How to Use Frequent Flyer Miles for a Round the World Ticket – Or Not
When I started planning my round the world trip almost two years ago, I decided to get a round the world ticket with Sky Team for a few reasons. I had a well defined period of time in which I would be traveling, I had several specific places I wanted to make sure I visited, and I planned on meeting up with my friend Amanda and with Andy at different points during the trip. I priced out the ticket to compare the actual cost with the number of Delta Skymiles I needed to get the ticket for free (well, almost free). Ultimately I went with miles because it saved me a lot of money. Here’s how the ticket worked and why it might not have been the best decision.
How much it cost
When I got my ticket, I turned over 180,000 Skymiles for the economy ticket. It was 280,000 for first class, which might have been nice but I didn’t quite have enough miles at that time. I also had to pay some taxes, which for my itinerary came out to just over US$167. Taxes will vary greatly depending on which airports you fly in and out of.
The route and dates I had would have cost me well over US$5,000 if I had purchased the round the world ticket with cash instead of miles. My flights were 1) Atlanta to Frankfurt, 2) Frankfurt to Singapore (via Amsterdam), 3) Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to Melbourne, 4) Tahiti to Seattle (via Los Angeles), 5) Seattle to Las Vegas, and 6) Las Vegas to Atlanta. I also had to buy several other flights to fill in the gaps. (For the record, I used Skymiles again to get a one way first class ticket to get back home from Atlanta.)
Restrictions on a normal round the world ticket
If you purchase your round the world ticket through Skyteam, you will be given up to 16 flight segments. This means if you want to go from Atlanta to Paris, that is one flight segment. If you want to go from Atlanta to Prague and the only way to get you there is with a connection in Paris, the whole thing is still considered one flight segment since you’re not actually going to Paris.
You must choose to fly either east to west or west to east. But you can go either direction within a continent. So you can decide to go in a general east direction by flying from North America to Europe to Asia, but within Europe you could fly west. As an example, you could book Atlanta to Berlin, and then Berlin to Paris.
You determine ahead of time which cities to include on your itinerary and set the date for the first flight. Dates for the rest of your flights can be locked in as you travel, and must be booked at least 72 hours ahead of when you want to fly.
Restrictions on a round the world ticket obtained with Skymiles
A round the world ticket on Skyteam obtained with miles will only get you six flight segments. The same applies as above, so when I booked Tahiti to Seattle and had to connect in Los Angeles, it still only counted as one flight segment.
You can not change direction within a continent. So when I tried to book Tahiti to Las Vegas and then Las Vegas to Seattle, I couldn’t because Las Vegas is farther east than Seattle. In order to make it work, I had to go to Seattle first, then Las Vegas.
You must lock in all of your cities and exact dates at the time of booking. So months later when I decided to stay with my friend in Las Vegas a few days longer, I had to pay US$150 to change the date. And that fee applies for every date you change, so it can add up quickly if you change your plans often.
You don’t know what the future holds
Even with my well defined travel time, there were things I never could have anticipated that made using this ticket a major hassle. Andy and I spent the first year of our relationship in a long distance situation, so I thought I’d be able to handle being away from him for a long time again.
I was wrong, and while I was in Laos I booked a ticket from Hanoi back to Germany to see him. If I hadn’t been committed to my round the world ticket, I could’ve booked my return flight from Frankfurt to Melbourne with probably one reasonable layover. Instead I was stuck going from Frankfurt to Abu Dhabi to Bangkok to Saigon. Then I had to sit in the Saigon airport for eight hours until my flight to Melbourne departed, which was part of my inflexible round the world ticket.
Plans change, new ideas pop up while you’re on the road, and your trip evolves. If you’re stuck with specific cities and specific dates, you can’t be very spontaneous. I felt like I had to move quickly in order to see everything and make it to the right city to catch the next flight on my round the world ticket, instead of being able to travel slowly and relax a little more. I felt like I had backed myself into a corner.
Lack of availability
Even though frequent flyer miles are a reward for customers who are loyal, the airlines will still give preference to a paying customer. This meant that there are only a certain number of award seats available on any given flight, and I was at the bottom of the totem pole when choosing dates. Luckily most of my dates were far enough out that it wasn’t a problem. But booking my first leg, Atlanta to Frankfurt to actually move to Germany, was tricky since I wanted to arrive on a Saturday. I also ended up starting my trip a few days earlier than I planned because of availability.
Skyteam also doesn’t have a lot of airlines that connect Asia with Australia and New Zealand. Korean Air and a few Chinese airlines are options, but since I was traveling in Southeast Asia, the thought of flying all the way to Seoul, Beijing or Shanghai didn’t appeal to me. That left me with Vietnam Airlines, and they don’t fly to New Zealand. It meant adding Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road to my itinerary, which was great, but I just didn’t have a lot of options.
Would I do it again?
Hindsight is an annoying thing. If I could do this all over again, I think I still would’ve booked a ticket with my miles, but probably a wide open round trip ticket, possibly to South America instead. Then I could have just left everything in the middle flexible. The longer the trip, the more flexibility you need. You can’t possibly know how you’re going to feel about a certain location a few months into the future. Just one of the many things I learned from my round the world trip.
A normal round the world ticket can be constraining enough since you have to decide ahead of time where you want to go. Getting one with miles is even more constraining because you also have to choose your flight dates ahead of time, there’s a fee for changing a date, you get less flight segments, and there are more restrictions with the direction you fly. Think long and hard before you decide to go with this option.
