The Complete Guide To Round-The-World Flights

With summer nearly over, warmer climes beckon. Here, round-the-world travel expert David Orkin brings you the best globe-trotting flight offers


I'D LIKE TO FLY WITH ONE SINGLE AIRLINE, PLEASE

I'D LIKE TO FLY WITH ONE SINGLE AIRLINE, PLEASE

Not possible I'm afraid. These days, no airline flies right around the world. A round-the-world (RTW) ticket is a series of flight coupons (in one or more tickets) that will take you around the globe on two or more airlines.

HOW MUCH DO THEY COST?

A lot less than they used to. Twenty-five years ago, most RTW economy-class fares were around £1,300-£1,850, while out-and-back return tickets between the UK and Australia or New Zealand cost from £800-£1,100. A major upheaval occurred when, after years of competition, British Airways and Qantas joined forces in the mid-1990s, opening up a flood of cheap RTW possibilities.

The combined route network of the two airlines and new pricing structure meant that passengers could fly to Australia and/or New Zealand via the western hemisphere and return via the eastern (or vice versa) for the same price as a normal out-and-back return ticket. In addition, airlines had been slashing prices in an attempt to increase sales, so long-haul fares were already cheaper than ever. Other carriers responded, and the last decade has seen much alliance-building across the airline industry. Specialist travel agencies have turned their energies to coming up with imaginative ways to stretch the alliance fares to the limit to offer you the widest range of stopovers at the most reasonable prices.

WHERE DO PEOPLE GO - AND WHERE SHOULD THEY GO?

These days, virtually anywhere you might want to go can be "folded in" to a trip. You need to decide if this is to be a once-in-a-lifetime holiday taking in your dream destinations, or if you are just after a couple of interesting stops en route to and from Australasia. Does the thought of trekking in Chile excite you more than the prospect of swaying in a hammock on a Fijian beach? Are you ready for the culture shock of Delhi, the buzz of Hong Kong or the temples and traffic of Bangkok? Certain destinations that aren't on the mainstream routes, such as the Caribbean or North Africa, will push up the price. And flights between your chosen stopover points won't always be direct - you may have to change planes to reach some destinations.

CAN I HAVE A LIST OF ALL THE RTW OPTIONS?

If such a thing exists, I haven't seen it in more than 20 years of working in the industry. There are unlimited itinerary options, often with incredibly complex pricing. Airlines and agencies have, by and large, given up printing promotional material on RTW fares because prices and rules change so frequently. In any event such leaflets rarely offer anything more than a few sample routes. You may be able to find maps of route networks on relevant airlines' websites: these can help a bit but sometimes resemble those old "who caught the fish?" puzzles.

SO HOW DO I START?

Make a list of all the places you would like to visit, and divide these into three priorities: "musts", "would quite likes" and "could drop if they make the price rise dramatically". Bear in mind that scheduling can be tricky. While flights between most major destinations are usually daily, services between Pacific islands and on unusual routings (eg Seychelles-Australia) are less frequent. Remember that a stopover city can also be used as a base from which to see more of the area (eg a stop in Miami and a drive down to the Florida Keys, or a stop in Bangkok and a visit to Chiang Mai and Phuket).

You need not fly everywhere: some journeys lend themselves well to land travel, and hiring a car, joining a tour or a taking a classic train journey can be a great way to link two stopover points and get a good feeling for an area. In terms of your RTW ticket, this is described as a "surface sector", even if you use a low-cost flight to cover some of the ground. Unless your flights both to and from a destination are relatively short (under six hours, for example), I advise a minimum of two nights' stay at any stopover, otherwise you'll only get to see the airport and the hotel.

HOW LONG CAN I GO FOR?

Anything from 40 hours to 365 days. Some fares have "minimum stay" requirements (typically 10-14 days), but if your schedule is tighter than that, an itinerary could be arranged where you only stop for a couple of hours in each place. Most RTW tickets are valid for a maximum of one year from your departure date from the UK.

CAN I DO SOME OF THE FLIGHTS IN BUSINESS CLASS?

Flying some of the longer (especially the overnight) sectors of your journey in business class might seem attractive, and there are some good-value RTWs with business-class segments available from around £3,200. A compromise is to pay to upgrade certain sectors to premium economy (known as World Traveller Plus on British Airways) rather than business class. These upgrades cost around £230 per flight. Virgin Atlantic has a premium economy cabin with similar upgrade charges, and Air New Zealand is to introduce a "Super Economy" class next year - it will offer wider seats with lots of legroom, laptop power and better catering.

AND WHEN I'VE MADE MY PLAN?

