However, we did spend time analyzing these tickets versus the alternative of simply buying our tickets individually. Airfare comprises a meaningful portion of our travel budget, so getting the best deal is important. We thought it would be useful to provide a short summary of what we learned during our investigation thus far.
How RTW fares work:
Each of the major global airline alliances – Star Alliance, One World, and Sky Team – offers a RTW ticket. If you purchase a RTW ticket, you can travel from place to place on one of the alliance’s member airlines, assuming the overall trip meets certain parameters. You must determine the locations and order of your trip at the time you purchase the ticket, but the dates and times of your flights can remain flexible. It is important, therefore, that the alliance has airlines that serve the parts of the world you want to visit. We quickly eliminated the Sky Team ticket from consideration, as it is by far the smallest alliance with the fewest number of partner airlines, and did not serve some of the areas we wanted to visit. This left the Star Alliance and One World tickets.
Both alliances' RTW tickets work similarly:
- Both require you to choose the number of continents you’d like to visit
- Based on the number of continents selected, you are allotted a maximum number of flight segments
- You cannot change the direction of travel during your trip, or cross the same ocean more than once
- The Star Alliance and One World tickets are priced comparably based on the number of continents chosen
Star Alliance imposes one additional restriction: it limits the maximum aggregate number of miles you are allowed to fly during your journey. The number of miles you are allowed is based on the number of continents you’ve chosen. After playing around with their online planning tool, it became clear that they came up with this mileage cap based on an efficient routing of flights around the world. For us, this created a bit of a challenge, because we planned our trip based on the best times to visit each region of the world (for example, we did not want to be in Asia during monsoon season, or in Australia during the middle of winter). This meant that the path we wanted to follow was not the most efficient from a mileage perspective. For the Star Alliance ticket, there was no way for us to get all of our major flights into the round-the-world fare in the order we wanted, while meeting their mileage cap, which meant we’d still be buying additional long-haul flights, adding meaningfully to the cost. We therefore eliminated the Star Alliance ticket as well.
The One World ticket did not have this mileage restriction, so this is the one we ended up seriously considering. Of course, as with everything, there are trade-offs. While the One World ticket did not contain a mileage cap, the alliance does have fewer partner airlines than Star Alliance. The good news is that these airlines are major global players like American, British Air, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, etc, and served all of the places we wanted to go.
We priced out the RTW fare on One World via their online planning tool, using our expected six continents. Given our choice of six continents, One World permitted us a maximum number of flight segments (I believe it was 16). After designing our journey online, it turned out that we could get all of our major flights into the RTW fare using the allotted segments, but we’d still need to buy some local flights in certain places (such as within Peru, South Africa, Australia, China). We priced out these local flights and added them to the cost of the RTW fare.
Next, we priced out our RTW ticket's itinerary on an a la carte basis, using comparison sites like Kayak and Hipmunk. It was amazing to learn that it was significantly less expensive to buy the tickets individually. In many cases, we found that we could also spend less time traveling. Since you are not limited to one alliance’s airlines, you are not forced to connect in one of their hub cities.
We budgeted out our full trip using both methodologies. We found that buying RTW tickets would have cost more than twice as much as buying tickets a la carte. Of course, by not buying the RTW ticket upfront, we are running the risk that flights will increase in price by the time we ultimately purchase them. However, we still have a huge savings cushion to work with vs the RTW fare.
So, how is our decision playing out so far?
To date, we've booked all of our airline tickets through Australia. While a few fares have in fact increased in price since our original analysis, we are actually under budget versus what we originally calculated in our a la carte analysis. This is, in part, because we’ve discovered a few additional benefits of buying the tickets a la carte:
1. You can use frequent flier miles you earn during early segments of the trip toward flights later on. For example, we had a few long flights early-on with One World airlines that gave us enough additional AAdvantage miles for free flights to Australia, an otherwise fairly expensive ticket.
2. If you are somewhat flexible on times, you can use sites like Priceline or Vayama to get even cheaper tickets. For our flight to Africa, we bought a ticket with a “Mystery Carrier” on Vayama for about half the cost of the lowest advertised price. You are given the dates and time ‘windows’ during which the flight will take place, but you don’t know the specific details until after you’ve agreed to purchase the flight. The mystery flight turned out to be a British Airways trip connecting in London, which we got for a fraction of the advertised price.
3. There are lots of great low-fare airlines popping up all over the world. A couple we’ve used are Star Peru (in Peru) and Mango Air (in South Africa). There are also a number of new low cost airlines serving comprehensive routes throughout Asia. If you are a bit flexible on flight times, you can get some great fares with these guys.
4. The large airlines based in the Middle East are offering some great deals on intercontinental flights – sometimes as much as 50% of the price of the competition. Airlines like Emirates, Etihad and Qatar have published some very low fares on long-haul trips via connections in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Doha, respectively. These are actually fairly efficient connection points between Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. These airlines are not affiliated with any of the major alliances (though it sounds like Qatar is in the process of joining One World).
In conclusion, once we did the analysis, the RTW ticket did not make much sense for us. The main advantage of one of these fares is that much of your airfare cost is locked in before you go, which could provide additional peace of mind. However, in our case, the savings and flexibility afforded by not buying one of these was so significant that it was really the most logical choice. So far, it seems to have been the right decision, but we’ll provide a full analysis at the end of our trip.