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.
With international travel back on the menu as many countries have reopened to American tourists, 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 175+ 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 (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. 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 Europe has never been so cheap. Well, mostly.
As much of Europe reopened to Americans this summer, we found fares that should be $800 or more roundtrip tumble to $400, $300, or even less. We've frequently seen flights to Madrid (MAD) or Barcelona (BCN) under $300 round-trip – including an astounding fare to Madrid for just $280 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, here's the best I can do from my hometown airport of Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) – if I'm unwilling to make two or more stops en route to Madrid.
Almost $800 for a weeklong trip to Madrid? No thanks.
But those $280 flights were available around the same time from Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) – and nonstop, to boot. And getting to Chicago 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 Chicago at 4:35 p.m. for the flight to Madrid (MAD), for a grand total of $287. It's scheduled to land back in the U.S. at 2:10 p.m. the following week.
Keep those dates and times in mind for your positioning flight. In this case, we're looking at a $207 fare to get to Chicago flying American Airlines – though you might be able to find an even better deal by waiting for prices to drop.
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 $494 – almost $300 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 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.
What about Delays and 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 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 safest.
And with how much the pandemic has disrupted air travel, there's more uncertainty than ever with booking positioning flights like this. 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.
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 bag. 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® Card 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 departing from your home city.