Since most Israeli cities are small, you can walk most places you need to go. You’ll see a lot and have more opportunities to interact with the people. If you’re on your own, get a map from a hotel or tourist office and you’ll be in good shape.
Taxis are a common mode of transportation, but, as in most places, drivers are not always honest. They will frequently try to take you for a ride without using their meter. NEVER let them do this. Always ask before you get in the cab how much the fare should be and insist they use a meter. The one exception is for long trips, such as between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (and from the airport) where the fares are usually set before you leave. You can also learn a lot about Israel by talking to cab drivers; they’re usually not shy about offering their opinions. You do not have to tip cab drivers. Table of Local Distance in Kilometers
Tel Aviv Jerusalem Eilat Haifa
Akko 118 181 474 23
Beer Sheva 113 83 243 208
Eilat 356 326 – 451
Haifa 95 158 451 –
Jerusalem 63 – 326 158
Airport 18 51 341 112
Netanya 32 95 388 63
Tel Aviv – 63 356 95
Tiberias 135 198 491 70
Even if you’re on a tour, you may have some free days to tour and you’ll need a place to stay. Israelis are wonderfully accommodating and if you have long-lost relatives, they’re more than likely to be excited to meet you and offer you a bed.
If you don’t have friends or family in Israel, it is usually possible to find people who will take you in, particularly for Shabbat. This is one of the best ways to really get to know Israelis.
Some yeshivas will also let people stay in their dorms. Keep in mind that you are allowed to visit in the hope you’ll decide to spend a prolonged period studying there, but usually there’s no requirement that you attend classes. Of course, you might find the opportunity to study with some of the world’s leading scholars rewarding.
Israel has youth hostels that are inexpensive and part of the international hostel system.
Many kibbutzim also have guest houses. Though less luxurious than hotels, don’t expect them to be cheap.
Israel has camp grounds as well in many of the beautiful parks around the country and in the desert.
Israel is a good place to buy souvenirs. As in other Middle Eastern countries, haggling in Israel is a tradition. Keep the following points in mind when you’re shopping:
It is rare that you should ever have to pay the full price listed on an item (note this applies mostly to souvenirs, not everything in the markets and is not true of ordinary retail shops like department stores).
Always be ready to walk out of a shop and don’t be surprised if the sales person follows you out.
Don’t think you’ll get any better deal from Jews than Arabs. Sometimes the opposite is true.
The merchants in the market in the Old City, in particular, can be very aggressive. Don’t be intimidated. Remember, you’re the customer and it is their job to satisfy you.
Keep in mind what you can afford and don’t let yourself be talked into paying more. You’ll probably see the same items in more than one store, so shop around before you decide.
Be clear on the exchange rate before you buy.
Haggling is an art, and involves some gamesmanship, but it isn’t polite to waste a merchant’s time if you have no intention of buying something.
Items common in the U.S., such as film and books are likely to be more expensive in Israel than at home. By paying with a credit card, you can usually get a better exchange rate. Sometimes you can get a better price if you pay with U.S. dollars.
Also, Israel assesses a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 17% on goods and services. Prices should include this tax. For purchases over $50, you can get a refund of the tax at the airport before you leave. To do so you’ll want to get to the airport early so you can go to the customs office. When you make your purchase, the merchant should put it in a clear plastic bag with a copy of the receipt inside. Keep the original. The bag must be sealed and remained unopened to get the refund.
Staying in Touch
If you can’t live without knowing what’s happening in the U.S., you can watch CNN in most hotels and pick up an International Herald Tribune newspaper. The Jerusalem Post is the only daily Israeli paper in English. Channel 1 on television also has programs in English and recent movies are in the theaters with Hebrew subtitles.
Long-distance phone calls can get very expensive, especially if made from a hotel room, where substantial service charges are added. Most major long-distance companies have numbers in Israel that allow you to use their rates. It may be less private, but you’ll save money using public phones. A prepaid phone card can also be purchased from the Post Office.
Cell phones are probably the easiest and most cost-effective way to communicate in Israel and you may find it remarkable how good the service is compared to the United States. While I often can’t talk to my wife right near my home in Maryland, I had no trouble talking to her from the middle of the desert or anywhere else in Israel. If you are planning to use a cell phone in Israel purchased in the United States, be sure that it is either a triband or quadband. Check with your provider before you leave to be sure the phone will work in Israel; you may also need to pay extra for an international calling plan. You can also rent cell phones at the airport when you arrive in Israel. You will have to pay a fixed price for the phone and an allocation of minutes. If you go over the allotment, additional charges apply and there is no rebate for unused minutes.
A Final Thought
Israel is like a museum. You will see relics that date from antiquity, buildings that are not considered old unless they were built thousands of years ago. Israel offers you a time portal, almost like the ones you see in science fiction movies, through which to see the past. Virtually every step you take is on ground many consider to be holy. You can visit all the sites and have a wonderful time and learn a lot, but if you think of Israel only as a museum, a place no different than Rome or Athens, you will miss perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Israel — the vibrancy of the modern Jewish state and its people. Israel has increasingly become Westernized and “Americanized,” but it is still a place very different from any other on earth.
