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In addition to his career as a filmmaker with an entree into the frequent flyer world, Hong Kong-based Gabriel Leigh is a bona fide Oneworld expert, and today he shares his insights with us on booking and maximizing Round The World tickets using American Airlines.
In an age of plentiful online resources for researching, planning, and booking travel, round-the-world tickets still evoke a bit of mystery. Everyone knows they’re out there, but not many know how to book them, let alone choose the best one for their purposes. There’s all manner of RTW offerings available, but I like to tweak and maximize my air options wherever possible – whether it’s squeezing in an extra stopover or a few (thousand) extra miles. And as I’m most familiar with the Oneworld alliance, when my mom recently asked me for advice on booking a big trip, I suggested the Oneworld Explorer ticket.
These tickets are great, but if you’re just starting out with them, there’s quite a lot to wrap your head around. The oneworld website has a pretty comprehensive overview of the ticket here.
The basic premise of this ticket, however, is that the price is determined by your country of origin (this part can vary quite a bit), the number of continents visited (between 3 and 6), and the class of service. The best part? It has no mileage limit, so with some creative routing you can fly further and earn more miles for the same price.
Let’s get some basic rules you’ll need to follow out of the way first: Your trip must be at least 10 days long, you can have up to 4 segments in each continent visited except for North America where you get 6, and you can add on extra segments for a fixed price, but there’s an absolute maximum of 16 on any ticket.
Two stopovers are allowed in the country of origin, and you can’t transit through your origin city. Somewhat fittingly for a round-the-world itinerary, travel must be overall in a continuous west-to-east or east-to-west direction, but within each continent you can do some zig-zagging (and I recommend doing so for more miles).
Another thing to watch for is that three-continent fares are not available when departing from the Southern Hemisphere and Africa due to network connection limitations.
You should also be aware that Oneworld’s geography might not be the same as your own. Most countries are situated in the continent you would expect them to be (Brazil is considered to be in South America, for example). However, “Europe” on an Explorer includes much of the Middle East and Central Asia, including: Algeria, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Morocco Russia both east and west of the Urals, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.
Finally, two potential sources of confusion I should also clarify:
1) Oneworld has two similarly-named RTW products. The first is the Oneworld Explorer, which we’re discussing here, while the second is the Global Explorer, which is based on mileage flown instead of number of continents. I find the Oneworld Explorer allows me more flexibility to fly the routes I want, but the Global Explorer has one benefit that could be useful depending on travel plans: it includes the ability to fly on some non-Oneworld partner airline flights as long as they carry a Oneworld flight number. Per Oneworld: “Flights operated by Aer Lingus (EI), Air Pacific, Alaska Airlines, Gulf Air, Kingfisher, Malaysia Airlines and Maridianafly; Qantas code-share services operated by Air Tahiti Nui, Vietnam Airlines, South African Airways and Jetstar are also permitted.”
2) This is a paid round-the-world ticket, and should not be confused with round-the-world award tickets. American has an option called Explorer Awards in which miles are redeemed for a ticket based on distance flown (for example, between 14,001 and 20,000 miles traveled in First, on any combination of Oneworld airline flights in any direction, will cost you 180,000 AA miles).
WHY BOOK AN RTW?
In this case, there were two main reasons to book an RTW and the Explorer ticket in particular:
1) A RTW would allow my mom to complete AA’s Platinum Challenge midway through and start earning double miles and getting into lounges, etc.
2) From her home in France she wanted to go to Stockholm, San Francisco, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. She also wanted to visit a few spots in Southeast Asia. The Explorer would give her all of that on one ticket.
MAKING THE MOST OF IT
When you set out to book a Oneworld Explorer, you’re given a blank canvas (the world map, looking ever so tantalizing) and a whole lot of scheduled flights to choose from. The best way to plot out your trip is on Oneworld’s great little online RTW planning tool. It will show you flight options, validate your routing, and even price your itinerary.
I was booking what they call a LONE3 – an economy ticket covering Europe, North America and Asia. You get 4 segments in Europe, 6 segments in North America, and 4 segments in Asia, plus the long-haul flights between continents. We kept the ticket pretty simple but there’s a lot of room to play around. Here are some routing options and rules to keep in mind:
Europe: As mentioned earlier, as far as this ticket is concerned, much of the Middle East is in Europe. That’s good news for you. For example, you could include a leg out to Dubai from London and earn a bunch more miles before heading back west to North America.
