Tel Aviv’s Five-star Hurricane Refugees

It certainly sounds better to be a stranded traveler in Tel Aviv than shivering in the cold without electricity in New York or New Jersey.

At the end of a busy, fun-filled vacation when you are preparing to go home, there’s always that twinge of regret. You desperately wish that you had just a few more days to enjoy some of the sights that you didn’t have time to see.

Well, Becky Ford Guttstein and her fellow participants in a mission to Israel with their local synagogues and Jewish federation from Dayton, Ohio had that wish come true this week.

With the mad scramble of travelers desperate to return to the United States and the closing of the airports on the Eastern Seaboard, it seems that the airline on which Guttstein’s group had flown - US Airways - simply did not know what to do with their 50 people booked to head home to Ohio last Tuesday. So instead of splitting them up and taking care of their individual cases, they simply re-booked the whole group - for an entire week. The entire group was re-booked on a flight returning this Tuesday.

They are anomalies. Most of those stranded in Israel by the hurricane have found a way out. By the weekend, most of those who were stuck, had already headed home. (“My desk is clear,” reports Jerusalem travel agent Mark Feldman. “Last week was insane, and people got home using all kinds of creative routes, but now everyone has been taken care of.”)

Everyone except for Guttstein, a 53-year-old human resources executive, and her traveling companions. They spent the weekend hitting the beaches and nightlife in Tel Aviv, where they are based, and are enjoying side trips to some of the sights that weren’t covered in their original mission.

During the official days of the trip, as the hurricane loomed, there were members who were constantly on their Blackberries and iPhones, checking the weather and the airlines. “We called them the official worriers,” she laughs. They knew their return home would be delayed. But when they found out they were rescheduled to return after a full extra week in Israel, it came as a shock.

“It took us 24 hours to wrap our heads around the fact we were staying for an extra week, but although we need to pick up our own hotel costs, the federation is covering another week of touring with complete itineraries and most of our meals are with the group, so that isn’t a consideration. A whole week in Israel for $1,000? When do you get an offer like that?”

Members of the group who had to return urgently booked alternative routes at their own expense - some went through Europe, others through Toronto. As the weekend neared, US Airways began to offer earlier flights home for some.

But Guttstein isn’t in any particular rush. She is doing her work as a human resources executive remotely, “with my laptop sitting in a beautiful hotel room overlooking the ocean.” Her children are grown so she doesn’t need to rush home for them. The “bonus itinerary” includes treats that the group didn’t have time to enjoy during their first 10 days - like floating in the Dead Sea. The first time around, they only drove by on their way to Masada without stopping.

“I’ve decided to look at this as an unexpected gift,” she says. “It’s been 30 years since I’ve been in Israel - I lived here as a student. Who knows when I’ll get to come again? I’ve decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’ll take a day at the beach in November anytime.”
As for missing Election Day - luckily, she voted by absentee ballot. If she hadn’t, she would have been able to go to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv which offered special hours this week for stranded travelers to fill in provisional absentee ballots.
As Hurricane Sandy stories go, this has got to be one of the more cheerful and upbeat. It certainly sounds better to be a stranded traveler in Tel Aviv than shivering in the cold without electricity in New York or New Jersey.

Guttstein appreciates her good fortune. “I’m not complaining,” she said. “If, at this point, they told me they found an earlier flight for me, I’d be kind of disappointed.”