As a tour guide who has helped and guided hundreds of travelers in Israel, it has become very clear to me that those who plan their trips are more interested in and know more about the sites and ultimately enjoy themselves more (and pay less).
Now, my whole site is basically full of information about planning your vacation, but I wanted to do a list of tips that you won’t find on the internet and that I didn’t manage to squeeze into my other posts.
So let’s get started…
Israel Vacation Tip #1 – Spend weekdays outside the cities and weekends in the cities
Travelers tend to forget that the rest of the world is working.
In Israel the working week runs from Sunday to Thursday. Fridays are half days. Most people don’t work but shops are open until noon.
If you can, and it is definitely not a must, try planning your trip in such a way that you spend working days outside the cities, far away from the heavy traffic, in the open spaces of the Negev and Galilee regions.
You will also pay around 20% less for accommodation that you would on weekdays.
On weekends there are many more special events like concerts and parties in the cities.
Another thing worth remembering is that there is no public transportation from Friday afternoon until Saturday night, so if you don’t drive you’d do well to make sure your accommodation is located in the city center.
Weekdays in the desert and weekends in Tel Aviv. (If possible.)
Israel Vacation Tip #2 – Bear in mind the Jewish holidays
It is always interesting to see how other cultures celebrate, and holidays in Israel are different to others around the world.
Holidays in Israel are mostly Jewish religious festivals. It’s great if you get to experience them, but it’s worth knowing when they are and planning in advance.
The prices of hotels are high, lots of places get booked up, shops are closed and there is no public transportation. The Jewish calendar is different to the Gregorian calendar so check before you come. In general, the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur and Sukkoth are in September or October. Hanukkah is around Christmas, and Pesach (Passover) is around March or April. I’ve written a post about the Jewish holidays, when they are and what you can expect.
Israel Vacation Tip #3 – Israel is not cheap
Before people visit Israel they worry about safety issues, but once they arrive they discover the real problem:
Israel is expensive! (Here are some more things travelers don’t like about Israel)
Israel is not a cheap place to live in or travel in, and as tourists you will find this to be the case especially when it comes to:
1) The price of hotels
2) The price of restaurants and, even worse: alcohol
If you feel that you’ve paid over the odds, well, join the club… (a night in a 5-star hotel costs around 350€ for a basic room and a night in a 3-star hotel costs around 150€).
If you want to pay less I can recommend an excellent alternative and that is taking a private room in a hostel. You can have a look here – Hostels in Jerusalem and here – Hostels in Tel Aviv. Street food in Israel is also a great option for those who find restaurants too expensive. Just remember to always check the price on the menu, even if you’re only going to order an orange juice or a cup of coffee. A beer can cost as much as 8 euros!
Unlike in other western countries, where street food is really unhealthy, Israeli street food, such as falafel, sabich and hummus, is much better for you.
That being said, prices for attractions (like visiting national parks) and transportation are reasonable.
There are also good hostels and special lodging where prices are fair.
For more tips about budget travel in Israel check out this link.
Israel Vacation Tip #4 – The Negev Desert
It’s well known that Israel’s highlights are Jerusalem and Christianity.
Tel Aviv gets quite a good press too. But the desert, the Negev, is the best unknown place on the tourist map of Israel. Jerusalem is the starting point for most groups, but if you ask a tour guide why he or she became a tour guide and which part of Israel they like the most, the desert will figure very highly on their list.
The Negev covers 50% of Israel. If you like desert scenery and especially if you come in winter (from November to February), be sure to spend some time in the desert. Mitzpe Ramon, right on the edge of the Ramon Crater, and Sde Boker are great starting points for desert tours. Both lie about two hours’ drive south from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Further south you’ll discover many sights and parks: HaHarava, Timna Park, the Eilat Mountains and much more.
Check here for my winter tips, the best time to visit Israel!
Israel Vacation Tip #5 – Take advantage of Israel’s small size
Because people hear so much about Israel in the news, and because most travelers to Israel come from countries that are way bigger than Israel, people don’t realize that Israel is tiny.
One of the big advantages of Israel is its small size.
The sea, the desert, mountains, and cities with diverse characteristics are all within manageable distance of each other.
You didn’t like Tel Aviv? Jerusalem is just an hour away.
