Do you keep putting off your visit to Israel, as if it's a trip you can make only once in a lifetime? Are you intending to go someday when your kids are grown, or your life is in better order, or maybe after you've won the lottery? I'm here to tell you: Stop putting off your first trip. Go this year! Here's how to plan it.
- Decide when to go. By far the nicest times of year to visit Israel are the spring and the fall, when the weather is temperate. If you are not constrained by school schedules, seriously consider planning your trip for September-November or April-June. With a coastal plain, a mountain region in the north, and the Jordan Valley Rift, Israel has a varied landscape and climate -- but in general, summers are very hot. Winter (November through March) brings cooler weather and rain, and sometimes even light snow in the northern parts of the country. In the Negev desert and the southernmost parts of the country, rainfall is negligible, even in the winter.
Airfares from North America vary dramatically by season, with tickets far cheaper in the winter. From the east coast, round-trip fares in the summer and around the Passover holiday are as much as $1,000 or more, whereas in January and February, with careful shopping and by purchase of a ticket on a European airline with a connecting flight, it is usually possible to cut the cost of your ticket by up to half. (But to get these lower fares, you must purchase your ticket in the winter.)
If you’d like to celebrate a holiday in Israel, you can verify the dates of upcoming holidays on the Israel Ministry of Tourism website. Israeli businesses and schools follow the Julian calendar, but because Jewish religious holidays follow a lunar calendar, the timing of these holidays varies slightly from year to year.
- Make your travel arrangements.
- By air. The Israeli airline El Al operates direct flights to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport from all over the world, including nonstop flights from New York, Miami Los Angeles, and Toronto. El Al is legendary for its standard-setting security protocols. Several American carriers also offer nonstop flights to Tel Aviv, and many European airlines offer connecting flights. Once in Israel, options for transportation to and from the airport include buses (Egged is the national bus company); private car/van services; railway; taxi; rented car; and limousine.
A variety of ticket consolidators offer steeply discounted airfares to Israel (and to other destinations as well). Consolidators buy airline tickets (primarily international tickets) directly from the airlines and resell them to travelers at up to 70% below the lowest published fare. These tickets are completely nonrefundable, have many restrictions, and are usually not eligible for earning frequent flyer miles. To find consolidators, look in the Sunday travel section of the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times. Many local libraries have these Sunday papers. In some cases, the airfare to Israel will be part of an all-inclusive tour package. If you wish, you can usually ask that the airfare not be included, if for instance you wish to use frequent flyer miles for your tickets. (If you're a nervous flyer, make sure to overcome your fear of flying before you go. It's a long flight to Israel.)
- By sea. Several shipping lines, cruise lines and ferry services offer scheduled sailings from Europe to Israel’s port of Haifa in the north, Ashdod on the central part of the coast, and Eilat on the Red Sea. All three ports have modern terminals and offer daily shore excursions.
- By land. Land entry into Israel is possible through Egypt and Jordan. Border crossings are under the jurisdiction of the Israel Airports Authority.
- Make sure you have a valid passport. Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the date you arrive in Israel. American and Canadian citizens do not need a visa to visit Israel for periods of up to three months. Anyone planning to attend school in Israel will need a Student Visa. For more information and to check the requirements for other nationalities, contact the Embassy of Israel or an Israeli Consulate.
- Read up on the country's history and culture. Take some time to learn more about Israel before you go. Check your local library and bookstore, or browse the selection of books available online. You might want to consider at least one or two of the following, most of which are available in paperback:
• Eyewitness Travel Guide to Jerusalem&the Holy Land, edited by Kate Poole
• Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide: A Companion For The Modern Jewish Pilgrim, by Lawrence A. Hoffman
• Bar&Bat Mitzvah in Israel: The Ultimate Family Sourcebook, by Judith Isaacson and Deborah Rosenbloom
• How to Walk in the Footsteps of Jesus and the Prophets: A Scripture Reference Guide for Biblical Sites in Israel and Jordan, by Hela Crown-Tamir
• In the Land of Israel (Harvest in Translation), by Amos Oz
• The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict: Sixth Revised and Updated Edition, edited by Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin
• Personal Witness: Israel through My Eyes, by Abba Eban
- Decide what you want to see and do. Don’t put only the biblical landmarks and holy sites on your list! Israel offers a wealth of art and music festivals, museums, theatrical, dance, and music performances, fine restaurants, and shops and markets with local arts and crafts. Water lovers can choose from sandy beaches, rocky coves, freshwater lakes, and world-class diving and snorkeling opportunities. The country’s many nature preserves offer hiking trails to charming meadows and shady streams -- as well as desert canyons and cliffs.
Dozens of websites, books, travel agencies, and tour companies offer suggested itineraries for touring in the Holy Land. As a starting point, you might take a look at the Israeli Ministry of Tourism website, which offers 4-, 7- and 10-day suggested itineraries with Jewish themes, Christian themes, and special itinerary suggestions for families with children.
For free printed brochures, start by contacting the Israel Government Tourist Office (212-499-5650 or toll-free at 1-888-77-ISRAEL). You can also order their tourist information kit online. Detailed information about accommodations, tourist sites, cultural activities, restaurants, and other venues that are accessible to people with disabilities can be found on the website of Access Israel.
- Decide whether to tour on your own or with a group. Whether to tour with a group or on your own depends on your personal preferences and style. If you can't decide, a good option is to spend part of your trip taking organized tours, and part exploring on your own.
- Organized tours. Tours provide the advantage of having a knowledgeable guide to point out highlights and answer questions. You can travel with an organized tour from your hometown, or from a major travel gateway in the U.S. On the Israel Ministry of Tourism website, you can type in your zip code for a list of Israel travel specialists near you. You can also arrange (either before leaving home or after you arrive in Israel) for tours that last just a few days or even just a few hours. For examples, check out the Egged Bus Company website.
