Update: I had to cancel my trip to Israel, but I got all my points back
Back in February of this year, I found a great opportunity to visit Israel. Thanks to the advice of several colleagues, I was able to book a round-trip ticket in business class on Delta Air Lines using just 144,000 miles from Air France and KLM’s joint Flying Blue loyalty program to fly from New York-JFK to Tel Aviv (TLV).
I had a stash of American Express Membership Rewards points burning a hole in my pocket that I could transfer to Flying Blue, so I figured, why not?
Surely, I thought, by December 2021, the pandemic would be behind us, right? You know that old saying, “We plan, God laughs?” I feel like that’s been the story of my international travel plans for the past several years, and this trip proved to be no exception.
Shortly before I was supposed to go to Israel, the Israeli government shut the borders to all International visitors.
Here’s how I booked it, cancelled it and details on how I got my points back.
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Transferring Amex points to Flying Blue
This was a pretty big move for me. While I consider myself pretty advanced in the points and miles game, I’d never used my long-open Flying Blue account to actually book an award. It was scary for me to send a huge number of my hard-earned Amex points to a program I’d never used before.
But I was willing to test it out as Delta can charge as much as 415,000 SkyMiles for this route. I considered this a screaming deal. Though not the best redemption ever, it was a pretty fun one, and I could learn something new along the way.
Related: 7 things you must do during your first trip to Tel Aviv
I simply went to my American Express Membership Rewards transfer page and sent 144,000 Membership Rewards points to Flying Blue as a 1:1 transfer.
Surprisingly to me, the transfer happened pretty much instantaneously, with the points showing up as miles in my Flying Blue account right away.
Related: Some of the best ways to use American Express Membership Rewards
Booking via Flying Blue
I wasn’t, however, able to make the booking online. I kept getting an error message. I finally gave up on booking via the website and called the Flying Blue toll-free number.
It didn’t take long for the friendly agent (based in South America) to find the inventory and ticket the reservation. I had a confirmation number not long after. I ended up spending 72,000 Flying Blue miles each way for the flights — not a bad deal when compared to how much Delta charged for the same ticket.
The same flights booked with Delta SkyMiles would have been 210,000 miles plus $50.42. If I were buying these tickets in cash, the price would have been at least $3,693.
Then I began to have second thoughts.
Related: Complete country-by-country guide to reopenings
Israel is now closed to most Americans
Israel was closed to most Americans for much of the pandemic. It did slowly begin opening back up to allow a few tourists. In fact, as my trip approached in early November, Israel threw open the doors to American visitors.
But then came the omicron variant. As of Nov. 28, Israel restricted tourists from all countries due to how quickly the variant was spreading.
Even before that, though, I was rethinking my trip. Israel added further restrictions because of the delta variant of COVID-19.
Israel began requiring booster shots if people want to use its so-called Green Pass, which allows Israelis to go into indoor venues like coffee shops, restaurants, retailers, gyms, concerts and more.
Israel was the first nation in the world to make booster shots a requirement for its digital passport. That is also a new requirement for foreign tourists.
Related: Israel to lift tourist ban on Dec. 22
Even once it reopens to tourists again on Dec. 22, to enter Israel, you must either have gotten your vaccination in the past six months or have had a booster shot. So, I would have needed a booster if I wanted to go since I was vaccinated back in March.
Related: Book this, not that: SkyTeam award tickets
With all the uncertainty, I decided to cancel the trip. And it's a good thing I did too as the country shut the borders in late November.
What happened to my miles?
I really thought by now, things would be easier for foreign travel, but it’s still pretty tough out there in many cases.
The good news is that it was fairly straightforward to get a refund of my Flying Blue miles.
Fortunately for me, the program relaxed its refund rules for flights booked for travel on Dec. 31 or earlier. A simple phone call to Flying Blue is all it took to instantly refund my miles penalty-free. I was dreading the call, but it literally took less than five minutes (Shout out to the call center in Chile). I also got a refund for the taxes I paid.
My biggest challenge now is finding a new way to spend 144,000 Flying Blue miles. Unfortunately, I can’t simply transfer those miles back to American Express. In Amex’s own words: “Please note that once your points have been transferred, they cannot be transferred back. Redeemed rewards are not refundable, exchangeable, replaceable or transferable for cash or credit.”
My other option, of course, is to hope that a really good phone agent will be able to just find the same trip inventory for some time in 2022. I still want to visit Israel, so maybe finding another series of dates would be the simplest solution. So far, I've had a lot of trouble trying to duplicate the trip.
Finally, learn from my (potential) mistake: Only transfer Amex points — or any transferable points, really — when you’re absolutely sure you are going to put them to use soon since you can’t get them back in your credit card account. And if you think you might end up needing to cancel or change your plans, make sure to transfer your points to a program that will let you do so without charging you massive fees.