Guide to Planning a Trip to Israel

Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount
••• Cosmo Condina/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Israel trip planning is the start of an unforgettable trip to the Holy Land. This tiny country is one of the world's most exciting and varied 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's a summary of visa requirements, travel and safety tips, when to go and more.

Do You Need a Visa For Israel?

U.S. citizens traveling to Israel for stays of up to three months from their date of arrival do not need a visa, but like all visitors must hold a passport that is valid for at least six months from the date they 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, as this could complicate your entry to those countries. You must request this before your passport is stamped. If, however, the countries you are planning to visit after Israel are Egypt or Jordan, you need not make a special request.

When to Go to Israel

When is the best time to visit Israel? For visitors making the journey chiefly for religious interest, virtually 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 rainy days.

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). By contrast, Sunday is the start of the work week in Israel.

Keeping Kosher

While most of the larger hotels in Israel serve kosher food, there is no binding law and most 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.

Is It Safe to Visit Israel?

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 to be 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 will be for you, too.

Where to Go in Israel

Do you already know where you want to go in Israel? There is a lot to see and do, and deciding on a destination can seem a bit overwhelming. There are plenty of sacred sites and secular attractions, vacation ideas and more so you'll want to refine your focus depending on how long your trip might be.

Money Matters

The currency in Israel is the New Israeli 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. Here is a helpful round-up of all things financial for Israel travelers.

Speaking Hebrew

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.

Basic Hebrew Words and Phrases (in English transliteration)

Israel: Yisrael
Hello: Shalom
Good: tov
Yes: ken
No: lo
Please: bevakasha
Thank you: toda
Thank you very much: toda raba
Fine: beseder
OK: sababa
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 light for Israel, and don't forget the shades: 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.

What to Read

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 Ha'aretz and The Jerusalem Post are all good places to start in terms of timely and reliable information, both before and during your trip.