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.
When flying to an international stop, always book your flight in and your flight out at the same time; otherwise, you could get walloped with double the local fees and taxes. To avoid airline terminal burnout, pick a destination or two that you'll visit longer. If possible, take a small, lightweight notebook computer to make managing your flights easier. And don't check your luggage unless you like watching the baggage carousel go round and round.
"Every single hour counts," said Emil Skandul, a New Yorker and JetBlue pass-holder I met in Bogotá.
Use social media. After JetBlue announced its 2010 pass, it set up a Facebook page to create a community and get a line on which routes garnered the most buzz. Independent Meetup.com groups quickly followed suit. These websites can be a great source of important information, such as new vaccination requirements. For the solo traveler, they can also be a means to find companions to share travel expenses, experiences or even a ritzy room at a Caribbean resort.
Some of these passes are for sale, in part, because they're for travel in the off-season. This means you'll probably encounter unpleasant weather and closed tourist facilities. On the upside, you might be able to negotiate reduced prices on accommodations, as well as get a glimpse of what certain destinations were like before the tourism industry discovered them.
Glimpses and independent discoveries are really what a journey with one of these passes is about. Think of them as travel's version of an intense college survey course. You'll learn the basics of how to get around the world and what's there. Much of what you'll see is beautiful, fascinating and worthy of more time. You'll wish you could stay longer as you head out to catch another plane. But staying longer would be missing the point.
"Enjoy the moment, and then treat it as if you're going to come back sometime soon," said New Yorker Sarah Yi, a seasoned traveler and 2010 pass-holder.
The two of us shared an early-morning taxi to the Bogotá airport that sped through La Macarena, a neighborhood we hadn't visited and which, at that moment from our respective window, seemed to be the local equivalent of Silver Lake, filled with cafes and enticingly walkable, hilly little streets neither of us had set foot in — yet.
Perhaps the most unexpected benefit of these passes is the way they transform usually cautious people into adventure-seekers. Jones said she never thought she would enjoy traveling alone. Phil Snyder, of El Cajon, Calif., said he could never have imagined that he would snorkel and zip-line around the world at age 58. And New Yorker Travis Walker-Hodkin, traveling solo for the first time and with no knowledge of Spanish, was surprised to find he could successfully negotiate a late-night taxi ride from the airport to his hostel in Bogota.
Snyder does have a bit of a cautionary tale, though. Toward the end of his trip, he injured his foot in Mexico and opted to limp rather than end the fun. But once home, an MRI revealed two tears and a possible yearlong recovery. Snyder seemed to have few regrets about not bailing out on a trip he hasn't been able to stop talking about.
"I didn't want to wreck it because it was just so special," he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun