In a perfect world, we always find an award flight from our home airport and it's a non-stop flight to our destination on the exact dates we want and in the class of service, we want. In reality, that rarely ever happens. You need flexibility in dates, routing, class of service, cities or a combination of one or more of these to successfully book award travel on a consistent basis. No, this doesn't mean you must book a 4-leg, 4-country route to travel to your destination in Europe, but know that if you only want 4 first class seats, on non-stop Emirates flights from NYC to Dubai on a holiday weekend, the chances are very slim that it works out. If your award search comes up with nothing from your home airport, what is the first thing you can look to do? You can change cities with a positioning flight!
What is a Positioning Flight?
As the name suggests, a positioning flight is one where you fly (or you could drive) to another city to position yourself for an award flight somewhere else. If you live in the Midwest, you might want to get yourself to Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Denver, etc., to take advantage of better options for international (or long-haul domestic) flights. Likewise, if you live on the east or west coasts, you may want to position yourself to NYC, Boston, D.C., Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. Oftentimes, these larger cities have more award availability, simply because there are more international carriers operating flights to/from that airport.
Ideally, you should look for cheap cash flights (which you could book through the Chase portal) from your home airport to a major city or low cost award tickets. Remember, if the round-trip positioning flight is less than 600 miles total, you can book an American Airlines flight with Iberia for only 11,000 miles, as I explained last week. If you're lucky to live in a Southwest city and have a Southwest Companion Pass, you can fly BOGO to your positioning city. Any of these options allow you to increase the award availability to you, while minimizing out-of-pocket cost or large amounts of miles.
A Positioning Flight in Reality
As I've written about recently, we are leaving for Japan next week (!!!) and we are flying All Nippon Airways First Class. It is our first experience in international First Class and we are very excited. But this experience is not perfect. While ANA is known for opening 2 business and 2 first-class seats on each flight when the schedule opens (approx. 330 days in advance), ANA did not do so for us. We booked 2 seats in first class IAD-NRT and then coming back we booked 1 seat in first class NRT-IAD and 1 seat in first class NRT-IAH. It just so happened that by the time we could book the return flights, even using my trick in the blog post above, these were the only 2 first class seats available on our return date to ANYWHERE in North America. Rather than risk losing return seats on our preferred date, we booked them. Sarah is flying home to D.C. and I am flying to Houston.
When you book these seats a year in advance, you expect something will change. A seat will open up somewhere and you can take a direct flight home. Unfortunately, ANA is one of those airlines that rarely releases first-class seats after the schedule first opens. In fact, I am currently scheduled to fly NRT-IAH as the ONLY passenger in first class. Despite this, ANA is not opening up any award availability and we're now within two weeks of travel.
Within the last week, I realized it is highly unlikely that award space opens, although I have Expertflyer award alerts set for 1 business seat to IAD, NYC and ORD for my date of travel. I knew it was time to implement a backup plan. Until that didn't work either. There were no saver awards available on AA, United or Delta from IAH to any of the three D.C. airports on my date of travel. Likewise, the only one-way flight that was under $200 was a United flight leaving at 7 a.m. As I am scheduled to land approx. 9:30 a.m., that wasn't a viable option.
I decided to give up on IAH. Luckily, Houston has 2 airports. From Hobby Airport, there was a cheap Southwest flight leaving at 8:30 p.m. for $143 or 9,550 Rapids Rewards points. I booked with points and $5.60 in taxes, knowing that if award availability opens on ANA to D.C., I can cancel this flight even after it departs and get my points back and get a refund of the taxes. While the 11 hour layover is not ideal, I did find an off-peak Courtyard 1.1 miles away from Hobby for only 5,000 points per night. I decided to book this hotel for 2 nights, as a mini mattress run and to get some sleep after a long day of travel from Tokyo. Booking this stay also helps Sarah qualify for Marriott Platinum status for 2020.
In summary, the “positioning flight” to return home to D.C. cost me 9,550 Southwest points and I tacked on a hotel to crash for 10 hours for 5,000 Marriott points. While not ideal to have an 11-hour layover in Houston, I am flying on the exact dates I wanted, on the carrier I wanted, in the class of service I wanted, and all on “saver” fares. Seems a lot better when you think about it that way, right?
Even when things do not go to plan, a positioning flight still results in a lot of positives. As I showed in my scenario to/from Tokyo, the upside in booking a positioning flight is typically much greater than the downside, even if things do not go as planned. As long as you have a backup plan in how to get to your starting airport and/or how to get back home, you give yourself a much greater chance of success in finding award availability when you expand your starting locales.
Have you booked and/or flown a positioning flight? Please leave comments below or come join on Facebook group to discuss this topic and more!
Travel on Point(s) has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Travel on Point(s) and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.