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Finding Cheap Round-the-World Airfares

Seniors on the Go
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 2, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, booking strategy, Continental, Delta, Ed Perkins, Seniors on the Go, senior travel, United, US Airways.

A senior reader who had read about "cheap round-the-world airfares" asked me how to find a series of cheap one-way tickets for a one-month round-the-world (RTW) trip. On each route, the reader found that one-way segments cost almost as much as round-trips. And the reader was uninterested in any packages—just the airfares, please. Fortunately, this reader has several options.

Several travel agencies specialize in creating custom RTW itineraries. Among them: Air Brokers International (800-883-3273), Airtreks (877-247-8735), Join Us Travel (888-741-7300), and World Travellers' Club (800-693-0411); all based in San Francisco. They build RTW itineraries to order, one segment at a time, by assembling a series of discounted tickets including some they buy offshore.

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Prices for sample minimal RTW itineraries start as low as $1,500 or so, but the cheapest generally include only a few stops. Also, most of those bottom-price options depart the United States from the West Coast and return to the East Coast, or vice versa, leaving you to get your own tickets between your home city and those gateways. More complete itineraries, including origin and return at the same U.S. cities, start a bit over $2,000, and even those may include a few short gaps. But $2,500 will buy you a really nice itinerary, even including Africa or South America. Be aware, however, that these tickets are generally pretty inflexible: limited schedule choices, draconian cancellation or change penalties, and such.

For a firm quote, send an email or call with the trip you have in mind and the agency will provide a quick response. Of the four, only Airtreks provides an online trip builder.

If you want a more flexible ticket, all three big multinational airline alliances sell one-price RTW tickets that allow lots of itinerary options within reasonable overall limits. They typically allow up to 15 stops during the course of a year—usually no more than one or two stops in any one city. You must generally keep going either east or west, but with fairly liberal backtracking within each region to make connections; you can cross the Atlantic and the Pacific only once each. Tickets are based on either total mileage or number of continents you visit; mileage-based tickets are more flexible.

Currently, a RTW ticket in economy class on Star Alliance (United, Continental, US Airways, and more than a dozen foreign partners) is a bit less than $4,000, including most taxes, for a 26,000-mile trip. The Star Alliance has a convenient online trip planning and pricing engine on its website. A three-continent RTW ticket on the OneWorld alliance (American plus partners) is $3,900; a 29,000-mile ticket is $4,500; fares are shown at One World. SkyTeam (Delta plus partners) does not have an online fare calculator, but prices should be comparable. For many travelers, however, these alliance prices are pretty stiff, and the independent agencies offer better deals.

I've done a few RTW trips over the last several decades and have developed some basic guidelines:

  • Allow enough time—three weeks at a bare minimum, better four weeks or more. Any less and your entire experience will consist mainly of continuous jet lag.
  • Even if you seldom splurge on anything, consider doing RTW in business class. On the alliances, the cost is about double the economy rate, but it avoids spending the equivalent of almost three full days confined to a sardine-can economy cabin.
  • 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 at all.
  • 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.

Obviously, RTW is out of reach for many of you because of both the time and the cost involved. But if you can swing it, RTW could be the trip of a lifetime.

Have you ever taken an around the world trip? How did you do it? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

 
 
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