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Isn’t it time you went around the world?

Covering everything from puffed up Australian holidays to complex, Michael Palin-style adventures, round-the-world tickets are, at their best, an affordable way to see a huge swathe of the planet

Isn’t it time you went around the world?

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Things have moved on a bit since the days of Phileas Fogg. Jules Verne’s fictional Victorian adventurer took 80 days to travel around the world, whereas someone feeling so inclined today could embark on a gruelling set of flights, dipping into both hemispheres and making a full circumnavigation in around 48 hours.

Doing that, of course, would be an exercise in self-punishing pointlessness. Which is why, when embarking on a round-the-world adventure, most travellers tend to give themselves much longer than Phileas did.

The ‘round-the-world’ has been part of the travel industry for decades, and it’s slightly hazily defined — a lot of so-called round-the-world tickets aren’t circumnavigational. In general, the term is used as shorthand for a trip that involves multiple flights, taking in multiple countries and continents. At the simple end of the scale, that may mean going to Australia via Hong Kong and coming back via Thailand. At the more head-scratchingly complex end, it can involve pulling together flights with several airlines, factoring in overland sections, tagging on domestic flights and stopping off in a dozen or so countries.

Traditionally, round-the-worlds have been closely linked with gap years. Young people with more time than money can spend months hopping from place to place, perhaps working on the way to boost their funds. The main advantage of specialist round-the-world tickets has generally been the price — bundling it all into one invariably works out cheaper than buying each flight leg individually — and partly their flexibility. Travel agents specialising in round-the-worlds have leverage with the airlines, which they use to ensure flight dates and routes are changeable for a far lower cost than usual.

For all this flexibility, however, certain established routes have formed. For many, crafting a round-the-world means little more than choosing where to stop off on the way back from Australia and New Zealand, both of which have well-trodden backpacker routes and working holidaymaker schemes that allow under-30s to earn money while in the country. The banana pancake trail in Southeast Asia, with ever-changing hotspots focused around the hub of Bangkok, is similarly popular. And the likes of Singapore, Hong Kong and Los Angeles regularly work their way onto itineraries simply because they’re where the relevant airlines fly to.

According to Stuart Lodge, director at specialist travel agent Roundtheworldflights.com, the company’s single biggest selling route is London–Bangkok–Sydney–Auckland–Los Angeles–London. But things are beginning to change. This is partly due to new routes opening up.

“There are a lot more flights out of Bangkok to the rest of Asia,” says Lodge. “Budget airlines like Air Asia and Jetstar have come in, meaning people will mix and match a bit. Bali, Burma, Vietnam and Japan have been big in the last year or so.”

There are also plenty more options flying from the UK, with the likes of Vietnam Airlines and Philippine Airlines joining an already crowded list of options increasingly dominated by Chinese and Gulf carriers.

In the other direction, the links from the UK to Latin America are rapidly improving, with British Airways launching routes to Peru and Costa Rica.

But in round-the-world terms, it’s often the connecting routes that make the most notable differences.

“Air New Zealand introducing Auckland to Buenos Aires was big,” says Lodge. “And it plays a major part in why South America just keeps on growing as a round-the-world stop.

Even the established Pacific crossings covering the section of round-the-worlds with, traditionally, the biggest paucity of options have seen increased competition, with new connections turning the likes of Dallas, San Francisco and Vancouver into plausible alternatives to Los Angeles.

And the number of airlines offering other flight opportunities than Heathrow is increasing too, with Singapore Airlines now joining Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways going non-stop from Manchester.

“We also do a surprising amount of business on Norwegian,” Lodge says of the low-cost carrier operating to several US cities.

“A lot of our customers are in Kent and Sussex and they want to fly from Gatwick.”

Tim Fryer, country manager at STA Travel, says destinations that are cheaper on the ground have been more popular this year, partly due to the devaluation of the pound. “Thailand is still very important, but places such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines and Sri Lanka are growing at a much higher rate,” he says.

“Africa, as a continent, has had the strongest year in five years, while we’ve seen Nepal begin to come back after the earthquakes. That younger market always tends to be more adventurous and more resilient.”

But the demographics of those who go on round-the-world trips are changing too. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen customers looking to get more out of destinations,” says Fryer. “It’s not about how many countries they can bag; they’re after cultural exposure and looking to spend longer on the ground. We’re doing more and more tailor-made itineraries and fewer standard ones, and these two things are probably linked.

“And the motivation for travel has changed somewhat — there’s a less and less hedonistic view. Travellers are looking for cultural immersion; giving something back. They want to work and live, and are looking for increased flexibility. They don’t want a rigid itinerary for 12 months.”

Roundtheworldflights.com’s Stuart Lodge believes those opting for circumnavigational adventures are getting older, with some taking career breaks and others going for shorter periods — say, four to six months — without working along the way.

