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Points and miles are a great tool to reduce the cost of a vacation. They cover the cost of your flights and sometimes hotels and offer an opportunity to travel more and pay less. However, those of us who travel more often than once per year have to rely not only on rewards, but on attractive flight deals as well.

We’ve all seen low airfare prices, such as Miami to Peru for $250, New York City to Singapore for $500 and Washington to Tel Aviv for $600.

The problem with flight deals is they’re not available from every airport. Travelers who live in bigger hubs with more than one airline competing for passengers typically see more airfare sales than those who live in smaller markets.

Same logic applies to award flights. Sometimes you can find availability on a long-haul international flight but not on a domestic connection out of a small town.

Still, it’s possible to take advantage of flight deals and book aspirational award tickets even for those not flying out of a major airport by utilizing positioning flights.

What Are Positioning Flights?

A positioning flight is a flight segment you book separately from your original itinerary to get yourself to a departure airport. For example, say you live in St. Louis, Missouri, and nab a fare sale out of Chicago to Bangkok for $400. The flight you take between St. Louis and Chicago to connect with your trip is a positioning flight.

The goal is to lower the overall cost of your airfare or connect with a long-haul award flight not bookable from your preferred airport.

Reasons to Book Positioning Flights

To Take Advantage of a Flight Deal

Booking a flight deal out of a big airport can save you a big chunk of change. In many cases, paying separately for a positioning flight can save you money on the entire trip.

Let’s go back to the Chicago-Bangkok example for a minute. Why would you want to book a flight to Asia from a city you don’t live in? Because once you do the math, your overall airfare cost from St. Louis to Chicago and then from Chicago to Bangkok is likely going to be less expensive than if you were to fly out of St. Louis on one ticket.

Say you buy the original flight for $400 and then spend another $150 on a round-trip positioning flight. Your total comes to $550. Compare that to $900 you’d be paying by flying out of St. Louis, and the strategy quickly becomes noteworthy.

STL to ORD Positioning

To Connect with an Award Ticket

Positioning flights aren’t only good for fare sales. They’re also a great way to make an award booking happen in the first place when availability isn’t there on all segments.

Some airline programs, like Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and American Airlines AAdvantage, allow you to tack on a domestic segment at no additional cost in miles. However, this domestic leg can be the hardest to find.

In some cases, the routing rules don’t allow it; in others, availability is the issue. Booking a separate domestic leg with either cash or another program’s miles can be a great workaround to salvage the trip.

Sometimes, depending on a program, adding an extra segment to the same itinerary either costs more miles or isn’t an option at all.

For example, booking an All Nippon Airways (ANA) fancy-pants flight in business class or first class using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club zone-based award chart must be done out of a city the airline services, such as Los Angeles, Houston or Chicago, to name a few.

In this instance, if I wanted to experience ANA’s premium cabin, I’d add a separate flight to Los Angeles to connect with my ANA award flight booked with Virgin Atlantic miles.

To Save on a Travel Package

Another reason to book a positioning flight is to take advantage of travel-package discounts, similar to those you find on Groupon Getaways, Living Social and Travelzoo.

The marketplace websites sell vacation packages that include airfare, hotel nights and even a rental car in some cases. To no one’s surprise, the deals are mostly available out of major cities. Although it’s possible to add a segment from your preferred departure city to most of these packages for extra money, you can add it for less yourself.

Once you get the details of your trip from the tour operator, feel free to add a positioning flight using either cash or miles, whatever makes the most sense.

Use Caution When Booking Positioning Flights

Although there’s only one downside of positioning to another airport, it hurts big time when it happens. Trust me on this one—you don’t want to be the one wiping tears at John F. Kennedy International Airport because you misconnected. Been there, done that.

If your positioning flight is delayed or canceled for any reason, including weather, missing crew or runway construction, and you miss the first leg of your main trip, your entire itinerary will be canceled and you’ll lose money. For this reason, you have to be extra careful when booking positioning flights.

Leave enough time between flights to connect to your next flight. Because you’ll fly two different itineraries, which can’t be merged, neither airline will be responsible for your missing a flight. It’s best to build in a long connection and spend the time in a lounge if you have access.

If your big flight leaves early, fly to your departing airport the night before. You will spend extra money on a hotel, but this way you’ll know for sure you won’t miss your flight the next morning.

