I am at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, over 3,000 miles from anywhere I expected to be on our round-the-world trip for Atlas and Boots. In fact, Hawaii, California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah are all unplanned stops.
I expected to be in South America by December 2014, but instead spent an extra month in Tahiti – and then boarded a luxury cruise across the Pacific which most certainly wasn’t on the agenda. What I’m trying to say is that, for me, not buying a round-the-world (RTW) ticket has been a blessing.
We certainly considered the RTW option: we spent hours discussing and researching, but gave up when we couldn’t find an economical route that worked for our unusual journey. That’s not to say the RTW is without merit.
If you’re torn between the options, have a look at the round the world ticket pros and cons below and make a decision based on your particular trip.
It may be cheaper
The greatest advantage quoted by travel experts is that an RTW ticket is cheaper than planning as you go. Depending on your mileage, route and number of stops, an RTW can cost between $2,000 to $10,000 USD, possibly less if you limit yourselves to a very basic three-stop route.
The logic is that tapping into an alliance of airlines well in advance of your travel dates will give you access to cheap flight rates that are otherwise unavailable.
Less stress on the road
With an RTW, you know for certain that you can get from A to B because it’s booked in and confirmed; most of the planning stress is done upfront. Booking flights on the go is a whole other kettle of fish.
In Samoa, we booked our flights to Tonga at a beach fale using a sketchy internet connection via dongle while charging our laptop with electricity borrowed from the fale owner’s house. An RTW ticket alleviates much of this stress.
Allows better budgeting
With a RTW ticket, you know when your trip starts and when it finishes. It is finite so you know exactly how many days you need to budget for. With plan-as-you-go, your budget fluctuations are much wilder because flights have to be absorbed by your day-to-day budget.
RTW also has a psychological benefit: pre-paying a substantial portion of your trip takes a load off your mind. Once it’s paid, you can forget about it, focusing instead on day-to-day budgeting.
Sticking with one alliance of airlines means you can fairly easily build up your airmiles. It’s not unusual to build up enough miles for one long-haul flight. Planning as you go will use several different airlines from different (or no) alliances, meaning your airmiles will likely be distributed.
Lack of spontaneity
Flexibility is the strongest reason to plan as you go instead of buying an RTW upfront. Part of the joy of long-term travel is not knowing where you’ll end up. You may fall in love with a country’s culture and want to spend more time there, or decide to make a sidehop to a neighbouring country that isn’t on your itinerary.
RTW tickets offer some flexibility in terms of dates but will cost you if you change destinations. Planning as you go lets you go with the flow.
As mentioned above, if we had bought an RTW ticket, we wouldn’t have spent an extra month in Tahiti, taken a 16-day cruise across the Pacific, summited the world’s tallest mountain, started an American road trip from LA to San Francisco to Yosemite to Death Valley to Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park (title image), or seen five of our old friends from the UK who have emigrated.
On this note, it’s worth pointing out that many countries require you to have an onward ticket in order to enter. If you want to have maximum flexibility, we have it on good authority that you can use digitally altered ticket confirmations to bypass this check. Of course, as law-abiding professionals, we would never recommend this…
There are rules. Lots and lots of rules, at least with the bigger networks, Star Alliance and Oneworld. The biggest decision to make is whether you want a ticket based on mileage or segments. Star Alliance offers standard passes with 29,000, 34,000 or 39,000 miles, each allowing up to 15 stops.
Oneworld offers a mileage-based ‘Global Explorer’ pass which comes in 26,000, 29,000 or 39,000 miles as standard. The other option is Oneworld’s ‘Explorer’ pass which is based on number of continents visited: there is no mileage limit and you can visit up to 16 segments across three to six continents.
“If your round the world ticket is both cheap and easy, it’s likely you’ll be following scores of other backpackers around the world”
In addition to the above, there are several other conditions that may appy to your ticket.
Examples include: you must cross both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, you can stop in a city only once but can transit it up to three times, you can stop in a continent a restricted number of times, you must use up your ticket within 12 months, you must start and end in same country, you can change dates but not destinations, you must travel in one direction and there is no backtracking between continents, your overland travel may count towards your mileage limit even though you’re not flying, and your flight from say London to Malaysia with a stopover in Dubai may count as two segments instead of one.
Like I said: complicated. There are some challengers to the old stalwarts that offer better flexibility, namely Indie from Bootsnall and Airtreks – but always check the terms before booking.
Follows the tourist trail
If your RTW ticket is both cheap and easy, it’s likely that you’ll be following scores of other backpackers around the world. If you’re doing London, Bangkok, Singapore, Sydney, LA, New York, London for example, chances are so will tens of thousands of others.
If you want to follow an unusual route (e.g. London, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, French Polynesia), you’ll likely have to book your RTW stops in bigger hubs (London, Fiji and Tahiti) and find your own way between the other islands.
Actually, it may not be cheaper
Contrary to conventional wisdom, round the world tickets may not actually be cheaper. Firstly, most don’t include the big budget airlines like Ryanair, Southwest, Air Asia or Tiger. Secondly, if you’re travelling an unusual route (see previous point), you may have to cough up for additional flights in between destinations.
Finally, it precludes the possibility of finding super-cheap modes of transport which are far easier to root out when you’re actually in a country or region (e.g. cargo ships, trains, hitch hiking etc). Simply put, the main boon of the RTW may not be as pronounced as some experts would have you believe.
TO RTW OR NOT?
As with many things, the answer is it depends. I would recommend a round the world ticket under the following circumstances: you have a finite amount of time (e.g. have taken a six-month sabbatical and need to be back by a specific date), you have well-trodden destinations on your itinerary (Thailand and Australia instead of Mongolia and Gabon), you are unlikely to change your route, and/or you are travelling with children and therefore need a certain level of stability.
Conversely, if you don’t have a set deadline (other than ‘when the money runs out’) and want to go with the flow, opt for the plan-as-you-go route.
I’ll finish by saying that there’s something romantic about not knowing where you’re going beyond the next few weeks. It leaves open the possibility of jumping on a boat, taking a lastminute road trip or settling somewhere for a while if the idea strikes you. For me, plan as you go is the most interesting way to travel.
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