This week, when the most savage spending cuts for generations were revealed, you might assume it is time to downsize your holiday expectations, rather than embark upon a costly circumnavigation of the globe. Yet this is arguably the best of times to consider a round-the-world trip. If you still have a job, celebrate by planning the trip of a lifetime – one that, perhaps paradoxically, needn't break the bank (though luxurious and expensive multi-stop trips are available). And if you are a victim of government cost-cutting, there's no better way to splurge the redundancy cheque to see what you've been missing while slaving away for the benefit of the public. Either way, now's the time to escape Britain's new age of austerity, and go beyond the traditional holiday.
After a couple of years of retrenchment, the new airline schedules that start next weekend provide the globetrotter with more options than ever before. Many of the best round-the-world (RTW) fares are offered through the airline alliances: Star (featuring United, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines plus many others), Skyteam (Air France/KLM, Delta and Korean Air) and Oneworld (American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Iberia and Qantas).
Round-the-world tickets were first dreamt up in the Seventies. The airlines had acquired wide-bodied jets, which meant they had a lot more seats to fill. Yet fares were very high compared with wage levels: typically £1,200 (about the same as the most basic RTW costs in the high season today), which equalled about three months' work at the average salary.
Pioneering globetrotters snapped up the first RTWs because they represented a once-in-a-lifetime experience: because fares to everywhere were sky high, a big travel splurge made rational sense. Today, it takes the typical British employee under three weeks to earn that £1,200.
The sharp decline in fares in real terms means that the original reason for a RTW has largely evaporated, except for gap-year travellers (who are time-rich but cash-poor) or long-serving public-sector workers who find themselves surplus to government requirements, and temporarily at least, time-rich and cash-rich. Thanks to the status of Britain – and, in particular, London – as the world centre of aviation, you could easily pick off Asian, Australasian and American trips one at a time. Yet circumnavigating the globe (something few in previous generations could ever contemplate) feels a more profound travel experience.
This is the all-you-can-eat travel buffet: you can feast on contrasting cultures, cuisines, landscapes and experiences. As with any feast, though, you should choose your dishes carefully to maximise satisfaction and minimise indigestion.
The basic, budget itinerary remains much as it has always been: a long hop to Asia, an exploration of Australia and/or New Zealand, perhaps a South Pacific stopover and the chance to discover as much of North America as you can afford in terms of time and money.
If price is your overwhelming concern, then by all means search online; you can probably undercut the many specialist agents competing for your cash. But it is a far more sound plan to find an expert who knows all the tricks of this tangled trade. The flights specialist-turned-travel writer David Orkin says this is "like presenting a chef with some raw ingredients and seeing what they come up with". The agent will help to unravel the complexities offered by dozens of airlines and hundreds of destinations, blending them together for maximum value and minimum stress.
Before you pick up the phone or walk through the door, do some dreaming. Compile an "A-list" of cities you insist upon, such as Hong Kong or Tokyo, Sydney or Auckland, San Francisco or New York, together with activities such as whale-watching in Canada or an African safari. Then add a "B-list" of places or experiences it would be nice to have: perhaps a stop in the Gulf, a train ride through South-East Asia or a drive along the Californian coast. Present these to an expert, and they will throw in a "C-list" of places you hadn't thought of, but which can be inserted in the trip for little or no extra cash.
A good agent will advise on how moving your departure date could cut the cost: the date you leave the UK determines the overall price. Christmas/New Year and July/August are highest seasons, mid-April-June the lowest. He or she will also advise on how much it costs to upgrade to business or premium economy for some or all of the trip – less than you might think, especially for Christmas/New Year departures when economy fares are high. You can also expect the ticket rules to be spelt out in language you can understand – can you switch dates on destinations? The agency Round the World Experts even offers customers a "Travel Butler", allowing travellers to change flight, make additional ground arrangements, or simply seek advice as they travel.
The options over these three pages should provide ideas and inspiration. Fares quoted are from a range of agencies for high-season departures from London in early January. Most of these itineraries allow up to a year to complete the trip. All pre-payable taxes, fees and charges are included. Transport over "surface" sectors – which may involve buying a tactical no-frills flight – and locally payable fees will add to the cost. But in years to come you will look back upon a round-the-world experience as the very best kind of investment.
Swap winter for sunny southern skies
Abandon Heathrow on a bitter January evening to bask in the warmth of an afternoon in the Thai capital, Bangkok. After exploring the temples and palaces, go south via the islands of Samui, Phi Phi and Penang, then meander through mainland Malaysia to Singapore and your flight to Sydney. Celebrate Australia Day on 26 January, then chase the sun to Christchurch in New Zealand's South Island. You could spend weeks testing the latest adventures in Queenstown, the world's adrenalin capital. Cross from South Island to North – then fly onwards to Fiji, the best backpacker destination in the Pacific.
