By the end of January 2014, all of our travel for 2014 was set. We had the summertime trip we wanted to Alaska, Christmas in Bonnie’s home country of Barbados, our anniversary trip to Roatan, a weekend with family in San Diego and the Milemadness DO in Charlotte all booked. And thanks to Delta’s Boxing Day mistake fare, we had Hawaii and Yellowstone trips squeezed in as well.
Of course I never stop planning trips, and in asking Bonnie and the boys where they would like to go (sometime further down the line, definitely NOT in 2014) they all loved the idea of going to Israel.We would be able to walk the paths of guys and girls we read about in the Bible, maybe go and see the Dead Sea while it still exists, and get a first-hand idea of just what makes that narrow strip of land so special that basically everyone near it has been fighting over it for at least the last 3,000 years. Based on the enthusiastic responses from the kids, an Israel trip went pretty much right to the top of the bucket list.
I monitor the Flyertalk mileage run forum for deals, and an odd entry came up which I barely even looked at: RTW for about $950; Alitalia Europe/asia combo deal. Round the world for $950? That’s a good deal, but I had neither time nor $3,900 to spend on 4 tickets. Plus positioning flights to Los Angeles or New York. Later that day, I got an email from Mighty Travels talking about the same deal, once again pointing out that you could use the Alitalia ticket for a one-way to Europe for under $200. And, of course, earn miles. I had enough points on a fairly new Barclays Arrival card to cover that, but still there was no time except Thanksgiving week open and I wasn’t that crazy about doing another Europe trip for Thanksgiving week. The one we did in 2013 was totally awesome, but if we’re going to travel that far I’d rather go somewhere completely new. The next morning I noticed that Houston also worked as a departure city so I started looking. At around $200, there was still nothing so great to make me jump, until a little light bulb flashed on. I wondered if, just maybe, Alitalia would look at Israel as part of Europe like several of their partners do. Sure enough, my first search came up with a workable one-way to TLV with a throwaway Budapest to Tokyo segment at $357. A couple of searches and minutes later, I had booked two sets of tickets at $246 each leaving on different dates. Lesson #1: Never forget to put the cancellation policy to work for you! When there is a great deal, book first on as many dates as needed and then work out the details!
To my knowledge, there had been no mention of using that AZ deal to get to Israel, but maybe Dan of Dansdeals had found it and was just booking all of his own family’s travel before posting it. But it didn’t make it to his site or forum until about 6 hours after I first posted it on Flyertalk. Lesson #2: Keep looking! You don’t have to be some kind of expert to find a great deal, you just have to be willing to do some of your own digging.
Once I confirmed that it would be possible to get a return ticket the weekend after Thanksgiving using AA or UA miles, I called Bonnie and told her: We’re going to Israel! Tickets are booked! That way she couldn’t try to talk me out of it due to our already overfull schedule, she’d have had to ask me to cancel tickets we actually had. Lesson #3: It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. At least at our house. YMMV.
The only option using AA miles was a TLV-MAD-MIA in business class, all on Iberia and arriving in Miami very late on Sunday. This would have required an overnight there, a transfer to Ft. Lauderdale and another stop on the way home to San Antonio, or to the wrong Houston airport, on Southwest. I elected instead to book on Air Canada coach via Toronto using United miles, leaving Tel Aviv noon Saturday and arriving in Houston at midnight. A couple months later, there was an Air Canada schedule change a couple months later which made our connection in Toronto impossible. United rebooked us on an earlier flight but allowed us to select any United flights that day so we took the redeye from Tel Aviv and left at 11:10 PM, arriving Newark at 4:30 AM and on to Houston by 10:30 AM Sunday. Lesson #4: Book what you can get if there are flights that you can make do with; there’s a chance that a schedule change will allow you to get the flights you actually want. I mean, there’s no way United ever had 4 award seats open on either of those flights (including one on the busiest travel day of the year), but they put us on them for Saver pricing no problem as soon as there was a schedule change.
Total cost for the four of us as booked: 108,400 Arrival points, 170,000 United miles and $128.
With only 3 days there, I knew we wanted to stay as close to the Old City of Jerusalem as possible. Looking at options to book a hotel using AA miles I stumbled onto the Notre Dame Center. Across the street from the New Gate, it has a rooftop deck overlooking the Old City. It was a very expensive hotel for us, but Barclays Rewards Boost was paying 4 points per dollar on AMEX gift cards so I was easily able to earn another 102,000 Arrival points which paid for 3 nights including breakfast. The Crowne Plaza Jerusalem wound up being on IHG’s Pointsbreak at only 5,000 points per night, but there wasn’t even one room available on our dates (we would have required two rooms) and it really wasn’t where we wanted to be.
