Your guide to round-the-world award tickets
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new earning options and partnerships. It was originally published on Dec. 28, 2018.
Unless you’re a very frequent traveler, the post-vacation blues only get exacerbated when you log into your frequent flyer accounts and realize you don’t have enough miles for another trip. While it’s pure euphoria to earn 100,000 points or more from a single welcome bonus on a new travel rewards credit card, it can be equally deflating to blow them all on a single trip and only get to experience one new destination.
One way to get around this is to take advantage of a free stopover on your award ticket (and even some cash tickets as well), but there aren’t many loyalty programs that offer this feature, and it often requires you to either book with certain miles or route through a specific city. For flexible travelers looking to take extended trips and see as much of the world as possible, there’s another option: Several airline loyalty programs offer round-the-world (RTW) awards, where for a fixed price you can see 10 or more different destinations in all different corners of the globe.
These complex itineraries are generally made possible by leveraging alliance route networks (or individual partnerships, depending on the airline). In fact, all three major alliances (Star Alliance, Oneworld and SkyTeam) offer the ability to build a cash RTW ticket. Given the high cost though, we’ll focus instead on award redemption options here. The beauty of RTW awards is that creativity is encouraged, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t see your favorite city in any of these examples.
One last note before we get started. Almost every airline that offers RTW awards requires you to fly in a single direction (east to west or west to east) without backtracking. However, many will make a slight exception and let you backtrack to connect in an alliance hub city en route to your next destination.
With 28 member airlines serving over 1,300 destinations worldwide, Star Alliance remains the biggest of the three major alliances. Wherever you’re traveling, odds are there’s a Star Alliance carrier that can get you there.
ANA RTW awards offer a combination of reasonable terms and conditions:
- Flights must be used to cross both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans once.
- You must fly east to west or west to east and can’t backtrack.
- Up to eight stopovers are permitted, up to three in Europe and up to four in Japan.
- You can book a maximum of 12 flight segments.
And the pricing is fair:
While first class looks very enticing for a long RTW trip, Star Alliance makes it rather challenging to book. Singapore and Swiss don’t release first-class award space to partners and Lufthansa only does within 15 days of departure, leaving ANA as one of the only Star Alliance carriers that would actually let you book first class. Thankfully, Star Alliance has some pretty fine business-class options for you to choose from.
Take the following example, which covers just over 21,000 flight miles and includes seven stopovers. This ticket would only cost you 125,000 miles, which is equal to (or less than) most carriers would charge for a simple round-trip business-class ticket to Asia!
Earning ANA miles: If you’re short on ANA miles, the carrier is a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards points (from cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express) and a 3:1 transfer partner of Marriott Bonvoy (earned from cards like the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card). Remember that Marriott also offers a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points you transfer.
Singapore’s RTW award is poorly advertised and relatively confusing, but if you’re looking to include a premium-cabin segment on Singapore, you have a compelling reason to book through KrisFlyer, as the carrier generally doesn’t release premium-cabin award space to partners.
For Singapore RTW awards:
- Travel must continue in the same direction (east or west) with no backtracking.
- You must begin and end in the same country.
- You can have a maximum of seven total stopovers, with a maximum of two in each country.
- Your maximum flight distance is 35,000 miles, and you can’t have more than 16 flight segments.
35,000 miles is a very low ceiling to place on the RTW awards. If you wanted to try the world’s longest flight from Newark (EWR) to Singapore (SIN), you’d eat up almost 30% of your mileage allowance on a single flight. And the pricing is mediocre at best:
- Economy: 180,000 miles
- Business: 240,000 miles
- First: 360,000 miles
Lufthansa’s Miles & More program allows you to book up to seven stopovers and ten flight segments on RTW awards, though it does pass on fuel surcharges which can be thousands of dollars for a trip like this. RTW awards cost the following amounts:
- Economy: 180,000 miles
- Business: 325,000 miles
- First: 480,000 miles
Earning Miles & More miles: Lufthansa is a 3:1 transfer partner of Marriott Bonvoy.
Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles program offers a quasi-RTW award option, though you might not notice it at first since it’s called “Oneworld multi-carrier awards.” You’re required to fly at least two Oneworld carriers (excluding Cathay Pacific, or three if you include Cathay Pacific), are permitted up to five stopovers and can’t fly more than 50,000 miles. These are round-trip tickets, so you must return to your origin. Other than that, there aren’t many restrictions to worry about. Prices are as follows:
Oneworld is also much better about releasing first-class award availability to partners, allowing you to concoct some pretty fancy trips. The following itinerary covers just over 33,000 flight miles, with stops in Tokyo-Narita (NRT), London-Heathrow (LHR), Sydney (SYD, via Singapore) and Hong Kong (HKG). It would cost 300,000 miles which is by no means cheap, but in exchange you would get almost 70 hours of first-class flying time with JAL, Cathay Pacific and Qantas, and well over $40,000 worth of flights.
