Israel was somewhere I wanted to visit for a while. My mom went when she was around my age and had some great stories about floating in the Dead Sea and exploring the Old Town of Jerusalem. Yet when I told people (other than my mom) that I wanted to travel to Israel I was met with plenty of hesitation. In the western part of the world, including my home country of Canada, Israel is perceived as dangerous.
Clearly, I went anyways and I recommend you do too. But before you start planning your trip to Israel, I’ve got a few tips and suggestions based on my own experience. From me to you, here are 8 important things I think you should know before you travel to Israel.
*Disclaimer: I visited Israel and Palestine on a press trip with Abraham Tours. All opinions are, as always, my own
Israel is Safe
Well, as safe as anywhere can be these days. Sure, they have some incidents but tell me a country that doesn’t. On a whole, I felt safe the entire time I was in Israel. Whether I was wandering around Old Town Jerusalem on my own or taking part in the tour of the divided city of Hebron which has a history of tragic violence, I never once felt as if I was in danger.
I think that one of the main reasons why people perceive Israel as dangerous is because of the large military force and the fact that there are plenty of people walking around with guns. I’m Canadian. We don’t do guns. So when I arrived in Israel and saw police and soldiers in uniform complete with huge guns every time I turned around, well, it was pretty unnerving. Especially when most of these soldiers looked like children (all Israeli citizens have mandatory military service starting at the age of 18).
Some of the soldiers won’t pay you any attention, but others will strike up a conversation or ask you where you are from, especially if are in a setting where it’s obvious that you are a tourist. I can’t say I ever got used to seeing so many guns, but I did eventually get used to the large military and police presence.
Tours and Day Trips are the Best Way to Go
As mentioned above, I was invited to experience Israel with a local company called Abraham Tours and, honestly, they made this trip. Which is funny because I don’t normally consider myself to be a tour type of person. I like my freedom and the ability to do what I want on my own time. However, Israel has so much history and so much to learn that, without the tours, I wouldn’t have known or understood a thing. Since I’m big on hearing the stories behind places, this was pretty important for me.
What I loved about Abraham Tours is that you could do multi-day trips or single day trips. I did all single day trips which meant that I still had the freedom to spend some time in the evening to explore on my own, but I still got to explore the highlights of Israel with a knowledgeable guide. Some of the days were long and busy, but I felt pretty good coming back at night having learned so much.
Another great perk about these day tours is that they made it easy to get around Israel. Since I did all day trips, I didn’t really have to worry about transportation. However, talking to other travellers- getting around on your own can be pretty tricky. While there are buses to the main cities, getting to spots like Masada is much harder as the bus stop is actually quite far away from the actual site. People I talked to or met either relied on day trips or rented a car to get around.
For those interested, you can check out Abraham tour and day trip options here.
A Visit to Israel Really Should Include a Visit to Palestine
You can’t visit Israel without knowing about the Israel/Palestine conflict. And, in my opinion, I don’t think you can visit one without the other (assuming your passport will allow you to do so). Every story has two sides and I think you owe it to yourself, as a traveller, to take the time and learn a bit from both.
This is another area where I think Abraham Tours did an awesome job by offering several tours to the Palestinian Territories. My absolute favourite tour was the dual narrative Hebron tour. I also enjoyed visiting Bethlehem (such a cool city!) and other areas of the West Bank. From having lunch in our local guide’s home to wandering markets chatting with vendors, and seeing the refugee camps (yes, Palestine has several refugee camps), visiting Palestine and getting those stories is both eye-opening and fascinating.
No doubt, after visiting Israel and Palestine and speaking to people from both, you’ll leave with some strong opinions-but don’t expect to leave with an answer.
Israel is Not Known for it’s Friendly Locals
This was a hard one for me to process because I will literally smile and talk to anyone. However, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t going to get much back from the locals in Israel. While there were a handful of friendly, welcoming Israelis that I met throughout my visit, these were often people who had immigrated from America or worked in the tourism industry (plus a few of the soldiers like I mentioned above). However, for the most part, I found the local Israelis to be pretty cold and shut off. Based on my other experiences in the Middle East, where everyone was incredibly welcoming, I found this really surprising.
It’s not that I necessarily felt unwelcome in Israel, I just felt like no one could be bothered with me. Interactions were, for the most part, abrupt with no eye contact. A couple of times in the markets I was flat out ignored as I waited to buy some food. In the end, I just left and went to someone else. I’m not sure if I should have maybe been pushier or if I was purposely being ignored.
Oddly enough, Palestine was the complete opposite. Warm smiles and calls of ‘hello’ or ‘welcome’ were abundant when we went into the Palestinian territories which I found very Interesting.
