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I have flown to Israel as an adult on airlines like American, Continental, Delta, Lufthansa, Swiss, United, and USAirways and been on thousands of flights in my lifetime, but until this week I have never flown El Al.
Surprising? Not really. The reason is fairly simple. I have always used saver award miles for business class travel to Israel as my schedule is fairly flexible and El Al has always been more difficult and expensive to score a bargain mileage award with.
You can currently book some El Al flights in business class with Qantas points, but only on very limited flights for very limited seats. And you can’t transfer any US bank points over to El Al’s Matmid loyalty program.
I’m not alone in regard to that. Only 16% of DansDeals voters said that they prefer flying El Al business class to Israel. Given the mileage focus of this blog, it’s not surprising that many simply redeem the miles of the airlines that make it simple to do so or that they have elite status with.
Then again, in this sold out summer it’s hard to score saver award travel on any airline to any destination.
In full disclosure, it was made clear to me that El Al wanted me to fly their business class product and I have wanted to as well. Several respected DDF members had sung the praises of how El Al treats its business class passengers and it’s something I have wanted to see as well.
While I already had United saver business awards booked for this trip, I had the opportunity to finally try out El Al and took advantage of that. I purchased 6 El Al economy tickets using some 810,000 AMEX points for my family on my AMEX Business Platinum Card and will get 35% of those points back via a workaround that I was tipped off of by DDF member @yandmk for economy tickets on El Al, and El Al then upgraded our tickets for free to business class.
It’s actually rather simple. While you can’t get back 35% of your redeemed points for economy or premium economy tickets on international airlines, you do get it back for business and first class. El Al allows you to change your ticket into a voucher good for anyone to use, so I booked us 2 El Al business class tickets from Tel Aviv to Toronto, turned it into a voucher, and used that to purchase 6 economy tickets from NYC to Tel Aviv, which were upgraded.
Does all that make me biased or mean I had an unusual experience? That’s up for you to decide, but it doesn’t mean I can’t share everything that I thought about the flight and I always try to tell it as it is.
I originally booked award tickets from Cleveland to JFK on American using 18.5K AA miles, but I noticed the day before our flight that the price had dropped to 9.5K AA miles. As American has free mileage redeposits I cancelled those tickets and when I searched again, there were 6 tickets available for 7.5K miles, this time as a Saver award instead of web special pricing. As partners can book saver award space and I have a ton of Avios parking in my account, I hopped on over to BA.com and grabbed the tickets using 7.5K Avios.
As I figured though, American refused to interline our bags over to El Al. American is generally the worst about checking bags over to another airline on a separate ticket and in the past it’s been a fiasco and a half just getting them to check bags over to another American flight on a separate ticket.
Travel hack: Mimi printed up a whole sheet of stickers with our contact info on them that we now stick on the airline contact info tags and we put them inside and tagged on the outside of our bags. It’s an easy way to save lots of time at the airport.
Cleveland’s airport now has 3 lounges, we skipped The Club, which has access via Priority Pass, and went to Bar Symon, where you can get items like KIND chocolate peanut butter bars, fruit, chips, Fiji water, and more to go for free via Priority Pass. Then we headed over to the United Club, where I can still enter when flying other airlines thanks to my lifetime membership exemption at my home airport. That’s clutch as they have a great kids room for the family to relax before a flight.
And while we had to pick up our luggage in JFK, luckily there were plenty of free luggage carts at the passenger drop off island at terminal 8, so we used those to bring our bags on the AirTrain to terminal 4.
El Al provides business class passengers access to the Virgin Atlantic lounge in Terminal 4, though I had several other methods of accessing it as it’s part of the Plaza Premium lounge network. Capital One recently joined that network, so you can access it with your Capital One Venture X Card for free with 2 free guests or with your Capital One Venture or Capital One Spark Miles card twice per year. You can also access it for free with your AMEX Business Platinum Card or AMEX Consumer Platinum card with 2 free guests via the AMEX Global Lounge Collection.
