Should you buy a RTW Ticket or book as you go? This is the biggie question for many round the world travelers. Which one costs more? That answer depends for every single trip and every type of traveler. Even something as simple as traveling with carry on luggage can affect which option is more cost-effective for your trip. The other thing new travelers seldom fully grasp are the complex rules associated with an actual round the world ticket from an airline alliance. Instead of drilling only into costs, a better question is: which option fits my travel style and trip goals? Let’s look at an overview, and then the granular of flights and such.
RTW Ticket on an Alliance
Round the world tickets have a few key advantages that makes this an attractive option for certain types of trips. But there are some drawbacks too. Really, it’s a specific decision that appeals to some travelers. If you’re keen to fly on a formal RTW ticket, your two options are Star Alliance and One World. These two round the world ticket providers are also the two largest airline alliances in the world. Between the two, they represent the vast majority of the world’s major airline carriers. The third alliance is too small to be a viable option for most round the world trips, but for clarity’s sake that one is Sky Team. These three alliances do not usually include the budget airlines that have cropped up on nearly every continent.
When you book a RTW ticket through an airline alliance, there are a few conventions of the industry and rules you will have to follow. For the sake of ease, I will just list the most relevant ones as bullet points:
- Because you bulk-buy your tickets at the beginning, you can sometimes find that there are real cost benefits.
- They last a year.
- You’re booking with an alliance and can sometimes redeem miles you may have earned through travel hacking.
- You can freely change the dates and times of your flights, but you cannot change your route. So, if you decide to stay in Southeast Asia for an extra month, you can change the date of your flight from the region, but you cannot change that next destination. Your route is locked once you decide it.
- You cannot backtrack on your route. While you can move around a continent freely, your flights can never backtrack from the direction you choose around the world.
- You must start and end in the same country.
- Most tickets are priced according to miles traveled (26,000, 39,000, etc). Your overland miles count against your mileage total (like if plan to use a Eurorail pass around Europe and travel from Spain to Greece, that distance is included against your total miles used).
- OneWorld offers a segment based ticket that allows you to price it out based on the number of continents visited and then you can use up to sixteen flight segments, which includes connecting flights. In this way, overland travel would not count against your RTW ticket.
- You eliminate a potential source of stress. You won’t need to spend a day searching flights and considering possible routes, you decided all of that before you left.
Piecemeal Tickets Through an Airline Aggregator
Airline aggregators are how most of us book our flights. If you use Expedia, Skyscanner, or Orbitz to book your vacations, then you know that these aggregators list the prices for a range of airlines flying your desired route. For RTW tickets, there are a couple of specific search engines designed to accommodate multi-stop trips. I suggest starting your search with Indie and Airtreks.
RTW tickets on the flight aggregators do not use the formal rules of a typical round the world ticket, so you also lose the benefits that come with the airline alliance tickets. Aggregators mix and match airlines and airline alliances to find the best flight prices for every segment of your trip. These tickets come in at a much lower price than Alliance tickets, but have few of the perks. The only thing you really gain is that you have your flights pre-booked, which is ideal for trips up to six months. For longer trips, I find that booking a year’s worth of flights is impractical for most people. It locks you into a rigidly fixed route and timeline around the world.
A few additional thoughts:
- The aggregators use only major airlines, so you may find better deals for segments of that trip on regional budget airlines.
- If you book through these aggregator companies, what you will have is a series of separate tickets. If you want to move your dates, you will pay the traditional fees associated with that airline.
- Your route and trip is pre-planned so you are relieved of the stress of planning as you travel.
- Both companies, AirTreks and Indie, offer guidance as you plan, which is a nice benefit if the flight planning part is high-stress for you.
In the years since my first long-term trip, I have used Indie for even just multi-stop tickets. The Indie search engine found a great deal for my Africa flights that I booked from the U.S. into South Africa and out of Kenya. The BootsnAll crew is responsive and helpful and the search tool is intuitive.
Book as You Travel
On my round the world trip, I tracked every single dollar spent on my round the world trip. And after it was over, I estimate that booking tickets as I traveled totaled out to slightly more than having purchased a piecemeal ticket before I left. And it was significantly less (by about $2,000) than a RTW ticket through an airline alliance. I flew on one-way tickets around the world, and I booked many puddle jumpers on smaller, low-cost airlines too. Take a look at my route around the world. I visited 15 countries and several were grouped in regions of the world that facilitated overland travel. On my route, I valued the flexibility of my trip far more than the idea that I could have saved a couple hundred dollars by having booked a pre-set route through one of the aggregators.
Booking as the year progressed also allowed me to take suggestions from other travelers and to adapt my RTW Itinerary to suit my evolving goals as I traveled (which embraced slow travel toward the end). Also, to be honest, I didn’t have the money to spring for a ticket up front, and in the end I was grateful not to have to align myself with the rules and requirements and strict timetable of a RTW ticket. That said, some travelers rave about their RTW ticket experience.
