Round the world (RTW) tickets can be a convenient way to fly around the world. They get you where you want to go without you having to worry about booking flights along the way as you pre-book all your tickets in advance! Simple and convenient! Moreover, by purchasing them in one giant bulk package, you can save yourself money on the total price of the ticket.
While round the world tickets are frequently advocated by many travel writers, they are not always the best option for travelers, even if you are going around the world. These tickets come with many rules and conditions that might not work for you. I like them in certain situations. In this article, I’ll explain how they work and when I think you should buy them. After ten years of travel and close to 500 flights, I’ve experienced a lot of situations when these tickets were good and when they weren’t.
How Do Round the World Tickets Work?
RTW tickets are actually airline alliance passes. You buy a ticket from one airline that can be used with them and their partners. An airline alliance is a partnership in which airlines share seats on planes, passengers, and elite status benefits. For example, if you book with United Airlines (Star Alliance), your ticket is only good for airlines United partners with in that alliance. If you book with American Airlines (Oneworld), you can only use their partners. Since American Airlines can’t fly everywhere in the world and you may need to get from New York City to Nairobi, Kenya, a destination American doesn’t serve. So while you may book with American Airlines for that route, you will actually fly one of its airline partners on the portions American doesn’t fly.
It’s important to remember that none of these alliances include the world’s budget airlines such as Ryanair (Europe), Southwest (US), Air Asia (Asia), or Tiger (Asia/Australia). These usually offers fewer amenities (think cattle car) and cheaper fares than the “major” airlines of the world (i.e. large, international carriers that are part of an alliance) so using them often works out cheaper than any other way to fly.
RTW tickets come with a number of terms and condition. Generally speaking, a ticket is valid for 1 year from the start date and requires you to end in the same country you start in. You don’t need to end in the same city but you need to end in the same country.
Each airline alliance has its own rules for how their round the world tickets work:
Star Alliance is based on how many miles you travel and they offer passes in 29,000, 34,000 or 39,000 miles increments. To put that in some context, 29,0000 miles will get you roughly 3 continents (outside of the United States), 34,000 miles will get you 4 continents, and 39,000 will get you 5 or 6 continents. The more miles you get, the more destinations you can see and vice versa. (There are also passes that are limited to geographic regions in the world.)
Each pass is allowed up to 15 stopovers (a stopover is considered 24 hours in one destination) and you can get the ticket in first, business, or economy class. There is also a special “Starlite” economy only fare for 26,000 miles, but this is limited to a maximum of 5 stops. The more miles you want on your ticket, the more places you can visit – but it also means the more money you will pay.
Star Alliance also requires passengers start and end in the same country, though not necessarily in the same city. You can also backtrack over continents but not over oceans. This means you could fly from Australia to New York and then New York to Los Angeles but couldn’t go from Los Angeles back to Australia. When you cross oceans, you would have to keep moving in your original direction. It should also be noted that backtracking, surface sectors (what they call the parts of your trip you take overland and not with an airplane), and transits/connections all count against the mileage total.
For example, if you fly from LA to London and then from Athens to Bangkok, the mileage from London to Athens is counted against your trip even though you might be doing it overland on a train or flying with a cheap budget airline like Ryanair.
Oneworld offers two different kinds of passes: one that is segment based and another that is mileage based. Global Explorer is Oneworld’s more conventional, mileage-based ticket. There are three levels – 26,000, 29,000 or 39,000 miles in economy class as well as a 34,000 in business and first class. Just like with the Star Alliance mileage-based RTWs, all miles are counted, including overland segments. This pass follows the same rules as above.
Oneworld’s other pass is much better and I like it the best. The OneWorld Explorer is based on the number of continents visited (from three to six) and has no maximum mileage limit and up to 16 segments can be included in your ticket. A flight segment counts as one flight so a ticket with 16 segments would have 16 flights. That includes any connections. If you want to go from London to Hong Kong but the ticket includes a stop in Dubai that counts as two segments. With the Oneworld Explorer, there are no overland penalties or mileage limits. You simply get 16 flights. Unlike other tickets, overland segments don’t count against you and there are no mileage requirements. One of the benefits of the segment system is that every segment is counted the same – whether 2 hours or 10 hours – so you can maximize long haul flights.
