The Serial Tourist's Guide to Jerusalem
October 2007 - Copyright by Morris Rosenthal - - contact info
The Serial Tourist's Guide to Jerusalem
Copyright 2007 by Morris Rosenthal
All Rights Reserved
Cheap Flights to Israel and Travel to Jerusalem
The only reasonable way to get to Israel, unless you happen to be living in Jordan, is by plane. Yes, there is a boat from Greece to Haifa that runs during the warm seasons, but that's strictly for backpackers who are out for a new experience; it's not cost-effective. Our main interest here is how to you get from the United States to Israel by plane, what does it cost, and what special travel tips you need to know. Before we go into the details, let me give you the basic price range. Unfortunately, ticket prices are way up in 2007 due to fuel and security taxes, which are adding about $300 to a round trip ticket of a couple years ago. When you look at prices online, make sure all fuel charges and taxes are included. The cheapest flight to Israel I've purchased $580 was Air Canada in the low season (winter, excluding Christmas week), but that would probably go around $900 now. However, last year I paid High Season prices during the low season, the planes are all packed and it's a sellers market. Again, I've seen tickets advertised for cheap without the taxes added on, and which depending on the country and airports, can add hundreds of dollars.
If you've never flown to Israel (or out of the country) before and you just called the airline and got a price of $2500 for a tourist class round trip ticket, you might think I full of it. I'm not - the airlines are - they're worse than car dealerships. The "retail" ticket prices they quote are inflated by 200% or more, and they are happy to sucker in anybody who is willing to pay. There are three basic ways you can buy cheap tickets to Israel, and none of them involve planning way ahead of time. First, you can go through a decent travel agent. I've used all sorts of travel agents, from national chains to tiny ads in the back of newspapers, but your best bet for both price and service is to use an Israeli travel agent who lives in the States. The agent I've used most often is Tami with Ophir Travel in NY, (718) 261-6868. They also sell student tickets open for one year on El Al, and regular tickets Air Canada, Continental, KLM, Lufthansa and British Air. Talk to Tami and Natalia and tell them I said "Hi" if you call and maybe one day I'll get an a limo to the airport:-) I can honestly say I have never had problems when dealing with travel agents, they know their stuff. I usually call a couple weeks before I'm going to get a feel for prices and availability.
The second method of getting cheap flights to Israel also involves travel agents, but going for the last minute wholesale tickets, within a week or so of departure. I suppose you can find some of these ticket wholesalers in Internet search engines, but I just pick up a Sunday New York Times or Boston Globe and look through the little ads in the back of the travel section. The ones that say "Last Minute Travel" or something similar and show a list of cities with really cheap ticket prices are what you're looking for. I've never had a problem with these either, though the tickets will have more restrictions on them than the tickets you buy through regular travel agents. Since the September 11th disasters, planes to Israel have often been sold out early (due to all the flights that were cut), which means you may have trouble getting tickets at the last minute for the date you want.
The last method for getting cheap flights to Israel is on the Internet, by bidding on Priceline or going through Travelocity or the like. I've never purchased tickets this way, though I have put in bids, but I've always been able to get a better deal through travel agents. Since the bidding method doesn't allow you to pick the airline you want to fly, you have to be fairly knowledgeable about airline routes and hubs to avoid flying to Israel by way of Siberia. The other drawback is the tickets from online bidding are loaded with restrictions. For example, my father, who hates talking to salespeople of any kind, flew AirCanada to Israel a week after I did, but he got his ticket through an Internet bidding process. We paid the identical price, but his ticket didn't qualify for frequent flyer mile, while mine did. Also, while in Israel, my travel agent e-mailed me that my connecting flight from Toronto to Boston had been pushed back two hours. Since the airline was making the change, I asked her if she could get the ticket changed to Hartford instead (a smaller airport closer to my home that normally cost $50 more) and she did, at no extra charge.
