Israel travel: Is it safe to visit and what are your rights if you have a trip booked?

Hundred of flights cancelled and several cruises diverted

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 26 October 2023 11:23 BST
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Travellers ditch luggage and race to board planes out of Israel as rockets fired nearby

After hundreds of its citizens were killed in a sudden assault from Gaza, Israel has declared war on Hamas.

The conflict is ongoing, and Israel’s prime minister has pledged “mighty violence” and threatened to reduce Gaza to “rubble”.

Israel, long popular with tourists, is still accessible by air – but hundreds of flights have been cancelled and cruise ship itineraries have been changed.

Over the first 24 hours following the start of the attack, many flights were diverted or returned to their departure airport – including a United Airlines flight from San Francisco that went on a 13-hour “flight to nowhere”.

These are the key questions and answers.

What does the Foreign Office say?

The Foreign Office has strengthened its travel warning to read: “The FCDO advises against all but essential travel to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories [OPTs].”

This has the effect of requiring holiday companies with clients in Israel to be brought back as soon as possible, and prevents mainstream tour operators from sending out further groups until the advice against travel is withdrawn.

The Foreign Office also says: “If you are a British national in Israel or the OPTs, please register your presence which includes recording your up-to-date contact information. Your registration will allow us to share any updates to this travel advice.”

Anyone who is in Israel continues to be protected by their travel insurance until they leave by the swiftest safe means; conversely, standard travel insurance policies are not valid for people who choose to travel to Israel while the “no-go” warning is in force.

What do the Israeli authorities say?

The Israel Ministry of Tourism has issued a statement to The Independent about provisions for UK travellers to Israel:

“We are deeply shocked and saddened by the events that have taken place in Israel over the weekend. We offer our condolences to those who have been affected by the current situation.

“We are monitoring the situation and are committed to ensuring that all tourists visiting Israel are safe and informed. Israel’s Ministry of Tourism will provide all necessary assistance to those who need it and is operating a tourist hotline via WhatsApp for tourists to stay informed on the situation as it evolves.

“We appreciate the support of the UK and fellow nations in a difficult time for the Israeli nation.”

The Ministry of Tourism is operating a “virtual office” contactable by WhatsApp (+972 55 972 6931) or email (virtual@goisrael.gov.il).

Travellers currently in Israel can dial 104 for information and advice in several languages or contact Home Front Command on WhatsApp or SMS on +972 52 910 4104.

Are Israel flights continuing?

Yes. Ben Gurion International Airport, south of Tel Aviv, remains open and operational – as does Eilat Ramon airport, outside Eilat in the far south of Israel.

These are the key policies of the main airlines from the UK to Israel.

British Airways

British Airways has suspended flights to and from Israel due to safety concerns, after a flight to Tel Aviv made a mid-air U-turn and flew back to Heathrow.

EasyJet

A spokesperson said: “Due to the evolving situation in Israel, easyJet has taken the decision to temporarily pause operations to and from Tel Aviv on Monday 9 October. As a result two flights from London Luton and one from Manchester and their return flight today will no longer operate.

“Any customers affected by cancellations are eligible for a refund, voucher, or a free of charge transfer to a new flight.

“Due to the situation we understand that some customers travelling in the coming days may no longer wish to travel. Any passengers due to fly to Tel Aviv who would like to change their plans can contact our customer service team for assistance with their options.

“Our thoughts are with those who have been affected and the safety and security of our passengers and crew is always easyJet’s highest priority.”

El Al

The carrier is telling passengers: “El Al Airlines operates in accordance with the instructions of the Israeli security forces. Our flights are operated as scheduled.”

Passengers who are booked but who no longer want to travel can cancel for a credit voucher. Those who are booked to travel up to 21 October and who want to return early can do so at no extra charge. A dedicated emergency line “for those who wish to change the date of their flights due to the situation” has been set up on +972 3 940 4040 for phones and +972 3 977 1111 for WhatsApp.

Virgin Atlantic

The airline says: “Due to the ongoing situation in Israel, some of our flights to and from Tel Aviv may face delays or cancellations. We would advise anyone booked to travel to check their flight status on the website before travelling to the airport.”

Virgin Atlantic cancelled one daily round-trip on each of 7 Saturday to Tuesday 10 October, though the second service will be flying as planned on all those dates. On 17 October, the airline confirm they would be operating flight VS457 from Heathrow into Tel Aviv, and the return, flight VS458, from 20 October.

Wizz Air

A Wizz Air spokesperson said: “Due to the situation in Israel, we have cancelled flights to and from Tel Aviv until further notice. We are continuing to monitor the situation closely and are in touch with the relevant authorities. The safety and security of our passengers and crew is our number one priority and all affected passengers will be contacted via email or text.”

What are the risks to passenger aircraft?

Virgin Atlantic says: “The safety and security of our customers and our people always comes first and our flying programme to Israel remains under constant review.”

The fact that Virgin Atlantic, as well as El Al and British Airways, are continuing to fly to and from Tel Aviv indicates these extremely professional airlines are confident their passengers and crew will be safe.

But a flight operations organisation, Ops Group, has issued a warning about the risk of civilian aircraft being shot down following the attacks on Israel. The group warns: “Lessons learned regarding civil operations in conflict zones over the last nine years since MH17 need to be applied. The risk of a passenger aircraft becoming a casualty of this war is high.”

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over occupied eastern Ukraine in 2014 by a Buk anti-aircraft missile that belonged to the Russian army. All 298 passengers and crew died in the attack.

Ops Group, a membership organisation for pilots and other aviation staff, added: “The ultimate sentiment from MH17 still echoes: ‘What were they doing flying over a war zone?’ We truly hope the same question doesn’t need to be asked in Tel Aviv airspace this week.”

Going nowhere: Flightpath of United Airlines UA954 from San Francisco, which turned back halfway to Tel Aviv

What if I have booked a package holiday to Israel?

Travellers who have booked packages to Israel and are due to travel imminently can cancel without penalty for a full refund because of the “no-go” warning from the Foreign Office. This applies equally to customers of British Airways Holidays and easyJet Holidays.

A spokesperson for Abta, the travel association, said: “We are liaising closely with the Foreign Office and our members to offer help and advice to customers, both those currently on holiday in Israel and those that are due to travel there imminently.

“Anyone due to travel to Israel imminently should speak to their travel company for the latest advice and monitor updates from the Foreign Office.”

Are cruise ships to Israel affected?

Yes. A cruise ship that was due to arrive at Haifa in Israel in the early hours of Sunday morning changed course to sail to Limassol instead. Celebrity Apex had just begun a Holy Land cruise from Athens to Israel and Egypt.

The subsequent departure with the same ship, on 16 October, appears to have been changed so that the two days at Israeli ports will instead be spent at sea.

A spokesperson for Celebrity said: “Our global security team is closely watching the evolving situation in Israel. For the safety and security of our guests, we’re adjusting several itineraries in the area. Impacted guests will be notified directly.”

While the war continues, all cruise ships are likely to avoid Israel.

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