I am obsessed with finding great flight deals. It’s a problem. I subscribe to several flight deal newsletters. I have no less than four flight alerts set at all times for various destinations around the world. For every 10 deals I find, I’m lucky if I even book a single one. I don’t have the luxury of working remotely or having significant vacation time. But finding low-cost international airfare is a fun challenge for me. Occasionally, the stars align and an ultra low fare results in a trip to South Africa.
Yesterday, one of my online travel groups posted a fare construction challenge. I knew I had to give it a shot. I just bought a cross-country, peak season work flight for almost the same price. With nothing other than patience, a map, and a search engine, anyone can find these deals. So I figured I would walk you through how I solved this challenge in about eight hours.
Construct a round-the-round (RTW) ticket for under $700.
- Travel must begin and end on the same continent, in the same metro area
- The ticket must include the continent of origin plus two destination continents
- Complete travel between mid-October and early December
- The ticket can’t include open jaws (arriving into one city and departing out of a different city)
The End Result?
A RTW ticket that begins and ends in North America with stops in Asia and Europe for only $661!
What is a Round-the-World (RTW) Flight?
A RTW flight is travel that occurs in one contiguous destination, without backtracking until you end your trip where you began. Travel can occur in either direction–east to west or west to east. But in order for a trip to qualify as an RTW it must cross both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean.
A RTW ticket does not need to be one multi-stop ticket; individual one-way segments can make up a RTW ticket. Buying one-way flights on the right mix of airlines can save hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is and it isn’t. Finding RTW flights is not difficult. Finding low-cost RTW flights does involve a bit of knowledge and a lot of patience. I mean, A LOT.
The Secret To Low-Cost RTW Flights
Three letters. LCC. Well, that’s only two letters but I digress. The secret sauce for circumnavigating the globe involves low-cost carriers (LCCs). An LCC is an airline that offers cheap, no frills flights. It’s able to achieve this by maximizing operations and minimizing unnecessary expenses. If the expense does not involve getting passengers safely from point A or B, it’s usually not included with the base fare price. Flying an LCC involves some level of sacrifice. Do you homework and read reviews from independent sources.
Depending upon the LCC, you may experience:
Complimentary checked baggage
Free carry-on baggage
Free advance seat selection
A seat that reclines
A seat where your knees don’t bang into the seat in front of you
A seat width that is on proportional to the average human being
Free printing of your boarding pass at the airport check-in counter
Using LCCs means you won’t receive several of the above amenities. So figure out what’s important to you and compare an LCC fare with a traditional carrier’s fare. For me, I can travel anywhere with an appropriately-sized, lightweight carry on. For short flights, I can forgo food and/or drinks (although I always buy the meal in advance for long-haul flights). Knowing your limits makes using the vast majority of LCCs easier.
Tips For Finding Cheap RTW Segments
- Book individual one-way segments
- Fly in and out of competitive markets
- Use several flight search engines to find a flight and compare airfare
- Figure out which airlines routinely offer low fares (and to which cities)
- Figure out what combination of cities will yield international, long-haul, low-cost fares
- Travel during the shoulder or low season for the regions you are traveling to
Two Unavoidable Aspects of RTW Travel
Let’s be clear for a second. There are two things you won’t be able to avoid when traveling around the globe for cheap:
- Having a layover
- Flying long distances in economy
If you can manage these two things, you are already on the right track.
How to Search for a RTW Ticket
I use flight search engines, OTAs (online travel agencies), and individual airline websites. This is my method regardless of the ticket complexity. The easiest order in which I have found to search for a RTW ticket is to:
- Search for each long-haul transocean flight
- Search for the shorter flight between continents that connects your two transocean flights
Often times, cheap RTW tickets go against the grain. Knowing the shoulder and low seasons for your destinations is helpful. Regardless though, I start with two search engines–ITA Matrix and Google Flights.
In 1996, two MIT computer scientists created ITA Matrix, travel industry software program. Google acquired ITA Matrix in 2010, and used algorithms gained in the sale to develop Google Flights. ITA Matrix crunches metadata from most airlines to display the best fares. You can’t book a flight on the ITA Matrix website. But it allows for complicated searches via its advanced routing and extension codes. If you know specifics of the route you want to take, start with ITA Matrix.
Start with Google Flights if you don’t know exactly where or in which order you want to travel. Why? Because it allows for easy continent and regional searches. Starting broad will help you find what cities and dates offer the greatest value. Then check fares between your origin airport and each destination airport. Finally, use the date matrix and price graph to find the date(s) with the lowest fare between the two cities. In the next section, I walk you through exactly how I followed these steps to find a RTW ticket for under $700.
Around the World in 30 Days for Under $700
First Leg: Transpacific Flight
I went into the challenge knowing I wanted to create a RTW that traveled to Europe and Asia from North America. I spent quite a bit of time trying to create a route to Europe, and then on to Asia, but I couldn’t keep the flight under $700. Finally, I decided to change the routing and go east to west instead.
That meant I would have to start on the west coast. I figured San Francisco (SFO/OAK) or Los Angeles (LAX) would have to be the departure city. I plugged SFO to Asia into Google Flights. Using the map and city list, Bangkok and Beijing offered the best chance for a low fare.
Finally, I narrowed it down further to BKK for ease of traveling onward to Europe. I found a great deal on November 7 to Bangkok from San Francisco on China Eastern Airlines for under $300. Expedia and the airline’s website had slight variations of the price. This is most likely due to fluctuating currency exchange rates.
Leg 3: Transatlantic Flight
With the transpacific flight out of the way, it was time to search for my flight from Europe back to the US. Pro tip: Norwegian Air, an LCC, operates long-haul flights between Europe and the west coast of the US. Since I needed to return to the same metro area for the ticket to be a true RTW, I only searched for flights back to OAK. Google Flights does not allow you to plug in “Europe” as your starting point so have Norwegian Air’s route map handy. Lucky you…
Using the route map, I plugged in several cities that fly to OAK and the cheapest return is from Oslo.
Leg 2: The Continental Connection between Asia and Europe
With the outbound and return leg figured out, the middle leg became quite easy to search. I plugged BKK and OSL into Google Flights and searched different dates. I arbitrarily chose November 19 for the fight date, but there was quite a bit of availability.
Drum Roll, Please
The final cost of this Northern Hemisphere RTW ticket came out to….
|Leg 1: SFO – BKK||11/7||$277.20 USD||China Eastern|
|Leg 2: BKK – OSL||11/19||$199.60 USD||Norwegian|
|Leg 3: OSL- OAK||12/8||$184.40 USD||Norwegian|
The first leg on China Eastern includes two complimentary checked baggage, up to 50 lbs each. Norwegian does not include any checked baggage in its LowFare category. But, you can upgrade to the LowFare+ for an extra $90 per leg. The LowFare+ category includes two meals, advanced seat reservation, and one checked bag up to 20 kg (44 lbs). With checked baggage on legs two and three, this RTW ticket is still under $1,000.
Both China Eastern and Norwegian allow one carry on luggage up to 10 kg (22 lbs). So if you are part of #teamcarryon this is an even better RTW ticket!
With some patience, an understanding of route maps, and LCCs, it’s easier to take advantage of shoulder season dates to circumnavigate the globe for the same price as a cross-country domestic flight on peak business travel days.