Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Booking a Round the World Trip with Star Alliance

As mentioned in my most recent post, I am traveling on an around the world trip on board eight Star Alliance member airlines. I booked the journey at http://www.staralliance.com/ the Web site of this global airline alliance - the largest of the world's three airline alliances, with more than 20 members and counting. As I write, the U.S. carrier Continental Airlines is formally becoming the alliance's latest member.

You can book a RTW trip through individual airlines and travel agents, to be sure. But if you are comfortable on the Internet, the entire process can now be done online, a change that Star Alliance effected in July.

My advice to travelers wishing to do this is to, first and foremost, have a reasonably clear idea where you want to go before signing on. This will speed up the process considerably, as there are pivotal decisions to be made, and you want to keep moving forward. I knew where I wanted to go. I booked the trip, down to dotting the I's and crossing the T's, in just under two hours. Net-smart people can probably do it faster. I am a refugee from the Age of Steam, you see.

So, sign on to Staralliance.com and click on 'Book and Fly' on the lower right of the home page, then click on 'start now,' which brings up the next page.

Here, you can access links to FAQ in boxed text on the right side of the page. When you've done that, click on 'book a RTW journey' and wait for a short time for the next page to load.

That brings up the third page, where you enter 'traveler details' - chiefly, your country of residence - which will eventually give you a fare estimate in your country's currency - and the cabin class you want to travel in. When you've done that, hit 'next' in the lower right.

By now, you'll have the hang of it. All things considered, it's pretty transparent and straightforward.

On the fourth page, you start to build an itinerary. You'll be seeing some cool maps that show major hubs and other destinations that Star Alliance members serve - an impressively large number - and the regions shown will change as your flight plan advances. Once you've entered your city of original departure in the box provided, you start adding additional places that will take you around the world and back to your original city. Note that you can have up to 16 segments and 15 stopovers. You have a year to use whatever ticket you end up booking.

Once you plug-in the sequence of cities and dates, you'll be presented with rosters of flights operated by relevant Star carriers. Some of the flights are code-shares. As you might expect, popular places served by many carriers give you lots of choices, and lesser-known and less-served destinations offer fewer choices, maybe just one, though that's rare. I try whenever possible not to change planes, but of course, getting nonstop flights is harder and they are not always available. On some flights, you may be told you have to upgrade or downgrade from your preferred class - and again this is most likely to happen with popular destinations - your Romes, your Londons, your New Yorks. Booking far ahead helps, though there's no guarantee, as some cities don't seem to have an off-season.

Once you've gone through the construction process, you can review your itinerary before finalizing it. My wife and I built imaginary wishlist itineraries, so we could test-drive the system. We both clicked on business class. Once or twice, when my wife wanted to omit a choice, she was sent back to the beginning of the process. This didn't happen to me, though I am the more tech-challenged of the two of us. If you decide to book, you'll be asked your personal details, make your payment with a credit card, and then you will get a confirmation.

On our RTW scenarios, we received estimated pre-booking fares of around $10,000 (hers, for a proposed 29,000-mile journey) and $12,000 (mine, for a 34,000-mile trip), though the site notes that these are best-guess figures. This is cheap for journeys of this magnitude and complexity. Note that you do have to be as flexible as possible about travel dates and cabin classes to get the very best deals. Individual member airlines decide how many designated RTW seats to provide, and on which flights and which dates.

Prior to this past summer, Star allowed prospective travelers to build an itinerary online but Staralliance.com wasn't set up to actually book the trips and handle payments. Now that it is possible, there is an addditional useful tool on hand for setting up ambitious and exciting airborne global journeys.


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