How to travel cheaply all over the world on one-way tickets
The reasons for traveling with one-way tickets were convolutedly explained in the last section. Even if you are thus far unconvinced that it is the way to go, stay with me. Is a globe handy? (This section is begging for a 3-5 minute video of me explaining it all in front of a big wall map. Begging!)
The reason it’s such a mess is that airfares often have no rhyme or reason. A few summers ago, in the highest of high season, I paid US$515 for a Los Angeles-Tokyo three-month, round-trip ticket. (I do fly round-trip once in a while.) The following winter, fares were 50% higher and good deals to go anywhere were rarer than a chilly day in Singapore.
Are around-the-world tickets worth it?
Around-the-world tickets are an attempt to pre-package your trip to make it more convenient for you. They sound like a sensible idea: travel within a year going in one direction on a combination of airlines. Normally I’d make a blanket claim about them being too expensive, too restrictive and with ever-dreaded taxes and hidden service fees rearing their ugly heads, but I am still a little on the fence. The only way they can approach good value is if these five conditions are met:
1–You buy straight from one of the three large airline alliances (oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam) because they don’t have the same fees that popular agencies such as STA Travel and AirTreks have.
2–You really milk the system for all it’s worth and max out your options, meaning you research carefully every possibility to use the 15 or 16 stopovers or mileage total (depending on the alliance) that is allowed.
3–Those 15 or 16 stopovers are primarily in places where it would normally be expensive to buy a ticket.
4–You don’t have to backtrack much to catch your next flight.
5–You have to be home within the validity of the tickets.
For oneworld, curiously, if the “country of sale” is USA, it costs almost US$1000 more than from most countries in western Europe. If “country of sale” means you can buy it from another country and/or commence travel from another country, even if it will be billed back to the USA, by all means take advantage of that.
Star Alliance and oneworld have clever little planning tools, but my head was spinning after trying them out a while. There are so many options; you have to know all the partner airlines’ routes and you need a lot of time and geographic knowledge to make it pay off. I am skeptical; someone show me an itinerary that demonstrates my points above.
Another interesting option for Americans, Circle-the-Pacific fares, once popular from the US west coast, have been blown out of the water by AirAsia and its brethren. Circling the Pacific is one of the best trips you can possibly make, but the way to do it is to just get on the Asian continent and then flying nearly anywhere is cheap.
Some travelers don’t have so much time for their trip, and yet want to hit the highlights of the world with their precious vacation. In that case I would gently, kindly, respectfully suggest you don’t go racing around the world and instead do something less ambitious. Spending a couple of weeks per continent isn’t worth it.
Around the world without an around-the-world ticket
For a simple daisy chain of USA-Europe-Middle East-Asia-USA, the only variable about how cheap you can do it is how cheap you can get in and out of USA. Europe-Middle East-Asia? Easy. Many airlines in Europe go to Istanbul (though an overland trip is fantastic), then Air Arabia eastward to India linking with AirAsia further eastward to Malaysia. That’s it. Instead of Istanbul as the hub, the same can be done via Cairo. South America, Australia and Africa are excluded from this, but I will show how they can be incorporated.
Don’t forget visas!
All of this has to be mixed together with the ease and cost of getting visas, which in itself is a whole other subject as it’s not uniform. Americans can’t just roll into India without a visa, and it usually takes some days to get it, often a week. There are alternatives. Instead of AirArabia from Sharjah and then United Arab Emirates to India, you could also go flydubai from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, then to Kathmandu, Nepal, getting a Nepali visa upon arrival, and then get your Indian visa in Kathmandu and later fly out of Calcutta/Kolkata. So many options!
If you want to see examples of some of my around-the-world trips and what I paid for each sector, you can sift through my news archive page.
Introduction (aka Lazy Generalizations and Hearsay)
Europe and Asia are more or less covered by discount airlines. I know Asia is a big place, but it is generally the case. South America, Africa and Australia have only small pockets of discount action while USA is the wild card. There are a lot of domestic options in USA, but you never know what the winds will bring for international flights. Mexico is awful with no competition and Canada has few choices, which is only based on my Canadian friends’ constant grumbling.
