What road(s) to travel? Choosing your RTW itinerary and flights
It was a struggle, but I got there in the end: months’ worth of research, ever-changing (travel) fantasies, and £2,665 later, I am the proud and slightly bemused owner of a 16-segment round-the-world ticket that will be taking me to 14 countries over 5 continents.
I have written about my epic strife with Oneworld booking agents here, and about my difficulties in picking where to go in this post, but how exactly did I finally settle on an itinerary and a round-the-world ticket? And, more importantly, why on earth am I going to Helsinki?!
And Miss Universe 2013 is…
You would think that this would be the easy part and a necessary starting point when you begin to consider long-term travel, but fixing an itinerary isn’t as straightforward as it seems. In fact, it can often be one of the last things you find yourself committing to as you crack on with your planning. Heck, a lot of people never actually do commit to a set route and just prefer to improvise as they go, playing it by ear and buying one-way tickets to whichever destination takes their fancy whenever takes their fancy.
Which, all things considered, may not be a bad approach at all.
The problem is, once you’ve revelled in the euphoria of your initial decision, there inevitably comes a moment when you must remember that – whether fortunately or unfortunately – travelling around the world doesn’t mean visiting every country on the planet and some pretty tough choices are in order.
And that’s when the selection process turns into something of a beauty pageant: suddenly every nation, territory and micro island strips down to its skinniest bikini to reveal its most flattering attributes, the curvy hills of Tuscany battling it out with the lofty peaks of Nepal and welcoming beaches of Thailand. And it doesn’t get much easier when it comes to the talent portion of the show: all of a sudden New Zealand comes storming in with a terrifying haka and Japan send its most imposing sumos while, thankfully, Switzerland provides a bit of comic relief with some tyrolian singing.
So, when confronted with so much potential, how do you narrow it down to just a handful of finalists? For me, it has come down to three factors: long-standing desires, practicality, and, of course, budget.
Let the evil mummy guide you…
When I started conceiving this trip in my head, there was one thing I knew for sure: I had to go to South America.
It may be because I can get by in Spanish and because of the hours spent deciphering Pablo Neruda’s poems and watching the same films over and over again at school (Como agua para chocolate, anyone?!), or because I have long been fascinated by the mysteries of ancient Latin and Central American civilisations – the Incas, the Mayas, the Quechuas –, an interest that I can probably trace back to Tintin and its traumatising Rascar Capac, the curse-throwing mummy of Les sept boules de crystal (The Seven Crystal Balls) and Le temple du soleil (Prisoners of the sun) that appeared to have cast its spell on me at the same time as the seven explorers of the comic book.
South America is also a part of the world that doesn’t get that much attention despite featuring some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes and natural wonders on the planet as well as some rather interesting politics, including what appears to me as a number of not-completely-unsuccessful attempts at Marxism that unfortunately do not receive much press coverage. It was clear therefore that I had to go check it out for myself!
When I was young, my dad had a big coffee table book full of pictures of the moai, the intriguing statues of Rapa Nui, a.k.a. Easter Island, and because of this, and because he had described it to me as a remote and mythical place, somewhere magical and almost impossible to get to, I also knew that I had to try to get there somehow.
In addition, I knew that this was my opportunity to make it to the South Pacific without enduring a 24-hour flight, that I would be craving some down time in a beach hammock at some point, and that, after visiting Japan in 2010, I wouldn’t mind getting lost in translation again in Asia for a while.
With this in mind, I started scouring the internet for travel blogs, speaking to friends about their holiday destinations, and squatting the coffee shops of my local Blackwell’s and Waterstone’s to scan through the highlights sections of relevant guidebooks, until I had established which countries displayed the most attractive assets… erm, I mean, the best personality!
So there I had it, my general wish list! The next step was to turn it into a coherent itinerary…
Round-the-world ticket or open-ended flights: that is the question
One thing I had to address at this point was the thorny dilemma of ready-made, pre-booked round-the-world tickets vs open-ended, one-way flights. This one takes a bit of time to figure out, as a minimum of ‘work’ is required to compare the different options.
When I started studying this issue, it quickly became apparent that most hardcore, long-term travellers were allergic to pre-defined itineraries and that they almost unanimously advocated the second option, praising the flexibility and occasional savings that buy-as-you-go can afford. However, it also became clear that these experienced travellers were mostly roaming Asia and Europe, two continents blessed with a number of budget airlines, and that they had waved goodbye to their old lives to travel the world indefinitely… whereas I wanted to go to South America, an area of the world that is more expensive to fly to and within, and had given myself a maximum of one year to complete my travels.
On closer inspection, a rough comparison of the two scenarios quickly confirmed my first impressions: buying one-way tickets was likely, in my case, to be much more expensive. Besides, travelling this way brought on some complications – such as arranging visas and vaccines on the go, or buying return flights so as to gain entry to some countries and subsequently cancelling them – that, knowing my hatred of anything vaguely admin-y, I just wasn’t prepared to deal with.
