Tips before traveling to Israel
Israel is a completely unique country to travel to. It’s like a Maggi cube – a country full of so many experiences – and then it’s in an area smaller than Jutland.
From the stronghold of the world religions Jerusalem, it is less than an hour’s drive to the capital of life-lovers and IT geeks, Tel Aviv. But Israel is so much more. It is also the Dead Sea, diving holiday by the Red Sea, and then it is the gateway to Palestine. Visit the Palestinian cities of Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah and get a more nuanced insight into how differently Israelis and Palestinians live door to door.
Israel is one of the countries that I have visited the most times and in this article I have gathered 15 things that you need to know before traveling to Israel.
# 1 Take off safely. Israel is in control of security
I have been to Israel eight times now. And every time I have to leave, there is always someone who asks if I am not afraid to visit a country with such a high risk of terrorism. The truth is that there have been more terrorist attacks in major European cities than there have been in Israel in the last 5-10 years. And foreign tourists have never been the target of terror in Israel.
In fact, I have always felt quite safe in Israel, because I know that the country is very concerned about security, which means that the authorities are in control of matters.
You can travel safely in most of the country, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommends staying away from the border area towards Gaza, as Hamas from time to time fires small short-range missiles at Israel.
# 2 Plan and prioritize: The country is small but has a lot to offer
Although Israel is smaller than Jutland, it is packed with experiences. So plan and prioritize from home what you would like to see. If this is the first time you are going to visit the country, then of course you should visit Jerusalem. With a little tight planning, the city can be done in one day. But I would recommend that you spend two days.
Seven alternative places to see in Jerusalem
Tel Aviv is one of my favorite cities and here you should also set aside plenty of time. At first glance, the city may seem a bit cluttered and unsightly. But once you get to know the city, I’m sure you’ll fall in love with the city as well.
In addition, I would also recommend first-time visitors a trip to the Dead Sea with a trip in the salt water.
# 3 Israel is not a cheap country
Countries in the Middle East are generally cheap to visit, but unfortunately this does not apply to Israel. One of the reasons is that Israel has had a very strong economy in recent years.
In 2015, 1 Israeli shekel cost approx. DKK 1.50. Today (August 2019) it costs approx. DKK 1.91. This is an increase of approx. 21%. Expect prices to be level or slightly more expensive than here in Denmark.
Hotels in Israel are usually very expensive. For the same reason, I have stayed in Airbnb every time I have been visiting. There is a large selection on Airbnb and it is possible to find something that is far cheaper than hotels. Find an apartment in e.g. Neve Tzedek or Florentin, which are a couple of Tel Aviv’s friendliest neighborhoods.
# 4 Entry into Israel – be prepared
One of the first Israelis you are likely to meet is the person at the passport control at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. And it probably won’t be a particularly cordial meeting. The passport controller takes his work very seriously and will ask you a number of questions before you are locked in the country. This is not where you have to stand to make fun or get annoyed with poor ‘customer service’. You will probably be asked what places to visit and at what address to stay. So make sure you have the information ready. Be 100% honest and also tell if you are going to visit one of the Palestinian territories.
The last time I was in Israel, I was going to Ramallah, which is in the Palestinian territory, for two days. When I told the passport controller about my visit to Ramallah, she became very skeptical and also seemed quite offended. There were a few sour extra questions, but then I was locked in.
Many Arab countries will deny you entry if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. But luckily you do not get a stamp in the passport anymore. Instead, you get a ‘loose ticket’, which is put in your passport. Save it as you will need to show it when you travel again.
You can visit Israel even if you have visited Arab countries. But a stamp from e.g. Lebanon or Iran will attract attention and you will probably be asked for your visits to these countries.
If you have a Danish passport, you can travel into Israel without a visa.
# 5 Get an Israeli SIM card
It is expensive to use your Danish SIM card in Israel. So remember to check that you have turned off data roaming on your phone when you land.
There good and free WiFi in many places in the country. But if you want to be online all the time, consider buying a SIM card at the airport when you land.
It is good to be able to get online when you e.g. is in Jerusalem and must have refreshed the story of the Wailing Wall. This is essential when you have rented a car and need to find your way to the Dead Sea.
