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.
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. Though I’ve also done overland trips focusing on a single continent, lasting many months or even a year.
The tips I’ll share with you here can save you many headaches when planning a round-the-world trip, especially when it comes to planning the flights.
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 normal flight tickets. And there are several ways of planning RTW travel, which I’ll go through later.
While you need to choose the stops in your flight itinerary 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.
RTW travel versus overland
A round-the-world trip comes with certain tradeoffs.
If you’re planning a gap year, a round the world trip, or career break, then you have an important choice to make. Will you go wide and travel many continents, or will you focus on a single one?
Both can give you a totally different experience.
Round the world travel is typically structured around a round-the-world (RTW) ticket. These trips are all about variety, circling around the globe within a maximum of one year. An example of an eastward round-the-world route starting in London would be flying to New York, then Los Angeles, Fuji, Sydney, Singapore, Bangkok and back, which can be all on a single flight itinerary.
Overlanding is very different as it has you traveling by bus, train, or personal transportation through a region. You only fly into your endpoint and fly back home at the end of your journey. Sometimes your starting and endpoint will be the same: this is common in South-East Asia for example where trips often start and end in Bangkok or Singapore. Sometimes the starting and end points will be different: this is common in Latin America where someone might start north in Mexico City or Bogota and end the trip south in Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro.
Here are some of the pros and cons to keep in mind:
- Gives you the most variation. You’ll visit different destinations on several continents.
- Typically good value-for-money for flights. Since you are buying your flights as one big package, the total price can be attractive.
- But can be more expensive overall. Most round-the-world routes go through expensive, developed countries. Common hubs like New York, Los Angeles or Sydney will have you splash your cash.
- Needs more backtracking. You often need to backtrack to your last airport to go to your next stop. This can be costly or time-consuming. For example, perhaps you land in Sydney, then go to Melbourne and the Gold Coast, but you won’t be able to continue your trip from Brisbane; you will have to go back to Sydney again.
- More upfront planning. Planning one grand journey with many international stops is a bit more involved than just going to one region.
- Need to pack for multiple climates. Packing light can be more challenging, as you will likely need clothes for both summer and winter conditions.
Overlanding (regional trip)
- Potentially cheapest cost of travel. Popular overland backpacking routes like the Banana Pancake trail in South-East Asia, the Gringo Trail in Latin America and Silk Route all go through low-cost countries.
- Deep instead of broad. It lets you cut deeper into the culture and see more within each destination, though also with less cultural variation between countries.
- Sense of a journey. By not flying you can see landscapes transition gradually, gain a greater appreciation for distances, and see how places relate to each other. Psychologically, it can feel a bit more like a classic “journey”.
- Need to pack for one climate only. This makes packing a lot easier.
- Flexibility. The only things set in stone on an overland backpacking trip are your starting and endpoint, so you can adapt your route as you go. That said, on an RTW trip you can also still change your flight dates, and move things around a bit if needed.
So which one should you choose?
Having done two big overland trips I am quite partial to this style of travel. But the answer is, of course, that it depends on your personal preferences.
The appeal of a round-the-world trip is “seeing the world in one go”. Of course that is never truly possible, but that’s what a lot of RTW trips try to reach for. The key is variation: one month you may find yourself on a tropical beach, the next you’re in icy cold Russia. If you are planning a big trip, and you won’t have another opportunity to travel any time soon, then I highly recommend the RTW approach.
RTW travel often 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.
The appeal of backpacking overland is that it lets you travel more slowly and discover your own path. The goal is less to “see the whole world” but more to have a deeper experience in some part of the world. It’s also the best option if you will be travelling on a budget, as you can limit yourself to cheaper destinations.
How to plan a round the world trip
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.
- 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)
- 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
You can use flight search engines like Google Flights, Momondo, Skyscanner and Kiwi to find your flights. However, these are designed for point-to-point trips and can be 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
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 Qantas 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.
- Can be much cheaper than buying separate tickets
- Avoids the hassle of finding tickets during your trip
- Dates can still be changed
- 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, but using a specialized RTW travel agency is a different story.
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 literally take months to learn), and can spend hours finding the optimal itinerary for you. I’m usually take a do-it-yourself approach, but I was immediately convinced of the value you get from an RTW expert, who can help you navigate the thousands of different options out there.
- 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
- 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 customized, I recommend checking these out.
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