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Round the World Tickets, Demystified
How to find your way around the RTW ticket maze
Imagine this: you have a couple of months off, a full summer (if you're a teacher), or even a year (time for that leave of absence?)
You've always dreamed of visiting Rio de Janeiro, the Egyptian pyramids, and the rice terraces of Bali - not to mention doing some bungee jumping and hiking in New Zealand along the way. But you are on a budget!
Enter round the world tickets.
So many places, so little time!
If you're traveling for a specific length of time, you'll need a bit of structure in your travels because, after all, you will have to return home at some point.
For me, structure means having a good idea of where I'm going, and how I'm going to get there. If I travel to more than a single region or for longer than four or six weeks, I'll give some serious thought to round the world tickets (or RTW tickets for short).
An RTW ticket has several advantages:
- you'll see more of the world in less time
- you'll have fun - planning an itinerary is one of the best parts of travel
- you'll have fewer tickets to buy along the way, so less hassle
- you'll save money because it's often the cheapest way to cover long distances by air
- you'll have peace of mind, knowing you're - at least a bit - organized
Here's how round the world tickets work
These tickets are issued by airline networks - there are several of these groups listed below - who collaborate and share their routes so that you can travel onwards, in one direction, to hundreds of destinations over an entire year.
You could... start in London, hop over to Egypt, fly to Indonesia and relax in Bali, head straight for New Zealand's excitement and adventure, and eventually fly back to London, with a little stop in Vancouver or Los Angeles, perhaps.
These are the main rtw air tickets networks:
- One World Explorer - a good bet for Australia and South America (since Iberia is a member)
- Star Alliance - lots of coverage, though not for Australia
- World Discovery - if you're headed to Australia or New Zealand
- Great Escapades - the Africa and Asia enthusiast
- Skyteam Alliance - allows you to backtrack on the same continent
- Air New Zealand - it goes RTW without linking up with other airlines
- AirTreks - build your own route using any airline
You can also fly around a region rather than take a round the world trip, if you're short of time or keeping your travel tighter, like the Circle Pacific fares offered by both One World and Star Alliance, or specialist South America or Europe passes run by major airlines or alliances.
Most popular round the world tickets
There's no limit to RTW choices but some routes are more popular than others.
For a couple of thousand dollars (sometimes less) you can already travel around the world - for example from London to Hong Kong to Sydney to San Francisco to London. Add a few dollars and you're looking at London to Bangkok to Sydney to Jo'Burg to London.
At the other end of the spending scale, you can throw in such distant destinations as the South Pacific, or combine several regions by crossing Asia, Africa and Latin America.
It's hard to narrow down the world - but it can be done!
Can't decide or too confusing?
Most RTW networks offer sample itineraries. You can take them as they are, or amend them, but you won't be starting from scratch.
Some highly popular RTW ticket routes
- An all-time favorite: NY > London (for a bit of Europe) > Bangkok/Singapore/Hong Kong (Asia is a must) - Australia/New Zealand (perennial faves) > Fiji (for a more exotic touch) > LA > NY
- Europeans in Asia: If you're leaning more towards Asia and are leaving from Europe, you could try the following round the world tickets: London > Middle East (Turkey, for example) > Bangkok (use it as a base for Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and more) > Bali > Tokyo (sushi from the Source!) > Rio (yes, you can throw in a Latin American stop if you want) > London. Conversely, you could travel via the US. This works well if all your papers are in order and you have the latest electronic and biometric passports but if you don't benefit from a visa waiver, travel through the US (even if only in transit) is a hassle. An alternative is Canada - via Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal.
- Southern Hemisphere extravaganza: start in Madrid and head for Rio, Buenos Aires and Santiago, then out to Easter Island and over to Australia. Forge on to Southeast Asia (Bali, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur) then cross to South Africa before making your way back to Madrid.
- Or why not travel with a theme? For art, why not try Paris, Barcelona, Florence, Athens, with India and Burma thrown in! Or something more down to earth, like visiting cooking schools in Europe before moving on to sample the culinary customs of Beijing, Bangkok or Buenos Aires?
Here's how you can save money on RTW tickets
- Not all RTW travel are made equal so shop around. It may be cheaper for you to leave from a destination slightly further away from home. Different airline alliances may have different prices for the same routes.
- Don't backtrack. Keep traveling in one direction.
- Save your RTW tickets for the expensive legs of your journey and use low-cost airlines for short hops or backtracks.
- Choose the cheapest season and remember, high and low season aren't the same in every country.
- Try to choose flights that will credit you with frequent flyer miles. You may not be able to use them this time around, but you could save money on your next trip.
- Make sure your airline or network doesn't charge for date changes - or charges very little. It's hard to plan as far as a year ahead.
And my favorite...
Combine round the world tickets with surface travel to cut down costs!
By adding surface segments - also called overland travel - to your round the world tickets, you can spend some of your time (and money) on the ground.
Here are some popular overland trips that can help you save on flights. You can use the train on many of these legs and if there's no train, you can travel by bus.
- Nairobi to Kampala, Dar Es Salaam/Zanzibar or Johannesburg (I have done all of these and other than jaw-clenching fear at riding African buses at night, the trips were fine)
- Bali to Jakarta
- Mumbai to Kathmandu
- Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Bangkok (this is great fun on the overnight train)
- New York to Montreal, Chicago or Los Angeles
- Beijing to Ulan Bator, Shanghai, Hong Kong or Hanoi
- Beijing to Moscow (on the Trans-Siberian - I'm still waiting to do this)
- Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires or Santiago
- Paris to anywhere in Europe (I have taken every type of land transport here and it's all good)
- Los Angeles to Mexico City
- Sydney to Cairns...
Beware, though, that not all parts of the world can be reached overland.
Much as I wanted to, I couldn't get from Eritrea to Egypt because I'd have to cross Sudan and the border was shut because of war.
The same with Panama: there is no credible overland access to Colombia.
Nor can you travel overland from Thailand to India because Myanmar is in the way (although this is changing fast), or through Iraq or Afghanistan.
But these are exceptions and most major terrestrial routes are somehow accessible.
Planning checklist for RTW travel - the very basics
The why, hows and wheres
Getting ready to go
What to take with you
Once you're on the road
The entire Women on the Road website is geared to solving problems independent women might face before, during and after a trip so please click around to your heart's content.
A few final tips on buying round the world tickets
If you're convinced this is for you, keep these last points in mind before you buy.
- Make sure your tickets are flexible. We tend to overplan and you don't want to spend your entire trip rushing for a plane.
- Unless you want to spend your round the world travel in an airport, time your connections properly. Don't arrive at midnight with a connecting flight at noon the next day - and no transport into town for a night of rest.
- Check your arrival times too. You don't want to land in Johannesburg at 2am but if you do, make sure someone is picking you up.
- Leave enough time to see a country properly. It's not about quantity. Maxing out your 15 stops won't make you a wiser traveler.
- An airline ticket needs a date before it can be sold, so even if you're traveling ten months from now, a date will be inserted on your round the world tickets. You can usually change it once you're on the road but check with the airline alliance before you hand over your cash or you might be stuck with unrealistic dates.
- Check your travel schedule carefully. You may be arriving in a country on the eve of a World Cup or the Rio Carnival (forget finding accommodation) or during Ramadan or Easter (culturally fascinating but if you're sightseeing or shopping, many things may be closed).
Really want to splurge?
Plan your trip with round the world business class flights. I've promised myself I'll do this one day...
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