Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this retreat research trip to Israel in September. There are more details about our Israel retreats, postponed to 2021, at the end of this post.
It’s a weird time to write about travel, as the world both emerges from COVID lockdowns and faces a larger, more crucial conversation about race, power, and privilege. After a week-long pause of respect, while I continue to reflect on how Alex in Wanderland can grow, I am back to publishing my previously scheduled blog content. Wishing all of you love and peace as we march forward.
Anyone who read my post on obtaining two valid US passports for travel in the Middle East gets the picture — moving around this region can be a little messy.
Or, you can chose a more adventurous perspective. Getting from Lebanon to Israel? What an experience! Getting from Israel to Egypt? A spy-like caper! And that’s the one I’m telling the tale of today — and sharing how-tos that I was unable to find anywhere else online.
So, first of all, relations between Egypt and Israel are much more positive than those between Lebanon and Israel. There is a peace treaty between the two countries, with no repercussions for travelers from either for having visited the other. You can easily cross the border by foot between Eilat, Israel and Taba, Egypt, and many Israelis do so to holiday in Sinai every year.
So when I went to book a flight from Ben Gurion to Cairo International online, I was shocked to not find a direct flight between the relatively close major airports. One of my friends living in Israel insisted that they exist, so I dug a little deeper into frequent flyer forums and Israeli Facebook groups. It turns out they do exist, but it’s not like any other flight I’d ever booked before.
The Air Sinai ghost flight, it turns out, is somewhat legendary among aviation geeks.
The airline runs one flight per day in each direction between Cairo and Tel Aviv, and the entire fleet is made up of two planes. It is what is referred to as a “paper airline” — it does not show up on traditional search engines, and tickets must be purchased in-cash at an airline office rather than booked online.
Is it the only option? No. While overland travel between the two would be insanely arduous due to geography and politics, one stop itineraries are available via Amman, Istanbul, Athens, etc — but they will turn a one hour journey into a 5-7 hour one, and the prices weren’t exactly a bargain for those, either. Considering I was heading from Israel into three intense weeks of running retreats in Egypt, I wanted to arrive refreshed and was willing to pay a premium for the ease of a direct flight on Air Sinai. While in the end the challenges of getting the ticket may have cancelled out the inconvenience of a layover, I actually enjoyed solving the riddle and was excited to create a comprehensive guide for other travelers looking to do the same, here.
So whether you’re looking for practical information on how to book an Air Sinai ticket between Cairo and Tel Aviv or just looking for a wild travel story, I think we’ve got you covered!
The History of Air Sinai
Big moves were made in 1979, when a historic peace treaty kicked off diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel, with Israel withdrawing from Sinai and Egypt becoming the first Arab nation to recognize the state of Israel. A small term in the treaty is what allows us to fly directly between Cairo and Tel Aviv today: within three years of signing, the two countries had to maintain active civilian aviation routes. Air Sinai, founded in 1982, fulfilled that term.
The Arab world’s rage at this decision caused EgyptAir to create a subsidiary to fulfill the treaty, rather than fly the route on their national carrier. Thus, AirSinai was born. El Al also used to also fly this route, but discontinued in 2012 during the Arab Spring, and as the airline was then privately owned, the government no longer had any jurisdiction to mandate them to fly it. To my understanding, there were once direct flights between Tel Aviv and Sharm El Sheikh, as well.
You can find more information on the history of Air Sinai in Atlas Obscura’s recent feature on the subject.
How To Book AirSinai in Tel Aviv
Like I mentioned previously, you cannot buy Air Sinai tickets online. You can find the schedule online, but it doesn’t show up on traditional search engines. While researching for this post I did see the flight pop up on sketchy third party travel agents like eDreams, but from what I understand if you continue with the booking process you’ll eventually reach a dead-end where you are unable to submit payment.
In the end, it basically took me days to get my ticket. First, I started by asking Hebrew-speaking friends to call the number I’d found online for the airline for me. They never answered. I planned to try to find the ticket office in the airport when I landed at Ben Gurion from Lebanon, but arrived in the middle of the night and found all airline offices closed (duh — not sure what I was thinking there.)
On my cab ride from the airport, I shot a Facebook message to the one travel agent who apparently has a relationship with Air Sinai, and got a very quick reply (more details below.) But the price was shocking!
I decided to just head to the office address in Tel Aviv, which was very central. I arrived to find a weird shopping center, and couldn’t find anything that hinted at Air Sinai. I stopped at a few of the offices in the mostly empty center, including one that was something related to travel, and they all had no idea what I was talking about when I asked for the Air Sinai office.
Finally giving up and heading back into the light of day, I made one final desperate attempt at locating this mystery airline: I sent them an email asking how to find them. Within ten minutes, my phone pinged — they were inside the hotel next to the shopping center. Hurray!
