So you’re traveling or planning your visit to Israel. Kol HaKavod — Congratulations!
Before you pack your bags, spend some time preparing for an enjoyable and stress–free trip. Below you’ll find an array of useful information on accommodations, transportation, exchanging currency, Israel’s climate and customs, and much more. So get the most out of your trip to Israel with the help of The Fellowship.
Before You Go
Visas are granted at no charge without advance request to citizens of the U.S., Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and the U.K. upon their entry to Israel, provided they have a passport valid for at least 9 months after the date of arrival. A tourist visa is good for three months, and can normally be extended for three consecutive months at any branch of Israel’s Ministry of the Interior. A separate permit is required to work, study or settle in Israel.
The electric current used in Israel, as in Europe, is 220 volts. American appliances can be used by buying an inexpensive transformer. Outlets usually are compatible with Israeli three–pronged plugs; however, if an appliance has a two–prong plug, an inexpensive adapter can be purchased.
Culture and Customs
Though Israel is a highly educated and largely Western society, it is not homogenous. With citizens of numerous religious and ethnic identities, the country would be better described as a colorful mosaic than a melting pot.
Israelis tend to be very hospitable, open, and sometimes outspoken. They dress informally, and are candid in discussing politics, sports or even personal finances. However, visitors should be sensitive when speaking about religious issues or matters related to Israel’s long and painful struggle with the neighboring countries that are its enemies.
Modest dress and behavior – including avoidance of physical contact between men and women – are expected in strictly observant circles.
In Israel, business centers in hotels and a multitude of Internet cafes offer e–mail and fax services. It is also very easy to buy or rent cellular phones.
Public pay phones accept “telecards” – magnetic phone cards available at post offices, newsstands, and many hotels – that can be purchased in increments of 10, 20, or 50 units. (One unit generally allows a three–minute local call). Directory assistance can be reached by dialing 144, and overseas operators by dialing 188; both services offer English–speaking operators.
Post offices and mailboxes in Israel are identified by a red sign bearing the image of a white leaping deer. English–style red–letter boxes are also used, and special yellow intra–city mailboxes are found in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Stamps can be purchased at newsstands and shops displaying a similar sign. Post offices also send telegrams and telexes, and often operate overseas telephone calling centers.
Hebrew is Israel’s national language, but Arabic also enjoys official status, and English is widely spoken, especially by students. Most hotels, tourist sites and major businesses have English–speaking staff, and nearly all traffic signs are translated into English.
Israel is a media–drenched country, with many English–language TV and radio broadcasts, films and newspapers.
Israel Television’s Channels 1 and 2 offer many British and American programs in English, and Channel 1 broadcasts international and local news in English every day at 6:15 p.m. Additional broadcast, cable and satellite stations, including CNN and BBC, are widely available.
In major cities, it is easy to find prominent English–language dailies like the Jerusalem Post and the English edition of Ha’aretz. International newsstands and large bookstores offer major foreign publications like Time and Newsweek.
Israeli radio stations can be picked up from all eastern Mediterranean countries and often from Europe. The Voice of America and the BBC’s World Service are both accessible on the AM dial. Voice of Israel (Kol Yisrael) broadcasts news bulletins in English and then French three times each day.
Money and Spending
As in Biblical times, the official currency of Israel is the shekel, which is divided into 100 agorot. The value of the shekel, like all currencies, fluctuates slightly –current exchange rates can be checked at the Currency Converter. Money can be exchanged at the airport, banks, hotels and currency exchanges. All Israeli currency is labeled in English as well as Hebrew and Arabic.
While some visitors prefer using traveler’s checks, major credit cards are widely accepted and ATMs are easy to find.
A value–added tax (VAT) of 17% is included in the price of anything paid for in shekels. However, VAT is not applicable when hotel bills (including incidental charges) are paid by foreigners in dollars. At most tourist–oriented stores, VAT on single–item purchases of more than $100 will be returned at the airport by providing the proper forms to Customs before departure.
