How to Buy a Round-the-World Plane Ticket (That Kicks Ass)

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(Photo: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)

Chris Guillebeau travels the world and writes for a small army of remarkable people at The Art of Non-Conformity blog. He is a master of clever air travel (among other things), and this is a guest post on perfecting one of the rare gems that can truly change your life: Round-the-World (RTW) tickets.

Enter Chris…

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To outsiders, buying a Round-the-World plane ticket is a mysterious process. How does it work? Where can you go? How much does it cost? Unlike buying a simple one-way or round-trip ticket, you don’t just go to Kayak and click the “Everywhere” tab. (You don’t have to look – there is no such thing.)

Over the past three years I’ve spent at least 60 hours, probably more by now, learning the ins and outs of Round-the-World travel. In this post, I’ll explain a) why Round-the-World tickets can be an excellent value even if you’re not trying to visit every country in the world like I am, b) how to plan your trip, c) how much it costs, d) 7 bonus tips on optimization.

The Time Investment

Planning and shopping for a Round-the-World (RTW) ticket is a labor-intensive process. If you don’t enjoy planning a short trip, you’ll find it much more difficult to plan a complicated RTW itinerary. Personally, I enjoy the process, but then again, I also like airports and flying.

Also, before you can actually buy a Round-the-World ticket, you need to be willing to do all these things:

- Spend a couple of hours of initial reading
– Spend at least a couple of hours planning and optimizing
– Place an initial phone call (usually at least 30 minutes) setting up the trip
– Place a secondary phone call a few days later after the ticket has been validated
– Make any adjustments due to lack of availability or invalid routings
– Arrange to pay for the ticket with a local office in the originating country (this step may be optional, depending on how you structure the trip)

Those are the minimum “time costs” for getting a Round-the-World trip set up well. Keep in mind that you can use a RTW ticket for up to a full year, so taking the time to do it well is important. The value I receive from my tickets well exceeds the planning time it requires, but as noted, the practice is not for everyone.

Good Reasons to Use Round-the-World Tickets

If you’re willing and able to invest your time, the benefits you’ll receive from using these kinds of tickets are significant.

– Tremendous Value. RTW tickets are not especially cheap (see below for a cost outline), but a well-optimized ticket can provide value far beyond what it would cost to otherwise buy a series of one-way tickets.
– Freedom and Flexibility. I change my flights all the time, and with RTW tickets, it’s easy. Date and time changes are free, and you can make changes anytime — from far in advance all the way up to the day of departure. For a fee, you can even reroute the entire ticket after you’ve begun the trip.
– One Full Year. You get an entire year to use the ticket, which means that you can have up to 365 days of going from place to place, or you can get even more creative like I do and spread out the ticket into a series of shorter trips by finding a way to come home in the middle.
– Miles and Elite Status. I carry the highest-level elite status in two airlines thanks to my RTW travel. I also earned more than 200,000 Frequent Flyer miles with American Airlines in 2009, thanks to double-mileage bonuses and a lot of time in the air. With the status, I’m now first on the upgrade list, can hang out in nice airline lounges around the world, and don’t have to wait on hold when I call the airline.
– Creative Opportunities to Travel. You can get to a lot of places in the world with simple round-trip tickets, but because RTW tickets are priced by mileage or by segment, you can visit destinations that are otherwise cost-prohibitive when using regular tickets.

What to Do First

If you know this is what you want to do, or even if you’re just curious and want to create a sample itinerary, start by downloading these two free tools:

Star Alliance Mileage Calculator
OneWorld Timetable and Itinerary Planner

Spend some time getting to understand how they work. You’ll also want to check out the OneWorld interactive route map and the Star Alliance Downloadable Timetables to better understand where you can go.

WARNING: This software can be hazardous to your productivity. Many a workday has been lost at World Domination HQ because of the attraction of these tools. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Next, you need to answer a few questions: where do you want to go? What’s the goal of your trip? How much time do you have?

Star Alliance versus OneWorld

Each airline alliance has its own rules for how the ticket works. The one from Star Alliance is mileage based, meaning you’ll have a limit of 26,000, 29,000, 34,000 or 39,000 miles on your ticket. The trick here is to optimize your route to where you are just below one of the tiers, getting the best possible value without spending more money than necessary. (A friend of mine got his itinerary to 33,998 miles, which I thought was pretty good.)