One big heads up — and it’s very important for anyone using this style of travel — some countries require that you have an outbound ticket before you can board the flight or enter the country. In my more than eight years of travel, this has cropped up twice as a big issue. I was not allowed to board my flight from Melbourne to Bangkok until I had proof that I was leaving Thailand within 30-days of my arrival (North Americans are given a free 30-day visa on arrival in Thailand). This is not a rule that Thailand immigration enforces, but it was a random rule for the airline I had unwittingly booked. Australian airlines are notoriously strict about checking outbound flights. Then, the same thing happened traveling from Mexico to Costa Rica — this is a hard and fast rule that is widely enforced for Costa Rica-bound travelers. I say this so that you are aware of the possibility. Many long-term travelers fly on one-way tickets and show up with fingers crossed that they won’t have their outbound flights checked. You can mitigate this by planning the next stage of your trip, by booking a refundable plane or bus ticket to another country, or by arriving to the airport early and booking a ticket over Wi-Fi/cellular data if it’s required.
To my mind, booking as you travel affords the most flexibility for your trip, but the biggest benefits manifest on RTW trips that will last longer than six months. If you decide to book your flights along the way, or to book each one independently, below I list my favorite flight search engines and route planning tools.
The Core Pros & Cons
If you’re in a hurry, here are the five core points within the “Buy RTW Ticket” debate:
- Flexibility. With the RTW ticket, you are locked into a firm route and you know the cost of your flights before you leave. If you book as you go, prices might rise as you travel but you’ll have the ability to change your route mid-trip.
- Type of Flights. You will use the world’s major airline alliances on a RTW ticket. Booking as you go means you’ll likely spend more time flying on budget, low-cost, no-frills airlines.
- Planning Stress. You either face the stress of spotty wifi on the on the road or you bite the bullet beforehand and add route planning into the madness of preparing for your RTW trip.
- Cost Comparison. How do the costs really stack up at the end of a trip? Since every person’s dream trip is different, you really have to price out the tickets yourself and see if the RTW ticket falls within your flight budget and goals.
- Amenities. Decide the style of travel you prefer and then compare which type of ticket will offer the best all around – service, cost, and product — for your specific goals.
Putting it All Together
BootsnAll put together a free downloadable comparison guide for RTW tickets, and it has a sample of the different prices all of the various alliances would charge on sample routes — it’s a useful read!
That comparison report has good average costs for RTW tickets. For your own trip, to budget for the expense, I recommend that you use the airline aggregators as a rough estimate of what you should save. Use Indie or Airtreks to price out your route at the time of year you will travel (even if you’ll actually be booking flights in a couple years, try to align your search to a rough timeline of when you would be taking these flights). Be generous with your estimates here. If there is one outlier flight route that comes up far cheaper than the others, go with an anticipated cost that sits in the median of those that come up in the search engine.
Pricing out daily travel budgets for various countries is easier than flights in many ways. Accommodation averages tend to stay steady over the years — the percent of increase year over year doesn’t noticeably affect a travel budget. Airline prices on the other hand fluctuate on everything from current route competition to the global price of oil. If you’re creating an anticipated budget for future travel then budget high for the flights and you can adjust it as your trip nears and the flight prices become more indicative of the actual costs you will encounter as you travel.
If you’re undecided about which choice is best, know that there is no right answer here. They both work for different reasons. My best advice is to plan just enough of your trip to stave off the panic attacks. Leave the bulk of your trip planning to your actual trip. This works particularly well for trips that are longer than six months. That may sound crazy, but disassembling your life is enough work. Once you are on the road, you will quickly learn how you want to travel and what you prioritize. I suggest that you book a hostel/hotel for the first week you land at the first stop on your RTW itinerary — then, I swear that the rest will work out. You don’t have to plan the sights, the transport, the nitty-gritty details. That will all happen organically once you land and start talking to other travelers. Once I was actually on the road, I was amazed by how much I had over-stressed in the weeks leading up to my round the world trip.
And from a travel-hacking perspective on flights, if you’re keen to use airline miles and that sort of thing, Chris Guillibeau shared his RTW ticket buying strategies and he also runs Travel Hacking Cartel, which teaches you how to accrue miles and them how to best redeem them for great flight deals. I only lightly dabble in travel hacking (I own a Chase Sapphire card and use it exclusively when I am paying for anything and everything. I earn about one $600 flight each year, and I could do far better if I invested time in the travel hacking techniques that many friends successfully employ).
Research Tickets and Price
If you’re not completely sure which option works best for your trip, dive into the links below to price out various routes and options.
Search Engines for Regular Flights:
- Kayak: I usually start here for my flight searches to get a baseline on the costs, then I move on to a search engine that pulls in more of the low-cost carriers.
- Skyscanner: Use this as your first source for booking flights to or within Asia; the search engine pulls in a lot of the low-cost airlines too and can offer up some great fares you won’t find on the other aggregators.
- Orbitz: I have been surprised by some of the great flights I find on here leaving from the US, particularly if you book in advance and have some of the major hub cities as stopping points.
- Google Flights: You know it’s good if it’s from Google, the king of search. This is a nice place to get a baseline for price estimates at the time of year you’ll be traveling.
- Adioso and BookingBuddy: These two are not in my regular lineup of research sites, but several of my travel friends swear by them for flight research.
- Matrix.itasoftware.com: Access to the backend that many travel agents use to find flight deals. It’s not in my regular lineup, but I always have this one in my back pocket.
- Research online: I found many tiny airlines in Africa that are not listed in any aggregator, so checking a guidebook or online for local low-cost airlines in some regions is a good idea.
- Amazing List of Low-Cost Flight Routes: This is a google map with flight routes all the world’s low-cost airlines fly.
Search Engines for RTW Flights:
Airline Alliance Tickets: