Israel has an efficient and inexpensive transport system, with buses going everywhere and trains connecting main cities.
There are flights that cross the Negev to shorten the trip to Eilat, but given the pretty desert scenery you’ll probably prefer to go overland.
The West Bank is served by Arab buses that travel between cities and East Jerusalem. There are no connections whatsoever between Gaza and the West Bank.
Although hitching was once a common way of getting around Israel, increasing reports of violent crime make this a risky business and we do not recommend it. Women should not hitch without male companions and all travellers should be circumspect of the cars they get into. The local method of soliciting a lift is to simply point an index finger at the road.
The national bus service, Egged (03-694 8888; www.egged.co.il), has an extensive route system in Israel, partially due to the fact that it’s also the major transport vehicle for soldiers moving about the country. As such you can expect to find buses filled with soldiers heading home for the weekend or back to their base. Some routes make stops near army bases, although this is never very inconvenient.
Egged buses are modern, clean and equipped with air-con, making travel safe and comfortable. Buses generally run on time, though it’s far from an exact science. Remember that on Shabbat Egged intercity buses don’t run at all (Friday afternoon to Saturday evening). Most intercity routes have an Egged bus departing two to five times an hour but you can expect long waits if you are out on the back roads, which may be serviced by only one or two buses a day. Egged also serves West Bank settlements, utilising a fleet of a more than 100 bullet-proof buses.
Check the Egged website for information on schedules, prices and routes. Egged allows reservations only to Eilat – you can order tickets over the phone 14 days before your trip.
In Nazareth, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, a number of small, Arab-run bus companies provide public transport on typically slow and antiquated vehicles. They are not particularly comfortable but the short distances make travel bearable. Fares are quite cheap and International Student Identity Card (ISIC) holders are entitled to a discount of about 10% on interurban fares. Sample fares include Jerusalem to Hebron (10NIS) and Ramallah to Nablus (16NIS). Note that Arab buses continue to run right through the Shabbat.
Buses are used widely within the main cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. If you don’t read Hebrew, or you are new to a city, it can be a little difficult to figure out the bus routes. You may need to ask others at the bus stop which bus to take. You can also ask advice from any driver that passes by; they are usually pretty helpful.
In Tel Aviv, the local bus company Dan (03-639 0444; www.dan.co.il) transports about 600, 000 commuters a day. It operates from 5am to 1am daily except during Shabbat hours. West Jerusalem is served by Egged (www.egged.co.il), while Arab buses handle most of East Jerusalem. Haifa is also served by Egged.
Drivers won’t need an international driving licence, but must have their home driving licence in order to rent a car or drive a private vehicle.
Hiring a car is a great way to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. It doesn’t make much sense to have one in Jerusalem or other big cities, but it’s definitely a good idea for the Golan, Upper Galilee and Negev areas. Note that Tel Aviv has a serious parking shortage and you’ll probably end up having to park in a private lot at around 45NIS a day. Hertz (www.hertz.co.il), Avis (www.avis.co.il) and Budget (www.budget.co.il) each have about 15 to 20 offices countrywide. Car hire with insurance and unlimited kilometres costs as little as US$250 per week or US$600 per month. Note, most Jerusalem-based rental-car agencies forbid you to take their cars into the Palestinian Territories, though Green Peace is an exception.
Car-hire companies can sell you a complete insurance package for around US$7 per day (with some restrictions, like driving only in Israel and not in the West Bank).
If you do not take the insurance option you may be liable for any damages to the vehicle, or damage to another car or property. You may already be covered by your personal travel insurance, so be sure to inquire with your insurer about conditions before setting off.
Israel State Railways (ISR; 03-577 4000; www.israrail.org.il) runs a convenient, efficient and inexpensive network of passenger rail services. The main line runs along the coast; the northernmost station is Nahariya and heading south there are stops in Akko, Haifa, Binyamina (for Caesarea), Netanya, Tel Aviv, Ashdod and Ashkelon. From Tel Aviv there is a spur to Be’er Sheva and Dimona; a spur to Rishon LeZion and Rehovot; a spur to Ben-Gurion airport; and a spur to Jerusalem. Plans are afoot to extend the network down to Eilat. There is also a project to build a high-speed rail link between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (completion date 2011), with a stop on the way at Ben-Gurion airport. The ride will take 28 minutes.
The main problem faced by foreign travellers is the language barrier. Trains are not marked in English, announcements are made in Hebrew and there are no route maps on the trains. If you don’t speak Hebrew, the best thing you can do is ask your fellow travellers about which trains to take and where to get off. Note that ISIC holders get a 20% discount.
Several local companies offer day tours to sites of interest around Israel. Ads are often posted in hotels or on guesthouse message boards. The following options may only operate when demand is sufficient, so it helps to turn up with a motivated group.
