Beginners Guide to Booking a Round The World Plane Ticket
For three months, from May through July 2015, I set off on the trip of a lifetime by using a Round The World (RTW) airplane ticket. The process of booking the ticket took me through a deep internet rabbit hole of research. Hence, the purpose of this post is to help explain how RTW tickets work and a few tips/tricks I learned along the way in an effort save you–curious world traveler–a few hours.
Small warning: If you’re not the type of person that thrives on hacking your way to efficiency and maximizing the effectiveness of your dollar, a RTW ticket may not be the right choice. It’ll undoubtedly require patience and a few dozen hours of planning. Also, I’m no expert. Just a guy that did it. Personally, my first step was to consult the blog of Chris Guillibeau, a man I briefly met who traveled to every country and wrote a fantastic starter guide.
This post attempts to explain the basics of a RTW trip and what it takes to actually book the ticket while linking to a number of resources I found helpful. For my recent trip, I used the oneworld Explorer ticket, so the more specific points in this guide are gleaned from that experience. If you’re a RTW sensei and spot anything inaccurate, let me know in the comments.
Planning an adventure to unknown places can be equal parts stressful and exciting, but always well worth the effort. Best of luck and enjoy the ride.
Table of Contents:
3. Planning your trip and how it works in practice
3.1 Different types of tickets
3.2 Understanding the rules of the oneworld Explorer
3.3 Using the oneworld planning tool
3.4 Surface segments and separate flights
3.5 Where to start your trip
3.6 Language and abbreviations
1. What is a Round The World (RTW) plane ticket?
Wikipedia will tell you that a Round The World ticket, abbreviated as RTW, is “a product that enables travellers to fly around the world for a relatively low price.” I like to think of a RTW ticket as:
a special, flexible plane ticket that enables you to fly literally around the world on a single itinerary
The most common RTW tickets are issued by airline alliances (e.g. oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam) and allow you to travel using any of their partner airlines. For instance if you booked a oneworld Explorer RTW ticket with American Airlines like I did, you would have access to British Airways, LAN Airlines, Japan Airlines, Qantas Airways and more.
Usually, RTW tickets also:
- require you to start and end in the same place
- last one year
- require travel roughly in one direction
- allow you to change dates without penalty
- charge fees for re-routing your itinerary
- come with unique rules (e.g. 16 total flights or 34,000 miles of travel)
I booked the following RTW ticket through AA on the oneworld Alliance:
Johannesburg, South Africa -> London, England -> (surface segment) Paris, France -> New York, USA -> Buenos Aires, Argentina -> Lima, Peru -> Easter Island, Chile -> Santiago, Chile -> Tokyo, Japan -> Sydney, Australia -> Johannesburg, South Africa.
Note: this was not my entire itinerary. You can see that in the map below.
I supplemented my RTW ticket with a variety of trains, buses and other budget flights. More on that here.
So why use an RTW ticket versus simply booking separate flights? I boil it down to three main reasons.
If employed appropriately, a RTW ticket can save you significant money on an ambitious itinerary. Though I flew Economy, I’ve heard the best value occurs while flying Business or First. A Business RTW ticket may be twice as expensive as the same trip schlepping in Economy, but a Business seat can be 3x the price of Economy on a normal flight. The total price of your ticket will be mostly based on itinerary, cabin class, and city of origin.
On his blog, Nomadic Matt states that:
“RTW tickets prices range between $2,700–$10,000 USD, depending on your mileage, route, and number of stops. A simple two- or three-stop RTW ticket might cost as little as $1,500 USD.”
During my own planning with the oneworld Explorer, I made different itineraries with 4-6 continents and was quoted prices all over that range.
2.2 Flexibility (sorta)
RTW tickets allow you to easily change the dates of your flights (as long as there are seats available). For instance, I locked in my initial reservation, then decided I wanted one more day in Peru and Australia. I called the American Airlines RTW Desk (1-800-247-3247). After a few minutes on hold I explained my changes, and they were instantly booked.
However, RTW tickets do require you to plan your trip out in advance. It can be more of a draft, but you’ll still need to select destinations and flights. If you’re seeking a more open-ended, impromptu, soul-wandering journey that doesn’t have a predetermined (at least on the macro level) itinerary, RTWs might not be the best fit.
I believe that creativity flourishes with constraints. Tell me to make something, anything, I’ll have a hard time getting started. Hand me two clothes hangers and with a bag of marshmallows and say make something, I’ve got five ideas. Planning a world trip is daunting. Where do I want to go? How long do I want to stay? How do I get the best value? It’s an amazing opportunity, but it can also leave your brain in a knot.