- On your own. Israel is a small country, and it is easy to get from one place to another. Public transportation is convenient and reasonably priced. Buses are the most popular form of public transport for both local and intercity trips. Egged operates most of the intercity bus lines, as well as the local service in most of the large cities and towns. Travelers from abroad can purchase Israbus tickets which are valid on all Egged bus lines for periods of 7, 14, 21, or 30 days. These tickets are available at all branches of Egged Tours.
In addition, Israel Railways operates convenient, inexpensive train service. Private taxis are available for local and inter-city trips, but a shared service taxi (known as a Sheroot) is a less expensive and more popular option. The shared taxis travel on permanent routes coinciding with the bus routes, but the drivers will also make request stops along the way. Departure times are not prescheduled; the taxi leaves the station when it is full. Most of the bus and train lines do not run on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays. Service ends on Friday afternoon and resumes Saturday evening. Some central taxis lines do operate on the Sabbath.
Most international car rental companies and local companies have offices in the large cities and at Ben Gurion Airport. To rent a car, the driver must be over 21 years of age, and must hold a valid international driver’s license and an international credit card.
- Choose your accommodations. Accommodations for visitors to Israel vary from elegant urban hotels, to bed&breakfasts near nature and hiking trails, to Bedouin tents in the desert! Choose from among familiar hotel brands, first-class or tourist-class European-style hotels, luxurious boutique hotels and spa hotels, kibbutz hotels set in beautiful scenery, as well as thousands of guestrooms (usually called tsimmers, after the German word for “room”) where the hosts serve delicious meals in quiet, pastoral settings.
Rural lodging can put you near many historical sites and attractions, while at the same time giving you a chance to learn about local communities and lifestyles. Some offer agricultural activities, such as harvesting fruit in season, horseback riding, visits to fruit and vegetable packing plants and olive oil or wine presses. Christian pilgrims may wish to consider the hostels and monasteries that offer lodgings near Christian holy sites. Campsites are also available across the country. If you're going to be staying in Israel for a few weeks or more, consider renting an apartment for your holiday.
- Decide what to bring along. Israel is a modern country and virtually any personal item can be purchased there if necessary.
- Clothing. For a visit during the spring, summer, or fall, you will need lightweight clothing, short-sleeved and sleeveless shirts, sandals, beach shoes and a bathing suit. It’s also a good idea to pack a sweater or jacket, for cool nights in the mountains and the desert (and for air-conditioned locations). Sunscreen, a sun hat, sunglasses and a bottle or thermos for water are essential. If you are traveling to Israel in the winter, bring warm clothing, including a coat, good shoes, an umbrella, gloves, and a scarf. Because the weather during most of the year is either temperate or very hot, most Israeli buildings do not have central heating. Even in the winter, however, the southernmost parts of the country are quite warm, so if you are traveling to Eilat or the Dead Sea, bring a bathing suit.
- Adaptors and Transformers. The Israeli power supply is 220 volts at 50 Hertz. Most electrical outlets in Israel require three-pronged plugs. Your laptop computer power cord, your PDA charger, and your digital camera charger can probably handle 220 volts (this information will appear in small letters on your power adaptor), but you will still need an adaptor plug. Visitors who want to use shavers, traveling irons, and other small appliances may need both transformers and adaptor plugs. Your local luggage store probably carries these.
- Mobile phone. Your cell phone will work in Israel if it’s a GSM phone and if you’ve arranged with your cellular provider to allow for foreign roaming. If you don’t have a GSM phone, or if you don’t want to pay roaming charges, there are many companies that offer cell phones for rental and use in Israel. If your GSM phone is unlocked, you can purchase an Israeli SIM card that will give you a local phone number.
- Temperature chart. Local weather forecasts are given in degrees Celsius, so you might want to bring along a temperature conversion chart or the conversion formula, or memorize a few equivalents to use as a guide. For example, 15° C is equivalent to 59° F, 25° C equals 77° F, 35° C equals 95° F, etc.
- Money. You'll need some Israeli money, especially if you plan to take a taxi or bus from the airport. Israel’s currency is the New Israel Shekel (NIS). You can ask your local bank to order some for you. The Israel Ministry of Tourism website has a currency converter to show the value of the NIS. You can exchange currency online before you arrive or at any foreign currency exchange either in the U.S. or Israel. Major credit cards (American Express, Diners, Visa, Mastercard/Access/Eurocard) are widely accepted all over Israel. In addition, you can get shekels from ATM machines. ATM machines compatible with Maestro, Cirrus, NYCE, Mastercard, VISA, and American Express can be found all over Israel. You can also exchange money and travelers' checks at banks or at your hotel.
- Learn some Hebrew. Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel. English is a compulsory school subject, and most Israelis speak English very well. Road and street signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Still, it's fun to be able to speak at least a few words of the local language. Until you get your own phrase book to carry with you, here's a very short list of some helpful words to know.
• Shalom – Hello, good-bye, and peace.
• Bo-care tov! – Good morning!
• Lye-lah tov! – Good night!
• Aey-foe? – Where?
• Sherootim – Restrooms.
• Ani rot-steh... – I want (said by a male).
• Ani rot-stah... – I want (said by a female).
• Ani rot-steh le’shtot. – I want to drink.
• Yaysh leh-cha...? – Do you have...?
• Kama? – How much?
• Atah midabare Angleet? – Do you speak English (said to a male).
• Aht midaberet Angleet? – Do you speak English (said to a female).
• Slee-cha! -- Pardon me!
• Todah rabah! – Thank you very much!
• Lihit-rah-oat! – See you next time!