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A Beginner's Guide to 'Round the World' Airfare

You’ve probably heard rumors about a magical plane ticket that enables passengers to visit as many countries as they wish, while traveling in either an easterly or westerly direction, for a flat fee. Maybe you’ve considered purchasing this fare yourself, or even drafted a crude list of countries you’d visit if ever presented with such an opportunity. Well, the rumors are true… sort of… it depends on what you’ve heard, really.

Round-the-world tickets (or RTW, to those in the travel biz) are available through a number of airline alliances, though different stipulations apply to each. The major RTW players are Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam:

logosrtwStar Alliance is the world’s largest airline alliances in the world, offering flights on 28 different airlines to nearly 1,000 destinations in more than 160 countries — so it stands to reason that its Round The World Fare offerings are somewhat unparalleled. There are three fare mileage options available for first- and business-class fliers: 29,000, 34,000, or 39,000. There is also a 26,000-mile economy class option, though this is not currently available to travelers originating in Japan.

Here’s how the geography works: per International Air Transport Association (IATA) standards, the world is divided into three ‘traffic conferences’.

  • TC1: North America, Central America, South America, Greenland, Caribbean, Hawaiian Islands

  • TC2: Europe (West of the Urals), Azores, Iceland, Middle East, Africa, Seychelles Islands

  • TC3: Asia (East of the Urals), Oceania, (Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific Islands)

Star Alliance mandates that RTW travelers are only to travel in one direction, either east or west, when moving between traffic conferences; however, direction may shift within each conference.

staralliance3Furthermore, ticket-holders may only cross each conference once, and the same goes for both the Pacific and Atalntic Oceans. It’s also worth noting that the first international crossing cannot involve surface transportation. For instance, you can’t fly from New York to Los Angeles, drive to Tijuana, and then resume your RTW flights from a Mexican airport — but it’s fine if you bypass L.A. and fly directly from New York to Tijuana.

Got that? Good, because there are more terms and conditions:

  • RTW fliers who choose from one of the standard fares must complete their journey within 12 months of their initial departure. They must also start and end their journey in the same country — though not necessarily in the same city.

  • During the 12-month duration, ticket-holders are allowed to make up to 16 stopovers (or visits to a given city that exceed 24 hours). Those who spring for the economy ticket are limited to five stopovers. Ticket-holders are allowed only one stopover per city and three per country. They are also limited to four collective stopovers within the U.S. and Canada, and five within Europe.

  • There is no cap on the number of flight transfers, or stays (read: layovers) that do not exceed 24 hours. However, the number of transfers in a given country may not exceed four.

  • RTW fliers are allowed to utilize surface transportation up to five times throughout the trip; however, these road trips still count as stopovers if the travelers spend more than one day in a given location, and the mileage still counts toward the original fare agreement.

staralliance2As for all this ‘flat-rate’ business, it’s mostly true. The price of Star Alliance’s RTW airfare includes the total mileage, point-of-sale, and the class of service chosen; this means the initial price of the fare typically falls between $3,000 and $5,000. However, some airlines level additional surcharges:

  • Air Canada levels a $300 surcharge against business-class travelers who use the following routes: Montreal to Frankfurt and Paris; Toronto to Hong Kong, Paris, Frankfurt, Shanghai, Tokyo, Beijing, London, and Sydney; and Vancouver to Sydney, Hong Kong, London, Beijing, Shanghai, and Tokyo.

  • If anyone is set up for a rude (and costly) awakening during their RTW travels, it’s the first- or business-class passenger who books a flight with Singapore Air on an Airbus A380. The airline applies a surcharge on most of the major international Airbus routes. For most flights, the surcharge does not exceed $600; however, a flight between Changi Airport in Singapore and either LAX or JFK will incur a hefty $2,7000 fee. Tokyo to LAX comes in second-place; that will cost first- or business-class patrons an additional $2,000. Nobody wants to have that conversation with their ticket agent, though to be fair, the A380 is the largest passenger airline in the world, as well as one of the swankiest.

  • This is an interesting one. Scandinavian Air levees a surcharge of $500 against economy-class passengers. Business- and first-class passengers, on the other hand, do not have to pay the surcharge. Are we crazy, or does that amount to paying the cost of a business-class ticket and still being stuck in economy class?

  • Class downgrades are free, as are first- or business-class upgrades due to overbooking. However, those who wish to upgrade on a whim will be charged the difference in fare. Pretty standard, really, but watch out — fare prices (and thus, the differences between fare prices) will probably be higher than usual if the arrangements aren’t made well in advance of the flight.