# 6 Remember to experience both the traditional and the modern
Many go to Israel to experience the world religions and feel the buzz of history in Jerusalem. But also remember to explore modern Israel, which can best be experienced in Tel Aviv. Although there are only 70 km between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, they are culturally and mentally several thousand kilometers apart.
The modern in Tel Aviv you experience in the hipster district Florentin, which is packed with galleries, cafes and good restaurants. And if you are tired of religious art in Jerusalem, be sure to visit the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
# 7 The weekend starts Thursday night
The Jewish weekend is called Shabbat and starts already on Thursday evening. In principle, Israel’s Friday corresponds to our Saturday, when most shops and some restaurants close early (14:00). On Saturdays, the vast majority of shops are closed. But in a city like Tel Aviv you will still be able to shop in e.g. smaller supermarkets. Sunday is a common day in Israel.
# 8 Familiarize yourself with the history of the area
Many Israelis want to talk about politics and the many conflicts in the area. And if you talk politics in Israel, you also get into the history of the area very quickly.
# 9 The Israelis are like ‘saber’ so have some chutztpah
It’s never good to generalize, but now I dare the fur anyway. Saber is the Hebrew word for the cactus fruit. Stinging on the outside, but soft in the middle. The word is used by the Israelis themselves to describe their behavior. Many Israelis may seem harsh and very direct at first meeting. But when you first get into the life of an Israeli, she / he is incredibly welcoming and warm-hearted.
The last time I was in Israel, one of the locals told me that I should have some “chutzpah”. He thought I was too polite and careful. Chutzpah is Yiddish and difficult to translate because it is not very Danish. But it does mean something like being a little handsome. Jump into it.
# 10 Meet the Israelis over a meal
A few years ago I was in Tel Aviv, where I had booked a dinner with an Israeli family via the website EatWith. It was a little strange to meet up with a family I had never met before. But it ended up being a completely unforgettable evening. We got lots of good food and I got a first-hand impression of what it is like to live in Israel.
# 11 Israel is the only LGBT-friendly country in the Middle East
In the Middle East, there are no LGBT-friendly countries – except Israel. Tel Aviv is where things happen, though you can also find a drag show in Jerusalem if you head. This is where the vast majority of homosexuals live, and every year in June, the world’s second largest pride parade is held.
The Pride in Tel Aviv is the second largest in the world with over 200,000 participants.
# 12 Also visit Palestine
If you are in Israel, you can also easily visit the Palestinian territories in the West Bank (Gaza is completely closed for visits). There are several day trips from both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Most tourists visit the cities of Bethlehem and Hebron. You can also visit Ramallah – the temporary capital – and perhaps Rawabi, the first planned city on the West Bank. Your visit will be a positive contribution to the Palestinian economy.
# 13 Remember gratuity
It is normal to tip at restaurants and cafes. You should put 10-15%. If you just buy a drink / drink, then you have to put a few shekels. In some places, they automatically tip the bill, and then of course you do not have to put any more.
It is not customary to tip taxi drivers.
# 14 Get VAT refunded
As already mentioned, Israel is a relatively expensive country to visit. The good news is that you can get your VAT refund on most items that you take out of the country. If you have gone shop-crazy, then you can get the VAT of 17% refunded when you travel.
Before you check your luggage on the plane at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, there is a counter where you have to show your vouchers. You will also be asked to show some of the items that you have purchased. Once you have entered the transit area, there is another counter where you can get the money paid out. It is a bit cumbersome and requires a lot of patience.
# 15 The departure
When the holiday is over, you will probably have to fly home from Ben Gurion Airport, which is approx. 20 km east of Tel Aviv city center. And here you should always come in good time. Minimum three hours before departure. You have to go through a thorough security check to get home.
When you check in your suitcase, you will be interviewed by security agents who will ask about your trip. Do you know anyone in Israel? Where have you been? Who are you traveling with? And have you received any gifts? And a host of other questions. If you arouse any kind of suspicion, then you may risk getting through a thorough check where all your luggage will be reviewed. From experience, I have learned that if you say that you have received gifts in Israel, then you will almost certainly get the big check. So avoid taking gifts home.
Once you have handed over your luggage, you must go through a security check, which is very similar to what is at Copenhagen Airport. Funnily enough, you’re actually allowed to carry large bottles of liquids in your hand luggage at Ben Gurion Airport.