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Keep eye out for deals on round-the-world flights

JetBlue's popular All You Can Jet program may have passed, but such one-world fares can be found with a bit of digging and plenty of patience.

January 02, 2011|By Tara Godvin | Special to the Los Angeles Times

The premise is simple: Buy a $500 plane ticket to zip around much of the New World for a month. The big question: Isn't it just some gimmick tangled up with hidden fees and crazy rules?

Sorry, but no. If you are among those who hesitated Aug. 17 when JetBlue's All You Can Jet passes went on sale and then sold out a little more than two days later, you missed out. Although not without its drawbacks for fliers, this deal was a steal.

I bought JetBlue's $499 edition, which excluded travel on Fridays and Sundays. (Also available was a seven-day pass for $699.) I spent about $200 more on taxes, all for nondomestic flights. So for about $700 I flew a whopping 19,000 miles between Sept. 7 and Oct. 6. During that time, I climbed Mayan ruins and swam through underground caverns in the Yucatán, dove under warm Caribbean waves in Puerto Rico, took in the Art Deco glory of Miami, dined on fresh lobster in Maine, spent "tummy time" with a friend's new baby in New York, survived a wacky and wonderful bike tour of Bogota, Colombia, and happily teetered through the colonial-era, cobble-stoned streets of the lush, highland village of Villa de Leiva.

But please, dear travel enthusiasts, don't rend your garments in despair just yet. There is a chance JetBlue may repeat the offer, though the airline says it won't decide until sometime in the spring. And although the JetBlue offer is — for now — unmatched in its convenience, price and variety of destinations, around-the-world fares are nothing new and can be found if you know where to look.

Among the most regularly offered are the global and regional passes offered year-round by airline groups such as Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam. These tend to be good for up to a year of travel and cover more of the globe than JetBlue's pass. But you may need to identify your destinations upfront before you leave, and although cheaper perhaps than booking individual flights, they're not cheap. Pricing is generally based on where you bought the pass, seat class, number of continents visited and miles flown. The one-world fares, for example, start at $3,499 for three continents (before taxes, fees and surcharges) for a pass bought in the United States (for the same pass, prices start at $3,000 if bought in Venezuela).

Airlines also occasionally offer regional deal passes. Minneapolis-based Sun Country says it hopes to again sell its 37-day, unlimited Fall Free for All pass (similar to JetBlue's but with only one international stop, at Cancún, Mexico), which was priced at $499. Air New Zealand recently offered a Kiwi Explorer pass from L.A. to multiple stops in New Zealand for $998. Emirates and Virgin Blue currently allow customers to link together cheaper one-way flights in the Middle East, Asia and South Pacific.

For a DIY version, you can put together a trip using the multiple-city function of Travelocity.com and other online travel sites. The tactic is yielding surprising bargains right now, mostly on American Airlines and U.S. Airways, and for destinations in and around North America.

With any of these options, though, there are several things you should keep in mind:

First, stay calm. The rules for some of these passes can often induce tears. With the plan-as-you-go deals, desperate thoughts about flight availability will creep in. And then there are the pangs of regret about all the places you missed in the rush to squeeze the most value out of the pass by squeezing in the most miles.

Study the route maps and rules of your pass. Julie Jones, a photographer I met in Maine who had made use of her pass to attend a wedding and build her portfolio, was disappointed to discover that, because of JetBlue's routing though New York, she couldn't fly from her home in Denver to the West Coast without first flying to the East Coast. And I didn't realize until halfway through my trip that I could rebook tickets three days in advance for free. I found a better ticket home from New York and avoided a four-hour layover in Boston.

If there are places you simply must visit, consider booking those tickets as soon as you can. And if you can't, don't worry. I had planned on flying direct from Cancún to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Three days after tickets for my pass went on sale, the closest I could get to San Juan was Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Though I am accustomed to impromptu bus excursions around faraway places, this problem was new. With a little research, I found two bus lines that took me down the coast to Miami, where I checked out the pastel-hued architecture of South Beach.

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