Strategies for booking great award tickets from non-hub airports

Nov 16, 2021

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After three years working at an award booking service, I’ve seen just about every award redemption that exists.

Every once in a while I’d get a slam dunk redemption, but more often than not, I’d be piecing segments together to book awards from non-hub airports. Starting your trip in Omaha, Syracuse or Boise adds an extra layer of complexity — but ironically enough, it can also lead to more options if you’re willing to put in the effort.

That’s because hub flyers are spoiled: they’re used to efficient routings and nonstop flights.

Once you get used to the ease of flying straight to your destination, it’s hard to compromise with an extra connection. Those of us who have no choice but to connect are more willing to consider all options, regardless of where those intermediary stops might be. The trick, of course, is finding those options.

Thankfully, booking awards from non-hub airports is far from impossible. You may need to be prepared for a few extra steps along the way, but if you know what to look for, you’ll still find what you need. These tips for booking awards from smaller airports are tried, tested and easy enough to modify regardless of where you’re starting and ending.

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In This Post

First, take inventory of your available miles

Delta Planes at JFK
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Like with all award searches, taking note of your balances should be the first step so you know what you have to work with.

Unlike hub-to-hub flights, though, the little balances matter here: if you need to combine segments, for example, booking one ticket from Pensacola to Atlanta and then another from Atlanta to Frankfurt, even small balances might be a meaningful way to save you money.

This is especially true for programs that have great domestic sweet spots. In that Pensacola to Europe via Atlanta example above, you can potentially use as few as 6,500 Delta SkyMiles to book a positioning flight from Pensacola (PNS) to Atlanta (ATL) on Delta before connecting to a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt (FRA).

Don’t worry — I’ll cover positioning flights further later in the article.

Pensacola to Atlanta Delta SkyMiles award
(Screenshot courtesy of delta.com)

So if you aren’t already tracking your miles and points, this is a good time to start.

Related: What to do with small points and miles balances

Start with the flight you want

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Although it sounds painfully obvious, the first search you should make is the trip you want to take.

Two or three years ago, searching for business or first class international flights that started at my home airport was almost always fruitless, but that’s no longer the case. Crazily enough, the introduction of “married segments” on award flights has helped us non-hub flyers. This is when award space is available for a connecting itinerary as a whole, but necessarily for not the individual flights that make up said itinerary.

For example, someone who can’t get a nonstop award from Dallas (DFW) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) may very well be able to book a saver flight from Austin (AUS) to Dallas to Tokyo. Does it make sense? No, but that shouldn’t stop you from booking it if you find what you need.

Recently, I’ve often found flights that get me from start to finish on one ticket, albeit with long layovers or extra stops along the way. If the idea of extending your journey by hours sounds like torture to you, don’t despair. Most airlines now offer flexible change and cancellation policies, so it’s possible to book a less-than-ideal flight now and switch to a better routing if award space opens up.

Related: Ultimate guide to searching award availability for the major airlines

Consider separate positioning flights

Emirates first class on A380
Emirates first class (Photo by M101Studio/Shutterstock.com)

While booking an award straight from your origin to destination is always a best-case scenario, it’s not always realistic. If you can’t find your entire itinerary on one ticket, positioning flights can help fill in the gaps.

These are cheap and short flights you buy to connect to a larger itinerary. For example, say award space is open from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Dubai (DXB), but you can’t find space from your home in Grand Rapids (GRR) to Chicago. You could buy a separate ticket from GRR to ORD and connect onward with Emirates.

The cost of the ticket can be worth it to snag a great first class redemption.

Google Flights itinerary for GRR to ORD
(Screenshot courtesy of google.com/flights)

As discussed earlier, you don’t need to pay for your positioning flights out of pocket. Instead, you can use a relatively small number of points and miles to book a low-cost domestic award ticket to position yourself to a hub.

American award flight from GRR to ORD
(Screenshot courtesy of aa.com)

How to build your own connecting itinerary

To include options with positioning flights into your award quest, you’ll need to add manual searches from the major hubs. Instead of searching from Grand Rapids, you’d search from New York, Chicago, Washington DC and so on. You can get a full list of options by searching an airport’s Wikipedia page.

In the case of an Emirates flight, you’d head to the Dubai International Airport wiki page, scroll down to the Emirates section, and look for any airports you can realistically get to.

Emirates Dubai Destinations
(Screenshot courtesy of wikipedia.com)

While Wikipedia is usually the most comprehensive option, there are other tools to help you find all your theoretical options. Award Hacker presents a large set of potential award bookings (though it doesn’t provide actual reward inventory). Kiwi.com — an up-and-coming online travel agency — provides unique (paid) flight routings for your travel that mixes and matches airlines that aren’t partners. You can use search results as inspiration for building your own award itinerary.

