A positioning flight is one you take to get to or from your main gateway city to another city from which you’ll take a long-haul flight (e.g., you live in Nashville, but got an amazing deal to Paris from Chicago, so you need to take a positioning flight from Nashville to Chicago to catch the international flight).
It should also be noted that there’s a second definition: In aviation, a positioning flight is one that a plane takes to get from its origin airport to the airport of its next flight without any passengers on board. But we’re here to talk about the first definition, and how it can help you unlock more amazing flight deals.
Sometimes a great deal is hard to come by in your home city so you might find an amazing deal from a relatively nearby hub that’s just beyond driving distance. Or perhaps your home city doesn’t have any deals for the dates you’re interested in, and you need to fly elsewhere to snag the lowest price.
In these cases, we recommend you focus on getting across the ocean/to the other continent as cheaply as possible first, and then build connections from there. We call this the Greek Islands trick and it simply means you book two separate roundtrip tickets to piece together your itinerary.
Sometimes you’ll book a long-haul from your home city to a destination abroad and then take regional transport once you’re there (e.g. you book Austin to Frankfurt and then take a flight or train to your final destination of Berlin) and sometimes you’ll book the long-haul from a city not your own, and then book a positioning flight to get to that long-haul departure city (e.g. you book LAX to Fiji, but you live in Seattle so you have to fly to LA to catch the long-haul flight).
Why would this be worth the extra effort? It’s all about the savings.
For example, last year we sent an incredible mistake fare in business class from LAX to Bangkok for $600. If you live in a city that’s an easy hop from LA you could have snagged the deal and then spent another $100 or so to connect to LA from your home airport—and you would have still saved a few thousands off the regular price.
Even in less extreme cases, if the deal is good enough—and you can get a positioning flight for a relatively small sum—you might be able to save considerable cash by booking two separate tickets.
The main risk is missing your primary flight if your positioning flight is delayed for any reason. As you have to book positioning flights separately from your primary flight, airlines won’t see the two as connected, and they are not contractually obligated to rebook you for free if a delay on the first flight causes you to miss the second. Instead, you might have to buy a new flight all together.
The best way to mitigate this risk is to book a positioning flight that arrives several hours—or even a day or two—before the long-haul flight departs. It’s a great way to add another city to your trip.
As for how far in advance you should arrive before the long-haul flight, that depends on several factors including the likelihood of a delay on your first flight, and what options you’d have if there are any complications (e.g could you get on another flight, or take a train or drive?).
For example, if you live in Chicago and want to catch a positioning flight to Denver in winter (a time when both airports could experience weather delays), you may want to allow more time between flights.
Conversely, if you live in San Francisco and want to catch a positioning flight to LA you may be comfortable with less time between flights, as weather delays are less common, and there are so many flights per day between the two cities that if yours is significantly delayed you could likely get onto another for a not-obscene cost.
It’s quite simple to book a positioning flight.
If you find a great deal from another city (hint: when you join Scott’s Cheap Flights, you can select multiple departure airports), check the price of a flight from your home city to that city. Compare that cost to the cost of booking the flight from your home city on one itinerary.
If the savings are enough to warrant it, book the deal first so you don’t miss out. Then book positioning flight separately. Just remember to keep a time buffer in between the two flights, in case the first flight (on either the outbound or the return home) is delayed.