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Kampala, Uganda; Oct 17, 2004

cost: airline tickets

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There are three basic ways to do this:
1. book an around-the-world ticket
2. book individual segments
3. book a few flights and make the rest up as you go along

We chose #1 for two main reasons: cost, and we wanted to have things worked out at least somewhat before leaving on our journey. But let's look at #2 and #3 for a moment.

Lots of people swear by #2, but for the life of us (because of our specific itinerary), we couldn't get the price to be competitive with buying an around-the-world fare, even after dealing with companies that specialize in this sort of thing (by buying tickets from a variety of airlines in a variety of currencies). Depending on your itinerary, however, this could be a good option, so check it out if you're not going to be maximizing the value of an around-the-world fare.

And lots of other people swear by #3. This is great if you don't like to commit to where you're going next, when you're going, and/or by what mode of transport. If, for example, you're planning on exploring most of Europe by train and you're not sure of your schedule, it doesn't make sense to buy a mess of airline tickets beforehand.

Okay, on to our method. We chose #1; we bought an around-the-world ticket. This required a considerable amount of time upfront, both to choose an airline and then to book a specific itinerary.

Here are some important tips/facts about buying an around-the-world ticket:
- Every airline (or airline alliance) has different rules. For example, some airlines have a mileage limit and some have a number-of-flights (or segments) limit. Some also offer different prices depending on the number of continents (or regions) you're visiting. Some have limits on the number of flights that you can take in a given region. All of them (that we found, at least) have a one-year time limit and do not allow you to fly "backwards" after you've started (though the definition of "backwards" is different for different airlines). They also vary considerably in terms of making changes later (if they let you do it at all).
- Just like normal airline tickets, the price varies depending on where you buy the ticket. By this, we don't mean where you start, but rather where the ticket is purchased. Getting the price quotes for a variety of countries was tricky, but we finally found an agent who was willing to give them to us.
- You may be forced to buy additional tickets, for any number of reasons, including: a) your chosen airline (or alliance) doesn't fly to a particular destination; b) you've run out of segments; c) you've run out of time; and/or d) you want to fly "backwards." The trick, obviously, is to maximize the value you're getting out of your around-the-world fare and minimize the cost of these extra tickets.
- It can take a long time to book these tickets; they're complicated. Don't underestimate this.
So, with all that in mind, here's specifically what we did and why:
- We bought a six-continent ticket from American Airlines (part of the One World Alliance). We chose American for the following reasons: 1) cost; 2) they have a segment limit instead of a mileage limit, which worked out well for us because our expected mileage exceeded many of the limits imposed by other carriers; 3) they allow us to fly "backwards" in a given region (or continent) as long as we don't fly back to a previous region (i.e., we're basically flying east, but we can fly west within South America as long as we don't go back to North America); and 4) we're allowed to change our dates at no cost (provided there's still space available in the cheapo class of ticket) and we can change destinations along the way for $75 (meaning that we can change *any number* of places on our ticket for $75 as long as we make ALL the changes in a single transaction). We've changed the dates many times, and we've made a multiple-place-change once. This obviously makes this kind of ticket MUCH more flexible.
- We actually bought our ticket in England, through a friend. This saved us a considerable amount of money (over $2,000 USD for both of us), but it also meant that we had to start our ticket from England. This was actually good for us because 1) we bought cheap ($300) one-way tickets from San Francisco to London ticket on Virgin Atlantic; 2) it allowed us to follow good weather better, considering we were started our trip in October (this is another discussion entirely, but in a nutshell we were trying to maximize the number of places where we were getting good weather and not arriving in high-season); and 3) it allowed us to stop in the States briefly in the middle of our trip.
- One World has a 20 segment limit, and a limit of 4 stopovers in each region (continent). We're using all 20 segments, and maximizing our stopovers within several region (though obviously we can't always do this since it ends up exceeding the total segment limit).
- We buy extra tickets to supplement our around-the-world ticket (20 flights doesn't cover everything, sometimes we need more than 4 stopovers, and obviously, the end of our trip falls outside the one-year requirement). In all cases, however, these flights are cheap; we use the around-the-world fare to handle all our long flights, with the exception of our first and last (to/from Europe/home). The extra flights include:
1) flight from San Franciso to London (discussed above)
2) flights to Entebbe (Uganda) and Arusha (Tanzania) from Nairobi (Kenya) - these were cheap and booked through our safari company;
3) flights to Vietnam and Cambodia (since American and partners do not fly into Vietnam; the closest they could get us was Bangkok)
4) internal flights in Taiwan, Australia/New Zealand, and Brazil
5) cheap flights around Europe using a variety of discount airlines
6) flight home (after our one-year time limit)

It actually took us the better part of 3 weeks to book our around-the-world tickets (and this doesn't include our decision-time regarding where to go)! There was an annoyingly large amount of back and forth and endless hours on the phone with airlines searching through flights. Frankly, it was very frustrating, but in the end it was definitely worth it since it came out at an amazing average price of $185/segment.

The cost of our around-the-world ticket, converted to $US, was about $3,700 each. Considering that it can cost almost that much to get to Australia and back, this is quite a bargain. Most of the additional flights that we bought cost about $100 each, so that didn't add too much to the cost. All told, our total airfare cost is about $5,000 each. Ways that we could have made this cheaper include buying a ticket to less continents (3, 4, or 5 instead of 6) and/or using buses/trains to do more of our internal travel.

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© 2004-2012 susan & grace, all rights reserved

-- comments from readers --


Wow! I just followed the link on rtw tix that you posted on one of the gap year threads (on Lonely Planet). Thanks for putting all that info together -- I found it hugely helpful (and inspirational!)

--Courtney; Dec 18, 2005


Hello! First of all, I want to say thanks for posting your incredible trip online so that all of us can live it with you. We have been folowing you for several months! The site is fantastic as well.

I am writing you with hopes that you can help us with our airfare. I noticed that you said you booked your RTW in London, and had a friend help you. Can you please tell me what company you used in London? Also, what part did your friend play...did you have the tickets sent to them...did they actually book it for you? We have someone there that might be able to help us, but I want to tell them what my expectations are. Your help with this is SO appreciated, as currently our airfare is almost $10,000 each.

--Teresa L. (Canada); Sep 21, 2005

The company we booked through was none other than American Airlines. Our RTW ticket was bought through them directly. We had previously investigated booking through private companies, but the cost estimates we received were in the neighborhood of what your current airfare cost is. Ouch.

In order to make things least hassle for our friend, we did as much of the work as possible. So we dealt with American (at length) on the phone and set everything up. When it was all set, we simply told our friend what our reservation number was and he called and paid for the tickets (which were in our names) with his credit card (we had sent him some money in advance). It might have been possible to pay with our credit card, but we though it would go more smoothly using his since the tickets have to be sent to a U.K. address and he has a U.K. credit card. Then he mailed the tickets to us. Not the simplest procedure in the end, but it was worth it!

Thanks for your kind words about the site, and best of luck!

Grace & Susan; Sep 26, 2005