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Anna’s note: Israel is still closed to tourists and only Israeli citizens are allowed to enter. Please check updated travel restrictions before making any plans.

Know the Entry Requirements for Each Country

As travel resumes, it’s paramount to know each country’s requirements, even if you are just transiting through and are there for a short layover. I like IATA’s Travel Regulations Map and Kayak also maintains a comprehensive list of travel restrictions by country

United has its own resource where you can check international travel requirements. According to a United phone representative, United agents use this website when they check your documentation. You can click on the link above or go to United.com then Alerts on the top right. 

United`s website

Then click on International documents and entry requirements. 

You can look up your destination and even add the transit airports. A country where you are transiting might have more stringent requirements than your final destination, so it’s very important to check all restrictions.  

Travel Requirements

Traveling Post Vaccine

I go to Israel often and my favorite way to get there is on United’s nonstop flights from Newark to Tel Aviv in the Polaris business class. This is somewhat of a unicorn award redemption, as United is very stingy with releasing award space on this route and you almost never see it released to partner airlines. I have lucked out a couple of times before and was able to book it with United miles and even once with Singapore Airlines miles. 

In addition to being the fastest and the most convenient way to get to Israel on a Star Alliance carrier, Polaris is really a very nice product. The seats are comfortable, I find the food and service to be quite good and I love the Polaris bedding.

I’ve made this trip after I was fully vaccinated and the majority of Israelis are also vaccinated. Things are almost back to normal in Israel, and at the time of my visit the authorities were considering getting rid of the indoor masks rules. So it was an interesting preview of what the post pandemic life and travel is going to look like. Israeli citizens can now move freely around the country, the hotels are open to vaccinated people (or to people with a negative Covid test) and I was able to take an overnight trip to Jerusalem and a day trip to beautiful Caesarea.

Caesarea National Park, Israel
Caesarea National Park, Israel

How I Booked United Polaris Business Class

A simple answer – it was a huge stroke of luck. I was originally booked on a combination of United and Brussels Airlines because I couldn’t find a nonstop flight. However, shortly after I booked my award ticket, Brussels Airlines canceled their Brussels to Tel Aviv flights and after a little pleading with a very nice United phone representative, she put me on the nonstop Newark to Tel Aviv flight.

I used United miles to book this trip because United showed me the most options. The other huge consideration was flexibility. I already have a lot of United miles and in these uncertain times of flight cancelations and schedule changes I didn’t want to transfer any transferable points to another carrier. If things went south, I wanted to avoid having the points stuck in another airline’s program with no way to get to Israel.

I booked my ticket to Israel four weeks out and paid 93,500 United miles and $5.60. Could I have potentially found something using another program like LifeMiles where I also have a good amount of miles from previously cancelled trips and spent fewer miles? Possibly, but it wouldn’t have been on the nonstop flight. And right now flexibility is key and I didn’t want to deal with LifeMiles if something went wrong or if there were any significant schedule changes.

I am so glad I used United miles, because there was indeed a major schedule change and dealing with LifeMiles customer support is not for the faint of heart. One thing is for sure, they wouldn’t be able to move me to the United’s nonstop flight the way United did. I’ve been doing this long enough to know when to spend more miles for my piece of mind.

United Club

United Polaris lounge

Unfortunately, my favorite club that I’ve ever been to, the United Polaris lounge at Newark, airport is still closed. There was only one United club open in Concourse C, next to gate 74 and that’s where I headed for my almost five hour layover. Even considering that this is the only open club, it wasn’t crowded at all. I’ve been to this club in the pre-Covid times and it’s usually jam-packed and very busy. 

Instant noodles and some snacks

The food offerings were, as is the custom at United clubs, sparse. There were some chips, prepackaged nuts, fruit and instant noodles. Covid or not, United definitely needs to improve its food offerings.

chips and some other snacks

The internet was lighting-fast, much better than my internet at home, so I was able to get a ton of work done while I waited for my flight to Israel. The club almost emptied out around 7 P.M., and became eerie quiet. The travel is definitely far from being back to normal if the only club in the whole terminal becomes a ghost town in the evening. In fact, I’ve never seen Newark airport so empty and so quiet. All restaurants shut down at 8 P.M. and the only places that sold food were convenience type stores. 

Boarding

Boarding

Israel requires a negative Covid test for entry and I don’t see it relaxing these restrictions any time soon. Because of this, I wasn’t able to check in online and when I got to the airport, I just had to show the check in agent a print out of my negative Covid test results.  

United boards by zones, but because there’s additional security required for all United’s Tel Aviv flights, you should be at the gate well before the boarding time on your boarding pass. The small, cordoned off area gets crowded very fast and if you leave, you’ll have to go through security again. 

I wasn’t asked for any additional documentation at boarding, just my passport and the boarding pass. We boarded through two doors, one for Polaris and another for economy passengers. 

The Cabin and the Service 

Cabin and the service

The service on this flight was almost the same as before, with some modifications, but the important elements (for me) remained the same. I still got the lovely bedding that I like, including a mattress pad, pajamas and slippers. The flight attendants offered the pajamas and the slippers, but I had to ask for the mattress pad. Because I’ve flown on this route before and I knew what to expect, I asked for the mattress pad right away, in case they didn’t have enough for everyone in the Polaris cabin.

