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The ultimate trip: Round-the-world travel, part one

Traveling around the world is about as much of a trip as you can take—at least until space tourism becomes common. It’s a very special and very small niche of the total travel marketplace. You need lots of time and lots of money. But if you have both, major airlines and a few discount agencies are happy to supply you with the round-the-world (RTW) tickets you’ll need.

Given that RTW trips generally start at around 25,000 miles, doing it in business class has quite a bit of appeal. But business class is notoriously expensive. That’s probably why a reader recently asked, “Does US Airways do cheaper business-class RTW tickets, and, if so, how much are they?” As far as I know, US Airways doesn’t undercut anyone. But you can find deals through discount agencies or by buying offshore. Here’s a brief rundown on RTW travel.

RTW basics

The idea of an RTW ticket is, well, to travel around the world. That means starting out from the U.S. and heading either eastbound, to Europe, then Asia, then back, or westbound, to Asia, then Europe. Most programs also provide for routings through South America, Africa, and Australasia, as long as you cross both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans once—and only once—on each ticket.

Although individual program rules vary, most of them require that, once started, you keep going in the same general direction. Most also limit the number of times you can stop off at any one city. However, some backtracking is allowed and you can pass through hub cities more than once to make connections where required by flight schedules.

Many of the programs that sell RTW also sell Circle Pacific tickets, covering circle-trip travel between the U.S. and Asia, Australasia, and South America. Rules and prices are similar to those for RTW.

All RTW tickets are available in economy and most are also available in business and first class. These days, however, many big lines have discontinued first class, and business class has become far more luxurious than the best first class was only a few years ago. For that reason, I cover only economy and business fares.

List-price RTW tickets

Several airline alliances and partnerships—plus one individual airline—sell individual tickets for RTW trips. For one fixed price, you can ticket yourself on a variety of itineraries and stop off frequently along the line.

Star Alliance currently includes Air Canada, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, British Midland, LOT, Lufthansa, SAS, Singapore, South African, Spanair, Swiss, TAP, Thai, United, US Airways, and Varig, plus regional affiliates, with a few others waiting in the wings. RTW pricing is based on total mileage; current rates in economy are $3,800 for 29,000 miles; $4,400 for 34,000 miles, and $5,150 for 39,000 miles. In business class, prices are $7,400, $8,450, and $9,950, respectively. On any of these tickets, you have to cross both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; you can stop over at up to 15 cities; backtracking is OK as long as you don’t stop over at any one city more than once; and you must travel at least 10 days but not more than one year. Backtracking is not allowed in the U.S. and Canada except to get to/from some hubs.

Oneworld currently includes American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, FinnAir, Iberia, Lan Chile, and Qantas, plus affiliates. Aer Lingus is dropping out, but Malev, Royal Jordanian, and Japan Airlines (JAL) will join soon. The alliance offers two RTW options:

  • Oneworld Explorer bases prices on the number of continents you visit. Prices in economy are $3,500 for three continents, $3,800 for four, $4,600 for five, and $5,000 for six. In business class, prices are $6,600, $7,400, $8300, and $9,500, respectively. Tickets allow no more than four segments within any continent.
  • Oneworld Global Explorer is a new program based on mileage, generally following the features of the Star Alliance program. In addition to the regular alliance members, this program currently includes Air Pacific, Austrian Airlines Gulf Air, JAL, Malev. It’s currently available in economy for four mileage brackets—26,000, 29,000, 34,000, and 39,000—but business class is limited to a 34,000-mile ticket.

SkyTeam consists of Aeromexico, Air France, Alitalia, Continental, CSA, Delta, KLM, Korean, and Northwest (Aeroflot is also a member but doesn’t participate in the RTW program). Its RTW program is mileage based; current prices in economy are $3,700 for 29,000 miles, $4,350 for 34,000 miles, and $4,990 for 39,000 miles. Prices in business class are $6,600, $7,750, and $8,910, respectively. Limitations are similar to those of the Star Alliance.

Several other, smaller partnerships offer RTW options: Discovery, comprising British Airways, Qantas, and some routes on Air Pacific and Cathay; Great Escalade, comprising Singapore, Virgin Atlantic, and Air New Zealand; and Four Corners, comprising Singapore, Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, and Air New Zealand. And Air New Zealand does RTW all by itself—currently, it’s the only line capable of one-line RTW. The downside to all of these is that routing options are far more restrictive than on one of the big alliances. On Air New Zealand, for example, your only available routing is Auckland-Los Angeles-London-Hong Kong-Auckland (or the reverse).

Typically, on any program, you have a year to travel, with a minimum of a week or 10 days. Some tickets establish a minimum number of stops or a maximum, or both. In most cases, you must book the first leg of your trip in advance. You must also specify your routing and stops at the time you buy your ticket, but you can leave all legs after the first as “open” and schedule the flights later. You can usually change flight dates with no charge or only a minor charge, but changing your routing can be expensive. Flights on official RTW tickets typically earn full frequent flyer mileage. One RTW trip is enough to bump you up to the first tier elite status in U.S.-based airlines’ frequent flyer programs.

Good deal or not?

Compared with regular round-trip rates, the airlines’ official RTW tickets are good deals in business class but not in economy. In fact, RTW tickets in business class can cost only slightly more than much shorter ordinary round-trips. On United, for example, the round-trip fare from San Francisco to London is $4,500, and the round-trip fare from New York to Tokyo is $5,000, while the 29,000-mile Star Alliance RTW is $7,400. And you’re unlikely to be able to buy individual one-way segments for much less than the asking prices. Even though it’s a good deal for business class, however, that 29,000-mile RTW ticket still costs a lot of money.

Economy is a different story. You can buy individual economy tickets for many RTW itineraries for significantly less than the $3,500-$3,800 the alliances ask for their minimum RTW options. Even in peak season, round-trips on the San Francisco/London and New York/Tokyo routes are only one-third to one-quarter of the RTW price.

Fortunately, you can do RTW without paying those high list prices. I’ll go into the available deals and discounts in Part 2.

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