Fear inspires humans to many things. In my case, it was the fear of having to live at my parents’ house. In late 2007, I had a two-month gap between my lease in London ending and my lease in Sheffield beginning. It was either go back to that old single bed, slowly being driven mad by well-meaning offers of food, or toddle off on a round the world trip for a few weeks.
The flight ticket — taking in Los Angeles, the Cook Islands, New Zealand’s South Island, Sydney, Singapore and Dubai — cost me £1,277. Given that getting to Christchurch alone usually costs around £1,000, this seemed like an extraordinarily good deal. Even now, the same route would only cost around £1,399.
It was my first dip into what is usually (and not entirely accurately) called round the world travel or RTW travel. Generally associated with backpackers and gap years, it has become a catch-all term for trips involving multiple stops in multiple continents.
The name derives from the tickets travel agents started selling in the 1970s. According to Nikki Davies, marketing director at Trailfinders, the most common routing then involved heading out to Australia and New Zealand and perhaps coming back via the South Pacific and the US.
Davies says: “While this is still popular, round the world tickets can be a lot more advanced nowadays to take in many more destinations. As an example, Trailfinders offers a RTW ticket that visits South Africa, Australia, Chile and Brazil.”
Stuart Lodge, director of roundtheworldflights.com, says: “Recently, South America (Peru and Brazil) and Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Thailand and to a lesser extent Burma) have boomed, but with the Australian dollar decreasing 30% against the pound in the last 18 months, we’re seeing an upturn in people wanting to go back Down Under.”
Lodge also says there has been a shift in how the round the world tickets are used. “The average time away has come down from eight to nine months a few years ago, to five to six months now. This started to happen around the time that university tuition fees were introduced in the UK.”
The tickets are also being used for shorter trips, particularly honeymoons and short sabbaticals from work.
Trailfinders’ Nikki Davies says: “They’re particularly popular for anyone wanting to travel to Australia or New Zealand for three or four weeks, as they allow for a few days’ stopover on both the outbound and inbound legs.”
Getting the best price
One is being able to change your mind. Round the world tickets can generally be altered for a relatively nominal sum — so if you’re really enjoying yourself in Vietnam, you can decide to stay an extra week or two, pushing the onward flight to Singapore back rather than having to shell out for new flights.
This applies to re-routing home as well; it’s relatively simple to cut the adventure short in the event of injury, illness or running out of cash.
But having that onward ticket is also really important. Many countries simply won’t let travellers in without one. This is particularly true of Asia.
On the debit side, the scope for spontaneity in deciding the next place to go to is somewhat constrained by the route booked. Tickets generally limit holders to going around the world in one direction — backtracking can be disproportionately expensive.
There can also be problems if, for one reason or another, you miss a flight. Often the airlines involved will cancel the entire ticket if passengers don’t show up for one leg.
How to plan
The first step, logically, is deciding roughly where and when you want to go. Climate is a major factor here. Thailand can be just about perfect in February — when it will be chucking it down in Bali. The Pacific Islands are at their driest and most enjoyable between May and October, but head to New Zealand straight afterwards during that period, and you’ll run headlong into winter. A little research in advance can prevent shocks on the road, although it’s inevitable that some weather compromises will have to be made.
As a general rule, routes that can be served by airlines within the same alliance tend to work out a lot cheaper, especially if you stick to the major hubs of those airlines. There are three main alliances: Oneworld includes the likes of British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas; SkyTeam features Delta, KLM and Korean Airlines; and Star Alliance is home to Singapore Airlines, United and Air New Zealand. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some of the best deals come via partnerships outside of the alliance system. For example, Emirates codeshares with Qantas, Virgin Atlantic works closely with Air New Zealand, and Etihad has a strong relationship with Virgin Australia.
While it is possible to plan trips using the itinerary builders on alliance websites, booking this way can cost hundreds of pounds more than picking up the phone and going via a specialist travel agent. There are simply too many variables. When times, dates, potential airports and airlines are taken into account, there are millions of possible options — too many for a computer system to winnow out the best deal.