Round trip tickets are sold with departure and return dates, and with an "open" period in which you can get the return date changed for a fee, usually $150 or $175. Even with the fee, buying a round trip ticket and changing the date is cheaper than buying two one-way tickets. The open period for changes varies with airlines and years. AirCanada Israel tickets are currently open for 180 days, British Air and Swiss Air were 90 days the last time I checked. Students and teachers qualify for special rates and 1 year open tickets on many airlines, so always bring up the fact that you are a student or teacher when you contact a travel agent.
You can fly non-stop from the East Coast of the US to Israel on El Al or domestic carriers, but foreign airlines will always stop at their hub city, often the capital of the host country. The advantage of non-stop flights is they get you there faster, about 10 hours from NYC to Tel Aviv, an hour or so longer on the way back due to the prevailing winds, but it's a long time to sit on a plane. Air Canada has a double disadvantage in that you have the long non-stop flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, plus, if you're coming from the states, you still have to change planes, claim your bags, and go through customs. Canada is the only country I've ever flown through where your baggage isn't checked through to the destination. I don't know if it's a security precaution or a lack of sophistication, but I'm told it's always been that way. My favorite country to fly through is England, even though I've never left the airport. It's nice to get off the plane for a break after seven hours of flying, and both Heathrow and Gatwick are decent airports to hang out in, with room to take a nap if you want. I don't like the Zurich airport, although it's clean. The French at DeGaulle put me through a hassle about steel toe boots 15 years ago, and I KNOW they actually spoke English. Shannon in Ireland looks nice, though I never got off the plane, and Copenhagen (I think that's where KLM flew) was nice. Actually, British Air and KLM are my favorites for round trips. Back in the days when I used to fly one-way on last minute tickets, I came back via England a couple times on Virgin, which is a great airline, and they used to fly these big empty 747's in the winter months. Terrible waste of jet fuel, but you could have three rows of seats to yourself.
Security has always been fairly tight traveling to Israel for obvious reasons, but my first post-September 11th trip was something out of a bad movie. I had to spend 15 minutes in Logan Airport arguing with security personnel who displayed extremely limited English language skills about my Teffilin. For those who have never seen Tefillin, Jewish religious articles, they include long leather straps for "binding them as frontlets between your eyes, etc..." and security, who will no doubt start taking people's shoe laces one day, couldn't see them as anything other than a weapon. Don't even dream of traveling with nail clippers in your carry on bags, though they'll probably turn around and give you a metal knife with your meal if they run out of plastic. If you're a single man anywhere near your prime traveling to Israel, expect to have your bags minutely searched.
Once you land in Israel, a bus takes you from the plane to the terminal, where the lines have gotten much better in recent years, rarely taking more than fifteen minutes now. After you claim your baggage (Tel Aviv may be the only city left in the world with free baggage trolleys but no skycaps), you have four choices for getting to Jerusalem. If you're a short-term tourist, you might rent a car, but I'm going to skip right over that because both driving and parking in Jerusalem are nightmares. Secondly, you can take a bus during daytime and evening hours, but that leaves you needing to get where you're going from the bus station with your baggage, so unless you're backpacking, I'd forget it. The two realistic options are private cab and shared cab, the Nesher service. Nesher charges $10 to Jerusalem and drops you off at your door. The problem is it may drop up to seven other people off at their doors before you, a process that can take over an hour and make you car sick. The other drawbacks with Nesher are the drivers may try to move you from one cab to the next in the parking lot, either to achieve the "optimum" load for easy drop-off, or just to be jerks. My advice is if they ask you to swap more than once, tell them to go to hell and start driving. The other problem is the driving, because like all Israeli cabbies, they drive like drunk teenagers. The last Nesher I took in actually had his mirror folded back by a bus he tried to cut off, which also means he was quite stupid, since the buses don't even yield to emergency vehicles. The final option is private cab, which costs around $35 to Jerusalem, so unless there are several of you going to the same place to share the cost, it's relatively expensive.
This guide is in progress, and I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.
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