Getting there & away
For most visitors, the arrivals hall of Ben-Gurion airport is the first thing they’ll see of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. There are plenty of flights to Israel, including nonstop flights from the USA, Europe, South Africa and the Far East.
There are land borders with Egypt and Jordan so it’s easy to slot a trip to Israel between those two countries if you are travelling through the Middle East. Unless you are a member of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) there is no getting between Israel and Lebanon, or Syria for that matter, and you’ll need to carefully consider your travel plans if you are thinking of heading to either country or elsewhere in the Middle East. For the intrepid there is also a ferry between Haifa and Cyprus.
Flights, tours and rail tickets can be booked online at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel_services.
The Israel Student Travel Association (ISSTA; 521 0555; www.issta.co.il in Hebrew; 109 Ben Yehuda St, Tel Aviv) offers competitive fares, though it’s worth getting quotes from other travel agents in downtown Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Alternatively, check around the hostels and nightspots for cut-price flight advertising.
Last Minute Tickets (03-636 6808), on the second floor of the international terminal, has reasonably priced tickets to Europe (eg London one way for US$260), but you’ll pay well over the odds here for tickets to the USA or Australia. Otherwise, you can book a flight online through the El Al website. Other online booking websites include Sidestep (www.sidestep.com) and Orbitz (www.orbitz.com).
Note that a departure tax of US$13 and a security tax of US$2 to US$8 (depending on the airline) are included in ticket prices.
It’s possible to reach the Holy Land by sea from Cyprus, and going the other way you can make connections from Cyprus to Turkey. There are no ferry connections out of Eilat, but a ferry does run between nearby Aqaba (Jordan) and Nuweiba in Egypt.
The sleepy town of Nuweiba on the Sinai coast is linked to Aqaba in Jordan by way of a fast ferry link. The boat departs at 2pm (except for Sunday and Thursday when it leaves at 9am) and takes one hour. Be sure to be at the port two hours ahead of time to guarantee a ticket.
One-way tickets for the trip are USA$50 for adults and USA$35 for children aged three to 12. Tickets can only be paid for in US dollars, and its best to get cash in Dahab or elsewhere because banks in Nuweiba may not have dollars. Tickets only go on sale the day of departure and the ticket office – in a small building near the port – should be open by 9am. Note that ticket sales stop an hour before departure. During the Haj season tickets are sold in advance and you’ll need to contact a travel agent in Egypt about buying one. Once on the boat you can obtain a free visa for Jordan if you have an EU, US, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand passport. The gratis visa is the result of Aqaba’s Free Trade Zone status. Fill out a green form on the boat and hand it over (with your passport) to the immigration officials on board. Other nationalities should organise a visa in advance.
Note that a slow ferry (US$32, three hours) departs for Aqaba daily at noon. This ferry also accommodates cars and motorcycles.
Going the other way the fast boat leaves Aqaba daily at noon and costs less, around US$36. Avoid buying a ticket in Amman, where agents jack up the price. Most nationalities can pick up an Egyptian visa when they get to Nuweiba (although some Eastern Europeans have been refused). Sinai-only visas are available on the boat.
Note that information in this section is subject to change and the ferries (especially the slow ferry) do not adhere strictly to their scheduled departure. During the Haj season there may be an extra ferry to handle the crowds.
From Haifa there are overnight passenger and cargo ferries to Limassol in Cyprus. The ship departs Haifa on Monday and Thursday at 8pm and costs €150 per person. The trip takes about 10 hours. You can also bring a motorcycle (€150), a car (€150) or a jeep (€200). From Limassol there are overland connections to Girne (Northern Cyprus), where you can catch another ferry to Tacuco in southern Turkey. The ferry is operated by Rosenfeld Shipping (04-861 3671; www.rosenfeld.net; 104 Ha’atzmaut Rd, Haifa). Note that prices do fluctuate with the seasons and when demand is low the service may be suspended.
Israel and the Palestinian Territories both have borders with Egypt and Jordan, although for all intents and purposes the Palestinian Territories won’t figure much into your travel equation. The borders with Syria and Lebanon are shut tight; the only way into these countries is through Jordan, but if you’ve already been in Israel this gets a little tricky. Note that borders are closed on Yom Kippur and the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr, and they are also closed during Shabbat (from late afternoon on Friday until sunset on Saturday).
