How To Use Multi-City Flights To See More Places For Less

You can often find cheaper flights by routing yourself through a number of destinations using multi-city trip searches. Many people assume that adding stops on your flight from say, New York to Madrid, is more expensive than just letting the search engine like Travelocity or Kayak do it for you. I’ll show you how you can use this method to add a few days or weeks at the cities in between, make it to your final destination, and return home – all without paying a cent more for airfare and potentially saving quite a bit on airline tickets.

globes

First Look For Stopovers

Many national airlines, like Icelandair, offer stopovers in the capitals of their county of origin. For example if you’re flying Air France from Washington DC to Tokyo with Air France you can call to ask if they’ll let you stay in Paris for a few days. Typically stopovers don’t cost any extra airfare and you may be able to get a package deal or try your hand at hostel (wait, what is a hostel?)

  • blue lagoon icelandOften you’ll need to call the airline, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
  • If you have a credit card linked to a frequent flyer account and book over the phone, remember that both Star Alliance and One World will get you bonus miles (3-12) for every dollar you spend on the ticket. This is also often the case if you book directly through the airline’s website.

Airlines used to promote stopovers heavily years ago when long layovers were more common but a few still do. Icelandair usually features good deals and you can make the most out of your stopover in Iceland the next time you flight across the north Atlantic.

Begin With A Single Stop

Stopovers are the easy way to save a bit of money while adding another stop on your journey. To find even better deals and open up your travel options, go to your favorite online travel agent – for this post I’ll use Kayak.com; you can of course use Travelocity or a host of others.

  • Start with a regular round-trip search and get a round trip figure.
  • Take note of any stops and the cities the layovers are in.

Hack The Route

Now that you have a ballpark figure, starting point, and final destination you can begin hacking the route.

  1. Use the multi-city option and begin with a single route. Look for the cities generally on the way that don’t cross oceans or backtrack through continents (much like how RTW tickets are setup).
  2. Look for any stop that costs less than 50% of your original round trip price. A flight to Paris from many North American cities on United is often cheaper if you fly through Guatemala City or Buenos Aires as opposed to booking a regular round trip fare.
  3. Get creative. Look for any major cities you can think of or want to see. Often two places that seem completely unrelated are important routes for airlines and to fill seats they offer lower fares.
  4. Be flexible. Play with the travel dates, starting your searches with Wednesdays. If there is more than one nearby airport try using them as well.

Treat this part like a game to find the single lowest fare to some city remotely along your way. It is often time consuming and you can spread out your searches over a few days. Also, use Farecast to narrow down the best time to buy.

chiselGetting The Second Leg Done With

Now you’ve got a very cheap one-way ticket to Buenos Aires on your way to Paris, so you can start looking for the second flight to get you all the way there.

You know at least one leg is cheaper than 50% of the total round trip price; now begin playing with dates and connecting cities to get an lower overall fare.

Using the same multi-city search, see what happens to your total airfare when you add the final destination. If it’s less or the same, great – if not, change the dates, or the city in between if your travel plans are flexible.

  • If you’re really after the lowest possible fare and don’t mind a bit of extra travel, you can add another stop, using the same method above. So your flight from New York to Buenos Aires to Paris might actually require a day in Amsterdam.
  • Hopefully you’ve got some frequent flyer miles – if so, you might be able to use them for the more expensive legs of your trip.

It sounds crazy, but often these added routes are still cheaper than conventional round-trip fares.

skepticSo, What’s The Catch?

What you save in money, you lose in time searching for every possible connecting city or varying dates you can think of. Not to mention you’ll spend a few days or a week in another stop along the way, which might not be ideal for everyone.

You’ll also likely have to deal with longer layovers and if you’re checking in luggage, that’s more time you’ll be hanging around airports. There is of course the added cost of the hotel, hostel, or lodging in your middle destination, which could end up more expensive depending on your travel plans.

Not Only For Round-Trip Tickets

Having said all of that, using multi-city flights is a great way to see or revisit a completely different city or country on your way to that final destination. You don’t necessarily have to be going round-trip either.

I’ve used this method many times to “stopover” in places for up to a month or more, and still save on airfare. It’s one of my 10 pieces of practical advice for backpacking novices and you can use it next time you want to spice up your trips for less.

[photos by: _sarchi (globes), k.landerholm (chisel), Marcus Ramburg (skeptic)]

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  1. Andrea says:

    Another really odd way to save money if you need a one-way ticket, is to book a return.
    Yeah I don’t get it either, but last year I wanted to fly from Panama to Los Angeles, and a retun ticket was a lot cheaper than a one-way. You don’t have to use the return, just don’t show up.
    Happy Travels :)

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  2. melissa says:

    I need help! in march im going from charlotte nc to new orleans to chicago back to charlotte and the cheapest I could find was 600… anyone willing to help me with this?

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  3. Andi says:

    Great tips!!!

