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How to plan a trip around the world

Booking around the world travel doesn't have to be hard. Learn how to maximize the value of your next trip by making multiple stops while circling the globe. (Video: McKenna Ewen, Osman Malik/The Washington Post)

Maybe it starts slowly. You are planning a trip to one country and decide to tack on a few others in the neighborhood. Then you notice a continent over there, just across the ocean. And then another. So, you end up leapfrogging from lily pad to lily pad.

Or perhaps you rush into the ad­ven­ture as if you were training for “The Amazing Race.” Cram together as many destinations as possible before CBS decides to cancel the show.

Or what if you have a bounty of frequent-flier miles, vacation days or empty passport pages? Or you want empirical proof that the world is, indeed, round?

Regardless of the pace or purpose, anyone can take a spin around the globe. No circumnavigation skills required.

Ever dream about visiting seven countries in one trip? Join us on our 21,623-mile adventure.

"Going around the world isn't that hard," said Sean Keener, who co-founded BootsnAll, an independent travel guide, and runs AirTreks, an airfare booking site for multi-stop trips. "There are an infinite number of ways" to do it.

Trippin’ around the globe is more doable and affordable than one might imagine. You don’t need to hire an army of travel agents or sell your Facebook stock. But you will need to nail the first and more crucial step: booking the ticket.

There are three main ways to organize an odyssey of this nature. The strategies require varying levels of effort and expertise, but they all share the same end result: rocketing travelers up, down and around planet Earth.

Book it yourself, leg by leg by leg by leg by leg

The major online booking sites, such as Kayak and Orbitz, offer multi-city tools that allow you to plug in more complicated itineraries than Point A to B and back to A. However, the search engines typically limit the number of flights that can be plugged in. Orbitz allots for five one-way flights; Kayak has room for six. BootsnAll's Indie airfare engine is the most ambitious, with space for 25 flights. To circumvent the roadblock, you can make several separate bookings for the same trip, like individual charms on a bracelet.

When planning, you will need to know the exact dates of each segment. But you must also be flexible, in case the carrier does not offer a flight to a specific destination on your preferred day. Airlines typically list flight times and prices 11 months in advance. If you are mapping an extended itinerary, you might need to book the second half of your trip mid-journey.

Of course, you have alternatives. For example, you can bridge destinations with low-fare or regional airlines, or buses, boats or trains (known as surface sectors). To save money, consider flying into hub cities such as Frankfurt, Germany; London; Istanbul, Doha, Qatar; Seoul, Tokyo, etc., and rely on overland modes of transportation to explore more remote or less touristed areas.

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Experienced travelers like Lee Abbamonte, the youngest American to visit every country in the world, excel as captains of their own RTW destinies. During his first trip in 1999, he visited 20 countries.

“I pieced it all together with one-way tickets,” he said. “I thought it was fun figuring it out.”

To stretch his budget, Abbamonte tapped into the student discounts offered through STA Travel, an agency that caters to the under-26 set. But now that he is older and wise to frequent-flier miles, he has retained a new booking assistant: the airline alliances.

Airline alliances

The three global consortiums — SkyTeam, Star Alliance and Oneworld — arrange round-the-world tickets based on the flight routes and schedules of their partner carriers and affiliates. At Star Alliance, the family includes 28 members. For SkyTeam, it’s 20 and Oneworld has 15.

Using the alliances involves more rules and calculations than the book-it-yourself way. For example, you must circle the globe in one direction, east or west. With SkyTeam, your itinerary must feature one trans-Pacific flight, one trans-Atlantic leg and one transcontinental flight between Areas 2 (Europe, Middle East, Africa) and 3 (Asia, Far East Oceanic). Voyages with Oneworld must include at least three continents and can’t exceed 15 segments, or legs. Star Alliance’s regulations require a minimum of five stopovers (on-the-ground time of 24 hours or more) and a maximum of 15.

You can pay for your trip in mileage, money or a mix. The price in dollars or redeemed miles is calculated by the cabin class, mileage and/or number of zones or regions visited or transited through.

Abbamonte has circumnavigated via the alliances three times. On his last voyage, in 2007-2008, he stitched together five continents and tooled around India for a month. He spent 150,000 to 200,000 miles per sojourn. However, over the years, rewards programs have significantly lost their value. Today, a RTW ticket would likely gobble up twice as many miles, if not more.

Round-the-world special agents

Several agencies specialize in globe-hugging trips, such as World Travellers’ Club, Ticketsroundtheworld and AirTreks. The experts are a hybrid of fairy godparent, counselor and soothsayer. They can turn overly ambitious ideas (me to agent: I want to visit seven countries in 2 1 /2 weeks) and vague plans (me to agent: I am not sure which ones or when) into a golden ticket (see evidence below). They offer advice on travel times (avoid monsoon and hurricane seasons), tips on saving money (skip holidays and school vacation periods) and even pull out some unexpected surprises (free stopovers in Hong Kong and the Seychelles). The companies often forge relationships with the airlines, resulting in lower fares. Once the reservation is complete, the agent may handle any future flight changes and reassemble the puzzle pieces if the airlines shakes them up.

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For my own RTW ticket — I couldn’t follow the rainbow and not claim the pot of gold, now could I? — I reached out to AirTreks. I initially used the site’s planning tool and hatched a route that resembled a Jackson Pollock painting. Defeated, I called and spoke with a specialist. Glenn and I worked together on a few itinerations, adding and subtracting destinations. Vancouver, out; Madagascar, in. A few days later, we finalized the route: Washington-Reykjavik-Stockholm-Madagascar-Seychelles-Mumbai-Singapore-Hong Kong. I paid $3,786 and depart on Tuesday.

“This is an involved itinerary, but it’s interesting,” he said during our October session. “You are going up and down the equator. It has a good flow to it. And price-wise, it’s actually pretty good.”

Before hanging up, the veteran RTW planner said to me, “I want to do something like that.”

I took his comment as a high compliment.

Using an around-the-world ticket, Andrea Sachs and photographer Jabin Botsford will drop into seven countries over the next 20 days. On Friday, check for the first around-the-world installment from Reykjavik.

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