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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Toronto to Tel-Aviv: Air Canada - Business Class Dreamliner

Business Class Seat View 1
I have previously written about the various changes that Air Canada has made to its "Altitude" program - which have made it harder and harder to earn a high level status.  Up until two years ago, I was earning one mile for each flight, regardless of the cost of the air fare.  This also applied for flights on United Airlines and a number of other Star Alliance partners.  Now, Air Canada is only providing half the air miles for most of the lower end fares.  Some fares don't earn any points.  As a result, to qualify for "altitude 100k" (formerly "super-elite") status, you would need to fly 8 1/2 times between Israel and Toronto, at the much higher priced "flex" fares.  These fares can cost anywhere from $200 to $800 more on a round trip flight than a discounted "Tango" fare.  Same seats, same food, same plane.  Just a lower air miles reward (only about 2,850 each way instead of 5700).  So it is probably quite unlikely that I will qualify for "Super 100k" status again.  But I still have the status until February 28, 2015. So I decided to try and use it before it expires.

I booked a flight from Toronto to Tel-Aviv on an Air Canada flex fare.  This meant that I would be eligible for a free upgrade to business class, if the space was available.  If not, I could be upgraded to premium economy.  Since I had the upgrade points and I still had the status, I decided that it would be worthwhile (especially during low season) to take my chances.

I arrived at the airport and inquired about the likelihood of an upgrade.  I was told that there were three other people ahead of me and only two spots.  Oh well, I figured, at least I can probably fly "premium economy" which would get me a bit more leg room.

About an hour before the flight, I checked with very helpful lounge staff.  They told me that I had been upgraded and was seated in 5D....so I was all set.

Air Canada is now using 787 "Dreamliners" on its flights between Tel-Aviv and Toronto.  These are very new planes.  Apparently, they fly at a cruising speed of about 60 km/h faster, so the flight time is reduced by about half hour to forty-five minutes.  I have to say that the planes are also quite smooth and much less noisy than many other planes.  Beyond that, the seats in the economy class seem to be as crowded, if not more so, than other planes.

But for this flight, I was quite fortunate.


Business Class Seat View 2
I was seated in an aisle seat in business class.  Unlike the previous planes that Air Canada used for flights to Israel, this plane has a separate entrance into the business class section.  Economy class passengers cannot pass through and gawk at the personal cabin-type seats.

Business class seats include a fully reclining, extra-wide seat and a large sized personal screen.  They also include a side table, a storage compartment and a handy electronic remote control that controls the seat, the TV, the entertainment and can even call for flight attendants.  The seat was very comfortable though I did  not use the down comforter that was also provided.

At the start of the flight, the attendants come around and offered a choice of orange juice (freshly squeezed) or sparkling wine.  Since I had already been in the lounge for a couple of hours, I declined these drinks.

Air Canada Vegetable Platter
I found it interesting that in such a fancy new plane, there were no overhead compartments for the aisle seats in the middle in rows 4, 5 and 6.  There was plenty of overhead storage room elsewhere, but it seems bizarre that they built the plane without overhead compartments for some of the business class rows.

Our flight left on time and the attendants came around with the menu.  I had pre-ordered an Asian vegetarian meal but was still given the choice of one of the business class options.  I went with a cod dish, which was served with wild rice and vegetables.

Fruit Platter
The appetizer was a plate of grilled vegetables, including asparagus, zucchini, artichoke and red pepper.  It was quite tasty and the plate was quite attractive.  Shortly afterwards, the attendants delivered a fresh fruit plate including pineapple, watermelon, kiwi, strawberries and grapes.  Sublime.

The main course was reasonably tasty - cod served with wild rice, fennel and carrots.  Not particularly memorable but edible and served with a reasonably artistic flair.

Main Course

Meanwhile, I managed to sample some of the different wines that were being offered.  A California Meritage, a Spanish wine and a French wine.  None of the wines were particularly enticing but I preferred the California selection.  The flight attendants were quite eager to help me find a wine that was most suitable to my palate.  They insisted that I try each of the wines until I find one that I really liked....

