By Douglas E. Duckett
You have several carriers to choose from in flying to Israel. Obviously, El Al Israel Airlines serves the country with the most flights, including direct flights from several American cities. The cost is competitive, and El Al also offers an early start to your Israel experience.
I also rank El Al’s rigorous security measures as a plus, though the process can feel intrusive to those not used to it. On the negative side, El Al may have less solicitous service and seemingly a more chaotic clientele, including ultra-Orthodox men who sometimes balk at sitting next to women. (Note that I have not flown El Al in over two decades, and I have heard the service has improved since then.)
But remember that El Al does not fly on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, which runs from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. This can cut into your available vacation time, particularly if you need to time your trips to fly on weekends. I flew El Al the first two times, largely to support Israel, but have since found other airlines more convenient.
Delta Air Lines offers nonstop flights from New York/JFK to Ben Gurion Airport and back. I have flown this route many times now and really like it. United also offers non-stop flights to Israel from Newark, and I’ve heard that is a good option. For Canadian (and even American) readers, Air Canada offers convenient, nonstop services from Toronto (and El Al also serves Toronto). Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, and British Airways also serve Israel, and they are easy to connect to in Europe via various American carriers. With tourism to Israel booming again, other options may become available. But note: Israel is not the most competitive market for airfares, and flights tend to be expensive.
If you can afford it, I highly recommend renting a car and driving yourself for at least part of the trip. It is the best way to see Israel, particularly if you will be touring Galilee and the countryside or the desert south, which are not practical to tour using public transportation.
Israel is very small (about the size of New Jersey), and nothing is very far apart (except for Eilat, at the southern tip of the country on the Red Sea). Indeed, you could drive from the northernmost tip to Eilat in five to six hours, though no one would ever do that since there are so many amazing places in between. Most road signs are in English as well as Hebrew and Arabic, and it is fairly easy to get around, at least outside the cities.
By renting a car, you are not tied to bus schedules or someone else’s idea of what you should see and when. That said, bus service is quite extensive, inexpensive, and a good option for intercity travel, and you can even put your luggage underneath in the cargo hold.
Trains are also an option for some routes, and you can read more on both below. If you are renting a car, definitely do so on-line before you leave; you will save a lot of money over waiting to rent once you arrive in Israel.
I recommend an Israeli company called Eldan for rental cars. On my last several trips, they had the best rate, with a 20% discount for Internet bookings through www.eldan.co.il, and I have generally found the service very good. Eldan also has a hotel in Jerusalem next to the YMCA; you can book the hotel with the car as a package deal.
Hertz, Avis, and Budget also offer rental cars in Israel. Book through each company’s Israel web site (with the suffix .co.il), not the US sites or third-party sites, as you may not get the full price including the required insurance.
I have used Avis in the past and was happy with it; see www.avis.co.il. Hertz is a quite good option but tends to be more expensive; www.hertz.co.il. Budget is a newer player in Israel, and I used them in 2006, but I had a very bad customer-service experience with Budget’s Tel Aviv office, and others have also reported negative experiences more recently.
I avoid Sixt Israe as their Israeli franchisee has scores of negative reports on TripAdvisor! I note that Thrifty and some other American operators now have a presence in Israel through local franchisees, but reports have been mixed. I would stick with Eldan. (And in Israel, Enterprise is Eldan, so just use the Eldan site to book.)
Most US bank credit cards do not offer “CDW” coverage for rental cars in Israel, which allows visitors to avoid part of the expensive insurance coverage sold by the car rental companies. There are exceptions—MasterCard World Cards offer the CDW coverage (I have one for just this purpose) and all Chase and Citi cards and my Delta American Express Platinum card in the US now offer CDW in Israel as well.
Unless you have a card that offers CDW, you will need to purchase a package of vehicle insurance plus the third-party liability insurance, and this adds toalready high costs.
If your card does offer CDW, you will need to bring written verification of that coverage with you; my company sends me a .pdf letter to that effect upon request through the customer service line.
