Israel has extensive public transport networks; for routes and schedules, head to www.bus.co.il. Buses and trains do not run on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.
Car A great way to tour the countryside, but parking can be a hassle in major cities.
Bus Bus service is extensive.
Sherut Service taxis, which leave when full, are generally quicker than buses on major routes.
Train Intercity and commuter lines run along the coast, to Ben Gurion Airport and up to Jerusalem.
Daily flights to Eilat from Ben Gurion Airport’s domestic terminal are handled by Arkia (www.arkia.com) and Israir (www.israirairlines.com). Arkia also flies to Haifa.
Deals are often available online, with one-way tickets sometimes going for as little as US$25 to or from Ben Gurion – the price of a bus ticket!
Cycling is a great way to get around. The distances between cities, villages, nature reserves and archaeological sites are relatively short; many highways have wide shoulders (though drivers can politely be described as erratic, and cycling is forbidden on some major intercity routes); and there is a growing number of off-road bike trails and scenic byways. Biking is also a great way to meet people and experience the country at ground level. Best of all, it’s free and environmentally friendly.
The main drawback to cycling, other than the risk of being run over, is the heat. Always set off as early in the day 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 lots of steep hills, and the Negev Desert and the Jordan Valley can be mercilessly hot. One of the best one-day bike trips is around the Sea of Galilee (bikes can be hired in Tiberias).
Bicycles can be taken on intercity buses for no charge and are allowed on all trains – including those serving Ben Gurion Airport – except during rush hour (6am to 9am and 3pm to 7pm) Sunday to Thursday and on Saturday evening (there's no rush hour on Friday and the eves of Jewish holidays so all trains are bike-friendly then). Folding bikes can travel with you inside buses and can be taken on all trains.
Some bike shops will rent out bikes by the week, and may agree to buy a bike back from you at a reasonable price if you purchase it new from their shop. You’ll find plenty of bike shops in Tel Aviv (eg along HaHashmona’im St), Jerusalem, Haifa and other cities; the two largest chains are Rosen & Meents (www.rosen-meents.co.il) and Matzman & Merutz (www.matzman-merutz.co.il).
Some airlines allow you to bring along your bicycle for a reasonable fee while others charge a small fortune so check before you book.
Bike paths have been going up in cities all over Israel but the most developed network is in Tel Aviv, which has a municipal bike rental program called O-Fun (http://ofun.co.il).
Ferries connect old Akko’s marina with Haifa port twice daily on weekdays and three times on Saturday; the journey takes 45 minutes, depending on sea conditions.
Local buses reach every corner of major cities, but if you don’t read Hebrew it can be a challenge to figure out the bus routes – just ask locals or any passing bus driver.
Almost every town, village and kibbutz has bus service at least a few times a day – except, that is, from mid-afternoon on Friday until Saturday in the late afternoon or evening, when the vast majority of intercity lines don’t run at all (exceptions include services to Eilat and Majdal Shams).
Tickets are sold at bus station ticket windows and by bus drivers; exact change is not needed. Return tickets, available on a few lines (eg to Eilat), cost 15% less than two one-way tickets.
Most discounts are available only if you have a rechargeable Rav-Kav smartcard, which comes in two versions: personalised (ishi), which has your picture on it and requires filling out an application; and anonymous (anonimi), which is sold at stations (5NIS) and by drivers (10NIS) and is transferable but qualifies you for only limited discounts. The good news is that both get you 20% off all fares; the bad news is that at present, you need a separate Rav-Kav account for each bus company (a single card can hold up to eight accounts).
Israel no longer has a bus duopoly (the Egged and Dan cooperatives used to divide the country between them). Rather, there are now about 20 companies, including Egged and Dan, that compete for routes in Ministry of Transport tenders. The Public Transportation Info Center (www.bus.co.il), a snap to use once you figure it out, provides details in English on all bus companies’ routes, times and prices. Smartphone apps for Android and iPhones can be downloaded from the website. To get information via SMS (text message), send a question (in Hebrew) beginning with the word otobus to 4949.
Bus companies you’re likely to run across:
- Afikim (www.afikim-t.co.il)
- Dan (www.dan.co.il)
- Egged (www.egged.co.il)
- Kavim (www.kavim-t.co.il)
- Metropoline (www.metropoline.com)
- Nateev Express (www.nateevexpress.com)
- Nazareth Tourism & Transport (www.ntt-buses.com)
- Rama (www.golanbus.co.il)
The only bus tickets that need to be (or can be) ordered in advance are Egged tickets to/from Eilat, which can be reserved up to 14 days ahead via www.egged.co.il, by smartphone app or by phone (dial 2800 or 03-694 8888). Note: the system may only accept Israeli credit cards; PayPal may also be an option.