  • Finally, it’s worth noting that a traveler’s class level will dictate his or her baggage allowance. Economy-class fliers are allowed one free bag that weighs up to 20 kilograms; business-class fliers are allowed two pieces that combine for 30 kilograms; and first-class fliers are allowed two pieces with a total weight of 40 kilograms. Exceeding these limits will incur additional fees (if the ticket agent notices, that is).

skyteam1Now for the fun discussion: where can you travel with a Star Alliance RTW fare? Everywhere… pretty much. Some experts warn that flying to Australia can be a major time- and mileage-suck for travelers on a timetable. The same goes for Russia, and China to an extent. On the other hand, Star Alliance essentially has a monopoly in some regions of the world (such as the Pacific Islands), so if you have your heart set on visiting Fiji or Nauru, then this one is basically your only RTW option. Wherever you wish to visit, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with Star Alliance’s member airlines.

But despite Star Alliance’s sheer dominance across the globe, SkyTeam and oneworld also offer some decent RTW deals. In fact, oneworld offers two. The first, Global Explorer, is essentially structured like Star Alliance’s RTW fare, albeit designed for fliers who prefer economy class. Four economy-class mileage options are available: 26,000, 29,000, 34,000, and 39,000; additionaly, a 34,000-mile fare is available for business- and first-class fliers. One notable perk of this option is that a handful of non-Oneworld-affiliated airlines may be used by ticket-holders; these include Aer Lingus, Alaska Airlines, Qantas, and South African Airways. And just like the Star Alliance fare, this RTW fare is limited to 16 stopovers.

skyteam4The oneworld Explorer option is slightly less conventional. Rather than mileage, the price of this RTW fare is determined by the number of continents visited (as well as the preferred flight class). For oneworld’s purposes, here’s the continental breakdown:

  • Europe/Middle East including Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, Russia both east and west of the Urals, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

  • Africa (excluding countries named above)

  • Asia including the Indian subcontinent (excluding countries named above)

  • Australia, New Zealand and the South West Pacific

  • North America including the Caribbean, Central America and Panama

  • South America

oneworld3Fliers are allowed 16 ‘segments’ (or flights), but they do not need to abide by any directional mandates or backtracking regulations. Still, considering the sheer breadth of each continent (Antarctica is not included), this option may be better suited for travelers who prefer long stopovers. Plus, there is no surcharge for changing flight dates — so if you’re digging your surroundings, feel free to relax a little longer than planned.

Finally, there’s the SkyTeam Round the World option. This RTW fare has some decent distribution; SkyTeam has 19 members in the alliance since November 2012, and will be 20 as of March 2014 when Garuda Indonesia joins. It helps that SkyTeam includes a widely dispersed group of member airlines, such as Air Kenya, Aerolinas Argentinas, Vietnam Airlines, KLM, and Delta Airlines. Not surprisingly, this option closely mirrors both the Star Alliance and oneworld Global Explorer fares; 15 is the limit for stopovers, only one crossing for either the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans is permitted, the journey must begin and end in the same country, and only one direction of travel is allowed. The SkyTeam website features the Round the World Travel Planner, an interactive tool that allows you to literally plot the course of your RTW journey.

oneworld2While these are the three most notable RTW fares in the truest sense of the term, several ‘continental’ or ‘regional’ fares are available. These include the following:

  • Star Alliance Circle Pacific Fare: This ticket allows travelers to visit every East Asian nation, as well as the U.S., Canada, and a handful of countries and territories in the South Pacific. Two fare mileage options are available: 22,000 or 26,000 (both allow up to 16 stopovers).

  • oneworld Circle Atlantic: Travelers who choose this option are required to travel three routes: transatlantic between North America and Europe or the Middle East; transatlantic between Europe or the Middle East and South America; and a northerly crossing between South America and North America. There is a maximum of three stopovers per continent.

  • oneworld Circle Pacific: This fare includes three mileage options: 22,000 (with four stopovers), 26,000 (five stopovers), and 29,000 (six stopovers). Travel must follow a clockwise or counterclockwise direction around the Pacific Rim, with flights to Asia, Oceania, North America, and South America.

  • oneworld Circle Trip Explorer: This is arguably the best option for travelers who wish to visit Africa. The fare includes travel to three recognized continent’s (one of which must be Africa), and must also follow a clockwise or counterclockwise route. Ticket-holders can fly to virtually any city in Europe, Africa, Asia, or Oceania.

  • oneworld Circle Asia & South West Pacific: On the other hand, this is the ideal choice for thoe who would rather see countries in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. There are two fare mileage options: 13,000 (four stopovers) and 17,000 (five stopovers).

  • The Great Escapade: For travelers who wish to avoid airline alliances (for whatever reason), this fare includes 29,000 miles of unlimited flights on Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, and Air New Zealand. This option is best suited for those who want to extensively check out Asia and the South Pacific.

The bottom line: regardless of the fare plan or carrier you ultimately choose, a vacation of this magnitude requires thorough planning, meticulous packing, and saintly patience — not to mention a small fortune. RTW travel is certainly not for everyone, but if the idea appeals to you, then check out one of the deals listed above and start plotting your course. A crude list of countries you’d like to visit is a great first step.


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