The lounge itself is a little frayed at the edges, but it certainly does the trick on the whole.
You can order drinks from the bar via a QR code or at the bar itself:
And you can even have some kosher wine there:
There’s plenty of space to dine:
Kosher meals rotate by the night, they had hot salmon and couscous available at no charge:
Shower rooms are available if you want to freshen up:
My little one loved the color changing hallway to the restrooms:
As well as plane watching. Apparently, Avianca actually exists and isn’t just a mileage transfer conduit for dirt cheap short-haul awards on United when I need to fly to Chicago or NYC:
And even the most hardened El Al critics need to admire that Dreamliner livery:
For non-plane spotters, there’s even a pool table to pass the time, as well as cubbies for napping.
Our flight departed from gate A4, which was conveniently located right downstairs from the lounge.
Pre-boarding was for the handicapped, business class, premium class, and those with small children, which meant that all 282 passengers on the 787-9 got in line to pre-board at the exact same time.
The pre-boarding reminded me of what Golda Meir told Richard Nixon, “You are the president of 150 million Americans; I am the prime minister of six million prime ministers.”
I knew going into things that we were going to have issues with my 2 year old’s carseat as like American, El Al uses airbag seatbelts in business class. And while Delta and JetBlue allow carseats in airbag seats when also using a seatbelt extender, which disables the airbag, the El Al flight attendant said that they have no such exception on their flights. I’m not a big fan of airbag seatbelts in general and I do wish that El Al had opted for a business class seatbelt solution like United does with a shoulder strap belt for takeoff and landing. Then again, United is no walk in the park with carseats in business class either. Delta’s new suites product allows for carseats, but its walled-in configuration isn’t exactly ideal for traveling with an infant.
El Al’s hard product is very similar to United’s Polaris business class seats, which I personally love. It offers the flexibility to choose between solo seats at the windows, middle seats that are together, and middle seats that are split apart. That helps meet the needs of all types of passengers.
The odd rows have middle seats that are together, so we had 2 sets of these seats. Mimi sat with our 2 year old son in row 7 and I sat with our 4 year old daughter in row 5.
If strangers do happen to get these middle seats together, they can always use the divider for some privacy:
El Al provides a comfortable blanket, large pillow, and small pillow, though I wish they would also offer a mattress pad and PJs like United does. However unlike United, the flight attendants walked around asking if anyone would like an additional blanket or pillow, which was a nice touch.
Asking a United flight attendant for an extra pillow before takeoff can be like asking them for their firstborn child. And United makes you request a mattress pad as they don’t have enough for the whole business class cabin, and most of their flight attendants seem to despise being asked for things before departure.
It’s notable that while I have used my miles to fly business class on over half a dozen airlines to Israel, it’s hardly been an experience to write home about, as none of them compared to flying on airlines like ANA, Emirates, JAL, or Singapore Airlines where I’ve experienced some truly incredible in-flight service. I can be found grinning from ear to ear for the duration of the flight when flying in business or first class on those airlines.
On US airlines’ business class, the most senior flight attendants fly on the coveted long-haul routes, and they’re often long past the point of providing good service. On most flights, every interaction seems like it’s a chore, though there are some all too rare exceptions to that rule.
On the other hand at least in business class, El Al’s flight attendants proactively offered fantastic service and asked what they can offer to make for a great flight. It may not be on the level of the Asian carriers, but Israel doesn’t have a hospitality culture on par with those countries. El Al’s business class service was easily heads and shoulders above US and European carriers.
If you dare hit the flight attendant call button on a US airline, you had better be choking or else you’ll often get barked at. My 4 year old accidentally pushed the button on our El Al flight and the flight attendant brought her a glass of orange juice and a glass of seltzer for me.
The footwell space on our seats was pretty good, though bulkhead seats will have the largest footwell. Sometimes I find business class footwells to be too narrow to sleep, but I didn’t have that issue in our seats on this flight:
Before the flight, El Al provided complimentary WiFi codes for all business class passengers via SMS. It’s always mind boggling to me that US carriers charge their business class passengers full price for WiFi, so this was a very nice gesture. Speeds were very good throughout the flight, though service ends about half an hour before landing in Tel Aviv.
