How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Airline Industry

Buying flights for our trip was both an interesting research project and a giant pain in the ass.  In case it helps other people, here’s what we learned…

RTW Tickets

Most big airlines belong to some kind of airline alliance.  For example, US Airways and United belong to Star Alliance, while Northwest and Continental belong to SkyTeam.  You probably already know that if you buy a ticket on one airline, you can have the miles from your flight apply to your frequent flyer account on another member airline.  It turns out that there’s more to these airline alliances.  One of the cool things they offer is Round-the-World (RTW) Tickets.  These are tickets where you pay a flat price and you get to fly around the world.  There are various kinds of RTW tickets, each with its own restrictions — max miles, max number of stops, max number of “legs” (flights), expiration date, etc.

We learned about RTW flights from a good post on wikitravel, and it turned out that for us they are a good fit.

If you’re thinking about a RTW ticket, the first step is to figure out which airline alliance you want to use.  To make the choice it helps if you already have a rough itinerary in mind.  No alliance is perfect; each one has more flights offered in some parts of the world and less in others.  If you go into the decision process not knowing exactly where in the world you want to go, the sheer number of options will blow your mind.  So, do yourself a favor and start by narrowing down to a few countries you really want to visit and others that you could take or leave.

Star Alliance is the biggest of the bunch, but for our trip it turned out that SkyTeam is better because it has more coverage in Africa and the Pacific.

Our SkyTeam Tickets

The SkyTeam RTW tickets come in different tiers.  As you go up the tier ladder, the price of the ticket rises, but also you are given the option to fly farther and to make more stops.  We went with tier 3 which has these terms:

  • Price: $4700 + taxes and airport fees = $5300
  • Ticket expires after one year
  • Up to 35,000 miles
  • Up to 10 stops (a stop is > 24 hours in one place), above that you pay $100 / stop
  • Up to 16 actual flights, no option to go over

For us this was a good option.  We ended up with 15 flights and a total of 33,263 miles.  Our ticket covers just about all the flights we’ll need on the trip.  The only exception is the flights in Hawaii from one island to another — we’ll need to buy those separately.

However, the SkyTeam ticket does have its share of annoyances:

  • If you land in one city and take off from a different one (this is called “open jaw”), the distance between the cities counts against your total even though you’re not actually flying.  This means that if you’re planning to cover a continent (say, Africa) there’s no benefit to making your way overland from one end to the other — you may as well fly and save yourself the time and hassle of ground transportation.
  • In some cases they don’t have a direct flight from city A to city B.  Note: when I say “they” I mean the airline alliance.  If you search Expedia you may find direct flights on other airlines, but you can’t choose those for your itinerary (unless you book that ticket separately).  This means that you often need to fly through some connecting city, C, and of course this also counts against your total mileage.  As an extreme example, when I first spoke with SkyTeam about buying this ticket they told me that the only way to get from Ethiopia to Egypt was to go through Germany!  Luckily, it turned out that there was an alternative option through Kenya.
  • If you want to make changes after you take off, that costs $125.  Note: it’s not $125 per flight but rather $125 for each time you call to request changes, no matter how many changes you request.  Of course, if your changes cause you to go over the limits mentioned above then there are additional fees.
  • The airlines don’t actually know their schedule a full year in advance.  How far into the future they do know their schedule varies from one airline to another, but it’s rarely more than 11 months.  This is a problem if you want to plan a 12 month trip, especially if you want to book the tickets a few months ahead of departure.  When I first asked SkyTeam what to do about this dilemma, they said that we’d have to book the trip with fake dates for the return flights and then, during the trip, call in to make the changes (and pay the $125 fee!).  Later we discovered that there’s also an option to leave some of the flights “open”, meaning that you specify the departure/arrival cities but leave the date unspecified; this allows you to call later and specify the dates without paying a fee.
  • If any of the flights on your trip are paper tickets (as opposed to e-tickets), then the entire itinerary must be issued as paper tickets.  There are various reasons why a particular flight can only be issued as a paper ticket.  As an example, we considered buying a flight from Delhi to Kathmandu but then we discovered that this would be a flight with Jet Airways and this airline can only issue paper tickets; so, we decided to skip this flight and make our own way into Nepal just so we won’t have to protect paper tickets for the duration of our trip.  Also, we discovered that if we left the flight from Fiji to Hawaii “open” then it would also be a paper ticket; so, for that flight we ended up choosing a fake date after all which allowed us to keep it as an e-ticket (and we’re hoping that the $125 fee will be waved when we call to change the date, because it’s really bullshit).

To actually book the SkyTeam ticket you need to call one of the member airlines.  We went with Northwest and discovered that they have a specific department for round-the-world tickets.  Most of the people in that department are fairly knowledgeable — I know because I spoke with many of them, and most of the conversations were 1+ hours.  But still, you’ll get hugely varying results depending on who you speak with.