The OneWorld product is segment-based, meaning that a flight from Hong Kong to New York (11 hours) is the same as a flight from Chicago to Dallas (less than 2 hours). You can have up to 16 segments on the trip, and naturally, you’ll want to optimize for flights that would be fairly expensive when purchasing a standard ticket.

I get even more creative with my plans, involving overland trips, return journeys to my home base in Portland, Oregon, and having multiple tickets open at one time. You don’t have to be that imaginative; I’ve been doing this for a while. Even a fairly basic RTW ticket can yield significant benefits and travel opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have.

How Much Does it Cost?

The cost for either product mentioned above varies from $3,000 to $10,000 – largely dependent on travel class, mileage tier (Star Alliance only) and where you begin the trip from. My tickets over the past few years have been almost exactly $5,000 each. I purchased two of them last year, and I’m trying to set up a new one for early 2011.

$3,000+ is a lot of money, of course, but when you consider all the flights you can take, the price per segment goes way down. My price-per-segment is about $300 (now $400), and this includes many long-haul flights that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars.

For example, here is an itinerary I used for my first OneWorld RTW ticket:

NRT-HKG-LAX-SJO-LAX-ORD-SEA-JFK-SCL-IPC-SCL-EZE-ORD-AMM-TUN-AMM-FCO-HKG-NRT

This 18-segment itinerary, purchased before the limit dropped to 16, included:

- A trip to Easter Island, usually quite pricey since there’s only one easy way to get there (through South America on LAN Chile or LAN Peru)
– A visit to North Africa and the Middle East, another pricey region
– A quick trip down to Costa Rica, which provided more miles than most U.S. flights would have offered
– A return to Seattle (in between Asia and South America) where I could stop and break up the trip for a while
– Base mileage of 54,894 miles, which when added to a number of bonuses I received, came up to nearly 100,000 total award miles
– When combined with overland trips on location (to Uruguay from Argentina, to San Marino from Rome, etc.) the chance to visit 10 countries from this one ticket

Geographic Advantage

You can get the best deal on Round-the-World tickets by departing from (and eventually returning to) a few specific countries where the price is much lower than leaving from North America or Europe. Which countries? Well, they change from time to time, but as of the time I’m writing this (October 2010), the best places are South Korea, South Africa, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.

Yes, it takes some work to get there. If those are too far, Japan is also a decent choice, where I began that first RTW trip. And of course, you don’t have to begin from a faraway place. If you don’t mind paying a fair amount more (usually $2000-4000), you can begin from North America or wherever you live. To get the estimate cost for your trip based on travel class, number of miles (Star Alliance only) and departing country, complete a mock itinerary on either of the two online fare calculators. You can then switch the departing country around to see how it compares with other options.

Reservations

Finally, when you actually get ready to buy your ticket, you’ll need to do two steps that may or may not be easy:

1. Create your itinerary. Until very recently, RTW itineraries usually had to be phoned in to an airline desk to set up manually. Thankfully, you can now set up a RTW itinerary online most of the time. In some cases there may be quirks in the itinerary that are allowed but not recognized by the online system, in which case you’ll need to phone it in. To at least get started online, use these links:

Star Alliance
OneWorld

If phoning it in, plan for the process to take at least half an hour once you get someone on the phone. It is much easier with OneWorld, since they have a dedicated RTW desk operated by American Airlines. With Star Alliance airlines, you may need to talk to several people before you find someone who knows how to create the itinerary in their system.

2. Find a way to pay for the ticket. I don’t mean, “Save the money,” although that of course is important too. I mean, “Find out how to physically pay for the ticket.” This is easy if you are buying online or are already in the country you are departing from. If you live in the U.S. and want to depart from the U.S., for example, then you can pay for the ticket after it is “rated” by the airline desk. In this case, you wait a few days after first phoning in the itinerary, and then call back to pay with your credit card.

If you’re beginning the trip in another country, it’s a bit more complicated. In some cases, you’ll need to phone the airline’s office in the country. I used Skype to do this last year with AA Japan. Some airline reps in overseas locations are more helpful than others, and of course there can be a language barrier as well. A certain amount of persistence may be required, but you can also get lucky and have it done in 20 minutes with the right rep on the right day.

7 Tips to Help Plan Your Trip

1. If using OneWorld, here is a very helpful validator that can help check your itinerary before going to book. It can also suggest alternative cities for more mileage.