Air Pacific will win you a day back as you cross the International Date Line to Los Angeles, where you can breeze south to Mexico's Baja California or wander east into the deserts of Arizona. At £1,473, this is the classic round-the-world journey, and flexible enough to offer more Asian options (Mumbai, Shanghai or Tokyo). For a fee, you can even change your mind as you go along.
"This is a great (and cheap) way to combine South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji," says Stuart Lodge from RoundTheWorldFlights.com.
Above the line: northern adventures
Pan Am, a now-extinct airline, was first to offer a RTW trip on a single carrier. It was restricted to the northern hemisphere, including stops in New York, Honolulu, Hong Kong and Delhi. Today, the only airline offering a one-carrier RTW is Air New Zealand – predictably via Auckland. And over the decades it has become trickier and usually more expensive to stay north of the Equator, mainly because the intense competition to Australasia is not matched over the North Pacific. But Paul Bondsfield of Round the World Experts reckons a trip involving Tokyo, Los Angeles and Las Vegas is a candidate for best budget option – at just £938:
"Be blinded by the neon lights of Tokyo, see the sunrise from Mount Fuji and catch a glimpse of the geishas in Kyoto," suggests Bondsfield. Then you cross the Pacific, and exchange the exotic East for the wild West of America. "There's no point in trying for culture in Los Angeles. Check out the stars' homes in Hollywood, get bronzed on Venice Beach and go window shopping on Rodeo Drive." Then head across the desert, and enjoy a final blaze of neon in Las Vegas.
Spend more –let's say £1,799 – and you can build in some spectacular stopovers, as an itinerary from Haydn Wrath at Travel Nation suggests. Start with a Virgin Atlantic flight from Gatwick to Havana; continue to Mexico City, where you can explore the nation on the excellent buses (perhaps with a ferry across the Sea of Cortéz to Baja California) along the way to Los Angeles and the flight to Tokyo.
From the Japanese capital, things really get interesting. Next stop is Siem Reap in Cambodia, the airport serving the palaces of Angkor Wat. You then make your way overland to Chiang Mai in Thailand, a journey that could involve a boat trip up the Mekong.
Chiang Mai, the northern capital of Thailand, has become a city of indulgence, with boutique hotels and art galleries attracting sophisticated travellers. It is set at the foot of Suthep mountain. "Climb to the temple at the top just before sunset," says Wrath. "You'll find the monks chanting and few other tourists around,"
At this point your generally northerly, westbound itinerary with a south-easterly excursion, taking in Singapore and Manila en route to Kathmandu. Another surface stretch takes you through the Himalayan foothills to Delhi, and you fly non-stop back from there to Heathrow. Indeed, you could regard this trip as a way to get from Gatwick to Heathrow in a rather more exotic fashion than getting the bus around the M25.
Strike gold in South America and Australia
The part of the world with the highest proportion of new links from Europe this winter is Latin America. Airlines such as British Airways (with Gatwick to Cancún in Mexico) and Iberia (from Madrid to Córdoba in Argentina and San Salvador) are multiplying the options for travellers keen to discover treasures from Mayan cities to the Iguazu Falls. The reason the carriers are expanding: they are earning record fares. The strong demand, plus the extra distances involved, makes RTWs that include South America especially expensive. But if you want to visit the world's most remote airport, at Easter Island, it makes sense to build it into a globe-trotting trip.
Trailfinders has a fascinating itinerary using British Airways, Qantas and Lan Chile that takes you from Heathrow via Hong Kong to Perth in Western Australia. The 2,700-mile Indian Pacific rail journey from Perth to Sydney takes the best part of three days, and isn't cheap, but is the ideal way to understand the scale of Australia.
You then travel via Auckland to Easter Island, which is the absolute high point for many a RTW traveller. Besides the astonishing moai (stone heads) liberally scattered across the hillsides and along the shores, it combines spectacular scenery with a gentle pace of life. Book up quick, though: Trailfinders' Lucy Balding warns "The South Pacific sectors via Easter Island get booked up very early as on as it is only covered by one airline, Lan, and it is the main Australasia-to-South America gateway."
From the Chilean capital, Santiago you travel overland through the Andes to Buenos Aires; a superb way to do this is to go south to Puerto Montt, then across the Andes using the same route as Che Guevara to Bariloche in Argentina. All yours for £3,227 – including Gold Class (and all meals) rail travel across Australia.
Some returning global travellers say they wish they had focused on fewer places. A South American itinerary using the Discoverer fare, as recommended by RoundTheWorldFlights.com, does that. You fly out of midwinter Heathrow to midsummer Rio, then discover the Iguazu Falls and the beaches of Uruguay en route to Buenos Aires. From Argentina's capital you make the long trans-Pacific crossing to Sydney (a route with additional flights soon to start), then aim for Bangkok.
