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Lowest Air Fares Are Worth the Hunt : World Flight Costs Can Be the Cheapest

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

Many travel agents are continually confused about the best possible airline deals. Fares appear one day, then disappear the next. Or they are advertised but not available. Or they are available but with so many restrictions that they are impossible to use without severe financial penalties.

It’s not only confusing but frustrating. And more often than not, expensive. Nowhere is this more true than with overseas travel.

There are some bargains, of course (charters, advance purchase tickets). But if you want any flexibility at all, you’d better be prepared to pay for it.

Those who are planning now for summer vacations are about to be confronted by the hard facts of high summer air fares. If you’re a frequent business traveler overseas, you already know what I mean.

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For example, the regular coach fare between Los Angeles and Singapore is $1,066--each way. Other examples: New York City to Rome, coach, $817 each way; Chicago to Frankfurt, $1,133 each way.

If you buy APEX (advance purchase excursion) tickets the fares drop, but in most cases you can only fly to one destination and are allowed no stopovers or flexibility in departure dates on both your outbound or return flights.

Little-Known Options

Here’s the good news, however. There are some incredible bargains in overseas travel, but you won’t find them widely advertised. These fares not only allow you tremendous flexibility, they also allow you--quite literally--to see the world, sometimes for less money than a regular coach fare between the United States and Europe.

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Welcome to the wild and wonderful round-the-world (RTW) tickets. Few travelers know of this option, and even fewer airlines aggressively market these tickets.

The round-the-world tickets have been sold since 1978, when Pan American offered its “Round the World in 80 days” fare. Initially, the highly promoted fare angered world airlines because the price of the RTW ticket was less than half the cost of a regular economy fare to circle the globe.

Eleven years ago Pan Am flew around the world, so the fare made sense to the airline, and to its customers wishing to combine business with pleasure trips, or for those passengers who simply had the extra time to extend their vacations beyond one or two foreign destinations.

Pan Am no longer flies an around-the-world route structure. For that matter, neither do any of the others. But with few exceptions, almost every international airline offers a special RTW ticket, usually in conjunction with one or two other airlines. And the fares are nothing less than terrific when compared to regular coach, and even other discount routings to foreign destinations.

Fewer Travel Restrictions

Remember the Singapore Airlines fare of $1,066 each way between Los Angeles and Singapore?

That’s $2,132 round trip. But a round-the-world ticket bought on Singapore (and in conjunction with TWA) costs only $1,899.

Here’s what you can do with the ticket: You can fly to Honolulu on TWA or Singapore Airlines, then on to Taipei, Singapore, Athens and then Paris, all on Singapore Airlines. Then switch to TWA and fly to New York City, and stop across the United States on your way back to Los Angeles.

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That’s just one westbound option. You can also start your flight and head east on TWA and choose many other cities including Frankfurt, Brussels and Bangkok.

Here’s the best news: To buy one of these RTW tickets all you need is to make your reservation and buy your ticket 14 days in advance. There’s no minimum stay requirement.

The ticket is good for a year. You can fly when you want. Only two important restrictions: One is that you must continue in the same direction that you started--no backtracking. And once you start your trip, if you want to add more cities the airline will charge you $25 for each change in the itinerary.

Finally, you can buy the same ticket in business-class for $2,899 or $3,699 in first-class.

This example is just one of dozens of possible combinations of routes and airlines.

Popularity is Taking Off

Singapore Airlines has also teamed with Delta, Air New Zealand and American Airlines to offer various itineraries. Air Canada has joined with Japan Air Lines, and British Airways has paired with American and United to offer similar RTW bargains.

The combinations on these RTW tickets are almost endless. Even Pan Am offers an attractive RTW ticket.

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The sheer economy of a round-the-world ticket may explain why, with very little promotion or advertising, a growing number of passengers are buying them. And they’re not just coach passengers.

For example, a round-trip first-class ticket from Los Angeles to London costs a whopping $5,816. But a first-class RTW ticket costs only $3,699, with virtually unlimited stopovers.

There are even greater savings if you buy your RTW ticket on another continent. One travel agency in England recently offered a RTW ticket for 999 (about $1,816 U.S.).

On some RTW tickets, provisions are made for side trips, and some airlines offer discounts on itineraries not flown by them or their RTW partners.

(For example, few international airlines have extensive routings in South America, but some offer attractive side packages with local airlines for trips within that continent.)

Head Start for a Trip

A word of caution: Don’t always expect your travel agent to tell you about these RTW tickets. Tickets cost less than regular fares, and agents’ commissions are reduced. And the time and paperwork involved for the travel agent is substantial.

Do yourself a favor and ask several airlines to send you their RTW brochures. That way, you’ll at least have a head start on planning your trip.

For example, a typical Japan Airways/TWA Round The World itinerary might start in New York City with a trip to Los Angeles. From Los Angeles you could fly to Honolulu and from there go on to Tokyo, Seoul, Osaka, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Delhi, Cairo, Athens and Paris, to pick up TWA’s European connections, and then home.

Some RTW tickets are more expensive. Air New Zealand and Singapore have joined forces to offer a spectacular RTW ticket ($2,469 coach, $5,399 first-class), that covers not only the South Pacific but Asia and Europe.

A similar deal is offered by Lufthansa in conjunction with Cathay Pacific. Lufthansa has also paired with Air New Zealand to offer an attractive RTW package.

An Exotic Itinerary

One of the more exotic RTW itineraries is offered by American Airlines, Korean Air and Royal Jordanian Airlines.

Fly from New York City to Los Angeles, then on to Honolulu on American. From Honolulu to Tokyo on Korean Airlines. Then your itinerary can include Osaka, Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong and Bangkok, also on Korean Airlines.

From Bangkok to Amman, Jordan, you fly on Royal Jordanian then on to Cairo on Royal Jordanian and on to Paris.

From France back to the United States, hop onto an American flight. Coach fare is $2,099, first-class $3,799. One restriction: You need to make your reservations and buy your tickets 21 days in advance.

One of the great things about RTW tickets (other than the fares) is that you don’t have to fly to all these destinations. You can fly to as many or as few as you wish, just as long as you circle the globe.

(Some travelers book flights to a dozen or so destinations on the route structure of one of the airlines. If they later decide to skip a city or two, they can usually bypass them without incurring additional costs.)

And finally, perhaps the best news of all is that if you’re a member of a frequent-flier program on any of these airlines, you can earn mileage.

Considering the distances involved, chances are good that after your RTW adventures you could conceivably earn enough mileage points to qualify for a free ticket upon your return.


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