I found the rules of the RTW ticket a bit liberating. Knowing I could only fly so many times in one continent helped pair down the possibilities. Because I had to fly in one direction (roughly), I had a better idea of the order of destinations. Sometimes, guidelines can be your best friend.
3. Planning your trip and how it works in practice
So you’re into the idea of a RTW ticket! Cool beans. Here was my basic trip planning process. We’ll cover booking next.
- Choose an alliance and ticket type (I picked the oneworld Explorer)
- Make a dream list of destinations
- Use the online RTW planning tool (and other helpful links) to try out different itineraries
- Freak out, totally change your plans.
- Decide on your final itinerary, including specific flights and the total cost
From what I’ve read, there are two main types of tickets to consider: mileage-based or segment-based.
You can book a mileage-based RTW ticket with any of the major alliances and you’ll be allotted with a certain amount of miles to travel. For instance, with oneworld you can choose the Global Explorer which will calculate the cost of your ticket based on tiers of miles traveled: 26,000, 29,000, 34,000 or 39,000 miles. For a sense of scale New York -> London is about 3,500 miles. Use this tool for more fun flight math.
oneworld offers a second product, the oneworld Explorer where the cost of your ticket isn’t based on total mileage but rather on the number of continents you visit (and the cabin class you choose).
In the end, I went with the oneworld Explorer segment-based ticket because:
- The goal for my trip was to see many, new faraway places over three months. The non-mileage-based ticket would help me do that.
- Based on my cursory internet research, it seemed that oneworld’s online tool was functional and customer support specifically through the American Airlines RTW desk was legit.
- I wanted to accrue miles on American Airlines as an existing AAdvantage frequent flyer.
RTW Tickets come with many rules and guidelines that you need to understand well. I’ll outline a few important ones for the oneworld Explorer. Truthfully, I found oneworld’s documentation lacking. The most helpful information came from third party resources like this in depth thread on flyertalk. Nevertheless, read the official rulebook closely–it’ll help you comprehend how to create a valid itinerary.
Let’s review a few important oneworld Explorer guidelines:
- One Year
“Return travel from the last stopover point must commence no later than 12 months after departure.”
- 16 Flights Max
“A minimum of 3 and maximum of 16 segments, including surface segments between any 2 airports, are permitted for the entire journey.”
- One direction around the globe
“Travel must be in a continuous forward direction.” Exact geography is not used, just East or West with respect to the continents. (e.g. you can’t go N. America -> Africa -> S.America.)
- Can’t backtrack to your origin city
“Travel may not be via the point of origin.”
- Otherwise, backtracking within a continent is cool (mostly)
“Backtracking within a continent is permitted except as follows: Backtracking between Hawaii and other points in North America is not permitted.”
- Once you leave a continent, you can’t come back (mostly)
“Only one intercontinental departure and one intercontinental arrival permitted in each continent except as follows…” However, they make a few exceptions such as allowing an additional transfer through N. America. I presume this is because there are a few intercontinental legs that are hard to accomplish without a transfer elsewhere.
oneworld offers a pretty user-friendly web app for planning your RTW trip. Essentially, you populate a map with your desired cities in a particular order. The system notifies you if your itinerary violates any of the RTW rules and will not let you continue to the flight selection phase until you’ve inputed a complete, valid itinerary. You can save multiple itineraries and access them later.
Once your city order is set, you select each individual flight and its respective date from all of oneworld’s partner airlines. Finally, with all flights identified the computer spits out a price based on the cabin class you’ve selected (i.e. Economy or Business).
Remember, the flights you choose can be more of a first draft since you can make date changes with no fees. However, any routing changes, including one of the cities you’re connecting through, will result in additional fees ($125 not including changes in overall fare cost).
As I mentioned earlier, making the most out of your RTW ticket means utilizing your flight segments effectively. The following was the RTW itinerary I booked with American Airlines:
Johannesburg, South Africa -> London, England -> (surface segment) Paris, France -> New York, USA -> Buenos Aires, Argentina -> Lima, Peru -> Easter Island, Chile -> Santiago, Chile -> Tokyo, Japan -> Sydney Australia -> Johannesburg, South Africa
However, my actual itinerary looked more like this:
New York, USA -> Cape Town, South Africa -> Port Elizabeth, South Africa -> Johannesburg, South Africa -> London, England -> Berlin, Germany -> Prague, Czech Republic -> Amsterdam, the Netherlands -> Paris, France -> New York, USA -> Buenos Aires, Argentina -> Lima, Peru -> Cuzco, Peru -> Lima, Peru -> Easter Island, Chile -> Santiago, Chile -> Tokyo, Japan -> lots of cities, Japan -> Osaka, Japan -> Tokyo, Japan -> Sydney Australia -> Johannesburg, South Africa -> New York, USA
You’ll see that London -> Paris on the RTW itinerary was a “surface segment,” which is a fancy way of saying “I don’t need a flight. I’ll figure out how to get there myself.” I arrived in London and departed from Paris, making my way “over the surface” however I wanted.