2. Due to a quirk in airline rules, some countries in North Africa are defined as being in Europe for the purposes of ticket validation. You can visit Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, or even Sudan as part of the “European” portion of your trip.

3. Similarly, “North America” includes the Caribbean and parts of Central America. You can visit Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and several other stops during the North America portion.

4. If you don’t know how you’ll use certain segments, you can book them as “open” (so that the ticket can be issued) and add the dates later. You won’t have to pay a change fee when you add the dates.

5. London’s Heathrow (LHR) airport has very high taxes. If you can avoid it, or use it for transit only (less than 24 hours), you’ll save quite a bit.

6. Most of the time, you won’t want to use Frequent Flyer miles for a Round-the-World trip. Instead, you can get better value by redeeming miles for two round-trip tickets between continents. You’ll then effectively have two RTWs for the price of one.

7. People often ask which airline program is best for them. It all depends on where you travel and what your goals are, but if forced to make a recommendation I usually send people to the AAdvantage program from American Airlines. Even if you don’t live in the U.S., AA’s program can help you. If you prefer Star Alliance, then most programs are equal.

8. Use at least part of your RTW ticket to visit destinations that are otherwise prohibitively expensive to purchase. Among others, I’ve gone to Kurdistan (Iraq), Pakistan, Burma, and Uganda as part of my RTW tickets. Each of these places is fairly expensive to travel to on a simpler ticket.

What to Watch Out for

I spent a couple hours writing out this information because I frequently get questions about booking RTW tickets, and while I try to respond to each request individually, I also like to send people to an online resource for more reading. When I went to look for more resources on Google, the majority of the first-page results for “Round-the-World plane ticket” and related terms contained inaccurate information from a biased source. How do you know the sources are biased? Because many of them lead visitors to book through an online travel agency where they receive commission.

When it comes to Round-the-World tickets, this is one time when it’s actually better to buy from the airlines instead of a travel agent or other reseller. Since these tickets aren’t usually commissionable (the travel agent doesn’t get paid much to issue them), some agents will play dumb or try to steer you towards an alternative kind of ticket.

If that’s what you want, of course, there’s nothing unethical about it. There are some situations when a DIY trip will be better, but in many other situations the alliance tickets are the best bet. I tend to think most people want the best kind of ticket for the lowest possible price, and once you understand how the process works, the OneWorld and Star Alliance products can be great options.

I hope to see you somewhere on a future Round-the-World stop. I’ll be in the lounge with my MacBook, probably responding to emails or planning a future trip.

###

If you’ve ever fantasized about taking time off to globe-trot, I would highly recommend Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding. It is one of only two books I took with me when I traveled the world for 18 months. Outside Magazine founding editor Tim Cahill calls Vagabonding “the most sensible book of travel related advice ever written.”

I recently partnered with Rolf to release the exclusive audiobook for Vagabonding. For more on this incredible book, click here.

Follow Chris’ live updates from every country in the world on Twitter. Be sure to also check out his new book, The Art of Non-Conformity, for which he’s currently visiting 50 states and 10 provinces. And I thought I traveled a lot!

Afterword: Some additional comments from Chris in the comments:

@Matt, yes, you have to go in one rough direction (East–>West or vice versa). However, the rule is based on regions, not strict geography – so you can bounce around in any given region before moving on.

@Muir, in addition to RTW tickets I also do a lot of Frequent Flyer (award) tickets. So in my case, often I’ll travel on a RTW ticket for a while, then go home to Seattle/Portland for a few weeks on a different ticket. I then return to the last point in the RTW trip and keep going. I’ve also done this with two separate RTW tickets, but that can get complicated.

@Enzo, being based in the UK (or anywhere else) shouldn’t affect much with RTW planning. The process is similar no matter where you are.

@Boris, you’re right – HKG-JFK should be 15 hours. My fault.

QOD: What is the greatest travel deal (airfare, housing, recreation, or otherwise) that you ever chanced into or made happen?

Posted on: October 8, 2010.

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200 comments on “How to Buy a Round-the-World Plane Ticket (That Kicks Ass)

  1. Hi Tim first of all thank you for this very precise article
    it s exatly what i neede to see clearer.

    I m trying to organise a word tour ticket ( i live in australia, perth but i can start my travel in indonesia if cheaper ) but i cannot find anny wotch goes to mongolia and nepal do you know why ?
    thank you

    Like

  2. ps : best trvel deal
    that was in yangshuo ( in china near GUILIN)
    i could get 5 nigths in a 3 beds hotel room with heating and bathroom
    for 50 yuans (7 euros ) per nigth
    the hotel was clean pretty in the center of the town
    and its true it is called “no name guest house ” they have two building in the same strre one much better than the other
    always ask to see differnts room before to book it they can be same price same hotel but so differnt

    Like

  3. Chris,
    What is the advantage or disadvantage of purchasing an RTW ticket from a single airline that flies to many destinations?

