“Thanks so much Kobi for an absolutely great day!!!
I will remember it always.” – Tom Irving

Helpful Hints for Traveling to and in Israel

PACKING

Passports and Visas – Make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months beyond the dates of travel.  Visas depend on nationality – many are not required or are issued for 3 months upon arrival.If you are planning a visit to an Arab/Muslim country (besides Jordan, Egypt or Turkey) you should ask at immigration for your passport not to be stamped but rather stamp a blank piece of paper to be placed inside.  IMPORTANT NOTE:  When you arrive in Israel you will receive a blue and white entry permit which says State of Israel – Border Control and your name and info on it.  You must keep this with you (preferably with your passport) as you will need it to check in to hotels, rent cars and other things.

Electricity – Israel uses 220 volts at 50Hz.  This meant that those coming from Europe and Asia are generally fine (but will need adapters) but visitors from the USA where it is 110 volts will have more difficulty.  The most important thing to keep in mind is that there is a major difference between adapters and converters.  Adapters just change the plug.  Converters change the voltage.  Generally speaking a lot of hi-tech stuff has a range of voltage from 100-250 so computers, cameras, etc. are usually fine.  It is the low tech stuff like hair dryers that end up getting fried (and knocking out electricity in your hotel room) when you try to plug them in using an adapter [the plugs in Israel are different so at the least – wherever you are coming from – you will need a few adapters).  For more information on all this please visit: http://www.megavolt.co.il/Tips_and_info/visitor.html.

Weather – There are two seasons here in Israel.  The dry season and the less dry season.  During the dry season – May-September – you can forget about having rain.  Rain usually comes in December/January though there is a chance of a rainy day in October/November and February-April.   Summers are hot here in Israel.  Hot and humid along the coast (usually around 70-90F/21-32C) – and hot and dry in the desert and the Jordan Valley (usually around 100F/38C but can get up to 115F/47C in mid-day by the Dead Sea).  The mountains (including Jerusalem) and north are usually a bit cooler (around 70-80F/21-26C).  In winter things switch.  The coast and desert is where it is the warmest (usually around 55-70F/13-21C), though beware the desert is very, very cold at night.  Jerusalem and the north are where it is colder (usually around 45-65F/8-17C) with some winters even getting snow (8 inches in Jerusalem in one snowfall in January 2013 and 12 inches back in January 2000).  You can even go skiing in winter on Mt. Hermon in the north.  The number one packing mistake people make is not bringing appropriate warm clothing for winter in Israel.  Average temperatures can be seen here: http://www.go2israel.org/weather.html

Packing for flight – I always recommend – wherever one travels – to bring a t-shirt, socks and underwear in your carry-on bag just in case your bag gets lost for a day.  It is nice to have a clean set of clothes J.

Dress for holy sites – Entering Christian and Muslim holy sites requires one’s shoulders to be covered and shorts/pants/skirt below the knee.   This is generally the rule for Jewish sites as well though a head covering for men is required (hats are fine).  For women, skirts are preferred for the Western Wall for services such as on Friday night but otherwise pants are fine. Women should also not wear anything low-cut or midriff-baring and the shirt should have some sort of sleeve.  In Tzfat/Safed the sleeve should cover past the elbow. I highly suggest for summer days that ladies have a sarong as well as a shawl that can be taken out of a purse or backpack.  Capri pants are also good for ladies.  Some men like to wear shorts with additions – i.e. which can be turned into pants by zipping up some extra parts for appropriate things.

Shoes – Comfortable walking shoes are very important.  A lot of the old cities are cobblestone.  I suggest a good pair of sneakers/hiking shoes, a pair of sandals for the winter and a pair of water shoes for water hikes and the Dead Sea (you don’t want to cut your feet on the rocks and stick them in the Dead Sea).

Hats, water, sunglasses, sunscreen – Over 50% of Israel is desert.  Make sure to bring a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen (rather expensive here) and if you have a water bottle holder that’s great, if not no worries.