Cheese Platter


After the meal, a cheese platter was delivered.  I was getting a bit worried about the caloric size of this meal, so I passed on the chocolate mousse which was also offered.  Instead I opted for some Courvoisier VSOP Cognac to accompany the cheese platter.

During the meal, I watched the movie Transcendence, which started off as an interesting concept but fizzled.  I also watched a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

By the time the movie ended and the dishes were cleared, I enjoyed one last drink - a decaf coffee.  I then reclined the seat-bed fully - and tried to go to sleep.  Next thing I knew, I was hearing an announcement that we were less than two hours away from Tel-Aviv and that a hot breakfast would soon be served.  I really wasn't that hungry at this point.  The flight attendants came around with a choice of pancakes or quiche, both served with chicken sausages.  I would not have eaten either dish and would have had my Asian vegetarian breakfast.  But instead, I had a yogurt and a coffee and I was fine.

Overall, this was certainly one of the more enjoyable flights that I have had between Toronto and Tel-Aviv.  I really don't think I would spend the $5,000 to buy a regular priced business class ticket - and I am not even sure I would pay the $500 cost to upgrade from "flex" class to business class that Air Canada is now charging its passengers (other than Altitude 100K passengers).  But I took advantage of this rare opportunity and enjoyed the free upgrade knowing that it is probably unlikely that I will have too many similar chances in the near future.

On hearing about my flight, a number of people, here in Israel, told me that I probably didn't want to get off the plane...

Well, as nice as the flight was, I can't really go that far.  After all, I arrived to a sunny 22C day, having left the -3C temperature of Toronto.  Winter? In Israel?  Maybe for a few days - but even the roughest winter days here would be like early fall in Canada, unless you happen to live in Jerusalem or way up north, in which case you might get a few odd days of snow.  Of course, it might feel like winter inside the homes since most homes are built without insulation.  But you can always step outside and enjoy the sun.

And now that January has almost come to an end, there are likely to be very few "wintry"days left in Israel - and even fewer when measured by Canadian standards.  Of course, that all makes sense, since the holiday of Tu B'Shevat, the "New Year of the Trees" is quickly approaching and the weather should be nice enough to allow us to plant some new trees.

Hopefully, on my return to Toronto I will hear that the groundhog has delivered some good news about the Toronto forecast.




Wednesday, October 29, 2014

KLM: Toronto to Tel-Aviv. Stopover in Amsterdam

KLM wing view
With all of the changes to Air Canada's Aeroplan program (the "altitude program" for frequent flyers), it has become much less attractive for many people to fly Air Canada regularly.  For starters, Air Canada now awards Aeroplan points at a greatly reduced rate for most flights.  With some partners, no Aeroplan miles are earned at all.  And the price for an Air Canada flight is often several hundred dollars more than a flight on one of the other airlines.

So I decided to take a cheaper flight on a different system.  I flew KLM this time from Toronto to Tel-Aviv with a lengthy stopover in Amsterdam.  The price was significantly lower than any available Star Alliance flight.  Only flights with Turkish Air or Alitalia were close in price.  Since I was traveling with someone this time - and he was changing through Amsterdam, I decided to join him.  I should note that he purchased a KLM flight, round trip, Toronto to Tel-Aviv, for just over $700 Cdn including all taxes.  That was at least $500 less than the lowest priced Air Canada or El Al flight.  These are my notes about the flight and about the stopover in Amsterdam.

Overall, I would say that it was quite fun to stop and spend the day in Amsterdam.  But to do so, you have to get through the KLM flight, which was brutal, compared to just about any other airline that I have used in the past 5 years (and reviewed on this site).

The main advantage of KLM was the price.  It was quite a bit cheaper than just about any other carriers - other than Turkish or Alitalia.  I was considering trying one of those but opted for a day in Amsterdam.

