Can I Add a Paid Positioning Flight to an International Award Ticket?
"Reader Questions" are answered twice a week by TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.
Unless you live near a major international airport like New York (JFK), Chicago (ORD) or Los Angeles (LAX), it can be difficult to string together an international award redemption. Not only do you have to find seats on the long-haul flights, but you'll also need at least one flight within the US to get you to an international "gateway" airport. TPG reader Jo wants to know if he can add a paid positioning flight to an international award ticket ...
[pullquote source="TPG READER JO "]Is it possible to add a paid positioning flight to an international award ticket with a partner airline? For example, can I add a paid United flight from Boise (BOI) to San Francisco (SFO) as part of an ANA award ticket from SFO to Tokyo Narita (NRT)? [/pullquote]
There are a few different elements to this question, but let's start with the cheapest one: In many cases, you can add a domestic leg to a partner award ticket for free, assuming there's saver space on the domestic flight you want. If you're trying to book an award ticket with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan from Tokyo (NRT) to Seattle (SEA), you'll automatically see options that include a long-haul segment on JAL and a domestic connection on Alaska Airlines.
You can also try searching segment by segment and calling an agent to book. Almost all loyalty programs will let you do this, though some (like United, sorry Jo!) might try to charge you for two separate flights.
One way or another, though, Jo is going to need to get to San Francisco to start his trip. So why does it matter if the positioning flight is "linked" to the long-haul flight? The short answer is that if the positioning flight is delayed, causing you to miss the international flight, you'd be out of luck. This almost happened to me on my first major award redemption, when I used two positioning flights (one from Chicago to New York and another from New York to Frankfurt) to book a cheaper Lufthansa first-class award. My day started with a three-hour ground stop at O'Hare, which almost caused me to miss my flight to Frankfurt and my Lufthansa award. If that had happened, as all three tickets were booked separately, I would have had to pay out of pocket to keep my vacation on track.
Now for the bad news: Even though Jo is going to have to book a separate positioning flight to San Francisco (either with points or cash), most airlines don't have a mechanism to add a paid flight to an award ticket like this. AA's reservation system technically allows AAgents to sell you a paid flight within the same reservation number as your award flight, but many phone agents don't know this feature exists so you might have to hang up and call again. Your best option is to call in and ask that your two separate reservations be reissued under a single reservation number. This is highly YMMV and not guaranteed to work, but certainly worth a try.
Your other option, which is far from ideal if you have limited vacation time, is to build in an extra-large buffer between your positioning flight and international award ticket. For some people this means flying in a full day before, while others might be comfortable arriving in the morning and departing in the evening. After my harrowing experience at ORD, I need a minimum layover of 5 hours to do this comfortably.
Positioning flights aren't just useful for people who live near small airports. During the four years that I was "based" out of Chicago O'Hare, I would frequently hop on short, cheap flights to New York (JFK) or Los Angeles (LAX) to find the award seats I wanted. Not only do those airports get bigger and better aircraft (read: A380s), but you also get at least three times better odds of finding the award seat you want. Cathay Pacific flies one daily nonstop to O'Hare, but 3 each to LAX and JFK, so because I was willing to take a positioning flight I had 7 possible flights instead of one.
Of course, if you're booking an expensive international award ticket, the MOST important thing is not to miss the flight! Even if you have to leave a day earlier or take a more expensive positioning flight, consider it an insurance policy against the random and unpredictable delays that so often plague larger airports in the US.