For the travel industry, Passover signifies the end of the slow winter season. For Israeli tourists the holiday presents a wonderful opportunity to escape for a long vacation – or even a week earlier when the kids get a break from school.
This year Passover falls at the end of March, about two weeks earlier than last year. "This is why there is hardly any marketing of vacations to Mediterranean destinations this Passover," explains Ariel Atias, CEO of Walla Tours. "The weather in the region will still be cold and this is when the hotels are still closed. The upshot is that customers are booking more vacations in Eastern and Western Europe."
But according to Eyal Kashdan, CEO of the Flying Carpet travel agency: "The weather in Greece is like Israel's at that time of year. Since Passover comes early, the tourist season in Greece won't have started yet and prices will be much lower than in previous years."
"Customers have booked earlier than expected and demand is running 5% to 10% higher than last year," says Dori Shoshan, marketing manager at Israir. "Vacations will also be in demand before Seder night and during the intermediate days of Passover. There are some Israelis who want to escape the familial atmosphere of the Seder evening while others will leave for vacation afterwards."
So how do prices compare with last year?
"There is about a 10% drop in prices for vacations in European cities due to larger supply," says Dana Lavie, vice-president marketing at the Daka 90 travel agency. Random price comparisons for several packages, including flights and 3-star hotels in Europe, shows this is indeed true. Four nights at London's Royal National, including airfare, cost $4,160 for a family of four compared with $4,500 last year. Airfare and accommodations at Berlin's Grand City Hotel costs $3,888 for a family of four as opposed to $4,360 last year. The same can be said for Prague: Airfare plus four nights at the Prague Center Hotel is priced at $3,156 as against $3,556 a year ago.
A senior industry source says the drop in prices arises from worry that Israelis would rather vacation locally because of the early holiday and the seasonably cold weather in Europe. "Vendors are trying to draw Israelis to foreign destinations through favorable prices to raise demand," he says. "Another reason for the low prices is larger supply, which can also be seen when searching the Internet. Last year charter flight organizers decided to cut their losses from the previous year and cut supply, while this year they've come back with a larger offering of packages, pushing down prices."
Taking a chance at the last minute
To keep costs down, it's possible to try waiting to book at the last minute. In many cases it's a worthwhile risk but requires flexibility in choosing a destination, dates and hotel. "There generally aren't any last-minute deals for Western Europe," says Atias. "This method mainly applies to vacations in the Mediterranean basin. If vendors see that a flight is half empty they'll try to fill it at any price, but during Passover there are usually fewer last-minute specials and I don't think we'll see very many. Prices will just go up."
On scheduled flights, the dictum "the earlier you book, the lower the price" also holds for Passover, according to Yael Tamir, commercial vice-president at Gulliver Tourism. "Anyone ordering a ticket to New York for Passover two months ago paid $1,100 while today the price is $1,400 – and I expect it to reach $1,700. In another example, the price to Bangkok two months ago was $1,300 and is now $1,600. Based on last year, the longer you wait the price could reach $2,000. Anyone who intended traveling this Passover to a specific destination has already bought a ticket long ago."
Lavie recommends comparing prices on the websites of different companies before booking, since identical packages can be found at varying costs. She adds that on some destinations money can definitely be saved by putting together a package oneself.
In fact, when looking at vacation packages on the ISSTA website for a family of four to various destinations in Europe, it turns out that it's almost always better to book the flights and hotel separately instead of the standard packages offered by travel agencies. Reasonable hotel prices can found at booking.com, hotelscombined.com and aladdintravel.com. Flights can be arranged through a local travel agent or an international website like kayak.com which provides comparisons between all airlines flying to the destination of choice, including low-cost companies like EasyJet that aren't represented by travel agents in Israel.
One reason for the lower cost of self-planned vacations is that travel wholesalers, knowing demand is very high at Passover, tack a premium on their packages to make up for their slower seasons, according to a travel company executive.
The difference could add up to thousands of shekels for a family with two children. According to ISSTA's website, a package deal to London, including seven nights at the President Hotel, costs about NIS 20,000 but by booking the hotel and airline separately the family would save at least NIS 3,000. A four-night package plan at Paris' Hotel Mattle costs NIS 13,000 as opposed to NIS 11,000 by booking independently. The difference for Vienna is even greater: A package with four nights at the city's Artis hotel is listed at NIS 13,250 but ordering the flights and hotel room separately will being the cost down to just NIS 9,650 for a NIS 3,600 saving.
This, however, didn't hold for Rome and Barcelona: Packages offered on the website couldn’t be beat by booking separately. "The packages to Rome and Barcelona use charter flights which are cheaper than scheduled flights," explains Kashdan. "Charter flight operators take a cut from the profit on the overall package, not on each component, and also take care of transportation to the hotel – so the package is cheaper. There are no charter flights to London, and to Paris these only run during the spring and summer, which explains the differences."