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.
They’re doing it wrong.
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, or hopping on an insanely cheap mistake fare, this strategy can easily save you hundreds of dollars.
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. 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 (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), Tokyo-Narita (NRT), 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. Or better yet, use points and miles to book that positioning flight for free.
Let’s look at an example.
The Power of Positioning Flights in Action
Getting to Spain has never been so cheap. Lately, flights to Madrid (MAD) or Barcelona (BCN) are regularly under $300 round-trip – including an astounding fare to Madrid for just $230 this fall that we recently sent to Thrifty Traveler Premium subscribers.
But sadly, the whole nation isn’t getting 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, here’s the best I can do from my hometown airport of Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP).
More than $800 for a trip that includes an overnight layover? No thanks. Prices climb above $1,200 for a shorter flight.
But those $230 flights are available on the same day from both New York City-JFK (JFK) and Boston (BOS). And getting to Boston from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) is generally quite cheap. So let’s try out a positioning flight.
Start with the flight to Madrid. We can leave Boston (BOS) at 5:20 p.m. for the flight to Madrid (MAD), for a grand total of $231. It’s scheduled to land back in the U.S. at 2:35 p.m. the following week.
Keep those dates and times in mind for your positioning flight. In this case, competition between JetBlue and Delta makes it pretty easy to get a good flight to Boston.
All the times and dates line up to make this one-stop flight to Spain and back work. Add those flights up, and you’ve got a round-trip ticket to Madrid for $398 – $400 cheaper than the simple search you started with!
You could drop the final price even lower by using points and miles to book the positioning flight – or booking the Madrid flight directly through Chase using some Ultimate Rewards points.
What about Delays and Cancellations?
We’ll be upfront here: There is some risk to keep in mind with positioning flights.
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 generally put you on the next flight. 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: Give yourself plenty of time between flights. Only you can decide what you’re comfortable with, but it’s probably safest to give yourself at least 2 hours connection time between when your positioning flight lands and when that longer flight takes off – and preferably more.
On the way back home to the U.S., remember you’ll have to clear customs and immigration. So allowing 3 to 4 hours or more layover time until your flight home is probably safe.
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.
- It’s best to travel with only a carry on. If things go wrong, you don’t want to have to worry about collecting your baggage, rechecking it, and reclearing 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 or Chase Sapphire Reserve. 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 be enormous.
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 originating from your home city.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.