I have another suggestion to reduce both rental car costs and hassles. If you follow the itinerary recommend, starting your trip in Tel Aviv and ending in Jerusalem, you won’t really need or even want a car in either of those cities. (Remember that despite the “TLV” code, the airport is not in Tel Aviv but between that city and Jerusalem, easily accessible to or from both.)
Both cities are quite confusing to drive in, city traffic is far worse than in the countryside, and trust me— parking in either city is a real nightmare. So, you can rent the car for pick up in Tel Aviv on the day you leave the city to head north (or south), and then drop it off once you arrive in Jerusalem, or vice versa.
All the car rental companies have offices in both cities. This cuts both costs and stress. I have done this for years now and never missed having a car in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Cab or bus fares are far less than rental costs for those days, and it’s easy to take a cab or train to Tel Aviv, or a cab (or sherut/group taxi) to or from Jerusalem, with a rail option scheduled to open in the not-distant future.
Ask for air conditioning—you’ll need it in warmer months or areas. Note that rental costs generally are high compared to the US at least, particularly with the required insurance. I still find the convenience worth it.
Be aware that rental cars (at least the less expensive ones) are much smaller than the cars that most North Americans are used to driving. For Europeans, it will be no surprise. Gasoline is also very expensive in Israel (as in Europe)—about twice as high or more than in the US—but the country is so small that you won’t use that much. On my recent trips, I drove all over and refilled no more than two or three times.
Be aware when driving that there are no formal borders or markers as such to mark the limits of the West Bank (the area conquered from Jordan in 1967), nor is it typically indicated on Israeli road maps. Israelis call the old border between the territories conquered in 1967 and Israel proper “the Green Line.” Most up-to-date maps do show the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority (mainly large cities).
You can purchase great road maps from Carta Israel. The Carta Touring Atlas and Guide is wonderful as well, and since it is in booklet form, it is easier to use in a car, with touring tips in the margins.
Others prefer the more detailed MAPA maps, which are also terrific. (You can do a Google search to find places to buy them on-line.) Both products clearly show the areas under Palestinian control and also the security barrier, which is basically the closest we now have to a “border” between Israel proper and the West Bank.
That “seam line” between Israel proper and the West Bank is now far more evident on the ground than it used to be. Of course, Israel has completely withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, now under Hamas rule, and Gaza is closed to travel by tourists.
In most places, the controversial security barrier, a high wall in some places, gives you an obvious indication where the Green Line is (or at least the point of Israeli control), but that barrier is not complete all the way around the West Bank. Even where there is no barrier, however, there are IDF checkpoints at the entrance to the territories.
Accordingly, unlike twenty years ago, you can no longer just wander into the West Bank without knowing. You cannot drive an Israeli rental car into the areas under Palestinian Authority control (called “Area A”); as noted above (the cities of Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Qalqilya, Tulkarm, and most of Hebron, among others). I would use some caution about driving on your own in other areas of the West Bank, except as noted below.
I have toured Hebron with a guide on two trips and felt safe, though Hebron is at times the focus of disturbances. Abraham Tours (www.abrahamtours.com) offers tours to parts of the West Bank, including Palestinian cities such as Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin, and that’s a very good option.
Bethlehem and Jericho are very safe to visit on your own, but again, not with an Israeli rental car, because those are “Area A” territories.
Most of the West Bank outside of the cities, however, is under Israeli security control (Area C), and Area C is not barred to Israeli rental cars. Please note that it is very safe and absolutely permitted to drive on your own to Masada through the West Bank from Jerusalem on Highway 1, then south on Route 90 along the Dead Sea. You can also drive Route 90 south from Tiberias to the Dead Sea through the Jordan Valley, a route I have driven many times.
Be aware that it is a winding, two-lane road with lots of truck traffic and the attendant risk of accidents, and don’t drive this route at night. In the winter/rainy season, there can also be the risk of flash floods and wash-outs. Check with your rental car company on any specific restrictions to be safe. Even if covered, use good sense, and ask locals before setting out.
