Showing posts with label Tel-Aviv to Toronto. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tel-Aviv to Toronto. Show all posts

Sunday, July 14, 2013

El Al Review

El Al is Israel's national airline.  It's motto for the past few years in Hebrew has been "הכי בבית בעולם" which translates, approximately to "the most at-home-in the world."  It is a great slogan that evokes a certain feeling of  loyalty, family and nostalgia, which resonates with many Israelis.  Certainly El Al creates the feeling of entering Israel as soon as you reach the check-in counter from wherever in the world you might be flying.

For the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, El Al and Air Canada are the only two airlines that fly direct, non-stop.  So for those looking for the most direct, easiest way to get to Israel from Toronto, there are only two choices.  With respect to pricing, El Al is competitive and can often be significantly cheaper than Air Canada.  It also seems to me that there are still more "deals" to be had with El Al by negotiating with agents and other non-web ticket sellers.  With Air Canada, agents will often sell the tickets at a higher price than the price available on various web sites.

El Al is a member of the One World alliance which includes American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, Finnair and WestJet to name a few.  El Al's own mileage program is called the Matmid program.  It allows you to collect points for flights and save up for bonus flights, upgrades and other benefits.  I am not going to get into the details of it but, overall, it is geared towards Israelis who are travelling frequently to a variety of destinations.  For a North American or someone travelling back and forth between Israel and North America, the benefits are not at all comparable to something like the Aeroplan program (now renamed Altitude) or the programs of many other airlines.  Some people might prefer to join the British Airways or American Airlines program and collect the points for an El Al flight through one of those other programs.

I have flown El Al quite a number of times over the past 30 years and it is fair to say that it has improved greatly.  One of the improvements is the check-in process.  There is available web check-in, which is highly recommended, especially when-leaving Israel.  This can save quite a bit of time.  The in-flight service has also improved significantly. The flight attendants are now generally polite, friendly and helpful.

However, some aspects of El Al service have remained quite outdated and are in great need of an update.  On the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, there are no personal entertainment systems.  There are a few main screens for all the passengers.  There are a limited number of personal entertainment devices that can be rented but these are in short supply.  Whether using one of these devices or relying on the main screen the entertainment selection is fairly limited.  For the audio selection, there are about 10 different channels, of which two are reserved for the main screen.  You can catch up on some of the latest Israeli pop music on one of the stations, some Israeli "mizrahi" music (Mediterranean influenced music) on another channel or you can listen to a religious channel.  This is a unique aspect of flying El Al since none of the other airlines offer Hebrew entertainment on their routes to Israel. 

The El Al audio can be interesting for an hour or two, but overall, the best advice when flying El Al is to bring your own entertainment - books, audio devices, tablets or whatever else you might need.  This is a long flight - almost 11 hours on the way to Israel and sometimes, close to 13 hours on the way back to Toronto.   The lack of a reasonable entertainment system contrasts greatly with airlines like Air Canada, United, Lufthansa and others that can feature hundreds of movies and audio selections.

The food on El Al is all Kosher, so it is nice not to have to order a special meal on a flight.  But even though it may be Kosher, that does not mean it is tasty...On a recent flight from Tel-Aviv to Toronto the first meal was a choice of three options - beef, chicken or fried fish.  I went with the chicken and it was extremely dry and for the most part inedible.  The second meal on the flight (a flight of more than 12 hours) was a choice of an omelet or a salad...I took the omelet and it was quite brutal.  I guess I`ll try different options the next time and maybe I`ll have better luck.

Passengers on El-Al feel free to wander around the plane and chat with their fellow passengers.  There are often many groups travelling and there are many Israelis on the flights so there is a certain homey feeling to an El Al flight.  It also might be the only plane with a regular minyan (Jewish prayer quorum) at the back of the plane.  Many of the rules that some of the other airlines might try to follow - including orderly embarkment and disembarkment from the plane are dispensed with on El Al to help create that Israeli cultural milieu - or simply as a result of it.  

On the plus side, El Al has a second-to-none track record in areas of safety and security.  Flying El Al is, in some respects, reassuring, knowing that every possible step is being taken to ensure the safety of the passengers.  This is apparently very costly for the airline and helps explain why El Al has had to cut corners on other aspects of its operations.

For those who are flying regularly between Tel-Aviv and Toronto, it would be hard to justify flying El Al over Air Canada in light of the many benefits of the Aeroplan Altitude program, if the price is remotely similar.  But for people flying less frequently and looking for a direct flight at a reasonable price, El Al can often be significantly cheaper than Air Canada and that alone may make an El Al flight worthwhile.

