Consider this post a love letter to those of you who felt more than a gentle pang of recognition while watching George Clooney in the movie, “Up in the Air.” If you’re a career road warrior like me, a trip around the world is a once in a lifetime opportunity to put all those airline miles and hotel points to extraordinary use. Status is everything in the business travel world and if you spend enough time on the road to have earned elite status with airlines and hotels, your trip can be all the more luxurious. And if you have enough points and miles, it could be nearly free.
My Delta miles have funded one First Class and 9 Business Class tickets around the world – each an approximate value of $40,000 had I paid for them. If that’s not a perk of frequent business travel, I don’t know what is.
Elite status with the major US hotel chains like Starwood, Hilton and Marriott has also afforded me some incredible upgrades on my RTW trips. From a luxury two-story villa at the Sheraton Phuket in Thailand to an overwater bungalow at the Hilton Moorea, elite status has its advantages. In addition to upgrades, most of these hotel chains offer free wifi and access to extravagant club lounges to their elite guests.
Redeeming Airline Miles for a RTW Ticket
As an Atlanta-based business traveler, my miles have always been with Delta Airlines and over the years I have become an expert in dealing with the RTW award desk to book my RTW tickets each year. Alas, Delta quietly ended the RTW award ticket in late 2014 and, yes, I’m still heartbroken. American ended their oneworld RTW award ticket earlier that year leaving United as the only major US airline allowing the use of miles for a RTW ticket (with their Star Alliance).
But all hope is not lost for those of us with miles to burn…
The one silver lining in Delta’s 2015 Skymiles program (the one that eliminated the RTW award) was the introduction of one-way award tickets within the Skyteam Alliance. One of the most difficult aspects of booking the old RTW award ticket was the barrage of rules governing them – no backtracking, limited number of stops, etc. With one-way awards, you could theoretically plan a RTW trip with no rules and a number of stops limited only by the amount of miles you have. Yes, these individual award tickets are likely to cost more miles than their all-inclusive predecessor, but the extra miles could buy you an incredible amount of flexibility in return.
A few tips on booking award tickets to create your own RTW trip:
First, as with any award ticket, book as far in advance as possible. Award tickets are typically refundable (or re-depositable) so you don’t have anything to lose by booking tickets that you may later need to cancel or change (of course, be sure to check your airline’s rules).
I’d recommend booking at least six months before you plan to travel. The difference in booking award tickets versus paid tickets (which can fluctuate greatly in price in the months prior to departure) there’s no question about the best time to book – with award tickets, the price (in miles) will only go up. The sooner you book, the fewer miles you’ll spend.
In my experience, the toughest flights to get are the initial flight out of the U.S. and the last flight back in. You’ll likely spend the majority of your miles on those two flights. Once you get overseas to partner carriers, the availability is often much better as well as the amount of miles you need for each ticket.
If you still want to book a single RTW ticket instead of individual flights, you do have a few options with overseas carriers:
Skyteam: AeroMexico, Korean Air
Star Alliance: Lufthansa, Singapore
And, of course, United Airlines is the only remaining US carrier allowing you to use miles for a RTW award, though their redemption cost has skyrocketed in the past two years. Currently, they are:
Economy: 200,000 miles
Business: 350,000 miles
The bottom line? Though the ease of booking a single RTW award ticket has all but disappeared in the last 2 years, there are still a number of options to put your miles to use with the global airline alliances to create the round-the-world itinerary of your dreams.
Redeeming Hotel Points
My hotel program of choice is Starwood’s Preferred Guest. What I like about Starwood is not just the quality of their properties (Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, W and others) but the Cash & Points redemption option that they offer. It’s what separates them from the competition. I also love their Crossover Rewards program with Delta Airlines which allows me to earn hotel points on my Delta flights and miles on my Starwood stays.
While I have similar status and accumulated points with both Hilton and Marriott, Starwood’s Cash & Points redemption option allows me to stretch my points much further. Case in point: in a typical year of business travel, I earn approximately the same amount of points each between Starwood, Hilton and Marriott. When I’m ready to book my RTW trip each year, I dip into those accounts and start evaluating my options to redeem points for free nights.
On average, I am only able to book one or two free nights each with Hilton and Marriott, using all my accumulated points. However, with Starwood’s system, I’ve been able to extend my point balance to cover as many as 10-12 nights if I add in cash of $35-$55 a night, depending on the category of hotel. In my book, that’s a deal. Hilton also began offering a Cash & Points option in 2012 but in my experience the availability of this option has been rare compared to SPG.
I should also note that in my experience, the international properties of Starwood and Hilton are especially generous with upgrades. Even when I’m redeeming points, I’m often offered a suite without hesitation. This is especially true of Starwood’s international properties. Also, many of the club lounges at these hotels are magnificent – those in Asia are some the best in the world – and offer a taste of local specialties and the all-important open bar.
2016 Update: Marriott recently purchased Starwood and now you can earn and redeem points across both brands. Even better, Platinum status on one means Platinum status on both so for the first time in my travel life, I am enjoying Marriott’s elusive Platinum status and I look forward to seeing how the perks compare with those of my beloved SPG.
Earning Points and Miles on Your Trip
A trip around the world isn’t just an opportunity to redeem points and miles, it can also be a great chance to earn them. You will undoubtedly have to book additional flights outside your alliance RTW ticket. I use this as a chance to earn miles with other airlines. Even if you think it’s an airline you’ll never fly again, what’s the harm in signing up for their program? You never know.
Same goes for hotels that are outside your preferred chains. There are a number of international chains offering perks like free wifi or breakfast just for signing up for their programs. Again, as long as it’s free, why not? Plus, you’ll earn points with a new chain that you may be able to use in the future.
When using my Starwood, Hilton and Marriott points, I always check the rates first. Some of the rates on Asian and South American properties are so inexpensive that I’m better off saving the points for a more extravagant destination and getting credit for the stay. Evaluate each destination and make the best choices to maximize your rewards.
Reward travel is an art, be your own Rembrandt.