How much do they cost?
RTW tickets prices range between $2,700–$10,000 USD, depending on your mileage, route, and number of stops. A simple two- or three-stop RTW ticket might cost as little as $1,500 USD.
On all tickets, you can change the dates and times on their ticket at no extra charge so long as you don’t change the destinations. If you have a Tokyo to Los Angeles flight you want to change, you can change the date and time without a fee. However, if you decide to fly from Tokyo to San Francisco instead then you have to pay a fee of $125 USD.
While you can book these tickets directly with the airlines by calling the reservations line listed on their websites, sometimes you can find a better deal by booking through a third party such as Airtreks, STA Travel, or Flight Centre (OZ/NZ). Third party bookers don’t just deal with one alliance – they mix and match from all available airlines (excluding budget airlines) to find the lowest price, which saves you money. Moreover, you can fly anywhere and in any direction you want and the overland mileage doesn’t count against your flight because there is no mileage limit. In that sense, booking with a third party site is a much better option than booking directly with an alliance.
STA Travel great for students but for everyone else, I go with Airtreks. They are the experts and operate differently than the airline alliances. Instead of creating a round the world ticket, Airtreks pieces together individual airline tickets based on the lowest available fares they find. They are one of the few companies I would trust planning my flights (and I don’t trust many!).
If you want an around the world ticket, use the banner below to book and save money on your flights:
Are RTW tickets worth buying?
The short answer – it depends. RTW tickets are great for people with a set schedule. If you know your travel dates and destinations and don’t plan on changing your trip very much, a RTW ticket will save you a lot of time and a bit of money. RTW tickets cost a lot, but if you pick one of the popular travel routes, you will find that you will save money in the end. A typical RTW route is from NYC-London-Bangkok-Singapore-Sydney-LA-NYC. Buying a ticket on a route like this will most likely cost less than if you were to book all your flights separately.
If you treat the ticket as an airpass in which you are happy to fly on a rigid schedule, follow the airline rules, and not change your dates, a round the world ticket will probably save you up to 30% off the price of point to point tickets.
But it is also important to note that these tickets come with a lot of rules and stipulations. These tickets aren’t really meant to be changed, and if you decide you want to stay in places longer or change your route, you are going to pay a lot of money in fees. Moreover, RTW ticket seats are only allocated in a limited number, so if you do change your seats, you may find yourself traveling sooner or later than you had hoped due to availability.
They can save money and time for travelers, and they are especially good if you know exactly where you are going and don’t plan on changing your plans. If you are already a frequent flier and are looking to gain perks, then a RTW ticket is a great way to pad your rewards program and upgrade you to elite status, as all those flight miles add up. A RTW ticket will give you enough miles to get at least one free flight.
But one thing to remember is that when you travel, nothing ever happens as you plan it. Something always changes. The longer you travel, the more your plans change. You may stay longer in some places and spend less time in others. Maybe you really liked France and decide to stay in Europe longer. Or maybe you hate Asia and want to move on to your next destination sooner. Round-the-world trips are all about going with the flow. If you are tied to a RTW ticket, it can be expensive to change your flights. You lose flexibility. And that is the downside to RTW tickets. You can change dates, but at a cost.
In the end, though, there is no definitive answer as to whether or not you should buy one of these tickets. It really depends a lot on your specific trip. A lot of people swear by round the world tickets and I believe that for the right trip, they can be perfect.
If you want to explore this option, call up Airtreks. They do a great job helping plan your itinerary, finding cheap flights, and walking you through the process. Their tickets also come with less rules and restrictions. I recommend Airtreks because I trust them with my trips and think you should trust them with yours too! (Plus it’s cheaper than booking directly with an airline!)
Still not sure what’s right for you? Keep reading on how to fly around the world cheap with these other must-read articles on my website: