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How to Score Cheaper Flights Using Hub Airports

A layover may mean huge savings on airfare.

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Do you ever notice that some routes are only available with certain airlines or that the price to fly a particular route varies greatly depending on the airline you fly?

Knowing the main airline hubs and the top cities you take the most routes through means you could construct your own travel plans to include layovers of your choice. Being willing to pass through hubs (over direct flights) can mean huge savings on airfare and an extra vacation for ‘free.’

To provide more efficiency and lower operational costs, airlines generally operate from a hub-and-spoke model. In a hub-and-spoke network, you connect to an airline’s hub first and then to your destination from there. Sometimes, there might be multiple hub connections involved for especially long flights or smaller airports.

By operating a more condensed network of hub airports, airlines can cut down on the number of empty seats on each flight — this, in turn, helps the airlines save on operational costs, and they can (hopefully) pass those savings on to travelers.

For example, anyone flying Delta Airlines regularly has likely connected through its main hub airports in Atlanta or Minneapolis. So, instead of flying a direct route from Hartford, Connecticut, to Lincoln, Nebraska, (which would largely be empty) Delta can connect each of these planes through Minneapolis to corral passengers on a profitable route and schedule.

3 Ways to Use Hubs to Save on Flights

1. Airlines Can Undercut Each Other and That Benefits You

Knowing what cities are the main hubs for different airlines can save you a significant amount of money when searching for plane tickets, especially if these hub city price wars take place during seasonal sales.

For example. if United or American Airlines wanted to undercut Delta’s profits, they might offer selected routes to Minneapolis for a much cheaper price and attract customers who are generally loyal to Delta. So, you could look at grabbing a cheaper flight from a Delta competitor to Minneapolis and combining it with a Delta flight to your destination. Since Minneapolis is one of its main hubs, Delta should offer the lowest prices on the second leg.

2. Use Longer Trips to See Friends and Family for ‘Free’

Another way people can save using hubs is by identifying their nearest main hub and several hub cities where they have friends or family.

For instance, my friend in Los Angeles lives close to LAX (a United Airlines hub) and also has close family and good friends in United’s hubs of Houston (IAH) and Newark (EWR). She travels to Europe and Mexico several times a year, so she specifically looks for routes that stopover in either Houston (which is United’s main hub to fly to Central America) to visit her parents or Newark (which is United’s hub for flights headed to Europe) where she can take a cab to see and stay with friends during her ‘NYC” layover.

By searching for air travel via United’s “multi-city” search online and plugging in her preferred cities (hubs) and dates, she often finds deals that take her through cities where she can stay and visit on her way to her main vacation destination.

These multi-leg flights are usually less expensive than buying direct roundtrip tickets from Los Angeles, and more convenient than long layovers in cities where you have no connections or are stuck in a terminal for extra long layovers.

Plus, in some cases, you can even choose a multi-night layover (for the same or lower price), which gives you even more time to visit a friend or family member or explore a city.

United hub in Newark
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3. Booking With Miles, Some Hub Airport Connections Use Only Half the Miles

If you plan to use miles for your next plane ticket, make sure to compare the cost of traveling through one hub airport compared to another as it may vary significantly. 

For example, a friend lives in Pittsburgh and frequently visits her parents in Phoenix. American has multiple flights a day with connections in Dallas Fort Worth (DFW), Philadelphia (PHL), New York (JFK), and Chicago (ORD). If she chooses to fly through Philadelphia, it is as low as 19K miles round trip. But to go through Chicago or Dallas Fort Worth, it can be as high as 39.5K — that’s almost double the miles.

The travel time may often be one hour shorter, but considering she could book two round trip tickets through Philadelphia for the cost in miles of one through Dallas Fort Worth or Chicago, that extra time in transit is worth it.

San Francisco International Airport
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United Airlines City Hubs:

  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD)
  • Denver International Airport (DEN)
  • George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston (IAH)
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  • Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
  • Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)

Alaska Airlines City Hubs:

  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)
  • Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC)
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  • Portland International Airport (PDX)
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

American Airlines City Hubs:

Phoenix Sky Harbor American hub
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  • Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)
  • Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT)
  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD)
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  • Miami International Airport (MIA)
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York (JFK)
  • LaGuardia International Airport in New York (LGA)
  • Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)
  • Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)
  • Reagon National Airport, serving Washington, DC (DCA)

Delta Airlines City Hubs:

Delta plane at MSP airport Minneapolis
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  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
  • Boston Logan International Airport (BOS)
  • Detroit Metro Airport (DTW)
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP)
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York (JFK)
  • LaGuardia International Airport in New York (LGA)
  • Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC)
  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)

JetBlue Focus Cities:

JFK airport JetBlue
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  • John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York (JFK)
  • Boston Logan International Airport (BOS)
  • Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL)
  • Long Beach Airport (LGB)
  • Orlando International Airport (MCO)
  • San Juan Airport (SJU)

Southwest Airlines Operating Bases:

Southwest plane at Denver airport
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  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
  • Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)
  • Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW)
  • Dallas Love Field Airport (DAL)
  • Denver International Airport (DEN)
  • Houston Hobby Airport (HOU)
  • Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas (LAS)
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  • Oakland International Airport (OAK)
  • Orlando International Airport (MCO)
  • Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)

You can also check out these resources for finding airport hubs in your area:

  • FlightConnections® – maps all direct flights and connecting flights worldwide
  • Wikipedia + airport name – this will take you to the Wikipedia page for a specific airport, and it lists all of the airlines that operate out of that airport and what cities those airlines fly to from a given airport (under airlines and destinations). It also denotes which airlines use that airport as a hub.

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Julia Menez
Julia Menezhttp://wwww.geobreezetravel.com
Julia Menez is a points and miles personal finance coach, travel expert, and host of the Geobreeze Travel Podcast. After traveling to over 30 countries before age 30 and saving thousands of dollars along the way with points and miles, Julia provides easy-to-practice advice to consumers on how to get the most out of their credit card benefits, including trip protection and luxury travel opportunities. Julia’s strategies have been featured in The New York Times, US News & World Report, Fodor’s Travel, and Business Insider, and her podcast was nominated in the 2021 Plutus Awards for “Best New Personal Finance Podcast.”

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