In Europe the action is concentrated where locals like to travel, and no one travels like the Germans, easily the most hardcore of travelers. The British have interesting routes, too; their frequent Florida-UK flights are especially worth keeping in mind. France is surprisingly good, but mainly to Francophone countries, and Holland used to be a great place for bargains but the scene has all but disappeared; I don’t know what happened.
Condor from Germany is one of my favorite airlines as they fly to dozens of exotic destinations all over the world. Including all taxes, these are some flights I have bought, a sample of Condor’s supreme greatness:
–US$55 one way Frankfurt to Marsa Alam, Egypt
–US$200 one way Frankfurt to Las Vegas, USA
–US$225 one way San Jose, Costa Rica to Frankfurt
–US$250 one way Frankfurt to Recife, Brazil
–US$300 one way Frankfurt to Zanzibar, Tanzania (but The Great Traveler missed his flight and didn’t go. Ugh.)
Some snooping around is required as you don’t see the same deals among the English/Europe, English/USA and German versions of the website and for some destinations you have to call them to book.
Europe as a whole is chock full of airlines flying cheaply. If you don’t follow this stuff, you will be shocked at your options and airlines are adding routes all the time. Just look at the route map for one carrier, easyJet. The farthest boundaries of coverage are quite typical: Morocco, Egypt, and western Turkey. Egypt and Turkey are important as they are the cheapest links to go further eastward, so it is a perfect match. Those two countries, both great destinations by themselves, both charge about US$20 for a visa at the airport depending on your nationality.
I feel the need to commend two European companies for something innovative they do that I’m not aware is done anywhere else. The aforementioned Condor Airlines in Germany has “Joker Flights” (Google Translate does a good job to understand it) where you pay for a very cheap ticket and they send you on a short or long haul flight to anywhere there’s an extra seat. They choose. The long haul is likely to be something like Dominican Republic, Brazil, Kenya, Maldives or Cuba and therefore isn’t really a game for Americans because we need visas for lots of places that can’t be acquired on arrival at the airport.
However, the short haul is often possible since it is usually Mediterannean and Red Sea holiday places. 98 euros round trip. Amazing deal.
I wish my French was better to follow things like the auctions on Nouvelles Frontieres, a French travel agency, but I can generally make out what is going on. Last minute flights and vacations to some very exotic destinations are auctioned with low starting prices. “Last minute” usually means within two or three days.
Sharjah and Dubai, virtually adjacent to each other in the United Arab Emirates, are the hubs thanks to Air Arabia. From Air Arabia’s route map you can see that the Middle East overlaps with Europe in Istanbul, most conveniently, but don’t forget Egypt either. (Air Arabia’s tentacles extend to Nairobi, Kenya, too, an easy “in” to that region.)
Eastward they reach the Indian subcontinent in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal; the first two are where you can hook up with AirAsia to go further.
There are other upstarts, too, namely Jazeera Airways and flydubai both of which also fly from Egypt and Istanbul to the Middle East and flydubai goes onward to India, Sri Lanka, and Kathmandu.
Some people have funny ideas about airlines they have never heard of before. When I tell people I bought a ticket on Air Arabia from Istanbul to Kathmandu for US$182, the price barely registers as I can see them fixating on this unknown airline. If you are freaked out about flying something called Air Arabia (see right), relax! They fly brand-new planes, the Airbus A320, far newer than any American discount airline would use, and besides, how can you have any doubt after you see their cool South Park rip-off character?
Flying United Airlines is not an experience. Flying Syrian Arab Airlines, Druk Air, Bangladesh Biman–now THAT’S an experience. Go for it!
AirAsia is virtually all you need to know, and look at all the places they go. It is another of my favorite airlines because they were the first to take the Southwest Airlines discount model to Asia, and the guy who started it, Tony Fernandes, had to overcome a mountain of obstacles and negativity to get it off the ground in Malaysia. Make no mistake: AirAsia is not a comfortable, clean ride. It is zero frills; you pay extra for any frills.