I wanted to travel through Europe by train as well as enjoy a bit more flexibility during my three weeks there. Plus, flying between multiple European cities didn’t seem like an effective use of my precious flight segments. Note: that surface segment still counted toward my total number of segments, though it was not a flight.
Another example: I visited Machu Picchu in Peru during my trip. To get to get there, you generally depart for a trek from Cusco which is a short flight away from the larger airport in Lima. Instead of using my RTW itinerary to book a roundtrip from LIM -> CUZ (which would cost me two valuable flight segments in South America), I booked those flights separately with British Airways Avios points. I used those saved segments to get to and from Easter Island (about a six hour flight from Santiago) which is a much more costly roundtrip.
Your origin city plays a large factor in the total cost of a RTW ticket because of associated taxes. If you play around with your itinerary, you’ll see that starting in certain areas like the U.S. and the U.K. dramatically ups the quoted cost. Here’s a trip advisor thread where people discuss cheap places of origin. Some of the mentioned countries include South Africa, Japan and Jordan.
Keep an open mind about where to start your trip and consider other options like a separate roundtrip flight to get to your starting place. This could reduce the total cost of your adventure.
You’re bound to have questions during this planning process, and when you start googling you’ll realize that there’s a whole language associated with RTW tickets. Here’s a quick rundown, mostly gleaned from this thread on flyertalk, that’ll help you decipher all of the information out there.
Frequent flyers usually refer to a particular RTW itinerary with a short abbreviation that denotes basic information about a trip. For example, my itinerary is called a LONE6.
- L refers to the cabin class, A for First, D for Business, or L for Economy.
- ONE refers to the oneworld Explorer ticket.
- 6 refers to the number of continents which could be 3-6.
4. Booking your trip
So you’ve setup your trip on the oneworld website and it’s quoted a price for you. Depending on your itinerary, you may be able to follow the instructions and simply pay online. However, as The Points Guy mentions in this post:
“Here’s where things got a little sticky. You see, that handy Oneworld RTW planning tool should theoretically accept payment for your RTW. But as it turns out, the payment part often doesn’t work, so many will need to do it the old-fashioned way and call one of the member airlines’ RTW desks.”
Regardless, I recommend you book your RTW ticket by phone. Your ticket needs to be issued by a single airline and it seems that American Airlines is highly recommended as the carrier of choice. In theory, any of the oneworld airlines can register this itinerary for you, however AA has a dedicated hotline (the RTW desk available at 1-800-247-3247) and generally seems to have their act together.
The airline you book with will be the airline you’ll need to call to make any future itinerary changes and the last thing you want is to be passed from customer service rep to customer service rep in search of a soul who knows what the hell a RTW ticket is. The oneworld website will default to booking your trip with the carrier of your first flight segment but you can call AA on your own and book the RTW ticket as long as you have one of your trans-ocean segments planned with them. In other words, you can’t book an RTW ticket with AA if you don’t have a long flight with them on your itinerary.
Here’s how it works in practice from my experience:
- You will call the RTW desk and read them out loud your full proposed itinerary including cities, airports, flights and dates.
- They’ll take everything down (quite efficiently) and check to see if the computers deem your trip valid.
- If it checks out, they’ll provide you with a record locator (a short code) that holds all of the information about your potential trip. You can then proceed with payment.
Important: If you’re trying to book a RTW trip with the city of origin outside of the U.S., you may need to follow up separately with a local representative. You would provide him/her with your record locator, and pay in the local currency. Here’s an example of folks discussing the process for booking a trip starting in South Africa.
After all is said and done you’ll receive a confirmation and will be able to login to the American Airlines website to see one (very) long itinerary under a single reservation. Boom.
5. Other Pro-tips
- If you’re traveling via train check out seat61.com
This guy goes into such deep detail about trains all around the world and the best ways to book. Super helpful.
- British Airways Avios points can be very useful
BA points are great for some short international flights. Plus, Chase Sapphire Preferred points can be easily converted to Avios. I booked a business class flight from London to Berlin for 9,000 points + booking fees (and I also ate so much food in the BA lounge at Heathrow). You can even book that Lima -> Cuzco roundtrip using Avios with BA’s One World partner, LAN Airlines, but you’ll need to book it over the phone as the flights aren’t shown online. (Make sure to ask for them to waive the phone booking fee.)