KLM leaves Toronto from Pearson International's Terminal 3, which is the older terminal.  There was little difficulty in the boarding process.  We were offered lounge access for about $30 Cdn (I had no special status on KLM so I would not have been able to get into the lounge otherwise).  My flying companion decided that this was a good idea so we spent a couple of hours in the lounge.  It was not nearly as nice as the Air Canada lounge in Terminal 1.  The food and drink selections were more limited.  Even the seats were less comfortable.  But even with the additional cost of paying for the lounge, flying KLM was still far less expensive than Air Canada.

Boarding was quite a jungle.  It was fairly disorganized, although the ground staff did their best to board passengers by row number.  They tried to stick to that but it was all taking place in such a crowded space that it seemed like a far lengthier and more disorganized process than many other airlines.

The biggest problem with KLM was the seats.  While I may have gained a couple of pounds since my last flight, this clearly felt like the narrowest seat I have sat in over the course of my five years traveling back and forth between Toronto and Israel.  I could barely get into the seat, let alone move in any direction once I was in it.  I was sitting at window seat and there were two people in the other seats next to me (the plane configuration was 3-4-3).  I was so uncomfortable, I just didn't know what to do.  I couldn't concentrate on the book I had, so I wound up watching a really dumb movie.

The plane did have personal entertainment systems, though they were the old-style systems, like those used on many Austrian Air planes.  The screen was low resolution and was not a touch-screen.  The selection was quite limited.  The sound was terrible.  While this was still a step up over El-Al (the planes between Toronto and Israel have no personal screens), it was nowhere close to the systems used by other airlines like Air Canada, United, US Air, Lufthansa, etc.,.

I had ordered an Asian vegetarian meal.  It was one of the smallest meals I have seen on a transatlantic flight.  It was served more than 2 hours into the flight (which was only 6 1/2 hours in total to begin with).  The meal included lentils, white rice, tofu and salad but I was still quite hungry.  The "house" wine was a South African Cabernet-Shiraz.  It was tasty.  The flight attendants also offered a variety of after dinner drinks including cognac.  So the drink service was comparable to most of the other European airlines or Air Canada.  (The American airlines all charge $7 for a bottle of lousy wine).  The flight attendants were cheerful and friendly and came around often.  I have no complaints about the beverage service or the flight attendants themselves.  But it is difficult to get past the tremendous discomfort of sitting in such a tiny, cramped seat on an overnight flight.

For all of my complaints about flying on KLM from Toronto to Amsterdam, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed being in Amsterdam.  It was my first time.  We had approximately 13 hours from the time our flight arrived in Amsterdam until the next flight to Tel-Aviv.  We decided to try and make the most of it.

Getting to the centre of Amsterdam is quite easy and convenient.  I should note that we first found a locker in the Amsterdam airport to store our carry on bags.  This was a great idea and made our trip that much easier.  Locker locations are clearly marked, easy to find and reasonably priced.  We then took the "inter-city" train from Schipol Airport to Amsterdam Centraal Station.  The cost was about 18 Euros for two of us, round-trip.  The train ride itself was about 15 minutes.  It was smooth and comfortable.

Anne Frank House Line-Up
Our first stop was the Anne Frank House.  I had read that it would have been better to buy tickets in advance to avoid the long line-ups.  But when I had visited the on-line site, about a week before the trip, the advance tickets were already sold out.  Since the attraction is so highly rated, we decided to wait to see it despite the line up.  But I have to say, it was a 2 1/2 hour wait to get into the museum.  It was cold and windy outside, perhaps 10 or 12C.  Not pleasant at all. 

