This is a really long post, so if you just want the summary, jump directly to TL; DR.
I spent nearly two weeks planning our route, figuring out dates and determining how long we plan to stay abroad, but one call to United Airlines and everything changed. The call to United Airline deserves a post all to itself, but the short story is: we called three times, and by our third call, we finally knew the questions to ask and got someone on the line who knew what she was doing. After just a few minutes, it was obvious that we needed to do more planning after hearing the restrictions on the RTW fare. Restrictions that are not clearly posted on their website.
RTW Rules and Regs
There are a myriad of rules for the RTW airfare. One of the rules is that our direction of travel must remain in one general direction, east or west. The airline divides the world into three regions for the RTW fare: Americas, Europe/Africa/Middle East, and Asia/Oceania. We must start and end in the same country. We can cross into each region only once. The crossing between regions cannot be via a surface route, i.e., we must travel between regions by air. We can travel in any direction within the regions. We cannot go through our starting country on the way to another one. We are limited to 16 segments, 15 stopovers, and 39,000 total miles. Segments using surface transport count as one segment even though we’re not flying, which seems unfair. Separate legs of a flight—connecting flights—count as multiple segments. Stopovers are any place we stay more than 24 hours. We are limited to 5 legs that use surface transportation. All travel must be completed in one year.
This all sounds fairly straightforward until you get on the phone with someone from United. Then you find out the rules are a bit different for award travel and all your best laid plans turn to, well, you know what. With over 430,000 airline award miles saved in preparation for this trip, what we didn’t count on was that the RTW award fare was damn near impossible to use for a long trip.
Us Versus the Rules
|Sao Paulo (SAO)||←|
Even though we have 15 stopovers available, unless we are staying close to the equator without much zigzagging and going only to major cities, we couldn’t get close to using all the stopovers within the 39,000 mile limit without first using up our 16 segments. That’s because it’s difficult to always find a non-stop route to many of these destinations. We have 8 stopovers, 11 if you include the surface routes. These were the major stopover cities where I planned to either arrive← or depart→ or both↔ by air:
We would use 14 of 16 segments with a grand total air miles of 38,781.
These cities were chosen because they are destinations served by United’s partner airlines. The most difficult destination to reach will be Seychelles with very limited service from Africa. Most flights originate from Europe and the routing seems to favor those traveling eastward. Seychelles used to be an available destination on most RTW routes, but I think the airlines got wise to the fact that there’s not much competition and flights are expensive. We tried to include Antananarivo, Madagascar as a stopover, because it’s an expensive destination available with the RTW fare, but couldn’t because it uses two segments since there is no direct flight to it. Our flight to Sydney and our return from South America to the U.S. also use two segments each.
After I determined what I thought would be a conservative and flexible schedule and route, my wife and I called United and received an education in RTW fares.
It’s Supposed to Be Impossible
The RTW Saver Fare costs 200,000 award miles per person, but this fare doesn’t buy us much as you may think, and the rules are a bit different from a paid RTW fare. First of all, we can only book tickets 11 months or 331 days in advance and the entire RTW ticket must be booked at one time. However, our trip starts next year and since part of our itinerary extends beyond the 11 month advanced purchase date, we cannot book an RTW ticket if the travel dates are more than 11 months from right now, not 11 months from when we plan to start our trip. That’s a big problem because there are only a few Saver Fare award seats available on any given flight and most of them are snatched up within weeks of that 11 month advanced purchase date. That leaves us so few choices that we would have to fly on standby for nearly every flight or redeem extra miles to use the Standard award. That makes it nearly impossible to make any firm plans for lodging or guided tours unless we use twice the amount of award miles.
One possible loophole I wanted to use, was that there are no fees to change the dates of the tickets after they are booked. We can’t change the destinations, but we can change the dates. I thought we could just book all the destinations with compressed travel dates to fit within the 4 months that we can book now and later change the dates to our actual travel dates. That’s when we found out that, unlike a paid RTW ticket, when the entire ticket is booked using award miles, the clock starts ticking immediately and we have only one year to complete all our travels—not one year from when we begin our trip, but one year from when we book our trip. So much for that idea.
It’s a catch-22—if our trip is close to one year in length, it’s impossible to book the trip until just days before we need to leave, but if we wait until then, there will be no award seats available on any flights. Because airlines are overbooking fewer flights, there are fewer seats to begin with, and they’d much rather have someone on the airplane who is paying than traveling for free. We can’t book an RTW ticket now because our trip is nearly a year long but doesn’t start until next year. That puts segments of our trip as far as 20 months from now.