The Jerusalem winter is too cold for you? An hour’s drive takes you to the warm shores of the Dead Sea.
You can’t stand the heat? The cool mountainous region of Galilee or the beach is no more than two hours away.
Only two hours’ drive and the scenery is completely different…
Israel Vacation Tip #6 – Consult a map
One map is worth a thousand words.
Before you fly to Israel, while planning your trip, mark on Google Maps (or any other app) the places you want to visit and then have a look at what lies inbetween: suddenly you’ll see that Caesarea is on your way to Haifa, that Tel Megiddo is near Nazareth, and that if you drive from the Sea of Galilee to the south, you’ll arrive at the Dead Sea.
At Ben Gurion Airport, in the hall where you pick up your luggage, you can get free maps of Israel and of the main cities at the Ministry of Tourism’s desk.
Israel Vacation Tip #7 – Don’t hire a car in the cities
You don’t need a car when in the cities. When traveling to the desert, Golan Heights and Galilee, you might consider hiring a car, but in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa a car is just a hassle: there is a lot of traffic, parking is expensive and Israelis drive like Italians…
Check out my post about planning your itinerary in Israel: I wrote about where you should hire a car and where not.
Israel Vacation Tip #8- Plan, plan, plan!
What’s true for other destinations also applies here.
Planning will definitely enhance your experience. In our times we value being spontaneous and going with the flow. Cheap flights and having instant access to all kinds of information on our smartphones has changed the way we travel. But we have lost something along the way.
I remember how my grandmother planned her trips abroad; she’d read up on the places, look at the maps (although she always took organized tours), think about what to do on free days, and even took an English course to improve her language skills.
It’s telling today how many of my tour participants come to me at the end of the tour, asking “So, what should we do now?” and when I ask them what they have in mind, they don’t have an answer.
Good planning is not necessarily doing a checklist and following it no matter what. It means reading about the place and knowing the main sights while also maybe reading a book by an Israeli author, booking a special hotel in Jerusalem, etc. I see that those tour participants who prepared for the trip invariably find their stay much more interesting and enjoyable.
I emphasize this because most places in Israel are not in themselves impressive. To understand and enjoy Israel you need to know its story. My website and booklets are a good place to start reading about the sites, culture and history of Israel.
My travel guide booklets. Because the beauty is in the story.
The best option to learn about places once you are in Israel is to take a guided tour. As a tour guide myself, you could have guessed I’d write that, but it’s true :-).
It’s not easy to become a guide and Israeli tour guides are top notch. All options are worth taking, whether joining a group tour, taking short 3-4-hour city tours, or hiring a private guide with or without a car.
The cost of a guide starts at 300 dollars a day without a car (in the big cities you don’t need a car) and about 500 dollars a day with a car for tours in the Negev, Galilee, and the Golan Heights.
Israel Vacation Tip #9 – March is the best time to travel to Israel
When you travel you realize how important the weather is. At home most of us work indoors, but when traveling a big part of the day is spent outside.
If I had to choose the best time to visit Israel, it would be March or April.
Winter in Israel is not as cold as it is in many other European countries. The average temperature in Tel Aviv in December is 19°C (66°F) and in Jerusalem it’s 14°C (57°F). The winter months are great for spending time in the sunny desert. The average temperature in Eilat in December is 23°C (73°F).
Summer, especially June, July and August, are extremely hot. You can expect temperatures of 30-35°C (85-95°F) every day.
You can’t change the weather and you can’t always choose your vacation dates, but you can plan your days so that you spend the hottest and coldest days inside, at museums and underground sites, for example. I will be writing a post about this in the coming months.
Israel Vacation Tip #10 – Be open to new things
I think that Israel stands out as a travel destination much more than other places in that tourists often have strong feelings about it, arriving with a whole set of religious and political expectations and perceptions.
Israel can be very intense and may throw up the odd difficult encounter. You will certainly find everything you’re looking for: conflict and peace, holiness and irreverence, hope and despair. But I want to suggest that you try to open up to it all. Israel is a corridor in which ideas, peoples, empires and religions meet. Take advantage of this great abundance.
TLV Airport (or ‘Natbag’ as we say in Hebrew) where you will (probably) start your Israeli adventure.