Earlier this week I shared my advice on which airline students hoping to study in Israel for the year should use for maximum flexibility, given that things can rapidly change in the current situation. The best option now is unquestionably United.
Yesterday I wondered why some schools are insisting on having their students fly on El Al.
Several readers sent me this letter from a seminary in Israel, I’ve removed the name of the school, as my responses are general in nature.
“Dear Parents and Students,
We are aware that many of you have a lot of questions about what comes next. The rules are literally changing by the day if not the minute. As we try to process all this, we want to clarify and not confuse. Some parents reached out to us about the flights to Israel. As we said previously, please don’t book a flight. The start date is not yet final. As the rules for quarantine become more apparent, we are trying to analyze the best way to keep everyone happy and sane in a 2-week quarantine. The rules right now require a 6-person unit within the dorm. We currently are securing new apartments to make sure that we can fully accommodate everyone. We are also thinking about how Yom Tov will work this year. As you can see, there is a lot to process on our end before the girls arrive.
There has been a lot of talk about why we have a group flight. There was a Dansdeals post yesterday that made everyone wonder why the Yeshivas and seminaries use El Al. I feel a need to address this. The goal of this blog is to help people save money and use credit card points. Who doesn’t love a deal? El Al has a weaker points program and that makes it a constant target of Dansdeals. But there are many considerations here. We have no allegiance to El Al. We don’t make any money on your ticket, regardless of whether you pay $1800 for a ticket or $800. We would prefer that you pay less for your flight! Dansdeals is incorrect when stating that students had useless tickets. Any student that did not panic and leave on the infamous charter flight was able to rebook for free on El Al at a later date. Even those students that stayed until June when El Al officially had no flights were able to fly home on El Al. This month El Al has been assigning anyone with an El Al confirmed ticket to United. My daughter and her family flew into the US yesterday for a wedding with United, but they used their El Al ticket.
We had seats for students on United two weeks ago, but the travel agent did not want our students to commit to a non-refundable ticket. At the time we did not know how the girls were getting into the country. I could not ask you to purchase such a ticket. That ticket is no longer available at the cheaper price (one way is over $1400!) We are waiting to see if El Al will publish its fares for the end of August and then we will compare the group flight price versus booking each ticket individually. Group flights come with an open return and an extra bag, but they are usually more expensive. We will do the math and get back to you. We need everyone to come into Israel at the same time so we can start quarantine together. We should be able to accommodate various cities like Chicago and LA to get to the same flight. To do this we need you to use Takeoff Travel. We has used Takeoff Travel for 25 years, and they are honest people. They have taken a financial beating during this pandemic and they are going to make a minimal fee on your ticket. They will not be accepting credit cards. Why not? Because if anyone decides to cancel participation on a non-refundable ticket and reverses the credit card charges, the travel agent will be responsible for the cost of the ticket. We are also open to changing the starting date if it involves a less expensive plane ticket.
We are expecting news of more flights to be released in the coming days.
Thanks again for your patience. May we all be zoche to be in Eretz Yisroel by this Tisha B’Av for a Yom Tov.“
First of all, if schools would like my help with questions, advice, or help locking down flights, I’m always happy to do my best!
My problems with El Al stretch well beyond Matmid, many airlines have weak frequent flyer programs.
1. The biggest issue with El Al this year is that they are holding onto $400 million of customer funds for flights that El Al cancelled. That’s a loss that many consumers simply can’t afford, especially now with so many people out of work.
On the other hand, US airlines have given back every penny for flights that they cancelled. That’s a big incentive to stick to US carriers under these circumstances.
El Al is not alone in their behavior during the pandemic. I called out Air Canada in May and in July for their policies. And then I got into a back and forth with the Canada Transportation Agency that continued afterward for days. I wouldn’t recommend booking on Air Canada during this pandemic for the same reason.
2. El Al shut down in March and has not had regularly scheduled flights since then.
Students rushed to book seats home as the situation in March was very scary and people wanted to get their kids home. A school telling parents not to panic, in the midst of the greatest global upheaval of our lifetimes, isn’t going to stop parents from doing what they need to do to get their child home safely. Indeed, there were many stories of stranded passengers with zero commercial flights operating in countries across the globe.
The problem was massively exacerbated because El Al cancelled nearly all of their flights in March, despite there being massive demand at the time from Tel Aviv to the USA, with most flights selling out. That move forced students who wanted to fly home right away to spend a small fortune on charter flights and many wound up throwing away their return flights.
El Al then stopped all flying, though they did run some one-off flights since then and allowed students to return on those in June, but many people did not want to be away from their family during those months.
3. El Al has indeed been rebooking some passengers holding July tickets onto United, but they did not do that for people with cancelled flights in March, April, May, or June. Nobody can say for how much longer they will rebook tickets on United or what will happen if United flights are full and they can’t move passengers over to them.
4. As I wrote in the post, Delta and United tickets are fully flexible if booked by July 31st. You can cancel your United flight at anytime and get a voucher that anyone can use for at least 2 years from the time that they cancel their flight. You can also change your return dates for free. If Delta or United cancel a flight they provide a full cash refund.
Many people booked bargains on United flights before they started filling up, with the worst case scenario of having a United voucher for the full cash value paid, that can be used for the next 2 years.
Many schools have given a specific date or window for their students to arrive.
If schools are open to changing their start date, then there are still plenty of inexpensive flight deals and mileage deals that can be found without needing to charter an expensive flight.
5. There are many travel agents in a bad situation due to the global pandemic and I’m sure most are perfectly honest. It’s very sad and unfortunate that they are stuck in the middle of this mess, but many businesses are suffering this year.
Forcing students to use a travel agent seems unfair to me, but forcing them to pay in cash for their tickets is unconscionable.
Paying in cash means that you lose the ability to redeem points for the purchase and you lose all of the protections that credit cards provide, including trip cancellation insurance, trip interruption insurance, trip delay insurance, lost luggage insurance, baggage delay insurance, travel accident insurance, medical and dental insurance, emergency evacuation insurance, and more.
And of course credit cards also have dispute resolution. Many DansDeals readers only got a refund on their El Al tickets because of the ability to dispute the charge.
Over the years, I’ve received countless emails from readers thanking me for opening their eyes to the world of miles so that they could afford to send their kids away to yeshiva and seminary.
I certainly understand why a travel agent would want to be paid in cash to avoid being caught in middle of a dispute between the passenger and the airline, but this is unfair to force on students, especially in a year where El Al has cancelled so many flights and not provided a refund. The entire risk of having a cancelled flight is being shifted from the airline to the passengers.
That being said, if travel agents just pass through a charge to the airline, they are not being held responsible for COVID-19 cancelled flight disputes.
If a school is insisting students book travel on El Al, with no credit card to protect them and currently no active El Al flights or operations, at the very least they should give parents written confirmation that the school will guarantee any funds that are lost due to their decision.