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower. I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.
“You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.”
“But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: Redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
You are in Israel to have fun, make friends, experience different cultures and learn about your heritage. It is a trip of a lifetime, so make the most of it!
WHAT TO EXPECT WHILE IN ISRAEL
• Expect to be delighted, surprised and confused by almost everything you see and hear.
• Remember offenses and confusion are caused by expectations. So, have an open mind.
• Few people visit Israel without preconceived expectations about something. Whatever pictures your mind gets when you read the Bible will change once you are actually in the land of the Bible!
• Security is everywhere and you will not be allowed to go anyplace that is deemed problematic. The officials guard tourists with great care; therefore, our itinerary may change at any time.
• Everyone speaks English. Israel is not a good place to learn Hebrew because Israelis like to take every opportunity to use their English. Nevertheless, they appreciate any effort you make to speak their language. One of the Notes you will receive contains the most common Hebrew expressions.
• You will see people begging anywhere there are crowds or in any large town. Westerners typically don’t like beggars. However, a Jew considers that giving to a begger is fulfilling a commandment of God. Beggars, on the other hand, consider that they are offering others the opportunity to obey God. Each of you will have to decide what to do with this issue. Some of you will not have enough discretionary money to give to beggars. Yet, the Lord may just prompt you to give to some, anyway. Don’t ever feel guilty for what you do in Israel.
• Most of the Israelis you will encounter simply want the Arabs to go somewhere else. This is another attitude which may be difficult to understand unless you have gone to the effort to become informed about the history of Arab-Israeli relations. If you are interested in becoming so informed, read some of the books I have recommended in another Note.
• Israel is a place of great contrasts, especially among Jews, themselves. Many wish Israel was not a religious country at all. We will discuss these contrasts. Israelis consider Israel to be their rightful land and they will do anything to settle it, live on it and protect their right to it.
• Young & Old: One of the contrasts that you will see everywhere is that Israel is both young and old. Although Israel, as a nation, is young, it contains much that is ancient, including many of its buildings as well as the infrastructure of its oldest cities. Try not to be put off by what appears to be a general lack of maintenance or cleanliness. Every people-group in the world has a different perspective regarding what constitutes acceptable levels of cleanliness. We want you to be comfortable in Israel; if something is not acceptable to you, you must let us know so we can do something about it if at all possible.
• Litter: Israel is a Middle Eastern country and Middle Easterners don’t have the same attitude toward ecology (including litter) as do Westerners. Israel is not as messy as some other Middle Eastern countries, but Israelis don’t seem to mind litter. If you are from a northern European country where cleanliness really is next to godliness, you might be offended. Overlook clutter and litter as best you can.
• Jews have had thousands of years to think about things and their perspectives on just about everything are very different than everyone else’s. This can be both frustrating and fascinating. Always be in “learner mode”.
• Westerners (especially those from the southeast) often say they think Israelis are rude, aggressive, unpleasant, argumentative, loud and opinionated. Israelis do speak loudly (some say the yell at one another) and they are opinionated. They drive aggressively. If you enter their store they won’t ask to help you nor will they thank you when you make a purchase. They will step in front of you in line as if you weren’t there first. Girls on a bus will refuse to take a seat you offer to them because they don’t want to be perceived as not being as strong or capable as a man. 60 years of strife and difficulty have put an intensity in these people so that they don’t display many of the social graces Americans take for granted. Israeli Jews are no respecter of persons and don’t like pretense. Be real. They don’t like people acting “religious”.
• Israelis appreciate tourists. They know their country is portrayed in the media as being somewhat unsafe and they respect people who come anyway. In fact, they respect anyone who is not afraid to do what he wants to do. Israelis feel that the U.S. is far more dangerous than their own country. After all, we lose 3,000 at one time and people are murdered in our cities daily! This is something they simply cannot imagine.
BUYING IN ISRAEL
Shopping in malls or in town
• The price of merchandise in most Israeli stores is usually set at the fair market price. If you want to be sure that you are not overpaying, you can compare the price of the item (or a similar item) at other stores.
• Anytime you spend more than $100.00 with a merchant, be sure you receive a “VAT form” so you can get your tax refunded at the airport before you leave the country. Some merchants are not part of the VAT program and will tell you so.
Shopping and Bargaining in the Shuk
• Shopping in the shuk (the market place) is a worthwhile experience.
How is business done in the shuk?
The prices in the shuk are set to be many times higher than what the merchants expect you to pay. They will cajole, bargain, flatter, and even invite you to tea or coffee; anything to keep you in their store and make you feel obliged to do business with them.
• Decide the absolute maximum you are willing to pay before showing any interest in the item. This is crucial. Don’t agree to pay more than what you have already decided. The merchant knows how much he can sell it for and still make a profit. If he will not agree to the price you want to pay he will not object to your leaving the store. If he lets you go, you know your price is really too low.
Don’t forget however that this is how these Israeli and Arab merchants earn their living. So if you really like something and can afford it, go ahead and buy it.