This is related, he believes, to the growth in premium economy round-the-world tickets being offered by increasing numbers of airlines. “This is the first year that travellers have been able to enjoy proper premium economy round-the-worlds,” he says. “Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand now all have premium economy cabins, and they link together.

“I’ve seen premium economy tickets going for around £2,800, whereas they were often £4,000 in the past. They’re now roughly 50% — rather than 100% — more than economy tickets, and that makes a big difference.”

But Lodge says customers are more inclined to mix and match. “They’ll do longer legs in premium, but don’t think it’s worth the extra on shorter legs. So, they’ll do the smaller hops in economy. They’re prepared to do shorter flights on domestic airlines, too.”

All change

Big changes are expected in the future, with the growth of trans-Pacific routes likely to bring down overall prices, and an increased use of Boeing 787 Dreamliners escalating the number of route options — though availability on
major routes may be cut.

Historically, Australia has tended to be the biggest driver of round-the-world trips as it’s by far where most working holidays are taken. Changes here have a huge knock-on effect elsewhere, although its popularity waxes and wanes with the fortunes of sterling against the Australian dollar.

Travel agents selling round-the-worlds agree that Qantas’ recent announcement of a direct route from Heathrow to Perth in Western Australia, due to launch in March 2018, is a game changer. No longer is a stopover necessary, and those whose primary aim is getting to Oz may well ditch the Southeast Asian appetiser altogether.

Australia is also relaxing its restrictions on foreign airlines flying to its airports — with limits on the number of landings no longer applying to the smaller regionals. Hence, this year Singapore Airlines has started flying into Canberra and connecting on to Wellington in New Zealand. It’s reasonable to assume other unlikely routes will start cropping up — Qatar Airways is believed to be going ahead with Canberra, while the likes of the Gold Coast, Darwin and Cairns could start to see the big birds arriving in greater numbers soon.

But the biggest change of all is awaiting a rubber stamp from the Australian parliament: the upper age limit for the working holiday visa is likely to be raised from 30 to 35, in conjunction with relaxations on the amount of time such holidaymakers can work for any single employer, plus a lower tax rate. Special visas are already available to 30 to 35 year olds in New Zealand. The shift from university gap-year travel to taking a year out mid-career could become more pronounced.

Then there’s the Brexit factor.

If the pound doesn’t start climbing soon — or if it drops even further — an already budget-conscious group of travellers is likely to become even more so. STA notes that holidaymakers want to spend more time in destinations where ground costs are low, and they’re increasingly taking organised tours. These trends could continue.

But the whole point of a round-the-world trip is the myriad options. Which ones you take and what order you string them together in, well, that’s a large part of the fun.

How to get a good value ticket

Do it yourself
At the very simplest level, booking a return ticket with stop-offs on both legs is reasonably effective online. Airline sites and comparison engines, such as Kayak, have multi-city options. But they’re limited dates-wise: you usually have to put the exact date in for each leg — when going one day either side may prove considerably cheaper.

Check the partners
The three main alliances — Star Alliance, OneWorld and Skyteam — have tools on their sites that allow you to put together your own route. However, these tend to be only minimally effective. This is largely due to the sheer complexity and number of options, but a big part of it is that many of the major round-the-world players, such as Emirates, Etihad, Virgin Australia and Virgin Atlantic, aren’t members of the alliance. There’s also some disparity as to how well the partners work together. Some, like British Airways and Qantas, have been collaborating on round-the-world tickets for decades. But, combining British Airways flights with those from supposed partners Malaysia Airlines and Qatar Airways, for example, is a darned site trickier.

The right connections
Getting a good deal requires knowing which airlines do work together well. Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand (with a bit of Virgin Atlantic) is one such combo — and an especially handy one if you’re planning to go to the Pacific Islands. Etihad and Virgin Australia codeshare, as do Emirates and Qantas. British Airways, Qantas and American Airlines are also happy bedfellows — and good for the Americas. Routes that combine the airline hubs, or destinations that both fly to, are likely to work out cheaper. The individual airline websites have practical route maps.

Get guidance
Of course, this is an area where going through an expert will almost work out far better than doing it yourself. They know how to get the special fares, can see how to make it cheaper by altering a day or a flight time, and can use their muscle to build in flexibility. But, having a rough idea of where you want to go can make things a lot easier. Specialist travel agents include Roundtheworldflights.com, STA Travel and Travel Nation. Discussing your plans over the phone will almost always work out better than playing email tennis.

Time it right
Prices vary massively depending on availability and time of year, with the best bargains from just after Easter to the middle of June, or October and November. They ramp up at Christmas to a tear-jerking degree. The best times to book are during the sales, usually in January, May/June and September.

Know the starting prices
Deals tend to change every few weeks but, at the time of writing, a four-stop trip taking in Thailand, Australia, Fiji and Singapore could be bought for £1,099. Meanwhile, a 10-stop deal taking in multiple destinations in the US, South America, New Zealand, Australia and Southeast Asia could be bought for £1,599 in low season.

Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)