Local travelers rethink trips to Israel

WASHINGTON – July is typically the peak travel season to Israel but this summer unrest in the region is causing some travelers to re-evaluate their plans.

Many large tour groups — especially those set up specifically for teens and young adults — were already in the country when the violence flared.

“Everything was fine until about a week into the trip, and then the trouble started,” says Michael Richards, a Takoma Park attorney, whose 15-year-old daughter is on a tour of Israel organized by the North American Federation of Temple Youth, or NFTY.

He says when the rocket attacks began, he had a heart-to-heart talk with her.

“We had a conversation where we asked her how she was feeling,” Richards recalls, “and she said she was feeling safe.”

His daughter’s tour group was in northern Israel at the time, and organizers adjusted the itinerary while a security liaison checked in with Israeli officials. Richards says that appears to be the norm for many of the long established organizations bringing young Americans to Israel, adding “that made us feel somewhat better.”

He says his daughter was always calm, and never appeared anxious and that — plus the response from the organization running the trip — led to the decision that she would stay.

But not all the parents of teens in the group had the same response.

“About three of them, out of a group of 50, pulled their kids,” Richards says, “because they just didn’t feel comfortable.”

The airline industry is making it easier for those who want to alter their travel plans. Richard Marks, owner of MDC Travel in Chevy Chase, says major airlines are waving change fees for the time being on tickets to and from Israel.

He says ELAL and United have already contacted his office by email saying they are setting aside change fees for travel until July 22. The move is voluntary, and other airlines are likely to follow suit.

Marks says his agency has contacted about 90 percent of its clients who are either traveling to Israel or who are already there to let them know they can postpone travel if they choose.

“As of yet, we have had no client who has exercised their option to make changes,” he says.

Of course, there have been other travelers who have taken the airlines up on their offer. Some are planting to go to parts of the country where tensions are high, others are elderly or traveling with young children to areas where they fear they might have to make a quick dash for a bomb shelter.

Michael Richards says he feels confident that his daughter — who is in a large group with a security infrastructure — is safe. But he says “if I was just going on a vacation, I might wait.”

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