All yours for £1,886 – but once you learn that extra destinations such as Lima, Santiago, Fiji and Hong Kong add little extra to the fare, your "less is more" philosophy may evaporate.
From plane to plains for an African safari
Trans-oceanic flights solely in the Southern Hemisphere are rare, infrequent and expensive. So this is one journey when the alliances – and in particular Oneworld – come into their own. Trailfinders can construct a ticket using only BA and Qantas that takes you to your choice of city in sub-Saharan Africa, then from Johannesburg across to Sydney, with Auckland, Fiji and Los Angeles completing the itinerary. This costs £2,029 – but for £1,619 Trailfinders can add a four-week overland tour from Nairobi to Johannesburg, taking in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana.
RoundTheWorldFlights.com suggests a similar fare – £2,181 – but with variations. You can opt for a slimmer African adventure, with a surface leg from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam that allows you to take a Masai Mara safari, make an attempt on Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro, and enjoy the Indian Ocean beaches of Mombasa or Zanzibar. It also takes in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest , with stops in Seattle and Vancouver.
Paul Bondsfield of Round the World Experts has come up with what he calls the "Pacific Safari Deluxe": a journey exclusively in business class that combines both South Africa with the world's biggest ocean – and even offers Florida as well as California. For £4,789, you fly to Cape Town, make your own way to Johannesburg, then cross the Indian Ocean to Sydney, with Auckland, Fiji and Honolulu featuring en route to Los Angeles and Miami.
Let the train take the strain
RTW options are able to embrace train journeys, long or short – and they don't come much bigger than the Trans-Siberian Railway, which spans one-quarter of the globe. For an air cost of £1,896, Stuart Lodge of RoundTheWorldFlights recommends a short hop to the wintry wonders of St Petersburg. This is where Eric Newby began The Big Red Train Ride across Russia. You can follow the same tracks. Start with a few days exploring the palaces of the former Russian capital, then take an overnight train to the present capital. Pay your respects to Lenin in Red Square, then train-hop from Moscow to Irkutsk for a brief encounter with Lake Baikal, the world's deepest and, by volume, largest body of fresh water. From here you deviate south through Mongolia to Beijing, and onwards to Shanghai. Then escape past and present Communism for sunny southern-hemisphere capitalism in Sydney and Buenos Aires.
Desert islands plus a dash of glamour in Los Angeles
This itinerary is a particular favourite of Haydn Wrath of Travel Nation. For £1,716 you get stopovers in Dubai, the Maldives and Singapore en route to Sydney. Then you zig-zag across the South Pacific – first to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands: "There aren't many more relaxing spots than the Cooks," says Wrath. "You can drive round Rarotonga in 45 minutes. If you have the time and the budget will stretch to it, try to get across to Aitutaki – I challenge you to find a more beautiful 'desert island' anywhere in the Pacific".
Next you head back down to Auckland, followed by Tonga and Western Samoa before the long haul to Los Angeles for some California surf and the homebound flight to Britain – on which you can cheer yourself up with a Premium Economy upgrade for only £245.
A lifetime of experiences packed into just 80 days
Travel Nation calls this £6,280 trip the "Phileas Fogg – around the world in 80 days". Fly from Heathrow to Delhi, with a 12-day trip through northern India to experience the bazaars of Old Delhi, the palaces of Jaipur, the ghost town of Fatehpur Sikri, the Taj Mahal, and the holy city of Varanasi. Next: 19 days in Thailand including a stay in a quirky floating hotel in Kanchanaburi (the location for The Bridge on the River Kwai), plus elephant trekking and hill-tribe adventures in Chiang Mai. You spend a fortnight travelling the length of Vietnam, with three days to recharge your batteries in Singapore before a flight to Cairns in Queensland. Spend two weeks driving a "Spaceship" camper van down to Sydney.
Cross to Chile, and go north to Peru for the Colca Canyon, the floating islands of Titicaca, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu. The price (based on two travelling) buys flights, accommodation (mostly with breakfast), transport, some local guides and excursions.
Travel essentials: World flights
* Dial-a-Flight (0800 811 4444; dialaflight.com)
* Round The World Experts (0800 707 6010; roundtheworldexperts.co.uk)
* RoundTheWorldFlights.com (020-7704 5700; roundtheworldflights.com)
* Trailfinders (0845 050 5886; trailfinders.com)
* Travel Nation (01273 320 580; travel-nation.co.uk)
* The independent website australiaflightbargains.com has some useful RTW coverage
* For rail advice see Seat61.com