This is it! Around-the-world on a 747…is it still possible?
The Boeing 747 will always be the Queen of the Skies, but flying with her is getting to be a little difficult these days, with all the efficient 777’s and 787’s and A350’s out there. For diehards, however, there is no other aircraft with the beauty and romance of the Queen.
When I started collecting Aeroplan points with credit card signups a few years back, I had decided to do an around-the-world but with some business class sections for maximum comfort (I’m 6’5). My days in long-haul economy aren’t exactly over but I’m trying harder than ever to upgrade once in a while!
So I decided that circling the planet eastward would be pretty cool as I loved the idea of departing Heathrow and cruising diagonally across Europe and Asia towards Sydney, say. Alas, it can’t be done in one hop.(although Qantas will soon be flying a 787-9 between London and Perth, Australia in March). Somewhere around this time I started being more aware of how the 747 was being retired from fleets around the world but also how many exotic (meaning non-North American) routes were still serviced by them. I somehow got it in my head that flying around the world would still be possible in a 747 and I set out to find out if it were true.
Getting information on aircraft routes isn’t that easy though. If you wanted to fly with a 777 or A320 or A330, no problem. They’re everywhere, on nearly every route.And there are some good websites with 747 route information, but it seems that as the plane is slowly retired, it’s routes may be adjusted or dropped on a moments notice, especially in different seasons. Or it may only fly certain days on a route, because an airline may only have so many remaining and you have to plan for problems and maintenance delays, possibly with no spare aircraft sitting around. So even if you search a travel website for say, LHR to HKG, you may see a 777 departing on Wednesdays, without seeing that a 747 flies on Saturdays and returns on Mondays.
In the end, I printed out some world maps and started plotting the routes I could find., looking for cities with connecting service and trying to link them up. Logically, the best chances of success and options are going to be centered around the biggest 747 operators.
British Airways operates the most 747s, and they’re based out of London Heathrow of course. Lots of choices for connecting cities from London, and I can even take a BA 747 from Toronto to Heathrow to start.
KLM also has a lot of 747s left and operates from Amsterdam’s Schipol, with 747 service to and from Toronto.
The only issue with BA and KLM for me, however, is money. I earn miles with Aeroplan, which is a member of Star Alliance. KLM is partnered with Air France, and BA is in One World. Short of earning a ton of miles somehow, it looks like I would have to pay cash for flights with either. One-way flights typically are half or a little more than return flights, but sometimes they are much more, especially in Business class.
So then I looked to the third European option, which is Lufthansa. Lufthansa has a lot of 747-400s, newer 747-8s, and flies the 747 to and from Toronto. Lots of choice, and more importantly, I can book with Aeroplan, saving me tons of cash and allowing me to upgrade to Business class.
So by this point, I know I can get from Toronto to Europe, and from Europe to the far east on a 747. Then where? Well, it depends on how you define around-the-world. Surprisingly there are a lot of different requirements depending on who you talk to.
Some people say you only have to fly around the planet in the same direction (like my first trip from YYZ-FRA-HND-YYZ). Others suggest a true around-the-world should touchdown in every continent (except Antarctica). Still others talk about crossing over the equator within specific parameters.
For me, since the Earth is a sphere, it came down to a few simple rules. (actually it’s a bumpy oblate spheroid that bulges at the equator but I digress)
1- Start and finish in the same airport in the same city.
2- Fly a distance equal to or greater than the circumference of the Earth. This is one of my two major requirements. At the equator, a string around the planet would be about 40,075km or 24,900 miles long. Fly a combination of routes equal to or greater and you’re almost done.
3- I must arrive and depart from every airport on the route. No switching airports or cities or countries. No open-jaws, like landing in Sydney, and then taking off from Brisbane.
This last rule is the hardest requirement to meet, I found. Many cities still have 747 service from somewhere, but with only one airline that doesn’t really help in connecting to a third city. Trying to find and plot all the possibilities involved checking Travelocity, various aviation websites, and finally FlightRadar24 on my Iphone. With FlightRadar24, or even airport websites, I could see all the daily arrivals and departures and search for 747-serviced flights. Mind you, you have to double-check them as at least half or more 747 flights these days are cargo flights. But there seemed to be two distinct routes coming to light: one via London and Johannesburg through to Sydney, and one via Bangkok to Sydney.
