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A modern Mediterranean state parked in a very ancient land, it’s impossible to travel around Israel and come away without a sense of awe at the transformation of a country that’s younger than, well, Liza Minnelli. Make no mistake, not everything here’s perfect: The unsightly concrete security barriers that snake around much of Jerusalem, for example, are stark reminders that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t ending any time soon.
But soon after arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV) on my first trip there many years ago, my unease dissolved with the warmth of the welcome I received from Israelis of all backgrounds. Mind-blowing restaurants and clubs and easy access to the beach sealed the deal, and I eventually moved to Tel Aviv. Yet even with the benefit of an extended sojourn, I made plenty of mistakes that prospective travelers would do well to avoid.
And that starts, like so much else with life on the road, with adjusting attitudes and expectations — beginning right where it often does: the airport. Avoid making these mistakes on your trip to Israel, and you’ll surely fall in love with this modern Middle Eastern country.
1. Letting Israeli Security Procedures Bring You Down
No bones about it, Israeli security is rigorous, but there’s a misconception that it’s gruff, too. But on the contrary, I can almost promise that, at an Israeli airport, you will never be shouted at like you might be on any given day at an American airport. It helps that Israeli security staff won’t be barking at you to remove your shoes, because you don’t remove your shoes in Israel. Instead, the security officers are focused on determining your motivation for visiting the country, which they assess through a steady stream of questions.
If the line of questioning and baggage searching seem intrusive that’s because it is. But if you look at it from the Israeli perspective, there is no other choice. The country is under constant threat. Questions are asked to keep the country safer not only for them, but for you as well.
And sorry guys, but single men traveling alone are more likely to face a longer interrogation than single women, or travelers with families or tour groups. If you’re traveling on El Al, expect the questions to start flying stateside before you even step aboard the plane. These will be asked in a thorough, but also courteous and professional manner.
2. Assuming the Whole Country Is a War Zone
Many people who have never been to Israel are skittish about making the journey.
First of all, the flight from the US is a long one. And despite all the good stuff that happens in Israel, it’s the bad stuff that tends to generate headlines. But the fact is that Israel is part of a conflict zone, not an ongoing war zone. Yes, there can be violent flare-ups and, like anywhere else these days, terrorist attacks are always possible. So Israel is not the kind of place where you can slip into your vacation vortex and forget about the news for two weeks.
But don’t let this deter you. Instead, just stay informed. If there’s an uptick in tension along the Gaza border or clashes around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, for example, you might want to rethink visiting those places on your own.
3. Ignoring All the Flight Options
In the old days, there was one reliable option for year-round daily nonstops from at least one North American gateway to Tel Aviv, and that was El Al. Today, the Israeli flag carrier is updating its aging fleet of 747s with the purchase of several 787 Dreamliners. While this is a good thing, it by no means makes El Al the least expensive of all flight options — and depending on where you live, it may not always be the most practical either.
It’s often cheaper to book a ticket to a European city such as London and then take a European carrier to Tel Aviv. Starting in September, for example, Virgin Atlantic will start regular service from London Heathrow (LHR) to Tel Aviv using an Airbus A330.
4. Feeling Obliged to Pack It All Into One Trip
Israel may not be much bigger than New Jersey, but while most first-time travelers to the US would understandably skip the Garden State altogether, Israel packs a lot into its approximately 8,000 square miles. How much you can see and the manner in which you see it is a function of how much time you have.
It’s possible to see the highlights of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (plus other areas such as the Red Sea resort of Eilat or Haifa and the Sea of Galilee in the north), but think of what your trip goals are first. Are you going for religious heritage? In that case, yes, you should focus on cities such as Jerusalem and Tiberias, and perhaps Bethlehem. But don’t worry about missing the Negev Desert and Eilat. If, by contrast, you’re interested in contemporary cities or you’re an avid beachgoer, you can focus on Tel Aviv, while getting your history fix with a visit to Jaffa (home of Tel Aviv’s famous flea market as well as a crop of new luxury hotels) and, if you want, a day trip to Jerusalem.
5. Getting Dehydrated While Hiking Masada
One of the most iconic spots in Israel is the desert fortress of Masada, perched on top of a lonely rock plateau and scene of the tragic last resistance of the Zealots, an ancient Jewish sect, to the Romans in 73 AD. Today you can still see the ramparts that the Romans built as part of their siege of the fortress, as well as many other ruins.
