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TPG reader Chris writes:
“I want to surprise my girlfriend and get her a trip to Israel for her birthday! It’s a big birthday for her and she is a Madonna fan and Madonna is starting her 2012 tour in Israel, Tel Aviv.
What would be the best award to look at in order to get there? We live in New York. I have plenty of Amex and Chase Rewards.”
There are a lot of considerations to take into account here, such as: what class of service and whether you’d be open to connecting in Europe and maybe even building a stopover there to break up the journey. Either way, let’s check out what’s available and go from there. I Googled and it looks like the Madonna tour kicks off May 29, 2012 in Tel Aviv. The trouble you run into here is that Memorial Day in the US is May 28, 2012, so you may need to be extra flexible to get this trip booked.
Before deciding whether I’d use Amex or Chase points, I’d first check award availability. My process would be to check each major alliance and El Al as follows:
Star Alliance: United flies Newark-Tel Aviv non-stop and would would be ideal for your trip, however it’s a very difficult award to get – especially for two people. Use United.com‘s award search (on the main page just click the button for “Search by: Award travel”). All saver level Star Alliance flights should be bookable with any Star Alliance mileage. I know that as a worst-case scenario I can probably find flights via Frankfurt or Munich on Lufthansa. Air Canada flies nonstop from Tel Aviv as well and I priced a coach roundtrip from NYC-Toronto-Tel Aviv returning through Vienna for 80,000 United miles and $78 per person. Its also available via Aeroplan for 80,000 miles and ~$300 in taxes and fees because they charge fuel surcharges on Air Canada flights. US Airways also has a direct Philelphia-Tel Aviv flight, but the airline tends to be very stingy with low-level award availability, so I don’t see it as a likely great option for you.
SkyTeam: Delta flies JFK- Tel Aviv, so I’d use Delta.com just to check to see what the non-stop flights price at (usually medium or high). I’d start searching one way JFK-TLV around May 26 and look at the calendar to find any lucky green “low” dates. Some low economy dates were showing, but when you clicked through to price, they all came to 130,000 miles roundtrip, which is actually medium. Annoying. The cheapest business class tickets were 230,000 miles and $45 each. Not ideal, but cheaper than El Al. Sometimes it makes sense to upgrade Delta Y,B,M fares to business class using miles, but I used Expertflyer and no upgrade award inventory was available anytime those two weeks.
Air France has Premium Economy award availability for 126,000 miles and $600 each. Again, not great. You could try to build in stopovers in Paris/Amsterdam/Rome, but neither site is very good at doing that and it would probably be best to use Expertflyer.com to piece together that availability.
El Al: Flies non-stop JFK and Newark to Tel Aviv. I used Expertflyer.com to find award availability and they have multiple first class tickets on many days around your ideal travel days. Tickets come to 5,000 El Al points (250,000 Amex points) and $350 each.
Oneworld: No non-stop flights, though El Al flights can be booked with American Airlines miles, yet AA isn’t a transfer partner of either Chase or Amex. British Airways is and you can connect through London. BA has huge surcharges on flights through Europe, so this option won’t really make sense unless you love London and love BA’s product. You can also fly Royal Jordanian, but for TLV-Amman-JFK on June 5, a business class award one-way per person costs 69,000 Avios and $214.
So if it were me and I wanted to keep fees/taxes down, I’d probably use Chase points to transfer to United miles to fly coach or transfer Amex Membership Rewards to Delta for business class (and hold out a little while to wait for a transfer bonus). However, there are a lot of different options, especially if you are willing to stopover in Europe.