I flew around the world with a single plane ticket — here's how

An RTW ticket will let you pay one price to visit various destinations around the world. Fabio Lamanna/Shutterstock

  • Traveling around the world might seem like an expensive fantasy, but there is a way to do it that won’t require you spending all of your savings.
  • By finding a single airline alliance and using their partners, you can book a round-the-world (RTW) trip that includes up to 16 segments within a certain period of time.
  • Major RTW providers will even provide you with sample itineraries based on your traveling goals.

Have you ever wanted to drop what you’re doing and set off across the globe to go visit far away mountains and tropical beaches? Stroll down Paris streets or through a night market in Hong Kong?

A round-the-world trip can seem like a very distant goal. First of all, it’s expensive: Just flying across the Atlantic can cost upward of $700, depending on when you go and what airline you use. Once you start city-hopping, the cumulative airfares add up. And even if you’ve saved enough for such a trip, planning it isn’t exactly easy either.

Enter the round-the-world plane ticket. If you hope to visit at least five destinations and can plan the route in advance, a round-the-world (RTW) ticket lets you pay one price that can be well below what you’d pay for a series of individual flights.

How the RTW ticket works

When buying an RTW ticket, you can choose to go with a single alliance, such as Star Alliance (United Airlines), SkyTeam (Delta Airlines), or OneWorld (American Airlines). These major alliances include partner airlines around the world which you can use in your itinerary.

Want to fly Delta to eat pad thai at the floating market in Bangkok? Since Delta doesn’t fly to Bangkok, you would have to switch to a partner airline, such as Korean Air or China Eastern. RTW tickets include these alliances so you can fly on any airline in the alliance and visit cities all over the world.

Even though Delta doesn’t fly to Bangkok, you can find a partner airline to use to reach your destination. nimon/Shutterstock

“[an RTW ticket] allows you to travel to lots of places for a relatively small amount of money,” said Teresa Mears, a consumer finance expert and the co-founder of frugal living and deal site Living on the Cheap. Mears used this strategy to travel the world about 20 years ago. It worked well for her then, and it’s still a viable tactic to see the world today.

In recent years, third-party sites selling RTW tickets have popped up. Sites such as Airtreks and STA Travel allow you to book globe-spanning trips without being restricted to a single airline alliance. The tickets offered aren’t always “official” RTW tickets, but they do help you circumnavigate the globe in a single trip.

How much could RTW plane tickets save you?

The amount of money you save on airfare depends on where and when you go. “Buying individual tickets to visit cities from Miami to Berlin to Istanbul to Bangkok to Hong Kong to Sydney to Auckland to Honolulu to Los Angeles would cost a lot more,” said Mear.

I tried out several different itineraries using RTW flights, and ended up with price quotes of between 10% and 30% less than booking flights individually, depending on the airline alliance, location, and time of year chosen.

Realize that RTW tickets don’t include prices from some of the major discount carriers. When trying the same itineraries without an RTW ticket, and focusing on budget airlines, it was possible to get even lower prices.

If Athens, Greece, is on your bucket list, then find a way to add it to your RTW itinerary. Sven Hansche/Shutterstock

One itinerary I tried from Star Alliance had 13 segments, including Toronto, Reykjavik, Dublin, London, Athens, Istanbul, Mumbai, Bangkok, Tokyo, and Auckland. The RTW ticket price was $5,610, while booking flights individually cost about $7,025. That’s a pretty good savings.

However, looking on discount airlines, I was able to plan flights between cities for $3,353. One reason? A flight on Iceland’s budget airline WOW from Reykjavik to Dublin only cost $89 — compared to almost $2,000 on a “traditional” airline.

Restrictions to RTW plane tickets

Remember that stopovers count towards your 16-segment limit. REUTERS/Jana Asenbrennerova

In many cases, RTW tickets come with time limits, usually up to one year. “My ticket was good for a year,” said Mear. “I spent nine months using it, and didn’t get to all the places I hoped to visit.”

On top of that, most RTW tickets from major alliances require you to go in one direction around the world. You might also be limited to flights in a “world area”: When I tried to book an RTW ticket with too many flights in Europe and the Middle East, SkyTeam made me adjust my itinerary. And with OneWorld, I discovered that stopovers count toward the 16-segment limit, even if I was just going to be changing planes at the airport.

RTW tickets have other limitations, such as maximum mileage limits or fees of $125 or more for changes to your itinerary, so it’s important to read the fine print before finalizing your route and fare.

Are RTW tickets always the best option?

While an RTW ticket can save you money in some cases, it’s not always the best option. “You have to know which cities you want to visit and in which order,” said Mear.

For someone who expects to change plans and wants the flexibility to explore, an RTW might not be the best choice. Instead, it can make more sense to use budget airlines so you can change your itinerary. However, you risk rising prices down the road when you book as you go.

“In general, the [RTW] ticket works best for someone who has a lot of time to travel and wants to visit many cities that are spread apart,” said Mear.

If you want to circumnavigate the globe, such as going from Paris to Fiji, then an RTW ticket is your best option. Bell-Davey Photography/Shutterstock

However, Mear doesn’t think you have to plan to be gone for a year in order to gain value from an RTW ticket. “It might also be a good choice for a shorter trip in which you want to circumnavigate the world, with an itinerary like Paris, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Fiji, or a similar combination,” she said.

If you are more interested in plotting out a trip ahead of time and you know you’ll stick to your route, an RTW fare can be a good solution. Plus, the major RTW ticket providers also create sample itineraries based on your goals. For world travelers seeking convenience, a pre-planned RTW fare can be just the ticket.

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