The hidden cost of flying and buying abroad

One of life’s little joys is listening to conversations of people around you who are speaking in a language they think you don’t understand.

Illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
One of life’s little joys is listening to conversations of people around you who are speaking in a language they think you don’t understand.
I experienced this last week while waiting in a long line to pass through security at New York’s JFK Airport. A pair of Israeli businessmen – who appeared to be in their mid-30s – held a Hebrew conversation directly behind me discussing all they had purchased.
“I took the iPhone out of the box, and put it in my carry-on bag,” one of the men said, explaining his ingenious idea for bringing back to Israel an item priced well above the $250 duty- free limit by making it appear that it was a used phone.
He then explained that he put the empty box in his luggage. “It’s a good thing the box is small, because my bag is already too heavy,” he added.
Unable to resist temptation, I turned around and – in a Hebrew they didn’t think I understood – deadpanned, “You know that I’m from Customs, right?”
For a split second, the guy with the iPhone looked at me, surprised and unsure, wondering whether his efforts to bring the phone back to Israel were now in jeopardy because of an undercover sting operation.
Then he laughed. “Right, you’re from Customs.”
At that moment I felt a strong sense of connection with my compatriots, those two Israeli strangers. I felt our common humanity, or – rather – the common experience of every Israeli traveler.
In other words – boy, could I relate to what they were going through.
Traveling is a tense enough experience as it is: getting to the airport hours in advance to make it through the snake-like security lines; fumbling to pull your laptop out to be scanned as security agents yell to take off your shoes and belt and keep the line moving; scurrying to secure some space in the airplane’s overhead bin; and – most stressful of all – worrying about not getting stuck in that miserable middle seat.
If you’re Israeli, you have an additional menu of concerns.
First, at least for the religiously observant, there is the worry about where exactly you are going to put on tefillin in the Amsterdam airport; what to say when the agent pats you down going through security and asks what those strings (tzitzit) are under your shirt; and whether the kosher meat you are bringing into Europe for a weeklong family vacation will be confiscated.
All Israelis, religious or not, spend enormous amounts of emotional energy figuring out how to bring back 100 pounds of goods when the weight allowance is one 50-pound suitcase, and another 15 pounds in the carry-on.
“This is crazy,” I said to The Wife on a recent trip, stuffing what I couldn’t fit into the carry-on bag into the pockets of my overcoat, even though it was ridiculously hot outside. “I feel like I’m trying to smuggle drugs.”
I can’t remember the last time I flew without feeling like a minor criminal.
For days before I fly back home, I fret about whether someone is going to ask to weigh my carry-on; I pray that I fall upon a nice check-in person who will cut me a break on going three pounds overweight; and I rehearse what I’ll say if pulled over in Customs at Ben-Gurion Airport for buying a phone overseas for the brother of a friend of my kid’s in the army.
Over the years I have mastered the art of lifting a 35-pound carry-on bag into a plane’s luggage bin without straining or seeking help, so as not to arouse the attention of the stewardess. I have also developed a special talent for figuring out how to distribute weight across checked luggage, a carry-on bag and that one personal item that you can place under your seat.
The older I get, the more I question the very utility of it all.
For the last 35 years my father has watched with a combination of annoyance and awe my ritual of going to the US, feeling compelled to buy things, meticulously packing, and then getting it all home.
Though the list of what I buy has changed over the years, his comment remains the same: “What, you can’t get that in Israel?” Three decades ago – when I would buy peanut butter, chocolate chips and zip-lock bags – you probably couldn’t.
Then, when consumer goods became more readily available here, my answer changed: “Sure you can buy this stuff in Israel, but it costs about three times as much.”
But now, from the vantage point of vast experience, I’m beginning to wonder whether the hassle and worry and schlepping everything back is worth the savings of a few hundred dollars over time. I’m also not even sure how much I’ve actually saved.
How smart is it to save 20 bucks on an electric blanket if you end up having to spend another $35 on a converter so you can use the blanket in Israel? Is a saving of $150 on a computer worth it if you can’t easily get it serviced here when it breaks down? What do you gain by saving $50 on a pair of gym shoes for the kids, but then bring the shoes back and discover the sizes run small and the shoes don’t fit?
Yes, this routine of fly-buy-schlep is deeply ingrained in the Israeli psyche.
But is it smart?
“Of course it is,” The Wife and kids routinely say. But it is obvious they are going to say that, since I’m the guy doing most of the flying, buying and schlepping, and I’m also the one slinking through airports like a fugitive on the lam.