While some tickets can be issued "open" (i.e. with no reservations and no guarantee of being able to travel) we recommend strenuously against open tickets, would never buy them ourselves, and will sell them only if you (a) insist and (b) agree to assume all risk of not being able to travel due to space not being available. Open tickets can conceal a multitude of sins (infrequent or inconvenient schedules, lack of availability, etc.). Open tickets are almost never necessary and should be avoided whenever possible.
Any ticket that can be issued with an "open" date can be issued at exactly the same price with confirmed reservations for any flight on which space is actually available, and the option to change dates, any number of times, at no charge, to any new dates on which space is available, or to stand by at the airport for any space that might become available at the last minute. Having confirmed but freely changeable reservations gives you the best of both worlds.
It is more work for us to make reservations for you than to issue open-dated tickets, but we strongly recommend that you insist on having confirmed reservations for all flights before buying any tickets from us or anyone.
As for tickets with the destinations "open", almost no ticket for a reasonable price will let you choose your route as you go, or change it once your ticket is issued. Tickets can be issued with "open" dates (although we recommend strongly against buying such tickets, as explained above) but not with "open" places.
Most people are more or less aware of this generalization. The problem is that there are exceptions, and that people who know a little about the exceptions often think (largely as a result of misleading advertisements by the airlines) that the exceptions are much broader than they are. People who plan on using an air pass or an around-the-world ticket, in particular, frequently count on buying a general-purpose ticket and deciding later on, as they go, where to fly.
Certain air passes for travel within particular countries, and published around-the-world fares, do allow some changes of routes and destinations. These fares are marketed with sweeping claims about being able to "go anywhere we fly", and people assume that these special fares have special prices that are cheaper than the alternatives.
So why do you need to plan your route in advance?
Fewer people, and routes, qualify for air passes or published around-the-world airfares than think they do. There are passes for travel within many countries, but (except for Visit North America passes good in both the US and Canada, and for some Visit South America fares allowing travel on multiple airlines) there are no generally useful regional air passes. There is no airline counterpart to the Eurail pass, nor is there any air pass good throughout Southeast Asia. Very few routes around the world qualify for ticketing at a single around-the-world fare.
Re-routable tickets, where they exist, are rarely the cheapest. To put it another way, you pay a premium for flexibility. You can spend US$640, for example, for a re-routable Visit Australia air pass good for four flights anywhere in the country. But even if you use all four coupons the flights you end up taking might well be ones that could have been ticketed for a third less if you knew in advance where you were going. Similarly, you could take half a dozen flights in northern India, if you knew in advance which ones, for less than the US$400 price of a 21-day unlimited travel Indian Airlines air pass.
Around-the-world tickets on United Airlines (the only airline that has offered a single-airline single-ticket around-the-world fare in recent years), starting and ending in the same place in the US, via the Northern Hemisphere only, start at US$3099 plus tax. But United Airlines actually only flew only one route around the world (service on part of the route was suspended this year), with only four stops outside the US. You could get non-re routable tickets on several airlines with the same set of international destinations (and one or two more) for US$1500.
Re-routable tickets are not really as flexible as they seem. Airlines will tell you that you can change the route of an around-the-world ticket, within the allowable routes. But they won’t tell you that from any given city reached on such a ticket there is usually only one city to which you can continue on an allowable route. It’s rare enough that a given itinerary can be ticketed on any published around-the-world fare. It would be truly stellar good luck if a desired en-route change to such an itinerary were actually allowed on the same fare.
Similarly, an air pass on a particular airline is only good where that airline flies. You can’t use a Thai Airways Discover Thailand air pass to get to Ko Samui, for example, because only Bangkok Airways flies there. It doesn’t generally make sense to buy any ticket unless you have already decided where you are going, so you know you will be able to use the pass to get there. And if you do know where you are going, there are likely to be cheaper fixed-routing tickets for it.
So air passes and around-the-world tickets are not exceptions to the rule: if you want to get a reasonable price for your airline tickets, you need to decide, before you buy your tickets, all of the specific places you will fly during the time that those tickets are valid. It is possible, of course, to buy re-routable tickets, for a price, or to buy tickets one flight at a time, as you go. But doing so costs more than most travelers can afford. You’ll have to decide, eventually, just where you want to go. In most cases you can save a significant amount of money if you make those decisions as far as possible in advance.
There is no standard or usual around-the-world, circle-the-Pacific, or other multi-stop airline route or ticket price. Advertisements can give, at most, a few examples from among the almost infinite variety of possible stopping points and routes. There’s no way any menu or brochure can list all the possibilities, and we would avoid anyone who tried to sell us multi-stop tickets from a limited menu.
People who have heard about the routing restrictions of published around-the-world and circle-the-Pacific fares often think that their choices are limited to these fares. They waste large amounts of time and energy in a misguided effort to choose their destinations, and to shoehorn the itinerary they want, into one that will qualify for such a fare. Or they assume that any destinations not on such a routing will have to be ticketed as separate side trips.
In reality, advertised around-the-world prices are almost never published fares. Most real around-the-world itineraries cannot be ticketed on any combination of airlines’ published around-the-world fares. And a large proportion of possible side trips can more cheaply be ticketed as part of, or in conjunction with, through tickets, rather than separately.
There is thus no point in trying to decipher the routing rules of published fares that you aren’t likely actually to use, or in restricting your consideration of possible destinations to ones that you think qualify for such fares or that you have seen advertised as part of examples of around-the-world prices.
In particular, you do not have to start and end your tickets in the same place, your route does not have to be continuous, and you do not have to travel in any particular or continuous direction or on any particular combination of airlines. The majority of tickets sold by specialist around-the-world travel agents violate one or more of these "rules". Nor is doing any of these things particularly likely to reduce the price of your tickets. Flying into one place and out of another, for example, is about as likely to make your air tickets cheaper as to make them more expensive.
Edward Hasbrouck is the author of "The Practical Nomad" travel books, including The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World (2nd ed) and The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace, published by Avalon Travel Publishing. For more information on the author, the books, and travel in general, visit hasbrouck.org.