Pass your thoughts on to a travel agent. This is like presenting a chef with some raw ingredients and seeing what they come up with. Contact two or three specialist agencies, such as the ones that advertise in these pages, with the same initial information and see how they respond to your request. You may be offered a choice between exactly what you asked for and a cheaper but less-convenient possibility. Your agent should be able to tell you which of your "non-essential" destinations are pushing the price up, and should suggest the most efficient order in which to visit the destinations to take advantage of the best value fares. Fare quotes are of little use unless appropriate flights are available, so an agent should make a provisional booking for you: this is the simplest way to check availability and timings. However, make sure that you don't have more than one agency holding reservations for you on the same flight - airlines cancel duplicate bookings without notice.

SURELY I CAN DO THE WHOLE THING ON THE INTERNET?

You can use the internet to contact agencies by e-mail to request and receive specific quotes, but the day has yet to come when websites can automatically quote multi-sector RTW itineraries as well - or as competitively - as a properly trained agent. The internet can be a very useful tool for gathering information about the routes that particular airlines fly and possible stopover destinations (including where to stay and what to do there), but coming up with the best round-the-world itinerary is all about the interaction between the traveller and a good agent.

WHY AN AGENT? CAN'T I DEAL DIRECT WITH THE AIRLINES?

You can go direct, but airline staff will often be familiar only with their own airline's routes (and, if you're lucky, those of their alliance partners). Round-the-world fares will often be cheaper through the major agencies than the airlines. In addition, staff at specialist agencies constantly compare the RTW fares on offer and spend a much higher proportion of their time organising RTW flights than their airline counterparts, so should be more knowledgeable about what's available.

WHAT AM I LIKELY TO BE OFFERED?

The standard option is a return ticket to Australia or New Zealand that allows different stopovers in the eastern and western hemispheres. Qantas/ British Airways/Australian Airlines/Air Pacific has a basic "World Discovery" fare; an RTW ticket with a maximum of four stopovers including one in Australia and one in New Zealand. The stopover destinations available are Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Denpasar (Bali), Johannesburg, Honolulu, Nadi (the main airport for Fiji), Los Angeles, New York, Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Cairns and Darwin. Not all combinations of stopovers work - because of route and mileage restrictions you couldn't choose Tokyo, Johannesburg, Sydney and Los Angeles on the same trip.

For an extra £125-£160, the World Discovery Plus ticket on the same airlines allows travellers to choose from a maximum of seven stopovers in the Americas, Australasia, Africa and Asia. The fare offers a limited South American option: you can fly on British Airways between the UK and Bogota, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires or Santiago. However, the only option across the Pacific is a flight between Santiago and Auckland (continuing to Sydney), a service notoriously difficult to secure seats on.

A very popular fare that allows flights on the services of specific airlines or airline alliances is the "Great Escapade" using Singapore Airlines (and its subsidiary, Silk Air), Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic. It even has its own website: www.thegreatescapade.com. If your itinerary includes New Zealand or Australia, your North American stopover possibilities are limited to San Francisco or Los Angeles - unless you buy an extra ticket or travel by land. This fare is no use for South America. It allows domestic flights in New Zealand but none in Australia. There is also a much more restrictive "Mini-Escapade" via New Zealand using just Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic.

For a greater variety of stopover possibilities you may have to choose a more expensive ticket, such as that offered by Star Alliance or the "Passport to the World", a combination of flights on an exotic range of airlines including KLM, Northwest, Continental, Kenya Airways, Malaysia Airlines, South African Airways, Emirates, Alaska Airlines, Air Pacific and the Panamanian airline, COPA. Most RTW fares allow a maximum mileage within which your itinerary must fall. An exception to this system is the versatile "Oneworld Explorer", whose price depends on the number of continents that you will be visiting.

ANY OTHER LIKELY ALTERNATIVES?

Itineraries whereby agents create a RTW fare by using a one-way ticket to Australia or New Zealand on one airline, and a one-way ticket back on another airline in the other direction, are becoming rarer by the day. On these RTWs you will usually have to travel out via the west and back via the east, because most one-way inbounds via the west have been withdrawn. Various carriers offer fares via the west, eg Air New Zealand (allowing a stop in Los Angeles, plus a range of Pacific Islands), United (the US and Canada), and Aerolineas Argentinas (Buenos Aires).

Coming back, possibilities include using Singapore Airlines via its hub, Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong), Royal Brunei (via Brunei, Singapore, Bangkok or Dubai) and Emirates/SriLankan (via Singapore, the Indian subcontinent or Dubai). The tie-up between Emirates and Sri Lanka's airline is especially valuable if you want to include India in your circumnavigation; it can be expensive and difficult to fit in otherwise.

