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Tips for Using Airpasses

For the next year i'll be living part-time in Kuwait, and the places I'd formerly set aside as once-in-a-lifetime trips—Bahrain, Alexandria, Doha—are now a weekend's getaway. I'm buying an Arabian Airpass (from $50 per flight) from Emirates airlines to visit as many cities as possible. Dozens of carriers have passes (find them at airtimetable.com), as do the three major airline alliances (Oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance). The basic rules: You buy flight-segment coupons or a single, unlimited pass to a certain number of cities and complete your travel within a certain time period. Most involve passing through a hub city, and may or may not include your flight from the United States. You'll need to weigh your program's idiosyncrasies against the convenience of one-stop-shopping. Here's what to ask yourself:

How many restrictions are you willing to put up with?

Cathay Pacific's All Asia pass, one of the most comprehensive (23 cities), starts at $1,599. But certain travel dates cost more (there's a $450 summer surcharge; for weekends, tack on $100), changing your itinerary involves a $100 fee, and all legs must be booked 30 days in advance. The South America Pass on Aerolineas Argentinas includes as many as 10 flights between Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay but bases prices on total mileage. You might want to enlist a travel agent to help you crunch the numbers.

Could you do it for less with a discount airline?

Europe by Air (europebyair.com) offers a very flexible visitor ticket, with flights on 21 airlines for a flat $99 fee per segment. Or you can buzz around Europe on a host of discount airlines—a recent search for a flight from Glasgow to Ibiza on Easyjet.com turned up a $65 fare. George Hobica of Airfare Watchdog notes that many European and Asian discounters don't share their tariffs with fare-comparison sites. Find low-fare carriers on Attitudetravel.com.

How many stopovers are required?

When using a pass, you may have to fly through an out-of-the-way hub city. Multiple departure taxes can add up, not to mention the additional air time you'll log. If you travel between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on Cathay Pacific's pass, your one-hour flight becomes two four-hour flights, via Hong Kong.

How important are your frequent-flier miles?

The Star Alliance African Airpass (from $202) lets you rack up miles for its flights among 25 cities, but you won't earn the miles flown with Cathay Pacific's pass, and you can't redeem miles to purchase it. Considering the thousands of frequent-flier miles you'll potentially forsake, make sure you weigh the one-time cash savings against the miles you'd earn buying regular tickets.

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