This post is an except from “The Grown-Up’s Guide to Globetrotting.”
This chapter is 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 road warrior like me, a trip around the world is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put all those miles and hotel points to extraordinary use.
But this chapter is not just for business travelers, whether you’re a career road warrior with hundreds of thousands of miles to burn or just a savvy airline or hotel credit card holder hip to the ways of earning miles and points with every purchase, this could be your chance to put those rewards to work.
There are any number of ways to earn airline miles these days (other than the old-fashioned way of actually flying them), and some credit cards offer bonuses of up to 100,000 miles just for signing up. Open just two cards with generous offers like that and you’ve likely got enough miles to take you around the world.
Conversely, if you travel just enough that you’ve achieved “preferred” status but have always coveted “superstar” status with your airline, this trip could be your fast track to the kind of perks reserved for the true road warrior elites. Booking a paid RTW ticket with your airline alliance will likely earn you enough miles to attain elite status or increase your current status.
But for the sake of argument—and my love for George Clooney—we’ll start this chapter focused squarely on the road warriors with miles and points to burn.
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 ten business-class tickets around the world—each an approximate value of $40,000 had I paid for the flights individually. If that’s not a perk of frequent business travel, I don’t know what is.
Elite status with the major U.S. hotel chains, such as 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 Wi-Fi and access to extravagant club lounges to their elite guests.
But before we move on to hotels, let’s start with the airline ticket.
Redeeming Airline Miles for a RTW Ticket
In Chapter 8, we examined each of the three global airline alliances in detail. For the purposes of booking RTW award tickets, you can pretty much take everything I told you in that chapter and throw it out the nearest window.
Since the first edition of this book, there have been lots of changes to the option of booking RTW tickets with miles. And, at first glance, none of those changes have been good. In 2014, American Airlines announced changes to its mileage program that discontinued the ability to use miles for Round-the-World Explorer awards.
Delta soon quietly followed suit when it made changes to its Skymiles program in 2015. Why? According to a statement from Delta, the tickets are no longer being offered because they were so rarely booked (just over 200 in 2013) that it didn’t make financial sense to keep the RTW award desk up and running.
And as of 2019, United Airlines seems to have also eliminated the award RTW ticket by switching to a “flexible” award pricing structure that did away with set award levels.
However, all of the major U.S. carriers do now offer the option to book one-way tickets with miles – meaning you can still use your miles to travel around the world, you just have to get a little more creative. And there are still a few international airlines within each alliance that do offer RTW award tickets, we’ll look more closely at those as we address each airline alliance specifically.
Generally speaking, award tickets are an entirely different (and often confusing) ballgame from revenue (or paid) tickets. The most important thing to remember with award tickets is that they’re not just a matter of forking over the miles and booking whichever flights suit your fancy; the flights you want to book must have award availability. If you’ve ever been frustrated while trying to redeem miles for a regular award ticket, tack 15 more flights segments onto that experience and you’ll get the idea of the kind of fun that could be in store for you.
Most award tickets have similar options and rules. Here are a few universal words of advice for booking any award ticket:
First, try to get the ticket booked at least six months before you plan to travel. As a general rule, the earlier I’ve booked, the better luck I’ve had. For my first trip, 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 (that trip was a spur of the moment decision thanks to a work conflict that canceled at the last minute). 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 out of an airline hub, like United out of Chicago, American out of Dallas or Delta out of Atlanta you’re going to have the same award availability challenges you would have with any mileage ticket. In my experience, the toughest two flights to get on a RTW itinerary are the initial flight out of the U.S. and the last flight back in. Once you get overseas to partner carriers, the availability and mileage redemption levels are often much better.
Second, before you call to book, do your homework. Not just a rough itinerary, I’m talking about exact flight numbers for your preferred flights. Use the alliance website to check flight routings or make use of the nifty tool on Kayak that allows you to search flight options by airline alliance. Sites like ExpertFlyer can help you research actual award availability in your cabin of choice. You’re more likely to get the flights you want if you can tell the agent exactly which flights to check. Never rely solely on the agent to find the flights you need.
Have your ideal itinerary mapped out, but since 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. For example, I tried to get the same Atlanta-Quito flight to reach the Galapagos as the first stop on my RTW trip for four years; it was unavailable across the entire month of January every single time I tried. Be prepared for this, booking award tickets is tough.
Finally, remember that your mileage ticket is not entirely free. You will still be responsible for applicable taxes, duties, fees, charges, and surcharges. The fees on my tickets have ranged from $188 to $425 over the years. It all depends on how many stops you make and what the airport fees are. The more stops, the higher the taxes and fees.
(Note: the book includes a complete breakdown of each alliance and which members still offer RTW tickets with miles but for the sake of brevity, I’ve left that section out)
Now, let’s talk about earning and redeeming hotel points!
