Approximately 4 million people travel to Israel each year. Some are business travelers. Many are Christians who come to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. Others come seeking unique recreational opportunities such as wind surfing on the Mediterranean Sea, scuba diving at the Red Sea, or dipping in the healing waters of the Dead Sea. The largest segment of visitors, though, are Jews coming to visit the Jewish homeland. If you are planning on heading to Israel, here are ten things you should know.
What documents are needed?
For U.S. and Canadian citizens, all you need to travel to Israel is a passport that’s valid at least six months longer than your date of arrival in Israel. For stays up to 90 days, you don’t need a visa. If you’re not a U.S. or Canadian citizen, the same rules apply to citizens of most western countries. Make two photocopies of your passport, driver’s license, and credit cards in case they get lost or stolen. Keep one copy with you and leave another copy at home.
Are vaccinations required?
It’s always a good idea to be up-to-date on all vaccinations recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, proof of vaccinations is not required for travel to Israel. Speaking of health, you may want to check and see if your insurance plan provides coverage overseas. Medicare and Medicaid do not. Travel medical insurance is available, but if you should get sick or injured, keep in mind that most health care providers overseas only accept cash payments. If you are taking prescribed medications, ask a doctor or pharmacist whether you need to take any additional precautions.
What is the best time to visit?
The best months for travel to Israel are in the spring (March-May) and fall (September-November). That’s when daytime temperatures are most pleasant, in the 70s (except the Dead Sea which will be hotter). Summer temperatures are in the high 80’s-90’s (except the Dead Sea which is like Death Valley at 110 degrees.) Rain is extremely rare between the months of May and September. Winter weather fluctuates from sunny and mild (50’s-60’s) to overcast with heavy rain or even snow in January-February. The major Jewish holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah are busy travel times, as are October and August, so if you’re going to travel to Israel at either of those times be sure to make your reservations well in advance.
What to wear?
The dress code in Israel is casual but conservative. That means no ripped jeans, cutoff shorts, plunging necklines, or sloppy attire. Tourists should wear comfortable walking shoes or sneakers. In the winter, dress in layers so you are ready for anything. Other than that, shorts and t-shirts are fine in most places. However, religious sites require arms and legs to be covered. (This includes the Wailing Wall, where head coverings are also required for men. Any hat or cap is fine, or paper yamakas are provided at the entrance.) If you’re going to the Dead Sea, bring water shoes or aqua socks, and a swimsuit that you don’t care about because you’ll never be able to get the salt out of it. Use sunscreen or cover up to protect yourself from the sun. Don’t forget sunglasses! Oh, and if you’re coming from the U.S. why not wear an American-Israeli Friendship Pin to show your support for the State of Israel. Purchase a few extras and give them out as thank yous, mementos, or gifts to other members of your party: Set of 3 | Box of 12
Will my cell phone work?
Different countries have different cell phone providers. The phone you use in the States is receiving service from one of the US providers. If you were to just go to Israel and start using your phone, it will most likely work (check with your provider for international coverage to be sure). But it would be using your roaming service over the Israeli networks, which means that every minute of air time and every MB of data you use will be very expensive (up to $5/min!). Contacting your cell phone carrier in advance of your trip will help ensure you can call friends and family back home and eliminate any surprises on your phone bill when you return. You may be able to add an International Travel Pass or subscribe to an International Data Plan to save money. By the way, if you want to be able to charge your cell phone or other electronics in Israel, you will need a travel adapter plug (assuming your device is dual voltage, which Apple products are).
How long is the flight?
It takes 10 hours to fly nonstop to Israel from New York City, and 14 hours from Los Angeles. (Bring a book to read!) Plus you can connect to Israel through dozens of European cities. When booking your flight, get the optional flight cancellation insurance. It doesn’t cost much, but it’s worth it for the peace of mind if something unexpected happens, just in case you have to cancel your flight. At approximately $1,000 for a round trip ticket departing from Los Angeles, the flight is not cheap!
What about airport security and check-in?
