How to find free stopovers on low cost airfare

This is part two in a series of articles about stopovers. If you haven’t read the first article [How to use stopover rules when buying airfare] then you should do so now. I won’t be covering the basic concepts and terminology in this post; I’m assuming you are already familiar with everything covered in that previous post.

“Low cost” is a subjective term, what I want to convey here is that you could, right now, put together a multi-destination itinerary between any city pair in the world, and the system will almost certainly let you do it if there is a route to get there. It will construct your flight itinerary as cheaply as it knows how; by matching where you’re trying to go with the “fare rules” that can route you there, but it will almost certainly not be for a “low cost”. There is nothing wrong with that system — it works splendidly at getting people from point-a to point-c. I for one welcome our magnificent robot overlords, but here’s what that system isn’t going to do — it’s not going to go look at the fare rules for a city that isn’t in your itinerary to see if there is a free stopover for a destination that is. It just doesn’t make sense for it to do that because the majority of people tend to have pretty straight-forward travel plans.

So now all we need to know is every detail of all the fare rules for every route and we got this! I hope that you realize how impossible my last statement was. This is why we have robot overlords handling flight inventory in the first place; there is too much data, and too many fare codes with too many differing rules to look through to find the ones that offer free stopovers. Even using the KVS tool isn’t going to help you too much here. We’re going to have to filter the cities down into something we can manage, but how?

Note: There are many professional tools such as KVS that will show you the price of the fare-basis codes per route and detailed routing rules. Using professional tools and paid-for data-feeds is not the topic of this post. I plan on covering those some other time.

Finding free stopovers

The first thing we need to do is determine where we want to go. Let’s say “Europe” — I’m not going to be too particular here, I tend to be pretty easy going when it comes to where I’m going. I’m sure that some of you will have less ambiguous travel plans. That’s fine, just keep in mind that it’s easier to find free stopovers if you aren’t too restrictive on your destination.

The next thing we need to do is take a close look at cities that overshoot our destination. For example, if you are wanting to hit Amsterdam and “some other city”, then you’ll need to look further east for your outbound leg of the trip. Copenhagen, Oslo, Budapest, Berlin, Istanbul, and Athens… those are candidates. You should even look at the cities that overshoot your target area by an extreme distance such as Mumbai, Dehli, Tel Aviv and Cairo because you might get lucky. We are making the assumption here that if we can fly through the target area near a major airline hub we can probably find a valid stopover. You’ll see how this works in a bit.

Our next filter: Eliminate any destination that has a CPM of greater than 6.0. If you’re not familiar with CPM you probably should read [Understanding CPM]. We’re filtering on price here to eliminate destinations that cost more than 6.0 cents per miles.  I consider anything under 6.0 CPM very inexpensive: For reference, Houston (IAH) to Newark (EWR) round-trip would need to be under $168 to meet a CPM of 6.0. You can adjust this to your liking if this is too strict. Booking sites that have a geographical map with prices on it will help you out on this part: Kayak Explore is a good starting point.

Kayak Explore still sucks at finding most of the good deals out of Houston, but it’s a great start. (PS: Escape Houston is the most awesome travel resource that has ever graced the internet. Fact.)

When I post a travel deal on Escape Houston, I highlight both its CPM and if it has a stopover component embedded in the fare rules. Let’s take a fare deal I posed recently as an example: [Flights: Mumbai, India (BOM) from Houston (IAH) via London $906 round-trip 1-stop]. 4.86 CPM with a free stopover component is pretty amazing, and meets the criteria outlined above. It was fully bookable when I wrote this article.

If you want to get instant e-mail notifications when a new travel deal is posted, sign up here: [Subscribe to the Escape Houston].

Let’s take a look at the map…

Free Stopovers 1
Hang on. We’re about to fly all over the place.

Michael Jordan would be impressed with your hang-time on this route. Now let’s take a look at the actual itinerary. I want to point something important out…

Layovers, they are one of the best ways to discover stopovers.
Layovers: one of the best ways to discover potential stopovers.

I want to bring your attention to the “layovers” on the route out of Houston. You’ll notice that the layover on this itinerary is in Amsterdam. It should be noted and stressed that layovers aren’t just some random occurrence. Delta can’t make it to Mumbai by itself so it has to pass you off to one of its alliance partners to make the itinerary work. In this case, Delta is going to pass to KLM for the touchdown in Mumbai. Score! We should probably take a closer look at the stopover section of the fare rules so we know what we can and can’t get away with. For this example, I’ll be pulling up the fare basis code and rules via Orbitz, because I could not figure out how to find them on some of the other airlines. As much as I rag on Orbitz for hiding the booking class, they’re pretty consistent at providing the full fare rules. If you’re not familiar with where it is read this: [How to find the fare booking code on Orbitz, and Priceline.].

