Should You Fly Iberia in Business or Economy to Tel Aviv?

Jun 22, 2019

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Although UK-based travellers have a variety of options when it comes to flying to Israel, for those that have some Avios to burn and are willing to connect in Europe, Iberia offers once-daily nonstop flights between its base in Madrid (MAD) and Ben Gurion Airport (TLV).

Operated with an Airbus A330-200 aircraft, the flight is just over four hours on the outbound segment and just over five on the return. The flight leaves Madrid daily at 4:10pm and then returns from Tel Aviv at the way-too-early hour of 5:35am.

The aircraft has 288 seats spread out over two cabins: business and economy. Business class offers lie-flat beds, which is a perk of flying a wide-body aircraft instead of a narrow body. Speaking of business and economy, when I recently flew between the two cities, I was faced with the conundrum of which class to fly.

The Backstory

Business class was actually a fairly reasonable price — a one-way ticket ran just over £500, and economy was a steal at £237 one-way. These prices are fairly normal for Iberia’s MAD-TLV route, too. It’s really common to see one-way business tickets at around £500-900 and economy for £200-320.

But the low pricing in business and the extra-low pricing in economy made it harder to decide: Should I splurge and do business, or save and fly economy? Was it worth the money to fly in business for a such a short flight?

I went back and forth and then settled on a great compromise: I’d fly economy the way there on the shorter, four-hour flight and business on the way back on the longer, five-hour flight, taking advantage of the lie-flat bed to sleep on the early morning flight. Then, I’d come back to tell TPG UK readers about it, helping them decide which option to pick if faced with the same or similar decision.

Why Fly Iberia From Madrid?

Before I run through my experience in each cabin, I’d like to answer this question first: Why would someone in the UK even bother flying all the way to Spain to snag these low fares, especially when you can fly for under £100 each way from London nonstop on airlines like easyJet or Wizzair?

The answer is simple: If you plan to use Iberia Avios you’ll pay less taxes and fees than using British Airways Avios and leaving right from the UK. So, if you can find a cheap flight on a low-cost carrier and hop over to Madrid, you could either use your Avios for the Iberia flight or simply pay cash for a cheaper lie-flat business class experience. Although British Airways has Reward Flight Savers with fixed low fees and taxes for some of it’s short-haul destinations, TLV is excluded and considered long-haul, which points to Iberia as the way to go for using points to fly.

It is possible to fly El Al business nonstop from various UK hubs for even cheaper on certain dates, but many times their cheaper routes fly on the 737 aircraft which doesn’t feature lie-flat seats in business.

Remember, too, that you can transfer your British Airways Avios to Iberia Avios if both accounts have been open for at least 90 days and seem some activity, which can be in the form of flight credits or transferring points from American Express. Your Avios transfer instantly at a 1:1 ratio.

Using Iberia Avios, you may be able to snag a one way ticket for as low as 11,000 Avios in economy (plus less than £50 in taxes and fees) or 21,250 Avios in business (plus less than £60 in taxes and fees).

If you plan to pay cash, buying the tickets using your British Airways American Express Premium Plus card which earns you 3x Avios per pound spent on BA.com. Or, if you buy on Iberia’s website or another OTA, use the Virgin Plus Mastercard earns which earns 1.5x points on spend.

Economy Experience

Check-in

Check-in began smoothly. Thanks to my Oneworld Ruby elite status, I was able to check-in through the priority line where I didn’t have to wait at all. But then the agent (in that always-bored, mildly standoffish Iberia manner) told me that luggage rules had changed, and my ticket — though considered long-haul — didn’t include a hold bag. Even if I paid to upgrade to business, I still wouldn’t have the hold bag included — I’d have to pay the full fare last-minute business class ticket (well over £1,000) in order to get it for free. Even with my return flight in business and my pathetic Ruby Oneworld elite status, I couldn’t persuade her to let me check a bag. After much persuasion, though, she at least assigned me an aisle seat, 27C.

I suppose it’s my own fault for not paying attention (it’s not like I’m a frequent traveller or anything), but I was annoyed that Iberia had made this change — and even more annoyed at myself for not confirming that my fare had baggage included. I’d flown Iberia long haul routes heaps of times and never had a fare that didn’t include a hold bag.

So, after €60/£53 in bag check fees, I left my bag (and my humiliation) on the carousel and marched off to security.

Boarding

Another Iberia surprise: Boarding groups had changed practically overnight. I had just flown with the airline a few days prior to this flight and things had changed since then. Priority no longer existed and Group 1 was business and Oneworld Sapphire and Emerald. Group 2 was Oneworld Ruby, and Groups 3/4 were the rest of the plane. I was the only person boarding in Group 2, which I found mildly ironic. I faced no added security (I’d heard some rumours about extra security for those flying to Israel) in the security line or while boarding.

Seat

Once on board, I found my seat, 27C, among a rowdy group of almost 100 students visiting Israel in with a special travel programme.

I mentally cursed the gate agent, who not only put me right in the middle of the screeching 16-year-olds, but also gave me a seat with no window. At least I wasn’t in the middle seat, though.

Once my seatmate sat down, the back window was blocked and no window in front.
Once my seatmate sat down, the back window was blocked and no window in front.

I had a decent amount of legroom despite the metal box that blocked a third of the floorspace in front of me. My seat was 19 inches wide (about 48cm) with a pitch of 27 inches (almost 69cm) and I felt like I had enough space, relatively speaking, although I found the lack of window to be very claustrophobic.

Food, Service and Entertainment

As I expected, meal service took awhile because they first had to hand out the special meals and many of the Israel flights have passengers requesting kosher meals. The person in front of me reclined their seat so meal time was a tight squeeze.

