How to Save Money on Pesach Vacation in Israel

Don't use a travel agent, reserve through the hotel’s own website and join the hotel’s customer club, for starters.

Planning to come to Israel for Passover, but haven't booked yet? The good news: a month and a half before the holiday begins, most hotels still have vacancies,

That will change as the time gets closer.

“We feel we'll be fully booked at all of our chain’s locations in Israel,” Roni Aloni, marketing director of Fattal Hotels, says. “Resorts such as Eilat will be the first to fill up, but hotels in the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas are also slowly filling up and by the holiday, all of the hotels will be from high to full occupancy, including the hotels in Ashkelon and Haifa and the south.”

The Isrotel and Rimonim chains also expect to be fully booked. “We’re coming out with promotions to encourage sales for beginning of the holiday, including free holiday meals or 12% discounts on hotels in Eilat,” said Anat Aharon, the marketing director for Rimonim hotels.

Prices peak over holidays. This, says Nahum Kara, marketing director of the Isrotel hotel chain, is because of the hotels' own added costs, for example to make their kitchens kosher for Passover and due to added staffing expenses. Prices are also higher due to high demand then, he acknowledged.

Passover prices are indeed high. An Israeli couple with two children vacationing in Eilat will pay 7,000 to 12,000 shekels ($2,000 to $3,400) for four nights for room accommodations and a daily breakfast and dinner, including the seder meal.

At the Dead Sea, prices generally range between 8,000 and 10,000 shekels and in Tiberias from 8,000 to 13,000. In Jerusalem, prices are lower and begin at 6,000 shekels for four nights for a family of four. (There is no VAT in Eilat, but elsewhere around the country, foreign tourists booking on the same basis as Israelis should pay less because hotel rates include value added tax from which foreign tourists are exempt. The exemption includes meals provided at the tourists’ own hotels as well as other services such as spa treatments. It also includes car rentals and some other tourist services.)

Those seeking to reserve hotel rooms have three options. They can book through the hotel’s website, via a travel agent or through an international hotel booking site that features hotels around the world. In an attempt to figure out which approach is generally the cheapest, we compared all three. We relied on the websites of two major local travel agency chains, ISSTA and Ophir Tours, for the travel agencies’ rates, and we used booking.com for our example of international hotel reservation website rates.

Loyalty clubs pay

What we found was that in most cases, the cheapest rate was available by booking through the hotels’ own websites, and that’s because of the rates available through the hotels’ customer loyalty clubs that most hotel chains now have. Some of the club plans offer a 10% to 15% discount from the first hotel stay, so even with membership fees, joining the club can come out cheaper, particularly during Passover. So, for example, membership in Fattal hotels’ Sky customer loyalty program is 300 shekels, but it provides members a 10% discount on their first stay. Since a holiday stay over Passover usually costs more than 8,000 shekels, the membership provides an immediate savings. At Rimonim hotels, where the membership fee is also 300 shekels, the discount on the first stay is 15%.

And at other chains, including Dan and Tamares hotels, membership is free, so there is no question that any benefits are worth the trouble. At Isrotel, the perks begin with the second stay, so we didn’t include the benefits that the chain’s loyalty club provided in our price comparison.

Although hotel reservation sites such as booking.com have a reputation for offering good deals on accommodations, we found that over Passover in Israel, the prices offered by the hotels themselves were generally lower. In addition, booking.com didn’t always offer reservations at the hotels that we were looking for even though the hotels themselves had space available. And Israelis should be aware of the fact that since the site caters primarily to foreign tourists who don’t pay VAT, Israelis would generally have to add 18% VAT to the quoted price anywhere but Eilat.

“Club members of the hotel chains have an advantage,” Aloni, the Fattal hotels’ marketing director says, “but our prices and those of the agents should be similar or identical. From year to year, the [loyalty] club is getting stronger as is customer loyalty. As we thought when we set up the club, we’re seeing that when you deal with customers on an individual basis, loyalty pays off.”

Aharon, the marketing director at Rimonim hotels, says most major travel agencies deal with her chain directly and get their price information online. “Nonetheless, we give a 5% discount on our website and the reasons are obvious. We want to promote use of the site because it saves us manpower expenses.”

Enjoy website discounts

Isrotel’s Kara says his chain’s reservation center charges the same rate that travel agents get, but customers making reservations on the Isrotel website are given a 5% discount because it saves the company staffing time. “I pay the travel agent a commission for the sale, but I can’t tell him what price to sell at. He can do what he wants. He can also sell at a loss if he wants. As a matter of policy, I don’t cut my list price for travel agents. There are [also] chains that provide discounts through their reservation centers. I don’t.”

One industry official, however, had another take on things. “There were recently reports that accused the Isrotel chain of lowering its travel agent commissions and [thereby] hurting them. The higher the travel agent commissions are, the more room [the agents] have to give bigger discounts to the customer. As long as the commission is at a fair and reasonable level and covers expenses and a reasonable profit and no more than that, they have no room for discounts.”

For his part, a hotel chain executive said commissions are fading away, particularly in the aviation sector and as Internet reservation volumes grow and business generated through travel agencies diminishes, prices will be more stable. Another hotel chain official said travel agents can also provide hotel loyalty club discounts to their customers. “But it’s not so simple. Dealing with it is problematic and detracts from their willingness to do something like that, so it turns out that, from the outset, travel agents don’t try to lower the price by having clients join the chain’s club. By contrast, we do everything to encourage sales and club membership.”

The travel agents see it a bit differently. “Despite the results of your [price] survey, customers are advised to check with a travel agent, because sometimes we offer a better deal,” said Ophir Tours vice president Yehuda Zafrani. “Some of the prices that you’ll find at travel agents are the same that the hotels offer, and we actually have the possibility of getting them even lower because of the commission [paid by] the hotel of about 10% and due to the competition from company to company over price and over the customer.”

Zafrani acknowledges that the hotels’ loyalty clubs pose a problem, but suggests that customers check out whether joining is to their advantage, and not focus just on Passover. Consumers, he claimed, should also consider the fact that they will find themselves locked into loyalty to one chain and beholden to its prices. “As a matter of routine, I am not sure joining the club always pays, because we are coming out with crazy last-minute prices on a daily basis.” Zafrani also said that while Israelis plan trips abroad in advance, they tend to be more spontaneous about vacations in their own country, and book on a whim.

“We usually try to be attractive,” says ISSTA’s marketing director, Ronen Carasso, “not always successfully. With flight and hotel packages abroad, it’s easier for us to manage with the low price. The customer needs to check and decide which is more convenient and cheaper for him. In principle, there shouldn’t be a preference for reserving a particular hotel directly through the hotel rather than through an agent, but that’s OK.” The consumer, he says, will decide what is best for him.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Asaf Pincho