Intercity buses are the fastest and easiest way of traveling between the major cities of Israel (although traffic jams in recent years have led the country to resuscitate its almost forgotten train service along the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv–Haifa corridor). Buses between Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv depart very frequently; at peak times as fast as each bus fills up. The Jerusalem–Tel Aviv fare is NIS 25. For less frequent buses, such as Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to Eilat (fare NIS 165 round trip) or Jerusalem to the Dead Sea (NIS 100 round trip), you must book your ticket in advance. Intercity buses do not run on the Sabbath. Egged Bus Company (www.egged.co.il/eng, tel. *2800) connects most cities in Israel and operates buses within Jerusalem and Haifa, as well as working on a cooperative basis with Dan Buses in Tel Aviv.
Israel Railways (www.rail.co.il) has been undergoing a revival and expansion for more than a decade. Arlosoroff Street Central Train Station in Tel Aviv is the rail hub of Israel. The cost of a rail ticket is slightly higher than comparable bus fares. A rail line with frequent service along the Mediterranean coast connects Tel Aviv to Haifa and Nahariya in the north; a second line connects Tel Aviv to Ben-Gurion Airport; a third line goes from Tel Aviv to Beersheba; and a fourth line goes from Tel Aviv to the western outskirts of Jerusalem. Service along the coast is fast and frequent; the Beersheba and Jerusalem lines are less frequent. Trains do not run on the Sabbath.
The Jerusalem Train Station, on the western edge of the city, is not a convenient place to enter Jerusalem, especially with luggage. You’d do better arriving in Jerusalem by the much faster and more frequent Egged buses or by sherut (shared taxi van), both of which bring you closer to the center of town.
A sherut(shared taxi van) is a good way to travel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Sheruts from Jerusalem leave as fast as they fill up from the corner of Rav Kook Street and Hanevi’im Street in Jerusalem (across Jaffa Rd. from Zion Square), and deposit you at the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, where you can pick up local sheruts that ply the Number 4 bus route to the Ha-Yarkon St. hotel district or the Number 5 bus route to Rothschild and Dizengoff Boulevards.
Sheruts from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or to Haifa wait just in front of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. Make sure the sherut you enter is going to the right destination. Sheruts to Haifa tend to fill up slowly.
Tip: Intercity sherut fares are virtually the same as bus fares, except on Shabbat, when they double (because no buses run). Because sheruts carry fewer passengers than buses, and there is time to scrutinize passengers, many Israelis feel sheruts are a bit less likely to be terror targets than buses.
In the main Israeli cities, such as Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, a car is not only unnecessary, it’s a burden. Parking is very difficult, and these cities are also cursed with such arcane driving regulations as “no left turns for 7 blocks, Sunday to Thursday 11am to 2pm.” Plus, taxis, sheruts, and buses are efficient and reasonably priced, so you can easily let someone else do the driving.
A car becomes necessary if you want to explore the Galilee or the sites along the coast. Distances are short, so you can take in many sites. Major road signs are almost always in Hebrew and English; don’t panic if on a major highway a sign is only in Hebrew—the next sign up or the one beyond will usually have the information you need in English. Your rental-car agency will provide you with GPS or maps of Israel that are sufficient for most travelers.
Important Note: You cannot take a rental car into or out of Israel. Cars rented in Israel are not generally insured for damages or liability if taken into the West Bank or Gaza. That being said, most companies’ rental insurance does permit travel on Hwy. 1, the main east-west highway from Jerusalem to The Dead Sea and on Route 90, the main road along The Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley from near Jericho north to Tiberias. Clarify these regulations each time you rent a car and get explicit instructions as to how to get to these roads in the West Bank, making sure not to stray anywhere else in the West Bank with your rental car. Also, clarify whether your car is insured for East Jerusalem, should you be planning to drive or stay in that part of the city.
Driving & Renting Rules
Seatbelt use for drivers and all passengers is mandatory.Speed limits are 50km (31 miles) per hour in towns and urban areas; 90km (56 miles) per hour on intercity roads unless otherwise posted.
Age minimums for rentals vary from company to company, but you usually must be 24 years old to rent or drive a rental car in Israel. Seniors over 75 or 80 may have some difficulty finding an agency that will rent to them. You may pay more for insurance if you’re under or over a certain age.
Road closures: In the ultrareligious neighborhoods of Jerusalem, such as Mea Shearim or Geula, and in ultrareligious quarters of some smaller cities, public roads are closed to cars for the duration of Shabbat. Usually roads into these neighborhoods are blocked with rocks or boulders or police barriers. DO NOT TRY TO ENTER ANY ROAD BLOCKED OFF IN SUCH A WAY. Back up immediately and try to get away from the area. Drivers who inadvertently wander into such neighborhoods will have stones thrown at them and risk bodily harm.
Renting a Car
In general, you’ll do best, money-wise, reserving a car in advance of your arrival. Car-rental agencies, both international and local, rent small cars for about $45 to $70 a day, depending on the season and size of the car. If you plan to travel in the summer, or drive to the Negev and Eilat, you’ll want a car with air-conditioning that really works.