North America: Having six segments in North America is great. Keep in mind though that only one of those can be a transcontinental flight, so you’d only be able to cross the country nonstop once, i.e. LAX-JFK. If you wanted to go east again and then get back to the west coast, you’d have to go via Chicago or Dallas or similar. Same goes for Hawaii flights – if you fly from LAX to Honolulu for example, you can’t fly back to LAX, you have to continue to Asia. Anchorage, however, isn’t included in these rules, and as we all know, Anchorage is a long way from the continental US. For that reason it’s a favorite on the RTW-maximizer’s itinerary. The first time I did one of these I scheduled in an SFO-DFW-ANC-DFW-SFO over a weekend. I earned about 10,000 elite qualifying miles and had a great 24 hours in Alaska too. Note that the Dallas-Anchorage flight doesn’t operate in the winter.
Asia: Asia is the hardest to maximize. Watch out for the fact that many discounted economy fare class ticket won’t earn you any AA miles on Cathay Pacific or Dragonair, and many of your Asia options will be via Hong Kong on those carriers. One good alternative is JAL, which gives you at least 50% miles on all fares, and usually somewhere in the 70-100% range. So if you are including longer flights in Asia, try to fly them out of Tokyo (to Singapore, for example). Additionally, though you won’t earn miles, if you want to conserve segments and get over to the subcontinent, look at Cathay’s flights between southeast Asia (Bangkok/Singapore) and India/Sri Lanka.
BOOKING – SOME PITFALLS & DANGERS
Here’s where things got a little sticky. You see, that handy Oneworld RTW planning tool should theoretically accept payment for your RTW. But as it turns out, the payment part often doesn’t work, so many will need to do it the old-fashioned way and call one of the member airlines’ RTW desks.
I used the AA desk (1-800-247-3247). It’s here that I ran into a number of issues that led to several hours on the phone across roughly ten calls to get the ticket booked. Some problems to watch out for:
1) Officially, with very few exceptions, you need to book your RTW from within the country of origin, using a credit card issued in that country. That’s to dissuade you from going to the next country over for a cheaper ticket. But then there’s problem #2.
2) AA’s RTW phone agents aren’t consistent about the rules. Some say that if you’re originating in France, you can book with the US desk as long as you have a French credit card. Others insist you have to book it in France (much easier said than done). The former seems to be the correct interpretation, but you have to get lucky to receive this.
3) Taxes have to be calculated at a desk in Fiji or Cape Town. Sounds romantic, but it’s a drag. The online planner calculates taxes in about 20 seconds, but booking on the phone, your ticket will need to be sent to distant lands for 24-48 hours worth of tax calculation and verification. So every time something goes wrong, or your hold lapses, or you decide you’d prefer a different flight before ticketing, you have to wait another few days for the fare to come back.
4) There is a systemic lack of communication between the RTW desk and other departments at AA. Soon after the first attempt at ticketing, I called the Executive Platinum desk to request upgrades. This seemed to go fine. Several days went by though with no ticket issued, so I called back only to find that the EXP desk had ‘deleted’ the fare. Which sent us hurtling back to problem #3.
In the end I was able to charge the cost of the whole ticket to my own US credit card (and earn a bunch of points) with an agent at the Executive Platinum desk. You might think, why not just go through your elite desk at American to book the ticket in the first place? But only the RTW desks of each member airline can actually set up these tickets. I don’t think you’d find an Executive Platinum agent who could actually construct such a ticket for you. But once it’s set up, they can take payment. Other departments aren’t supposed to take payment either, but as it’s just a matter of inputting some credit card info, if you find a willing agent, it can be done.
That final ticketing process took about four hours on the phone. And in all, the booking process lasted around three weeks.
The morals of the story?
1) Don’t request upgrades on an Explorer ticket that hasn’t ‘ticketed’ yet. Make sure it’s in the system before taking advantage of your elite status.
2) Nothing is impossible. You can probably get it ticketed how you want eventually, if you keep at it.
3) RTW’s are great fun, can earn you thousands of status-qualifying miles, and are worth the (sometimes considerable) hassle. You could always get a travel agent to deal with all the nonsense, and that’s a perfectly viable alternative, but for me, navigating the maze of booking one in order to get it just right for my purposes is all part of the fun.
-Final price of the ticket with taxes: €2700 (~$3490)
-Final routing: CDG-HEL-ARN-HEL-ORD-SFO-JFK-HND/NRT-HAN-HKG-BKK-BOM-LHR-ORY
-Total mileage flown: 27,771
-Total AA miles earned: 36,758
Just note: the cents per mile is not very good (9.5 cents per miles), but that’s because we weren’t really maximizing for miles and didn’t avoid the Cathay/Dragonair mileage black hole entirely, as well as the fact that my mother didn’t attain Platinum (for the 100% bonus) until 10,000 miles into the trip so the CPM could be much higher depending on your status at the outset.