I hope that in the coming years El Al will look at some of these issues and try to address them.  Maybe it could offer worldwide wi-fi access at a reasonable price.  If passengers pay to use it, it may not be such a huge cost for the airline.  This is something that some other airlines have been discussing though I am not sure that it is currently being offered by anyone other than Lufthansa.  This would help offset the deficiencies of El Al's current entertainment system.  Or perhaps it could revamp its Matmid program entirely and make it more like the programs offered by some of the world`s better airlines.  Ideally, of course, it would completely revamp its in-flight entertainment system and give each passenger a personal screen and an electricity outlet.  However, it is probably too much to expect wholesale changes to the interior of the planes, due to the costs involved.  But El Al should be able to find some ways to move its passenger experience from the 1980s to the present day, especially since the flights are so long.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Swiss: Tel-Aviv to Toronto Route Review: March 2013

Flying Over Switzerland - From Inside Swiss plane
Over my three years of travelling back and forth between Toronto and Tel-Aviv, I have managed to sample most of the Star Alliance partners that travel this route.  Travelling Star Alliance allows me to collect Aeroplan points, which seems like the best option for this route.

I have reviewed the various options in different blog posts, which are all listed in the Contents By Topic page.  While I try to take a direct flight as often as I can, the price difference is often so significant that it is worthwhile trying a different route.

Most recently, I flew on Swiss.  The price on Expedia was about $800 cheaper than flying on the available Air Canada flight for the dates I needed.  So I decided to save the money and take the roundabout route.

Most of the Swiss flights (if not all of them) fly from Zurich to Montreal, rather than Toronto.  So this is a major drawback.  I had to fly Tel-Aviv-Zurich-Montreal-Toronto (in order to save all that money).  I would  have spent the day travelling anyways, even with a direct flight, so although it was an inconvenience, it did not cause me to lose extra work time.

Like most of the other European flights from Tel-Aviv, the Swiss flights leave early in the morning, in this case 5:30 a.m.  That is just not that fun.  It means you have to arrive at the airport at about 3:30 a.m.  this is exhausting.  The highways were empty at 3:30 a.m. but Ben Gurion airport was completely packed.  Since so many of the flights to Europe leave early in the morning, the check-in area was wall to wall people.  It took quite a bit longer than usual to get through everything.  By contrast, the direct flight to Toronto on Air Canada leaves at 12:30 p.m. and the aiport is usually quite empty at that time.

The flight from Tel-Aviv to Zurich was uneventful.  The planes were similar to those used by Austrian and Lufthansa.  But I have to say that Swiss had the best in-flight entertainment selection that I have seen, by far, rivalled perhaps only by United, which would be a distant second.  There were hundreds of movies, and hundreds of musical choices in many different musical genres.  By contrast, for example, Austrian Air does not even have an entertainment system for its route between Tel-Aviv and Vienna.  Of course, I was too tired to watch a movie, having left at 5:30 a.m., but I listened to a bunch of new pop and rock albums while trying to catch up on some sleep.

Regretfully I went back to Kosher meals - since I didn't want to get stuck being served some kind of breakfast wurst or other meat which I would not have been able to eat.  So I had to make do with a hideous omelette look-alike that tasted like a hunk of rubber.  I jealously watched my seat neighbour enjoying a fresh salad and some fresh fruit even though his hunk of mystery meat that accompanied the healthy food did not tempt me at all.

In Zurich, I had about four hours to kill until the flight to Montreal.  I was able to hang out in the "Panorama Lounge" for a while.  This chintzy lounge only offered one hour of free wireless internet (I think it was one of the only lounges that I have been in that has this restriction).  There was a bit of food, some decent coffee and other items.  It was largely empty when I first arrived but as time passed, the lounge became completely overcrowed.  Apparently, there are not many lounge choices in Zurich so seats were at a real premium.

I also spent a bit of time poking around in the duty free stores, but the prices were really quite high.  I decided I had to buy a few bars of chocolate but that was really about it.

The flight from Zurich to Montreal was fine.  The plane featured the same great in-flight entertainment system so I was able to catch up on a few recent movies.  I actually quite enjoyed watching Silver Linings Playbook and I also checked out some more new music selections.  The kosher mystery beef dish that was served for lunch was quite questionable.  Probably should have ordered vegetarian...Near the end of the flight I was served some kind of deli sandwhich, which was equally less than appetizing.

The real problem with this flight was the extra delay of having to travel through Montreal.  Of course I love Montreal (I was born there after all) but this stop simply added an extra three or four hours to my travel time.  Fortunately, I was able to get on a standby list to leave on an earlier flight than scheduled (on Air Canada) and I wound up in Toronto about 2 hours earlier than scheduled at 5:30 p.m.  Total Travel time - 19 hours - including travel time, lounge time and everything in between.   It would have been 21 if I had not been able to get the earlier flight. 

Most Swiss flights award full Aeroplan points (unlike Austrian and many Lufthansa) and you get to see some really great scenery travelling into and out of Switzerland, if you have a window seat.  All in all, I would say that this was probably a preferable flight over Austrian and maybe even over Lufthansa but it wasn't as good as flying via United or US Air, if you have to make a stopover.

I won't rule it out for the future, particularly if I can save hundreds of dollars (not just one or two hundred...), but there is no doubt that it is preferable to fly direct if at all possible.