After getting off the phone the third and final time with United, my wife and I were both truly disheartened. It looked as if we wouldn’t be able to do the trip that I spent months researching and we would have to rethink the entire plan. But during our conversation, I jokingly said we should just book each of the one-way segments instead of using the RTW fare. I didn’t know how many miles that would require. Heck, I didn’t even know if we could book one-way tickets around the world. But the idea got my wife looking into it and she may have found the solution. Since she has over 430,000 award miles, that was over 215,000 miles per person, increasing each time she flies or we use our credit card. According to United’s award charts, different segments of our journey cost different amounts in award miles, so we put the amounts into a spreadsheet, and for comparison, we added the average price of an economy flight on any airline. We also included Madagascar back into the trip since flying there cost just as many award miles as flying to Johannesburg. Here’s how they stack up.
|Depart||Award Miles*||Avg. Price (USD)*||Arrive|
|Seattle (SEA)||Amtrak||Vancouver (YVR)|
|Vancouver (YVR)||40,000||$1,400||Sydney (SYD)|
|Sydney (SYD)||17,500||375||Bangkok (BKK)|
|Bangkok (BKK)||30,000||300||Kathmandu (KTM)|
|Kathmandu (KTM)||overland||Mumbai (BOM)|
|Mumbai (BOM)||20,000||250||Dubai (DXB)|
|Dubai (DXB)||30,000||600||Antananarivo (TNR)|
|Antananarivo (TNR)||17,500||450||Johannesburg (JNB)|
|Johannesburg (JNB)||17,500||300||Nairobi (NBO)|
|Nairobi (NBO)||30,000||700||Istanbul (IST)|
|Istanbul (IST)||overland||Madrid (MAD)|
|Madrid (MAD)||47,500||900||Sao Paulo (SAO)|
|Sao Paulo (SAO)||overland||Bogota (BOG)|
|Bogota (BOG)||20,000||900||Seattle (SEA)|
|Seattle (SEA)||back to reality|
|Totals||270,000||6,175||*Miles and prices per person|
To use all reward miles, we would be short by 55,000 each, however, we noticed that several segments were relatively inexpensive and would be economical to simply pay for those segments. Other segments, however, were a no-brainer. So by paying $1,700 ($850 x 2) for the segments from Bangkok to Kathmandu, Mumbai to Dubai, and Johannesburg to Nairobi, we would save 67,500 reward miles each, and use only 202,500 miles. Just under the 215,000 we each have available. We also had to change our North American departure city to Vancouver (YVR). Our first, second and third choices of SEA, LAX and SFO already had no available seats. Since we no longer had to end our journey in the same country we left, our neighbor to the north became our starting point. The added benefit was a direct flight to Sydney.
Not using the RTW ticket cost us more in miles and dollars, but gave us some flexibility. We were no longer limited to completing our trip within a year of booking. We could actually travel in any direction we wanted and we could use an overland route anywhere we choose. We weren’t limited to 16 segments but rather total award miles. A flight that has multiple segments still costs the same in award miles. For instance, the flight to Madagascar has two segments, but still costs 30,000 award miles—the same amount as it would cost to fly direct to Johannesburg. Those remote places that we couldn’t reach with the RTW ticket are now more accessible.
The downside is that we have fixed departure dates once we book our flights and to actually get a seat, we would have to book each segment right as the 11 month advance purchase date arrives. If absolutely necessary, we could change our departure dates, but we’d probably have to pay a penalty and risk flying standby. To avoid having to do that, I’ll need to do extensive research on how long we will need between flights without feeling rushed. After all, this is supposed to be relaxing and not a forced march.
If you’ve been saving up those award miles to use on an RTW ticket, be aware of the all the restrictions—restrictions specific to award travel and not usually posted on any airline’s web sites. Planning a trip of one year isn’t possible with award travel, so even though the web site states that you have a year, you really only have 11 months, but only if you can book the trip tomorrow and get a free seat on the next flight out. If you’re only planning a three to six month RTW trip, you might be able to use the RTW award fare. If your plans are more long-term and your dates are more definite, you might be better off using your award miles for one-way tickets around the world. You’ll have much fewer restrictions, but you’ll lose some flexibility once you’ve booked the flight.