13 Aug 2017

'Round the World Tickets

$8,000? Let’s do $3,000

When we first started thinking about this trip, we had a lot of fun playing with the Oneworld Explorer and Star Alliance Round-the-world Itinerary booking tools. After trying out both, and spending more than a couple long afternoons creating imaginary itineraries we were both hooked and expecting to spend ~$8,000 per person for a 16-segment RTW ticket from Star Alliance. Fast-forward five years later and we booked a 16-segment RTW ticket from Oneworld for only $3,000 per person, including taxes/fees.

What changed? We learned a lot about how to maximize value on these tickets and saved a ton of money we’d rather spend while actually traveling.

Deciding whether a RTW is right for you

Are you open-minded about where you end up traveling? If not, an RTW is probably not for you. We took it as an opportunity to fit in places we’d never otherwise go (Easter Island) and quick stopovers to see loved ones in places we’d otherwise skip (Beijing).

Are you willing to spend time getting the details right? From optimizing your route to checking prices for different departure points to explaining the nuances of the rules to clueless airline customer service agents, these tickets require real attention to detail and patience.

Are you able to abide by the routing restrictions? If you have to go back and forth across oceans or skip between continents, these tickets won’t be flexible enough for you.

A lot of other travel blogs discourage RTW tickets because they require choosing destinations in advance and so aren’t 100% flexible - but changes to routing come at only $125 per change (no matter how many changes you make at once) so you’re not truly locked in to any specific locations. And date changes are free!

Getting started

First, decide which major airline alliance you want to fly on. We chose the Oneworld product because its pricing is based on only two factors: departure country and number of continents visited. This results in a lot more flexibility than the other alliances, who charge based on mileage flown. The rest of this guide will focus on Oneworld.

Second, familiarize yourself with the rules. Read through Oneworld’s Rule 3015 (available at the very bottom of the Terms and Conditions section of this page if that link is broken) and you’ll already be armed with more knowledge than almost any airline employee you end up speaking with.

The rules are dense, occasionally contradict themselves, and generally are pretty confusing. They’ve been crafted to try to protect the airlines from anyone getting too good a deal, but there are still plenty of loopholes. Reading FlyerTalk’s Oneworld forum was invaluable while we were learning the intricacies of these tickets.

How to maximize your RTW

Departure Location

Where you depart from on the first flight on your RTW has the largest impact on its overall price, other than class (all prices mentioned here are for Economy travel). As of late 2017, you can buy a RTW ticket departing from anywhere in the world and receive pricing based on that country–all rules about having to purchase the ticket from an agent in that country have been erased.

The price difference of shifting where you depart from can easily exceed the cost of repositioning yourself with a one-way flight. For example, the base price (before the mandatory taxes) of an economy class ticket touching 5 continents (LONE5 in Oneworld parlance) is currently:

  • 5,699 USD departing from New York
  • 3,785 USD departing from Tokyo
  • 3,408 USD departing from Helsinki
  • 2,124 USD departing from Johannesburg

These fares aren’t published officially anywhere and do change, so you need to either spend quality time with the online booking tool trying different countries, keep a close watch on currency market fluctuations, get tips from FlyerTalk, or pay for a service like ExpertFlyer.

Maximizing Segments

Direct flights: Use Oneworld’s Interactive Network Map to search for direct flights, and spend the time to play with it enough to see how you can make your desired destinations fit together in an order that avoids any connecting flights. Routes on a single flight number that have a stop on the way still count as Direct flights even though they’re not Non-stop.

Re-use airports: Avoid any routings that require a change of airport between arrival and departure flights at a destination - that change counts as an additional surface segment.

Earn miles: If you’re flying in Economy, you won’t earn too many miles these days regardless, but if you’re in Business or First you should maximize the length of your route to earn as many miles as possible along the way.

Pay attention to taxes

On a route with so many flights, taxes really add up. For our route, they were a full third of the total price, and could have easily been more if we hadn’t been careful.

Airlines: Some airlines require that fuel surcharges or other mandatory fees be paid for segments flown on them. The booking tool won’t tell you which flight(s) are causing the surcharges to be added, so flip them back-and-forth to surface segments and keep re-pricing until you can figure out which to avoid on your route.

Airports/Cities/Countries: You’ll save some money by flying in/out of Madrid instead of London, for example, because of the difference in mandatory taxes/fees. If you have flexibility, try to seek out beneficial routings.

Booking your RTW

There are a number of ways to actually book a Oneworld RTW, though depending on your route you may have only a couple of real options. The major options are:

  1. Use the online booking tool: If this successfully lets you purchase a ticket it’s by far the easiest way to get your RTW. Unfortunately it is full of bugs that cause it to error out during the purchase process in a number of situations, including:
    1. Itineraries that start/end in different cities (permitted by the rules in some cases).
    2. Itineraries that begin on some specific airlines.
    3. Itineraries that have more than two surface segments.
  2. Book with AA’s RTW Desk: The only specialized support desk for RTW tickets (1-800-247-3247) is great if you’re eligible to use them - they’ll only sell tickets if they include an American Airlines flight between continents.
  3. Book with another airline: While theoretically any Oneworld airline can ticket any RTW, in reality they’re only willing to do it if you are flying them during your trip. Prepare to endure a frustrating experience of trying to walk a frontline customer service rep through your itinerary… most likely multiple times.
  4. Use a travel agent: If you have the cash to spare on their fee, this is by far the easiest route.

Want to learn more?

Check out our other posts about how we planned and booked our RTW:

  • Planning our route around the world [coming soon]
  • Buying our RTW plane tickets [coming soon]
  • Making changes to our RTW mid-trip [coming eventually, I’m sure]