Israel For Free? Here's How to Do Birthright
It feels great to turn your hard-earned points into travel. But you know what feels even better? Traveling for free.
Every year thousands of young Jewish people do just that through the Birthright Israel Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission to connect Jews to Israel. This popular trip is a favorite on college campuses, where students can partake in a once-in-a-lifetime experience — for free!
Wondering how to hop on board? Here's a one-stop guide to all things Birthright, from what to expect to how you can apply, plus a few exclusive pointers from several Points Guy team members who have taken the trip themselves.
What Is Birthright?
Birthright Israel is a nonprofit foundation that sends up to 40,000 young Jewish people to Israel every year for free. While the program's stated goal is to help Jewish youth explore their identity and build stronger ties to Israel, it doesn't have a religious agenda and accepts Jews of all denominations.
Who Can Go?
Going on a Birthright trip is pretty straightforward: Almost any Jewish non-resident from the US between the ages of 18 and 26 is eligible — check out Birthright Israel’s FAQ section for more info. If you do qualify, you’ll hop on a summer or winter trip and head out to explore the land on your air-conditioned coach bus chock-full of guides and new friends.
Should I Go With Friends?
A Birthright trip is what you make of it, and whether or not you know anyone else on the trip beforehand could have a huge impact on your time there. TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig went solo back in 2011, a decision he said helped him open his mind to new experiences and people, while TPG Social Media Editor, Samantha Rosen, says she cherished the chance to go on Birthright with some of her closest friends from college.
Which Trip Should I Choose?
10 different tour providers work with Birthright Israel to coordinate trips, and while all follow similar itineraries, each brings a different taste to the table. Hillel International sends you to the Holy Land with other kids from your college campus, while Mayanot, Ezra World and Israel Free Spirit all tend to attract many Orthodox Jews. Every trip has a "mifgash" (or meeting) in which Israeli soldiers tag along for a portion the tour, but Shorashim has soldiers stay on for all 10 days. This was a key piece for Rosen, who went on a Shorashim trip in the summer of 2013.
"The soldiers give you insight into what life is like in Israel, to give you a perspective and become your friends," Rosen said. "They become a part of the group."
Many providers also offer single gender, LGBTQ, culinary and other specialty trips as well. If you do some research into what you want from your trip and what's available, and it will pay off in delivering exactly what you want when you get there.
What You'll Do in Israel
Think of Birthright as your passport to Israel's hottest spots. You'll place a note in Jerusalem's Western Wall, hike to the top of the Masada mountaintop fortress and explore the lively seaside streets of Tel Aviv. You'll also take some time to reflect on Jewish history by visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center and Mount Herzl, Israel's national cemetery. In between, you and your new friends will get some time to explore on your own. Try plenty of street food to get a taste of the local flavor, but stay away from "Jerusalem mixed grill" if you're squeamish around mystery meats.
Can I Earn Miles on My Flight?
Honig traveled with Israel Outdoors in 2011, and like the points-hound he is, he managed to score some mileage out of his 5,500-mile flight. But it did take a bit of wrangling; though he didn't book the ticket himself, he was able earn miles by eventually adding his frequent flyer information to the Delta itinerary.
"It depends on how [the provider] books the tickets," Honig said. "Sometimes they have deep discounted group fares that aren't eligible for mileage accrual." While Honig's experience may be a fluke, there's no harm in trying.
Have you ever been on a Birthright Israel trip? Tell us about your experience, below.