The Museum itself was definitely worth visiting, though ideally without the lengthy wait.  Centred around the life story of Anne Frank and her famous diary, the museum is, essentially, a Holocaust museum, using the story of Anne Frank as the vehicle.  The museum is housed in a reconstructed version of the Frank house and involves climbing up some very steep and narrow staircases and traveling from room to room in the house in which Anne Frank hid from the Nazis for more than two years.  There were some very moving exhibits including the actual Anne Frank diary, the exhibit with information about Auschwitz-Birkenau and a video montage at the end with comments from a range of personalities about the story of Anne Frank.  The museum is apparently one of Amsterdam's most visited tourist sites.  It is a fascinating place and it is heartening to see so many people, from so many different countries, visiting the site.

After our museum visit, we took a short walk over to the Pancake Bakery, a well known and highly recommended pancake house.  Since we had planned this in advance, we had a Google map route.  It was a short walk and very convenient.  I had a veggie pancake - a giant pancake with a melange of stir fried veggies including broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, onions and some feta cheese.  It was quite
Cinnamon Ice Cream Dessert - Pancake Bakery
good.  My dining companion had a salmon cream cheese pancake which was somewhat less tasty.  We both had coffee which was okay but nothing more.  Overall, it was a neat place, moderately priced and reasonably filling.  We shared a dessert - cinnamon flavoured ice cream with fruit compote, Belgian chocolate shavings and whipped cream.  Neither of us ate the whipped cream and we couldn't finish the whole dessert.  But it was quite tasty.

From there, we headed off the old Jewish Quarter.  We had a Google map for this route as well.  We took a short walk, got on a tram car and we were dropped off right next to our destination in less than 10 minutes.  We had purchased an all day pass for the Amsterdam transportation system so, again, this was quite easy and convenient.  Once you buy these passes, you simply swipe the pass as you get on the tram car and then again once you get off.  No cash is used anywhere on this system.

Portuguese Synagogue Amsterdam - Entrance
Our main destination was the Portuguese Synagogue.  This is a wonderful place, originally completed in 1675.  It is a beautiful synagogue with ornate detailing.  When used, it is lit up entirely by candle light with no electricity or heating.  It is currently used on Yom Kippur and on selected special Shabbat services during the year.  It is also used for concerts and some holidays.  Visitors can pay an admission fee and take a tour of the entire synagogue complex with an audio device that provides pre-recorded information about various spots in the complex.  The cavernous synagogue includes rows of original wooden benches, and huge candelabras.

Portuguese Synagogue - "Esnoga" - Amsterdam
Esnoga Respository - Judaica
Esnoga Library
The synagogue complex also includes a basement repository of religious articles - Torah breastplates, crowns, pointers, Etrog boxes and many other items, hand crafted in silver and gold and often studded with ornamental precious or semi-precious stones.  The repository also includes a massive library, that is still in use.

We spent more time than we had planned in this complex and wound up skipping the nearby Amsterdam Jewish museum and the old Ashkenazi synagogue.  But this synagogue (known as the "Esnoga") alone easily justified the lengthy stopover in Amsterdam.

Traveling through Amsterdam, I couldn't help but feel that I was in a special place.  The architectural style of the buildings is attractive, the canals running through the city are enticing and there are so many cafes, museums, interesting stores and other places that I felt that I would need at least another week in Amsterdam - or perhaps several more lengthy stopovers.  We wound up missing the Van Gogh museum, the Rembrandt museum and the other great museums that Amsterdam is known for housing.  We didn't even make it to Amsterdam's unique Sex Museum, though we passed by the entrance.  We also ran out of time to hit the red light district, the famous coffee houses (and hash bars) and the Heineken beer factory.  From what I could see, I think it would be quite a bit of fun to just wander around or bike through the city without any set list of places to visit.

Overall, even though the KLM flight from Toronto to Amsterdam was cramped and uncomfortable, the stopover made it all worthwhile.

We took a train back from Amsterdam to the airport and even had time to wander around the duty free shops for a bit.  Our flight was uneventful.  The plane was very modest with no entertainment screens or other amenities.  Fortunately, it is only a 4 1/2 hour flight to Tel-Aviv, though it arrives at 2:20 a.m., which is also brutal.