Granted, both Israel and Palestine have a rocky history and that may play a huge roll in how both interact with others and with tourists. Not everywhere in the world is friendly, but, since I’m normally a solo traveller, this was something I felt important to bring up. I was very grateful that I was travelling in Israel with a friend because I would have been pretty darn lonely if I was there alone.
Israel is NOT a Cheap Travel Destination
The cost of things in Israel really surprised me. It’s a pricey country in every aspect; food, accommodation, tours etc. After visiting Egypt last year, which I found quite inexpensive by North American standards, I guess I expected costs would be similar. I thought wrong. I found prices in Israel to be very similar to what I would pay here at home in Canada.
Food was perhaps where I experienced the biggest ‘sticker shock’. I often went to the market and bought our own pita bread, hummus (SO GOOD), and vegetables to make meals back at the hostel. My travel buddy, Taylor and I split everything but even then we were spending about $10 a person. Street food staples like shawarma and falafel sandwiches cost about the same (or more depending on where you went). Pomegranate juice was one of my favourite finds in Israel and even that cost somewhere between $4-$6CAD depending on where it was sold. There’s no doubt that Israeli food is delicious, but I did need to watch what I spent on it.
Accommodation was another factor. We were hosted by Abraham hostels in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and I was surprised at what a wide range of ages and types of travellers stayed at these properties. Normally, when I think of hostels, I think of younger backpackers. However, while these hostels absolutely cater to younger travellers, I met and saw a number of couples and families with young children (especially in Tel Aviv) as well.
That being said, they were really nice hostels in good locations that felt more like budget hotels rather than a typical backpackers, so I can see why they would appeal to anyone trying to save a little money. Click here to check out Abraham hostels.
Packing Appropriately for Israel (and Palestine) Can Be Tricky
I hate packing. Despite the fact that I have gotten much better at it and often travel carry-on only even for month long trips, I still think packing sucks. Packing for Israel and Palestine? Well, that really sucked. It’s like I needed to pack two different wardrobes; more conservative clothing but also cool, trendy clothing because Israel is both.
For tours to the historic parts of Israel, you’ll want to be more covered up. If you are planning on visiting Palestine as well, you’ll need to cover up. This means long sleeves, pants or skirts past your knees, and no cleavage.
However, parts of Israel are also very trendy and fashionable, especially Tel Aviv. While I didn’t want to run around with plunging necklines and tiny skirts (not that either of those are even my style) I did want to wear some nicer more stylish clothing that didn’t focus on modesty. Especially since I did go out at night.
Finding that balance took a while but I think I got it down in the end. If you’re looking for packing tips check out my article on what to wear in Israel.
Getting in is Easy, Getting Out Isn’t As Fun
When I arrived in Israel, I breezed through immigration. I don’t even think the officer looked at me as he scanned my passport and handed me the required papers to enter the country. However, it was a whole different story when I left. I was grilled for a solid 10 minutes about where I had been, what I had done, and what I had with me. The woman questioning me flipped through my (very full) passport and started asking about my travels back in 2015 to Malaysia and 2016 to Bali. I had nothing to hide, but it was pretty intense and I’d never been questioned like that before.
That was only the first part though. Next I had to go through security where my entire bag was unpacked, scanned, and thoroughly checked. I had to open my packing cubes, my bags of cords, every tiny pocket in my backpack- all of it. My friend Taylor, who I was travelling with, checked her bag but upon arriving in London she discovered that her whole bag had been searched as well. Again, I had nothing to hide but it did seem a little extreme.
So, as you leave Israel make sure you get to the airport early (like the full 3 hours early, but not earlier than that or they won’t let you through) and expect to be questioned and have people dig through your bag.
Tip: Use Skyscanner to find cheap flights to Israel. It’s my go-to for booking flights.
A Visit to Israel (and Palestine) will be one of the Most Fascinating Trips of Your Life
I’m going to be honest: I did not fall in love with Israel as a travel destination. However, I can also honestly say that my time in Israel (and Palestine) was easily one of the most fascinating trips of my life and I’m very grateful to have had that experience. It is absolutely a place that I recommend everyone to visit should they get the opportunity. From history to religion to the Conflict, there is so much to see and learn. This part of the world really is a unique travel destination and is definitely worth exploring. And, while I am happy to share the stories of my adventures here, I truly believe that this is a destination that everyone should experience for themselves so that they can form their own opinions.
A Note on Travel Insurance in Israel
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine twice before (once for damaged luggage, once because I developed a lung infection while traveling). While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance. With prices starting at $37 for 4 weeks, they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.