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Flexible flight options for spontaneous travelers

Most low-fare air tickets tie you into a fixed itinerary as soon as you buy them, usually weeks to months before you actually start your trip. Although many travelers can accept that rigidity, some prefer to be a bit more spontaneous. A few recent inquiries highlight the issue:

  • “Is it possible to purchase an international airline ticket with a flexible return date, instead of being tied to specific return date?”
  • “What do travelers who would like to leisurely wander/travel around the world do?”

Fortunately, travelers seeking flexibility do have some options.

Open return or one-way

The answer to the first question is, “generally, no,” at least as far as low-cost tickets are concerned. The lowest published international airfares almost always require a fixed round-trip itinerary, generally with no more than 30 days at the destination.

As an alternative, you could buy a one-way ticket to your destination and another one-way back when you’re ready to return. On most legacy lines, however, one-way tickets are considerably more expensive than half the cheapest round-trip tickets. In fact, one-way tickets are often more expensive than round-trips. So far, the major exception to that pattern is on Aer Lingus, which sells relatively cheap one-way tickets between the U.S. and Ireland. So if you’re headed to Europe, you could buy one-way tickets and use Ireland as a gateway.

Some discount agencies offer low-cost one-way international tickets. They’re usually more than half the discounted round-trip cost, but often much lower than the big airlines’ published one-way fares.

If you’re heading to Europe, and you’re really flexible, consider Airhitch, which arranges one-way travel from the U.S. to Europe and back. Its “hitch” program is something like standby, over a period of several days, so it works best if you live in one of the major U.S. gateway cities with lots of service to Europe. Current one-way costs to Europe range from $165 (East Coast) to $232 (West Coast) plus fees and the usual taxes.

Destination roaming

Even if you have to lock in your intercontinental travel, you can arrange for free-form travel once you get to your destination. Visitor tickets (often erroneously labeled “air passes”) allow you to arrange set-price flights within most of the world’s important destination regions.

Some of the more flexible overall programs are operated by the three major worldwide alliances: Oneworld (eight lines including American, British, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas), SkyTeam (nine lines including Continental, Delta, Northwest, and Air France), and Star Alliance (16 lines including United, US Airways, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, and Singapore).

  • Star Alliance offers the most regional visitor tickets, covering Asia, Brazil, Europe, Japan, South Pacific, and Thailand
  • Oneworld tickets cover Europe and South America
  • SkyTeam tickets cover just Europe

The basic ground rules are the same for all: Buy a set number of coupons and complete travel within a set time period; specifics vary by pass. Stop over at any one city only once, but connect through the same hub city more than once. Set your complete itinerary in advance, but reserve only the first flight—other legs of your trip can remain “open” until you’re ready to set dates. The Star Alliance Europe pass, for example, provides three to 10 coupons, starting at $65 per flight; take up to three months to use your coupons.

Most regional visitor tickets are available only in economy class. And you must use an alliance member to fly from the U.S. to the destination area. For more information, visit Oneworld, SkyTeam, Star Alliance, or the website or reservation office of any member airline.

Europe by Air is an even more flexible visitor ticket, with flights on 24 participating airlines, mostly small. Pay a flat $99 per nonstop flight (plus taxes and fees), regardless of length, for flying over a period up to 120 days, and the entire itinerary can be “open.” For more information visit Europe by Air’s website.

Dozens of similar visitor tickets are available for other regions and individual countries. Unfortunately, many of those otherwise excellent deals require that you book all flights in advance, with a hefty charge to change the dates of a flight. Among them are the Aussie Air Pass from Qantas or All-Asia Pass from Cathay Pacific.


Round-the-world (RTW) is the ultimate trip for travelers who really want to roam at their leisure. All three major alliances offer RTW tickets. And unlike the regional passes, RTW tickets are available in business and first class as well as economy.

The ground rules for all three are similar: Travel generally either eastbound or westbound, cross both the Atlantic and Pacific, but only once each; stop off at any one city only once but connect through major hubs as required. Limited backtracking is allowed. Stay 10 days to a year. Set an itinerary in advance, book the first intercontinental flight in advance, but open tickets or no-charge date changes are OK on the remainder of the trip.

Prices are stiff. Currently, the base 29,000-mile RTW ticket on Star Alliance costs $3,800 in economy, $7,400 in business class; rates on the other alliances are similar. While the base rate provides for lots of travel, you can go up to 39,000 miles (or six continents) at extra cost.

A few airline partnerships offer lower-priced RTW tickets. However, the available routes are much more limited than those available through the three big alliances. Also, the big alliances (and the discount agencies) also sell similar Circle Pacific tickets, with pricing and rules similar to RTW. You can build your own RTW or Circle Pacific in economy class for less than the alliances’ economy RTW fares.

Several agencies specialize in those deals, including Air Brokers International, AirTreks, and World Travellers’ Club. Sample fare listings on those sites show basic RTW itineraries starting at around $1,200, with fairly extensive options available for under $2,000 and more complex trips for under $3,000. You book the whole itinerary in advance, but Air Brokers says you can change dates (but not routings) on most legs other than your first intercontinental flight. If you change, however, you might have to travel standby. As far as I can tell, these discount agencies don’t do as well with business class, although they can provide some discounted tickets.

All in all, if you really want an extended free-form trip, you can’t beat RTW. As long as you can determine your stops in advance, you can stay as long as you want at each point along the way. I’ve done a few RTW trips, and I have a few recommendations:

  • When you lay out your route, include all the stops you might possibly want to make. If you decide later to skip a stop, you can simply make connections or even overfly the dropped point at no extra charge. But you pay a fortune to add stops.
  • If you hate sitting up all night on a plane as much as I do, travel westbound. You can develop some RTW itineraries without any red-eye flights at all.
  • If you want to “save money” on hotel bills, travel eastbound, where many itineraries give you three overnight flights.
  • If ever there was a time for upgrading to business class, RTW is that time. Although the price premium is stiff, it’s nowhere near as high as you pay on ordinary round-trip tickets.

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