Round-the-world (RTW) air trips seem to be primarily the province of young backpackers and seniors—not too many midlife folks can take the time required for a decent trip—but anyone can at least consider the "ultimate" air journey. And airlines and independent agencies have some options for you. A new report from BootsnAll, a "One-Stop Indie Travel Guide" for independent travelers, illustrates and compares several of the most important options.
Air New Zealand is the only line that can actually do a complete RTW circuit entirely on its own, but the only available itinerary is so limited that most of you wouldn't even consider it as real RTW. That line can fly you from Los Angeles to the Cook Islands to Auckland to Hong Kong to London and back to Los Angeles, or the reverse, but you can't stop anywhere else. The fare in economy class is $3,199.
All three big multinational alliances—Oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance—have established RTW fares that provide a great deal of flexibility. Typically, they allow up to 16 flight segments but with limited stops in your home country. You must stay 10 days minimum and return before a full year. The current prices generally depend on the total number of miles flown, with price breaks at 26,000 (economy only), 29,000, 34,000, and 39,000 miles. The 29,000-mile economy fare is a bit under $5,000, with about another $1,000 in taxes and fees. Oneworld also offers an optional program based on the number of continents you visit—three, four, or five. A three-continent trip starts at a bit under $4,000, plus taxes and fees. All three alliances sell RTW economy-, business-, and first-class tickets; business-class fares cost about double the economy rates. As far as I can tell, only Oneworld offers segment upgrades from economy to premium economy. You can also do RTW with frequent flyer miles. Just pay the taxes and fees.
All three alliances post online "RTW planner" engines that allow you to establish an itinerary and schedule flights. The Oneworld and Star Alliance websites allow you to price and buy tickets online, but SkyTeam only saves your itinerary and requires that you call a local line to price and buy.
RTW Specialist Agencies
A handful of U.S.-based online agencies specialize in RTW tickets, including Air Brokers International (800-883-3273), Airtreks (877-247-8735), Join Us Travel (888-741-7300), and World Travellers' Club, Inc. (800-693-0411). All are based in San Francisco. Student-travel specialist STA (800-781-4040) also does RTW. They build RTW itineraries to order, one segment at a time, by assembling a series of discounted point-to-point tickets, including some they buy offshore. Trip costs start under $2,000 for a simple trip. BootsnAll also found that a specialist agency could undercut the alliance prices substantially for simple trips. Alliance tickets are usually better for intermediate trips, and they are the only way to go for complex trips of more than 16 segments.
Do It Yourself
For the simplest RTW trips, BootsnAll found that your best bet is just to log onto Kayak (or some other aggregator or OTA) and search individual flight segments.
I've done a few RTW trips and have developed some basic guidelines:
- Allow enough time—three weeks at a bare minimum, better four weeks or more. Any less and your experience will consist mainly of continuous jet lag.
- If you hate sitting up all night in an economy seat, travel westbound—you can build complete RTW itineraries without any overnight red-eye flights.
- If you like to minimize hotel costs by using overnight flights for long hauls, travel eastbound—you can arrange three or four nights on planes (feh!)
- Even if you're frugal, consider doing RTW in business class—flying 25,000 miles confined to a sardine-can economy cabin can be daunting.
Get the Guide
Obviously, RTW is impractical for many of you because of the time and the cost involved. But if you can swing it, RTW could be the trip of a lifetime. If you're interested, be sure to download the BootsnAll guide.
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Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.