Would I do it again?  Well, despite the discomfort of KLM, the price was right and Amsterdam was great.  There is lots more to see there.  So if I have another opportunity to save lots of money on an airline ticket and spend the day in Amsterdam, I will probably do it again, despite the various drawbacks, which, in particular, include the awful flight times and the super-cramped seating. But as you probably know from reading previous blogs, I tend to choose experience over luxury...





Monday, January 27, 2014

More Downgrades at Aeroplan: Mileage Accumulation is Tougher and Tougher

I saw another one of those dreaded "announcements" from Aeroplan announcing mileage accumulation changes, this time for flights on United Airlines.  Aeroplan card holders will now find it even more difficult to achieve the various "Altitude" status levels when collecting Aeroplan miles from some key partners. 

I suppose it was only a matter of time.  Last year, Aeroplan introduced "Tango" flights for the Israel route and other international destinations.  With these tickets, passengers only accumulate 50% of the Aeroplan miles.  Plus, these fares are not eligible for free upgrades to first class.  It would take 20 round trip flights in a year between Toronto and Tel-Aviv on these fares to be eligible for "super elite" status (now called s100k).

Until now, there was at least one way around this problem.  Passengers could fly United from Toronto to Tel-Aviv (through Newark Airport) and still collect 100% of the air miles, even at the cheapest air fares.  Now this latest announcement from Aeroplan indicates that most of the cheapest air fares on United will only provide accumulation of 50% mileage, effective March 31, 2014.  This was already the case with Swiss, Lufthansa, Austrian, Turkish and other partner airlines.  The long and the short of it is that if you are flying with the least expensive air fares, it is getting harder and harder to accumulate Aeroplan points.  It is also worth pointing out that US Air is leaving the Star Alliance effective March 31, 2014 - so perhaps it is no coincidence that United made the change once it realized it had no Star Alliance competition between the U.S. and Israel.

This is not the only negative change that Aeroplan has introduced.  Over the past few years, the "tax and fuel surcharge" has skyrocketed on Aeroplan tickets.  So, let's say you want to use 80,000 points to get a "free" ticket on Air Canada.  It will cost you $680-$800 in "fuel surcharges."  Aeroplan calls these charges "tax and fuel surcharges."  But they aren't really fooling consumers.  These "fuel surcharges" allow for significant profit for Aeroplan on "free" tickets.  They aren't really "fuel surcharges."  They are simply ticket charges.  Paying $800 in surcharges to go to Israel in the winter, for example, is absurd.  You could probably find a ticket on another airline, taxes in, for close to $900, without wasting 80,000 points.

In fact, I looked into taking a trip to Montreal two weeks ago from Toronto.  The "surcharge" was $170.  A ticket with Porter would only cost $199, taxes in, if you could find a deal.  So what kind of "free" ticket is that.when you have to pay $170 AND 15,000 points?

This year, Aeroplan introduced "e-upgrade charges."  If  you are not Super Elite and you want to upgrade your seat on a transatlantic flight into the first class cabin, it will now cost $500, if there happens to be room.  Up until this year, there was no charge. That was one of the incredible benefits of flying Air Canada regularly - the ability to upgrade for free when there was space available.  I guess these changers are all intended to ensure that only the customers paying the much higher fares, on a regular basis, will get the benefits (that they probably won't need as much anyways).

Overall, it seems unlikely that I will come close to making Superelite status this year and it sounds like it will be less and less worthwhile to even try.  Mileage accumulation has become harder and harder, benefits have been reduced significantly and some of the better benefits have been eliminated.

