Sometimes it’s best just to keep on going.
Round the world (RTW) airline tickets can be useful and economic solutions to complicated or extensive travel, but they aren’t especially well known outside a relatively small group of flyers. Here’s a “primer” on RTW tickets.
RTWs and smaller circles.
Each of the big three airline alliances (Star Alliance, Oneworld and Skyteam) offer various RTW or related ticket products. In addition, a few airlines have partnerships outside their own alliances (or in some cases with non-alliance airlines) which offer RTWs. And, a number of specialty travel agencies have also put together RTW booking vehicles.
A round-the-world ticket requires you to travel eastbound or westbound around the world, crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the same direction. The alliances all also sell more limited “circle” tickets, such as “Circle Pacific” which allows travelers to include the Americas, Asia and Australia/New Zealand in one ticket, requiring one direction be via the North Pacific and the other via the South Pacific, either clockwise or counter/anti-clockwise. There are other similar “circle” products such as Circle Asia, Circle Atlantic, or a “Circle Explorer” which covers Europe, Asia, Australia/NZ and Africa, with neither the Pacific nor the Atlantic crossed.
All of these products offer multiple stopovers en route, and most are valid for several months to a year. Generally you need to begin and end the trip in the same country, but not necessarily in the same city. Subject to the limitations of the tickets (and there are many rules) you generally can zigzag and backtrack within continents or regions, but not return to a particular region once you’ve left it.
RTW tickets are sold by member airlines within the alliances, and the tickets limit you as to which airlines you can use through the course of the trip. As a rule, you must use an alliance’s member airlines exclusively (including some of their subsidiaries or regional carriers) although a few allow you to use non-alliance members, or even competing alliance members in a few rare circumstances.
RTW and Circle tickets limit you to a maximum of 16 flights included in the ticket (a limitation imposed by e-ticketing software) and as mentioned, have no more (sometimes less) than a year’s validity.
With one exception (below) all RTW tickets are sold based on maximum mileages that can be flown without moving up to the next price “tier.” Typical “tiers” include 26,000, 29,000, 34,000 and 39,000 flown miles. Tickets can be purchased in economy, business or first classes, and provisions exist where economy-class RTW tickets can be “upgraded” to allow use of premium economy services on a per-flight surcharge basis. Obviously, the more miles you fly, the higher the price.
The exception is the Oneworld Explorer RTW product sold by member airlines in that alliance. The Oneworld Explorer is not sold on the basis of maximum mileage, but instead on the basis of how many continents the traveler touches in the course of the trip, from three (Europe, North America, Asia) up to six. For the purposes of RTWs, the airlines have defined “continents” a little differently than the norm – “North America” includes the Caribbean and Central America, “Europe” generally includes the Middle East and Mediterranean Africa, and Australia/New Zealand are grouped (along with South Pacific islands) into the “Southwest Pacific” “continent.”
A unique and very important feature of RTW tickets is that the pricing is extremely variable, depending on where you begin (and therefore end) the trip. The difference can be as great as 100% or more; for example as of this writing (April 2014) a business-class Oneworld Explorer covering four continents bought and begun in the USA will have a base price (before taxes and fees) of US$10,799. The same ticket, with the same flights but in a slightly different order, bought and begun in South Africa is US$5,606; in Egypt US$6,303, in Japan US$7662, and in Australia US$11,307. Similar differences can be seen in other classes of service (economy, first class), and from one alliance to the next. Often it’s cheaper to fly somewhere separately from the RTW just to “capture” a low “origin” price – for example from “high priced” western Europe to a lower-priced Middle East origin point, like Egypt or Israel, with the savings on the RTW ticket more than offsetting the “access” cost.
Due to legal considerations, no one-stop source exists where one can see a comprehensive listing of RTW fares for side-by-side comparison. Look at the “Resources” section below for help in locating fares by product by country.
