Choosing Israel flights is a complicated task

The machinations of air travel to Israel can be complicated, a little like sorting out the intricacies of Middle East politics, airline specialists say.

Travelers to the Jewish state must consider such factors as widely divergent routes and prices, complex rules regarding mileage programs, and international terrorism.

In the Bay Area, flying to Israel on El Al Airlines — the country's national carrier — has never been easy. Since no carrier flies non-stop from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, travelers must first go to Los Angeles before catching an El Al flight to Tel Aviv, via New York. The trip can take longer than 20 hours and cost about $400 more than flying on other airlines.

Taking a European carrier straight out of San Francisco can save tourists as much as five hours in travel time, says David Parnes, of the International Travel Bureau in San Francisco.

Parnes, an Israeli travel specialist, recommends flying on airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France or British Airways, which stop in Europe before landing in Tel Aviv.

"It's a combination of price and convenience," says Parnes, who adds that the least expensive way to fly these days is through airlines that use consolidators — companies that buy tickets in bulk and sell them to travel agents at discount rates.

Most European airlines use consolidators. This summer, Air Canada also began a San Francisco-to-Tel Aviv route via Montreal.

Because El Al doesn't use a consolidator, it can't compete with other airline fares. Despite its costlier and longer flights, however, El Al still has an allure for many travelers, especially large tour groups.

Jeremy Barcon, of Piedmont Travel Service, says he books about half of his flights to Israel on El Al and the rest on European or American carriers. "I still think El Al is wonderful," he says. "It's an experience they [tourists] may only have once in a lifetime.

"People fly for the pride of flying a Jewish airline, for patriotism, for great service. But they won't save money that way," adds Barcon.

Along with paying a higher fare, travelers flying El Al will lose out on frequent flier miles, notes Barcon. If a family of four flies to Israel, for example, they would rack up a significant number of miles on a European or American carrier.

El Al's plan, however, is specifically geared toward business travelers. "Their mileage program is very limited," says Barcon, who adds that El Al is the only airline that asks customers to pay for joining their frequent flier program. Membership is $50.

Adding another layer of confusion to the process of choosing an airline, Barcon warns clients not to buy tickets through a consolidator. "Sometimes you don't get mileage credit because it's not a published fare, or flights are delayed and people aren't notified, or tickets aren't endorsable to other airlines," he explains.

Barcon prefers to buy tickets directly from the airline. He says clients flying to Tel Aviv through London on British Airways, for example, will pay an extra $100 above the consolidator price.

While the move toward consolidation and other changes in the airline industry have affected travel to Israel, so have changes in Israel's political climate.

Security has traditionally been a major factor in the popularity of El Al, which has long been known for its tight safety regulations. However, some travel agents say customers are less concerned about terrorism and more willing to fly other airlines.

Not all travel agents agree, however. Cindy Prosterman, of Tamalpais Travel American Express in Corte Madera, says "security is always an issue. There are still terrorists out there. People aren't as worried as before, but when something happens, they worry."

Even so, other than large tour groups, Prosterman says most of the tickets she's sold to Israel in the past five years were on Lufthansa or TWA.

The bottom line is that tourists need to figure out their travel priorities. As Barcon notes, "if people do not mind spending more time and money to experience El Al, they're usually grateful they did."