While others considered it a nuisance, I also felt that the restrictions that most round-the-world tickets impose would not be an entirely bad thing – while limiting me in some ways, they would also help me make some of those draconian decisions I knew were still awaiting…
So, that was sorted: I was going to opt for the convenience and lower cost of a round-the-world ticket. But who to book it with?
Round-the-world alliances vs specialist agencies
A number of airlines have gotten together to form alliances offering round-the-world tickets at fairly competitive prices. The three main ones are Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam, each covering different routes according to the member airlines that make up the respective groups.
The round-the-world packages that these alliances offer present some advantages (mainly price and ease of booking – you can even do it all from behind your computer screen!) but also come with a set of rules and restrictions that can be limiting. Nonetheless, this was the more obvious choice and was going to be my first stop.
As I began to play with the various alliances’ online planners, colouring interactive maps with destinations and connecting lines, the fun however was short-lived: this wasn’t going to work! There were too many rules to comply with, some of which I couldn’t get around, no matter how willing I was to compromise…
The other option was specialist agencies. There are now a good few of those – including STA Travel, Travel Nation or Round the World Experts –, that claim to be able to piece together the most complex of itineraries at the most attractive prices. Unfortunately, despite providing some fairly reasonable quotes, the agencies I turned to (and that included pretty much all of them!) weren’t able to fully deliver on those claims.
So I began to despair, and contemplated rethinking my plans entirely… until I came across one option I had overlooked. I had been defeated by the Oneworld Global Explorer planner, but hadn’t realized that Oneworld had in fact TWO different round-the-world offerings and that I hadn’t yet tried my luck at the second one: Oneworld Explorer.
The Oneworld Explorer ticket is unique in that your total fare is calculated according to the number of continents that you visit rather than the number of miles travelled. It is also more flexible than other tickets, giving you a maximum of 16 segments and allowing you to backtrack within continents (although you still need to keep travelling in one overall direction between continents).
Even though your whole itinerary needs to be designed prior to booking, changing your dates as you go is free, and amendments can be made to your route for a small fee. It is arguably the most affordable option for trips involving Africa, South America and/or North America, and because it counts LAN and Iberia among its members, it also has a particularly strong network within Latin America. Moreover, it is the only round-the-world ticket that includes the Easter Island and treats it as a regular destination.
For all these reasons, I knew this was the right one for me.
Now get real!
Yes, now was the time to integrate that killjoy factor into the equation: money.
When I first envisaged a round-the-world trip, an important item on my bucket list was the Trans-Siberian (in winter, may I add!). Well, when I started to look into it more concretely, I soon realized that it wasn’t going to happen this time! Not only did it seem like a nightmare to organise (not least because it required me to obtain the commonly dreaded Russian visa), but it could only be booked through a handful of travel agencies and as a consequence, was bloody expensive! Moreover, it didn’t fit well with the Oneworld Explorer rules. Freezing my *** around lake Baikal, therefore, was out of the question.
Likewise, North America didn’t work well and made the price rocket. Japan, too, had to be discarded in favour of its slightly more affordable neighbour South Korea, where I knew I could meet up with my cousin Caroline. And sadly, I had to tearfully let go of Nepal, which broke the flow of my itinerary and immediately added a couple of hundred pounds to my ticket. Ah well, another time…
More generally, I had promised myself all along that I wouldn’t follow the same itinerary as everyone else and would aim to stray from the standard route at any given opportunity. Why not substitute the less-travelled New Caledonia and Tahiti for the usual New Zealand and Australia? In Asia, why not shun the backpacking meccas of India and Thailand for ‘the -stan nations’? Well, as I found out, there is a good reason most travellers follow a similar route: wander too far off the beaten path and you’re looking at nearly twice the cost! Conversely, adding Asia to your itinerary if you’re going through NZ and Oz, or tagging on NZ and Oz to an Asia-centred itinerary, is almost cost-free on some tickets…
Not forgetting the I-can’t-be-bothered factor…
Finally, I am a tad ashamed to admit that I made a very conscious and calculated decision to avoid any country requiring a pre-arranged visa!
Dealing with admin paperwork has to be one of my least favourite occupations, and while that doesn’t mean that I will NEVER hit lands for which visas need to be obtained in advance, I figured I would have quite enough to do on this particular occasion without the added stresses of applying for them.
So, a sad goodbye I had to bid Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia… although I won’t be far from them in Thailand, so who knows..?!
And so, Helsinki?
Ah yes, that crucial question: why, after trotting the globe, am I finishing in Finland? Anticlimactic much?!
The truth is, I don’t really have a reason to go to Helsinki. But once I had set my sights on the Oneworld Explorer ticket with its 16 segments, it made sense to milk it down to its last droplet and use them all… Being allowed two stops in Europe, and as my Paris-Buenos Aires and Seoul-Paris flights were respectively going via Madrid and Helsinki, I thought why not spend a few days in both? Sometimes, random is good.
What would be your ideal itinerary and how would you go about designing it? Leave a comment below!