The largest Israeli car-rental firm is Eldan (tel. 800/938-5000 or 888/243-5326 in the U.S. and Canada or 08/951-5727 in the U.K.; www.eldan.co.il) and is always worth looking into. Its fleet of cars is larger and more varied than those of the international agencies, and it often has discounts. Eldan also offers more offices and service centers throughout the country than any of its noninternational, Israeli competitors, so if you have a breakdown, you have a better chance of getting a replacement quickly.
Driving is one of the best ways to see Israel, but it can be expensive. Ways to save:
* Find a package that bundles together the cost of the car with airfare or lodgings.
* Rent on an unlimited kilometer basis so there are no ugly surprises. Renting by the week can be cheaper, but is not a good idea unless you plan to be in countryside areas for the entire 7-day rental period.
* Rent the cheapest class of vehicle: There’s a shortage of these cars at the rental agencies, which means there’s a good chance you’ll be bumped up a class, at no extra cost, if you do this. No guarantees though.
There are all kinds of Internet deals and car/hotel/airlines packages you can find, but this balance sheet will give you a general idea of what you’ll actually end up paying for a lower mid-price-range car rental with automatic transmission:
Basic weekly charge, unlimited kilometers $50/day $350
Collision Damage Waiver, 7 days at $18 per day $126
Mandatory Third Party Liability, 7 days at $15 per day $105
Gasoline, 100 liters at NIS 8.20 per liter (around $9.20 per gal.) $240
These figures are an average of going rates, and the total works out to about $112 per day for a simple automatic-transmission car. Do not be misled by firms offering extremely low daily rental rates, such as $6 or $8. The daily rental rate are a small portion of the total rental bill, which includes insurance and the kilometer charge.
Some smaller Israeli companies offer no rental charge on Shabbat, although you do have to pay Saturday insurance (if it is a religious company, you may be on your honor not to drive on Shabbat). Others offer free transportation from the airport to your hotel if you want to start the rental later in your trip. Companies offering such services are often more expensive, but you may find these extras worthwhile. Warning: Beware of companies that offer to waive rental fees and insurance on Shabbat. If your parked car is vandalized or stolen on Shabbat, you’re in big trouble.
Parking, Tolls, Gasoline & Breakdowns
There is only one toll road in Israel: Pan Israel Highway (Hwy. 6), which will eventually run the length of the country from north to south. At press time, only the northern and central portions of this road are open. There are no toll bridges in Israel, but there is an optional toll tunnel under Haifa, useful during rush hours. There are special Fast Lanes on Highway 1 for the distance between Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv. The toll for Fast Lane use ranges from NIS 10 to NIS 75, depending on traffic congestion conditions. Check with your car rental agency as to whether your car is equipped with an automatic scanner for the Tel Aviv Fast Lane that will add the fee to your rental bill. If not, there are heavy fines for Fast Lane use.
In Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other main cities, parking can be extremely difficult. When you park on streets in downtown areas during daylight hours, you’ll either pay for parking with a meter, or you’ll display a parking card in the passenger window. Cards can be purchased at sidewalk dispensing machines. Tip: Keep a lookout for parking police who may ticket your car while you’re dashing to the dispenser.
Parking is permitted where curbs are painted blue and white, although you may need to display a parking card. It’s forbidden where curbs are red and white or gray. Parking on many residential streets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will soon be by residential sticker only. At most hotels in major cities, you’ll have to pay to park in an often distant municipal lot or the hotel’s limited space lot (fees are usually reasonable, but rates vary according to day or night and Shabbat). Most rural hotels have free parking.
Note: Do not park illegally anywhere or you will get towed; parking enforcement officials in Israel are quick and very thorough. On the Sabbath, parking meter and card regulations are not enforced in Jerusalem and in some cities. Locals may even park on the sidewalks, but unless you know what you’re doing, don’t follow their example.
Gasoline comes in 91 octane and 96 octane varieties and costs about $2.10 per liter. Rental cars are often “required” to have the higher-octane gas. These gas prices fluctuate, but can work out to about $9.20per U.S. gallon. Gas stations are plentiful enough on main roads, though on Saturday some of them are closed and those that are open often add a surcharge.Breakdowns: Saturday and Jewish holidays, it’s near impossible to have a flat tire repaired in many areas, but your rental-car company will provide you with road service numbers to call in case of emergencies. Bigger companies usually have better service.
Sample Non–Rush Hour Driving Times in Israel
Tel Aviv-Jerusalem: 1 hour
Tel Aviv-Haifa: 1 hour 20 minutes
Jerusalem or Tel Aviv-Eilat: 4 hours, 30 minutes
Jerusalem-Tiberias: 2 hours 30 minutes
Nazareth-Haifa: 40 minutes
Tiberias-Nazareth: 30 minutes
Distances in Israel are not great, and with the time you’d spend to get to the airport, pass through security, and go through the arrival process and transfers at your destination, you could probably just drive. But if traveling overland on hot days just isn’t your cup of tea, then by all means use Israel’s inland air service Arkia (tel. 09/863-3480 or *5758 for reservations in Israel; www.arkia.co.il). There are no flights on Shabbat, but otherwise daily flights connect Tel Aviv with Eilat and Rosh Pina (Safed/Tiberias), and Haifa with Eilat. Other flights are scheduled according to demand. A round-trip flight from Tel Aviv to Eilat costs approximately $160 to $280.