The Real Cost of a RTW Ticket

I’ll concede that the cost of a RTW ticket is worth it in some situations.


After five years traveling Round the World (RTW) three times 1and counting!, I firmly believe a majority of people wanting to travel around the world  should NOT pony up the cost of a RTW ticket.

Why do people buy them?

  1. They think they’ll save money.
  2. They’ve always planned out their vacations.

Saving money – Do you really?

If you are trying to achieve goals that require travel, RTW tickets can be cheaper.   However, most RTW enthusiasts are trying to take a break from a lifetime of achieving goals, meeting deadlines, and having responsibilities demand every second of their attention.   Is this you?   Keep reading!

the cost of a RTW ticket requires money foreign currency many currencies

We all want to keep as much of this in our pockets as possible. But a RTW ticket might not save you money and may cost you more than you realize. photo: wikimedia commons

Is planning this “vacation” the right thing to do?

RTW hopefuls tend to see this quote — “A traveler sees what they see.  A tourist sees what they have come to see.” — and imagine themselves as the traveler.   Just going out there, facing the void of the unknown, and absorbing all the rich experiences.

If you treat an entire year of your life as if it’s two weeks in Italy or ten days in Hawaii, your experiences will tend toward “tourist.”  Not a bad thing, but not the vibrant encounters of a traveler wanted by most people thinking  about  RTW tickets.

The Costs You Didn’t Consider

Money isn’t the only cost of a RTW ticket.

Many new travelers don’t realize the enormous opportunity costs”¦ until it’s too late.

Buying a RTW ticket is like marrying someone based on  photos and an online profile.   If you’re the type who’d want to try living together  before tying the knot, don’t get a RTW ticket.   The uncertainty involved can be stressful, but it’s worth it.

Have the courage not to settle for the trip-equivalent of a mail-order-bride.  

If you’re going to travel around the world to take a break from life, here’s what an RTW ticket can cost you:

  1. Freedom of trip length
  2. Flexibility
  3. Extra, pointless planning time
  4. Freedom of location
  5. An entire flight leg
  6. Route freedom
  7. Additional cash

1. Freedom of Trip Length

From behind your work desk, a mere month seems like a century of pleasure.   That’s why most RTW hopefuls don’t bat an eye at the year-long time restriction required by RTW tickets.   A year?   That’s heaps!

In reality, you will leave nearly every destination wishing you could stay longer.  A year is an arbitrary length of time.  Only one of my three RTW trips fit within that limit, and I didn’t plan on it being so short.   The others were  23 months and 16 months.

Ironically, if you pony up the cost of a RTW ticket, you’ll probably want to come home much sooner than a year.   Why?   The ticket becomes your boss, telling you what to do and when to do it, forcing you into just the kind of externally dictated, exhausting schedule most RTW hopefuls are trying to escape.

one cost of a rtw ticket - being exhausted

What you’ll feel like after being bossed around by plans you made based on guesses about how you’ll function in a completely new lifestyle…  ~ photo: John Lambert Pearson

Bottom line:  When it comes to RTW travel, one size does not fit all.  Committing to a long term travel schedule when you have zero experience traveling long term seems a bit bananas to me.   Which leads us to cost #2”¦

2. Flexibility

Experienced travelers often regard flexibility as the holy grail.

I think RTW tickets give you a false sense of control in exchange for precious flexibility.  Hundreds of variables on your trip will nudge you in unforeseen directions.  Having your route  set in stone will either cost you money or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

“But at least the dates are changeable!” you say.

Yeah, kind of.  Alliances allow  changes, but date availability is limited.  Tickets booked with third-party agents  are subject to the same hefty date change fees you’d pay with self-booked flights.

The financial and mental factors involved with RTW tickets nudge you in the direction of sticking with original plans, cool new opportunities be damned.

another cost of a rtw ticket - being stuck in a rut in field

If you set yourself in a rut from the beginning, you’ll find it much harder to steer off-course down the road.         photo Karl & Ali at Geograph

Bottom line: once you start traveling, flexibility — not security — will be the new gold standard.  Booking your tickets just a few weeks or months in advance as you travel around the world gives you a balance of security and flexibility.

3. Extra, Pointless Planning Time  

In addition to losing flexibility, if you fork over the cost of a RTW ticket, you will also waste planning time.  How?

While you  should absolutely research details of places and things you have your heart set on seeing, you could spend a lifetime researching possibilities.  Making plans that are a comfort in the present, but have a 90% likelihood of needing re-researched later, are a waste of precious time.

You are likely incapable of predicting what you’ll want eight  months from now in the middle of a developing  country where you just finished a ten-day adventure.   Especially if you have zero long-term travel experience.

Typhoons, falling in love, new travel buddies, fantastic work exchanges, and opportunities-of-a-lifetime can, and likely will,  nullify  effort spent reading  hostel reviews for your  eleventh  country seven months from now.

another cost of a rtw ticket choices opportunitiy choosing

On your trip, unfathomable options will take you down roads you can’t  even imagine.  If you’re flexible enough to follow them, that is.     photo: wikimedia commons

Bottom line: Our free time is really so gobsmackingly limited.  Researching and committing to a travel schedule feels great before your trip, but most report it doesn’t feel great on the trip.   Spend a bit of  time learning about your  top ten experiences or destinations, and spend the rest of your time learning about what long term travel life is like.

