How to Buy A Cheap Round the World Ticket

Phileas Fogg did it in 80 days, but YOU could accomplish it anywhere from 10 days to nearly a full year. The around-the-world ticket, or RTW, is one of the most exotic products in air travel. Many people dream about it, but daily life can get in the way.

The truth is that RTW tickets can be cheaper to buy and easier to use than you might think.

The Rundown on RTW Tickets

Most RTWs are sold by the three major airline alliances (Star Alliance, Oneworld and SkyTeam) and follow the same rules:

  • You’re buying 16 segments (15 stopovers) good for up to 12 months.
  • Your trip must begin and end in the same country, and you must travel in either an easterly or westerly direction; up to five surface sectors can be included.
  • You may backtrack within a continent but only cross the Atlantic and Pacific once.
  • You’ll be charged for route changes, while date changes are usually free.
  • You’ll also be liable for taxes and fees (such as the notorious “fuel surcharge”).
  • If you buy your ticket from a major alliance, you can earn frequent flyer miles in the program of your choice.

How Much Do They Cost?

It varies greatly depending on how many miles you fly, how many continents you visit, and which airlines you take. A simple RTW with two or three stops can be purchased for as little as $1,500. Economy fares run from $2,500-$6,000, Premium Economy $3,500-7,500, Business $5,000-14,000 and First $8,000-20,000. If you’re considering Premium Economy, remember that not all airlines offer it. Also remember that very few carriers have international First Class anymore, so such a fare would probably be a waste of money—you’d be downgraded many times to Business.

Here’s a rundown on the major alliances:

Star Alliance: This is a great option, as it allows you to book on 27 member airlines. Tickets are sold for 29,000, 34,000 or 39,000 miles in Economy, Business or First with 15 stopovers (defined as 24 hours or more in one place). You must begin and end in the same country; five stopovers are permitted in the U.S., with a maximum of three in other countries. There’s a special 26,000 fare in Economy only, with a maximum of five stops.

Oneworld: Two types of tickets are offered. The Oneworld Explorer is sold in Economy, Business or First; the fare depends on the number of continents visited (3, 4, 5 or 6) with no mileage restrictions. A total of 16 segments are permitted, with a maximum of four on each continent; the ticket is good between 10 days and 12 months, and travel is valid on Oneworld carriers plus a few affiliated airlines.

Oneworld also sells a mileage-based ticket called Global Explorer. There are four levels: Tier 1 (26,000), Tier 2 (29,000), Tier 3 (34,000) and Tier 4 (39,000). Tier 3 is available in Economy, Business and First, while the other tiers are Economy only. Travel on a half-dozen additional affiliated carriers is permitted.

SkyTeam: RTW tickets are available in either Economy, Business or First in four mileage tiers: 26,000, 29,000, 33,000 or 38,000 miles. You’re permitted between 3-15 stopovers, and the tickets are valid between 10 days and 12 months on the 19 member carriers.

The alliance websites have booking tools where you can plug in your proposed itinerary and get a price quote.

If you’re focused on saving money, it’s also possible to cobble together your own custom RTW using long-haul, low-cost airlines such as Norwegian, Jetstar and Scoot as well as regional carriers such as Easyjet, Ryanair and Southwest. While this can be cheaper and allow you to dodge the restrictions on time and stopovers, you’ll also lose out on the opportunity to earn frequent flyer miles.

Free is better than cheap, and you can also book an RTW using miles:

  • ANA (All Nippon Airways, Star Alliance) uses a distance-based award chart rather than fixed redemptions, but also offers some very attractive fares (120,000 in Economy for up to 29,000 flight miles).
  • Aeromexico: Prices are hefty (244,000 kilometers or 151,614 miles in Economy), but they offer a lot of options as a SkyTeam member.
  • Aeroplan: The Canadian flag carrier allows RTW redemptions for 200,000 miles (Economy), 250,000 (Premium Economy), 300,000 (Business) and 400,000 (First); again, not a good option, as prices are high and you’re limited to five stopovers and one open jaw.
  • Cathay Pacific also uses a distance-based award chart, with some tempting choices in Economy (130,000 for up to 35,000 flight miles).
  • Korean Air sells an Economy RTW for 140,000 miles (220,000 in Business). Their SkyTeam membership gives you 18 airlines to choose from, but their miles are difficult to earn.
  • Redemptions on Lufthansa are steep: 180,000 miles for Economy and 325,000 in Business; you’re allowed 10 flight segments and seven stopovers.
  • Qantas uses the Oneworld Classic Flight Awards table, with an Economy RTW available for 140,000 miles (for up to 35,000 flight miles).
  • Singapore Airlines charges 180,000 miles in Economy and 240,000 in Business, for up to 35,000 flight miles; you’re allowed 16 segments and seven stopovers.

If you’re short on miles, look at the airline’s transfer partners. You can transfer points to Singapore from American Express, Chase, Citibank or Marriott Bonvoy, making the award more attainable. Korean Air, on the other hand, only accepts points from Marriott, which makes it a tough award to get.

Other Helpful Tips You Should Know

Booking an RTW isn’t easy: have the itinerary and all the information ready, and don’t count on the agent being well-informed. Is an RTW for you? Booking with one of the major alliances means locking yourself into a schedule; if you’re the free and easy type, make your flight arrangements as you go with budget airlines. Prices are sometimes dramatically lower if you begin your trip in Africa or Asia, even when factoring in the cost of airfare to get there. Finally, allow at least three or four weeks to do it right. If dealing with the airlines seems daunting, consider using an agency such as Air Treks, which will customize the lowest-cost option for you.