General Availability of Healthcare
Israel is blessed with an oversupply of doctors and contains a network of well-equipped, modern hospitals and Magen David Adom clinics, where you can get emergency treatment for flu, fevers, fractures, and upset stomachs, as well as for more serious emergencies. You are never far from good medical care. If need be, your hotel can arrange a house call with a licensed local physician who will be delighted to have a private case (and private payment). Pharmacies are well stocked, and you'll encounter many international name brands, but drug prices outside of Israeli insurance plans -- even for nonprescription medicines such as aspirin or basic anti-diarrhea medicines -- are comparatively high. Jordan and Sinai are not as well covered with major hospitals. Private consultation with a local physician will usually be relatively inexpensive.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country and offers tips on food safety. The website www.tripprep.com, sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, also offers helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine website, www.istm.org.
Health & Food Concerns
Water -- Tap water is safe and drinkable in Israel, except at The Dead Sea. There, even some luxury hotels have special taps on each floor that you must go to for 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 teeth brushing, local water is fine.
In Jordan and Egypt (Sinai), tap water is not drinkable. Bottled water is essential.
Kosher Food -- In Israel, at least half of all restaurants are kosher, although some may not have official kashrut certificates (in many cases because they do business on the Sabbath). All Israel hotels serve kosher food, with the exception of Christian guesthouses and hotels in Arabic areas of Jerusalem and Nazareth. In some secular areas of Tel Aviv, kosher restaurants, certified or not, can actually be hard to find. If you're lactose intolerant, note that kosher meat restaurants use no dairy products at all, not even for desserts.
Vegetarian Foods -- The summer heat is especially conducive to lighter meals, and vegetarians will be delighted to find many vegetarian restaurants and venues serving vegetarian dishes throughout Israel. As kosher restaurants cannot serve both dairy and meat dishes, many add an array of vegetarian dishes to broaden their menus. There are also many traditional vegetarian dishes available at restaurants in Jordan and in Egypt.
Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- 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 in the desert or countryside. There's minimal danger in the cities, but at beaches and in the countryside, take some simple precautions. 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. Dogs that are clearly well-tended pets are okay, but keep away from stray dogs and kittens and the urban refuse bin 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 they 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 places, are the bane of snorkelers. Getting your foot impaled on one of these spines can wreck a vacation. 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.
Respiratory Illnesses -- The Dead Sea, far below sea level, has the thickest, most oxygen-rich atmosphere on the face of the earth. Those suffering from asthma, allergy, heart, or pulmonary problems often find the dry, pollen-free, oxygen-rich atmosphere helpful. The Negev city of Arad, with its dry, pollen-free air, is especially known as a place that is helpful to those suffering from asthma, or who have allergies to pollens and mold.
Sun Exposure -- Sunburn and dehydration are problems throughout the region, but especially in the desert in 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.
What to Do if You Get Sick Away from Home
Any foreign consulate can provide a list of area doctors who speak English. If you get sick, your hotel desk can direct you to the nearest Magen David Adom clinic or can recommend a local doctor. We list hospitals and emergency numbers under "Fast Facts," in the individual destination chapters.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry prescription medications in their original containers, with pharmacy labels -- otherwise they won't make it through airport security. Also carry copies of your prescriptions in case you lose your pills or run out. Don't forget an extra pair of contact lenses or prescription glasses. Carry the generic name of prescription medicines, in case a local pharmacist is unfamiliar with the brand name.
Israel is a low-crime country. Some of the major dangers you will encounter are car-related. Israeli drivers, though no worse than drivers in some other countries, 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 major 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. Keeping baggage out of sight in the trunk helps a bit, but a parked rental car is an irresistible magnet for thieves.
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, where the very fact of being unaccompanied by a man will be regarded as suspicious and provocative. Extremely modest dress is essential. All behavior must be very guarded, and all visitors should be aware of conservative Muslim sensibilities. Gay and lesbian travelers are advised to be unusually discreet when visiting these areas.
Terrorism has become a problem everywhere in the world, and Israelis have become expert 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.
In ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, such as Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem, it is considered provocative for men and women to walk hand in hand, or even in close proximity. Long sleeves and skirts for women and long trousers for men are considered proper dress. No tank tops. In Arab areas, male travelers must not approach women to ask for directions or for any other purpose (women travelers may approach local women). It is provocative to be seen carrying or drinking alcohol in public, as the use of alcohol is forbidden by Islam.
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.