RTW tickets limit the number of stopovers, usually 15, but in some lower-mileage products (the 26,000 miles ones) stopovers can be more limited. A “stopover” generally means more than 24 hours in one location. A stopover can be for a day or eleven months. You can “stop over” at home on a ticket you bought in some “cheaper” foreign country, go back to work or school, and then continue the trip six months later, in essence leveraging two or even three trips out of one ticket’s investment.
Here are some examples of how alliance RTW tickets might look on a map. THESE ARE ONLY EXAMPLES; there are literally tens of thousands of alternatives in each scenario. (Japan is used as a starting point as prices ex-Japan for all three alliances are on the lower end of the scale worldwide – as of the time of this writing.)
Star Alliance 29,000 mile RTW - http://tinyurl.com/Star29K
Skyteam 34,000 mile RTW - http://tinyurl.com/Sky34
Oneworld 4-contintent Oneworld Explorer - http://tinyurl.com/OWxONE4
Changes and flexibility
RTW tickets must have all segments booked prior to issue; however all make provision for changes or alterations during the life of the ticket. Generally, date changes are free, provided the same airline is being used for the same city pair. Itinerary changes – adding or deleting stops, changing the route, etc. – require that the ticket be “re-issued” for a fee, typically US$125 or its equivalent, and any taxes or fees that change because of the new route be added or subtracted. If the change adds enough miles (or another continent) to the trip that a new tier is breached, then the higher base fare also applies. In addition, some airlines add their own “service” fees for re-issues, usually in the US$50-100 range. You can make any number of itinerary changes at one time for the single $125 fee.
Baggage allowances are included with RTW tickets, generally using a “piece” formula – typically two pieces up to 44kg are allowed, with higher limits for business and first class. This can be a distinct advantage when compared to member airlines’ baggage fees on non-RTW flights.
All RTW tickets earn frequent flyer miles/points according to the ground rules established by the frequent flyer scheme used. RTW tickets book into specific fare categories (L, D, A etc.) so one needs to be familiar with the earning scale published by the given program for the given fare “bucket” on the given airline. (For example, an “L” class economy ticket will earn fewer American Airlines AAdvantage miles on a Cathay Pacific flight than on an American Airlines or British Airways flight.)
Alternatives, advantages and disadvantages
Some RTW trips can be undertaken more cheaply by using point-to-point tickets, which obviously offer greater flexibility than any other approach. Some travel agencies will help travelers put together such an itinerary for “gap years” or similar journeys. And, of course, RTW tickets require you to travel around the world. For simple itineraries, even “over-the-counter” business class trips can be much cheaper than a 16-flight ticket costing thousands more. It depends on what you want or need.
For most travelers, however, they can provide good to very good value. An economy-class RTW bought in western Europe (prices vary slightly between Euro-zone and non Euro countries) that costs, say, US$4000 after taxes means that – on average – you’re paying $250 per flight. This might be a lot to spend on a flight between, say, Frankfurt and Madrid, but between Frankfurt and Tokyo? Or Los Angeles to Auckland? The difference is even more striking in, say, business class, where a ticket costing, say, US$6500 starting in South Africa results in an average per-segment cost of around $400.
Of course there are disadvantages, too. The first, obviously, is cost. Compared to simple round trip or return flights, RTWs generally are quite pricey. Of course you’re paying for a ticket that allows up to 16 flights, so using it for just a few flights can well result in a per-flight cost that’s higher than other ticket types.
Another is inflexibility and limited choice. You have to fly on airlines the ticket allows you to use, and fly where they fly. And because there are many “city pairs” where no non-stop flights exist, usually a high percentage of the 16 flights are spent in indirect routes – flying from Phoenix to, say, Paris, will require at least two of the 16 flights, as will, say, Edinburgh to Moscow.
Finally, because the tickets use (typically) fare categories for which the airlines limit availability, sometimes you can’t fly on the route you want on the specific date you choose – you need to wait until there’s availability in the fare “bucket” you need. So some flexibility is needed on that front as well.
But even with these limitations, RTW tickets can – for many travelers – provide excellent value, and a means to explore the world difficult to undertake through other means.