The easiest way to get to the 1,300-foot peak is by riding the cable car, but purists tend to take the Snake Path up to the top. Doing so has it own rewards, but remember that, despite all the tour buses and such, this is the Judaean Desert, and you can get dehydrated faster than you think. Drink water often on both the ascent and descent.
6. Forgetting to Take Shabbat into Account
In Israel, the sabbath is more than just a weekly window of optional religious observance. It’s more an official kind of thing where, regardless of your faith, you’re going to have to deal with a scheduled stoppage of buses and trains and sometimes even airplanes from Friday night until Saturday evening.
Because El Al is the country’s flag carrier, the airline doesn’t fly during Shabbat, but fortunately other airlines do. (Note that there are no flights at all on Yom Kippur.) In Tel Aviv, most stores remain open on Saturday and it’s easy to take a shared taxi, called a sherut, to get around all weekend long. But train to the airport on a Saturday morning? Forget it, chaverim (that’s Hebrew for friends).
7. Underestimating the Food Scene
Talking about hummus in Israel is the great leveler, like talking about the weather, well, anywhere else. Of course, even dishing on the best hummus in Israel can be fraught with political overtones. But if — like me — you don’t love the mushy stuff, don’t worry about it either: The days when hummus and falafel were all there was to eat in Israel are a thing of the past.
In Jerusalem and especially Tel Aviv, the culinary scene is incredibly exciting. At buzzy restaurants such as Mashya, Shila, OCD and Pastel (and even at humble cafes around the country), the tasty evolution of New Israeli cuisine will rock your taste buds.
8. Skipping the Dead Sea
In this age of glib “awesomes” and “amazings,” the Dead Sea truly is both those things and more. After all, it’s 1,360 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point on earth. Yes, you will float in water that’s about 10 times saltier than ocean water and oh, what a feeling that is. Whether or not slathering yourself in mineral-rich mud before wading into the water really has any benefits for your skin may be a matter of debate, but it will certainly perk up your Instagram. For an overnight, try the Ein Gedi Hotel.
9. Thinking Tel Aviv Is Just About the Beach
It’s true that with nearly 10 miles of shoreline, Tel Aviv’s beach scene is one of the most alluring things about this bustling city. You could easily spend days just migrating from your hotel to the beach and back, especially when the beach is literally across the street from the more iconic hotels such as the InterContinental David Tel Aviv and the Hilton Tel Aviv. (Try some sliced Israeli watermelon and you’ll see what I mean.)
But you’d be remiss not to make time to see Israeli heritage sites here or explore Tel Aviv’s diverse neighborhoods, from the Upper West Side-ish “Old North” and fun Tel Aviv Port, with its modern seaside promenade and cafes, to atmospheric Old Jaffa in the south. And in between there are chic, stylish neighborhoods like Neve Tzedek and Florentine, too.
10. Attempting to Drive
If it’s your first time driving in Israel, and regardless of your faith in GPS or (egads!) maps, remember that the driving is the most straightforward north to south along the main coastal strip, (the highly urbanized area between Tel Aviv and Haifa).
Having a car can definitely come in handy for, say, easy jaunts from Tel Aviv to the seaside Roman ruins at Caesarea. But when you start heading in a more easterly direction, things can get a little tricky: Driving while maintaining your sanity is a fool’s errand in Jerusalem and negotiating West Bank checkpoints (if you need to go to the West Bank for any reason) is, though relatively easy, not exactly fun.
11. Being Afraid to Haggle
This probably won’t work to help lower the price of your meal or hotel room, but when it comes to shopping, remember you’re a long way from TJ Maxx territory: in other words, haggle! If you don’t at least try to bargain down the prices for things at the famous Jaffa flea market or Shuk HaCarmel market in Tel Aviv or at the (much better) Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, the vendors will think you’re a tourist, are a bit strange or both.
12. Overlooking Volunteer Experiences
Between its historical background, religious heritage and more, Israel is a country that has a special meaning for many travelers. It’s also, no matter how you slice it, a schlep to get to from the United States. So aside from the obvious and obligatory aspects of planning your trip, don’t forget about the possibilities of adding an experiential component to your journey. To cite just two examples of many, you could help the young women and men who mandatorily serve in the Israel Defense Forces by volunteering in the Sar-El Program (and you need not be Jewish to be participate), or even participate in an archaeological dig.
Featured photo by Zoltan Tasi/Unsplash.
Know before you go.
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