‘There’s no debating it’s an intriguing destination, but here are a few things I wish I’d known before I travelled to Israel…’
Currency and Card Payments
The currency used in Israel is the NIS (New Israeli Shekel). Card payments are also widely accepted. If you’re unsure, ask before you buy and the vendor will be happy to tell you if they accept cash or card. Many stores have visible card readers or signs on their doors informing you of accepted methods of payment. This can be helpful if you’re in a small store or at the market. Although in the UK, we’re accustomed to using contactless, this was not an option in the vast majority of places we went. Make sure you know your PIN before you go.
Israeli security is tight. It can be quite alarming if you come from a country that doesn’t have a whole lot of visible guards. We travelled to Israel in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, we regularly saw soldiers wandering the streets and checking trains, buses, and stations. All were dressed in army uniform and armed with large automatic weapons. Locals pay them no attention as they’re simply a facet of daily life. For visitors, it takes a bit more getting used to.
It’s difficult to know whether you feel safer because they’re around or whether the fact that they *are* around makes you think about why they’re needed.
Major attractions, such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem, have security barriers, scanners, and bag searches as standard. Security is also present when entering main bus and train stations and you’ll often have large items of luggage searched.
Borders & Airports
Border crossings and security at Ben Gurion airport can feel like an interrogation. Prepare to be asked about what you’re doing in Israel, where you’re staying, and how long you’re there. We were asked where we were staying. the name of the person who owned the apartment we rented, what language she spoke, etc. I was even asked how long I’d known my husband, which was definitely the strangest thing I’ve been asked by a random guy at an airport.
We were also turned away from security by a severely annoyed guard for having old stickers on the back of our passports. They’ve been there for years but this was the first time they’d been an issue. However, we understand that everyone has their own security standards, so we kept our heads down, answered all the questions we could, and were just glad to get through.
When travelling to Israel, public transport can be extremely frustrating. Trying to find bus stops and routes is a science I failed to comprehend. When Google maps and various apps gave me conflicting information (Hop On and Moovit), I turned to security guards and tourist guides. These provided even more conflicting directions and bus numbers, so I turned to the public. If I found someone who didn’t simply ignore me completely, it wasn’t often I garnered anything concrete. Bottom line: it can take a long time to work stuff out.
You will, on occasion, find a fabulous person at information, or someone will approach you in the street, but they’re few and far between. It’s not that people are unfriendly, but the cities are very busy and there’s an obvious language barrier in that neither of us speaks Hebrew. For buses and trains in the three major cities (Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem), a Rav Kav card is required. You cannot buy tickets on any public transport, and drivers are not allowed to accept cash. This is a link to my article on the card and how to use it.
Israel isn’t a cheap place to visit. It might be if you’re from Scandinavia, Hong Kong, or Paris, but not if you’re from the UK or many other nations across Europe. I’m not sure how it stacks up against the US, but the New Yorkers we met commented on the high price of beer.
Groceries are particularly expensive, as are soft drinks and alcohol. We found out on several occasions that the bill for eating out was cheaper than a receipt for one night’s meal from the supermarket.
If you’re inexperienced at ALL or are not supremely confident, don’t do it!! as always when you don’t know a city well, driving is a challenge. Israeli cities have many large roads and many times narrow lanes. Traffic is busy all the time and main junctions can be stressful when you’re walking. Obviously, if you’ve travelled to Israel by car, you’ll have to go for it…!
Shabbat is observed by a large percentage of Israeli people each Friday. It begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. Shabbat means many normal activities are forbidden as the faithful observe the day they believe to be the end of the week.
As well as no cooking or driving, most observant Jews do not work. This means that for 24 hours (and often a bit longer), you will find no buses or trains. There are some exceptions in Haifa and shuttle buses recently started running limited services in Tel Aviv.
Very few stores and Supermarkets are open and the majority of restaurants and bars are closed. If you’re not aware of this before arriving, you must ensure you can get to airports for flights, etc. Taxis still operate, although they’re obviously more expensive than public transport. Although there wasn’t much to do in the city (we were in Jerusalem during Shabbat), it was pretty cool to wander the street when they were so eerily quiet in comparison.