One Way Getaway?

It’s logical that one of the most pricy elements of a round-the-world trip is the actual cost of the planes, trains, and automobiles which shuttle you from stop to stop along the journey. That said – a backpacker is presented with two very different options when it comes to booking their journey. Do you opt for an airline alliance-backed and packaged “round the world” ticket, or do you plan your trip using a series of one-way tickets? It’s a decision I’m finding you have to make early on in the planning process as it has a big impact on the budget for the trip.

What is an airline alliance?

Airline Alliances logosI realized while talking with my cousin the other day that not everyone knows about airline alliances. So, I figured I’d give a quick explanation.

An alliance is an pact signed on to by airlines across the globe which agree to work together to give their customers access to a bigger network of destinations, more routes to choose from, and the ability to seamlessly book travel on multiple air carriers without having to make multiple reservations.

The last point is one you may have already experienced while traveling. Called a “code share,” one airline can book passengers on a route serviced by another airline in the alliance. For example, a passenger in Regina, Canada could fly to Houston, Texas by booking a ticket through Air Canada for the entire journey – although they will likely end up getting on a United-branded airplane at some point in the trip since both Air Canada and United are alliance partners, and there are no direct flights from Regina to Houston. However, while they might be sitting on a United jet, Air Canada is the airline that has made the booking.

Alliances and Long-Term Travel

Star Alliance's round-the-world ticket booking program.
Star Alliance’s round-the-world ticket booking program.

Where airline alliances come in handy for travelers embarking on long-term, multi-country travel is that the three major airline alliances – Star Alliance (which Air Canada and United belong to), OneWorld (American Airlines, Qantas), and SkyTeam (Delta, Air France, KLM) – all offer a product called a “round-the-world” (RTW) ticket. This lets you book all of your travel in one shot, with a nicely packaged ticket. Once it’s paid for, all you have to do is show up and make your flights. However, what you gain in convenience-of-booking with an alliance-backed round the world ticket, you lose in cost and flexibility.

RTW tickets are pricy propositions – the one I had initially looked for my itinerary was going to price out at about $7200. That’s no small chunk of change.

There are many rules about RTW tickets as well. You could face change fees depending on alterations to your schedule (and every round-the-world traveler I’ve talked to says what you initially plan for an itinerary is never what you end up executing.)

Most RTW tickets have rules about traveling the world without backtracking, and this can either add extra unnecessary miles to a trip to get across long haul distances.  With RTW tickets, miles = money, with the price of the ticket increasing after hitting certain milestones in distance.  Wasted miles = wasted money.

This is true in my situation since I’m anticipating going from New Zealand to Europe – and by crossing over North America, I can save some cash and miles. However, on a RTW ticket, the rules of traveling in the same direction would necessitate me continuing west and flying over Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, etc. to get to my destination.

And – the final drawback to a RTW ticket is you need to stick to your chosen destinations and make your flights. So if you think you’ll make it to Sydney, Australia during your planning, but decide once on the road you need to cut the land down under out of your journey, you still need to get to Sydney and make a flight from Sydney to keep your ticket moving along.

The (One) Way to Flexibility

Cost and flexibility are the two reasons why many travelers I’ve talked with swear by traveling on one-way tickets.

In the estimates for my journey so far, the difference in price is striking when it comes to the cost of using one-way tickets versus an alliance-backed RTW ticket.

By flying on one-ways, a traveler can shop around for best price for a ticket, and this opens up the world of low cost carriers. Through Southeast Asia, for example, airlines like Air Asia, Nok Air, and Jetstar can provide very cheap flights from point to point to get you around the region.

Google/ITA Software's Matrix makes finding cheap flights easy.
Google/ITA Software’s Matrix makes finding cheap flights easy.

Using software like ITA’s Matrix, I’ve also been able to check the one-way fares of mainline carriers and have been able to find some great deals. For example, my previously-mentioned journey from New Zealand to Europe (specifically Amsterdam) can become more affordable (and a shorter trip) by taking a one-way from Auckland to San Francisco, staying overnight for a couple of days, and then continuing onward to Amsterdam. The total price for that leg of the trip – about $1400. But it’s the longest haul of my entire journey, with no other routing even coming near it in price.

When all is said and done, by using one-way tickets I’m budgeting to spend as little as $5200 and as much as $6000 on airfare for the trip. Compared to the $7000+ price tag for a Star Alliance RTW ticket, this seems like the more economical route to go.

Not Everything is Awesome

There are tradeoffs, however, with using one-way tickets. Some countries require proof of “onward travel” – and so making sure arrangements are in place to satisfy the airlines and border control is important.

Depending on availability of seats, booking one-ways on the fly might mean I might have to take longer or less convenient routes.

If I end up using low-cost carriers, there’s a good chance I’ll encounter some baggage fees along the way, which I might not otherwise have to pay with a RTW ticket.

And, because it’s improbable I’ll remain loyal to one airline or alliance through the trip, I won’t be able to rack up the frequent flyer points like I would by booking an alliance-backed ticket.

Every Traveler is Different

Deciding between an alliance-backed RTW ticket or using one-ways really depends on the traveler. I can see for some people who are on a fixed schedule, with targets to hit along the way, that an alliance RTW ticket is worth the extra price. It guarantees you get on board mainline carriers with service levels you’d expect from international travel.

One way tickets can shave a substantial amount of money off of the cost of the trip and allow for a little more flexibility in exploring the world.  The tradeoff, though, means you might have ancillary fees to pay with a low cost carrier for baggage, and there is the complicating factor of presenting proof of onward travel to customs officials who might demand it (although there are low cost ways to make this happen.)

Once I start booking my tickets, I’ll update on how the process is going, and lay out some of the pitfalls to watch for!

If you have advice or suggestions, leave them in the comments below!

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