ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway
For road warriors who covet frequent flier miles, a trip around the world is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put all those miles to extraordinary use. Jenny McIver closes out our Round-the-World (RTW) travel series by showing how you can leverage frequent flyer miles to score a RTW airline ticket. If you missed Parts one, two and two+, click the links to catch up on all Jenny’s RTW travel secrets.
My Delta miles have funded one first-class and eight business-class RTW tickets —each valued in excess of $35,000 had I paid for the flights individually. If that’s not a perk of frequent business travel, I don’t know what is.
Unlike paid RTW tickets, award tickets are an entirely different and often confusing ballgame. However, if you have enough miles to book one (especially in business or first class), it is undeniably worth the Herculean effort it may take to get through the process. Unfortunately, the onus will be on you to understand the convoluted rules and work them to your advantage.
The most important thing to remember with award RTW tickets is that like any award ticket, the flights you want must have award availability, often at the lowest award level. This means doing research on your own before calling your airline to book. If you’ve ever been frustrated while trying to book a regular award ticket, tack 15 more segments onto that experience and you get the idea.
All three of the major airline alliances offer RTW award tickets though none can be booked directly with the alliance. Instead you’ll need to book through the airline where you’ve earned the miles you want to redeem. Most RTW award tickets have similar options and rules. Here are a few universal words of advice for booking:
- Try to book at least six months in advance. The earlier you book, the better luck you’ll have
- Before you call, do your homework. Use the alliance website to search routings and note flight numbers. ExpertFlyer is a great tool for researching award availability in your cabin of choice. Never rely solely on the agent to find the flights you need. Have your ideal itinerary mapped out (including flight numbers), but flexibility is key so have back-up dates and destinations ready for each stop.
- When you call, if you can get at least 50% of what you want, ask them to hold it. Then wait 24 hours and try again. Availability changes daily, but even more likely, you’ll get a different agent who can find alternate routings; and
- Remember that your award ticket is not entirely free. You will still be responsible for applicable taxes, fees and surcharges. Now let’s take a look at each alliance individually with respect to RTW mileage awards:
Unlike its well-defined and hugely popular paid RTW ticket, Star Alliance itself offers no award version for RTW travel. Instead, RTW award tickets must be booked through member airlines. This cannot be done online so you’re forced to deal with often inexperienced agents at your airline’s RTW desk.
If your miles are with United, you’ll book through United using their mileage award levels. Same goes for US Airways.
Here are the current RTW mileage award levels for United:
Economy – 180,000
Business – 260,000
First Class – 350,000
- Maximum of 5 stopovers, 16 segments
- No backtracking
Here’s the breakdown for US Airways:
Economy – 200,000
Business – 300,000
First Class – 400,000
- Maximum of 5 stopovers, 10 segments
- No backtracking
The United ticket is a bit stingy allowing just five stopovers but the award amounts are reasonable considering the high quality of airlines. The US Airways ticket is worse. It requires more miles for a substantially lower number of segments. Though it also allows five stops, you may have a hard time getting them all in with just ten segments. You’ll need award availability on the most direct routings, which is difficult.
If your miles are with Delta you’ll be booking the Skyteam RTW. Here’s the scoop on their award ticket:
Economy – 180,000
Business – 280,000
First Class – N/A
- Maximum of 6 stopovers, 16 segments
- No backtracking
This is a pretty generous RTW award ticket, especially the business class award. Sixteen segments are adequate to reach all six of your allowable stops and include a few fun free stopover cities. The biggest downside? No first class award option.
Of the three alliances, oneworld has the simplest and most generous RTW award. When booking with American Advantage miles, they use a system based on the total countable miles of the intended RTW itinerary known as “Distance Zones.” The highest two tiers offer enough mileage distance to accommodate a RTW itinerary. They are:
Distance Zone 8 (allows 25,001 – 35,000 miles):
Economy – 140,000
Business – 190,000
First Class – 280,000
Distance Zone 9 (allows 35,001 – 50,000 miles):
Economy – 160,000
Business – 220,000
First Class – 330,000
Oneworld awards begin at very reasonable levels. Distance Zone 9 is especially generous in that it allows itineraries up to 50,000 miles. You can get to a lot of places on 50,000 miles and it’s easily worth the small bump in miles to go with Zone 9. But the greatest benefit to these tickets is the virtual absence of rules. You have a year to use the ticket and there are no restrictions on backtracking or (seemingly) number of stops. If your desired itinerary conforms to the mileage limit and there is award availability, you can book it. But be careful of British Airways flights as their fuel surcharges can make the ticket significantly more expensive.
If you’re willing to put in the time and effort to do your homework on routings and flight availability and exercise patience with the sometimes laborious booking process you can truly get the greatest possible value for your hard-earned miles with a RTW ticket.