To really try to fool everyone, Aeroplan rolled out its "Distinction" program to run parallel to its Aeroplan program.  Nobody that I have spoken to has been able to determine that there any benefits whatsoever of this program.  At first, the program made it sound like customers could, by achieving "Distinction" status, get discounted rates on Aeroplan tickets.  The advertised discount was as high as 35%.  But, on close reflection, people realized that Aeroplan is only offering the discount on "market rate" fares.  So in other words, let's say that an Aeroplan ticket to Israel would go for 80,000 points.  Aeroplan might say they are "sold out" and the market rate is now 130,000 or even 200,000.  (Or some other ridiculous, inflated, arbitrary number).  "Distinction" status holders will get their percentage discount on that number.  So instead of being able to pay $750 for a "free" ticket along with 80,000 points, you can now pay about 84,500 and $750, when the "market rate" is 130,000 points.  If the "market rate" is 200,000....well, you follow?

For someone flying back and forth on a long haul flight - like the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, seven or eight times a year, this was enough, up until last year, to earn Super-Elite status and get some great benefits like free upgrades, double Aeroplan miles, wider available for "free" tickets and other perqs.  You could do this, even while buying the cheapest fares.  But now, it looks like you would have to pay an average of at least $300 to $500 more per ticket, which adds up considerably.

The difficulty is that there are very few options for Canada-Israel "commuters."  El Al still lacks the same in-flight amenities and has a horrible mileage accumulation program.  If an El Al ticket would get passengers full mileage accumulation on another system's program, that might start to make the decision a bit more complicated.

Ultimately, for a direct flight between Toronto and Tel-Aviv, Air Canada still offers the most convenient flight from Toronto and significantly better service.  The flight leaves at 5:30 p.m. and flies overnight, arriving in Israel at about 11:00 a.m. This is a great schedule, although it would probably be better if it were to leave around 8:00  or even 9:00 p.m.

The flight back on Air Canada, which is a 13 hour day time flight, is atrocious.  It leaves at 12:30 p.m. Israel time and arrives at 6:30 p.m. in Toronto.  The flight goes on forever.  For flights from Israel to Toronto, in my view, it is better to fly El Al or take United through New Jersey on its overnight flight.  At least that way, you can get some sleep.

Overall, the cumulative effect of all of these changes at Aeroplan is that the program seems to become worse and worse each year, while the benefits seem to be fewer and fewer.  Its quite unfortunate.  Maybe one day, some other airline, like Westjet, will start offering flights back and forth to Israel at a reasonable price with decent amenities.  For now, there are even fewer good choices.





Sunday, September 8, 2013

Toronto-Tel-Aviv Via Warsaw (Part 2)

I flew back to Tel-Aviv from Toronto via Warsaw on Lot Polish Airlines.  I wrote a review of the first leg of my flight a few weeks ago here.  I thought I would add some comments, since this time I stopped in Poland for a longer time.

The connection, travelling from Toronto to Tel-Aviv, is less than ideal.  You leave Toronto at 8:30 p.m. (we were delayed about an hour, but that could happen on any airline...) and you arrive in Warsaw at 10:30 a.m.  The flight from Warsaw to Tel-Aviv leaves Warsaw at 10:55 p.m.  There are no earlier connecting flights.

So if you take this route, you have to make a decision.  Either you leave the airport and spend the 10 hours or so that you have free in Warsaw - or you sit in the airport for about 12 hours.  You have to decide when you first arrive since  you are either sent to a "connecting flights area" or the passport control/ arrivals area.  If you first go to the connecting flights area and then change your mind and decide to go and see Warsaw (that's what I did), it is a bit complicated to get out of the airport.

The flight itself, from Toronto to Warsaw was fine.  Lot uses the new Dreamliner 787s for this route.  The planes are very quiet and very smooth.  You barely feel that you are taking off.  This time I was seated in economy class.  Lot has personal screens but many of the movies, TV shows and music require payment of an additional fee.  The free selection is very limited.  Even the paid selection did not look very enticing.  The flight is just over 8 1/2 hours and it was quite uneventful.  I watched a movie that I had on my own device ("Sarah's Key" which was quite a suitable selection for this trip).

When I arrived in Warsaw, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to travel to the city or stay in the airport.

