ATMs: ATMs are the fastest, easiest way to change money at the best rates. Look for ATMs adorned with international flag decals that accept foreign debit cards; you’ll often need a 4-digit PIN. There are fewer international ATMs in smaller towns and in the countryside, and ATMs may not be restocked during Shabbat or on Jewish holidays.
Area Codes: The telephone country code for Israel is 972. Telephone area codes are 02 for Jerusalem; 03 for Tel Aviv; 04 for Haifa, Caesarea, and the Galilee; 08 for Eilat, the Negev, The Dead Sea, and Rehovot; 09 for Netanya.
Bugs & Wildlife: Scorpions are always something to be aware of in desert and Mediterranean regions. If bitten by a scorpion, get emergency medical treatment immediately. Scorpions do not go out of their way to attack, but they love damp, warm places, and you can get bitten if you happen to put a hand or foot where one of them is resting. Check carefully when entering showers, bathrooms, or other damp places. Always shake out towels at the beach or pool before drying yourself; shake out shoes and socks before putting them on. If you’re staying in simple places in the desert, shake out your sheets before getting into bed. Orange groves may look inviting, but big, mean snakes think so, too; avoid the temptation to stroll or picnic in them. In the Jordan Valley, there is a rare but very ugly skin infection called “Rose of Sharon” that’s hard to control and will scar unless you get medical treatment—don’t hesitate to see a doctor about any unusual or persistent bug bites or skin eruptions.
There is rabies in the countryside, and wild animals should be avoided. Keep away from stray dogs and cats, no matter how friendly or hungry they may seem.
When snorkeling or diving in the Red Sea, remember that many coral formations are not only sharp, but can burn. It is illegal to touch or walk on any coral—not only for your safety, but for the protection of the coral, which can be easily broken and killed. Spiny sea urchins, covering the underwater floor in many parts of the Red Sea, are the bane of swimmers and snorkelers. It’s best to wear foot coverings and try to avoid stepping anywhere near a sea urchin—and note that it’s very easy for a wave or current to glide you right onto one. Study photo charts of fish before snorkeling, and memorize those that are poisonous to touch, especially the stonefish or rockfish, with their billowing, diaphanous fins that appear to be so delicate. From June through August, stinging and burning jellyfish plague Israel’s Mediterranean waters. Do no swim on days when there is evidence of jellyfish on the beaches.
Disabled Travelers: Inside Israel, there’s been an ongoing effort to provide access for visitors with disabilities—even at sites famed for their inaccessibility, such as Masada. Atop the dramatic plateau of Masada, a network of wheelchair-accessible pathways was completed in 2000. At least some trails in a number of Israel’s national parks and nature reserves (www.parks.org.il) have also been made wheelchair-accessible.
Yad Sarah is Israel’s largest volunteer organization. It lends medical equipment, crutches, and wheelchairs; arranges airport and intercity transportation; helps prepare and equip hotel rooms for special needs; and offers advice for travelers to Israel with special needs. All services are free, although deposits are required for equipment. Advance planning and reservations are required to get the most help from Yad Sarah, but it’s also a great resource for sudden or last-minute emergencies.
Doctors: Most Israeli doctors speak English. Your hotel can refer you to an appropriate physician or the nearest Magen David Adom (Red Star of David, Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross) emergency station.
Drinking Laws: The legal age for purchase of alcoholic beverages is 18; proof of age is required and often requested at bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, so it’s always a good idea to bring ID when you go out. Alcohol is forbidden and considered abhorrent by traditional followers of Islam and so is generally not available in Arabic communities inside Israel or in Jordan or the West Bank except at hotels for tourists.
Health Concerns: Sunburn and dehydration are problems throughout the region, but especially in the desert during summer. Although the air is dry, paradoxically, you often don’t feel thirsty. Force yourself to drink a minimum of four 1.5-liter bottles of water a day as you travel the area in summer, more if you are in the desert. Sunscreen is a must, though you need less of it at The Dead Sea because the thicker atmosphere screens out the sun.
Money & Costs: Currency rates fluctuate, so before departing consult a currency exchange website such as www.oanda.com/currency/converter to check up-to-the-minute rates.
Currency: The basic unit of currency is the New Israel Shekel (NIS).
Packing Tips: Israel is a very informal country, so casual, practical clothing is acceptable everywhere. In winter, warm socks and sturdy, rubber-sole walking shoes are helpful. A folding umbrella, and fleece liners and medium-weight jackets that can be layered are essential. Women should pack a multiuse, easy-to-carry shawl for chilly nights in mountain cities such as Jerusalem, and to wrap over shorts, bare shoulders, or short sleeves when visiting holy sites. Men won’t need ties; sport jackets are not mandatory at expensive restaurants or at performances. Sun hats are necessary, and men must cover their heads when entering Jewish religious places; if you don’t have a head covering, most synagogues will have some at the door to lend.
Passports: It is important to check that you have at least 6 months left before your passport’s expiration; without that cushion, you won’t be allowed into the country.
Pharmacies: Pharmacies are well-stocked, and you’ll encounter many international name brands, but drug prices outside of Israeli insurance plans—even for nonprescription medicines—are comparatively high.
Police: Dial 100.
Safety: Israel is a low-crime country. Some of the major dangers you will encounter are car-related. Israeli drivers aren’t renowned for sound driving practices. Blatant tailgating is the unnerving way of life here. Car theft and theft of belongings from rental cars is also a problem. Some rental-car companies require you to use a steering wheel lock, and it is never a good idea to leave valuables in your car.