The security precautions taken by EL AL Airlines are legendary. They have an undercover air marshal on every flight and a guard at every ticket counter. On checking in for your flight, they will flip through your passport and you will be asked a variety of questions during a security interview. They may also ask to see photos on your phone or search your bag so don’t lock it. El Al unapologetically uses “profiling” to decide on the length and depth of the interrogation. Some of the questions may seem un-PC, irrelevant, or repetitive. Just answer truthfully, keep your cool, don’t look suspicious, and you will have nothing to worry about. Here are some questions you might be asked:
- Is this your luggage?
- Did you pack it yourself/who packed it?
- Where did you put the bag when you finished packing?
- Where did you stay the night before?
- Did anyone give you a gift or anything to carry?
- Are there any sharp items/lighters/batteries/weapons in your bag?
- Is there a bomb or anything that might look like a bomb in your bag?
- Who paid for your ticket/where did you get the money to pay for it?
- What do you do for a living/what organizations do you belong to?
- Are you flying alone/who are you traveling with?
- What is the purpose of your trip?
- Where will you be staying and for how long?
- How will you be getting around?
- Do you plan on visiting the West Bank?
- Do you know anybody from Africa or the Middle East?
Since your security check must be completed before you reach the check-in counter, it is recommended to arrive at the airport at least 3 hours before the flight departure time (2 hours if not checking any luggage). Check-in closes about one hour before departure. Late passengers will not be able to check in once their flight has closed. On boarding, they will ask if anyone gave you anything between check-in and the gate. When you leave Israel, the departure process will be the same. Know what you can pack in your carry-on and checked baggage before arriving at the airport: https://www.elal.com/en/PassengersInfo/Baggage/Pages/Policy.aspx
What credit cards can I use?
Almost all businesses in Israel accept major U.S. credit cards. The most commonly accepted credit cards in Israel are Visa and MasterCard, followed by American Express. Discover Card is gaining acceptance and can be used wherever you see the Diners Club International symbol, but it’s far from universal.
Make sure to use a credit card that has no foreign transaction fees. One good choice is a Capital One MasterCard. Some credit cards charge a foreign fee equal to as much as 3% of each international transaction. If you will be using your card to pay for lodging, meals, and other travel expenses, these fees can really add up! Credit cards with no foreign fees are available to people of all credit levels, from bad credit to excellent credit, so there’s no reason you should ever have to pay extra when buying something abroad.
It’s important to inform your credit card company about your travel plans in order to prevent fraud alerts. You don’t want to risk having your card suspended while traveling! You may be able do this online by logging into your account and checking the “travel notifications” setting. Make sure your contact info is up-to-date in case they need to reach you. It’s also a good opportunity to see if your card comes with any extra benefits like travel insurance, and to ask for a toll-free number that will work outside the U.S. in case your wallet is lost or stolen.
What about cash?
If you find yourself in need of cash for souvenirs and other small purchases, ATM machines are available in most locations, making withdrawing local currency an easy option. Not all ATM cards are accepted by every Israeli bank, although most of the large international networks are accepted. Debit cards will only work with ATMs, as most foreign businesses don’t have PIN machines.
Be wary of dynamic currency conversion when using your card to shop overseas. Many merchants will offer the ability to charge your purchase in dollars rather than the local currency. It sounds appealing, but doing so can result in hefty conversion fees, in some instances up to 6 percent.
To avoid conversion fees and having to find ATMs, you can simply buy Israeli currency at your local U.S. bank or travel vendor (like AAA) before you go. Just give the bank or travel vendor your U.S. cash, and they’ll exchange it for the appropriate amount of shekels. They may need to special order the foreign banknotes from their main office, so allow enough time (two weeks to be safe) before your trip.
How much time is needed to see the sights?
Israel is a very small country; it’s only about the size of New Jersey, so you can easily travel from one end to the other in less than a day. But if you want to stop and see all the sights along the way, you should plan to spend at least one or preferably two weeks.
If you travel to Israel, please write and tell us about your adventures!