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  4. Heidi says:

    Hi, I am trying to use vayama to book a multicity trip from Basel Switzerland to LAX and LAX to Beijing and then Beijing to Basel. There are options presented, however, the first lag is 23hr (usually from Europe to LAX only takes 15 hr with 1 stop layover). DO you have any suggestion how to avoid this? Many thanks!

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  5. Niesha says:

    Hi! I loved ur article! I am planning a trip to Kenya for a month in September. I’d like to have a long layover or stopover in Rome, Italy if possible. when searching for round trip flights, the prices were at least $1600-$1700, but when i used multi-city flights and planned for a stopever the prices were $1500ish… is that really real??

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  6. Susan says:

    Hmmm….I may not be good at this. I do search through tons of discount sites, kayak and the actual airlines themselves to compare, but not sure I can smartly navigate the routes to find the cheapest ticket by doing multi city. Anybody feel like helping me? I’m going to start searching flights in one month(it’s too early now, since the actually booked date will be a year away and the flights are not online yet) for a trip which i’d prefer to use multi city tickets for, but not a lot of travel time meaning I have to be in specific places on certain dates AND only have a little over a week. Sounds complicated? It is! But if anybody wants to help me, I’ll appreciate it. Thanks!

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    • Anil P. says:

      I can give you some general advice; though it’s much tougher to get a good deal when your dates aren’t flexible over a short period of time. Let me know however and I’ll do my best to give you some suggestions on hub routes.

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      • Susan says:

        Thank you so much. Can I tell you that last night I played around just to see if I was capable. I don’t mean to sound like a moron, and am usually pretty good at getting deals, in fact everybody comes to me to book their trips for them including all the details, but for some reason I didn’t know about this.
        Anyway I put some dates in just to play, and wrote down the prices which were around $1000 or higher, and up to $5000+, and then tried looking using the multi city and following the steps as closely as possible and ended up with a multi city round trip ticket for under $700+, so that’s a start. I absolutely could not find the same ticket when searching through the airlines themselves and whatever else, but was able to get it after having it pop up on kayak by using multi city. So thanks! I’m not buying the ticket because it was just for fun, but I feel like I can see the results now a bit.

        Ultimately I need to get from Buffalo, NY to Dubling, Ire by Sunday March 24th, because I leave for a tour in Dublin on Monday the 25th. My friends and I would like to do a short day trip in England or Scotland, and see there are all sorts of flights from Dublin to both those countries for what I’d consider reasonably cheap, as well as ferry tickets which I want to avoid because it takes longer(and it scares me!).
        I’m going to attempt to fly on Friday March 22nd and arrive in London on the following morning(or Glasgow), and then stay over and fly to Dublin on Sunday. Then fly from Dublin back to Buffalo on Sunday the 31st. I can’t do any next day flights because some of my friends need to be back at work, but the time change helps with that. We might even have to leave Saturday night.
        I know you don’t need all this information now, but I thought it would be helpful to give an idea of what I’ll be looking for, and I can now reference this comment I wrote w/the dates, and I don’t have to keep looking it up cause I forget.
        I will say flying from Buffalo to JFK separately, instead of JFK being the connecting flight designed by the airline saved a crapload of money when I compared it it seemed.
        Thanks for replying and offering to help.
        Susan

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        • Anil P. says:

          Hi Susan, sounds like you’re getting the hang of it! Have you checked RyanAir for your Dublin > London? You may save quite a bit there to book that leg using them or easyJet or one of the other budget airlines if cost is the primary concern.

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  7. Bethany says:

    Anil, that kayak explore thing is awesome! I spent waaaay too much time on it the other day!

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  8. Your post made me realize that there is a big, gaping hole waiting to be filled in Internet airfare search engines. Surely there must be a way for some clever programmer to pull together all the data from the airline schedules and provide an engine that can search all itineraries, sort by price or schedule, show alternative routes or airports for savings, AND show what the lowest price is within a certain date range.

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  9. Hey Anil, great piece of advice. I ended up doing this a couple times flying from the US to Africa and stopping over in Europe. I’ve never actually planned a trip to Europe but have stopped over there a number of times. Another time I was able to take a couple days in Dubai en-route to Africa again. Great article, and I will always keep this in mind when booking a flight.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Thanks Mark – the airlines are pretty liberal with their definition of stopover so it makes a great way to see a few unplanned things in between.

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  10. Mark H says:

    I still find finding the best options for flights frustrating. There must become a point where a website can do a complete job of the task rather than a partial job like they all do now. Another one worth checking is Momondo which does a decent job of scanning numerous flight options for best fares (it isn’t a booking engine, just a fares search engine). There best thing is they show the best fares on a few days either side so if you are flexible then you get indications of cheaper days.

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  11. anjuli says:

    I will try the kayak. My daughter is wanting to fly to Christchurch but she needs to stop in Auckland on the way over- for about ten days- originally we tried to do a booking from SEATAC to Auckland and then onward to Christchurch and then back again- but the price went way up- when we checked rdtrip to Auckland and then getting a separate rdtrip frm. Auckland to Christchurch the price dropped by about 300 USD. We are still playing with the routing and figures so maybe your advice will help out a bit.