VLRPR1US fare basis
You must read the fare rules.

Let’s pull out the relevant rules from the fare basis VLPR1US:


We can see from the stopovers rule in VLPR1US that we get a free stopover on the Mumbai route, and the stopovers are allowed in a bunch of cities in Europe. Amsterdam and Paris both being explicitly listed here in the rules. A total of 4 stopovers on this fare are possible, one free, three with a $100 fee. This next part will be underlined: Just because a fare’s rules allow for a stopover – it doesn’t mean that it actually exists. There is a difference between “allowed stopover” and “we have an actual seat available on the aircraft for the VLPR1US fare bucket for that day, with that route”. Good luck getting all four of the stopovers with this fare basis code, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

I mentioned earlier that layovers can usually be magically turned into stopovers most of the time, so lets do that and rewrite our itinerary to spend one week in Amsterdam (AMS)…

IAH - AMS - BOM - Free Stopovers 2

Ok, now we’ve added our free stopover in Amsterdam (AMS), we’ll be spending a week there before heading to Mumbai (BOM). You already know why there’s a +$20 increase in the fare if you read the earlier article in this series, so I won’t go explaining that again. I had to slightly change my dates to make this work, as I said earlier — just because fare rules say you “can” do a stopover doesn’t mean one exists on the days you’re looking for. Let’s take a moment to verify that the new itinerary is still using the same fare basis code…

VLRPR1US fare basis
The same basis code, this means we’re still dealing with the same fare rules. 🙂

So far, so good. Let’s not let a good fare like this go to waste — let’s try adding one of the $100 stopovers, but before that, let’s update our nifty map…

Free Stopovers 2 IAH-AMS-BOM
Hells yeah, that just happened for +$20.

At this point you would probably want to spend some time plugging in all of the potential stopovers to see what works, but I’ll save you some time, the chances of you getting back to IAH from either Dubai (DXB) or Abu Dhabi (AUH) with a $100 stopover on this fare is about as good as me flying an around-the-world on a Concorde. You should go ahead and try just in case, but to keep this post brief — Paris (CDG) is “probably” the only way back. The reason why we can’t just partner hop our way back is because there is probably something in the routing rules that is restricting our movement. I mentioned KVS and professional data-feeds earlier; this is where one would come in handy. Instead, just think of it this way — the robot overlords are starting to get angry and it’s non-stop or nothing from here on out because we’re flying all over the planet like a crazy person.

So, I guess this means we’ll just have to make due with Paris (CDG) *le-sigh*… The rules said we only get one free stopover so we should expect to see our fare increase by $100 plus whatever the landing fees are at CDG.

IAH - AMS - BOM - CDG - Free Stopovers 3
Added Paris (CDG) to the itinerary for $151.

That looks about right, $100 for the stopover, $51 for the landing fees in Paris (CDG). More importantly, we get to put another dot on the map!

IAH - AMS - BOM - CDG - Free Stopovers 4
This itinerary looks like a Mr. Pringles mustache. That’s how awesome it is.

Boop! Ah, now it’s looking pretty sweet. With this itinerary we get four long-haul, non-stop flights all over the place for $1046 all in with a CPM of 5.63. I can’t complain.

Well, that basically wraps it up, but before I end this post, let’s compare the cost of  a single destination round-trip to Amsterdam (AMS) to our itinerary.

IAH - AMS - Free Stopovers 5
CPM 11.51: Our robot overlords have a twisted sense of humor.


Let’s go over the steps involved in finding free stopovers on low cost airfare.

  1. Determine a general area of where you want to go. If you are too specific you’ll pass up interesting combinations and regions.
  2. Try to pick a destination that overshoots a lot of places you want to check out. For example, if you like Japan then look past it to Korea, China, Hong Kong and Singapore. If you can score a good fare in one of those countries, chances are you’ll be able to string Tokyo and Osaka into the itinerary also.
  3. Unless you are dead-set on wanting to go to a specific destination, filter out any destination that has a high CPM. This will save you time when you have to inspect the fare rules of all the prospects on your short-list. A free stopover on an expensive fare is pointless.
  4. Not every fare basis will allow free stopovers, most have a small fee. You will need to examine the fare basis rules in detail to find out if a prospect can route where you need it to.
  5. Once you have a fare basis that meets your criteria, it’s time to start adding in your stopovers. Do one at a time. After adding each one, verify that your new itinerary still has the same fare basis code. If you are given a new one, it means that you’re now working under a new set of rules. Sometimes this is a good thing, it depends on what the new rules are, but usually it’s a bad thing and means you’ve done something in your routing that violates a rule with the fare basis you had isolated.
  6. Try to make funny shapes with your routing when you plot it on a map… It will impress (or piss off) your friends.

Do you want to play around with this itinerary? You can probably still pull it up [here] on Orbitz.

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