4. Freedom of Location

Alliance RTW tickets only give you access to destinations and routes served by airlines within that alliance.  You can end up having to settle for an  airport hundreds of kilometers  from your dream destination.   You can  also end up spending extra hours on planes and at connecting airports when your alliance doesn’t own the direct flights between your point A and B.

Also, alliance tickets require you to start and end in the same spot, which could cost you”¦

5. An Entire Flight Leg

An opportunity cost of a RTW ticket is being forced to finish where you started.   On the surface, it doesn’t seem like something to balk about.   We all want to go home eventually, right?

But let’s say you arrive in Thailand on the eleventh month of your trip.   You meet some awesome people from New Zealand.  You  realize going there on  a Working Holiday Visa  is the perfect solution to your low cash reserves and high desire to keep traveling.

Now about that Bangkok –> __home__ flight that was supposed to be the last one of your trip.   An Alliance RTW ticket won’t allow you to end your itinerary in New Zealand.  A third-party agent itinerary requires  hefty change fees sometimes equivalent to just buying a new flight.

reaching longing wanting squirrel wishes he hadn't forked over the cost of a rtw ticket

“Argh! I never thought I’d want to go to New Zealand and work after eleven months! Now that opportunity is just out of reach, buried under flight change fees and the pressure to stick to my original plan. NUTS!”                         – photo Peter Trimming at geograph

Bottom line: when you travel long term, your plans change, and change, and change again.  Both myself and others I know forfeited flights we’d  already paid for because our  plans changed and the fees weren’t worth it.

6. Route Freedom

The most common RTW tickets (with alliances) require you to keep traveling in the same direction.   So you can’t, for instance, go to Japan in the springtime, Europe in the summer, and then head for India when temps there become friendlier.

Most people like to have a general idea of where they’ll go on their trip.   That’s great.   You definitely have to start somewhere!   However, most people also come to see their original idea as insanely over-scheduled and full of rookie errors.   Having this realization, but knowing you’re already locked in to a schedule and route, is a huge bummer.

Bottom line: again with the changing plans and flexibility being a gold standard — don’t give up your route freedom for a few hundred bucks.   You’ll probably end up spending that savings on flight change fees anyway, or worse you’ll ignore once-in-a-lifetime opportunities because they’re outside what you’ve already planned.

7. Additional Cash

Many scenarios with RTW tickets end up costing you additional money.

Ironically, some people are drawn to RTW tickets because they know they won’t run out of get-home-money on their trip.   If that’s a concern of yours, consider grabbing your financial habits by the balls.

Then, realize that an RTW ticket doesn’t save you in a run-out-of-cash  situation.   Let’s say you ignored my advice to get your money habits under control.   You were supposed to go to India, Thailand, and the Philippines, but you had a few too many weeks out at the bars in Europe.     You still have to find a way to pay for accommodation and food as you make your way via your pre-set route back home, even if it’s sped up as fast as alliance seat availability allows.   Or you have to pay route change fees (alliance RTW tickets).  Or you have to forfeit legs and pay for a ticket change (with third party bookers).

burning money can be a the cost of a rtw ticket

As a general rule, the farther out I’ve booked travel plans,  the more I wish I’d waited. Especially when my wallet gets punished because plans changed. Hope this gives you some courage to live and travel in the moment!         photo: flickr user purple slog

Bottom line: often a RTW ticket costs you more than just buying flights as you go.  If your priority is stretching your dollars as you travel around the world, getting good with money will save you heaps on your trip and the rest of your life.

Why the RTW Ticket Cost Isn’t Worth It

If you’re still not convinced that the opportunity cost of a RTW ticket is waaaaay too high for most who want to travel around the world, get a load of this –

Airlines stand to benefit more than you from the RTW ticket concept.   It’s their game, and you can “win” only if you spend a long time learning the rules and then abide by them.   Here how alliance RTW tickets stack the deck in their favor:

  • You don’t get what you pay for – Tickets are sold in blocks of miles or segments.   If you don’t use a segment, or your total route comes in short of the miles you purchased”¦ too bad!
  • Miles outside of planes count, too  — Excuse me, what?!   When you buy a set number of miles, even if you take a bus between New York and Los Angeles, the NY to LA flight miles are still deducted from your total.   Cray cray.
  • You pay double, even when they pick for you – If you buy segments instead of miles, you can become a victim of routes you don’t control. If your alliance doesn’t have a direct flight between your point A and B, it will cost you two segments even though you didn’t ask  for a Mumbai layover.
  • Miles game is changing — the cost of a RTW ticket used to be partly justified by all the miles you racked up running around the globe. By the end of the trip, you’d basically earned another two or three flights.   Cha-ching!  But  airlines have been moving away from mileage based “miles” to cost based “miles.”     Basically they got rid of weak points in their armor by just giving you miles based on what you pay.   Game over.

Are RTW ticket savings still tempting you?
Flight Costs for My Three RTW Trips will show you  what you might spend on your own.
And if you subscribe, you get a PDF detailing the Costs of 2 Years of RTW Travel!

Still want all  your flights organized in advance?  Read:
When the Cost of a RTW Ticket is Worth It.

Are you budgeting for  a RTW trip?   Read:
What Does it Cost to Travel the World?

Sick of reading about RTW flights? Maybe think  about:

Considering a RTW flight to save money?  These travel hacks are better:

Happy Travelling!  ♣

Am I too emphatic  for you?  Shannon at A Little Adrift generally agrees with me about RTW tickets,  but discusses the RTW ticket conundrum with more equanimity.


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