Example: after several phone calls with NWA, we decided to actually book the tickets in June.  I called them up, verified the itinerary, then gave them my credit card number to book the flights; we were thrilled to have that part of the planning behind us.  Then, about a week ago, we discovered that we may be able to meet up with our friend Tim when we make our connection in Amsterdam, on the way to South Africa.  Only I couldn’t remember exactly how much time we’d have in Amsterdam – I had so many variations of our itinerary in my gmail account and I couldn’t remember which was the final one.  So I called NWA to confirm.  And when I called them, they told me that our reservation from June was never actually ticketed, meaning that we had no actual flights!! As you can imagine, discovering this just a couple weeks before our departure was just…awesome.  Amazingly, I was able to redo the entire reservation and book it.  In fact, the new version is even better than the first one (example: this is where I discovered that we don’t have to go through Frankfurt to fly from Ethiopia to Egypt).  But still, you have to be very careful – there’s a non-zero chance that your RTW agent will drop the ball in the worst way possible.

It’s also worth mentioning that the prices of these RTW tickets keep going up, especially in light of the rising fuel prices.  If we wanted to buy the same tickets today they would be at least $500 more per person.  In fact, we’re lucky that the NWA folks were good enough to give us the same price we had back in June when they re-booked our tickets just recently.

Finally, SkyTeam is particularly confusing because they have two different kinds of RTW tickets — the “traditional” and the “new” — and they differ in many ways.  Ours are the traditional variety.

Alternative 1: Star Alliance

One alternative we considered is getting a RTW ticket from Star Alliance.  As I mentioned above, this turned out to be less good for our itinerary because Star Alliance doesn’t have as much coverage in Africa.  For example, they could get us to South Africa and Egypt, but not much in between.

Star Alliance has a website with a pretty slick tool that lets you build your custom itinerary on your own sweet time, without having to deal with agents.   In practice, however, I found that this tool was not everything I hoped it would be.  It kept giving me cryptic error messages.  When I called United to ask what those messages meant, the agents told me that they’ve never used the tool so they can’t say for sure; but when they looked into it, they found that the flights are simply not available as direct flights.  OK, so why doesn’t the tool automatically offer me the appropriate connecting city?  Isn’t that a run-of-the-mill feature on 1000 other flight booking websites??  Eventually I learned to just ditch the tool and speak with live agents.  And, believe me, as a techie guy, it pained me to have to do this.

But again, the main reason we decided against Star Alliance is simply because SkyTeam offered us more flights in the places we cared about most.

Alternative 2: forget RTW tickets, go with a private travel agent

The other alternative we considered is to skip all this business about airline-alliance-RTW tickets and instead book our flights through an independent travel agent.  There are lots agents out there who have experience booking flights for round-the-world trips.  We considered two of them…

Susi at World Travelers Club (http://www.around-the-world.com/).  Susi was recommended by our friends Tyler and Sarah who went on their own trip around the world in 2007 and used Susi as their travel agent.

Chris Wadsworth at Airtreks (http://www.airtreks.com/).  We didn’t get a recommendation for Chris, per se, but we did hear about Airtreks from a few sources — they’ve been around.

We contacted Susi and Chris and had some emails back and forth with them.  Both were very friendly and obviously knowledgeable.  However, we had a hard time comparing the tickets they offered us to the ones from SkyTeam.  The main issue is, as mentioned above, the fact that airlines don’t know their schedule far enough in advance.  Both Susi and Chris said that they can only buy our tickets for the first half of the trip and that we’d have to call them later (after departure) to book the rest of the trip.  So, on the one side (Susi & Chris) we had a quote for half the flights at a certain price, and on the other side (SkyTeam) we had a quote for the entire trip at a much higher price.  Which is better?  It’s hard to tell.  First off, is the first half of our itinerary more or less expensive than the second half?  Second, the itineraries that Susi and Chris offered us were not exactly the same as SkyTeam’s; as private agents they had access to good deals in slightly different cities.  Third, and most importantly, if we went with a private agent, there’s a definite chance that prices would go up between the time we booked the first half of our trip and the second. This fear ultimately convined us to go with a known commodity: SkyTeam.  And, in retrospect, I think we made the right call — we’ve already seen SkyTeam’s prices go up.  However, if you are planning a shorter trip, one where the entire flight schedule is known ahead of time, I would strongly recommend looking at one of these private agents.

Alternative 3: Book flights as we go

Another thought was to just book our out-bound flight (e.g. the flight to South Africa) and then to book the other flights as we go, using local travel agents.  Pnina and I have already been to parts of the world where we know it definitely pays off to book flights locally (e.g. Thailand).  However, we weren’t sure the same would be true in other parts of the world.  We’ve also been to places where as a tourist you can get royally ripped off at every corner (e.g. Delhi).  Also, we heard that some countries make entry difficult or impossible if you don’t have proof of your intention to eventually leave the country, e.g. in the form of an out-bound flight ticket.  So, while we may pick up a few flights for side-trips along the way, we decided to mostly have our flights chosen and booked ahead of time.

Conclusion

In the end, Pnina and I feel like we got a good deal.  To pay just $5300 each to fly all the way around the world and make so many stops, well, it just seems like a good deal.  Heck, we’d probably have to pay nearly $2000 just to go to South Africa and back.  And on top of that, we like that our SkyTeam tickets give us the option to make some changes, even if we have to pay $125 per ticket to do so.  We’ll see how it all pans out.

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2 responses to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Airline Industry

  1. Great post Shahaf, I’ve always wondered how those deals worked

  2. Bon Voyage, Shahaf & Pnina! Blog often, ok? Your posts so far are great. You’ve set high expectations. hehe 🙂

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