Most travelers searching for airfare start and stop with their home airport. And unless they get lucky with a great deal, they may be forced to choose between swallowing the high price or frowning and forgetting about it. There's a better way.
The key to cutting down international airfare is using positioning flights, short domestic flights from your hometown airport to a second hub in order to hop on a cheaper fare. Whether you're searching for your own international flights, booking a great fare through our Thrifty Traveler Premium service, hopping on an insanely cheap mistake fare, or taking advantage of hard-to-find award space to use your points and miles, this strategy can easily save you hundreds of dollars.
With international travel back on the menu as most countries around the world are back open to American tourists and domestic flight prices on the decline, this is the key to save big on your long flight abroad.
What is a Positioning Flight?
Wouldn't it be great if every airport, from the tiny to the enormous, could get cheap fares to fly abroad?
Unfortunately, that's just not the case. While we find cheap flights from 200+ U.S. (and Canadian!) airports big and small, the fact of the matter is that the major hubs get the best deals. And this is where positioning flights come in to help bridge the gap.
Think about the major airports in the U.S. with tons of competition that can drive down airfare prices. Here's a quick look at some of the biggest airports in the country with regular international flights:
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- San Francisco (SFO)
- Seattle (SEA)
- Chicago-O'Hare (ORD)
- Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)
- Houston-Intercontinental (IAH)
- Boston (BOS)
- New York City (JFK)
- Newark (EWR)
- Washington, D.C.-Dulles (IAD)
- Atlanta (ATL)
- Miami (MIA)
Which of these major international hubs can you cheaply fly to? Airlines might charge you an arm and a leg if you start your search from your home airport to London-Heathrow (LHR), Rome (FCO), or wherever you're heading abroad.
But if you book a cheap separate flight to get to, say, Los Angeles (LAX) or New York City-JFK (JFK), you can likely save hundreds on that flight overseas. Better yet, use points and miles to book that positioning flight for nearly free – or book both using points and miles.
Let's look at an example.
The Power of Positioning Flights in Action
With Europe wide-open to Americans and travel demand sky-high, the steady stream of cheap flights to Spain, France, and Germany hasn't been. Yet we've seen some incredible deals to Italy lately, including an amazing $430 roundtrip fare to Rome (FCO) that we sent to Thrifty Traveler Premium subscribers a few weeks back.
But sadly, the whole nation didn't get the flight deal love. So even on the same dates you can catch a dirt-cheap ride on a nonstop flight from the East Coast this fall, here's the best you can find flying from even a big airport like Atlanta (ATL) to Rome next fall.
Nearly $900 for a weeklong trip to Italy? No thanks.
But those $431 flights were available around the same time from Miami (MIA) – flying nonstop, to boot. And getting to Miami from Atlanta is generally quite cheap and easy. So let's try out a positioning flight.
Start with the long-haul flight to Rome. We can leave Miami at about 8 p.m., for a grand total of $430. It's scheduled to land back in the U.S. at 3:50 p.m. the following week.
Get cheap flights like this sent straight to your inbox with Thrifty Traveler Premium!
Keep those dates and times in mind for your positioning flight as you fire up Google Flights. In this case, we're looking at a $193 fare to get to Miami on American Airlines – though you might be able to find an even better deal by waiting for prices to drop or setting a Google Flights price alert.
All the times and dates line up to make this one-stop flight to Italy and back work. Add those separate flights up, and you've got a round-trip ticket to Rome for $608 – nearly $270 cheaper than the simple search you started with! We regularly see even heftier savings using this strategy. Plus, you could drop the final price even lower by using points and miles to book the positioning flight down to Miami – or booking the Rome flight using Chase Ultimate Rewards points through the Chase travel portal.
This is just one example, but it's a powerful method that can pay off on almost any big international flight.
Positioning Flights + Points & Miles Deals
When you're trying to use your points and miles, positioning flights can be absolutely essential – especially if you're trying to fly in lie-flat business class. Let's look at an example.