    Regards,
    Mark

    Like

  4. Hey everyone!
    I just found this site. It’s April 2013, and i’ve been traveling for 5 yrs. I would love to do the RTW ticket now. I’m in thailand and i’ll be heading to toronto, israel, europe (anywhere is good, any suggestions of cheap places to travel?), russia, ukraine, and South America… any recommendations of some itineraries with these countries?

    thanks for this site btw,,,
    Doris

    Like

    • maybe it wouldn’t fit in your current itinerary, but Iran is a must-see and considering the recent nose dive of the national currency, everything is ridiculously cheap for you (not for Iranians though!)

      Like

  5. Hey Thank you for all the information you have made available ! I’m currently looking at the Star alliance book and fly map and it seems it is both by segments and mileage?
    Is that correct or is it just an issue with the program?

    because I still have over 10,000 miles left to use but still limited to 16 segments…

    Like

  6. Hi Tim, inspiring article, since my son is thinking of leaving on a RWT soon.
    I’ve started checking out fares, yet it seems to nme that all deals leave from the UK. Now we live in French Polynesia, and he’d like to start off from NZ, work there a couple of months then on to Australia Bali South Africa, Europe, South America. Tickets from Tahiti ti Europe are veeery expensive. How can I work that out? Thanks for any help or advise you can giveon that one. Bye Kika

    Like

  7. What do you think a rough estimate of the ammount of money you should bring with you after spending the money on the ticket? (for expenses, hotels, food whatever)

    Like

  8. I am hoping to utilize this information. We have already been researching to see if we have the means to do this trip. Thank you for taking the time to write out all this great advice.

    Like

  9. I know it’s been a few years since Tim published CG’s post on round the world plane tickets here, and thanks Tim – I’m glad to hear you’ve had a good experience with BootsnAll:
    http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2010/10/08/round-the-world-plane-ticket/#comment-84932

    As the years go by, I still see this post referenced on the site and around the web. Since this post was written – we at BootsnAll have released (Jan 2013) the 1st non-alliance, instant pricing and online booking tool for Around the World Tickets at http://indie.bootsnall.com

    If you go to our friends at Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak etc – you can’t book more than 5 stops. You can book on Alliance sites, but of course are limited to airlines, directions and rules.

    Hope this is helpful and if you are thinking of doing this sort of trip, DO IT! :) Best way to learn, stretch yourself, and figure out how you want to design your lifestyle! :)

    Like

  10. Hello,

    I came across your article when I was trying to find some insight online as to how to plan my trip. I am hoping you can help me in that…

    Me and my husband live in Germany and wish to visit Brazil and Peru in Dec/Jan. We can only take 3 weeks off and therefore we thought around 13 days in Brazil and 8 in Peru should be good.

    Do you know if there is a clever way to get cheap flights? Any multi-stop option on most websites suggest costs which are at least 2800 dollars… Is this reasonable? can it be cheaper somehow?

    Another question… if you had 3-weeks time, where would you go? knowing that I come from the middle east region (therefore not so keen on going there), and my husband from Germany (so Europe’s out of the question) and we have visited India already…

    Can’t thank you enough in advance, your help will be much appreciated!

    Like

    • According to http://www.kayak.com, a return flight from Frankfurt to Sao Paulo shouldn’t cost you more than $1300, and might cost only $900 through American Airlines. You can then book a separate return flight from Sao Paulo to Lima with LAN Peru, for around $500 to $600. And here’s one other option to check out – TAM connects Frankfurt with both Sao Paulo and Lima, so they might be able to arrange the whole thing for you at a good price. Call them on 0800 000 1165.

      Like

  11. I am travelling around the world using the Oneworld Explorer Pass. I have five stops planned in the Mediterranean, and can access all of them overland (train, bus, ferry, etc.). What I want to know is, will it make a difference in my Oneworld ticket price if I travel overland as opposed to flying from place to place in the Mediterranean. i.e. will my ticket be cheaper if I fly into Spain, take buses, trains, etc. to Sardinia, Italy, Croatia, etc. and fly out of Greece, as opposed to flying to all of these places?