When traveling in Jordan or in East Jerusalem and Arab cities inside Israel, travelers should not carry or drink alcohol (which is forbidden by Islam) in public, and modest dress is expected of both men and women. Women traveling alone must realize they are visiting Muslim societies, and the fact of being unaccompanied by a man can be regarded as suspicious and provocative. Extremely modest dress is essential.
Security: Terrorism is a consideration everywhere in the world, and Israelis have become experts in dealing with it. Despite the news of the past few years, the chance is actually greater that you’ll be involved in a traffic mishap while in Israel. In Jerusalem, security guards now prowl the bus stops, checking and intercepting suspicious-looking people before they can board a bus. Guards conduct bag and body checks at the entrances to shopping malls, markets, shops, cafes, restaurants, transportation hubs, and hotels. You’ll find security guards at most major restaurants. Always keep alert and be aware of suspicious persons, especially if they are well bundled in coats or jackets when the weather is not cold.
Note: Get away from and immediately report any suspicious or unattended bags or packages! Any Israeli will know how to summon the police.
Senior Travel: Mention the fact that you’re a senior when you make your travel reservations. Some Israeli hotels, especially those in international chains, still offer lower rates for seniors, especially during off season.
Smoking: Smoking is against the law in all public places, including restaurants, trains, buses, and taxis.
Student Travel: Israel is a student-friendly country. There are all kinds of student flights and discount airfares to Israel, and if you’re from a Jewish-American family, you may even be eligible for a free trip to Israel under the Birthright (Taglit) Program, which provides the gift of first-time, peer-group, educational tours of Israel (airfare included) to Jewish adults ages 18 to 32. More than 40,000 people have taken advantage of this program, which is designed to encourage Jewish identity and connection with the State of Israel (waiting lists are long).
Even for independent travelers, there are discounts for students at museums, national parks, and railroads, although train discounts are minimal. Check out the website for the International Student Identity Card (ISIC), which qualifies students for substantial savings.
Taxes: There is a value-added tax (VAT) of 17%. This does not apply to Eilat, which is a tax-free zone. Unless otherwise noted on the price tag, all prices automatically include the VAT. Hotel bills (including food and services charged to your room) are not subject to the VAT if you are a tourist.
Telephones: The country code for Israel is 972.
Time: Israel is 2 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, 7 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, and 10 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time. When it’s 7pm in Israel, it’s noon in New York.
Daylight Savings Time Warning: Because Israel has its own unique dates for going on and off daylight saving time, there is often a period of 1 or 2 weeks in the spring and a month in September or October when there’s only a 1-hour difference between Israel and Greenwich Mean Time and a 6-hour time difference between New York and Israel. Palestinian areas, Jordan, and Egypt keep to their own dates for daylight saving time, and those areas of the West Bank not under direct Israeli control also keep to Egyptian/Jordanian time. This can make border crossings a disaster if both countries are not synchronized. Jordan, Palestinian areas, and Egypt are normally 7 hours ahead of New York time, and 2 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. In the past, because of religious and political considerations, the decision about when to begin and end Israeli daylight saving time has sometimes not been made until the last minute. For this reason, it is very important to reconfirm schedules at these times of year—you could miss your flight, or worse.
Tipping: Tip 10–15% in restaurants or cafes, unless a service charge is already added to your bill. Taxi drivers do not expect tips unless they have helped you load or carry luggage. An extra NIS 5 per bag is fair. Leave NIS 5–10 per person per day for your hotel maid, more if you got extra help.
Toilets: In Israel, public toilets on the street are rare to nonexistent. Try hotel lobbies, bars, restaurants, museums, department stores, railway and bus stations, and service stations. Large hotels and fast-food restaurants are often the best bet for clean facilities. Restaurants and bars in resorts or heavily visited areas may reserve their restrooms for patrons. In each quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, there are scattered public restrooms, marked w.c., a tradition from British Mandate times.
Visas: Visitors from most English-speaking countries will receive a visa for Israel on the spot at Ben-Gurion Airport or at any land border crossing. There is no charge for the visa, however, there is an exit fee if you leave via a land crossing into Jordan.
The governments of most Western countries have advised their citizens NOT to travel to the West Bank, which includes Nablus, Ramallah, Jericho, and Bethlehem; however, depending on day-to-day political conditions, many travelers do take pilgrimage or group tours to visit Christian holy places in Bethlehem.
Travelers with Arabic-sounding surnames may also be stopped for questioning. There are some cases of travelers being turned back at the border for reasons of security or without further explanation. Such travelers are not compensated for plane tickets or for canceled hotel reservations. Unfortunately, Israel has no provision for pre-clearance visa interviews before visitors embark on their journeys.
Water: Tap water is safe and drinkable in Israel, except at The Dead Sea. There, even luxury hotels have special taps on each floor that provide drinking water. Although Israeli water is safe, the presence of various minerals in the water may make you a bit queasy. For this reason, bottled water could be a good investment, though in small amounts and for brushing your teeth, local water is fine.
Women Travelers: It’s important to remember to dress modestly when visiting holy places or ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv suburbs of Beit Shemesh and B’nai Brak should also be avoided unless you dress with extreme modesty.
East Jerusalem, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the West Bank are largely Arabic societies, and unless women travelers are guarded in their dress and behavior, there’s a good chance there will be insults and unwanted advances. Women in traditional Islamic societies do not venture far from their houses unless they are in the company of a husband, relatives, or at least one other woman; women travelers may seem to be breaking the rules of propriety simply by being alone. It is always best to try to have at least one traveling companion, male or female, with you if possible. Modest dress and behavior also helps to avoid unwanted attention.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.