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:
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).
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.