Well-trained humans, however, know what to look for in the haystack. Changing one leg from a Friday departure to a Thursday departure may save a couple of hundred pounds; going via Kuala Lumpur may work out considerably better value than going via Singapore; doing the leg on a Cathay Pacific plane might work out better than doing it with British Airways.
Through experience, the agents tend to know what tweaks to look for. Crucially, they also have access to special fares that aren’t published on the web — and know exactly how to piece the itinerary together to trigger them.
Departure dates can make a huge difference too. Round the world tickets are generally cheapest when airlines have plenty of spare seats to fill. Peak season prices (generally July, August and the run-up to Christmas) can be nearly twice as high as those for trips leaving between mid-April and mid-June, or from early October to mid-November.
It’s also worth considering overland sectors within the ticket. If flying into Bangkok, then going to southern Thailand, for example, it may be better to keep going south and pick up the next flight in Kuala Lumpur rather than doubling back to the Thai capital.
But on the flip side, arriving somewhere after a long flight without at least the first night’s accommodation booked can be utterly miserable.
According to roundtheworldflights.com’s Stuart Lodge, the two major mistakes made in planning round the world trips are try ing to do too much in too little time and underestimating the overall budget required. The former can turn a four-week holiday into a never-ending succession of flights, jet-lagged early nights and faffing about trying to make expensive airport runs.
While it might be tempting to spend the odd couple of days exploring somewhere between flights — when it doesn’t cost much extra to do so — this doesn’t usually make for a satisfying use of your time. The cities that the key hub airports are in, such as Bangkok, Auckland and Honolulu, are rarely the highlights of their country. And two-night urban snapshots, interspersed with airport toing and froing, tend to get tiring very quickly.
Underestimating the budget is an easy trap to fall into as well. Most people factor in general food and accommodation, but drinks, activities and ground transportation tend to bite the wallet much harder than anticipated.
Visas can also catch out travellers on round the world tickets. Many countries require that visas are arranged before arrival. Some (such as one for Australia) can be done online. Others require an appointment at the embassy or that passports are sent off in advance.
David Shuttleworth, a globetrotter from Bolton, who has completed two round the world trips, says his biggest problem was getting an Indian visa. “They wanted to know the name of the hotel I stayed at last time I was in India (six years ago), all the countries I’d been to in the last 10 years and other such nonsense. And they refused to process the visa until I could show I’d bought a flight in and out of the country.”
He adds: “You also need to ensure you have enough blank pages in your passport for all the entry stamps you’re likely to accrue, plus full pages for each visa. And if you’ve been somewhere before, don’t assume it’ll be the same again. Indonesia for example, is notorious for changing its policy. For exactly that reason, I had to hang around in Hong Kong for two days and pay double the standard price to get a new emergency passport.”
The mishaps common to all travel become more acute when taking in multiple destinations over a longer time. Having a sole bank card swallowed by a machine or snaffled away in a stolen wallet is much more disastrous, for example. Having two bank accounts with money in (or at least a separate credit card), and keeping cards in different places is a wise move. Similarly, having electronic versions of important documents and tickets backed up on easily accessible emails or cloud servers is a good plan given how many chances there are for losing print-outs.
Extra precautions and preparation may be needed, but multi-destination trips allow travellers to string together a number of smaller holidays into a longer, relatively affordable and often life-changing experience. The millions of permutations may make the booking process more complex than it is with most trips, but they also stir the excitement. Going around the world in 80 days is no longer a great challenge — but it offers an incredible wealth of opportunities.
The Rough Guide To First Time Around The World by Doug Lansky. RRP £12.99.
Foreign Office: gov.uk/fco
Basic visa information: visamapper.com visahq.co.uk
Climate information: holiday-weather.com weather.com
Budgeting and price information: budgetyourtrip.com
Exchange rates: xe.com
Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)