Once you start trying to use airline miles to book international award travel, you quickly discover that flexibility is the key to finding award flights. There’s more than one way to be flexible. Some people are flexible about their destination. Others can be flexible with the dates of their trips.
Sometimes neither of those work; they don’t for us. So how else can you be flexible? You can be willing to start and/or end your award trip from somewhere else than your home airport.
A beginner would think it’s straightforward to book an award ticket from Buffalo to London. You can do that search right from the airlines’ websites but unless saver space exists on the domestic flight and the transatlantic flight, it will say that there’s nothing available.
There may be saver award flights available from New York or Philadelphia or Boston to London but you’ll never see them because the computer is searching for a ticket from Buffalo.
Welcome to the wonderful world of positioning flights.
A positioning flight is a separate airline ticket you book to get you to/from your home airport to the airport where your award flight is departing or arriving. These flights are necessary when you can’t find award space for the first or last leg of a trip.
While airlines used to be more cooperative about opening award space for people to get these flights included on the same ticket, those days seem to be long gone.
For example, take the flight we took from New York – JFK to London Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic in Premium class. While there were several flights from Orlando to London every day, none of them had any award space for our desired date.
We needed to book a ticket to get us from Orlando to New York in time for our evening flight to London. Understand, these arrangements are not the same as a normal flight connection. There are several unique things you need to consider when booking tickets for positioning flights:
Choosing An Airline
You need to pick your airline for a positioning flight carefully. For several reasons, my first choice will always be on the same airline as the award ticket. There’s a good chance they’ll fly from your home airport to their international gateway and flights will usually be timed well to make connections. If a flight with that airline isn’t possible, I’ll look for airlines in the same alliance.
You may be able to check in for your entire itinerary and check your bags all the way through, if all your flights are on the same airline. This can also work with airline alliance partners but the rules vary depending on the airlines.
If you pick a different airline, or an LCC or ULCC for your positioning flight, you’ll need to pick up your checked bags, head back to the ticket counter, check in for your second flight, and re-clear security.
If your positioning flight is delayed or canceled, there’s a greater chance that an airline will help you rebook your award ticket if you were delayed because of them. Don’t think American Airlines will help if you miss your flight because your Southwest flight was canceled.
Some airlines have specific policies about these situations, so I’d check them out before booking any ticket.
If you’re flying into a large airport, there’s a good chance you’ll need to change terminals. Some airports make this easier than others but it’s additional time you’ll need to figure into your travel plans. On our flight, even though we were flying on partner airlines Delta and Virgin Atlantic, we had to take the JFK Jitney to get from one terminal to the other. Fortunately, this transport is past security so we didn’t have to re-clear the TSA checkpoint.
We always need to check bags on international trips. As I mentioned before, if you pick a different airline for your positioning flight, you’ll need to wait for your bags to come off the plane and re-check them with the second airline.
If your baggage is delayed, the positioning flight airline is only responsible for getting bags to the destination on their ticket. You’ll then have to somehow arrange to get the bags to your final destination.
This is why booking with the same airline or one with an interline agreement is preferable when booking a positioning flight.
There are times when your award flight is scheduled such that you can’t get to the airport from your home on the same day. In this case, you’ll need to fly in the night before. You could fly in late and just stay at an airport hotel, or you could fly in early and make it the first day of your vacation.
When arriving the day before, the above issues don’t matter. You’re going to be collecting your bags. It will be necessary to check in again the next day. You can search for this flight the same way you book any other flight. Just try not to book the last flight of the day because if it’s delayed or canceled, you’re in trouble.
If it’s an important trip you have planned for months, I’d try to fly in the day before if possible. When we took our trip to Australia from Los Angeles, we arrived the day before and headed to Disneyland. Our flight wasn’t until the next evening so we had plenty of time to relax and get to the airport early to spend some time in the lounge.
How to pay for positioning flights
Positioning flights are one of the expenses you incur when booking award travel. Depending on the flight times and locations, they can be quite expensive and more than you’d want to pay for a “free” vacation.
There are some ways to alleviate the cost of these tickets. One of the easiest is to use a card like the Barclays Arrival+ or the Capital One Venture to offset these costs. Since you can use your points to pay for travel expenses, these cards are great for paying for positioning flights.
You can also use the money you’ve earned with a straight-up cash back card to pay for these flights. All of that 2% cashback you earned with the Fidelity Rewards card can pay for these tickets.
You can also book flights through the travel portals using your Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, or ThankYou Points but in most cases, this isn’t a great use of points.
The last thing you can do is keep looking if there’s any fare sale or points discount on a positioning flight.
When searching for and booking award tickets, one thing that often goes overlooked is positioning flights. If you need to get to some faraway airport, you could be looking at a $500+ round trip ticket on a connecting flight just to get to where you’re going to start your trip.
If thinking about all these things is making your head spin, you could always consider using an award booking service.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary