15 things you need to know before traveling to Israel

Israel is a beautiful country filled with historical significance, exquisite diversity, and beautiful landscapes – ranging from the sea, to the desert, and even to lush forests. With a combination as amazing as that, it makes sense that as many as 3 million tourists come to visit the country each year.

So what is it that you should know before embarking on your journey to Israel? Do you know about Shabbat and the other Jewish holidays? What about the rules for tipping or haggling? Is Israel safe? Should you be worried about the soldiers walking around?

Below, you’ll find a list of all that and more – in the hopes that it will make you more comfortable when visiting this beautiful country.

1. Take into consideration Shabbat and the Jewish holidays

Shabbat is a day of rest, abstention from work, and celebration for those of the Jewish faith. It begins at sundown on Friday and continues until the nightfall of the following evening (Saturday).

Why does this matter to someone who is visiting Israel?
Since it is a day of rest and abstention from work, transportation (i.e., busses and trains) comes to an almost full stop and stores owned by those observing Shabbat (which are the majority) close. Therefore, it is important to plan around those days if you are wanting to take a train to go to a city (for example, taking the train from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport to Haifa will not be possible during Shabbat).

It is the same case with regards to Jewish holidays. During these holidays, busses and trains will come to a standstill and shops will be closed. I have also been told that the prices of hotels are higher during this time and that lots of places get booked up.

For a list of the 2018 holidays, please check the following link.

2. Know the difference between an air-raid siren and the siren that sounds during national memorial services

The air-raid siren is an oscillating siren. When you hear it, make your way to the closest safe area (such as a bomb shelter). Chances are, there will be locals around so if you do not know what to do, follow their lead. They will also make sure to help you if you ask for help or appear to be confused. Note that sometimes there are practice siren drills, so it may be nice to ask someone (whether it be your hotel or where you are staying) whether a practice drill will be occurring (that way you won’t find yourself having a heart attack thinking that a missile is coming for Israel). However, these practice drills do not happen often.

As opposed to the air-raid siren, the siren used during the national memorial service remains at one frequency and tone. This siren will be heard for events such as Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah). When you hear this siren, please observe two minutes of solemn reflection by stopping what you are doing.

3. Airport security

Airport security coming into and going out of Israel is pretty intense. And if you take El Al (Israel’s official airline), as someone else put it, their security precautions are the stuff of legends.

So, what should you expect?

At check-in, you will be asked a series of questions. These questions may include the likes of:

  • What will you do while in Israel?
  • Who packed your bag? Did you receive a gift/are you bringing something into the country on behalf of someone else?
  • What is your grandfather’s name? (um sorry what?)

Sometimes the interviewers will repeat a question several times, so just reply truthfully and be patient about the process.

A view of a wing of an airplane

Furthermore, you will go through a series of procedures. Some will be normal to you, such as putting your carry-on through baggage screening. However, there will also include a more thorough check of your carry-on, such as opening it and swabbing all of the electronics inside. You may also go through a body check and an x-ray machine.

4. Passport and paper visas

Worried that you might be banned from certain countries if you have an Israeli stamp on your passport?

Well, worry no more! Stamps are no longer put on your passport when entering Israel. Instead, a paper visa is issued at entry that will show your stamp. Make sure to have this card/paper visa with you at all times until you leave because it is proof of your legal entry into Israel. I personally always keep mine in my wallet.

It is also important that your passport be valid for at least 6 months from the date of your entry into the country. If it will not be, make sure to renew your passport before going on your trip to Israel.

5. Haggling

Haggling: one thing I am horrendous at and don’t think I’ll ever learn how to properly do. BUT for those who know what they are doing, this will work wonders for you in Israel.

It is acceptable to haggle in Israel – not at “actual” shops (for lack of a better term; e.g., Zara, H&M), but definitely at Old City markets or open air markets.

The way I see it: if the shop has no prices on any or most of its items, you can haggle. If you’re not sure whether you can haggle, I say just go for it – people are used to others haggling here.

6. Tipping

In Israel, it is expected that individuals tip between 10-15%. I must be honest and say I was surprised that you tipped because the servers did nothing more than just bring your food to you. Unlike Canada, where the servers come by and ask how everything is, refill your drink, etc., the servers at the restaurants that I have been to in Israel do no such thing. Granted, this may be solely at the establishments that I have gone to – this may very well not be the case for the majority of Israel and I should not generalize it as being so.

7. Taxes

In Israel, taxes are already included within the price. So, if something says that it is 5.90NIS, then that is what you will be paying. The same goes for restaurants, but as mentioned above, you will have to still tip.

8. There is a Jellyfish season

Imagine planning a trip to a coastal city of Israel. Your plan is to be there for a week and you are going to swim every single day. You get there, and the next thing you know: it’s Jellyfish season and you can’t go swimming (or you could, but would risk getting stung pretty badly).

View of the Mediterranean Sea (Israel)

So make sure to see when Jellyfish season is. For example, last year in Haifa, Jellyfish season was in July and the beginning of August.

9. Safety in Israel

In my experience, Israel is quite safe. However, we would be lying to ourselves if we said there was no conflict at all. Therefore, before and during your trip, remain updated on the places you are going.

Go Israel, Israel’s Tourist Information website, states that every year 3-4 million tourists vacation in Israel. This goes to show that 3-4 million people feel safe in coming to Israel, and so should you.

Don’t let the worry of something happening persuade you into not visiting this beautiful country filled with amazing history.

10. The military will be out and about

At the age of 18, men and women are enlisted into the military for approximately two to three years.

So, it is not surprising to see many military personnel walking around. They won’t be hard to miss because they will be in their uniforms and typically carrying guns. But do not be alarmed, they are well-trained and know what to do.

11. Do not leave your bags unattended

Under no circumstance should you leave your bags or suitcases unattended. An unattended bag equals a potential bomb and security measures will be put in place to get rid of the “suspicious item”.

12. Israel is not cheap

Israel is quite expensive, so plan accordingly. You will especially notice the high prices with regards to hotels and restaurants. For example, for two rolls of sushi, I ended up paying ~90NIS, which is approximately $33 Canadian. This is more than 2x what I would pay back home. For a hotel that I stayed at, that should have at most been worth 65 or 70 usd per night, ended up being $100.

However, this does not mean that you cannot find cheap food (though I am doubtful about finding good cheap hotels, so keep me updated if you find any!). If you opt for more traditional Israeli foods, such as hummus or falafels, it’ll be much cheaper (ranging between 8-16NIS) and, in my opinion, much more lovely because it will allow you to try genuine Israeli cuisine.

Furthermore, with regards to shopping, it is not easy to find sales or discounts at all points in time in Israel and so the prices will tend to be more compared to your home country.

13. The perfect time to travel?

October or March/April are the best times to travel in Israel. The temperature ranges from 20°C – 30°C, it is not humid, and you won’t have to worry about much rain – making walking around so pleasant.

Flowers blooming in Zikhron Yaakov (Israel)

I personally prefer closer to the end of March because the flowers are all blooming at that time.

For a more comprehensive list of the monthly weather – specifically in Haifa, Israel – check out the following post.

14. Wear comfy shoes

When you get to Israel you’ll realize that you will do a lot of walking – not because there is no transportation, but because so many things are so close to one another, so it just doesn’t make sense to pay money to take a taxi or a bus. So bring comfortable shoes with you – they’ll be a life saver and your feet will thank you!

15. Israel is small

From a Canadian’s point of view, Israel is very small. From South to North, it is approximately a 6 hour drive, so explore as much as you can! If you get tired of Tel Aviv, take a drive down to Haifa. If you get tired of Haifa, hop on a train and go to Jerusalem. Want to go to Eilat? Well no worries – drive down or take a domestic flight there.

Is there anything that I missed and you think should be added to the list? Let me know in the comments below!