Seats

The flight attendants were all uniformly polite and efficient. There wasn’t a pre-departure drink service, I assume due to Covid service cuts, but a flight attendant that was serving the area where I was sitting and a purser both came by and introduced themselves. 

I find the Polaris seats to be very comfortable, if a bit narrow, but the seat itself is really comfortable either in the fully upright or the lie flat position. There’s also lots of privacy. The cabin configuration is 1-2-1 and the two seats in the middle have a divider that can come up or down. I was sitting in the middle section and with the divider up I didn’t see my neighbor at all. 

With all the talk of cleanliness on board and how much airlines are cleaning their planes, the lavatories could be a bit neater and cleaner. 

The inflight entertainment system has a huge screen with a decent selection of movies and TV shows but because it was a nighttime flight I didn’t spend a lot of time watching TV.

The amenity kit included all the mainstays, including socks, an eye mask and tiny toiletries. 

Amenity Kit

Food

Food

In the pre-Covid times you were given a menu almost as soon as you were seated but right now there’s no menu and the flight attendant came around asking for a choice of entree. The choices were beef, fish or pasta and I chose beef with polenta and roasted vegetables. The food tasted much better than it looked, partially because it was so dark in the cabin and hard to take a decent photo and partially due to the presentation. 

The flight attendants came around asking for drink orders, but by that point many passengers had turned in and went to sleep. 

All the dishes are served on the same tray at the same time. Because it was almost midnight, I was actually happy to get the food all at once and go to sleep. The food tasted much better than I can capture in pictures because it was very late and they dimmed the cabin lights. The salad was fresh, the beef very tender and delicious and the mango sorbet hit just the right spot. 

The mid-flight snacks were small bags of chips, pretzels and gummy bears. Usually they are just laid out in the galley but this time the flight attendants came by with small baskets of prepackaged snacks. There was no glassware on this flight, and all beverages, hot and cold, were served in disposable cups. 

I find the pre-departure meal usually to be a let down on almost all airlines I’ve ever flown. This time the breakfast choices were oatmeal or eggs and sausages and I chose the eggs option. 

Pre-departure meal

Arrival at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport

Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport

It’s amazing how efficient the arrivals process is right now. Instead of sending everyone to one small area for passport control on the first floor, the Israeli authorities spread out the passport scanning machines throughout the second floor of the terminal. I was able to scan my passport minutes after leaving the aircraft. 

Israel still requires all incoming passengers who weren’t vaccinated in Israel to take a Covid test on arrival and this was also organized amazingly well. There were signs directing everyone to the testing area and thanks to many testers and staff members directing traffic, the lines moved very quickly. I’ve created an account with Israel’s Check2Fly site before I left home and the test results were available online through the site in a couple of hours. 

My Recommendations for Jerusalem

Jerusalem

I usually go to Israel to visit family, but this time my sister and I decided to play tourist and take a short trip to Jerusalem. So here are a couple of personal recommendations but these, of course, don’t even cover one hundredths of what a traveler can see and do in Jerusalem. These are just a couple of things we enjoyed while playing tourists for two days.  

We stayed at the Herbert Samuel Hotel Jerusalem and I’d recommend this hotel for its great location and decently sized, recently renovated rooms. The hotel is located just off Jaffa Street, a couple of minutes away from Jerusalem’s light rail. This stretch of Jaffa Street is closed to car traffic, which is perfect in a usually car-choked city. 

The hotel isn’t fancy, and I’d compare it to a four star Marriott, but the beds are comfortable and the rainfall shower and spacious bathrooms (by Jerusalem standards) are great. The old city and Jerusalem’s train station are just a couple of light rail stops away and you can easily walk to many of Jerusalem’s main attractions. The area is very lively during the day with lots of stores and local eateries and if you want some night life, there are bars and restaurants just a short walk away. 

There aren’t that many chain hotels in Israel where you can use your points, the only notable exception is Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem. At the time of my trip the standard rooms were going for 93,000 HIlton Honors points a night, so I decided against staying there. Waldorf Astoria is located very close to the Old City but the area around the hotel doesn’t have much to offer. It’s got a few touristy galleries but not much in terms of food or nightlife. 

Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem
Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem

 Don’t miss a visit to Jerusalem’s famous Mahane Yehuda market. It’s not what it used to be in the years past, as the market has been gentrified a lot, but there are so many fun shops and small eateries selling everything from dried fruit to baklava and kanafeh desserts. And you’ve got to eat at the Azura restaurant when visiting the market for some of the best and the most flavorful, down to earth home-cooked style Israeli food you’ll ever eat. It closes at 4 P.M. so make sure to stop there for lunch when you are visiting the market. 

Freshly made Kanafeh dessert at the Mahane Yehuda market
Freshly made Kanafeh dessert at the Mahane Yehuda market

Final Thoughts

While this flight wasn’t as enjoyable as before, in big part because the Polaris lounge at Newark airport was closed, I am still glad I was able to fly nonstop instead of connecting in Europe. The service cuts didn’t bother me because the bedding was still the same as before and the food, in spite of the abbreviated service, was still quite good. 

And the ability to fly nonstop from the U.S. to Israel is why I value United miles and Chase Ultimate Rewards so much. United doesn’t release a lot of award space on the nonstop Newark to Tel Aviv route to its partners and your best bet of snagging this flight is with United miles.