Please note: I got my ticket in the spring of 2011 and traveled from the end of September 2011 to the end of February 2012. Skyteam’s rules and requirements may have changed and could change at any time in the future.
January 7, 2013 @ 9:23 AM
When it comes to a round the world trip I think there are a few scenarios that you can consider. One of them is the round the world ticket which appears cheap upfront but commits you to a predetermined path and generally from what I’ve researched you need to lock in your destinations in advance. Another is what you have suggested which is using frequent flyer miles to pay for your trip but your trading off money for flexibility by taking that route at the end of the day. I think there is another strategy available to people who are traveling fairly slowly and have no particular need to be in a place in a hurry. That is to plan your travels according to what is cheapest at the time and buying your tickets to individual destinations based on that, traveling on the cheapest dates possible. It kind of does lock you in to certain destinations based on price but there is a peak season and an off peak season. You could choose your round the trip for example based on off peak destinations for half of the year and travel in the future during the other half of the year and you would get two round the world trips at a decent price. Hopefully this all makes sense! 🙂
January 7, 2013 @ 3:00 PM
I think if I were to do this again, I’d definitely leave more open so I could be spontaneous and decide on the road. Buying tickets based on when it’s cheaper and when it’s low season is a good way to do it too, but I’d still recommend not planning too far in advance. I was so glad to save a huge chunk of money by using my miles, but I was a little unrealistic with the number of destinations I had locked in and the schedule I had to keep even with the places I didn’t book in advance. But really having to lock in exact dates is even worse than locking in destinations. Better to keep it flexible.
January 8, 2013 @ 1:13 AM
I agree with you entirely. Its much better from a travel perspective to be open ended with your travel plans. You get a much better travel experience and you can include things you just can’t do within a certain deadline. If I could do the round the world trip any way I wanted to I would take a leaf out of Earl’s book and just spend a few months a time in a particular place and leave only when it’s cheapest to do so. That would give me plenty of time to arrange everything in advance and plenty of time to soak up the place I was in, in order to feel what life would be like as a local.
January 8, 2013 @ 4:54 PM
Sitting in one place for a longer period of time sounds like a great way to go for me too. I think that’s my ideal right now, to be able to spend 1-3 months in one place, with maybe a side trip or two, and just see what it’s like there. You can’t really know what local life is like when you rush through in a few days. Although, as I’m learning by living in Germany, even a few months only scratches the surface.
January 7, 2013 @ 3:09 PM
Great tips. Don’t think I’d have considered the option of wide open round trip ticket but now that I’ve read this post, seems like the way to go.
January 7, 2013 @ 7:22 PM
Thanks Maria! Yeah, I think it would work if I was going to stick to one region or continent. So if I had gone to South America, maybe I would’ve booked roundtrip to Santiago or something like that. Then everything in the middle is open and flexible, and I’d just have to make it back in time for the return flight. But just an idea.
Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
January 7, 2013 @ 3:12 PM
We decided pretty early on in our trip planning that we didn’t want to go with a RTW ticket, and I am so glad we did! Our travel plans have changed SO MUCH in the past 5 months, it is not to be believed. We have wound up heading to countries we didn’t think we would visit and it’s always nice to know that we are free to stay and leave a country on our own terms. It’s actually been really exciting to not know where we’ll be 6 weeks from now and to just head wherever feels right. It’s possible we’ll pay slightly more for this privilege in the longrun (though with all the budget air carriers in Asia, who knows?), but I think having that flexibility was worth it!
January 7, 2013 @ 7:24 PM
I had this idea in my head that since my trip was only 5 months total, and I knew I wanted the last month of it to be back in the US to visit friends and family, that getting the RTW ticket would be fine. But I definitely needed a slower pace than I thought beforehand, and I really craved more flexibility and spontaneity. Even if your way ends up being a little more expensive in the long run, I think you made the right decision. And yes, you can definitely get some really cheap flights on Air Asia and some others! Thanks Steph!
January 9, 2013 @ 3:14 PM
Good analysis of the pros and cons of booking RTW with miles.
January 9, 2013 @ 6:22 PM
January 9, 2013 @ 7:49 PM
Great commentary! We’re in the midst of planning and debated the RTW ticket as we have enough for 1 RTW ticket on Star Alliance — but only for one of us. It was WAY too restrictive, so instead we are going to spend our points on a couple of one-ways on Star Alliance, which can be done in and back to North America, and likely a return flight somewhere along the way. The good thing about SA is they have quite good coverage for most of the world except South America.
January 9, 2013 @ 9:18 PM
Thanks Tonya! I definitely think you’re making the right choice by not getting a RTW ticket with your miles. I love using miles to save money, but a one way or round trip ticket is much less restricting. Have fun planning your trip and let me know if you have any questions!
Jade - OurOyster.com
January 10, 2013 @ 6:19 AM
Great post… must have taken you AGES to save up that money points though!
January 10, 2013 @ 7:28 PM
Thanks Jade! It helped that I took several big trips in the previous 2 years, and I had a credit card that gave me miles for purchases.
January 13, 2013 @ 3:08 AM
Alot lot of good info here. So in the end to you prefer to buy tickets as you go, or an RTW trip ticket? I don’t know if I could do an RTW ticket because of the lack of flexibility.
January 13, 2013 @ 1:12 PM
Thanks Stephen! I’d probably prefer to buy tickets as I go since a RTW ticket isn’t very flexible. I liked being able to use miles for my trip since I saved so much money, but I would’ve been better off picking one continent and getting a round trip ticket with my miles.