13-hour red-eye to Auckland.
If you’re a nervous traveler, purchasing an independent travel insurance plan for your trip might make sense. If you miss your self-booked connecting flights, your insurance might cover any additional costs.
As a final precaution, double-check your travel times and dates to ensure that you’ve fully accounted for all time zones, date changes, daylight saving time and other schedule-related obstacles. I like to input each flight into a digital calendar tool to visually map out the buffer time I’ve allocated for myself. Travel apps like TripIt can also help you conceptualize your travels in real-time.
How do I find the best positioning flight?
Planning a positioning flight is like planning any other flight you need to take from home to your destination. First, identify the best airport for you to fly into. Then, run a price comparison to see if it makes more sense to pay out of pocket or book with points.
TPG has published many guides to help inform your decision:
- Use Google Flights to find the best deals in cash.
- Check out our guide to searching award availability for the major airlines.
- Then use TPG’s calculator tool to determine whether to pay cash or points for a flight.
There’s no hard or fast rule for when to pay cash or points; it’s subjective and even based on your current financial situation. As a basic rule of thumb, I like to pay cash when the flight price is low and use points or 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 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?
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 its coverage, especially in smaller towns.
United Airlines often makes sense when booking positioning flights because the airline has a hub in Houston, I have United elite status and I have a premium United credit card. Plus, I’m a big fan of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, which means I always have points available to transfer to United when I need them.
But, Southwest is also one of my favorite airlines for multiple reasons. Specific to positioning flights, the airline offers:
- Many available routes throughout the U.S., and to Mexico and the Caribbean.
- No change or cancellation fees — 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 fewer points on Southwest than I would on other airlines.
In late 2018, I snagged $575 round-trip flights for my first-ever visit to Africa. But the sub-$600 fares to Cape Town, South Africa, were only available from major gateways.
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 Los Angeles.
That being said, Southwest doesn’t service every possible market. Additionally, Southwest’s alternative airports in Dallas and Houston sometimes make it difficult for me to connect to my primary itinerary.
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 and more. If you’re new to budget airline travel, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- You’ll usually pay extra for basics such as seat selection and luggage allowance.
- You have very little protection from the airline for delays or other issues.
- You can mitigate some of the issues by booking your travel with one of the best credit cards for low-cost carriers.
I don’t suggest booking a positioning flight through a low-cost carrier unless you have plenty of flexibility and can get to your destination as early as a day or two before the next flight.
Positioning flights can open up the world of travel, particularly if you live in an area that doesn’t often get targeted for direct flight deals. Just be sure to double-check your plans, especially when scheduling your connection times.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.
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