If you’ve ever forgone a dream trip because you couldn’t afford it, 2014 might be the year to reconsider. Low-cost airlines have touched down in Israel, and if you live in the Holy Land or just find yourself based here for a while, you’re positioned to reap the benefits. If you're smart, you’ll be able to head to Europe for as little as the cost of a new pair of shoes. Almost, anyway.
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Of course, you’ll have to make some sacrifices. But the good news is this year’s forecast for low-cost travel between Israel and Europe: open skies. Thanks to Israel's recent agreement with the European Union, Israeli travelers have more airlines to choose from – and lower fares.
The Open Skies agreement signed between Israel and the EU last June marks the end of certain restrictions on flights between Israel and Europe. Although the deal didn’t come without controversy, Open Skies has enabled companies on both sides of the Mediterranean to launch new routes to and from Israel.
Wizz Air – one of the largest low-cost carriers in central and eastern Europe – kicked off flights from Tel Aviv in December and offers bargain fares to Budapest, Prague, Vilnius and a number of cities in Poland and Romania. EasyJet, which already offered Israelis low-cost flights to London, added more flights to Britain plus new routes to Basel, Berlin, Geneva, Mila and Rome.
Click on the infographic (right) to enlarge
Smaller specialty lines like Aegean Air (Greece), Norwegian (Scandinavia), Pegasus Airlines (Istanbul) and Transavia (Amsterdam and Paris) have also carved out niches since the signing of Open Skies. And even Ryanair, a perennial favorite of cash-conscious globetrotters, is considering flights from the land of milk and honey later this year, The Daily Mail and travel website Tourist Israel have reported.
As of early April, fares on these airlines start between $70 and $150 each way.
Israeli companies are also getting in on the action. Last week, El Al launched Up, its own low-cost carrier. Premiering with routes to five destinations — Berlin, Budapest, Kiev, Larnaca and Prague — Up promises fares starting at $69. That should be low enough to tempt even the stingiest travelers.
More routes are launching every month. By the end of this spring, 88 low-cost flights will be leaving Ben-Gurion International Airport each week. You can already book seats on a number of these spring premieres, including EasyJet’s new route to Milan and Wizz Air’s to Lviv and Sofia.
When Open Skies takes full effect in 2018, airlines will be allowed to offer direct flights to one another without limitations. Affordable travel from Israel is nearly ready for takeoff.
The fab-four travel hints
If you’ve booked a flight before, chances are you already know your dos and don’ts for getting a good deal. Flexibility is key; you’ll save if you travel on a weekday and avoid holidays. And if you book two or three months ahead, you’ll have money left for that bottle of vino at that secluded Rome restaurant you’ve been fantasizing about.
But if you’re flying low-cost, you’re going to have to put in a little extra. Low-cost carriers save you money on fares by cutting back on just about everything else. Do you just have to have a window seat? Get ready to pay for it.
If you go for the most affordable tickets, Up charges between $10 and $80 for you to choose your seat (depending on where it is on the plane). On Wizz, you can pay to reserve a seat in a particular section of the plane, but even then, first-come first-served rules the day. Your options with the rest of the budget flight are similar. Baggage fees and restrictions can be even worse.
Crave a drink or snack? That’ll cost extra, too. Low-cost carriers almost never offer that complimentary drink and tiny napkin you’re used to, and services like EasyJet’s “Bistro” or Wizz’s “Café” charge more than $4 for a muffin. Prices don’t get better from there. Wizz, Air Baltic and others even charge for water. And if you want a refund on your ticket? Chances are you can forget about that too.
So here are four ways you can save.
1. Travel light. Really light
Your fare may be down to earth, but if you’re not careful, your baggage fees will be sky high. Budget airlines deploy all kinds of traps to charge extra for bringing your stuff along; they just love outrageous fees and frustrating size limits.
Take EasyJet. If you want to bring a bag on board and be sure the airline won’t shove it down below, you’ll have to squeeze it in a tight 50cm by 40cm by 20cm. That’s a small backpack or a medium-sized handbag. Go a little beyond that and EasyJet might turn that carry-on bag into a checked bag.
And if you actually need to check a bag? Well, that’ll cost you between $15 and $35 if you check it online (depending on weight, capped at 23kg), and a staggering $75 if you check the bag at the gate.
Wizz Air, Up and most other low-cost carriers have also adopted the free small carry-on, pricey checked-bag model, so before you go, ask yourself whether you really need that liter of conditioner for your weekend getaway. If you really must, notify the airline online when you book your ticket. One exception: SmartWings, a Prague-based low-cost carrier, includes one carry-on and one checked bag with your ticket.
2. Connect the dots
More than a dozen of the most popular routes from Israel to Europe are now covered by three or more airlines. This means that you can mix and match connecting flights to find the best prices.
If you’re heading to Paris, a direct flight might be tempting, but consider splitting your trip in two. If you find a great deal on a flight to Prague, adding in the flight from Prague to Paris might set you back less than a direct flight from Tel Aviv.
Always leave a few hours between connections, though – especially if you’re switching airlines. Connections save you cash, but they cost you time. If you take this flight path, prepare for a few extra hours of hustle and hassle.
3. Check the math before you check out
Just because it’s a budget airline doesn’t mean it won’t break the bank. If you use a low-cost carrier at a peak time like Passover, you may wind up paying fares nearly as high as those on standard carriers like Israir and Arkia – all while getting less.
If you’re longing to spend Passover in Rome, for example, Israir will charge you only $50 more than EasyJet round-trip, but Israir won’t charge you extra to check your bag. Book directly from your chosen airline’s website to familiarize yourself with its policies and keep your trip budget friendly.
And watch out: Sometimes you’ll lock in that phenomenally low fare only to get slammed with last-minute fees and taxes on the final checkout page. If you try taking advantage of Up’s enticing new route to Kiev, you’ll find that just before checkout, the airline adds a few “taxes” – raising your bill by $65!
You may be the guy who never reads the safety card in the seat-back pocket, but you don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t read the fine print and gets hit with outrageous fees. That’s not the way to live dangerously.
4. Just go for it
Spontaneity and savings go hand in hand. Spot incredible savings on a flight to Copenhagen? Let a great deal lead you on an adventure.
Discount booking sites like Gulliver and Issta are perfect for this; they’ll connect you with last-minute offers to places you might never have expected to go. Live by the anecdote rule: When in doubt, do what will give you the coolest story. Are you going to tell your friends about that time you didn’t go to Barcelona for the weekend?