Flashlights – good for night hikes in the desert to see the stars, underground exploration in ancient tunnels and more.

Phones – You can use your phone and just get an Israeli SIM card if you like.  You can also get a phone for the trip.  See SERVICES for more.  The country code in Israel is 972.  If using an Israeli phone, when calling a number, use the 0 at the beginning such as in 03-555-5555.  If calling from abroad or using a foreign phone in Israel, dial the country code and drop the 0 as in 972-3-555-5555.  Never make phone calls from hotel rooms.

 

GETTING AROUND

Renting Cars – Rental cars are available throughout the country and branches are usually open from 8AM-6PM Sunday-Thursday and 8AM-1PM on Friday.  The airport branch stays open 24 hours though there is a surcharge for picking up from or dropping off at the airport.  Manual is usually cheaper than automatic.   Israeli companies are usually cheaper than international companies.  I can help you get the best prices – for more info see SERVICES.
Route 6 – If you are driving please note that Route 6 is a toll road.  A picture is taken of your license plate and the bill sent to the rental car company.

Public Transportation – Public transportation in urban areas is generally excellent – in rural areas, not so good.  The best way to travel along the coast is by train.  Trains go from the desert through Tel Aviv and up the coast to Haifa and Akko.  There is also a train from Tel Aviv through the airport to Modiin.  Do NOT take the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as it is incredibly slow.  They are building a high-speed line but it’s not expected to be ready until 2017 at the earliest.   Buses are available throughout the country; however, buses to outlying areas may only come a few times a day.  The Negev desert, Jordan Valley and Golan Heights especially are difficult by public transportation.  In Jerusalem there is a light rail line (and more on the way); just make sure you buy your ticket before getting on the bus.

Eilat – There are flights to Eilat which usually cost 2-3x the price of a bus ride.  The bus ride is around 4.5-5 hours and leaves from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  A train is now being planned but it will not be ready until 2018 at the absolute earliest.

Taxis – Taxis are plentiful and easy to get in any city.  There are surcharges for 3rd and 4th passengers, luggage and ordering them.

Hiring a driver – if you are coming with a group than likely you will want to hire a driver for a van, minibus or bus.  For more info see SERVICES.

To/From the Airport – There is a train to Tel Aviv and Haifa to/from the airport.  There is a bus to Jerusalem but it is infrequent and involves changing buses at Airport City.  There is a Nesher shared taxi service which leaves when 10 people arrive and costs around 62NIS per person or 40NIS to the bus station/light rail station in Jerusalem.  It can take a while depending when you get dropped off as it takes people to their addresses.  There is also a similar service to Haifa.  The same service will pick you up at your hotel/residence and take you to the airport.  Taxis are also available – it is usually around 300-350NIS to Jerusalem and 150-200NIS to Tel Aviv.  For larger groups I can also arrange a transfer to your hotel/residence – for more info see SERVICES.
Shabbat – Public transportation is only available in cities where there is a large non-Jewish minority such as in Haifa and in Jerusalem (but only the Arab bus companies) as well as Eilat, which has a large tourist population.  Trains do not run on Shabbat.  Taxis are available as are the airport shuttles.

LOCAL CUSTOMS

Alcohol – Alcohol is legal to drink from age 18.  There are no open container laws in Israel although public intoxication is frowned upon.  Alcohol is not permitted to be sold after 11PM at supermarkets, minimarkets, etc.  There are excellent wines in Israel and a few decent beers.  Mixed drinks and shots in Israel are often twice as much alcohol as in the USA which is why they are also expensive.  One does not generally tip at a bar per drink but is welcome to leave something small at the end.   Keep in mind if drinking/dining with Israelis that Muslims generally avoid alcohol (and 20% of Israelis are Muslims).  Important note: Do not purchase alcohol at duty-free at Ben Gurion airport on your way home.  They will confiscate it at the gate.  This is for Israelis who are traveling who then pick it up on their way back into the country.

