All the major airline networks offer round the world fares: Star Alliance, One World, SkyTeam. Which one you use depends on your preferred airline or status as well as where these different alliances travel. I am a long time United customer (I have some miles, but not enough for a RTW ticket), but I evaluated all three for this itinerary. I found that Star Alliance went to more of the destinations that we wanted to go to (particularly the Maldives).
How Many Stops?
Typically, these RTW fares allow you a maximum number of stops (e.g. 16), and pricing tiers depend on the distance that is traveled in those stops (e.g. 26,000, 29,000, 34,000, or 39,000) . You can go around the world to the east or to the west, and you have to start and finish in the same country (but it doesn’t have to be the same city). These interactive RTW tools are user friendly. Note that not all flights that you might find on a travel search site (Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz, etc.) because the flights offered for the RTW may be a different class and may be available in limited numbers. For example, Star Alliance uses M-class fares.
Cost depends on total distance and class of service (economy, business, first). For economy, the range is $3,000 to $5,000. 10 years ago, these prices were closer to $1,500, but $3,000 is still pretty reasonable considering that one flight from the United States to anywhere in Asia or South America will likely cost between $700 and $1,200 for an economy ticket. You may be able to find less expensive options with fewer stops by booking through AirTreks or using BootsNAll’s Indie Travel Planner. These are both experts in the round the world travel business and focus on low cost RTW options. BootNAll also has a very thorough section on RTW Costs.
Once we finalized on the cities and dates, we booked our RTW tickets using Star Alliance’s Book and Fly program interactive planning tool (the other airline networks use a very similar tool). I found that to get from Hong Kong to the Maldives, we had to fly through Singapore. We could have a 2 hour or 6 hour layover in Singapore, so we opted for the 6 hour with the plan to explore Singapore with the free 2-hour tour offered by the city-state.
Here is what our itinerary looked like in the Star Alliance RTW Book and Fly Planner:
Overland Segments (Surface Sectors) Explained
Notice that there are some dotted yellow lines. These indicate overland, alternative, or surface sectors. For example, we planned our own tour in China and had several stops in this country, and we didn’t want to use up 4 segments of the trip (16 max – see the gray area at the bottom of the screenshot above), so this is shown as a dotted yellow line between Beijing and Hong Kong.
Similarly, to get from Maldives to Johannesburg, the only available M-class flights were either on Turkish Airlines through Istanbul and Frankfurt, and then EgyptAir down to JoBurg; a 25-hour leg, so we opted to fly a 2-hour Emirates flight from Male to Dubai and then an 8-hour flight from Dubai to JoBurg the next day. All-in-all, it’s about the same amount of time, but we gained a 14-hour layover in Dubai and flew on what I’d consider better airlines. So those are some of the trade-offs. In our case, this trip is about efficiency – getting from Point A to Point B as fast as possible (direct flights, if possible) – and if we can’t, add a layover to see some sights. We did this again in Brazil so we could see Rio and Iguassu Falls.
Selecting flights looks like this (from our leg from SFO to Tokyo):
In this case, there are lots of choices of when to fly. Other segments, such as some of the South American flights and certainly the segments that we chose to do “overland” were also a little sparse.
Bottom line: it’s a pretty easy process using the big alliances.