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Yes, you can fly private — here’s the secret that will help you do it

Dec. 15, 2020
13 min read
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Flying private is on everyone's bucket list, and for good reason. Aside from the luxuries of having a plane to yourself, flying private comes with an unparalleled level of convenience. You can fly on your own schedule, there are no security lines, no boarding groups — you get the idea.

If you've ever found yourself researching the cheapest ways to get the private jet experience, you've likely come across the term "empty leg." Empty leg flights are a great way to score highly discounted private jet charters. However, your travel plans need to be flexible and there are some important details you need to be aware of.

Today we're going to go over what empty legs are, how the experience compares to a conventional charter and how to book them. Let’s get started!

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Opa-locka Executive Airport. (Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

What is an empty leg?

As the term suggests, empty legs are flights that are scheduled to fly without any passengers. These operate when an aircraft needs to reposition or return for a charter. They're sometimes also referred to as "dead-heads," "repositioning legs," and "ferry flights." According to charter-jet company XO, 30%-50% of the private jet charter fleet often flies empty.

Empty leg flights can be as cheap as 75% off the standard charter price. Some private jet membership programs offer members highly discounted or even complimentary access to empty leg flights (more on that later).

Related: Why planes fly with only one passenger on board

Given how costly they are to operate, charter companies try to avoid having to fly empty legs in the first place. As a result, they're often not made available until fairly last minute. The routes are also limited and there's no way to predict availability.

With these things in mind, there are two major downsides of booking empty legs. First, the flight could be canceled at any time, whether due to mechanical issues, the jet getting booked for another full-priced charter or any other reason. Unfortunately, cancellations do happen and unlike commercial airlines, the charter company would not be responsible for getting you to your destination. Second, due to the nature of empty legs, you'll typically only be able to book it in one direction. So, you'll need to find your own way home.

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How the empty leg experience differs

Empty leg flights are similar to conventional charters in that you'll still be able to arrive minutes before your flight. However, empty legs have stricter schedules to follow, so there's less flexibility with delaying a flight if you're running late. Additionally, unless you're booking by-the-seat, you'll still get the entire jet to yourself on an empty leg.

Unless specifically arranged, empty legs typically come with either no catering or a limited basic catering. This would generally include light prepackaged snacks, soft drinks and basic alcoholic drinks.

Like regular charters, most empty leg deals will list the type and model of aircraft. However, as previously mentioned, empty leg flights are not guaranteed and could be canceled at any time. So it's important to either have a back-up option or be prepared to cancel your trip entirely if the flight falls through.

Related: What it’s like to fly BLADEone from NYC to Miami


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How to book an empty leg flight

While not all charter companies market them, most offer empty leg specials. After all, what company wouldn't want to generate some extra revenue and maximize their fleet utilization? Additionally, there are brokers advertising other operators' empty legs, essentially acting as a middleman, similar to online travel agencies like Expedia and Priceline. However, as with commercial flights, it's typically best to book direct.

You can browse empty leg specials online through companies like Victor, VistaJet, Jettly, New Flight Charters, among a long list of others. Many sites even let you select your preferred departure airport and create alerts for when new deals become available.

Related: The cheapest ways to get the private jet experience

As previously mentioned, empty legs are typically posted at the last minute and the routes are pretty random. However, with the recent surge of charters due to COVID-19, there's been an increase of deals available, especially on popular routes like New York to South Florida.

While most empty leg specials are for the entire aircraft, XO lets you book empty legs by-the-seat. This makes private jet travel a lot more affordable for those traveling solo or as a pair. Just be aware that XO is known for canceling empty legs quite frequently.

(Photo by XO)

Empty leg flight prices

Empty leg pricing varies by route, aircraft, dates and other details. To give you an idea, they are typically priced about 50%-75% lower than the usual charter. Take, for instance, a flight from New York to South Florida. A mid-size jet charter can run you upwards of $20,000 one-way. However, you can often find empty leg flights on this route for $9,000-$12,000.

(Photo by Victor)

These deals can be found throughout the U.S., including coast-to-coast flights, and internationally. For instance, West Coast flyers could book a light jet empty leg from San Diego to Chicago for about $7,250. The full-price for this nearly four-hour charter is usually around $25,000.

(Photo by Victor)

You could book a super light jet with seven seats from Cannes to Toulouse-Blagnac (a one hour flight) for just 558 EUR ($680 USD).

(Photo by Victor)

Empty leg specials typically reflect the all-in rate, including fuel, landing fees and other surcharges. Since you're typically booking the entire jet, you're free to fill all the seats and can bring your furry friends for no additional charge. The savings really add up if you're traveling as a family. The $8,920 empty leg between New York and Florida shown above would come out to $1,115 per person if you fill all eight seats, the empty leg between San Diego and Chicago would be about $1,000 per person and the empty leg between Cannes and Toulouse would be under 80 EUR per person.

Even better, the pricing for empty leg flights is often negotiable. Just beware that although the operator can cancel your flight at any time, you typically won't be able to cancel once you commit to an empty leg booking.

Free or near-free empty leg flights

The best empty leg flights are those that are "free." Several private jet programs offer complimentary or near-free empty leg flights to members.

With a Delta Private Jets Sky Access membership ($6,000 annual fee; no longer open to new applicants), you can book unlimited empty legs departing within 24 hours. You're guaranteed the whole aircraft to yourself every time, so you could theoretically split the membership cost with a group of friends or family that travel with you regularly. You'll even get a 20% discount off select Delta fares to get you home from your empty leg destination.

Related: How Delta’s stake in the private jet industry could be a lifeline for the airline

Sky Access members can book unlimited empty legs. (Photo courtesy of Delta)

Alternatively, you could now unlock highly discounted empty leg flights through Wheels Up — Delta Private Jets' parent company. Wheels Up offers several membership tiers, with the cheapest option starting at $2,995 in your first year and then $2,495 per year. All members get access to Hot Flights, which allows you to book discounted empty leg flights for as low as $320 for an entire plane. Members also have access to Shared Flights, Shuttle Flights, and The Community, an online platform of members-only forums to facilitate flight sharing. Other perks of a Wheels Up membership includes the opportunity to fast-track Delta elite status.

Related: The best cards for booking private jet travel

Bottom line

Empty leg specials are a terrific way to save on private jet flights. However, you must be flexible to take advantage of them and have a back-up option if your flight is canceled.

Keep in mind that there are other ways to save on private jet travel as well. For instance, companies like Blade and XO let you book by-the-seat on regularly scheduled flights. There are also some airlines like JSX and Boutique Air that offer near-private experiences at commercial travel prices.

For more on private jet travel and exclusive travel experiences, see:

Featured image by You could fly in style, parking at LAX's private terminal alongside the owner of an NFL team (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.