The Open Skies agreement that Israel signed in 2013 with the European Union has slashed airfares between Israel and Europe, but nonstop service to further-flung destinations, such as the United States, India and Thailand, have generally remained around $1,000 round-trip – and higher during peak seasons.
During the upcoming winter season, however, the rules are different. Airfares to destinations in the United States are plummeting due to weak demand. And if you’re willing to make a connecting flight, as of Wednesday of this week there were a limited number of seats available for under $500 round-trip.
“We’ve hit bottom. There is unlimited capacity to every possible destination,” said Ronen Carasso, the marketing director of Israel’s Issta travel agency, who added that the fact that the shekel is strong against the American greenback and the euro makes fares cheaper than ever.
Beyond the customary low demand on flights to the United States during the winter, many airlines offer particularly low fares from Israel with a connection in Europe because they want to maintain their passenger levels on their transatlantic routes during the off-season. “They will do anything so their volume doesn’t drop on these routes, because they’re strong routes,” said Erez Bousso, the CEO of the Smartair air travel website. “If a carrier decides that it will cut back on a flight to New York and give up a specific slot [takeoff time] during the winter, it won’t be able to get it back during the summer, because there’s crazy demand for these slots. And the ones to benefit from this are the Israeli market and our neighboring countries.”
Tourism industry sources say this isn’t the first year that airlines are offering such cheap winter fares and that it all started about three years ago. “The Open Skies reform doesn’t only affect fares to Europe, but also winter fares to the United States,” Bousso noted. “Five years ago, there were no flights with connections to New York for $500, but then the competition to Europe grew substantially. For the regular carriers, it’s difficult for them to fill their flights from Israel to Europe during the winter in any event, because they’re in competition with low-cost flights. The flights to New York with a connection in Europe are a relative advantage that they are creating with their ability to grab the customer and give him a transatlantic fare at a low price.”
Short stopover and big savings
“Up to now there hadn’t been flights at such fares, under $450 with full service on the flight including [checked] baggage,” said Yaneev Lanis, who manages the Tisot Sodiot (“Secret Flights”) Facebook page, which features inexpensive flights. He suggested that it is even worth considering itineraries with long stopovers in Europe and spending a day in Europe.
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“For example, you can arrive in Amsterdam in the morning and spend the day there and continue on to New York that night. The fare would be very low. It’s worth checking the range of options. You don’t have to fly nonstop to Los Angeles when you can save hundreds of dollars by flying to San Francisco and then taking a short domestic flight to Los Angeles,” he added.
One place where Israeli consumers can find particularly inexpensive flights to the United States at the moment is Shufersal Travel, which is affiliated with the Shufersal supermarket chain and operates in conjunction with the online Gulliver travel group. It has been offering very inexpensive fares to the United States for select dates.
“It’s a relatively new company and we wanted to increase awareness of the fact that Shufersal has begun selling airlines tickets,” said Ziv Rozen, Gulliver’s CEO. The company purchased blocks of seats on regularly scheduled El Al flights to the United States and has also decided to subsidize the tickets.
Flexibility gets you far
Because of slack demand for air travel to the United States during the winter, it is sometimes possible to buy tickets to the United States from Israel with a connection in Europe at around the price of a nonstop ticket to the European destination alone. So for example, as of Wednesday, a round-trip ticket to New York via Paris departing Israel on January 13 and returning on January 22 on Air France was available for as little as $450, while the round-trip Tel Aviv-Paris fare alone for those dates was $367. (Recently there were Air France tickets available from Tel Aviv to New York round-trip for less than the Tel Aviv-Paris flight).
“During the winter, Air France’s strategy, like that of other airlines, is to do anything to attract passengers from around the world to fill its planes to the United States. From the carrier’s standpoint, that means not charging for the Tel Aviv-Paris leg, because the really important flight is the transatlantic one, which during the winter is difficult to maintain. They will do anything to have traffic from Tel Aviv fill the flight even at the cost of drastically reducing the price of the flight from Tel Aviv to Europe to zero shekels,” Smartair’s Bousso said.
They key to finding these cheap fares is flexibility. If you are bound to specific travel dates, it’s doubtful that you will be able to find the best prices.
It is also worth noting that some of the least expensive fares involve combining flight legs operated by different airlines. It’s therefore important to look at websites that allow such combinations rather than being limited to one airline. And generally, luggage can be checked through to a final destination even if two airlines are involved, particularly if they have a code-sharing agreement.