When flying into Asia it isn’t necessary to be so destination specific since it is inexpensive to get around with the likes of AirAsia, and there are indeed many others. This “Asia” I speak of is loosely defined as bounded by Bangkok to the west–or India if you have your visa–Hong Kong to the north, Philippines to the east and Indonesia to the south. It’s a big area—my favorite in the world—and it is easy to get around.
An interesting, little-known way of linking the Middle East with Southeast Asia is via Sri Lanka. Several discount airlines fly there, Americans don’t need visas, and it’s a great destination.
You have to separate Africa into two parts: northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. One can easily find cheap flights to Morocco and Egypt from Europe and sometimes from USA, but heading down overland anywhere to sub-Saharan Africa is not for the faint of heart. If you get to northern Africa and have the notion that it must be cheaper to fly southward than from Europe, you’ll quickly see that airfares often defy logic. Once I was in Egypt and I wanted to go to South Africa, but I discovered that it was cheaper to buy a ticket to London and then fly from there to South Africa! Air Arabia can get you semi-cheaply to a few places in East Africa from their hub in United Arab Emirates, but the problem with the whole continent is that it’s very expensive to fly within it and this means some planning to sketch out your route is necessary.
A bigger problem for Americans is that for just about all of sub-Saharan Africa, we can only fly into Senegal, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa visa-less. Not only is it impossible to get a visa for almost all other countries upon arrival at any African airport, if you are in Europe you probably have to go to Brussels or London to get the visa, and it will still usually take at least a week. Plus, they charge a nice premium to issue it outside of your home country.
From Europe to further down in Africa your choices mainly come down to good old Condor from Germany, some French charters and ever-elusive Afriqiyah Airways via Libya. Usually good deals show their face during rainy season, so Afriqiyah is the most intriguing option, but you will pull your hair out trying to get good solid info.
Afriqiyah Airways: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma
I have tried to call reservations numbers and asked travel agents about Afriqiyah, but couldn’t get anywhere. To unravel the mystery I went to Amsterdam airport during a departure just to be sure of finding someone there as the airline hardly exists outside of airport check-in. (Yes, this is the kind of thing I like to do with my free time.) I was able to talk to the handling agent and she said the long-static web pages for special offers are still more or less true. For example, I could go Amsterdam-Accra for 438 euros (that’s cash; credit cards cost an extra–gulp!–30 euros more.) For sub-Saharan Africa, this passes for cheap, though to change the date costs another 100 euros.
But that wasn’t the only interesting thing I learned from the Afriqiyah handling agent. She said their routes from northern Europe are for prestige, vanity cities, not routes based on demand. She did the check-in the day before and there were 5 crew, 8 security personnel, and exactly 2 passengers.
So how is the service on Afriqiyah?
WHO CARES?? Nothing makes me crazier than people complaining about service on an airplane. A plane is a magical space box transporting you to another part of the world. It is a few hours out of your life; you aren’t living on it. Price trumps everything. If one taxi cost half the price of another, would you quibble about the seat comfort? Sure, sitting in a middle seat on a long haul flight is never fun, but it is such a small part of the trip that gets insanely overvalued. Instead of fixating on the service and comfort of your flight, think about what you can do with all the money you saved.
(Wait, I need to wipe the foam from my mouth.)
Afriqiyah flies modern planes, so unless we are talking about an airline using old Soviet aircraft like an Antonov, Yakovlev or the truly frightening Tupolev 134 (in which case run for the hills) then you can pause for thought. Nonetheless, try it once for the experience. I am not put off in the least by their crash in 2010, which was a new Airbus. One crash in 13 years? Please.
AirAsia X, Tiger Airways and Jetstar, all from Asia.
From looking at a map, it would appear to be a logical progression to go from Southeast Asia to Australia and then up to USA, but usually it’s too cheap to not consider backtracking. Jetstar does Sydney-Honolulu, however.
Australia does have its moments to find cheap tickets, but always in its low season. However, low season applies to the southern half of Australia. When it is winter in the south, that is the best (i.e. driest) time to be in the tropical north, arguably the best part of Oz.