Pack a carry-on bag to avoid waiting for checked luggage between flights. Even if you end up flying the same carrier on the positioning flight and on the main itinerary, more often than not, a check-in agent won’t be able to check your bags through to your final destination. It’s worth asking, but it’s not a guarantee.

Double-check your departure dates and times to ensure you have booked all separate flights correctly. Those pesky 12:15 a.m. flights can throw a curveball when you realize your connecting flight leaves a day late.

Book a nonstop positioning flight to leave nothing up to chance. The more connections you have, the more invitations you send to Mr. Murphy, whose law seems to work every time.

Programs to Consider When Booking Positioning Flights

British Airways Executive Club

For short-distance positioning flights, British Airways Executive Club is a great program to consider. The program charges fewer miles, or Avios, for shorter flights and more miles for longer flights.

British Airways is a Oneworld partner of American Airlines. Say you need to position from El Paso, Texas, to Dallas for another flight. You’ll redeem 7,500 British Airways Avios for this positioning flight.

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Redeeming British Airways Avios is best for booking American Airlines-operated short-haul flights.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

Be careful with this one as it won’t work for everyone. Take a look at whether Southwest operates nonstop flights from your home airport and compare flight prices with another carrier.

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In the past, I’ve paid $50 to $75 for positioning flights between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Sometimes it’s less expensive than taking a Delta flight, and sometimes it’s the same.

If using points, the same flight costs 3,813 Rapid Rewards points. If you’re looking to save money on positioning flights, you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards at a rate of 1:1.

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However, keep in mind that Southwest award rates correlate to cash cost of a flight, and you won’t necessarily get the best value for your points. Still, it’s money back in your pocket.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card

Our best points offer ever! Earn up to 100,000 bonus points. Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open, plus 50,000 more bonus points after spending $12,000 total on purchases in the first 12 months.

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Avianca LifeMiles

Avianca LifeMiles are good for those looking to book Star Alliance flights, specifically if you’re positioning into a United Airlines hub.

The program publishes discounted rates on domestic redemptions, and they’re good. Let say you want to fly from Bozeman, Montana, to Denver to position to another flight. The one-way itinerary will set you back 7,500 LifeMiles.

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Play around with the search tool. Depending on the itinerary, you can get the rate down to 4,500 miles for a one-way flight on United.

American Express® Gold Card

American Express® Gold Card

Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months. Terms Apply.

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Capital One Venture Miles

If the goal is to spend as little money as possible, using Venture Miles to erase a travel purchase at a rate of 1 cent per point is not a bad option. The redemption rate is fixed, so it doesn’t matter whether a flight is cheap or expensive.

Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal

Similarly, a redemption via the Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal will do the trick. Your points are worth 1.25 cents apiece with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and 1.5 cents apiece with the Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

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Combining points and cash fares to build an itinerary is a good way to reduce the overall cost of a trip.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

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How I’ve Used Positioning Flights in the Past

Personally, I love positioning flights. They’ve allowed me to book many cheap trips that otherwise wouldn’t be available out of my home airport. Here are a few examples.

Salt Lake City to Hong Kong for $577: This one was possible thanks to a fare sale on Cathay Pacific. I booked a round-trip flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong for just $347 and then added a set of positioning flights on Delta Air Lines for $230. I spent five nights in Hong Kong and from there booked another flight to Yangon, Myanmar, redeeming 10,000 Asia Miles. It turned out to be a fun multi-country trip.

Salt Lake City to San Salvador for $470: Earlier this year, United Airlines sold round-trip flights from Houston to San Salvador, El Salvador for $247. I jumped on the deal, spent another $223 on positioning flights with Delta and Southwest Airlines and added a round-trip flight from San Salvador to Roatan, Honduras, where I learned how to dive, for 13,000 Avianca miles.

Salt Lake City to Bali for $542: Again, thanks to a fare sale, I flew to Bali on a bargain. The original flight from Los Angeles to Denpasar on China Eastern Airlines cost me $433. I paid another $109 to fly to Los Angeles with Delta and back with Southwest, which made my trip to the Indonesian island quite affordable.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be punished by high airfare costs for living in a small city. Access deep discounts and use positioning flights to your advantage.

You don’t have to position to the closest major airport, either. It’s not unheard of to fly across the country to a departure airport if the price and the itinerary make sense. Just remember to leave plenty of time in between flights as one mistake easily can double, if not triple, the overall cost of your trip.