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  12. Akila says:

    We use this approach all the time because we usually only fly Open-Jaw or One-Way tickets (though lately, we have been flying roundtrip back to the United States). If you have more time on your trip, then consider investigating overland stopovers, as well. For example, a flight from Tokyo to Beijing is currently running about $970/person for a one-way ticket — way out of our price range. So, we are planning on taking a high speed ferry to South Korea from a city further south in Japan for $150 and then taking a $140/person flight to Beijing.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Great advice, I’ve done this as well on many occasions. Even an hour or two drive to another airport can make a world of difference.

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  13. Bethany says:

    Great post Anil! And excellent timing! I have been searching for flights for Europe (and just to the east coast to visit my family) and i have had a HORRIBLE time finding decent rates. I started looking into multi-leg flights but the prices weren’t good either. However I didn’t have all of the info above to help me. I would absolutely love a stop over anywhere really! It makes so much sense! The only other thing I have left to try is flying out of Tijuana instead of San Diego or LAX. We did that last October when we went to Oaxaca and saved about $500 a person (plus no international tax!). It was awesome.

    One question on booking past your destination – when you get off (i assume you need to carry on your luggage) at the stopover city and hang out for a month or so – do you actually continue the rest of the leg at a later date?
    I didn’t think you could do that because the plane is expecting you back for the rest of the flight.

    Do you tell the attendents not to wait for you? Or do you call after you get off the flight and rebook the rest of it? I would think the airlines would charge a lot for that. No?

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    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Bethany, glad this post was helpful. Here’s another (visual) tool I came across that might help find the cheap routes in between:

      http://www.kayak.com/explore/#/WAS?a=any&d=any&fb=120,4450&l=any&ll=0.175781,-0.351562&ns=n&s=0&t=0,100&z=3

      The difference between the multi-city and booking past your destination is that when you book past your destination you’re actually forfeiting the last leg – which can sometimes result in a cheaper ticket.

      An example would be booking a flight to Chicago through St. Louis for $300 (skipping the STL>CHICAGO leg) instead of flying directly to St. Louis for $350.

      If you do that there are certain caveats – you have to carry on all of your luggage and if there’s a reroute to another layover destination (aka. where you’d be getting off) then there’s nothing you can do but fly the entire route (hello Chicago!) or purchase a new ticket.

      Most airlines (not Southwest though) hate when people do this and there may be restrictions based on the airline. That said, you can usually find pretty cheap domestic flights if you’re willing to take the risk.

      Hope that clears it up a bit!

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  14. Awesome tips, Anil! I haven’t had much luck finding good multi-city of open jaw flights in the past, but I haven’t always been sure about the best way to figure it out. Thanks for this–it will definitely be helpful next time!

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  15. james says:

    This probably is more domestic related, but lately I’ve been scouting out one way fares when playing with dates and fares. It used to be round trips were often cheaper than one ways, but over the years the legacies have matched prices with LCOs which don’t place restrictions on one ways.

    For example United’s fare for an upcoming weekend in California was over $300, since needed to come back Sunday night. However purchasing an outbound one way one United, with a Sunday return on Southwest nets $117 for each ticket. Only $235.

    I recently flew to Chicago and returned from Grand Rapids Michigan. The two one way tickets, (both on United,) were cheaper than a multiple city option.

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  16. Jenna says:

    Very good tips, Anil. Thanks for the great info. I have been recommending to others to do multi-city flights since we did it last year. We flew from Sacramento to Bali through San Francisco and Osaka, Japan. The flight was horribly long, especially because we had our little son with us and he was sick. On the way back, we stayed in Osaka for 3 days. It made the trip so much more pleasant, and even though it was booked as a multi-city flight, it cost exactly the same as a regular round-trip. Now I’m hoping to do more of these (e.g. fly LAN from the U.S. to Brazil and stop in Peru, fly to Italy and stop in London, Paris, or Amsterdam…).

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    • Anil P. says:

      Most people try to shorten their layovers – why not make them longer and enjoy I say :)

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      • Jenna says:

        Yeah, definitely. Even traditional layovers of several hours can be time to do a little exploring. I once had a long layover in Amsterdam very early in the morning. A guy on the plane noticed I was traveling alone and suggested we go into the city together. We walked around and had coffee and watched the flower vendors set up– it was great even if it was just for a few hours!

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  17. Sherry Ott says:

    I’ve spent time doing this before and yes, it is time consuming – but can be worth it. My mentality is that if I’m flying from Asia to the US I might as well stop in a city and spend a few days there – that’s how I ended up in Tokyo for 4 days!
    However – I can’t wait until one of these great internet airbooking companies add this to their list of searching options so it doesn’t have to be this hard!

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    • Anil P. says:

      I bet the airlines don’t like people taking advantage of it – would be nice if Kayak or some others could do all the mix-matching for us though like you said. Hmmm…business idea perhaps?!?

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