When crossing into Israel, drivers and motorcyclists will need the vehicle’s registration papers and proof of liability insurance, plus a driving licence from home (but not necessarily an international driving licence). You can only drive your own vehicle across the border; rental cars are not permitted.
There are two border crossing points, Taba and Rafah, although Taba is the only one open to foreign travellers, as Rafah is closed to all tourists, independent travellers and those on a tour.
If you are trying to get to Cairo in a hurry, the best way is to hop on the Mazada Tours (www.mazada.co.il) Jerusalem (02-623 5777; 15 Jaffa Rd, Pearl Hotel); Tel Aviv (03-544 4454; 141 Ibn Gvirol St) direct bus service between Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and Cairo. Buses leave Jerusalem/Tel Aviv at 9am/11am Sunday, Monday and Thursday. After picking up passengers in Cairo, they head back. Mazada is represented in Cairo by Misr Travel (/fax 335 5470; Cairo Sheraton, Midan al-Galaa, Doqqi).
The Rafah Crossing (08-673 4080) between Gaza and Egypt is currently closed to foreign travellers. The border had been handled by Israel until its departure in August 2005; since then it has come under the joint control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Egypt, with the help of EU monitors. Ongoing conflict with the IDF has caused instability at this border and it now remains closed most of the time, even to Palestinians stuck on both sides. It’s unlikely that the border will be open to foreigners any time soon.
The Taba crossing (08-637 2104, 08-636 0999; 24hr), near Eilat, is currently the only open border between Israel and Egypt. If you are descending into Egypt you will pay a 68NIS fee to leave Israel, plus around E£30 to enter Egypt. Remember to get an Egyptian visa before coming down here; you can get one at the Egyptian consulate in Eilat, see Visas for Egypt & Jordan, above. If you only plan on visiting the Sinai you can get a Sinai-only entry permit. Driving your own vehicle across, you’ll pay 32NIS on the Israeli side and a whopping E£180 on the Egyptian side. It is not possible to take a rental car across the Taba border, but you can take a private car.
There is a steady flow of tourist traffic between Amman and Jerusalem and although the borders are a bit quirky you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting across. Keep the following general tips in mind.
- Private vehicles cannot be driven across the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge, but they can be taken across other borders.
- When coming from Jordan into Israel visitors are granted one month’s entry at the Yitzhak Rabin/Wadi Araba Crossing and Jordan River/Sheikh Hussein Bridge crossing. Those issued at Allenby/King Hussein are good for three months.
- Visas for Jordan are not available at the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge. If you want to cross here you’ll need to get a visa at a Jordanian embassy.
The popular Allenby Bridge (02-548 2600; 8am-6pm Sun-Thu, 8am-2pm Fri & Sat) is only 30km from Jerusalem and 40km from Amman. Traffic can be heavy here, especially between 11am and 3pm. Exit tax here is 127NIS. The Jordanian side is known as King Hussein Bridge.
This was at one time merely a crossing from Jordan’s East Bank to its West Bank and to the Jordanians the times have not changed. You can still cross in and out of Jordan on one visa as if you had never left the country. When you return to Jordan just show your stamped exit slip, and on the Israel side have the border officers stamp your Jordanian slip rather than your passport.
If you are going from Israel to Jordan you’ll need a Jordanian visa already stamped in your passport – these are not sold at the border. You can get one at the Jordanian embassy in Tel Aviv. If you plan on returning to Israel, keep the entrance form given to you by the Jordanians (you may need to present it when exiting the country). Once you’ve cleared customs you need to wait for a bus (5NIS) to take you across the valley to the Jordanian side.
From Jerusalem you can take a bus from the ABDO travel agency office(628 3281) opposite Damascus Gate to Allenby Bridge. Abu Hassan Alternative Tours in Jerusalem has a shuttle for USA$35 for a vehicle it can take up to three passengers. From the Israeli border there are buses to Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate and to Jericho. Try to get to the border as early as possible as delays are common.
