Even in a down year for travel, a growing number of passengers are buying pricey multi-stop, multi-country tickets known as airpasses. But not all are created equal: We dissected four prominent options to see which rise to the top.
JETBLUE: ALL YOU CAN JET PASS (Editor's Pick)
U.S. and Caribbean
JetBlue built its reputation around good value, and its clear-cut, 30-day unlimited pass is no exception. Buyers can go anywhere JetBlue flies: more than 60 airports, from San Diego to Boston and the Caribbean. Restrictions are minimal; you can book and change reservations as little as three days in advance. It usually takes three domestic flights to make up the $700 investment, but one round trip can offset the cost (we found a flight from Portland, Ore., to Barbados for $718). The 2009 and 2010 airpasses sold out quickly, so we're betting that JetBlue will offer the pass again in 2011. And when it does, we'll be buying. jetblue.com, $699; $499 for passes that exclude Friday and Sunday travel. Bottom line: The best all-around pass for aspiring vagabonds.
LAN: SOUTH AMERICAN AIRPASS
This pass from Latin America powerhouse LAN has more in common with buy-in-bulk discount stores than all-you-can-eat buffets. Travelers can use a dedicated booking site to build a 16-flight itinerary connecting three or more of the over 50 available cities in one year. After you buy an international flight, the cost is based on the number of cities you visit, with most flights from $100 to $300 each. A sample four-city airpass out of New York that included Buenos Aires, Lima, Cuzco, and the Galápagos Islands came in at $2,540—about $1,200 less than the same itinerary priced through Kayak. The value isn't only in ticket prices: LAN has no checked-bag fees, and you can change any airpass flight for just $30. lan.com, prices vary. Bottom line: A good value for visiting far-flung spots.
CATHAY PACIFIC: ALL ASIA PASS
Although Asia has no shortage of budget airlines, Cathay Pacific trumps them all in the customer-service department—no small concern when flying halfway across the world. One of the first large-scale passes to launch, Cathay Pacific's 21-day All Asia option starts at $1,599, and fliers can choose from 42 destinations. The potential savings are massive. When compared with booking on Orbitz, the All Asia Pass base rate for an L.A.–Hong Kong–Bali–Tokyo–L.A. trip was $2,400 cheaper. One drawback: There are numerous restrictions, from traveling in the summer (a $500 upgrade) to which days of the week you can fly. cathaypacific.com, from $1,599 in 2010 for Hong Kong and two cities. Bottom line: A great deal for comfort junkies and the obsessively organized.
MULTIPLE AIRLINES: ONEWORLD EXPLORER
With more than 750 destinations to choose from on carriers such as American, Iberia, and Qantas, Oneworld's comprehensive reach is impressive. Travel to three continents from $3,499; four from $5,099; and so on, with a 16-flight limit over a year's time. The idea of stopping in spots like Budapest, Athens, Amman, and Auckland for about five grand on one itinerary seems like an incredible deal, but you can find similar trips on a site like Expedia for less; our independently booked 12-city sample cost 24 percent less than Oneworld's pass. The offer also comes with some undesirable restrictions, including a limit of four stops per continent, with no backtracking. oneworld.com, from $3,499. Bottom line: Worth it only for those who want a huge range of destinations.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Any one of these five red flags could be a dream-trip deal breaker.
Limited Flight Segments
Sixteen flight segments sounds like a lot, but if it takes two connections to get to one destination, your travel options decrease fast.
Detouring through a scenic area in a rental car is often more fun than cruising over it at 30,000 feet, but many airpasses will penalize you for doing just that.
Some airlines require you to purchase a separate round-trip intercontinental flight in order to qualify for an airpass. Make sure your flight qualifies.
Taxes & Fees
These can add a staggering $700 or more to your ticket price, particularly in Asia and Europe. Don't buy anything without doing the math first.
Think twice about airpasses that require you to travel east to west or vice versa, hampering your perfect route.