View from our seats:
Our 8 and 10 year olds had their own window seats, which as with United, alternate between facing the windows in odd rows, and being closer to the aisle in even rows. Grab the odd row if you’re flying solo.
Alternating seats in the middle section, with odd rows having seats together and even rows having seats with more privacy.
Upon boarding the flight, passengers are offered kosher champagne and chocolates, which is a nice touch.
The kids got El Al sticker sets, which they loved playing with and was just what the Doctor ordered.
Shortly after takeoff, more wines were offered. I really wish El Al had a printed wine menu, but in lieu of that, we’ll just have to sample a flight of wines:
While all meals on El Al are kosher, the ovens aren’t necessarily kosher, so I ordered the mehadrin kosher meal:
Now, when you get a Regal meal on most airlines, you’re expecting a frozen cold entrée that gets tossed right into the garbage where it belongs, but the food on this tray was actually fresh!
There was a perfectly good fresh salad, fresh fruit, and a surprisingly delicious potato salad wrapped in pastrami and corned beef. That’s already a win for airplane food!
The hot entrée was short ribs with polenta and peppers, and while it’s not winning any awards, it was perfectly adequate for airplane food.
The kids mehadrin kosher meals had thoughtful touches, like a bag of chips, a box of apple juice, and a white chocolate chip mousse that I may or may not have borrowed from my daughter when she fell asleep:
We slept perfectly well for many hours, but on one bathroom break I noted that there was a nice self service selection of kosher lotus bars, muffins, and nuts, and drinks in the galley.
Kovi enjoying having a bed to sleep in:
The flight attendants made the rounds throughout the flight asking what they could bring for people and offered space in the galley for prayers, though there is plenty of space to daven in your seat if you don’t want to disturb others:
Before landing there was breakfast, though I’d have liked to have had some cream cheese with the bagel:
But the shakshuka was surprisingly delicious:
And the kids loved the French Toast then came with their children’s mehadrin meals:
Stickers and French Toast beats tablet time:
I want a good shiur with Bose noise cancelling headphones, lie flat seats, rishus cold champagne in a glass cup, and just check out of life. #IYKYK https://t.co/fVMEQKRvNX@ayilbasvach @DBashIdeas pic.twitter.com/kUlGmPo6l9
— DansDeals (@DansDeals) June 20, 2022
Finishing up a long flight with some sibling love:
And before we knew it, we were landing in Israel:
Israel has a new system, where you need to get your tourist visa from a machine before clearing customs, though the machines didn’t work for us, so we had to wait in another line. But that just meant our luggage was ready to go and we were into the arrival hall not too long after landing. The longest wait was at Hertz, which is now only staffed in the sweltering parking garage, with just 1 employee helping a long line of renters, all paying far too much for their rental cars. On the plus side, we were upgraded from a Ssangyong Rodius to a Kia Carnival.
Kids waiting for me to rent the car, some 22 hours after leaving home.
Overall, I thought that El Al’s hard product (the actual seat/bed) is very competitive with any US carriers’ business class hard products. But the soft product, from the proactively friendly service to the kosher wine selection and from niceties from the complimentary WiFi to the freshness of the mehadrin food really made for a memorable experience.
Even in business class, friendly proactive service on US airlines is hard to come by, so seeing it being effortlessly provided to the entire cabin was rather surprising. That’s not something that I expected to find on a nonstop flight from the US to Israel.
And for the first time in a long time, I’m actually looking forward to my return flight from Israel to the US to see if the experience can be this good with another crew.
Sure, El Al has a long way to go in providing better call center support, a better website experience, and a competitive mileage program, among other issues. But if you’re just paying for the best overall business class experience to Israel, you’d be hard pressed to beat what El Al is offering onboard their flights.
Have you flown on El Al and on US airlines’ business class products to Israel? How does my experience compare to yours?