The Jordan River crossing (04-648 0018; 8am-10pm) is 6km east of Beit She’an in the Galilee. It’s handy if you are travelling in northern Israel and want to take your own car across to Jordan, or if you want to get a Jordanian visa at the border. There is 2km of no-man’s-land between the two border posts. You can either walk or hitch between the two. Exit tax here is 70NIS. On the Jordanian side this is called the Sheikh Hussein Bridge (Jordan Bridge; 6.30am-10pm Sun-Thu, 8am-8pm Fri & Sat). Buses are available to the border from Beit She’an. From the Jordanian side, catch a minibus or taxi to Irbid.
Located near Eilat, the Yitzhak Rabin crossing (08-630 0530; 6.30am-10pm Sun-Thu, 8am-8pm Fri & Sat) is handy for day trips to Petra and Wadi Rum. The border lies just 2km northeast of Eilat. Exit tax here is 68NIS, entry to Jordan is free and exit from Jordan is JD5.
Once you are in Jordan there are taxis at the border that will take you into Aqaba for JD5. Alternatively, bargain for a taxi all the way to Petra (around JD25, two hours) or Wadi Rum (around JD10). If you are coming down from Jerusalem you don’t need to go all the way to Eilat; ask your bus driver to let you out at the turn-off to the border.
The Nazarene bus company (04-601 0458; Kikar Paris, Haifa) runs buses between Amman and Haifa three or four times a week. From Haifa, the service departs at 7am from the Haifa Merkaz train station. It also picks up passengers at 8.30am in Nazareth. You can buy a ticket the day before from their office at Kikar Paris. In Amman the bus service is handled by Trust International Transport (06-581 3427).
If you are driving between Jordan and Israel and the Palestinian Territories, use either Yitzhak Rabin/Wadi Araba or Jordan River Crossing/Sheikh Hussein Bridge. It is not permitted to cross the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge on your own.
A frequent topic of conversation amongst travellers is the entrance procedures for Israel (a great source of annoyance for some and a breeze for others). Rigorous even at the best of times, you can expect a barrage of questions about your recent travels, your occupation, any acquaintances in Israel and possibly your religious or family background.
If you are meeting friends in Israel it’s best to have their phone number handy. Anyone planning to work in Israel can expect delays. Travellers who have never been to Israel and have no affiliation with the country seem to get through fastest. The time all this takes varies depending on who is on duty; we’ve gotten through the border at Taba (Egypt) in 15 minutes, while Allenby Bridge (Jordan) took a couple of hours.
A passport full of stamps from neighbouring Islamic countries will be circumspect, but having travelled to Arab or Islamic countries does not stop you from entering Israel. On the contrary, border guards are accustomed to meeting seasoned travellers and won’t be surprised to see eccentric stamps in your passport, provided you have an innocuous (and believable) reason for visiting those countries.
One more tip: when immigration asks how long you plan to stay in the country, and you say ‘two weeks’, that is probably what they will write on your entry card. For the maximum time allowed, you should specifically ask for three months.
Tours organised from abroad are usually themed trips, the bulk of which are religious tours that travel to holy places. Other tours are based on cultural and historical offerings. The overlander travel groups usually bypass Israel.
Longwood Holidays (020-8418 2525; www.longwoodholidays.co.uk) Experienced travel operator that can put together dive trips and cultural tours.
Travel Link (020-8931 8000; www.travelinkuk.com) Can organise a variety of tours in Israel, both religious and secular.
America Israel Travel (877-248-8687; www.americaisrael.us) Specialises in both Jewish and Christian religious tours.
Quest Travel Group (770-518-5864; www.questtravelgroup.com) Christian-focused religious tours.
Tlalim Tours (800-600-5194; www.tlalimtours.com) Adventurous travel and ecotours.
Israel’s main gateway, Ben-Gurion airport (TLV; 03-972 3388; www.ben-gurion-airport.co.il), is 20km southeast of Tel Aviv and 50km west of Jerusalem. An ultramodern US$1 billion international terminal, unveiled in 2004, it handles 16 million passengers a year.
Only a handful of international charter flights touch down at Ovda Airport (VDA; 08-637 5880), outside Eilat.
The national flag carrier, El Al (LY; 03-971 6854; www.elal.co.il), once had a notorious reputation for nasty service and awful food. Recent changes have done away with the shouting stewards and the service is now remarkably congenial.
