Updated September 30, 2012 with final comparison
There are several approaches you can take when buying an around the world ticket:
1) Buy an around the world tickets through a consolidator who buys in bulk and passes the savings on to you.
2) Purchase an RTW ticket through one of the three major airline alliances that offer it.
3) Buy tickets on your own as you go.
Naturally there are pluses and minuses to each of these choices.
1) Ticket consolidators – Companies such as Airtreks are quite popular. Their web site is also great fun for the budding RTW traveler. Use the handy world map to input the cities you want to visit and the site spits out a price range. If you give them your contact information they will work up a more detailed quote. Depending on your itinerary the prices can be comparable to an alliance round the world ticket.
With ticket consolidators you have to be careful with whom you are dealing. Do some research before selecting one. I clicked on a banner ad for a group out of New York that had a 2 for 1 promotion for tickets to Asia. They quoted me a price for Philadelphia to Beijing. I pointed out that the fare on the airline’s own web site was much cheaper for the same flight. After much clicking and clacking of the keyboard the operator came back on and, lo and behold, they could beat the airline’s price.
I asked if that was a 2 for 1 ticket like they advertised. Unfortunately, no. In order to get the 2 for 1 promotion I had to buy an unrestricted ticket that cost, you guessed it, twice the price of the regular ticket, thereby eliminating the supposed 2 for 1 savings.
2) RTW ticket – There are three airline alliances that offer Round-the-World (RTW) plane tickets. When you buy one of these tickets you are locked into the member airlines and their destinations. The last one isn’t usually as important since each airline group can pretty much get you most places that you want to go. These RTW tickets are limited by either flight segments or miles. The three groups are oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam. (Three different alliances, three different approaches to punctuation.)
While RTWs theoretically offer a better deal compared to purchasing individual tickets on your own, you are giving up a certain amount of freedom by doing so. For example, you must consistently travel either east or west around the globe with minimal backtracking and use the tickets within 12 months of the first flight.
The Star Alliance bases their RTW promotion on mileage levels. Unfortunately every trip we planned easily went over their mileage limit so we eliminated them early on. We also eliminated SkyTeam because they include some of the dodgier airlines like Aeroflot and Alitalia. In another development, SkyTeam just lost one of their major partners when Continental Airlines left due to its merger with United.
If we were to buy an RTW we would have gone with oneworld. This group includes some of the biggies: American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas along with eight others. If there’s someplace you want to go, oneworld will get you there. They allow up to 16 segments, priced at about $8,000 for Economy and $12,500 for Business Class. Considering the number of 10+ hour and overnight flights it takes to get around the world, the $4,500 upgrade for Business Class may be worth it for those who can swing it.
As is typical with these fares, the traveler flies in one direction but on oneworld this is not a rigid rule. For example, we planned on traveling from east to west starting in North America then proceeding to Asia, Australia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South America and back to North America. Those geography buffs out there (let’s face it, if you’re looking into buying one of these tickets you are one) will notice that the flight from Asia to Australia backtracks us back east a bit. Even though the overall trip was generally east to west that backtrack was allowed since we were going to a new continent.
After reviewing all the alternatives we were just about to buy two RTWs at oneworld, and not just because they have a really nifty trip planning screensaver that you can download. But we wanted to see China first, then go to Australia and return to the parts of Asia that we missed on the first go round.
We called the helpful people at the oneworld planning desk to see if this was permitted. It was not. At that point, since we had already touched Asia we couldn’t go back; unless it was for a 24 hour layover. Confused yet? While I had the ticket agent on the phone I wondered if they could also explain to me some more of life’s imponderables including the infield fly rule in baseball and the Electoral College.
The oneworld RTW allows up to 16 segments but due to technicalities in the rules you can usually get only about 14. They consider a move you make forward on the ground as one of your segments and count it against your ticket. For example, say you fly to Beijing and then take a train to Shanghai and fly on to Bangkok. The train ride that you paid for and took on your own counts as one of your legs because it moved you along around the world. That seems a bit cheesy.
Also, you have to map out your entire itinerary when you purchase the ticket. I don’t even know what socks I’m wearing tomorrow, I doubt I know what city I want to be in next April. You can change the destinations but naturally there is a cost for doing so, thereby diminishing the value of the ticket.
3) Pay as you go – While we liked the idea of a potentially cheaper ticket on one of the RTW packages, we eventually decided that the lack of freedom was not compelling enough to buy into it. Let’s face it, for most people an RTW trip is a once (or never) in a lifetime event. Why place restrictions on your travel? What if you meet some people along the way that suggest a place to try that you hadn’t considered or invite you to visit where they live?
We wanted to maintain maximum flexibility by deciding to travel where and when and on what airline we wanted to. It may cost us more along the way, or it may not. We now have the flexibility to take advantage of last-minute fare bargains or to travel on airlines that may be cheaper but are not part of the preselected group in whatever RTW alliance we would have selected.
We also don’t have to pay for the entire price of the ticket upfront. This is a huge consideration since this trip already has plenty of upfront costs. (Did I mention all the shots?) For all the seeming benefits of the RTW we may end up traveling even cheaper by buying tickets individually, we’ll see. We will provide updates here as the trip moves forward.
Update Jan. 1, 2012
After all the angst of whether or not to buy a round-the-world plane ticket we are definitely glad we didn’t. The flexibility we enjoy by buying tickets as we go outweighs any advantage of the RTW ticket. Right now we are bouncing around Southeast Asia and are able to find $80 plane tickets. This makes more destinations available to us than if we had gone with the RTW and locked in an itinerary.
In addition, our itinerary where we went to China first, then Australia/New Zealand, and bounced back to Asia would not be permitted by the rules of an RTW ticket. They wouldn’t allow backtracking to a continent. So for us flexibility rules.
Conclusion: September 30, 2012
We ended up spending $10,000 each for our plane and train tickets. While this was more than an $8,000 RTW ticket, we flew on over 30 flights, vs. 16 for the RTW. We also had maximum flexibility to pick destinations, carriers and dates throughout the trip. Overall, it made MUCH more sense for us to select Option 3 above, the pay as you go plan.