Abu Hassan Alternative Tours (052 286 4205; www.jrshotel.com; Jerusalem Hotel, Jerusalem) Half- and full-day tours are available to Palestinian towns and villages. Trips usually include a visit to local workshops and homes, plus historical sites. Trips are often politically minded and may take you to the Seperation Wall or a refugee camp.
Daila A good way to understand the politics of the West Bank is on a day trip to a Jewish settlement and/or a Palestinian refugee camp. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) operates these tours through its activist centre, Daila. The tours take in the Ma’ale Adumim (a settlement), the Separation Wall and the home of a Palestinian family.
Egged Tours (03-920 3998; www.egged.co.il) The national bus company runs reasonably priced trips around the country, though these are mainly geared for the domestic market.
Mike’s Centre (02-628 2486; www.mikescentre.com; 9th Station, 172 Souq Khan al-Zeit, Jerusalem; tours per person 170NIS) This place runs popular day trips. Tours depart from Jerusalem at 7am and return at 7pm on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The trip includes Masada, the Dead Sea (Ein Gedi), Qumran and Jericho. Mike also runs trips down to Egypt. Prices do not include entry to sights. Many budget and midrange travellers end up on this tour when they sign up for such a trip through their hotel (Mike has connections with most backpacker-type places in the city).
Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI; 09 774 8670; email@example.com) On the first and third weekends of the month SPNI operates a two-day program with a focus on hiking in the Dead Sea region. The cost is US$385 per person and includes accommodation, food and entrance fees.
Touring Israel (054 636 3126; www.touringisrael.com) Private, tailor-made trips around Israel; caters to the top-end market.
United Tours (03-693 3412, 02-625 2187; www.unitedtours.co.il) Does one- and two-day trips all over the country, plus city tours of Jerusalem. Also runs a daily tour of the Dead Sea region (excluding Qumran) for US$70 per person leaving Tel Aviv at 7.15am and Jerusalem at 9am.
Zel Tours (02-563 0611; www.zeltours.com) Personal service from tour leader Zel Lederman. Offers trips to off-beat locations, plus active tours on bike or on foot.
Israir (03-795 5777; www.israir.co.il) flies at least once daily (including Saturday) between Ben-Gurion airport, Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv, Eilat and Haifa. Arkia (03-699 2222; www.arkia.co.il) operates flights between the same cities, as well as international charters to Jerusalem.
You are not liable for a domestic departure tax.
Tel Aviv is a fantastic city for biking. There are extensive bike paths, parks and a beachfront promenade. Both Eilat and Tiberias are good places to tool around on a bike. Both Haifa and Jerusalem are hilly and lack bike paths.
Tel Aviv has a Critical Mass (a group of bikers who take the streets back from fossil fuel–burning modes of transport) that departs at 1pm on the last Friday of the month from Rabin Sq. It’s great fun to hire a bike on this day and ride along with the crowds. A smaller Critical Mass is held in Jerusalem at the same time; meet at the corner of King George and Ben Yehuda Sts. For more information, go to www.bike.org.il/cm and click the English link.
Cycling is a great way to get around Israel. Highways have wide shoulders and there are a number of off-road bike trails and scenic by-ways. Traffic is fairly light and the distances between tourist attractions, cities and villages are relatively short. Moreover, biking is a great way to meet people and experience the country at ground level. Better still, it’s free and environmentally friendly.
The main drawback to cycling in Israel is the heat. Always set off as early as possible and carry plenty of water. Choose your route carefully; while the coastal plain is flat enough, the Upper Galilee, the Golan and the Dead Sea region have innumerable steep hills and the Negev Desert can be unmercifully hot. Probably the best bike trip is around the Sea of Galilee; for such purposes, several Tiberias hostels hire out bicycles for quite reasonable rates. Note that buses will accept bikes, although you may need to pay an extra luggage charge. Bikes aren’t allowed on trains.
Some bike shops in Israel will rent out bikes by the week; others will buy a bike back from you at a fair price if you purchase one in their shop. Contact Rochvim Bikes (623 2598; 88 Agrippas St, cnr Mani St) in Jerusalem or O-Fun (544 2292; 197 Ben Yehuda St) in Tel Aviv. Bike hire isn’t really an option in the Palestinian Territories but if you have a bike there shouldn’t be a problem bringing it through the checkpoints.
For an organised biking tour of Israel contact Dekel Holiday (03-523 9022; www.dekel -holiday.co.il), which runs bike trips all over the country.
If you choose to bring your own bike, contact your airline ahead of time to ask about baggage restrictions and associated costs. Bike shops can give you a bike box. Consider taking a fold-up bike, which is easier to deal with if your trip will include buses and flights as well as biking.
Following is a list of bike clubs.
Carmel Mountain Bike Club (www.geocities.com/Colosseum/Arena/9765/cmbchome.htm)
Israeli Mountain Bikers Club (www.cyclenix.com)
Jerusalem Cyclists Club (02-561 9416)
Mountain biking group (www.rechasim.com)