In 1924, an American team of aviators successfully completed the first ever circumnavigation of the globe by airplane, a feat that took 175 days, 76 stops, a cache of 15 Liberty engines, 14 spare pontoons, four aircraft, and two sets of new wings. This achievement ushered in an era of international air travel, and a hundred years later travelers are still creating their own round-the-world itineraries. 

You might not need have the same worries as those early aviators, but planning a round-the-world trip can still be a complex process. There are several options for booking your airfare, as well as flexibility on timing, destinations, and budget, so there are a lot of possibilities to sort through and research to be done.

COVID restrictions may mean you aren’t going anywhere yet but there’s still a lot of preparatory research you can do. Here’s our guide on how to plan that round-the-world vacation you’ve always dreamed of.

10 remarkable wonders of the world

The basics of round-the-world tickets

The most economical way to circumnavigate is to buy a round-the-world (RTW) air ticket through a single airline alliance. These are confederations of several different airlines that make it simple to maximize the number of places you can travel and pay for it all in one place, or with one bank of points. There are three primary alliances to choose from, including Star Alliance, OneWorld, and Skyteam.

For example, the Star Alliance is made up of a coalition of 26 airlines which fly to 1300 airports in “98% of the world’s countries.” OneWorld includes 13 airlines traveling to 1100 destinations in 180 territories. Meanwhile Skyteam is made up of 19 airlines that serve 1000 destinations in 170 countries.

A plane in the sky silhouetted against the setting sun
Start by picking an airline alliance © D-Stocker / Shutterstock

Once you pick an airline alliance, whether because of a loyalty program you’re already a member of or because you like its terms, conditions, and destination list, you can purchase a single RTW airline ticket made up of several legs fulfilled by that alliance’s partners. The RTW ticket rules vary between each of the airline alliances, with particulars like Star Alliance’s rule that RTW ticket can include 2 to 15 stops. But there are some general principles that apply to most RTW tickets, no matter the group you go with. 

You typically must follow one global direction (east or west – no backtracking); you must start and finish in the same country; and you must book all your flights before departure, though you can change them later (which may incur extra charges). And you typically have one year to get from your starting point to the finish line.

Young woman with a suitcase stands with her back to the camera in an empty airport terminal
Most round-the-world tickets last for a year © lechatnoir / Getty Images

How long do I need for a round-the-world trip?

You could whip round the world in a weekend if you flew non-stop – especially with the advent of new ultra-longhaul flights that can last practically a whole day, clocking in at twenty hours flight time. However, the minimum duration of most RTW tickets is ten days – still a breathless romp. To get the most out of your round-the-world ticket, consider stock-piling annual leave, tagging on public holidays or even arranging a sabbatical in order to take off two months (but ideally six to twelve). Because most airline alliances give you up to a year to use your ticket, you can really maximize your purchase if you plan well.

A shot of a hiker laden with a backpack approaching an archway on a mountainous trail
Consider what you really want to do, and when in the year those activities are possible © MOROZ NATALIYA / Shutterstock

When should I go with my RTW ticket?

The weather will never be ideal in all your stops, so focus on what you want to do most and research conditions there. In general, city sightseeing can be done year-round (escape extreme heat/cold/rain in museums and cafes) but outdoor adventures are more reliant on – and enjoyable in – the right weather.

Research ahead of time if any must-see destinations or must-do activities will mean facing crowds. For example, if you’re hoping to be in Austria for the famous Salzburg Festival, you’ll want to plan ahead and book your tickets to Mozart and Hofmannsthal months in advance. Or if you’re hoping to fit a shorter thru-hike into your round-the-world trip, you’ll want to make sure you’re going in the correct season and starting in the right spot. You won’t get far or have as enjoyable experience if you’re, say, attempting the Tour du Mont Blanc during the dates of the annual winter marathon or headed northbound on the Pacific Crest Trail in July, missing most of the warmer months.

Accept youʼll be in some regions at the “wrong” time – though this might offer unexpected benefits. For example, Victoria Falls has a dry season each year that mean a slightly less thunderous cascade, but does open up rafting opportunities and a chance to swim right up to the lip of the falls in The Devil’s Pool. Going to Venice in the winter might mean greyer skies but fewer crowds, and heading to Kenya and Tanzania in April is likely to mean fewer humans, but not fewer chances to spot wildlife, all while saving money on safari.

The streets of Yaowarat, Bangkok's Chinatown, is lit by bright red and orange neon signs on all the concrete multi-0story buildings. Taillights from cars driving down the street echo the neon signs
Cheaper RTW tickets include big cities, such as Bangkok © Gabriel Perez via Getty Images

Where should I go on my round-the-world trip?

The classic (and cheapest) RTW tickets flit between a few big cities, for example London – Bangkok – Singapore – Sydney – LA. If you want to link more offbeat hubs (Baku – Kinshasa – Paramaribo, anyone?), prices will climb considerably. The cost of the ticket is also based on the total distance covered or the number of countries visited.

Remember, you donʼt have to fly between each point: in Australia you could land in Perth, travel overland, and fly out of Cairns. Or fly into Moscow, board the Trans-Siberian railway, and fly onwards from Beijing. Pick some personal highlights and string the rest of your itinerary around those. For instance, if youʼre a keen trekker, flesh out a Peru (Inca Trail), New Zealand (Milford Track) and Nepal (Everest Base Camp) itinerary with stops in Yosemite, Menz-Gauassa, and the Okavango Delta.

If budgetʼs an issue, spend more time in less expensive countries and plan budget city breaks along the way. You’ll spend more in metros like Paris, Dubai, and San Francisco than in Nusa Tenggara, Budapest, and Buffalo. 

A train crossing a bridge curves through lush green hillsides
Remember, a lot of your RTW trip can be done overland © Getty Images

Tips, tricks and pitfalls of round-the-world tickets

Talk to an expert before you book: you may have an itinerary in mind but an experienced RTW flight booker will know which routes work best and cost least – a few tweaks could mean big savings in time and money. Hash out a budget well ahead of time, not only for your RTW ticket, but the whole trip itself. Reach out to friends or travel bloggers who have done a round-the-world trip or are full-time travelers – they can offer tips on how to budget for a trip around the world.

Be flexible: moving your departure date by a few days can save money; mid-week flights are generally cheaper, as are flights on major holidays such as Christmas Day. Avoid days and times popular with business travelers to escape higher prices and more crowded cabins.

Think about internal travel: it CAN be cheaper to book internal flights at the same time as booking your RTW ticket – but, with the global increase of low-cost airlines, you may find it better (and more flexible) to buy them separately as you go.

Be warned: if you donʼt board one of your booked flights (say, on a whim, you decide to travel overland from Bangkok to Singapore rather than fly it) your airline is likely to cancel all subsequent flights.

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Article first published March 2012, and last updated August 2020

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