Religious customs – The most important things to keep in mind are that on Shabbat many things shut down.  The kosher restaurants are all closed on Shabbat.  Places of entertainment are generally open.  Some neighborhoods will bar entry to moving vehicles.  It is importantly in general to dress conservatively and to refrain from physical contact with the opposite gender if walking through an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood such as Mea Shearim in Jerusalem.  Electronic devices should not be used in these neighborhoods on Shabbat nor at the Western Wall.  Prepare to take your shoes off when entering a mosque and your hat off when entering a church.

Photography –   You can generally take photos with flash everywhere you like around the country except for certain museums.  I would ask first, however, before taking a picture of a person.

Dress – People generally dress casually here.  Shorts are not generally worn unless on a trip.  Sandals are popular.  Suits are not worn except maybe on High Holidays or high level business meetings.

Temple Mount – The Temple Mount has specific opening hours and is closed on Fridays and Saturdays.   One cannot bring any religious material or items onto the Temple Mount and of course no weapons or alcohol.  Modest dress is required.

Water – Israel has a major water problem.  It is why Jews around the world pray for rain in Israel.  As such it is taboo to waste water.  Commercials in Israel implore people to take “Israeli” showers – rinsing off at the beginning and the end and keeping the faucet off in the middle.  That being said, drinking water is important, which we will get to soon.

Smoking – Smoking is not allowed in public buildings, restaurants, bars, hospitals, airports, government offices, bus stops, etc.  That being said there are not many people enforcing this ban and smoking – especially in bars and clubs – can make a visit prohibitive – but you are in your right to ask for a manager to take action.

HEALTH AND SAFETY ISSUES

Health Issues – Israel has top level hospitals.  Really with a bunch of Jewish doctors around there is nothing to worry about.   Israel also has a wonderful set of emergency medical centers called Terem, which provide for emergencies that are not life-threatening (which keeps down the traffic at the hospital emergency rooms).   Doctors almost all speak English and those at Terem are often native speakers.  Terem centers exist mostly in the center of the country – Jerusalem, Bnei Brak/Ramat Gan (next to Tel Aviv), Modiin, Bet Shemesh and Maale Adumim and also in the far north in Carmiel.  For more information about Terem see http://www.terem.com/en/tourists.  Making sure you have traveler’s health insurance of course is a good idea.  No vaccinations are needed for visiting Israel.

Safety – Israel is a very safe place but a few things should be kept in mind.  At entrances to public places, malls, holy sites, bus stations, etc. you may have to go through a security check such as at the airport (but your belt and shoes can be left on).  Watch your wallet in any major busy areas like markets as you would do in any place in the world.  Do not leave any bags or luggage unattended at any moment.   People get antsy about seeing unattended bags and tend to call in the bomb squad to evacuate the area and detonate your things.   Like any place in the world there are certain areas that it’s not recommended to go to at all (Gaza for example), certain neighborhoods in cities at all or in evening time.  Your guide can help you with this.  Generally, however, people hang out to all hours of the night as public violent crime is minimal.  Israel has one of the highest life expectancies in the world!

Dead Sea – Come prepared for this experience.  Lots of sunscreen.  Water shoes/flip-flops, etc. Do not shave a day or two before entering.  Do not drink the water and do not put your head under water.  If you get it in your eye do not rub your eye with your hand – go out of the water and wash your eye out in the showers on the beach for that purpose.

Water – Most people have not been to a desert before and Israel is over 50% desert and at the least, situated in an arid climate zone.   We recommend drinking 3 liters of water a day, 4 in summertime, especially in the desert or doing physical activity.   Most of the country is dry and arid and so the heat is not felt as much and sadly it is often in winter that people get dehydrated because they really don’t feel the heat and therefore do not drink enough.   The tap water here is generally chlorinated and fine to drink although if you know you have stomach issues then you might want to use bottled water.  Hotels usually have a place to fill up water bottles at breakfast so you do not have to purchase new bottled water every day.  National parks usually have places to fill up at the entrance.