At tourist–oriented spots and upscale restaurants, a tip of 10% is normal, unless the menu states that a service charge has been included in prices. In modest restaurants, small change in the 5%–10% range may be left. A moderate tip should also be given to guides, and to both the housekeeping staff and the bellhop at hotels. In private or group taxis, tips are unnecessary unless some special service has been provided.
Most businesses open by 8:30 a.m., but many neighborhood grocery stores open by 7 a.m. Most stores do not close before 7 p.m. Supermarkets often close later, with some open 24–hours (except on Shabbat). Most museums are open from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Banks, meanwhile, typically open by 8:30 a.m. daily, close from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., and reopen until 5:30 or later. While most businesses close for Shabbat (sundown Friday through sundown Saturday), as well as major religious holidays, many non–kosher restaurants remain open
Israel is known for the high–level of its doctors and medical care. Pharmacies are easily found and sell items that might not be bought over–the–counter in the United States. Major cities have pharmacies with 24–hour emergency service. The American embassy or local consulate can provide a list of area doctors fluent in English.
The U.S. embassy is based in Tel Aviv, with two American consulates–general in Jerusalem. Each country’s diplomatic mission, with contact information easily found on the Internet or in phonebooks, can provide its citizens with passport services, safety suggestions, and help in an emergency.
Though Israel is generally safe, common sense should be used when traveling in any any unfamiliar location: do not flaunt valuable items; lock car and room doors; use discretion when visiting unsafe or isolated areas, and report any unattended or suspicious items. Magen David Adom (Red Shield of David), Israel’s equivalent of the Red Cross, provides ambulance and first–aid service nationwide as do many emergency clinics. The army maintains a presence throughout the country, but each municipality in Israel also has its own police force.
Israel offers numerous tours with a special focus –religion or language, archaeology or adventure, politics or cuisine. Contact Israel Government Tourist Offices in your area for more information.
Tour groups and sites may be contacted for information on options specially geared to women, students, families, seniors and individuals with disabilities.
The overwhelming majority of visitors to Israel arrive at Ben–Gurion International Airport, outside of Tel Aviv and about a 45 minutes’ drive from Jerusalem. El Al, the national carrier of Israel known for its incomparable security, offers the greatest number of non–stop flights from destinations around the world, though many other major carriers service Tel Aviv, including Continental, Air Canada, British Airways, Swissair, Alitalia, Lufthansa, Delta, KLM, Sabena and United.
The primary modes of transportation for many Israelis are private cars (which may be rented from a variety of Israeli or international agencies), buses, and taxis (private or group). Train service runs mostly along the western coastline. Haifa boasts a small subway, with other city transit systems now in the works for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Yachts and boats sail along the coastline, on the Sea of Galilee, and on the Red Sea, which also touches Jordan and Egypt.
Weather and Time
Israel uses two systems to determining day, month, and year: the millennia–old Jewish calendar and the Gregorian calendar used in most Western countries. This means each Jewish holiday begins at sundown on the evening before Gregorian date on which it occurs, and that Jewish holidays do not fall on the same exact Gregorian dates each year.
Israel has a Mediterranean climate and culture. Dress is typically casual. Especially during the hot summers, even business people wear short–sleeved, open–collared shirts with no jacket or tie. Winters can be chilly, however, especially away from the coast and at higher elevations. At holy sites and in religious neighborhoods, exceptionally “modest” clothing is expected throughout the year.
During Daylight Savings time in Israel, late March through early September, the time in Israel is 6 hours later than the Eastern Standard Time zone in the U.S.; at other times of the year, it is 7 hours later.
Winter in Israel begins with showers in October and continues with periodically heavy rainfall from November to March. Eilat and the Dead Sea, however, normally remain temperate during wintertime, even as snow caps Mt. Hermon in the North. From late March to September, there is hardly any rainfall. In late February and the beginning of March, the entire country is green from the winter rains. In the months that follow, the heat climbs, reaching its peak in July and August when the only relatively cool spots (at least at night) are Jerusalem and the northern hills. Temperatures begin to drop by September.