|by Jason Steele|
This question come from a reader. It is a good question that applies not just to travel to Israel, but to many other destinations outside the United States.
Where Are You?
First, it is important to know where you are in this country. That is because non-stop flights to Israel currently only depart from the New York area, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. No matter what airline you fly, a non-stop flight is always preferable. If you live in Atlanta, Delta is your airline, and there are many Delta reward cards to choose from. Another option would be the American Express membership rewards program or even the Amex Starwood Card, as both programs offer rewards for Delta. The Delta cards will have a greater sign up bonus, however the Membership Rewards and Starwood programs give you points that can be redeemed to many airlines.
If you live in New York, you have several non-stop flight options, including Delta from JFK, Continental from Newark, and of course, El-Al from both Newark and JFK. With Continental, there is also a variety of reward cards with generous benefits and sign up bonuses.
El-Al is actually one of a very few foreign carriers that offer an affiliated credit card to US citizens. The HAS reward card offers one El-Al “Matmid” point, the currency of their frequent flier program, for every 40 dollars spent. El-Al requires 1,400 Matmid points for a round trip from New York, and 1,800 from Los Angeles, so an award is achievable for 56,000 and 72,000 dollars spent respectively. That is actually the lowest spending necessary for round trip to Israel. For example, Delta requires 80,000 Skymiles to book an economy ticket in their “low category” which might be impossible to book in the summer.
In contrast, El-Al’s program has no blackouts and only one award level. This is also much better than the American Express Membership Rewards El-Al transfer option. This is billed as a “Limited Time Only” offer, and grants you a measily 15 Matmid points for 1,050 Membership Rewards points, hardly worth the effort.
For Those Of You Not In New York, L.A., or Atlanta
If you do not live in one of these cities, you will have to change planes somewhere to get to Israel. While this is not as convenient as a non-stop flight, you do get a lot more options. Where I live, in Denver, you can get to Israel with a domestic carrier with a stop in Atlanta on Delta, JFK on Delta or El-Al, or Newark on Continental. If I wanted to fly a foreign carrier, I could choose Air Canada via Toronto, Lufthansa via Frankfurt, or British Airways via London. Your options will vary based on your city’s connections to NY, LA, and Atlanta as well as it’s international flights to various European hubs, most of which service Tel Aviv.
Choose An Alliance
From here, things get more complicated. You will want to choose one of the three alliances to earn points with. Star Alliance will offer awards to Israel on Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian, LOT Polish, Air Canada, and soon, Continental. SkyTeam will offer awards on Delta, KLM, and Air France. OneWorld offers awards to Israel on British Airways and El-Al. The mileage necessary for an award will vary based on the program. The best advice I can give you is to avoid earning miles on United. While they are part of the Star Alliance, they go out of their way to block you from booking partner flights. For more info on this, Google “Starnet blocking”. If you must fly on United, you can ask to earn miles on US Airways program instead (or soon on Continental). They are also part of the Star Alliance, but they do not excessively block partner award travel. I learned about this the hard way last year.
Do You Already Have Miles?
If you already have signifigant miles with an airline program, (hopefully not with United), it might be best for you to continue on with a credit card for that program, especially if you are in a city without non-stop service to Israel. You will already have a head start, and you can continue to earn mileage towards your award by flying. Unless you are a big spender, it will be difficult to get to Israel with mileage earned on a credit card by itself. What will help you signifigantly is earning a healthy sign up bonus. It may be advantageous to get both the personal card and the business card for your airline program if they both include a generous sign up bonus.
How Can I Apply These Lessons To Other Destinations?
Use this process. Ask yourself:
1. Do I live in a city with a non-stop flight to my destination? If so, chose the reward card affiliate with that airline. If not, try to find airlines with the most convenient links and go with the credit cards affiliated with their domestic airline partners.
2. Do I already have miles on a carrier that I fly often? Flying is still a good way to earn miles, and starting with a bunch of miles is a major consideration.
3. Which Program Offers Me An Award With The Fewest Miles and Restrictions? Even within the same Alliance, awards prices will vary for the same seat on the same airline. Spend some time comparing the different award prices before commiting to a program.
Good luck on your trip to Israel, or wherever your travels may take you!