Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Round-The-World Ticket Overinformation

The problem with saying you want to travel around the world is that you have to find a way to get there. For most people, that means airplanes (or in International English, Aeroplanes.) The globe is simply too big to travel efficiently any other way. Thankfully there are a few relatively easy options for us crazy globetrotters -- round-the-world tickets are an obvious choice.

Let’s start at the beginning. There are two major airline “alliances”, and most large airlines belong to them. There’s Star Alliance, of which Air Canada, Thai Airways, and South African Airways, to name a few, are members. There’s also One World, which names members like British Airways, US Airways, and Qantas. Both alliances have round-the-world (RTW) ticketing options, and they both work very differently, so it’s worth examining both very closely before deciding which one to book.

There are a few common things between them. In both cases, the tickets are only good for one year, which means that your trip must be less than a year long. Both require you to cross both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and both have rules that you cannot backtrack or enter the same port twice (except for connections.) They both must start and finish in the same port. The prices for both tickets are also comparable.

Star Alliance

This is the ticket that we have. We chose this one for a few reasons – first, Air Canada is a member of Star Alliance, which means that points we accumulate on this trip can be used on Air Canada flights – and we’ve had a lot of flights and collected a lot of points. Second, routing through Africa, namely South Africa, was very important to us, and the Star Alliance ticket had better coverage with South African Airways. Third, for our particular route, it was cheaper. This ticket works on the number of miles you will fly, and has three different coverage levels. We ended up having to buy the highest level, at 39,000 miles. Obviously, the fewer miles you fly, the cheaper your ticket. You can reduce the number of miles you fly without changing your routing too much if you have a good travel agent who is familiar with these tickets. When we changed flight dates there was no charge, and when we changed routing (like cancelling stops or changing cities) there was a fee of $125 USD.

One World

This ticket doesn’t work with miles, but rather divides the world up into various different zones. You choose the number of zones you’ll visit and the number of flights within each zone (up to a certain maximum) to calculate the cost. We aren’t as familiar with this ticket, but again, a good travel agent will be able to help you here.

Generally Speaking

These tickets are certainly not cheap, nor are they simple. Again, I refer you to that excellent travel agent of yours. Another point to be made is that round-the-world tickets are inexplicably more expensive in North America. Friends of ours flew from Colorado to Perth, Australia, and then bought their ticket there. The ticket was meant to end in Perth, but they simply forfeited that leg of their trip. That option was more cost-effective than starting and ending in Colorado. We bought our ticket in Thailand, not only because it was cheaper, but also because we were gone longer than 12 months. So our ticket starts and ends in Bangkok, Thailand, and expires in May 2009 – which means we can go back to Thailand before that if we want to! Keep in mind that we were in Thailand anyway, so the flight there wasn’t a problem; more importantly, because we could pick up the tickets in person, we didn’t have to pay any extra commission – and many agents in Asia have lower ticket prices but higher commissions that are charged on top.

Also keep in mind that BG, the research guru, had looked up all of the routing before we actually even spoke to an agent. He looked up all of the ticket limitations, cross-referenced our desired routing and dates with the flights available across all of the alliance airlines, and had the whole thing mapped out. It took him hours and hours. This way we didn’t have to leave our itinerary in the hands of an unknown Thai travel agent. If you aren’t willing or able to do this kind of work (as I am not) or simply don’t have the time, it’s probably worth the extra money to book your ticket from home.

In theory, because the RTW ticket is booked through one Alliance, it should be easy to make changes. That’s how they make it sound, anyway. We didn’t find this to be the case at all; maybe it’s because ours was one of the last paper tickets to be issued before e-tickets became standard for RTW trips. For some reason, the travel agent that we booked through in Thailand was unable to make any changes for us. Once the ticket was issued, we had to do all of the changes ourselves. This was a nightmare. We called the airline that we would be making the change for, and they would insist we make the change through Air Canada, since it was a Star Alliance ticket booked through Air Canada via Thailand (confusing enough for you?). Air Canada would insist that they could not make the changes, since we were not flying on Air Canada, but rather on the other airline. This would go back and forth a few times. Finally, the airline that the flight was booked on would have to make the change. Remember this: The airline you will be flying on IS THE ONE WHO WILL MAKE THE CHANGE. Do not relent. Keep telling them. Ask them to speak to the “Rate Desk/Department” (I don’t know why, but that always got the job done.) The truth is that relatively few RTW tickets are bought, so only a few people actually know how they work.

Another option for round-the-world flights without a RTW ticket is to piece together your own itinerary with individual flights. One company, Airtreks, does this. You tell them where you want to go, and they organize the whole thing. Any changes you make are also done by them. We looked into this option, and it really wasn’t much cheaper, and we couldn’t collect our loyalty points. You could also do this yourself, focusing on discount airlines like Tiger Airways and Air Asia (Asia), Virgin Blue (Australia), or Ryan Air (Europe), but it would take heaps of time – and if you wanted to make any changes to your itinerary, it would be hellish to shift each flight individually, if you could do it at all.

The last important point to mention is that if you miss any leg of your RTW ticket, you forfeit all of the remaining legs of your trip. So getting to the airport on time is critical – and if you do miss your flight, don’t just hop on the next available flight with anyone to the next destination. Work with your airline to get you where you want to go. Let them know you have a RTW ticket, and make sure they guarantee you haven’t forfeited it. But really, the easiest thing to do is to set your alarm and give yourself plenty of time to get there. It’s not like anything else could go wrong, like political protestors shutting down the major international airport in Bangkok, Thailand, for a week, leaving over 300,000 tourist stranded, to say nothing of those travelers simply connecting through Bangkok, which is a major hub in Asia. Hah. Hah?

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