Of course, you’d need to find award availability (that’s actually bookable) on these routes, but one can dream, right?
Earning Asia Miles: Cathay Pacific is a 1:1 transfer partner of Amex and Citi and a 2:1.5 transfer partner of Capital One.
Qantas’ RTW award program can be difficult to find, since like Cathay Pacific, it’s named “Oneworld classic flight reward.” You can only fly on Oneworld airlines (i.e. not other Qantas partners like Emirates or El Al), and you’re required to fly at least two non-Qantas Oneworld airlines.
If your destination city is different than your origin, you will be charged based on the distance to return directly from your destination to your origin. You are allowed up to five stopovers and can cover up to 35,000 total flight miles. Pricing is as follows:
This obviously isn’t as generous as Cathay Pacific, but there are some decent values to be had here, especially in business class. If you max out the five stopovers, you’d likely end up paying 240,000 – 280,000 miles for a business class round-the-world award. That means you’re effectively ‘purchasing’ each flight for 40,000 – 45,000 miles each.
Earning Qantas miles: Qantas is a 1:1 transfer partner of Citi ThankYou Points and a 2:1.5 transfer partner of Capital One.
While Aeromexico’s award chart for flights on its own metal is hardly worth writing home about, its SkyTeam RTW pass is an incredibly attractive deal. Aeromexico uses an oddly-priced mileage currency, so make sure you consider your transfer ratio when looking at these prices. RTW awards cost 224,000 points in economy or 352,000 in business class, which would require you to transfer either 140,000 or 220,000 Membership Rewards points (see below for other transfer options). In addition, the following terms apply:
- Travel must continue in the same direction, east or west (although there are some reports that Aeromexico is flexible on this if you’re backtracking to connect through a SkyTeam hub city).
- Travel must begin and end in the same country.
- You can have a minimum of three or a maximum of 15 stopovers, with no more than five per continent. A stopover is defined as any city where you remain for 24 hours before continuing your travel.
- All flights must be booked in the same class of service.
- Pass is valid for one year from the date of issue.
Allowing 15 stopovers is among the most generous of any RTW program, and with no mileage limits to worry about, you can really squeeze in some long-haul flights as long as you don’t backtrack. This 18,000-mile, seven-stop trip is just one of the many possibilities that comes to mind, bringing you from New York-JFK to Seoul (ICN), Shanghai (PVG), Hanoi (HAN), Moscow (SVO), Amsterdam (AMS), Paris (CDG) and Madrid (MAD) before you head back to New York.
It’s worth mentioning that SkyTeam RTWs booked through Alitalia’s MilleMiglia program are priced identically (once you factor in the Amex transfer ratio), but you’re limited to six stopovers, and Alitalia appears to have difficulty accessing some SkyTeam award space. Plus, with more ways than ever to transfer points to Aeromexico, there isn’t a good reason to use Alitalia instead.
Earning Premier Points: Aeromexico is a 1:1.6 transfer partner of Amex, a 2:1.5 transfer partner of Capital One and a 3:1 transfer partner of Marriott.
Korean Air allows up to six stopovers (four per award region) on RTW tickets. These cost 140,000 miles in economy or 220,000 miles in business class. Given how hard SkyPass miles are to earn and this low cap on stopovers, you’d probably be better off booking with Aeromexico instead (for the same cost, once you factor in the Amex transfer ratio). Check out our guide to Korean’s RTW pass for more details and sample itineraries.
Earning SkyPass miles: Since Chase dropped Korean Air as a transfer partner, the only easy way to earn SkyPass miles is by transferring Marriott points at a 3:1 ratio.
Round-the-world awards are not for the faint of heart, nor are they even an option for every traveler. They often require multiple weeks (or even months) to actually enjoy the stops, which is a commitment in itself. That doesn’t even take into account the time needed to research and then book the flights to make it work.
If you’re able to embark on a multi-stop trip, these awards can let you do it for just a fraction of the cost. Even “shorter” trips of only three or four destinations can benefit from this booking option in the right circumstances, so hopefully this guide has inspired you to start planning your own jaunt!
Featured image by sdecoret/Shutterstock.
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