Shortly before leaving, we decided to drive to Houston Monday night rather than Tuesday morning. We had an IHG free night that we wouldn’t be able to use otherwise, so we used that free night that’s supposed to be so valuable for a $100 stay at an airport Holiday Inn Express. I think travel hacking licenses have been revoked for far less. But that’s what is bound to happen if you travel around school holidays unless you plan your travel around hotels you want to stay at. No thanks, we’ll plan our hotels around travel we want to do. The hotel staff did agree to let us leave our car at the hotel for 4 days at no cost and use their shuttle, so the total savings compared to paying our way was about $150 by using the Chase free night certificate.
Watching fare sales after we booked, I saw one at $760 from Houston to Tel Aviv which could have been purchased with a similar number of Ultimate Rewards and Arrival points. It might have been a better deal (as it would have earned United miles), but wouldn’t have worked anyway for the weekend after Thanksgiving.
A couple thousand rockets, an airport closure and a threatened Intifada
In July we started hearing far more than we wanted to of unrest in Israel, including kidnappings and rocket attacks from Gaza that seemed to get closer and closer to areas we planned to visit every day. On July 21, the United States State Department advised U.S. citizens to “consider the deferral of non-essential travel to Israel”. I assured Bonnie that our travel was absolutely necessary (Dia said so!) and that it would all die down. The next day a rocket landed too close to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport for the FAA’s comfort, and all U.S.-based airlines (as well as Alitalia and most of the other carrier that fly there) cancelled and suspended flights into TLV. Delta diverted a plane en route there, to Paris. And we were forced to look at plans B and C. We could just skip our flight from Rome to Israel and spend Thanksgiving in Italy – it worked just great last year! Or maybe we could drop that segment and move the Prague-Tokyo trip up so we’d just use the ticket as a (very long) way to get to Tokyo. Flights had resumed and were back to normal a couple days later, but rockets continued to rain out of Gaza for a week. I asked a friend who was familiar with Israel what we should do, and she gave me the best possible advise:
It can be scary for first time visitors. “The situation” never keeps me away. You must do what you feel most comfortable doing…
Even after the rocket attacks died down there continued to be news of attacks and travel warnings, but by then we felt comfortable that where we planned to go should be as safe as anywhere in any U.S. city. Indeed we never felt unsafe or saw anything concerning during our time in Jerusalem or out exploring the countryside.
Monday after work, we headed out for Houston – a boring 3 hour drive with a quick stop at the world’s largest convenience store where we used just one of the 60 gas pumps. It worked just fine, and the coffee was ok too. I don’t know if they sell prepaid debit cards with a credit card, as I was more interested in getting on down the road. The Holiday Inn Express gave us an upgraded double queen room with a sitting area and a kitchen, neither of which we used. As promised, they let us park there until we returned and sent us on our way on their shuttle. We decided to save our United lounge passes for the return rather than there in Houston. The short Delta flight to Atlanta was smooth and uneventful on a 738.
Continuing on we were able to get two pairs of seats on the 2-3-2 configured 763 from Atlanta to Rome. How do you make a completely full flight comfortable in coach? Have no middle seats! While I would say a great deal of creative license was used in calling our meal as we left Atlanta ‘beef stroganoff’ it was nonetheless tasty. At least the two portions I ate were. We were able to sleep on and off through the night while the boys watched movies most of the way. We wokeup to thunderstorms all around, which was a little bumpy but really cool to see!
With no checked bags, we were on the train to immigration and then back to the international terminal in just a few minutes.
We had about 3 hours in Rome so I used up the Priority Pass lounge access from two of our Chase Ink cards to get the 4 of us into the Le Anfore lounge. It is, along with the Alitalia lounge in FCO’s international terminal (H) in the basement under the center of the terminal. It did have showers and good coffee, and plenty of club chairs, but otherwise it’s an empty echo box with loads of chairs and no view – I definitely wouldn’t spend a dime to visit except for a shower. The boys slept pretty much from the instant they hit the chairs there until it was time to board. Lucky at One Mile At a Time has a review of this lounge with lots of pictures but there was far less food available at the early hour we were there – just a few pastries.
Our final flight was also our first time on Alitalia, a 738 with several empty rows in the back that gave the boys to stretch out and sleep. The only slightly odd part was the bus ride to get to the plane, as I think it actually departed from Naples. At least that’s what it felt like as we rode past one terminal after another and then out away from any terminal buildings to a pair of planes sitting out in the middle of nowhere. Rome was gray and wet but fortunately it wasn’t raining as we boarded from the bus and up the stairs. Alitalia took good care of us with free wine and a meal on the 3 hour flight to Tel Aviv and, with no checked bags to wait for again, we whisked through the Israeli security (stories of which had Bonnie a little apprehensive) in no time at all to where our shuttle was waiting. While we’d have saved money by renting a car for our entire trip, I’m glad I didn’t have to get my bearings driving in the heavy rain and traffic that we encountered heading up to Jerusalem, where we checked into our hotel and, after a quick meal, checked out for the night. It seems we always wind up on an early-to-bed and early-to-rise schedule while traveling!