Travel Planning Challenges: Madagascar

Remote, out-of-way, and hard to reach, Madagascar is quite a challenge for travel planning.

It’s Sheri’s desire to visit this unique home to lemurs and other exotic creatures, so I did a lot of research to find a way to make it happen. In the process, I came upon some interesting hurdles while trying to make flight arrangements for our trip to this large island in the Indian Ocean. Just like the characters in the animated film with the same name found out, it may be harder to get off the island than it is to get there.

Antananarivo (TNR) is the destination airport for international flights to Madagascar. Most flights connect through Paris (CDG), Nairobi (NBO), Johannesburg (JNB), or Seychelles (SEZ). Surprisingly, it’s easier to get a flight to one of the small islands surrounding Madagascar, such as Seychelles, Comoros, Mauritius, and Réunion. And sometimes, it’s even cheaper.

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Quick Tip: Don’t settle for the first answer you get.

When you call to talk to the airlines, don’t settle for the first answer you get, especially if it isn’t the answer you’re looking for. Some agents on the phone just aren’t as skilled as others in finding what you need, so call back and speak to someone different. If necessary, keep doing this until you get what you need. This is especially true for airlines, but this can work with hotels and car rental agencies too.

For example, we tried to book our flight to Sydney through United, but were told that no award seats were available because we were booking them so late. After two more phone calls, we got someone who looked at all the partner airlines and found two seats leaving from Vancouver on Air Canada, a partner airline. It cost the same award miles and wasn’t as convenient as flying out of Seattle, but the benefit was that we now have a direct flight with no layovers.


Around-the-world (RTW) award fares, and why they may not work for you.

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. Continue reading