Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Tips for travelling in Israel

This blog post should tell you everything you could possibly want to know about travelling in Israel. But, in case something's missing, please drop a comment and I'll make sure to add it!


Security:


Check your Foreign office's instructions, though if they're anything like Finland's, they'll tell you to avoid markets, cafes, cinemas and public transport which means you'd miss out on so much of the fun. So, use your own judgment. Just remember that as a foreigner you do stand out and oddly enough that means you'd make a bad target for any terror attack as far as both sides are concerned - that sort of PR would be very very bad for them. 

Check your insurance policy, too. Israel (and West Bank) should be ok, but Gaza might be a different story and at least warrant some sort of an additional insurance. Though, you wouldn't get into Gaza if you tried, so...





Vaccinations:

Again, check your own country's recommendations, but no out-of-the-ordinary vaccinations should be needed. If traveling in summer though, you must remember it is hot. And I mean, Dante's Hell sort of hot, so don't even think of about foregoing the sunscreen. Trust me on this one: one summer I burnt my scalp so badly there are parts of my forehead that still don't move (great savings on Botox to look forward to, then!). 

Another thing that you should keep in mind when traveling on the coast, is that summer is the season for jelly fish. You see the locals lugging them away from the sea and the biggest ones I've seen were nearly half a metre in diameter. While not dangerous, they are bitchy little buggers. The marks they've left on people make their victims look like a member of self-flogging Opus Dei who's just had a run-in with Freddy Krueger. The actual encounter (should you ever have one) is not really too bad - there's a nasty burning sensation but it'll all be over soon. 





Arriving in the country:

No matter which airline I've used (and I've used a lot of them...), my flight always seem to arrive at 3am which is not a time when anyone's at their best. Not me or the passport control...

The entry procedure into the country has gone through some changes over the past years and the traveler no longer gets his/ her passport stamped, which is a welcome change in case you intend to travel in the region in the future, too. With a passport bearing an Israeli stamp you can only enter Jordan and Egypt which are the only two countries Israel has a formal peace treaty in place with. 

In stead of a stamp you'll get a blue slip which is checked as you exit the country. The slip allows you to stay in the country for three months. As you enter, the border officials will inquire about the purpose of your trip, the length of it and any itinerary you might have. The longer the planned trip, the more questions it warrants. The more exotic your name (read: the more Arab your name...), the more questions it warrants. The more stamps from obscure Israel-bashing Arab countries in your passport, the more questions it warrants. 

In case you're even toying with the idea of exploring the Palestinian territories, this is not a good moment to disclose it. Otherwise your trip might end before it's even started and you'll find yourself on in the waiting room. interrogation room, detention centre and on the next flight home.


The airport - how to get there and away from there:

Baruch ha - ba! Welcome! So you made it in, then! Depending on the day of your arrival, you might be able to use the most convenient way into and out of Ben Gurion: the train. There's a train about every 30 mins and it'll get you to the centre of Tel Aviv in approximately 20 minutes. The ticket costs 13,5 NIS (a little under €3). For more information and schedules, please see here

The train does not operate between midnight and 3am or during the Shabbat. Those times you'll have to take a taxi, the stand for which you'll find in front of the Terminal 3. Taxi to Tel Aviv costs 130 NIS (a little under €30), from Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion the fare is 110 NIS (about €23).

In case you're headed for Jerusalem, use Nesher.






Getting around:

Renting a car is obviously the easiest way of getting around and exploring even the most random corners, but you'll get by without it too, as public transport in Israel is very well organized. You can get from city to city using either trains, buses or sherut, shared taxis. 

Of the intercity buses Egged is the biggest. For timetables and fares, see here. This website lists all the other bus companies too, though it's bound to make for a confusing read for someone not proficient in every little junction. Like me. 

Sheruts are quicker than the buses. You'll catch one at a sherut station, which are usually (like in Tel aviv) located in the vicinity of bus stations. In Jerusalem you'll find the sherut station behind the houses across Jaffa street, opposite to Zion square. 

The sign on the windshield tells you the destination of each sherut. The driver takes off as soon as all the seats in the 10-seater minivan are taken and unlike in buses, you can get off anywhere you like. Unlike buses, sheruts between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv aso operate on Shabbat, during which the price is slightly higher.

sheruts also operate within cities, following the most popular bus routes. The number on the windshield tells you which one. The fare is the same as in buses, depending on the city 5-6 NIS (roughly €1). 

In case you use public transport (and same routes) a lot, you might want to look into getting a Rav Kav smart card, which makes traveling more convenient and cheaper, too. 

The more remote the place, the less frequent the bus services are and to some there only might be a couple a day. That is when you'll have to resort to taxi. Ooh, the taxi drivers....They're not terribly keen on those meters in their cars so you'll probably have to negotiate the price beforehand. Well, it's really not much of a negotiation as it is extortion. In the middle of it all the driver suddenly decides he doesn't speak English after all and whips out a ridiculous price for an 8-minute journey... which you really can't afford not to accept either. Though you will also get the best possible Yiddish lesson on the meaning of "chutzpah"...

There's a new sheriff in town, though: Gett-taxis which apparently are actually regulated by rules. Or common decency. 


Language:

The official language is Hebrew, which I firmly believe is the sexiest language in the world (I'm also painfully aware of how alone I am with this...). In Arab cities and villages Arab is spoken. English is widely spoken, though (unless you're trying to haggle with a taxi driver, that is...), especially among the younger generation. 

Street names and other signs are commonly written also in English, though disappointingly many website (for instance restaurants and the above mentioned Gett) are only available in Hebrew. Thank the Lord for Google Translate, then!


