A positioning flight is a flight you take that gets you from the airport where you are located to a flight where you need to be to pick up another itinerary. For example, say you live in Minneapolis. You want to go to Europe and you found an incredibly cheap award ticket to Europe out of Chicago. When you try to price the award ticket from Minneapolis, pricing shoots up to astronomical levels or awards simply aren’t available.
You could book a flight to Chicago. And once you’re in Chicago, you then pick up your award trip onward to Europe once in Chicago. The flight you book to Chicago is a positioning flight.
How to know which positioning flights make sense
Ultimately, booking a positioning flight adds some cost onto your itinerary. Booking a $120 Chicago to New York City airfare to jump on a business class award ticket adds $120 to the cost of your trip. It also adds a connection and additional time. If you need an additional overnight stay, positioning adds the cost of a hotel night to your trip.
When evaluating whether to position or book a trip directly from your home airport, consider the entire cost of the trip, including additional flights and hotel stays. Often, it can be worth it to pay slightly more miles in order to fly from your home airport, versus buying an additional flight to take advantage of rock-bottom award flight pricing.
The risk of using positioning flights
When you’re using a positioning flight, you’re putting together your own itinerary. And you’re putting together an itinerary that the airline is not willing to sell you through normal channels. This carries a few risks that you should be aware of if you want to book positioning flights. Normally, if you have a connection and your first flight is delayed, an airline is required to rebook you on flights that get you to your destination.
But when you use positioning flights, you’re booking two separate itineraries and making the connection yourself. In most cases, you will need to pick up your luggage and transfer it to the next airline. Even if you’re on the same airline, you’ll often be required to re-check your luggage.
And if your positioning flight is delayed enough that you miss your connection, you’re out of luck. Because you’ve booked two separate tickets and two separate itineraries, the airlines are generally under no obligation to rebook you. If you have to rebook an international trip at the last minute because you’ve missed your flight, things can get really expensive, really quickly.
If you’re going to use a positioning flight, it can be a good idea to make a little side-trip out of it. This gives you additional buffer in case things go wrong. And you can even use your connection time to add something extra to your trip. Need to position to New York? Plan an extra day and explore the city. Want to position to Seattle? Build in some extra time to check out the coffee scene.
Use domestic miles for positioning flights
A good use for Delta, American, United, and Southwest miles is for domestic flights. And a domestic flight that positions you to take an international award flight can be a great use of these points. All of the major U.S. airlines’ frequent flyer programs have favorable award ticket cancelation policies that let you change or cancel non-basic economy award tickets for free. So you can lock-in your position flight price risk free while you’re shopping around for your international award flight.
Just be sure to book a ticket in main cabin/standard economy or higher. Most airlines will charge a fee or not allow you to cancel/change basic economy award tickets.