You can take an Arab cab or Arab bus from Jerusalem for the short trip into Bethlehem; more information on that in the Jerusalem section later in this guide.
Israeli drivers are less patient and more aggressive than what most North Americans are used to, at least outside of cities like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
People worry about terrorism when traveling to Israel, but road accidents are more of a risk. That said, driving in Israel is very possible to do; I’ve done it on all but two of my seventeen trips. I have found no problem driving in the countryside between cities, but driving in the cities, especially Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, can be daunting and simply not worth it.
To some degree, you must drive like the locals to get anywhere. If you wait patiently for someone to let you in at a merge, for instance, you may miss your flight home!
A challenge with any GPS system, however, is the spelling of cities or roads in English, which can make them confusing and cumbersome to use. While there is only one way to spell a city or a road in Hebrew, there may be several ways to transliterate that into English. For example, is it “Caesarea” or “Kesaryia” or “Qesarya”? (Road signs use all three—and more.)
A few years back, when I entered into Garmin (which I then used) an address on King David Street, one of Jerusalem’s major streets on which the King David Hotel, the YMCA, and all the rental car offices are located, nothing came up. When I entered “King,” I had a whole bunch of other streets, but not King David Street. When I entered just “David,” there was no “King David Street,” but “David ha-Melech Street” did turn up. Now, I speak Hebrew and happen to know that is “King David” in Hebrew, but a non-Hebrew speaker would be flummoxed. So, unless you understand at least enough Hebrew to make educated guesses, have back-up maps. On my recent trips, however, Google Maps worked like a charm with very few problems. I love it now.
Hiring Tour Guides
If driving makes you nervous, you might consider hiring a guide to drive you for at least a good segment of the trip, with free days in some cities. This works particularly well if you have a group of three or four or more, where the cost can be shared.
Madeleine Lavine, based in Jerusalem, is my absolute favorite guide, and she is licensed to drive tourists throughout Israel. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at (02) 678-0058 or (054) 450-4098.
I also love touring with Jonathan (Yonatan) Kohn, a former American who is based in Tel Aviv and he is also licensed to drive tourists; (tel. (054) 554-3448, email@example.com).
Eyal Amos Reuven is a relatively new guide based in Jerusalem whom I toured with for two days on my last trip, and he is fantastic! He is getting his license to drive tourists as well; see firstname.lastname@example.org; tel. (050) 866-3484).
David Wexler is another driving guide who frequently helps people on TripAdvisor. He works with many Christian groups; see email@example.com; www.davidsland.com; cell (054) 330-0941.
I have also toured with Moti Bar-Tuv (firstname.lastname@example.org; (052) 226-8331; from the United States, call (213) 293-3794). Moti is a native Israeli with excellent English; while he is based in the north, he works all over and is a terrific guide.
I and several friends have used Richard Woolf, another outstanding choice who hails from the UK originally. While he lives and most often works in the North, he tours elsewhere as well. See (email@example.com, tel. 04-693- 5377, cell 050-589-4647, website: www.safed.co.il/woolfguide.html).
I have toured Zikhron Ya’akov with a newer guide named Russell Abel, and he is enthusiastic and very good at his work. You can reach him at (050) 666-6981 or Russell@russell.co.il.
While touring with Moti, I also met Ron Elberg (firstname.lastname@example.org; tel. (050) 398-5904). I was impressed with his guiding skills—and sense of humor.
Finally, if you don’t rent a car, consider using a sherut, an inter-city group taxi, to travel from the airport to Jerusalem or Haifa, or between some cities. (Sheruts don’t run between the airport and Tel Aviv because the private taxi fare is not that high.)
Sheruts leave as soon as they fill up with passengers after any flight. They will either take you directly to your hotel (in some order, of course) or to the central bus station for the city, from which you can either take another cab or a bus to your hotel. (Ask which they will do first so you’re not surprised.)