Note that airport security is tight, especially on El Al services, and international travellers should check in at least three hours prior to their flight. If you are flying on El Al it’s possible to check your bags the night before your flight at the Arlosoroff bus terminal (695 8614; cnr Arlosoroff & AP Derakhim Sts; 4-9pm Sun-Thu, 11am-3pm Fri, 6-11pm Sat). At the time of writing no other airlines offered this service, but it’s worth asking as policies do change. The same service is available from Jerusalem and Haifa; confirm the drop-off location with El Al.
Airlines that fly to Israel:
AirCanada (AC; 03-607 2111; www.aircanada.com)
AirFrance (AF; 03-511 0000; www.airfrance.com)
Alitalia (AZ; 03-971 1047; www.alitalia.it)
American Airlines (AA; 03-795 2122; www.aa.com)
Austrian Airlines (OS; 03-511 6700; www.aua.com)
British Airways (BA; 03-606 1555; www.britishairways.com)
CathayPacific (CX; www.cathaypacific.com)
Continental Airlines (CO; 03-511 6700; www.continental.com)
Iberia (IB; 03-516 3239; www.iberia.com)
Lufthansa (LH; 03-513 5355; www.lufthansa.com)
Royal Jordanian Airlines (RJ; 03-516 5566; www.rj.com)
United (UA; www.united.com)
There are no direct flights between Australia and Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Flights usually go through Southeast Asia but may change in Europe. Flying time to Israel from Sydney is 22 hours with the stopover.
Austrian Airlines has some of the best fares and flies via Vienna. You may otherwise find yourself on a British Airways or Air France flight, with a leg on El Al. Return low-/high-season fares start at A$1470/1750.
KLM-Royal Dutch Airlines and Lufthansa have frequent connections to Tel Aviv. Return low-/high-season fares from Frankfurt start at €333/430. From Frankfurt, book with STA Travel (069 7430 3292; www.statravel.com), which has branches countrywide.
Flights may be even cheaper out of Paris, where a high-season return ticket costs around €380. Book with Nouvelles Frontieres (0825 000 747; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr in French) or Anyway (0892 302 301; www.anyway.fr in French)
Apart from neighbouring Jordan and Egypt, which may be visited overland, Turkey is the only Middle Eastern country that may be visited from Israel, and lots of Israelis take advantage of the great airfare deals that are available between Tel Aviv and İstanbul: a return ticket costs €323 any time of the year. There are numerous reliable travel agents in Sultanahmet, including Orion-Tour (212 232 6300; www.oriontour.com; Halaskargazi Caddesi 284/3, Marmara Apartimani, Sisli 80220).
Compared with other European cities, London has reasonably priced fares to Tel Aviv. You’ll find plenty of deals listed in the travel sections of weekend editions of London newspapers. Advertisements for many travel agents appear in the travel pages of the weekend broadsheets, such as the Independent on Saturday and the Sunday Times.
Prices for discounted flights from London to Tel Aviv start at around UK£250 return any time of year. The cheapest flights tend to be with Iberian Airlines and Malev, a Hungarian airline (one stop required). The cheapest nonstop flight on British Airways costs UK£284 return. The flight is about five hours.
It’s best to use a travel agent affiliated with the ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents). If you have bought your ticket from an ABTA-registered agent who then goes out of business, ABTA will guarantee a refund or an alternative. Unregistered bucket shops are sometimes cheaper, but can be riskier. Booking agents include the following.
Flightbookers (0800 082 3000; www.ebookers.co.uk)
STA (08701-630 026; www.statravel.co.uk)
Travel Bag (0800 082 5000; www.travelbag.co.uk)
There are plenty of flights between the USA and Israel; the major hub between the two is New York. El Al and Delta have nonstop flights from New York for low/high season US$930/1430 return. From Los Angeles the low-/high-season cost is US$1100/1600. The cheapest flights are with Iberia, which has low/high season fares from New York for US$752/1100 return. These make a stop in Madrid.
The best deals are normally available on the internet; try Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com) or Sidestep (www.sidestep.com). Students get great deals with STA Travel (800 781 4040; www.sta-travel.com). For discount travel agencies, check the Sunday travel sections in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times.