Additionally, because I was counting on a relatively small fleet of 747s to make this trip possible, I wanted to have at least 2 or 3 days in each city to allow for aircraft delays.
With all this in hand, a general plan began to form. London or Frankfurt would be the first stop. Then Bangkok, via Thai Airways, would be the second. Thai would then connect me to Sydney and then I could fly home directly with Qantas or up through Asia and back across with Korean Air Lines. But as intriguing as this route was, it meant paying cash for both the Qantas and KAL segments which would put me in economy and empty my wallet!
I did find a route with BA through Johannesburg and across to Sydney but again, it would be very expensive and just felt like it had a greater chance of failure for some reason. I was more comfortable with crossing the Asian continent but I sorely missed adding Africa and flying across the Indian ocean on a wing and a prayer!
So there the idea sat for around a year or so, as I had neither the spare cash or Aeroplan miles or vacation time to move from paper to reality.
Still, I kept the idea in the back of my mind because I desperately wanted to go around-the-world and I could feel the pressure of 747 retirements with every story online. Additionally, I had never heard of anyone doing a 747 around-the-world and thought that it would be pretty cool if I managed to do it before it became impossible.
Cut to Fall 2017 and I decided I had the resources to really explore this idea and commit to the right plan. One problem, though! Thai no longer serviced London or Frankfurt with a 747. That seemed to be my linchpin and now it was gone.
So after examining all the current flights, I came up with this routing. JFK-FRA-ICN-BKK-SYD-JFK. As it turned out, I was no longer able to fly out of Toronto and return via another 747 from the West. So I would position to JFK in New York and complete my circle there before coming back home. But on this trip, I would get to add South Korea to my list of countries visited, as well as Thailand, which would be my first tropical country ever!
The last remaining hurdle, however, was selecting the actual dates. This is due to the fact that the award availability I was counting on with Lufthansa and Thai wasn’t as open as I had hoped. The hardest flight to find availability for was LH712 to Seoul. I had to map out about 3 months worth of openings in Business class. Then I checked the Thai flights to Bangkok and Sydney around some keys dates that worked for me. Finally, the last major challenge was Qantas.
Qantas has about ten 747-400s with several ER versions. They fly from Sydney to New York with a 2 hour refueling stop in LA. But you can’t buy a ticket from LA to NY with Qantas, it’s only for connecting passengers from Sydney. Recently at the end of 2017, we saw the final 747 passenger flights from United Airlines and Delta. So as of right now, as far as I know, QF11 is the last 747 passenger flight to cross the continental USA. How cool is that?! I had to get on that plane. But my research showed that it only seemed to depart Sydney on Tuesdays. All other days of the week are serviced by a 777 or A380. So this meant a lot of trial and error in trying to come up with a schedule which would allow me to have a proper visit to Sydney while still departing on a tuesday. So in planning everything, I had to account for an Australian departure on a Tuesday with no other options. And since I have no OneWorld miles to speak of, I had to book economy for cash with a possible upgrade later if I win the lottery. I did manage to book seat 72K which is where the fusalge starts to narrow so it’s 2-4-2 meaning I hope no one books the aisle seat beside me. If that seat stays empty, then maybe I can manage economy for nearly 14 hours to LA!
So the final booking was as follows:
JFK-FRA (Frankfurt) Lufthansa LH401 economy = 30,000 Aeroplan miles + $219 CAD in fees
FRA-ICN (Seoul) Lufthansa LH712 business = 75,000 Aeroplan miles +$480 in fees
ICN-BKK (Bangkok) Thai Airways TG659 first = 65,000 Aeroplan miles + $49 in fees
BKK-SYD (Sydney) Thai Airways TG475 business = 67,500 Aeroplan miles + $130 in fees
SYD-LAX-JFK (New York) Qantas QF11 economy = $1420 cash
I booked to start my journey in early March, finishing nearly 3 weeks later. I’ll have 2 days in Frankfurt, 3 in Seoul, 3 in Bangkok, about 7 in Sydney, and several more in the air!
Little did I know, however, that one of the Airlines was going to throw a last-second grenade into my well-laid plans!
Stay tuned for Part 4!
Has anyone else ever planned an around-the-world with a specific theme? Do you know of any better routings or 747 options? Let me know in the comments section!