They don’t cost much more than taking a bus about ₪69 NIS or $19 USD from the airport to Jerusalem, and it’s quicker. (The currency symbol for the New Israeli Shekel (NIS) is ₪, used like $ or €.) You can also get a sherut back to the airport, and you can arrange this through your hotel.
Or course, taxi service is also available, but at a higher cost. A taxi should run about ₪273 ($74 USD) to the airport from Jerusalem for weekdays; ₪325 ($88 USD) for evenings, Shabbat, or holidays; there are also small surcharges per-bag or for extra passengers. Maximum rates are about ₪144 ($39 USD) from Tel Aviv; ₪163 ($44 USD) on evenings, Shabbat, or holidays.
In both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, some sheruts also run on fixed routes within the cities, and there is some intercity sherut service, particularly between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Rates can change, and currency conversion rates were current as of January 2019 (check www.xe.com or its terrific, downloadable app).
For travel within and between the cities, the bus system is widely used and easy to navigate. Your hotel can help you identify the needed route; you can also post an inquiry on the TripAdvisor forum, because the Israelis who post there are remarkably
Egged is the main company (see logo at left.) For bus information from all the bus companies, see www.bus.co.il. But it is not practical to tour the north of the country, the desert areas of the Negev, or the Dead Sea/Masada area using public transport and buses alone. For those areas, you need a rental car, group tour, or driving guide. But to get from one city to another, or anywhere within the cities, buses are a very practical, inexpensive, and safe option.
On two recent trips, I traveled by train from Haifa in the north to Be’er Sheva in the Negev region and found that Israel Railways is a delightful way to transit the country. Consider that option when you don’t need the rental car at your destination, though a company like Eldan has offices all over the country.
On one trip, I took the train from Tel Aviv to Haifa as well. You can check out routes, timetables, and prices at www.rail.co.il/EN. I suggest that you spend the extra ₪5.00 ($1.34 USD) to get a seat in the reserved car, called “makom shamur” in Hebrew. It is well worth it, as the regular cars can be packed, particularly around the weekends when soldiers travel for free.
Unfortunately, the reserved car tickets are not available during peak travel times on Friday or early Sunday mornings—when they are most needed!
Taxis are also plentiful, and be advised that taxi drivers are required by law to use the meter for travel within the cities. Some drivers may attempt to avoid this by simply not turning the meter on and quoting you a fixed rate in shekels. While quoting a fixed rate is perfectly appropriate for going to the airport, for intercity trips, or for trips where you are asking the driver to stop and wait for you, it is neither advisable nor legal for drivers to insist on a fixed rate for a simple trip within the city.
You will nearly always do better for trips within a city if you use the meter, so insist that the driver turn on the meter. Get out without paying if the driver refuses, as is your right—the driver is breaking the law by refusing. Don’t be bullied.
All the drivers understand some English, but you can say your destination when entering the cab while adding, in Hebrew, “im (eem) moneh” (“with the meter”). Or just ask for a receipt (“kabbalah” in Hebrew); they must use the meter to generate a receipt.
The problem is less endemic than it used to be, but stick to your guns and make sure that that meter has been turned on. But you can simply grab a cab on the street or through your hotel—just make sure that the driver turns the meter on!
You will pay slightly more if you or the hotel calls for the cab, rather than flagging one on the street, but it’s a small surcharge. And note—it is not customary in Israel to tip cab drivers unless they perform a special service, like carrying bags into the building. If you give a cab driver ₪60 for a ₪59 fare, he will look for a shekel coin to give you; you can tell him to round up if you’d like.
Neither Uber nor Lyft ride-sharing apps are legal in Israel at this point. You can download the app for Gett to request and pay for cabs—very convenient! I used Gett on my last trip, and I’m sold; it works just like the Uber or Lyft apps, but calls a regular cab. And no arguments over the meter!
©2004-2019 Douglas E. Duckett, All rights reserved.