Want to travel the world far and wide? Then a great way to do so is on a round-the-world trip!

Such a trip has you flying around the globe and hopping between continents, either going west or east all the way until you arrive back home.

Special round-the-world (RTW) tickets exist for this type of trip. An RTW itinerary also gives you a unique chance to visit quite isolated places, such as Easter Island, that are normally too far to hit up on their own.

For many travelers, a round-the-world trip is the ultimate ‘dream trip’.

I myself did a round-the-world trip once, which took me through Japan, Australia, the USA and Europe. Since then I’ve worked in the travel industry and learned a bit more about how RTW trips work.

How do round-the-world tickets work?

Round-the-world (RTW) tickets are multi-stop airline tickets which take you around the world, often cheaper than when purchasing the flights individually. Your journey typically has to start and end in the same country, and has to go either east-to-west or west-to-east around the globe.

Buying an RTW ticket is not as simple as buying just any flight tickets. In this post, I’ll compare three different ways of buying your RTW tickets and their pros and cons.

While you need to choose your stops in advance, you usually still have flexibility on your flight dates. In most cases, your trip can last up to a maximum of 1 year. Your minimum or maximum number of allowed stops depends on the type of RTW ticket, as well as how you go about booking your trip.

How to buy round-the-world tickets

There are multiple methods to book your RTW trip, each with different pros and cons:

Method 1: buy tickets individually

Booking single tickets yourself may seem like the easiest way, though it also comes with some major drawbacks. Some RTW travelers might still prefer it anyway.

Advantages:

  • You can do it yourself
  • You can book tickets one-by-one as you travel, letting you change your mind during your trip
  • Can use low-cost airlines (such as Spirit, EasyJet, AirAsia)

Disadvantages:

  • This method is often the most costly
  • Finding cheap tickets by yourself can be time-consuming
  • Publicly available search engines are not made for RTW trips
  • There can be visa/immigration issues when flying on single one-way tickets

Google Flights, MomondoSkyscanner and Kiwi are some of the best search engines for individual flights, and you can use various methods to find cheap flights. These search engines are good for point-to-point trips but are pretty terrible for multi-stop trips (we’ll talk about this more later).

Booking single tickets can make sense if you want maximum flexibility—for instance, if halfway through your RTW trip you want to completely ditch Australia and go to China instead, then you still have this option. Unlike the RTW packages offered by airline alliances, you are also free to use any airline you’d like.

This flexibility does come at a cost. You may have noticed that one-way trips are not simply priced at half a return ticket; instead, they’re usually based on 75% of the return airfare. This means that putting together an itinerary using one-way airfares over multiple continents is going to be a lot more expensive.

Method 2: buy from an airline alliance

This method involves buying an RTW ticket from an airline alliance. Star Alliance, One World, and Sky Team offer multi-stop RTW tickets.

Besides these alliances, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic and Singapore Airlines also offer RTW trips through a shared brand called The Great Escapade. Emirates, which is not part of any alliance, offers some round-the-world tickets in collaboration with other companies. If you’re going to Australia, then Quantas may also have some limited RTW offers for you.

These RTW tickets require you to create your entire route in advance, though you are still somewhat flexible on the flight dates. At the time of purchase, you set an approximate date for each flights, but these dates can often still be changed later.

Advantages:

  • Can be much cheaper than buying separate tickets
  • Avoids the hassle of finding tickets during your trip
  • Dates can still be changed

Disadvantages:

  • Stuck with particular airline alliances, so less flexibility
  • Staff not trained to deal with these tickets very much
  • Confusing rules and varying coverage

Each airline alliance’s RTW offering has different rules with regards to backtracking, the total number of stops allowed, varying constraints on overland segments (called “surface sectors”), and varying degrees of global coverage. Understanding and comparing all these different rules can be complicated.

Method 3: use a specialized RTW agency

These days you don’t need a travel agency just to book a point-to-point flight (as you can easily do this yourself), but using a specialized RTW travel agency is something quite different.

I once got a behind-the-scenes look at an RTW booking agency and sat next to one of their travel specialists as they put together an itinerary. I was simply blown away. They have advanced search tools that are unavailable to the public (and which take months to learn), and can spend hours finding the optimal itinerary for you. I’m usually a do-it-yourself kind of guy, but was immediately convinced of the value you get from an RTW expert, who can help you navigate the thousands of different options out there.

Advantages:

  • Flights can be cherry-picked from any available airline
  • Or combine an airline alliance RTW ticket with additional flights
  • Expert advice on your itinerary, overland sections, and cheapest or best options anywhere

Disadvantages:

  • You still need to decide your destinations in advance… so choose well!

An RTW expert can use surface sectors (overland segments) to reduce your costs and optimize your itinerary to go via cheaper routes. They can also advise you on unique RTW opportunities—for example, stopping by Easter Island or Polynesia (which for many people would normally be prohibitively expensive to fly to just on their own).

There are a number of RTW specialist agencies, such as AirTreks in the US & Canada, Travel Nation in the UK & Europe, and Roundabout in Australia. If you want to easily plan your RTW trip, and especially if you want to do something a bit customised, I recommend checking these out.

While booking yourself can give you the greatest flexibility, working with an agency is very likely to save you money and get you a better itinerary.