Taking a trip around the world is a big undertaking and one of the biggest chunks of the budget is going to go toward airfare. One way or another, you’ve got to at least get across the oceans before you can start traveling overland.
Ed Perkins has a rundown on different options for circling the globe in this SmarterTravel column, Finding cheap round-the-world airfares.
The thing is, they’re not really “cheap” no matter how you do it. With taxes and gotcha fees like fuel surcharges, you’re generally looking at a minimum of $2,000 for the most basic ticket in economy class, or about $5,000 for business class. That would be for something like San Francisco – London – Moscow – Beijing – Hong Kong – San Francisco. If you are trying to hit multiple continents, the price will rise. The itinerary pictured at the top from STA Travel starts at around $2,400 for students.
The least expensive option is to get it through a broker that patches together different airlines depending on which ones are cheapest for a particular leg. The hotbeds for these companies are San Francisco, Toronto, and London. I bought my first round-the-world ticket from Air Brokers but they have since closed down. AirTreks is the other biggie in the U.S., with a solid reputation. Both have a trip builder function to price out itineraries and you can see example fares here. These agencies are a good bet if your itinerary is pretty set and you’re going for a year or less. They have negotiated agreements in place and commit to blocks of tickets (like the bucket shops of old) and are able to buy tickets abroad where they are less expensive.
A more pricey and less flexible option is to go with one of the airline alliances such as Star Alliance or OneWorld. You’ll pay twice as much, but you’ll be on well-known name brand airlines and you’ll usually earn frequent flier miles. If you’ve been a business road warrior for years like in Up in the Air, you might even have enough miles to cash in for a ticket.
The last option, and the one most employed by travelers on their second or third trip around the world, is to patch together flights as they go. Or to just buy the most basic RTW ticket from one of the specialist agencies and then fill in the other flights by purchasing locally in Bangkok, Delhi, Cairo, etc. There are so many budget airlines now, especially in Asia and Europe, that you can now often get most of the way around the world for cheap by just buying tickets along the way. This way you’re not locked into a specific time frame or itinerary. See this handy tool from WhichBudget.com to see who connects specific cities. Or just crack open a good guidebook to where you’ll be.
Here’s a bit more detail from two articles I wrote a few years back for Transitions Abroad: Around the World Travel and Fly to the Clusters and Save.