I spent most of my American Express points on a trip to Israel. Did I make a big mistake?

Oct 11, 2021

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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.

Here’s how I booked it and why my plans are currently up in the air.

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In This Post

Transferring Amex points to Flying Blue

Tel Aviv Beach Promenade
Tel Aviv Beach Promenade. (Photo by Dana Friedlander/Visit Tel Aviv)

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.

(Screenshot courtesy of American Express)

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

(Screenshot courtesy of Flying Blue)
(Screenshot courtesy of 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.

(Screenshot courtesy of Flying Blue)

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.

(Screenshot courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Then I began to have second thoughts.

Related: Complete country-by-country guide to reopenings

Israel still closed to most Americans

Old Jaffa and distant view of modern Tel Aviv buildings. (Photo by kolderal/Getty Images)
Old Jaffa and a distant view of modern Tel Aviv buildings. (Photo by kolderal/Getty Images)

Israel was closed to most Americans for much of the pandemic. Only now is it slowly beginning to allow a few tourists. But unfortunately for me, Israel is only allowing small-group tours right now.

The U.S. Embassy in Israel reports that foreign nationals who are not Israeli citizens/residents must apply in advance to the Israeli government for a permit to enter Israel. And it’s not just entry requirements that could prevent me from going in December.

According to the Associated Press, Israel is in the middle of adding further restrictions because of the delta variant of COVID-19. Israel now requires 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 is 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.

To enter Israel now, you must either have gotten your vaccination in the past six months or have had a booster shot.  So, I’ll need a booster if I want to go since I was vaccinated back in March.

That said, there are reports that Israel could further ease restrictions sometime in November, so I will wait until then to cancel the trip.

Related: Book this, not that: SkyTeam award tickets

What happens to my miles if I can’t go on the trip to Israel?

It’s looking increasingly likely that I will not be able to make this trip happen. 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 should be fairly straightforward to get a refund of my Flying Blue miles. Fortunately, the program relaxed its refund rules for flights booked for travel on Dec. 31 or earlier. A simple phone call to Flying Blue, and they will be able to refund my miles penalty-free. But, I’ll wait until November to cancel to be sure.

If I have to cancel, though, my biggest challenge will be 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. Either way, I’m sure I’ll be writing a follow-up post on what happens, so stay tuned!

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.

Featured photo by Nick Brundle Photography/Getty Images.

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