South America, like Africa, has a north-south divide, or northwest-south divide is more accurate. It is nearly always cheap to fly to Colombia and Peru, often Venezuela and Ecuador, too, but anywhere farther south, that’s tough. However, those four countries by themselves make a great trip. In fact, I tell anyone who listens to me to make it easy on themselves: just fly JetBlue from USA to Colombia and you’re done.
There are the occasional exceptions. I did fly from Germany to Brazil for 200 euros one way on Condor, but now they have a policy of not selling one-way tickets to such places. Or, more accurately, they no longer sell them online and you must call them. Maybe you can convince them over the phone. (“but The Dromomaniac said I can!”)
I also flew on Condor from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Frankfurt for only US$225 one way. That’s also impossible to buy online one way; it’s impossible to even see any results one way on the website. The trick in this case was to search for a round trip so you can see what days are cheapest to fly. Armed with this info, I went to the Condor ticket office in San Jose and I made it happen. Only near the end of the process was I asked if I had an onward or return ticket, but I mentioned I was a tour guide or something–I don’t remember what I said, but I remember I said it confidently and with a smile. (Some people say the Kent Foster smile is so lethal it breaks down any and all barriers.) I don’t need a visa for Europe, unlike a Costa Rican, who is therefore unable to take advantage of the same deal.
A note: South American airports often have very high airport departure taxes that aren’t included in your ticket, but there is often confusion about it. Ask some local travel agents and see if you can get a consensus.
Getting out of USA requires the most research.
I have bought several one-way tickets over the years from Best Travel in California. If you can ever get a hold of them on the phone, they have good customer service, too.
If I ever see a cheap deal from the east coast, I always assume I can find a cheap domestic ticket across the country. I check the usual aggregators like kayak.com and fly.com and so on, but the best is to check the airlines’ own sites. The great Southwest Airlines doesn’t even allow their flights to be indexed by the likes of Kayak or anyone else, so you have no choice but to check their own website.
This summer it’s tough from USA, but as I write now, late July, 2010, I see Iceland Express has Newark, NJ, to Copenhagen for $260 including all taxes on Sept 1. Hard to do better than that, and you don’t want to go to Scandanavia any later in the year than that. Who would guess that a secondary Icelandic airline would be the best bet to get out of USA? You have to look under every rock.
Quite a few European airlines go between Cancun, Mexico and Europe, which is an interesting way to move between the two continents. Again, to learn about how to find these airlines and utilize my yet-to-be-patented, three-pronged attack, check out my tricks and secrets section.
I have used a standby service called Airtech many times in routes such as $210 round trip San Francisco to Cancun, Mexico and $259 one way to various places in Europe from Los Angeles. These days it has evolved away from standby and into reservable California-Hawaii flights with occasional, seasonal USA-Europe one way flights, but with less options than what the website claims. You can only correspond by email, whereupon Mike may give you his Skype name. Otherwise, he either answers very quickly or not at all. There must not be much profit in the Europe flights because Mike seems more intent on promoting Hawaii as well as his hostel in David, Panama. Since I am a big fan of both last minute and one way tickets, I still recommend it as long as USA-Europe flights survive.
UPDATE: Airtech died a quiet death in May 2011 surrounded by family and friends, but I keep it here for a while longer in case someone else can start a similar service or to keep your mind open to something like this.
Courier flights, one foot in the grave
After years of using courier flights to Asia and South America, they have appeared to disappear. I know of one courier company that takes freelancers and only goes between Hong Kong and Bangkok for HK$1600 (US$205) in high season and HK$1100 (US$140) in low season, but that isn’t such a good deal considering AirAsia.com. I also know someone who does it professionally out of Shanghai, so if you make the right contacts, who knows?
I’ve flown maybe four or five times as a courier, the best deal being $150 round trip from San Francisco to Singapore during the good old days of the SARS near-pandemic. I had high hopes Asian bird flu was going to take off and scare everyone from traveling, driving down prices. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Now that we are at the end of all this…
…let me say that the irony is that I don’t like to fly at all. It is so much better to go overland. When flying you don’t get the same feel for the country as when you go along the ground. A few flights are usually inevitable and in Europe and USA flying can often be drastically cheaper than taking a train or bus. For some people, time is money.