Have you ever dreamed about flying Around the World? Picking a dozen countries you'd like to see before you die, and hitting them all by airplane so it doesn't take three years, like Magellen used to do it back in the day? But you've probably never gone much beyond the dreaming stage, because a trip like that is way too expensive. Right?
My new wife and I recently booked our Round-the-World honeymoon trip, to take place this April/May. Five continents. Nine weeks. Don't ask how we got that much time off -- our bosses aren't thrilled about it. But you can ask how we made it happen, because we aren't rich.
Yes, we're super lucky to be doing such a thing, and yes, we've had to save up a bit, but after a ton of research, I've learned that an Earth-lapping adventure-of-a-lifetime is not such an unattainable thing, available only to pilots and medieval sea captains.
There are four main ways to do it, each of which will appeal to a different type of traveler (scroll to the bottom to see the route/price we ended up with). Cost varies of course, but in general, the more ambitious/flexible you want your trip to be, the more it will cost. Obscurity of your stops is also a factor: it's always a lot cheaper to loop the globe via London and Bangkok than via Siberia and the Galapagos Islands. But, I was pleased to discover, none of these options was quite as out of reach as I'd initially feared -- some options were as low as $2,500, the price of a few months' rent. Maybe you can even sublet your apartment to pay for it.
OPTION #1: THE AIRLINE ALLIANCES
These are the "Round the World" tickets of which everybody seems to have heard, but nobody seems to know the facts. You've heard the rumors: RTW tickets channel insane Frequent Flier miles, but have wacky restrictions, but are crazy cheap. Are these rumors true? Yes, yes and sort of.
The three big Alliances are One World, SkyTeam and Star Alliance, each of which includes many different airlines around the world. Each Alliance lets you plot your trip on a similar map-interface (click the links above -- I found One World's, which goes with this groovy map, to be the most user-friendly), before giving you an estimated price. Chris Guillebeau has a useful post about these options here.
Though the base-price for an Alliance RTW trip isn't too bad ($3,000 or so), it jumps up quickly if your trip is at all complicated. Also, not every city is served by a particular Alliance, so you may find yourself with some annoying "Mumbai to Bangkok by way of JFK" legs, and you might need sub-trips to get to some destinations. And, yes, there are some interesting restrictions (only flying West-to-East, not double-crossing an ocean, a maximum number of miles/continents/legs, etc.), which need must be skillfully gamed if you want to get the best trip for your buck. It can be frustrating to finally complete your Istanbul -- Southeast Asia -- Queenstown leg, only to find you have to skip Hanoi entirely and make Siem Reap a bus trip to stay under your leg limit.
That being said, it can also be fun (I stayed up until 4a.m. one night before I finally "won" One World), and if you're willing to be flexible and really game the rules, you can put a pretty awesome trip together for not a bad price. And since the airlines you're flying are all on the same team, you can absolutely CRUSH the miles game. Additionally, the restrictions can work in your favor sometimes, throwing in fun, free stops you might not have thought of otherwise (Bali and Santiago, Chile, in the game I was playing).
Pick this option if you're able to be a little flexible about your destinations and route, if you're loyal to a particular airline and want to really max out your rewards, or if you like video games. Maybe there's a reason One World, SkyTeam and Star Alliance all sound like Xbox titles.
OPTION #2: TICKET BROKERS
Online ticket brokers are descendants of the glorious Travel Agents of days of yore, and several of them have emerged as RTW ticket specialists who can get you a surprisingly good deal on your crazy trip while taking care of a lot of the footwork for you.
Tim at Tickets Round the World had me skipping around the room in excitement when we got off the phone about a 9-country, $3900 trek than involved an Alaska-Iceland-over-the-North-Pole leg, with Australia and Fiji thrown in for no extra charge. Airtreks did a similar trip (and was faster about getting back) for $4 cheaper. I didn't end up calling Indie BootsNAll, but this guy thinks the world of it.
Since these brokers use every trick in the book to get you a great deal while still making a profit, you won't get as many miles, since your 15-flight trip might be on 14 different airlines, none of whom are partners.
The biggest advantages of brokers are the great flexibility and the expert advice. These guys know their travel, and can save you money having you land-trek some portions, and adding in extra stops where it's free (Airtreks threw in Copenhagen, Kuala Lampur AND Fiji). Also, I was shocked to learn than not only are most brokers easier than plotting your own Alliance ticket, they're often cheaper, too - typically ranging from $3,000-$7,000 for some very ambitious trips.
Pick this option if you want a great balance of easy, flexible and affordable. Brokers ranked high in all three categories.
OPTION #3: DO NONE OF IT YOURSELF (Pre-Planned Packages)
Maybe you haven't really thought about where you want to go, or are just too busy to do much planning. Other companies, like TCS and STA Travel, have already-packaged RTW trips that hit popular destinations and require almost no effort.
You're not going to as much flexibility from a trip that's already planned for you, unless you're really willing to shell out the bucks (TCS has some private jet options that cost well into the five-figures). As far as cheaper packages go, restrictions abound. STA is mostly for students, and what other options exist out there are often fairly limited in variety. If your RTW trip only has stops in four countries, and you've already been to two of them, you might be better off taking a cruise.
Because these trips tend to hit popular destinations with huge airports, they can be the most affordable options out there, and they require little planning for you, the busy traveler. And hey, these destinations are popular for a reason; New York - Reykjavik - London - Bangkok for $2500 is hardly a bad way to spend a vacation.
Pick this option if you're on the ends of the cash spectrum: either you don't mind spending a ton of money, or want to save a ton of it. If you're an itinerant college student, there's no cheaper way to go around the world.
OPTION #4: DO ALL OF IT YOURSELF (The Super Hack)
Are you a bit of a hacker, and/or want to have extreme control over every piece of your amazing journey? ITA Software's MATRIX SEARCH is like Kayak on steroids. It can do things that are way too complicated for most travel sites (and most users, I should add), basically by stripping out all the shortcuts and adding a lot more variables. Want to book a trip from LAX to Istanbul, two days from now, on a certain airline that stops in both New York and Munich for exactly 10 hours each? Matrix can do it if you know how to use it (or are willing to learn from this handy "How To" guide). Yes, it's sort of like a travel site... but only in the way chopping down a tree to make a chair is like buying one from Target.
Obviously, doing it all yourself is going to take far more time and know-how than any of the above options, and not having an expert handy regarding things like Visas and travel conditions could slow down your planning -- or your trip.
BUT, there's an upside to doing yourself. It's not easy, but with enough time and determination, you could theoretically book an RTW Trip going anywhere, with any specs you like, perhaps for cheaper than any other options. My friend Adam once booked a LAX - O'Hare -- Dublin trip two days beforehand for $800.
Pick this option if know computers... or know travel... or know you're very determined/picky. Then again, if you know all these things, you probably already know about Matrix, and don't need us.
In the end, we decided to go with Airtreks -- their balance of affordability and flexibility seemed perfect for what we were after. With a little help from the travel-mages there, we were able to put together this monster trip.
New York - Reykjavik - Copenhagen - (by land) - Amsterdam - Lisbon - (by land) - Marrakech - Stockholm - Dublin - Istanbul - Kayseri - Mumbai - Kuala Lampur - Hanoi - (by land) - Ho Chi Minh City - Siem Reap - Luang Prabang - Chang Mai - (by land) - Phuket - Sydney - Queenstown - Auckland - Fiji - Los Angeles
...for just over $5000 each.
Not the cheapest honeymoon ever, but think of the experience. Maybe one you can have too.
That is, if you can get nine weeks off of work.