When redeeming miles and points, you aren’t always going to find exactly what you want – if you are flexible, your chances significantly increase. That being said, there are sometimes long periods of time when there’s no award availability to where you want to go from your home airport. If you live in a smaller city with little-to-no service from international airlines, finding award space is going to be harder – US airlines generally release less award space than foreign airlines… which is why it is important to understand what Positioning Flights are and the best ways to book them.
What is a Positioning Flight?
A positioning flight is a domestic (or short international) flight from your home airport to a bigger, gateway city which has more award availability (usually on foreign airlines).
For example, let’s say you live in Santa Barbara, California and you want to fly to London. You run a search for award availability and nothing comes up.. and that’s probably because there is no availability out of SBA domestically to get you to a bigger city in the US to catch a flight from there to London. When I say there’s no award availability, I am referring to saver-level award availability, because there will probably be standard-level availability… but that (usually) can’t be combined with a partner airline all on one ticket for a good mileage price.
Looking at SBA’s Wikipedia page, you can fly from Santa Barbara to the following:
- Alaska Airlines: Portland, Seattle
- American Airlines: Dallas, Phoenix
- Southwest: Denver, Las Vegas, Oakland, Sacramento
- United Airlines: Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco
As you can see, there are no international flights and rather most of the flights are to bigger, gateway cities in the US – which offer numerous flights to Europe on foreign airlines.
What you would do in this case is instead of searching for flights from Santa Barbara to London, you would search from one of those above cities to London for award availability and the chances you find something are much higher. When you find a flight that works for you (for example, Seattle to London could have availability on a number of airlines), you can book that award flight out of Seattle. Then what you would do is buy a cash ticket (or redeem miles dynamically) for a flight from Santa Barbara to Seattle on a separate ticket, to your gateway city. This short domestic flight would be the positioning flight.
Positioning Flights are Separate Tickets
Positioning flights will be on separate bookings/tickets if there is no saver-level availability (or if you are flying two different airlines who do not have a frequent flyer partnership, for example).
When booking two separate tickets, you always want to make sure your connection is extra long – this is because if your first (positioning) flight is delayed or cancelled and you miss your next flight on the other, separate booking, that airline won’t rebook you and rather you will have to buy a new ticket. This is because to them, you are originating your travel on that ticket and not connecting (they don’t know you are flying in from somewhere else). In the event of irregular operations, you are not protected on a separate ticket.
When I book positioning flights, I always fly the day before and simply spend a night at my gateway city – this is much safer in case your flight is delayed or cancelled. Always take a look at what other flights you can take to your gateway city should your original positioning flight be cancelled (have a back-up plan).
Other Important Information
If you need to change or cancel your flights, remember that you have two separate tickets so there will be different change and cancellation policies (and fees), depending on how you booked your ticket. You may have to pay two fees to change or cancel, in line with what the rules are on the ticket.
If you are checking in bags your first airline may be able to “through” check your bags to your final destination, even though you have separate tickets. This is all up to two things – if the agent is willing to do it and if the two airlines you are flying have a baggage interline agreement. Even if the two airlines are not partners, chances are they do have a baggage agreement (if they are major airlines). However, it all then depends on the check-in agent – some are great and some are lazy; if you have verified the two airlines can check bags to each other and the agent is refusing, try speaking with another agent or manager.
All in All
Positioning flights are a great way to save miles/money and fly to a gateway city with more award availability – travel on separate tickets and on airlines that aren’t partners can open up more flight options and availability for you. Remember the key things listed above when booking your positioning flight – always leave enough time in between flights and have a back-up plan should something go wrong.
It is best to note the terms and conditions of both of your tickets – can you change or cancel them for free? This is important and it is best if you book tickets that are refundable (either for free or for a fee) – you definitely do not want to book nonrefundable tickets as this could end up being a mess (if there are schedule changes or your plans change, for example). If you keep all of these tips in mind and are smart about how you’re booking your tickets, it can be a great way to combine an international award ticket with a domestic flight in order to open up more options for you and your family.