In terms of documentation, flying to Israel is like flying into any European city. No visa is required for U.S. citizens (or Canadians, Australians, Brits or most other Europeans); you simply need a passport that’s valid for six months from date of entry, and a return ticket. You don’t even need to have your passport stamped if you don’t want to; you will be provided an entry card to be stamped (some Muslim countries will not allow entry if your passport carries an Israeli stamp).
Once you’re in country, there are taxis, car rentals, buses and some limited train service between major destinations. In Tel Aviv, you can even swipe your credit card and hop on a bike. Generally, Israel is a car and bus culture. Read on to learn more about getting around Israel.
Flying to and Around Israel
Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV), located in the outskirts of Tel Aviv, welcomes roughly 15 million passengers a year. It is the country’s main international airport and is legendary for its high levels of security. No flight departing out of TLV has ever been hijacked.
If you are flying El Al, the national airline, you can expect a taste of Israel’s exacting security measures even on your outbound flight from New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles or any other international embarkation point. Women traveling alone are often subject to special scrutiny, and being Jewish does not relieve you of questioning (or delays), as you may be asked if you practice your religion, which temple you go to and where you had your bar or bat mitzvah. The questioning may feel aggressive or even intrusive, but — as with any encounter with airport security, but perhaps even more so in this case — remain composed and cooperative, and answer truthfully. Indignation is not going to get you anywhere (literally). It is not unheard of for passengers to miss their flights due to these “interrogations.”
That said, tens of thousands of people fly uneventfully into Tel Aviv from dozens of cities around the world every day. U.S.-based carriers include United, American and Delta. You can get to Israel as an add-on to a European tour; you can even fly a discount airline like EasyJet or Vueling. Greece/Israel combos are popular and convenient: Aegean Airlines runs a slew of flights from mainland and island destinations.
Arkia Israel Airlines, the country’s second largest airline, covers domestic (Eilat) and international flights, mostly seasonal and mostly around Europe (including Paris, Munich, Barcelona and Helsinki). Similarly, Israir offers flights to Eilat and a selection of European cities on a seasonal basis.
Most tourists get around via car or bus, but a domestic flight might make sense if you’re short on time and looking to visit Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. The flight from Tel Aviv takes just an hour, as compared to a four-hour bus ride. That’s probably the longest distance you’ll encounter in this small country. (By contrast, Tel Aviv to Haifa is only a 60-mile distance.)
To get from the airport to your hotel, the options are similar to what you might find in a European city: trains (Israel Railways), buses (Egged), car rental offices, taxis, limos and shared vans.
Israel by Taxi
Taxis are generally less expensive than those in the U.S. or Europe, and you can easily hail them on the street. Taxis are metered, but nothing stops you from agreeing to a fixed rate, especially if you are coming from the airport or going from city to city (i.e. between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem). A hotel concierge or bellhop can quickly arrange a set rate and make sure a taxi is there for you. Taxi drivers are typically talkative and friendly, and freely discuss politics.
A Jewish cabdriver (or shopkeeper, etc.) may ask if you are Jewish, but this is considered a neutral, casual question. Americans are welcomed with open arms, regardless of religion, and Israelis like to hear where you’re from. Try to confirm that the driver is familiar with your destination, and turn on your phone’s GPS just in case.
Israel by Bus
The country’s main bus company is Egged (including inside the city of Jerusalem). Buses are modern and generally comfortable.
The best way to get a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is from Tel Aviv’s Arlozorov terminal, which is located just outside the Tel Aviv Savidor Merkaz train station. In Arlozorov’s open-air terminal you can purchase a direct bus ride to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. Conversely, the best way to get a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv is from Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, Tachana Mercazit.
Tel Aviv boasts an inexpensive and convenient bus system. Look for Dan buses in town and Egged buses on the outskirts (and from city to city). There are monthly passes, multiple entry passes and day passes, but don’t lose sleep over which to choose; getting around short distances will be one of your lowest expenses whatever you do.
If your trip includes Masada and/or the Dead Sea, going by bus (Egged Bus 486 travels from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station) is your most convenient option if you’re without a car. Private taxis are expensive (though not prohibitively so) and guided day tours, thought plentiful, hardly smack of independence. The trip from Jerusalem takes 60 to 90 minutes.
Buses do not run on Shabbat or on Jewish holidays.
Israel by Train
Train travel is regarded as sort of an afterthought by locals, but traffic considerations and expanding service are slowly changing that perception. Israel Railways offers service between major cities, but like the buses, trains do not run on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. You’ll find comfortable trains serving multiple stations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and other cities, and you can buy your tickets at a train station kiosk or reserve online. What you won’t find: underground metros. Israel’s sole subway line is Haifa’s Carmelit.
Israel by Rental Car
You’ll find the usual suspects: Hertz, Avis, Budget, Sixt. All you need is your driver’s license; you drive on the right side of the road in Israel. Highways and city streets are modern and extremely well maintained; signage is in English. Just become familiar with roundabouts, and know that speeds and distances will be indicated in kilometers rather than miles. Follow the same common sense you’d use in the U.S.
Street parking is free unless otherwise indicated by a “no parking” sign or a curb marked with red or yellow. Blue markings on the curb mean you have to feed the meter with coins or a credit card.
–written by Drew Limsky