Using Air Travel Passes to Maximize International Travel
Today, TPG Contributor Jason Steele introduces us to the Air Travel Pass, a great way to get around for travelers with multiple regional destinations in mind.
The most efficient way to use your points and miles is to see as much as you can with one major international award flight, rather than travel back and forth between home and abroad. When you're trying to put together a large trip, rather than pay for individual flights (or trains, or other modes of transportation) around the region you're exploring, you might consider the little known option of air travel passes.
What are air travel passes?
Air travel passes are akin to rail passes (like those commonly used in Europe); they're special fares that allow you to visit multiple destinations in a particular region at a discounted rate. Each of the three major airline alliances offers air travel passes that are sold in conjunction with an international ticket. Travelers can purchase the pass directly from a member of one of the alliances, which tickets them on flights within a particular region. For example, the Skyteam alliance offers a Go Europe pass that includes between 3 and 16 different flights, on which you can visit the same city twice (but no more).
The biggest restriction is that you can only purchase an air travel pass in conjunction with an international ticket to the region. For example, if United issues you a ticket to Japan on flights operated by United or its partners, United will sell you the air pass; you couldn't buy a ticket to Japan on Delta and then buy the United air pass around North Asia. Also, you cannot be a citizen of the region where the pass is valid, so while there are North American and USA air passes that offer tremendous value, US residents can't purchase them. Although, I suppose a foreign national could book a trip originating in his or her home country and purchase an air pass, providing that the address in the frequent flier program is also foreign.
The advantages of air travel passes
Travelers can book flights on several different carriers within the respective alliance by contacting a single company, which simplifies the booking process. In addition, pricing is based on the number of legs and distance flown, so this is a great option when you want to visit destinations that might otherwise be unaffordable. In fact, the flat-fee pricing structure means that there's no penalty for purchasing a ticket with little advanced notice. Another nice feature of air travel passes from all three alliances is that children from 2 to 12 years old pay a discounted fare of 75%, although lap child infants still have to pay the standard 10%.
Furthermore, I confirmed that you can always earn frequent flier miles on the carrier of your choice within the alliance, and that members of all three of the alliances will sell you an air pass in conjunction with an award ticket.
The downsides of travel passes
To book an air pass, travelers should contact the members of the alliance they're flying on to the destination region, and ticketing representatives are supposed to price and ticket these passes. But as you might imagine, most representatives haven't heard about air travel passes or have never ticketed one before, and they'll have to spend some time reading and learning to apply the rules.
I contacted a member of each of the airline alliances to request information about pricing, and each said they couldn't offer any specifics, except to say that the price would vary based on the destination and the taxes and fees. Nevertheless, I was able to find some details (below).
Finally, airline alliances are largely composed of legacy carriers, and it may be the case that lower fares are available from discount carriers. So in each case, travelers should price out their itineraries separately on the most affordable and convenient airlines, and then compare the result to the price of a comparable air travel pass from the alliance they're arriving on.
What the three major airline alliances offer
The Star Alliance offers air passes within Africa, Asia, China, Europe, Japan, and North America. Again, you can't purchase the last one unless you're flying into the United States from a foreign country that you are a citizen or resident of, so don't get too excited about the North America pass.
Thankfully, the Star Alliance website includes some fantastic tools to plan and even price an air travel pass, so you can learn and compare the costs before booking. For example, here's an itinerary that I priced out, starting in London and visiting Oslo, Iceland, Dusseldorf, and Zurich for under $1,000.
The OneWorld alliance offers what they call single-continent fares to Africa, Asia, Japan, Australia/New Zealand, Malaysia, South America, Europe, North America, the Middle East, and the South Asian Sub-Continent.
OneWorld makes their pricing a little bit more transparent by disclosing the distances used in calculation, which vary based on the region. For example, here's the chart for Europe.
OneWorld also offers multi-continent fares including Circle Atlantic and Circle Pacific. You can actually piece together an itinerary including whichever continents you choose, and pay a fare based not on the mileage flown, but on the number of continents visited.
While OneWorld does not have a tool to construct and price itineraries, LAN's website does offer a tool for South American Air travel passes.
The Skyteam alliance allows the purchase of 3 - 16 coupons for their air travel passes, including Africa, Europe, Circle Asia and Southwest Pacific, Asia, China, Mexico, Europe, Russia, and USA/Canada.
There are no online pricing tools for Skyteam awards, but the price you pay will be based on the number of legs flown. Therefore, you'll do best when flying non-stop to your destination, although another way to look at it is that you get free stopovers. Finally, those booking in conjunction with a Delta ticket should avoid calling the regular reservations number and instead contact SkyTeam Support at 800-830-7460.