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.
My Delta miles have funded one First Class and five 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, much of the advice in this post will relate directly to my experience with Delta’s Sky Team Alliance. However, all three of the major airline alliances offer RTW tickets with very similar options and rules. If you’re booking with Star Alliance or oneworld, their websites can be an excellent resource for your planning. Also, the bevy of frequent fliers on the forums of FlyerTalk can be another great way to ask questions of fliers who have booked RTW tickets on your preferred alliance. I often answer RTW questions on the Delta FlyerTalk forum.
A few words of advice on booking a mileage RTW ticket with your airline alliance:
First, try to get the ticket booked at least six months before you plan to travel. As a general rule, the earlier I’ve called the better luck I’ve had. For my first trip around the world, I booked the ticket eight months out and got pretty much everything I wanted. On later trips I’ve procrastinated and had to modify my itinerary significantly to make it work.
On my 3rd RTW trip I set a personal record for the shortest lead-time ever for a RTW trip by planning the entire thing in three weeks. I had to take what I could get on the flights but I did surprisingly well. The flip side of this equation is if you book very close to departure, often new seats have opened up that were not available at, say, three months out.
Keep in mind that if you’re trying to book your initial departure on Delta out of Atlanta or United out of Chicago or American out of Dallas, you’re going to have the same availability challenges you would have with any mileage ticket. In my experience, the toughest flights to get are the initial flight out of the U.S. and the last flight back in. Once you get overseas to partner carriers, the availability is often much better.
Second, before you call, do your homework. Remember that this is a mileage ticket and the likelihood of availability is just as limited as with any mileage ticket. Have a basic itinerary mapped out, but flexibility is key. Have back-up in and out dates for every stop and even back-up destinations if flights to your first choice are totally unavailable (I have been trying to get the same Atlanta-Quito flight to get to the Galapagos for four years now, it has been unavailable across the entire month every time). Be prepared for this, booking these tickets is tough.
Third, when you get an agent on the line and begin securing flights, if you can get at least 50% of what you want, ask them to hold it. Then give it 24 hours and try your luck again. Availability changes daily but even more likely is that you’ll get a different agent who can try alternate routing options. The key to successfully booking a RTW ticket with miles is a creative agent. Some agents are more experienced than others and can come up with additional options on other carriers to get you from A to B.
After booking nine RTW tickets with the Skyteam RTW desk, I have learned to spot an inexperienced agent within minutes. In fact, I’ve been known to just thank them politely and hang up before calling back and trying to get a different person. If you get an agent that keeps saying, “I’ve got nothing available” on routing after routing, it’s probably time to cut your losses and try your luck with a different agent.
To be fair, it’s not that they don’t know what they’re doing at these RTW desks, it just that these are very small departments at each airline and they honestly don’t book a ton of these tickets. If you happen to luck into an agent who clearly knows what they are doing, get their name and extension and try to deal with them directly going forward. Oh, and buy a lottery ticket, it’s your lucky day.
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 new 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 $25-$45 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 it’s rarely been available when I’ve tried to book.
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.
Earning Miles & Points 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.
If you’re traveling through Asia, you’ll find that rates for 4 and 5 star hotels are remarkably cheap. If you’re loyal to a particular hotel alliance this is a good opportunity to pay for your hotel stay at cheap rates and earn nights toward your status and additional points for future stays.
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.