Redeeming Hotel Points
My hotel program of choice for many years was Starwood’s Preferred Guest, which is now part of the new Marriott Bonvoy program. There’s a laundry list of reasons why I favored Starwood but mostly it just came down to a personal preference for their hotel brands. I mean, what’s not to love about a Westin Heavenly Bed? Or the Whatever/Whenever approach to service at swank W Hotels?
But the only thing constant in the world of travel is change! In 2015, all Starwood Hotel brands officially became part of the Marriott family. In an effort to combine the much-loved SPG program with Marriott’s existing Marriott Rewards program, the company unveiled the new “Bonvoy” program in 2018.
Though Bonvoy is now the heavy-hitter on the international scene, Hilton is definitely the next best option for those traveling around the world. With more than 5,000 properties on six continents, the options are endless and all bookable with points. IHG and Hyatt are also good choices if you have points to spend, but in my opinion their international options don’t match up to Marriott or Hilton.
If you already have points with any of the above hotel chains, the first thing you should do is determine what destinations on your itinerary are the best places to use them. I tend to use my points where rates are high (Europe, the South Pacific) and pay for the room where rates are low (Asia, South America). You can also make great use of “Cash & Points” options to stretch your points and your dollars further.
The idea is to do your research and get creative! Over the years I have managed to stretch my Starwood, Marriott and Hilton points to get my hotel budget on each RTW trip down to virtually nothing. And keep my status with each program along the way by taking advantage of super cheap nights in inexpensive markets.
Which brings me to my next point…
Earning Miles and 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. Even if you are able to use miles to book some of your longest and most expensive flights, you will undoubtedly have to book additional flights to complete your itinerary. 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 Wi-Fi 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 redeem in the future. Who knows, you might even decide you like them!
If you’re not already an elite member with a major hotel chain, a RTW trip is an easy way to get there.
With Marriott’s Bonvoy program, you’ll get free Wi-Fi just for being a member. They also offer 5 levels of Elite Status: Silver, Gold, Platinum, Titanium and Ambassador. You can reach Silver Elite status after just 10 nights and Gold status with 25.
With just the 25 nights needed for Gold status, you’ll score room upgrades, access to club lounges and late checkouts for an entire year. Perks like this can be especially valuable when traveling overseas where hotel internet access can run upwards of $30 a night in some countries (never, under any circumstance, head to Tahiti in search of affordable Wi-Fi…trust me).
With Hilton Honors you also have access to international properties like Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, and Embassy Suites (Canada and Latin America only) in addition to Hilton brand hotels. Hilton Honors offers three elite tiers after a qualifying number of stays (or nights): Silver (4 stays/10 nights), Gold (20 stays/40 nights) and Diamond (30 stays/60 nights).
Even at the Silver level, there are a few benefits like a 15% point bonus and late checkout but with Gold status, you’ll get better perks like free Wi-Fi and club lounge access. Hilton has also recently begun offering a Cash & Points redemption option and when it’s available (which I’ve found to be somewhat rare so far) it’s a great alternative to their standard awards.
Intercontinental Hotels Group’s Priority Club is the world’s first and largest hotel loyalty club and has been named the “Best Hotel Rewards Program in the World” by the readers of Global Traveler magazine. Priority Club offers the chance to earn and redeem at 4,400 hotels worldwide (including international options primarily with Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, and Crowne Plaza) and also offers a Cash & Points redemption option making it easier to redeem the points you earn. Elite levels are achieved at 15 qualifying nights for Gold status and 50 qualifying nights for Platinum.
There are other programs offered by a variety of smaller hotel chains but the three mentioned above offer the best options for earning and redeeming points worldwide on a RTW trip. It really comes down to personal preference with the hotel chains.
If you’re traveling through Asia, you’ll find that rates for four and five-star hotels are remarkably cheap. If you’re loyal to a particular hotel program, this is a good opportunity to pay for your stay at inexpensive rates to earn nights toward your status and additional points for future stays at more expensive properties.
When I use my Hilton and Marriott points, I always check the rates first. Some of the rates for Asian and South American properties are so inexpensive that I’m better off saving the points for a more extravagant night and getting credit for the stay. Evaluate each destination individually and make the best choice to maximize your rewards.
I should also note that, in my experience, the international properties of both Marriott and Hilton are especially generous with upgrades. While I am rarely offered suite upgrades at domestic Marriott and Hilton properties, upgrades are extremely common for elite members traveling overseas. I attribute it primarily to the fact that domestic properties are barraged with elite guests while international properties see fewer.
Even when I’m redeeming points, I’m often offered a suite overseas without hesitation. Also, many of the club lounges at these hotels are magnificent—those in Asia are some the best in the world—and offer a delicious taste of local specialties and an open bar with a knockout view.
So again, if you’re not already signed up for an airline or hotel loyalty program, what are you waiting for? Sign up for all of them… it’s free! Making the most of your airline miles and hotel points can be time consuming but like booking a RTW ticket, the benefits are absolutely worth the effort.
Reward travel is an art. Be your own Rembrandt.