THE BIG QUESTION: HOW MUCH DO RTW TICKETS COST?

There are so many variables that can affect the price of a round-the-world ticket. Try to be flexible with your departure date (particularly if you're flying economy class), as a few days' difference may save you £200 or more. Business-class fares tend to stay the same year-round. You occasionally see round-the-world trips offered for less than £700 (especially for low-season departures from mid-April to mid-June), but £850 is a more realistic starting figure (especially if you want to include destinations in Africa or South America). For Christmas departures, you'd be lucky to find anything under £1,200.

Business-class RTW fares start at around £3,200, with the Great Escapade offering the best value. When you are quoted a fare, your agent must also advise you of pre-payable taxes: on a typical UK-Asia-Australia-US-UK itinerary, don't expect to see much change out of £100. In addition, you must also pay tax at certain airports, such as those in Canada and many developing countries.

Paying a deposit does not protect you against subsequent fare rises. But should particular fares increase, or fare rules change for the worse, airlines almost always give some notice. Reputable agencies routinely contact customers who have paid only deposits and offer the option of full payment so that tickets can be issued at the original fare levels, and/or with the original rules.

WHEN SHOULD I BOOK?

Round-the-world fares are less liable to wild fluctuations than normal return fares. Flights do fill up (often months in advance), and just one fully booked flight can scupper an entire itinerary. Apart from the very slim chance that a lower fare will be introduced, special offers are available from time to time, usually on the simpler itineraries which offer a limited number of stops and stopover possibilities. I recommend booking as far in advance as possible, but see the box "Pay Now, Fly Later".

PAY NOW, FLY LATER

Though one of the most popular RTW fares, a lot of people are put off from booking an Escapade because of a rule imposed by Singapore Airlines: any itineraries involving the airline - even just for one flight - must be paid for in full and ticketed within two weeks of reservations being made. This rule also applies to Star Alliance RTW fares.

The main competitors, Qantas and British Airways, are more relaxed. They stipulate that bookings on those airlines made more than two months in advance of departure must be paid for in full and ticketed at least two months before departure: if booking within 60 days, tickets must be paid for in full and issued within two weeks of booking.

ONEWORLD vs STAR

For passengers in the UK looking for RTWs there are two major alliances: Oneworld ( www.oneworld.com), comprising Aer Lingus, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Lan Chile/Ecuador/Peru and Qantas; and the Star Alliance ( www.staralliance.com), with Air Canada, Air New Zealand, All Nippon, Asiana, Austrian, BMI, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, SAS Scandinavian, Singapore Airlines, Spanair, Thai International, United, US Airways and Varig of Brazil. South African Airways is expected to join the Star in 2005.

ROUND-THE-WORLD DEALS

All these prices are from Quest Travel (0870 442 3513; www.questtravel.com). Fares quoted in The Independent Traveller usually include taxes, fees and charges - except in this case. There is such fluidity in the market at the moment, with airlines adding fuel supplements by the day, that the information would rapidly be out of date. It is best to assume a minimum of £100 for these extras.

WORLD DISCOVERY

London-Hong Kong-Sydney-New York-London. Fares range from £827 (20 April-30 June) to £1,166 (10-23 December).

WORLD DISCOVERY PLUS

London-Santiago-Auckland-Sydney-Perth-Singapore-Bangkok-London. Fares range from £949 (20 April-30 June) to £1,325 (12-23 December).

ESCAPADE

London-Delhi-Singapore-Hanoi surface to Ho Chi Minh City-Sydney-Christchurch-Auckland-Rarotonga (Cook Islands)-Tahiti-Los Angeles surface to San Francisco-London. Fares range from £827 (20 April-30 June) to £1,166 (12-23 December).

TWO ONE-WAYS

Combining United and Emirates/SriLankan to travel London-New York-Chicago-Los Angeles-Sydney surface to Melbourne-Singapore-Colombo-Dubai-London. Fares from £890 for departures between 15 August and 8 December.

ONEWORLD EXPLORER

London-Helsinki-Bangkok-Singapore-Perth-Melbourne-Sydney-Christchurch surface to Auckland-Santiago-Lima-Rio de Janeiro-London. Fares range from £1,319 (1 September-9 December, 24 December-14 June) to £1,519 (the rest of the year).

BUSINESS-CLASS ESCAPADE

London-Hong Kong-Singapore-Christchurch-Auckland-Fiji-Los Angeles surface to Las Vegas-London costs £3,180.

David Orkin began his career in travel selling flights for Trailfinders, and later became a director of Quest Worldwide (now Quest Travel)

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