Kiwi itinerary from Des Moines to Lisbon
Kiwi can be a good source of inspiration for building your own routing between two smaller cities. (Screenshot courtesy of kiwi.com)

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of mixing paid and reward tickets, make sure you read our positioning flight guide before proceeding. There are several challenges involved, like the risk of missing a connection along the way and how to handle checked bags. As a general rule of thumb, you should give yourself plenty of time to make self-connections, especially when transferring through large airports like Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Los Angeles (LAX) and New York-JFK that have multiple terminals.

Also note that — right now — positioning flights come with an extra layer of complexity if you’re transiting through another country. Unlike thru-passengers, if you’re booked on separate tickets, you may need to be extra careful that you’re prepared with a COVID test, vaccine proof or other entry requirements for any intermediary stops in addition to your final destination.

Related: Pre-pandemic to now: 8 ways I’m booking travel differently

Search for award spaces in the right places

Once you know what to search for, you need to know where to search.

Airlines websites have improved their built-in search options significantly, but they still only tell half the story. Some partner flights aren’t supported, requiring you to search through other methods (or, gasp, call to inquire about availability). Other times, awards will appear at outlandish prices because one of your three segments isn’t available at the lowest level. While the website is a good place to start, don’t give up if you can’t find what you need immediately.

One good way to avoid this sticker-shock is by learning the best award search engine for each of the major alliances. TPG has covered this extensively, so check out our full guides to searching for award space with each alliance:

Also consider using a third-party tool to dive deeper into award space. For example, ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) is one of the most comprehensive, but it takes a little time to learn. Two of the best ExpertFlyer features is the ability to set automated award space alerts and see multiple days worth of award space at once.

ExpertFlyer award availability
(Screenshot courtesy of expertflyer.com)

Related: How ExpertFlyer helped me score a first class experience of a lifetime

Start looking for flights early

Swiss Air 777 Business Class
(Photo by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy)

Much to my clients’ chagrin, booking precisely 330 days in advance (or sometimes earlier!) doesn’t mean you’ll be able to lock in your preferred flight.

It’s a myth that award space is released on the first day flights are available for sale. Even airlines that used to be predictable with when they release award space are all over the place now: the world’s constantly-changing situation means there’s no rhyme or reason to when you might find the perfect award.

Starting to search early is still to your benefit, though. The sooner you start looking, the more opportunities you have to keep checking in hopes that new inventory appears. As soon as you have a set destination and schedule, start looking and then keep checking back regularly until you find a flight that meets your needs.

And don’t be afraid to book something that’s “good enough”. Like we touched on earlier, flexible change and cancellation policies mean you can reserve an acceptable flight to act as your safety net and continue to look for a more ideal flight between now and your departure.

Related: How to book your first award flight using airline miles

Earn transferable rewards

Capital One Venture X Rewards Card
(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

If there’s one thing you should take away from this article, it’s that you should be flexible when booking award travel from a non-hub airport.

This is true when earning points too. Instead of spending on a cobranded credit card that locks you into just one program, consider moving your everyday spending to a card that earns transferable points. This includes programs like American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou points.

The beauty of these programs is that you can transfer your points to a variety of different airline and hotel transfer partners. For example, Capital One miles transfer to programs like Air France-KLM Flying Blue, Avianca LifeMiles and British Airways Executive Club, among others. Because of this, you can book award flights across all the major airline alliances and leverage different sweet spots.

If you’re looking to jumpstart your transferable points balance, consider starting with the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card. This new premium card is currently offering 100,000 miles after you spend $10,000 on eligible purchases with the card within the first six months from account opening. And for a limited time, cardholders can also get up to $200 in statement credits for vacation rental purchases like Airbnb and Vrbo charged to their account within the first year.

Or, you might consider the Citi Premier® Card that’s currently offering 60,000 ThankYou points after $4,000 in spending in the first three months of account opening. Like Capital One miles, Citi ThankYou points transfer to airlines across all the major alliances.

Related: Consult with Cards: TPG’s recommendations for earning transferable points

Bottom line

Each year it gets a little more complicated to piecemeal your dream trip, even if you’re flexible on how to get there.

Dynamic pricing, married segments and a lack of affordable award space mean that everyone has a hard time these days. Learning your options — whether that’s credit card transfer partners, airline alliances or strategizing with positioning flights — can help you pinpoint everything that’s available to you until you find something that works for you.

Savvy travelers aren’t afraid of a hurdle, especially one that may lead to the trip of your dreams.

Feature photo by Stoyan Yotov/Shutterstock.com

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