As stated earlier, RTW tickets are subject to extensive and fairly complicated rules, particularly with respect to routing. It’s always best to do as much research as you can – distances and routes that can be flown, which airlines serve which routes, etc. – PRIOR to making a booking. These tickets are rarely sold through “normal” channels, so self-education is very valuable before purchasing them.
Two of the three major alliances (Star Alliance and Oneworld) have online booking facilities for the most popular of their RTW products.
Star Alliance has a very functional and efficient online booking system for its products; start at staralliance.com/en/… and go from there.
Oneworld only offers its most popular RTW product for online booking, the Oneworld Explorer - oneworld.com/flights/round-the-world-fares
In both cases you enter your proposed itinerary – complete with dates – and the tool will tell you if you’ve broken some rule or need to make corrections before proceeding to the pricing stage. Once you have a valid route, you’ll be shown the price, both the base price and a separate subtotal for taxes and fees applying to the ticket. If you’re satisfied with the result, you can pay online using a credit card, and your ticket will be issued by return email.
If you don’t like the final price, or are unwilling to proceed, you can save the itinerary and pricing, then return to it to make changes. Because of this “save” function you can use the online booking tools as very easy pricing and “what if” mechanisms, MUCH quicker and easier than doing so with a travel agent or telephone booking representative.
A. Through participating airlines
Theoretically any member airline in any alliance (or those who aren’t in alliances but which participate in RTW products) can book RTW tickets for you. In practice, however, the vast majority of airline reservation personnel will not know how to go about doing this, and many will simply refuse to try. Fortunately, this is not the case universally. Some airlines (American Airlines, Delta Airlines, some others) maintain “RTW Desks” staffed by specialists in this field, that can be consulted and – depending on the details – used for booking. Other airlines, such as British Airways, Air New Zealand and Qantas, also MAY have specialist personnel that can be reached for questions and bookings. If booking through an airline it’s always best to telephone and ask if there are specialist agents who can help with bookings, and be patient in case the person you speak to is learning right alongside you.
B. General sales agents
Some airlines maintain sales offices in countries which they don’t serve themselves. These services are usually provided by “general sales agents” or GSAs – companies that specialize in this field. On occasion, GSAs will be able to book and sell RTW tickets on behalf of the airlines they represent, and sometimes the GSA employees will become extremely proficient in doing so.
C. Travel agents
Travel agents’ knowledge of RTW and similar products is highly variable, with most having never heard of them. It’s also noteworthy that in some countries (particularly the USA) travel agencies do VERY LITTLE airline business because airlines stopped paying sales commissions on air tickets years ago. This is less the case with travel agencies in Europe, Asia and Australia/New Zealand, and in fact some travel agencies, such as Flight Centre, STA Travel, Trailfinders and some others, have knowledgeable personnel, many quite experienced in RTW bookings. In addition, there are several specialist agencies, such as Airtreks, that offer custom-designed RTW tickets, which may or may not use alliance products. Some may use so-called “consolidator” tickets which carry highly restrictive conditions or terms, such that making changes may subject the traveler to expensive fees or cancellation penalties. As with all air tickets, but particularly with tickets that may send you to very faraway places, it’s important to know your rights, what you’ve agreed to, and what happens in the case of troubles.
Each of the major airline alliances maintain websites where their various RTW and related products are explained, and in some cases on-line booking of RTW trips is possible.
The frequent flyer website Flyertalk maintains “global airline alliance” message boards that offer extensive information, FAQs and experience on the various schemes - flyertalk.com/forum/global-airline-alliances…
Here’s a useful tool to “measure” your RTW route to see if it fits within the mileage limitations of the product you choose - http://www.gcmap.com
A subscription service, Expert Flyer, allows you to see RTW and similar fares, along with their rules, on a country-by-country basis. Note however that taxes and fees are NOT included in these base fares; these can easily add 10% - 20% or more to the final cost. http://expertflyer.com