Flying ANA First Class to Tokyo for as low as just 55,000 points is one of the best deals in the world of points and miles. So go figure it's one of the toughest award redemptions to pull off, as finding the award space is like a needle in a massive haystack – especially lately. But just a few weeks ago, we sent Thrifty Traveler Premium+ members an absolute unicorn of an award alert: ANA First Class seats for two (or more!) all spring, summer, and into the fall on the flight to Tokyo-Haneda (HND). And you could book it for as low as just 55,000 Virgin Atlantic points!
This deal is long gone now – get the next amazing award alert with Thrifty Traveler Premium+!
But if you were starting from Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) or Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), your searches would come up empty-handed. These ANA awards were only available on their nonstop routes from San Francisco (SFO). And that makes a separate positioning flight absolutely necessary to take advantage of bucket-list deals like this one.
The Risks with Positioning Flights: Delays & Cancellations
We'll be upfront here: There is some risk to keep in mind with positioning flights. But that risk can easily be outweighed by substantial savings.
One-stop journeys booked together protect you if the first leg is delayed or canceled. If your first flight lands too late to catch the second segment, the airline will put you on the next available flight. But that's not the case if you book a positioning flight separately. Some airlines will help you out when things go wrong … but you can't count on it.
So there's one critical thing to keep in mind: Now more than ever, give yourself plenty of time between flights. With the mass delays and cancellations we've seen over the last year or so, there's more uncertainty with booking positioning flights like this.
Read more: How to Survive (or Avoid) Flight Delays & Cancellations this Summer
Flight times are almost guaranteed to change from what you initially booked, so you'll need to monitor your reservations to make sure your airlines don't throw a wrench in your plans. And a last-minute delay or cancellation could ruin a trip if it means you miss your connection.
Only you can decide what you're comfortable with, but it's probably safest to give yourself at least three to four hours connection time between when your positioning flight lands and when that longer flight takes off – and even more on the way back home to the U.S., as you'll have to clear customs and immigration, then re-clear security. You might even want to consider flying in a day early, just to be absolutely sure you don't miss that big flight abroad.
There are a few other things to keep in mind for your positioning flight:
- When possible, it's worth trying to book your positioning flight on the same airline as the international journey. Some carriers can link these flights. While that won't protect you as if they were booked as one trip, it will give the airline a heads up if you're in danger of missing your connection. This can also help with baggage.
- It's best to travel with only a carry-on bag. If things go wrong (or even if they don't), you don't want to have to worry about collecting your baggage, rechecking it, and re-clearing security. Read our tips to pack in a carry-on bag!
- Consider paying for your trip with a credit card that has trip delay and cancellation coverage like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, or the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card. While it won't ensure you get on the next flight if your positioning flight is delayed, it can help cover some of the costs if things go wrong.
Only you can decide whether these risks are worth it. To us, the savings of pairing a positioning flight with a great international flight deal can easily outweigh them.
Positioning flights make any flight deal accessible from anywhere in the U.S. Don't let another incredible flight deal pass you by because it's not departing from your home city.
What do you do about your luggage? Do you have to pick it up at baggage claim and go through security at the airport you’re using as a positioning flight?
If you bring only a carry-on, then you would just proceed to international gates area or go through security as you would normally. If you do bring a bag that you check, then you must go to baggage claim and retrieve your bag, recheck it at the airline desk and proceed through security again.
It is not always a guarantee that you will be able to avoid another security check even if you do only bring a carry-on. Usually if your positioning flight and international flight are with the same airline, you have a higher probability of avoiding going through security again. But if the airlines are different for your positioning flight and international flight, you’re more than likely going to have to go through security again.
I’m flying to FCO in a week. I live in Atlanta. My originating flight is out of Charlotte. So I used points on AA to fly from ATL to CLT. Why? Because the flight in Delta from CLT to FCO was $381 in main cabin not basic garbage.
So I got a roundtrip from ATL to FCO for $381 plus a couple thousand FF miles on AA that we’re gathering dust.
Yup. Positioning flights are sheer genius. They keep you out of the fortress hubs where direct flights are outrageous because of a lack of competition.