Majoitus:

There are hostels, hotels, guest houses and inns to cater for every budget. In case yours is on the smaller size or you're taking the roads less traveled, you might benefit from this hostel data base. 

In some hotels Shabbat (which only ends Saturday evening) might prove to be problem in case you wish to check out on Saturday and some refuse to accept bookings for Fri-Sat night alone, so keep this in mind when booking a hotel.

Voltage in Israel is the same as in Europe (220V).






Shabbat:

Shabbat starts on Friday evening and finishes 25 hours later. During this time there's no public transportation and the only way to get around is to surrender to the bottomless greed of the taxi drivers. 

Leisurely strolls are a popular pastime on Shabbat, but be careful with your destination. The more religious the neighbourhood, the mroe you should pay attention to your dress code and behaviour. Cover up, don't take photographs and avoid smoking and using your phone. In case you do want to get a glimpse of Israel at its most religious, visit Mea Shearim in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak in Tel Aviv. 

For the ultimate Shabbat experience, make your way to the Wailing Wall. After the prayers, look up Jeff Seidel, a cowboy hat-wearing local legend, whose indefatigable efforts make sure no-one is left alone on this holy day. He coordinates a programme which sees local families opening their homes to total strangers, sometimes tens of them at a time.  





Kosher:

Kosher refers to the dietary requirements dictated by Jewish law. This means that dairy and meat are never consumed together and thus kosher restaurants are either halavi (serving dairy and fish) or bashari (meat restaurants with no cream, butter or cheese anywhere on the menu). Pork and shellfish are trefa (forbidden under any circumstances) and don't feature on the menus of either. 

Most of the large hotels are kosher, which means breakfast is halavi (with often a mind-boggling array of pickled fish- yeiiiiii!) as sometimes is the lunch. Dinner is bashari.

In case breakfast is available at hostels or smaller hotels, it's usually vegetarian, too. That means bread, jam, eggs, saladss, olives... and hummus, of course. 


Restaurants:

More and more (non-kosher) restaurants are open during Shabbat, too, as are some of the smaller shops and kiosks.

For more on Israel as a foodie destination and my restaurant recommendations, see my earlier post

Tipping is common practice, though Israelis rarely leave more than 10%.





Traveling to West Bank:

You can enter West Bank directly from Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordaninan side, too, but in that case your passport will be hit with a stamp that will prevent you from travelling to Israel. Should you still wish to do so, here are instructions on crossing the border. 

When travelling to West Bank from Israel, you have several options. From Jerusalem you'll get to Betlehem via Checkpoint 300, to Hebron you can get a direct servis (Palestinian equivalent of sherut) at the Damascus Gate and just a block away, across the street from Jerusalem Hotel, there's a bus station where rest of the West Bank-bound buses depart. 

For foreigners the checkpoints are open 24/7 and no permit is needed.





The grand exit:

Ah. This is where it all really gets fun. You might have thought that being told to be at the airport at least three hours prior to your flight was excessive. You'd be wrong. Leaving the country is about a million times harder than entering it. Do yoga, meditate, pop a couple of Valiums or all three - rust me, you'll need them.

The first person you'll encounter will ask for
- your name
- your passport
- the correct pronunciation of your name
- whether anybody else in your family speaks Hebrew
- why you travel so extensively in Israel
- whether your Grandma speaks Yiddish..

... over and over again in different variations. 

Yes, I know, I know. Security - that magic word you'll get as the response to every single one of your questions all the time. But surely Israel should be happy about people who keep on coming back, every time dropping more money that they can afford? 

PS. In case you did make that trip to West Bank, you might not want to disclose it now either (or you'll risk either intense questioning or ban from entering Israel for the next 10 years. Or both.)

You might get yet another person asking you the same questions, too. At some point you'll get a rating (1-6) which determines your treatment from then onwards, Those traveling as a part of a group are routinely given 2 and they're probably even left with enough time to enjoy the airport. Wouldn't know - at worse I was slapped with a 5 and wound up in that tiny room with 2 female officers pulling on rubber gloves. 

Another time every single item in my suitcase was rummaged through with inexplicable attention to detail. Including a bottle  of nail varnish remover which unfortunately wasn't closed with similar attention to detail and ended up leaking and ruining my one-of-a-kind Longchamp handbag. 

Then there was the time when I learnt that Jesus sandals I'd bought in Jerusalem Old City could not travel on the same flight home with me. Yep, you guessed it: security reasons...

This time I was stuck at the waiting area after the x-ray machine. Again, with no explanation given. This is part of the guards' charm: they're all seemingly nice and polite, but they have turned not really saying anything into an art form. Nor do they welcome any questions on your behalf. I'm sure they're doing a very important job, but I'm equally sure  their cold and condescending demeanour is part of their need to assert their authority and make you feel like crap. The treatment is humiliating and infuriating and leaves you swearing never to return.  

After all my belongings had been gone through several times, I was finally explained that "somewhere out there there was something alarming". After being marched through the x-ray for the third time, they apparently found the culprit: a star of David necklace I was wearing underneath my clothes. Yeah, can't think of anything more threatening to the State of Israel...

You should also know that based on how suspicious you're considered, you might also be asked (well, demanded, really) to show the content of your camera or hand out passwords to access your computer or social media feeds. Either upon arrival or departure. 

Ok, so that doesn't really make Israel sound like a worth the hassle... or does it? Do you guys have even more frustrating stories to share from airports around the world?

___________________


ANYONE FOR SECONDS?



      


SHARING IS CARING!

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