    Like

  12. Chris,
    Good stuff, I’m sure a lot to learn…

    At 72, getting back to RTW tickets, third of three extended periods in my life. You may find amusing…

    #1. While working Passenger Service for PAN AM at HNL, late ’60’s. For my own travel, and passengers. Just prior to the intro of PANAMAC, PAN AM’s first online airport system, agents at the ‘counter’ we knew how to rewrite a RTW “on mileage” in under 30′ till boarding.
    A tip sometimes used: “Break the fare”. As you know, it is sometimes less expensive to buy two separate tickets rather than one straight through. A few points on the earth where this was possible (like PAGO PAGO, as I recall).. but I’ve forgotten.

    #2. Living in Western Australia late 90’s to early 2000, I found RTW’s the least expensive, most free way to visit the US or Europe. As I recall, I used to buy RTW’s for $1200-1500. Cheap huh.

    I’m glad to know One World and Star Alliance have trip calculation tools I hope they are as simple to use as the OAG and similar print IATA tools I used to use 45 years ago!

    Thanks!

    Bob

    Like

    • Bob, yes those were the days – my first RTW in 2000 took me from London to Australia via Asia and back through Hawaii and Alaska, and it was cheap! I don’t recall its exact price now, but I do remember that Austravel were offering flights then from London to Perth and back for just £299. Wow – you’d be lucky to get £799 these days…

      Like

  13. My destination is Myanmar. I am told to buy a separate ticket in BKK.
    So my destination is actually BKK. I need to visit Madrid on the way back.
    So I am thinking of EWR-SEA-Bkk-BKK-MAD-EWR. Is it cheaper
    to go to AM or elsewhere and do a seperate ticket in and out of
    MAD. MAD seems out of the loop. Thanks! george

    Like

    • Yes linking Myanmar and Madrid isn’t the easiest. But I see from this website that Thai Airways has a partnership with Virgin Atlantic and Continental Airlines:

      http://wikitravel.org/en/Round_the_world_flights

      So maybe give Thai Airways a call to see if they could give you a round-the-world ticket at a good price connecting the USA, UK, and Thailand, which would allow you to then bolt on cheap flights from London to Madrid and from Bangkok to Myanmar. Best of luck :-)

      Phil

      Like

  14. Tried both OneWorld and StarAlliance for next year’s trip and both were much pricier than when I put the flights together myself.
    Only downside, I won’t collect as many miles.
    Within Asia, airasia is super cheap, and my fave search engine is checkfelix.
    For YTO-VIE-SIN-DPS-OOL-HNK-YTO, OneWorld/Staralliance estimated between 3000-5000$, when looking each part up myself, the total was 2500$.

    Happy travels everyone!

    Like

    • Nice itinerary, with a nice price too! The official RTW tickets seem to be generally overpriced these days, so it’s better to DIY. I assume you’re stopping in HNL on the way home, rather than HNK? When you’re in Vienna, maybe take the opportunity to drive the 35 miles to Bratislava – another very different European capital city. Enjoy :-)

      Like

  15. Just a quick question – do you have to fly into and depart from the same city in a country that you land?

    Thanks so much for this post – really informative.

    Like

  16. I thought you can just purchase it online, after putting the itinerary and choosing flights. The price is given then and option to pay. So, it’s more complicated than that?:)

    Like

  17. Hey Tim, great post! Can you clarify what you mean in the 6th tip? Whats your recommendation if two people do a RTW together?

    “6. Most of the time, you won’t want to use Frequent Flyer miles for a Round-the-World trip. Instead, you can get better value by redeeming miles for two round-trip tickets between continents. You’ll then effectively have two RTWs for the price of one.”

    Like

  18. I’ve been looking into an RTW and know that the flights are based on roughly one direction, but you mention several times that you manage to come home for short breaks. How exactly do you pull this off? Very intrigued as that’s my only set back. Thanks for the insight!

    Like

    • @Matt, yes, you have to go in one rough direction (East–>West or vice versa). However, the rule is based on regions, not strict geography – so you can bounce around in any given region before moving on.

      Like

  19. Great blog and an interesting post. I had fun reading this article. Everything is explained in detailed. The section I found most interesting was “The Time Investment”. The part that explains the expense related to travel was also very useful. I think you tips can be really beneficial so thank you for sharing.

    Like