By the time the food was served (almost two hours into the four-hour flight) I was hungry, so I dove into the meatballs instead of snapping a photo. Whoops. The meatballs were surprisingly good. I fly Iberia’s long-haul product often, and the meatballs were some of the best food I’ve had when flying Iberia economy.

But in haste to snap the forgotten photograph plus my tight quarters I dumped my salad all over the floor — I was one of “those” passengers — it was like I’d never flown before.

The meal, sans meatballs, which I’d hungrily devoured.

I felt guilty for subjecting my seatmates to a salad-covered floor so I awkwardly leaned over the armrest (my tray table was still out so my mobility was limited) to collect the salad leaves with my napkins as my fellow teenage passengers gave me a little stink eye, which, frankly, I felt was justified. Or maybe it was pity. Or envy/awe as I was pretty much contorted into a Cirque du Soleil yoga pose in order to reach the salad leaves sideways over my armrest.

The remnants of my saladpocalypse of 2019
The remnants of my saladpocalypse of 2019

After my very botched attempt at lunch, I turned to the IFE. The screens were the same as always on the A330. I find Iberia’s screens typically work fine and are responsive but don’t have a lot of great options when it comes to movie selection. However, I did get a few laughs out of the chick flick ‘What Men Want’ (I just love Taraji P. Henson) and afterwards, watched a few thing on my phone. As the flight was only about four hours, it went by pretty quickly.

Service, as expected with Iberia, was clipped and average. They’re never rude, but never actually friendly, either.

Business-Class Experience

Check-in

After two or so glorious hours of sleep, I headed to the airport to arrive at 3:30am, two full hours ahead of my flight. The staff at the Hilton Tel Aviv assured me that since I was flying business, I didn’t have to get there three hours ahead, which is what the airport recommends for economy passengers.

Before I could check in at the Iberia desk I had to answer an immense amount of security questions. The security agent seemed especially interested in “who I knew in Indonesia” back I when I had a beachy, two-week Bali adventure in 2015. Bleary-eyed and still headachey from that last glass of rosé I consumed at a hip bar in Jaffa just hours before, I almost couldn’t keep up with the security agent’s strange and intense questioning about the stamps in my passport. But why had I gone to Morocco twice? What did I do during that eight-hour layover in Istanbul? After an intense 15 minutes, I was sent to Iberia to check in. The gate agent told me to go to the fast track security (whew).

When I got to fast track, I was turned away and told to go to a special line. Apparently, the security agent wasn’t satisfied with my responses about my Bali 2015 adventure, so I was sent to extra security. I waited for about 25 minutes with a group of other travelers. My carry on was then completely unpacked as I was poked, prodded and asked to take my lipstick out of the tube and every single cable out of my bag.

I finally made it through the embarrassment of taking out all of my belongings in front of strangers at 4:30am and sent to my gate. I never made it to the Dan Lounge, as my flight boarded as soon as I got to the gate.

Apparently, flying business class doesn’t ensure you’ll be fast tracked at Ben Gurion, so make sure to arrive in time for the possible extra security you might face. Especially if you’ve been to Bali.

Boarding

Boarding was never actually called. I just saw people entering the plane, went up to the front (I was Group 1) and boarded.

Seat

My crankiness at the extra security slowly subsided as I relaxed in my large and comfortable seat, 2L, which was fairly private and a window seat.

More than spacious enough for my 5 foot, 2 inch frame, I was just thrilled to have made it on board. I was counting the seconds until take-off so I could finally recline and sleep.

The business class cabin was only half full. I was given the option to take a Spanish newspaper before take off, but I wasn’t offered a drink pre-flight.

After breakfast, I reclined my seat into a full bed position, opened up the pillow and blanket and promptly fell asleep until landing. I’m not sure I would have been able to sleep so soundly in economy, so having the lie-flat bed on such an early flight was amazing.

Food, Service and Entertainment

Breakfast was served almost immediately after take-off. I wasn’t super hungry but found the eggs to be less rubbery than typical plane eggs. The fruit was hard and not yet ripe, which was disappointing. The smashed croissant looked rather sad. I skipped the coffee afterwards to sleep.

Service was average. I’m sure the FAs were just as tired as I was, and while they weren’t rude, they definitely weren’t friendly or overly helpful. I’m honestly waiting for the day I can say Iberia FAs went above and beyond, but sadly, I doubt it may ever come. When they passed out the noise-cancelling headphones, they pretty much just dropped them on the table area without a second glance.

The IFE screens had the same offerings as those in economy, but were much larger. I put the map on and didn’t use the screens for anything else.

Weird, tiny amenity kits were passed out in a small clear case, containing socks, a hair tie, an eye mask toothbrush, toothpaste and ear plugs. A far cry from the bright red neoprene cases normally given, the kits were pretty tacky looking and I didn’t end up using anything from them.

Bottom Line

I think flying economy to Tel Aviv on the shorter flight and business on the way back was the way to go. If I had paid attention to the luggage rules and paid extra to select my seat on the economy flight, I would have likely had a better experience — and those are both things I plan to do on my next Iberia economy trip. You live and you learn (and you spill salad in the aisle as teenagers laugh at you).

Flying business on the longer flight on the way home was more than worth it. Just don’t expect all the bells and whistles on the five-hour jaunt, as service, amenity kits and food weren’t quite up to par. But the lie-flat seat made up for it. Although flying business didn’t help me in breezing through security, having the flat bed on the early flight ensured I got almost four hours of sleep, allowing me to adapt much quicker after landing in Madrid.

If the prices are right, you could apply this same technique to other airlines, or switch things up, like flying a £100 Wizzair fare nonstop from London to Tel Aviv and then flying business on Iberia from Tel Aviv to Madrid using Avios — and maybe even staying a few days in the Spanish capital to extend your trip just a little bit longer.

All photos by the author.

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