Hiking – It is highly recommended not to go hiking without a guide especially in the desert.  Between the heat of the desert in the summer and the flash floods in the winter it can be very dangerous.

Jerusalem Old City – do not pickup anyone at the Jaffa Gate claiming to be a tour guide and definitely do not follow anyone who asks if you need help shopping.  Beware using credit cards at random shops in the Old City market.

MONEY

Currency – We use the NIS – new Israel shekel.  Bills are in denominations of 20, 50, 100 and 200.  It can sometimes be hard to use 200NIS bills so break them when you can.  The difficult thing with the money is the coins.  Both shekels and agorot – our cents – come in coin form.  You can find 1, 2, 5 and 10 shekel coins.  Agorot come in coins of 10 and 50 (usually shown as ½ – as in ½ a shekel) though sometimes you will find a 5 agorot coin.  1 agorot coins are incredibly rare and incredibly worthless.  The major difference between them is that the shekels are silver and the agorot are copper.  The one confusing one is the 10 shekel coin which is both but just go by the rule: silver = shekel – i.e. if there is silver in it, it is a shekel.

Changing/Getting Money – The exchange rate the last few years has fluctuated between 3.2 NIS (new Israeli shekels) to the dollar and 3.9 NIS to the dollar.  Usually it sits between 3.5 and 3.8NIS.  For Euros it is usually between 4.8 and 5.1 NIS to the Euro.  The current exchange rate can be seen here: http://www.boi.org.il/en/markets/exchangerates/pages/default.aspx. ATMS will give you the best exchange rates; however make sure your bank does not charge you extra for using a foreign ATM.  It is best not to change at the airport, your hotel or in the Old City of Jerusalem but if you have to only change some of your money.  You will get better deals at exchange places in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (new city).  There are ATMs at the airport.  Often times ATMs do not let you take out more than $100 or so at a time.  Certain ones will allow you to take out up to $1000.  Bank Leumi, Bank Hapoalim and Bank Discount are usually good about this.  Before going to rural areas, the desert or Jordan make sure you have cash.  When using ATMs the amounts shown will be in shekels.

Traveler’s Checks/Cheques – I do not recommend them.  Use ATMs and credit cards.  Traveler’s checks are difficult to cash here.

VAT – Israel has a 17% value added tax or VAT (called “mam” in Hebrew).  This is included in the prices of everything you buy (food, shopping, etc.) although a few things, like art, do not have VAT.  Your bill at a restaurant will not have a line for VAT – it is included.  Tourists do not have to pay VAT at certain places – rental cars, hotels, etc.  Also certain shops will have a special deal with the tax authorities that if you spend more than $100 (or ~400NIS) in the shop you will get the tax back at the airport.  Make sure to get a form from the shop.  At the airport this should be the first thing you do – go to the VAT stand in the departures hall.  You will have to show the item that you purchased (in addition to the form) so make sure it is easily accessible.   Once you are done you can put it back in your bag (make sure liquids like Dead Sea products go in your checked luggage).

Tipping – Tipping here is 10% in restaurants unless it’s a fancy place at which 15% is expected.  It’s not included in the bill and often cannot be put on a credit card (i.e. in cash only).  For taxis just round up to the next shekel or two.

OTHER

Time – We are GMT +2 for much of the year and GMT + 3 from April to September/October (or the Saturday night before Yom Kippur). Generally we are 6 or 7 hours ahead of EST.  Time is often quoted here in military time – i.e. 3PM is 15:00.

Wi-Fi – Wi-Fi is often available throughout the country – in cafes, Egged buses and even the city of Tel Aviv is planning on offering free Wi-Fi throughout the city by some point in 2013.  That being said often times major hotels charge a hefty fee for Wi-Fi.  Some people like to get a USB modem to have internet wherever they go. For more see SERVICES.