Back in 1994, I wanted to pull a Gauguin, heading to Tahiti to leave behind the “rat race” of that weary time between college and grad school, when you’ve sent off your applications and live in miserable fear of rejection until you and a school determine whether you can do the education thing together. (Yes, when you’re 22, that time does seem like the rat race. Little did I know.)
Because the Worldwide Interweb had yet to emerge on the scene, my only option was to walk into my local college travel agency and tell them my plan: Tahiti or bust, with a stop in Paris for a few months to smoke excessively and wear berets while taking trains and ferries around Europe.
When the trusty, knowledgeable agent told me that I could go around the entire world for less than a trip to Paris and Tahiti, I worked with her on an itinerary. She issued me paper tickets. The tickets were very flexible in terms of date changes, but not departure point or directional changes. The itinerary cost approximately $2000 and went like this:
Darwin (Oz>> Cairns>>Sydney>>Auckland>>
Rarotonga (Cook Islands)>>Tahiti>>L.A.>>Vegas>>Chicago
I flew Air France until Bali, then Garuda Indonesia to Australia. In Australia, I flew Qantas. From Sydney, with stops across the Pacific to L.A., I flew Air New Zealand. My American leg, L.A. to Chicago via Vegas, was on America West.
That first trip around the world lasted from August 1994 to March 1995. It was an experience so wonderful that I vowed to repeat it every decade I’m alive for the rest of my life.
On my 37th birthday in 2009, I realized that, after having spent almost 10 years helping transform a start-up into a bonafide company, I was dangerously close to not keeping my round-the-world promise to myself. So, I decided to quit my job and circle the globe once more.
I called a specialist in around-the-world travel. This time, I had more specific destinations in mind for my trip, and discussed these with the travel specialist. I wanted to:
1. Leave from somewhere on the East Coast of the U.S. to see friends in NYC & Washington D.C.;
2. Be in Ireland to celebrate the 15th anniversary of meeting my husband there;
3. Visit South Africa;
4. Celebrate the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong and Japan;
5. Chill for a while in Bali;
6. Spend time experiencing Aboriginal culture and natural wonders in Australia’s Northern Territory & Far North Queensland, see friends in Sydney, and visit one of Australia’s wine regions;
7. Visit New Zealand to make up for the first time I was there, when I was too sick from Dengue Fever (contracted in Far North Queensland) to see anything at all;
8. Close the trip in a new Polynesian paradise; and
9. Finish the round-the-world circle in San Francisco, with a stay in L.A. to see family and friends.
The travel specialist told me he would work on it, and within a week, sent me back an initial estimate, which totaled approximately $7000 per person.
Gulp. I was aware that things would be more expensive than in 1994, but the quoted price seemed really high. Particularly since half the airlines the travel outfit wanted me to take were financially insolvent. (I could very clearly hear the CNN headline, “Bankrupt Greek national airline flight from South Africa crashes over Indian Ocean; no survivors; 2 Americans presumed dead.”)
By working with the specialist, I eventually got the itinerary down to about $5900 by tweaking some dates and departure points. The specialist suggested that I omit Japan to lower the cost even more, but I was determined to show my husband around Japan and see the snow monkeys in Nagano. Because I still felt that there were better deals on better airlines, I hit the Internet on my own.
I started poking around on sites like Orbitz and the airlines’ own sites, focusing on one-way fares on my preferred airlines (where I have frequent flyer points and/or which are known for service and safety). It took me two days on the Internet in July 2009 to book the following itinerary for approximately $3900:
Denver>>Chicago>>NYC (JFK)>>Dublin//London>>South Africa>>London>>Hong Kong>>Tokyo//Osaka>>
Kuala Lumpur>>Denpasar (Bali)>>Darwin>> Cairns>>Sydney>> Auckland>>Fiji>>L.A.>>San Francisco
I flew American Airlines from Denver to NYC with a stop in Chicago, and Aer Lingus from NYC to Dublin. I took Virgin Atlantic from London to Cape Town on an affordable round-trip flight. I flew Lufthansa to Hong Kong from London via Frankfurt, JAL to Tokyo, and Malaysia Airlines to Denpasar (via Kuala Lumpur). For Bali to Australia and flying within Australia, I got some amazingly low fares on JetStar. For the travel from Sydney to L.A., with stops in Auckland and Fiji, I booked on Air New Zealand. For the last leg, I flew Virgin America from LAX to SFO.
That second trip around the world lasted from September 2009 to May 2010. It was, again, an experience so amazing, I’ll definitely be circling the globe again in my 40s.
The Verdict: If you’re fairly agnostic to most of the destinations and dates along your route, as I was for my first RTW trip, buying from an agent specializing in round-the-world travel is probably the best option for you. RTW specialists have many standard routes for very low prices.
However, if you have very specific locations and dates in mind, doing it yourself may suit your needs better and be much cheaper. If you’re a maniac for miles on your preferred carrier, doing it yourself will also probably work better for you.
Many agents try to accomodate your airline requests, but some of the best fares available to an agent may not be on your preferred airline or even on a financially solvent airline. If you do go with an agent, be sure to give him/her all your frequent flyer info so s/he can try to select airlines based on your preferences.
Should you decide on booking your round-the-world trip yourself, here are some tips that will help make your planning easier:
1. Book in advance. For both my trips, my earliest flight was 2 months away from my booking date. Some of the fares I booked were nearly 7 months out, and those were some of my cheapest, like the $50 fare I snagged on Jetstar from Bali to Australia.
2. In leaving from the U.S. to Europe, flexibility in departure points is the key to saving money. For example, it was a lot cheaper flying from Dulles outside of D.C.
3. For Europe, be open to arriving in places like Dublin or Brussels, which can be a lot cheaper than cities like London or Paris.
4. Flying to Japan is pricey, so unless it’s a dream of yours, check out other Asian destinations. (The one-way from Hong Kong to Japan was one of the most expensive tickets of my trip, though well worth it since I really wanted to go there.)
5. One-ways aren’t always cheaper, particularly if you’re traveling during high season. If you don’t mind taking a round-trip, be sure to consider those fares as well.
6. Use your miles if possible. You may be able to upgrade on a flight, which is always nice. Miles + money options on carriers can yield lower cost flights, though these are generally round-trip only. (We did this for our trip to South Africa on Virgin Atlantic.) Some airlines now offer one-way tickets using mileage.
7. Check out multi-city fares, which often allow long stopovers. For example, I wanted to end up in NYC, but I also wanted to stop in Chicago. Buying two separate one-ways would have been much more expensive than the $150 multi-city ticket I purchased on American from Denver to NYC with a 2-week stop in Chicago.
8. Have a world map at your side as you start booking. Often, an airline will propose a stop-over in a place unfamiliar to you, and you’ll need to assess whether the destination is a good place to visit or one that takes you well out of your way.