Car & Motorcycle
To drive a vehicle, all you need is your regular driving licence; an international driving licence is not required. Israel’s automobile association is known as Memsi (www.memsi.co.il).
Having your own wheels lets you travel at your own pace, stay in out-of-the-way B&Bs, get lost along back roads and – if necessary – cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. It doesn’t make much sense to have a car in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv – parking can be a huge hassle – but it’s a great idea in hilly Haifa and in the Galilee, Golan and Negev, where many towns and villages are served by just a handful of buses a day.
The biggest concentration of rental agencies is along Tel Aviv’s HaYarkon St (one block in from the beach), but most companies have offices around the country, including the following:
- Avis (www.avis.co.il)
- Budget (www.budget.co.il)
- Cal Auto (www.calauto.co.il)
- Eldan (www.eldan.co.il) The only company with an office in Kiryat Shmona.
- Green Peace (www.greenpeace.co.il) Based in East Jerusalem; pick-up possible at Allenby Bridge.
- Hertz (www.hertz.co.il) The only company with a Dead Sea office.
Car hire with insurance and unlimited kilometres costs as little as 140NIS per day, US$200 per week or US$600 per month (the incredibly cheap prices advertised online don't include insurance). Israelis, unlike tourists, have to pay VAT/sales tax (18%). Significant discounts are available online, eg through the sort of websites that sell aeroplane tickets. Remember that gasoline/petrol costs about US$2 per litre/US$7.60 per US gallon.
There’s a surcharge for airport pick-up. If you get parking or traffic tickets, the rental company may forward them to you, including a handling fee of 60NIS. Some companies require that renters be at least 25 years old.
Read the fine print on your insurance contract carefully, especially regarding the excess (deductible), which can be US$400 or more – though for an additional fee (eg US$18) you can reduce that to zero. Some credit cards give cardholders free CDW (collision damage waver) coverage, but you may still have to purchase liability (third party) insurance – check with your card issuer. Even insurance policies sold by rental companies don't usually cover damage to the car's undercarriage or tyres.
Note that rental agencies generally forbid you to take their cars into parts of the West Bank defined in the Oslo Accords as Areas A and B – Dallah (www.dallahrentacar.com) and Goodluck (www.goodluckcars.com) are notable exceptions. It's no problem, though, driving on Rte 1 from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea or Rte 90 from the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee.
In Tel Aviv and its inner suburbs, Car2Go (www.car2go.co.il) hires out cars by the hour, charging 140NIS for an annual membership plus 20NIS per hour (180NIS per day) and 2NIS per kilometre (1NIS per kilometre after the first 50km).
Most roads are in pretty good shape, but the newer ones, built to the latest safety standards, are safest. A visible minority of Israeli drivers are aggressive and/or unpredictable so drive carefully – and defensively – at all times.
North–south highways are designated using even numbers, while east–west routes have odd numbers; in general, numbers rise as you go south-to-north and west-to-east. Thus, Rte 2 runs along the Mediterranean coast while Rte 90 hugs the country’s eastern border with Jordan; Israel’s northernmost road, almost on the Lebanese border, is Rte 99. Rte 1, an exception to this sequencing, links Tel Aviv with Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.
Israel has three toll roads:
- Rte 6 (Kvish Shesh; www.kvish6.co.il) Runs up the centre of the country for 140km. Bills for tolls – up to 33NIS – are sent to car owners on the basis of a national database of licence plate numbers. Some rental agencies charge a premium for paying these tolls, some up to 60NIS. The only way to avoid this is by paying the charge yourself via the website.
- Carmel Tunnels (www.carmeltunnels.co.il; one/two sections 7.50/14.90NIS) Runs under Mt Carmel south of Haifa. Payment can be made in cash or by credit card.
- Fast Lane (Nativ Mahir; www.fastlane.co.il) A 13km express lane from Ben Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv. Tariffs vary based on traffic conditions – the worse it is, the more you pay.
Vehicles drive on the right-hand side of the road; seat belts are required at all times. Unless you have a hands-free set, using a mobile phone while driving is illegal and subject to a fine of 1000NIS.