- You don’t need to book your Machu Picchu trek in advance (unless you really want to hike the Inca Trail)
If you’re planning a Machu Picchu trip, you’ll have to decide whether or not you want to hike on a multi-day trek or take the train. I wanted to trek but had read that permits to hike along the Inca Trail book up months in advance. Thinking I was late to the party, I figured the train was my only way to get up there. Upon arriving, I learned that there are plenty of other treks available to Machu Picchu, and while they don’t follow the ancient trail many are still awesome and sometimes even preferred. You can also book on very short notice.
- Watch out for British Airways segments during your RTW
BA charges high fuel surcharges that can add up. It’s just worth checking to see if using another airline makes a large difference in cost.
- Get a card with a chip and no foreign transaction fees
Like many, I primarily use my Chase Sapphire Preferred card. There’s no foreign transaction fee so I can pay in any currency without fear of additional charges. Also, many countries only accept credit cards with chips (rather than the magnetic strip).
Q: You mentioned that the most common RTW tickets are issued by alliances. What are the other options?
A: Apparently there are specialized agencies, I don’t know much about them. This Wiki Travel entry mentions some.
Q: Of the places you visited, what was your favorite?
A: The most amazing sight to see: Machu Picchu. The most l I-can’t-believe-I’m-here: Easter Island. The most fun-to-travel-through-overall: Japan. The most-memorable-tourist-experience: safari in South Africa. The most I-wish-I-lived-here: Sydney.
Q: How did you keep track of your full itinerary (RTW + all of the little side trips)?
A: With a set of Google spreadsheets like this. I also added all flights and where I was staying each night to Google Calendar which was shared with my family.
Q: What did you pack?
A: Check out this blog post. I used a 35L backpack that was always carry-on.
Q: What sort of accommodation did you use throughout your trip?
A: Mostly I stayed with folks I’d met while working for CreativeMornings. Otherwise, a sprinkling of everything else you can imagine: hotels, hostels, Airbnb, overnight trains/flights. Unexpectedly, I became a fan of booking.com.
Q: What’s the best thing you ate?
A: Three-way tie between Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, lomo a lo pobre in Santiago and fondue in Paris
Q: What’s the worst thing you ate?
A: This crap pasta from a pizza shop in Amsterdam. It was late. I was desperate.
Q: Best night?
A: A long walk in Tokyo that led to a neon-color-changing ferris wheel at night that led to winning the jackpot at an arcade medal game.
Q: How does making changes to your RTW itinerary work after everything is booked?
A: I only did this a handful of times but it was extremely easy with American Airlines. I called the AA RTW Desk, provided my identification info, and requested a few date changes. They immediately responded with my flight options and booked it all within a few minutes. Very impressive.
Q: Can I earn miles while on a RTW ticket?
A: You betcha. Standard advice would be to attempt to accrue as much mileage as you can with the same airline. While booking with AA, I provided my Frequent Flyer # and they credited as many flights as possible to my AA account. I did my best to choose AA flights while planning and actually all of the flights with partner airlines also counted.
Q: Do I check-in with the airline I’m flying with or the airline that I booked the RTW itinerary with?
A: The airline you’re flying with. However, online check-in is sometimes a bit of a toss up. My AA record locator worked on most partner airline websites. A few times, like with Japan Airlines, I had to first go to aa.com and was then redirected to JAL when I followed the check-in instructions.
Q: After going through the booking process, anything you would do differently while planning a RTW trip?
A: I’d probably try to remain a bit more flexible with my timing. Easily switching dates is one of the major advantages for a RTW ticket, one which I did not employ often. However, there were a few moments–like realizing a big festival was coming to town or that a friend would be in the same place by coincidence–where I wish I had been open to change.
Q: Are there alternative uses for RTW tickets?
A: I stumbled across a few examples of people employing some advanced travel planning techniques. For example, someone might use a RTW ticket for a few trips spread out over a year and buy separate flights to “continue” the itinerary. Or Chris mentions using multiple simultaneous RTW tickets, which just sounds way over my head.
Q: I want to go to Easter Island. How long should I stay?
A: I stayed for four nights, and I thought it was perfect. There’s a good amount to do on the small online. I spent one day on a guided tour, another renting a jeep with new friends to see our favorite sights, and another day hiking along the cost solo. There are volcanos to hike, an underwater Moai you can scuba dive to, and beaches to hang out at. This thread was helpful. Beware: island weather can change very quickly. Before I arrived, flights were delayed for five days.
Q: How much time did you spend on airplanes over those three months?
A: 140 hours