I stopped off at the lounge (which is available for Star Alliance members).  It is a decent lounge with clean washrooms, showers, drinks, coffee (including a funky cappuccino machine) and some other light food offerings.  The lounge also has Kosher sandwiches which are under the supervision of the local Polish Kashrut council.

Right across from the lounge, there was a duty free shop with terrific prices.  The interesting thing is that the Chopin Airport in Warsaw has several duty free shops, all with varying prices.  The main shops, upstairs, are quite pricey.  The duty free shop downstairs (across from the lounge) was about 20-30% cheaper than upstairs.  So I managed to pick up a bottle of Scotch whiskey to contribute to our upcoming Simchat Torah festivities at our shul...(a Jura 16 year, in case you are wondering...at less than $35 - about 40% of the price at the LCBO in Ontario).

No┼╝yk Synagogue

I decided to head out and see a bit of Warsaw.  I had looked up some sites of Jewish interest and decided I would start with those.  I took a cab from the airport to the only operating Orthodox synagogue in Warsaw, the Nozyk Synagogue.  This beautiful shul was built in approximately 1900.  It was apparently the only synagogue in Warsaw to survive the war and it is now the only active Orthodox shul in Warsaw.  I wandered around and had a look.  Just outside the shul, there was a small, Kosher falafel shop, run by an Israeli.  I decided to patronize it, even though I wasn't too crazy about having a falafel.  It certainly wasn't the freshest or the best tasting falafel I have had but it was worth the experience.  The cab ride from the airport to the synagogue was about 45 Zloty - or about $13 (Cdn).  I had taken some money out of an ATM in the Polish airport.  Considering that this was about a 20 minute ride, the cab fare seemed quite reasonable.  I think a similar distance in Israel would easily cost  5 or 6 times that amount.

Museum of Jewish History- Warsaw
From the synagogue, I grabbed another cab and went over to the site of the new Polish Museum of Jewish History.  The museum is not open yet and will only open in early to mid-2014.  It promises to include an enormous collection of information and exhibits relating to the history of the Jewish community in Poland.  For now - you can see the building and the monument that has been erected but you cannot go into the building for a tour. 

From the Museum, I decided to walk over to the Old City - the historic parts of Warsaw - which feature cobblestone streets and old buildings, many of which have been renovated after being destroyed during the war.  I walked for about 20 minutes using my phone GPS (I had pre-loaded a full map of Warsaw from Google onto my phone) over to the old section of Warsaw and wandered around in that area for a while.

Old Warsaw
There were many historical sites and it was an interesting area to visit.  I couldn't help but wondering how the city must have looked in the 1930s or earlier.  After all, pre-war Warsaw had a Jewish population of close to 400,000.  It rivalled New York at the time, as one of the cities with the largest Jewish populations in the world.  The Jewish community comprised close to 1/3 of the entire population of Warsaw.  Now, wandering around Warsaw, a handful of Jews live in the city.  Most of the population was, of  course, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.  There is a little evidence that this was once a vibrant, thriving Jewish community with hundreds of synagogues, Jewish schools, shops, theatres and other important community landmarks.  While there are certainly some remaining sites of Jewish interest in Warsaw, the overwhelming feeling is one of amazement and sadness at the annihilation and disappearance of an entire community.

Nevertheless, I stopped for a latte and then continued wandering through old Warsaw before taking a cab back to the airport.
I took a panorama shot but this blog has only saved it as a jpg file - for some reason, so you have to imagine that this is one continuous photo...

I had thought of trying to make it to some more important Polish historical sites, but the camps were more of a distance and would have required a longer time period.  It would probably also be more suitable to get to those sites with a group.

Nevertheless, if you are travelling to Tel-Aviv through Warsaw (which could be hundreds of dollars cheaper than some other flights), you may want to try to see some of the city.  It is inexpensive, interesting and it seemed to be reasonably safe. 



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.