Road signs are marked in English, Hebrew and (usually) Arabic; be prepared for some quirky transliterations. The best road maps are produced by Mapa (www.mapa.co.il/maps) and are available at all bookshops.
From November to March, car headlights must be turned on whenever you’re driving on an intercity road.
Police cars always have their blue (sometimes red and blue) lights flashing, so seeing police lights in your rear-view mirror doesn’t mean you’re in trouble (if you are, they’ll make that clear with a megaphone).
Driving on Shabbat
According to most interpretations of Halacha (Jewish law), driving a motor vehicle violates the sanctity of Shabbat (the Sabbath), in part by contravening prohibitions against lighting fire and travelling more than 2000 cubits. As a result, certain streets, neighbourhoods and villages populated almost exclusively by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews are closed to traffic from sundown on Friday until an hour after sundown on Saturday, as well as on many Jewish holidays. If you come upon a street blocked by a barrier, don't drive around it or you may find yourself facing angry locals or even having stones thrown at you.
By tradition (though not law), no one in Jewish areas – except for emergency services – drives a motor vehicle on Yom Kippur.
Although hitching was once a common way of getting around, recent reports of violent crime, including kidnapping, make this a risky business and we do not recommend it. The local method of soliciting a lift is simply to point an index finger at the road. Hitching is still most common in the Upper Galilee and Golan regions.
Sheruts (sheh-roots) are a useful way to get around. These vehicles, often 13-seat minivans, operate on a fixed route for a fixed price. They're like a bus except that they don’t have pre-set stops. If you don’t know the fare, ask your fellow passengers.
Sheruts (Hebrew plural: moni'ot sherut – the word sherutim means 'bathrooms'!) are generally quicker than buses. They begin their runs from a recognised taxi rank and leave only when they’re full so you may have to hang around for a while, though rarely more than 20 minutes. You can get out anywhere you like but will probably have to pay the full fare to the final destination. Many sheruts operate 24/7 and are the only means of public transport in Israel on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, eg between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Prices are the same or slightly lower than buses except on Shabbat, when they rise slightly.
Taking a ‘special’ (speshel; ie nonshared) taxi can be very convenient but, at times, a bit of a hassle because some unscrupulous drivers overcharge tourists. The best way to avoid getting ripped off is to sound like a confident old hand as you give the street address, including a cross street. It’s almost always to your advantage to use the meter (by law the driver has to put it on if you ask); make sure it is reset to the flag-fall price after you get in.
Meter fall is 12.30NIS (10.50NIS in Eilat). Tariff 2 (25% more expensive than Tariff 1) applies between 9pm and 5.30am and on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Wait time costs 94NIS per hour. Legitimate surcharges include the following:
- Pick-up at Ben Gurion Airport – 5NIS
- Piece of full-size luggage – 4.40NIS
- Third and fourth passengers – 4.90NIS each
- Phone order – 5.20NIS.
Many Israelis now use the mobile phone app GetTaxi (www.gettaxi.co.il), available in Android and iPhone versions, to order and pay for taxis in all parts of Israel (except Eilat). Uber launched in Israel in 2014.
Taxi drivers do not expect tips, but in the absence of a rip-off attempt, it’s fine to leave a shekel or two in change.
Israel Railways (www.rail.co.il) runs a comfortable and convenient network of passenger rail services; details on departure times are also available from the Public Transportation Info Center (www.bus.co.il). Trains do not run from mid-afternoon Friday until after sundown on Saturday. Return tickets are 10% cheaper than two one-way tickets; children aged five to 10 get a 20% discount. Unlike buses, Israel's rail system is wheelchair accessible.
Israel Railway’s oldest line, inaugurated in 1892 and famously scenic, links three Tel Aviv stations with southern Jerusalem (23.50NIS, 1½ hours). The system's heavily used main line runs along the coast at least twice an hour, affording fine views of the Mediterranean as it links Tel Aviv with the following locations:
- Haifa (32NIS, one hour)
- Akko (41.50NIS, 1½ hours)
- Nahariya (46.50NIS, 1½ hours)
Other useful services from Tel Aviv:
- Ben Gurion Airport (16NIS, 18 minutes, at least hourly 24 hours a day except Shabbat)
- Be’er Sheva (31.50NIS, 1½ hours, hourly)
A new train line is scheduled to open in April 2018 that will shorten the travel time between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to just 28 minutes, thanks to a US$2 billion high-speed rail line that will also serve Ben Gurion Airport. A rail line linking Haifa with Beit She'an opened in 2016.