How much does it cost to fly around the world?
If you’re considering a round-the-world adventure you’ve probably heard about round-the-world plane tickets. These are tickets bought as part of a package from a certain airline or group of airlines. A lot of people think that these tickets are cheap and convenient.
A little scratching under the surface will show you that you are much better off relying on your own creativity and bargain hunting skills to create a round-the-world itinerary on the fly.
We just finished our year-long around the world trip including 12 flights connecting South East Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the United States. We covered a total of total of 38,000 miles at the bargain price of $3,256 per person. That’s only 9 cents per mile—cheaper than driving! I have yet to find one round-the-world airfare quote for the same itinerary that can beat that price.
The Downsides to Round-the-World Tickets
A lot of people feel more comfortable with the security of a pre-bought ticket that they know will bring them home again. If you factor in the higher cost and restrictive conditions, however, round-the-world tickets start to look less desirable very quickly.
Most round the world tickets limit your travel time to 12 months. In our case this was an immediate deal breaker. We knew we may be gone for over 12 months. Even if you are planning a shorter trip, you never know what might happen.
You might take a job at a bar on the Mekong and linger in Laos for a few months or discover your new-found love for ice climbing in Norway and want to stay through the winter. The point is that with extended travel, flexibility is key.
The other main downside to round-the-world tickets is that by and large they require you to pick an itinerary including dates and destinations in advance. Having that kind of structure can only hurt a traveler’s journey.
With too much commitment up front you may find yourself unable to explore great places you hear about from locals or other travelers along the way. Furthermore, changing your set itinerary can be met with heavy fines. Before we left home we had never heard of half of the places we went to on our trip. I can’t even imagine how our experience might have changed had we stuck to a pre-set schedule.
Our Independent Round-the-World Itinerary
We booked this itinerary using only one-way airfares found by searching the web. While we racked up a lot of frequent flyer miles on the way we paid for all of these trips out of pocket. On average we bought the tickets we used about 2-3 months in advance for long haul flights and up to the very last minute for shorter flights. When we left home in February 2010 we only had a one way ticket to Bangkok and a few vague ideas about where the journey would take us.
The table below shows a summary of our flights. The mileages listed include the stopovers as indicated.
All said and done we took 12 flights and visited 4 continents. A little over half of these flights (7 of 12) were on budget carriers and were short distances. All of our long haul flights were on standard carriers. Our most expensive flight on a cost per mile basis was our flight from Bucharest to Kos, Greece. This was probably due to two factors: one, we booked the flight evening before it left; and two, the leg from Athens to the island of Kos was on a tiny prop plane.
Looking back on it we flew a lot and some of the time it wasn’t necessary. Had we wanted to save a little money we could have easily gone overland throughout South East Asia (skipping the Bangkok-Krabi and Bangkok-Phnom Penh-Bangkok flights and the flight within Indonesia from Denpasar to Yogyakarta). Had we skipped these flights we would have saved $245 on airfare.
Tips for Keeping on Budget
The best thing you can do to stay on budget is to be flexible. Flexibility in time and precise destination will go further and save you more money than any number of hours of searching the web for the cheapest fare.
One possible pitfall to booking independently is the trend towards egregious markups with long haul one-way fares. We found this was the biggest problem with flights between the US and Europe. You can usually find a way around it if you keep looking. Sometimes if you buy a refundable round trip ticket with plans to refund the second leg you can save some money.
Here are some of our favorite airfare search websites at the moment.
Note that the top search sites come and go very rapidly. While we found these to be among the best on our trip, more sites are likely to appear tomorrow and blow these out of the water. Always keep your eyes and ears open for suggestions and please let us know what your favorite search engine is in the comments, we’re already plotting our next adventures.