At this point it dawned on me that I’d need my passport to book a flight in-person (duh — but I’d never done it before!) While I sprinted to go get it, I emailed back and forth with an airline employee who answered my rapid-fire questions, but refused to stay open an extra three minutes for me or agree to hold the ticket. While only business class tickets remained they were only $451.03. This price was way better than what the agent quoted me, so I crossed my fingers and made my way back first thing in the morning.
I felt victorious as I finally made my way into the office, where I handed over hundreds of dollars in cash and flashed my passport and received, in exchange, a paper airline ticket and a hand-written receipt. How quaint.
So, here’s the various methods for booking, started with my highest recommendation and heading down the line, based on your location and luck:
• Direct in person. This is how I got my ticket! The address is 1 Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv. There is a small shopping center at this address. The office is not inside this shopping center, but rather inside the hotel adjacent to it — Lighthouse Hotels by Brown Hotels. From the lobby, take the elevator to the 13th floor, where you will find several offices. One is for Air Sinai. Their hours are 9am-4pm, closed Friday and Saturday. They seem to like to leave early. I was able to pay in USD or in shekels. Don’t forget your passport!
• Direct via email. The offices do respond, quickly I found, to email at AirSinai_TLV@hotmail.com. I did not try to purchase the ticket via email so I’m not sure how that would go — but some report they may accept money orders.
• Direct by phone. You can try calling the Air Sinai office in Tel Aviv at +972 3 5102481/2/3, though my friends were never able to get through. I did read of some success stories online that various travelers had by calling the closest EgyptAir office to them. The US number is +1 800 334 6787 — however, you may have to call back a few times and try different agents.
• Via a travel agent. Be prepared to pay up. The official travel agent authorized to book for Air Sinai in Israel is Mazada Tours. They quoted me the year-round fixed price of $550 in economy and $639 in business for one way Tel Aviv to Cairo. That’s about $200 more than I paid, making it pretty dang worthwhile to book directly, if possible. The prices on their website reveal that round trip tickets are little more than a one-way — so if it makes sense to do so, book round trip! Recently, a website called Fly Air Sinai has appeared, which has no direct relationship with the airline. While it didn’t exist when I was doing my own price comparison, a quick fare search for a similar date next year came up with $694 for the same business class ticket. The prices on
The Air Sinai Schedule Between Cairo and Tel Aviv
The flight leaves Cairo every morning at 8:55am and lands in Tel Aviv at 11:15am. It then turns around and departs Tel Aviv at 12:15pm and arrives in Cairo at 12:40pm.
Israel observes daylight savings time and Egypt does not — which means that for part of the year, the Israel side of the schedule is adjusted by an hour. But the flights depart and land from Cairo at the same time, all year round.
The Air Sinai Flight Experience
The flight departs from Terminal 3, the international terminal at Ben Gurion. However, it is in a separate wing of the terminal. Upon arrival at the airport, facing the check-in counters, you need to walk all the way to the left and go around the back — here you’ll find a small check-in counter for Air Sinai. Online check-in is not available, needless to say.
Airport security at Ben Gurion is always tough, though I didn’t note any additional screening for this flight. Just arrive early, no matter what your destination — you need at least three hours to be comfortable, seriously. (And I’m a last-minute-rush-to-the-gate kinda girl myself.)
Because I had a business class ticket, I was able to enter the DAN Lounge at Ben Gurion. Otherwise, the big plus to flying business was the luggage, since I had a ton of retreat stuff with me, as usual. Here are the restrictions:
- Business- 2 pieces of baggage with a maximum weight of 32 kg (70 lbs) and maximum dimensions of 158 cm (62 in)
- Economy- 1 piece of baggage with a maximum weight of 23 kg (50 lbs) and maximum dimensions of 158 cm (62 in).
- Business- 1 piece of hand luggage each with a maximum weight of 8 kg and one personal item
- Economy- 1 piece of hand luggage with a maximum weight of 8 kg and one personal item.
The flight was pretty drama-free. To my memory, there was just a simple beverage service, considering the brevity of the flight.
Who Flies Air Sinai
Interestingly, it is rarely Israelis or Egyptians who take these flights. For Egyptians, it is very difficult to get a visa. For Israelis, visas are not required for Sinai but are for the rest of Egypt — and regardless, many I talk to feel uneasy with the idea of traveling there.
From what I understand tour groups, business people, and religious pilgrims make up the majority of passengers on these flights. Many come from Africa, for which Cairo is a major gateway. Because tour groups are known to swoop in and book up the entire flight (especially the economy seats!) it’s a good idea to book as early as possible.
. . .
While it was a major mission, I look back on this experience with love and enjoyed this peek into the past of air travel, when paper tickets were the norm and you communicated with travel agents rather than browsing travel sites. I think this post sums up why travel in this region can be not for the faint of heart — but also a constant adventure!
Have you flown Air Sinai? Share you experiences in the comments!
Want to explore Israel with me? Be sure to nab one of the last few spots to our Wander Women Israel: A Yoga, Diving, + Adventure Retreat for May 27-June 3, 2021 or High Flying Israel: An Aerial Arts + Yoga Retreat for June 5-10, 2021.