Planning a trip to Israel is just the start of an unforgettable visit to the Holy Land. This tiny country is one of the world's most exciting and diverse destinations. Before you go, you'll want to take a run-through of some useful resources and reminders, especially if you are a first-time traveler to Israel and the Middle East. Here is a summary of visa requirements, travel and safety tips, when to go, and more to help you with your planning.
Do You Need a Visa for Israel?
The U.S. State Department does not indicate that U.S. citizens traveling to Israel for stays of up to 90 days from their date of arrival need a visa, but like all visitors, you must hold a passport that is valid for at least six months from the date you are departing the country.
If you plan to visit Arab countries after visiting Israel, ask the customs official at the passport control window at the airport to not stamp your passport (they usually do not) as this could complicate your entry to those countries. If, however, the countries you are planning to visit after Israel are Egypt or Jordan, you need not be concerned about this.
When to Go
For visitors making the journey chiefly for religious interest, any time of year is a good time to visit the country. Most visitors will want to take two things into consideration when planning their visit: the weather and holidays. Summers, generally considered to extend from April to October, can be very hot with humid conditions along the coast, whereas winter (November-March) brings cooler temperatures but also the possibility of rain.
Because Israel is the Jewish State, expect busy travel times around major Jewish holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The busiest months tend to be October and August, so if you're going to visit at either of these times make sure to start the planning and hotel reservation process well ahead of time.
Shabbat and Saturday Travel
In the Jewish religion Shabbat, or Saturday, is the holy day of the week and because Israel is the Jewish State, you can expect travel to be impacted by the country-wide observance of Shabbat. All public offices and most businesses are closed on Shabbat, which begins Friday afternoon and ends on Saturday evening.
In Tel Aviv, most restaurants remain open while trains and buses just about everywhere do not run, or if they do, it's on a very restricted schedule. This can complicate plans for day trips on Saturday unless you have a car. (Also note that El Al, Israel's national airline, does not operate flights on Saturdays or religious holidays). By contrast, Sunday is the start of the work week in Israel.
Israel enforces a smoking ban in most public places, so be sure to ask and seek out designated smoking areas if you must light up.
While most of the larger hotels in Israel serve kosher food, there is no binding law and many restaurants in cities like Tel Aviv are not kosher. That said, kosher restaurants, which display a kashrut certificate granted to them by the local rabbinate, are generally easy to find by asking a hotel concierge or searching online.
Israel's location in the Middle East places it in a culturally fascinating part of the world. However, it is also true that few countries in the region have established diplomatic relations with Israel. Since its independence in 1948, Israel has fought six wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, meaning that regional instability is a fact of life. Travel to the Gaza Strip or West Bank requires prior clearance or required authorization; however, there is unrestricted access to the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Jericho.
The risk of terrorism remains a threat both in America and abroad. However, because Israelis have had the misfortune of experiencing terrorism for a longer time than Americans, they have developed a culture of vigilance in security matters that is more entrenched than our own. You can expect to see full-time security guards stationed outside supermarkets, busy restaurants, banks, and shopping malls, and bag checks are the norm. It takes a few seconds away from the ordinary routine but is second-nature to Israelis and after just a few days it will be for you, too.
The U.S. State Department classifies a Level 2 Advisory for Israel, The West Bank, and Gaza. This means to exercise increased caution in Israel due to terrorism but does not warn against visiting. Some areas have increased risk.
The Travel Advisory warns citizens to not travel to Gaza due to terrorism, civil unrest, and armed conflict and to reconsider travel to the West Bank due to terrorism, potentially violent civil unrest, and the potential for armed conflict. It is important to check the Department of State website when making travel plans.
As always when traveling, it's a good idea to stay informed. A quality newspaper such as The New York Times or the English editions of popular Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post are all good places to start in terms of timely and reliable information, both before and during your trip.
Where to Go in Israel
There is a lot to see and do in Israel, and deciding on a destination can seem a bit overwhelming. There are many sacred sites and secular attractions like Akko, so you'll want to refine your focus depending on how long your trip might be. Many travel to see the holy sites but others are headed to Israel to enjoy a beach vacation. The official tourism website of Israel has planning ideas.
The currency in Israel is the Israeli New Shekel (NIS). 1 shekel = 100 agorot (singular: agora) and banknotes are in denominations of NIS 200, 100, 50 and 20 shekels. Coins are in denominations of 10 shekels, 5 shekels, 2 shekels, 1 shekel, 50 agorot, and 10 agorot.
The most common ways of paying are by cash and credit card. There are ATMs all over in cities (Bank Leumi and Bank Hapoalim being the most prevalent) and some even give the option of dispensing cash in dollars and euros.
Most Israelis speak English, so you probably won't have any difficulties getting around. That said, knowing a little Hebrew can definitely be helpful. Here are a few Hebrew phrases that can be helpful for any traveler.
Thank you: toda
Thank you very much: toda raba
Excuse me: slicha
What time is it?: ma hasha'ah?
I need help: ani tzarich ezra (m.)
I need help: ani tzricha ezra (f.)
Good morning: boker tov
Good night: layla tov
Good sabbath: shabat shalom
Good luck/congratulations: mazel tov
My name is: kor'im li
What's the rush?: ma halachatz
Bon appetit: betay'avon!
What to Pack
Pack lightly for Israel, and don't forget the sunglasses and sunscreen. From April through October it's going to be warm and bright, and even in the winter, about the only extra layer you'll need is a light sweater and a windbreaker. Israelis dress very casually; in fact, a famous Israeli politician was once teased for showing up to work one day wearing a tie.
If you are going to visit religious sites, women should pack a shawl or wrap. If you're visiting a religious site, such as a mosque, synagogue, church or the Wailing Wall, plan to cover yourself. Plan to cover your arms and legs which means avoiding Bermuda shorts or short skirts.
When passing through or visiting neighborhoods where extreme Orthodox Jewish communities reside, it is important to cover up and dress modestly. That may mean long skirts for women and long slacks for men as well as long-sleeved tops.
Having said all that, you'll want to pack a bathing suit for Israel as the weather is likely to be ideal for a swim.