Flying: The Basic Options

Flights, at least intercontinental ones, are pretty essential when it comes to a round the world trip (unless you’ve got a ton of time and reeeaally like the open ocean). And yet, arranging them can get complicated in a hurry. This is only made worse by the fact that a “round the world” trip is by nature not a round trip, but a long series of one-way trips. As anyone used to flying knows, this is not conducive to being cheap. But fortunately, a number of budget consolidators, and even the airlines themselves, offer “round the world” tickets at reasonable rates.

These tickets generally have a lot of restrictions, but are also quite flexible, if that makes any sense. You have mileage limits, time limits, minimum stops, maximum stops, no backtracking, and surely more depending on the specific type, class or plan you choose. But you can also change dates quite easily, though changing destinations may cost you a tidy little fee. We’ve started sifting through some of these plans and looking for what makes the most sense for us. The major problem is that vague information is pretty easy to get, but specific information about actual fares and comparisons are very difficult.

Our first option is one that isn’t likely to be useful to too many people. We have managed to pile up a lot of frequent flier miles on Continental (the one “plus” of all those years in Houston … as if it can make up for the rest). They have an option where you can redeem your miles (a whole 140,000 of them) for one round the world ticket. But all is not rosy. As anyone who has tried redeeming miles for anything, it’s not as simple as it sounds. There’s all kinds of restrictions on available seats, and it gets exponentially more difficult when they have to coordinate with other airlines about this. Then throw in their further restrictions that all travel be completed within one year of issuing the ticket, meaning we would have to wait until almost immediately before leaving to even book our ticket. Also, the ticket itself is quite restricted, with a maximum of six destinations. So it’s our first option because it’s cheapest, but it’s pretty clearly not the easiest and/or best. We’ll update you about our experiences with the system as we go.

The cream of the crop as far as airline alliances go seems to be the round the world ticket from Star Alliance. United and US Airways the American carriers of Star Alliance. I’ve flown both of them and have never been a fan of either, but here’s why they’re good for RTW trips. You can venture to up to 15 cities, there are different tiers of mileage and class (and therefore price) to fit your trip, you can change dates at will (though changing cities will still cost you). As importantly, they have the largest network of flights, and are one of the few that has direct flights between Africa and South America, something we would prefer to do (though their coverage in South America is apparently weak). There’s still that little matter of cost, since they’re not the cheapest. We will be trying to get actual quotes for our trip and see how they compare. If only we had the foresight to get United miles instead of Continental, as these tickets are also available with miles, but alas, we do not have a spare 200,000 United miles.

Another good option we still need to consult is STA travel. If you can believe it, I’m still technically a student so this works for us. They’re very well known and very used to doing these kinds of tickets, and surely could sit down with us and hammer out something that would get us to all those places we want to go.

The remaining options delve into the network of consolidators. And as far as this is concerned, right now, your guess is as good as mine. I found a cool tool at Airtreks that lets you interactively pick your route, but I haven’t exactly been blown away by their rates. We may also consider not purchasing a traditional RTW ticket as we are doing fairly specific traveling. Especially with the rise of local low cost carriers, it may be worth simply purchasing tickets between our big destinations, say US to Bangkok, Bangkok to India, India to Africa, Africa to South America, and done. In between flights we could purchase on location.

As you can see, this not quite a sorted out part of our trip. But the point is the process. We’re here now, we’ll see where we are in a few weeks/months. Hopefully we’ll have these tickets before we leave.

8 Replies to “Flying: The Basic Options”

  1. Wow, it all sounds so complicated. I don’t know why, but for some reason I imagined you guys traveling east instead of west. Any specific reason for going west?

  2. Last time I was on a plane, I picked up the “airline’s magazine” from the seat-back pocket (Theresa, have you considered freelancing for these type of magazines?) and read a short piece about a man who purchased the Star Alliance RTW ticket and went around the world in 15 days (I think. It was something ridiculously short). Basically he had a couple of international business meetings and mixed some pleasure in between. It was nothing but praise from him, as he only missed one connecting flight and was easily able to switch a few dates (Apparently the international carriers of the Star Alliance are pretty good).

    It might not be the cheapest, but with all the ad libbing that may take place between major destinations, I think purchasing the flights between continents prior to leaving but getting the interim flights on location is the way to go. That way you have a framework of a schedule, but not everything is set in concrete.

  3. Hey, Gregory, we read that article too. I think it was in the United magazine for November. Kind of a weird trip…he didn’t seem to do much besides visit hotels…but the part about the actual flights was interesting.

    I’m thinking that just getting the big intercontinental legs might be the way to go. I don’t want to lock ourselves into too much.

    I have thought about trying to freelance for the inflight magazines, but I haven’t actually queried one yet. Supposedly, they’re pretty hard to break into, but I might as well give it a shot. I think if you do get in, they pay pretty well.

  4. Laura, we’ve mainly decided direction based on the time of year. We’re trying to avoid the highest part of the high seasons and lowest parts of the low season to get the best combination of price and availability of activities we’re interested in. I’d kind of always imagined us going the other way too, but it didn’t really work out that way. For instance, we really want to visit Patagonia, but that’s not viable except in the winter months in the U.S. So if we started in South America in July (our hopeful departure month), we wouldn’t be able to do that.

  5. Paulina – I did no such thing!
    Greg (and Theresa) – It was a very weird article, with no beginning, no middle and no conclusion, just a lot of odd anecdotes, and stories about how great hotel food is. But the flying part was good to read about, and it seemed like he didn’t have much trouble at all. You know, writing this out kinda made me realize that I’m more or less in the big legs camp. We’ll see how the costs end up comparing though, because one flight can be as much as a whole RTW ticket too.

  6. It’s unfortunate that Rice baseball used Continential instead of United. True shame. [actually, didn’t those miles expire?]

    Jeff, your comments on what the article lacked made me laugh. Expecting good writing/journalism from a magazine you pull out of the pocket on the airplane seat in front of you is like expecting to buy something classy at Value City.

    Oh wait, Theresa got me at Value City. I take back my previous comment. It’s only a matter of time before United magazine receives that Pulitzer. Trust me.

  7. so, my friend marissa just told me about us airways e-saver. she bought a round trip ticket to germany for $150. you have to go quickly after you purchase the ticket because it’s last minute deals… but that’s an amazing price. maybe you all can keep an eye on that as the date nears & buy as you go. i’m not a fan of them- i only enjoy flying southwest, but i can overlook my pickyness occasionally.

    it’ll definitely make coming to visit you a lot easier if a city/date lines up perfectly with your trip 🙂

    would that make up for “not really” visiting you guys yet?? (which we plan to do this spring, anyways.)

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