I’ve returned safely from Israel to Budapest, and I’m catching up on some work as we speak. I actually managed to have a few business meetings during my trip, as some of the companies I work with are based there. It’s always nice to combine business and pleasure. The success of my trip was by and large due to the hospitality of my friend Tal, who hosted me for the duration of my stay, and who introduced me to many other cool people and places. It had me reflecting on what it would have been like to travel around the country independently, as a backpacker.
I’ll start by giving you the harsh truth: Israel is not an easy country for backpackers. Everything is expensive as hell, the infrastructure is built around cars, public transportation is hard to navigate, and hostels are few and far between. Yet it might be worth the effort to travel there. You’ll likely meet some incredibly kind and welcoming people. You’ll experience a unique culture that combines Middle-Eastern warmth with American individualism, and religious traditionalism with a hyper-modern business culture. You’ll see some breathtaking desert landscapes. And you’ll realize that you’re standing in the cradle of civilization.
In this post I’ll go into detail about some aspects of Israel that are particularly relevant for backpackers.
Everything is expensive
Well… almost everything. A small beer in a bar will cost you $8 on average. (There is a student pub in desert city Be’er Sheva where you can get a beer for only $5.50, for which it enjoys nationwide fame.) A typical meal in a diner (main course + soda) will set you back about $17. A dorm bed in Tel Aviv goes for around $25 a night (although you can find them at $15 if you’re lucky). Even the prices in the supermarket are about one and a half times what you’d pay in Europe.
There are a few exceptions. If you like Falafel or Humus, you can get a tasty fast food meal for $4-7. A drinkable bottle of red wine in the supermarket can be had for as little as $6. Public transportation is generally affordable, or even cheap if you take the bus. Tap water is safe to drink, and you can get it for free with any meal if you ask. Some national parks, museums, and other attractions are free to enter as well. Fresh vegetables are inexpensive too (as opposed to in the US). If you have access to cooking facilities, preparing a home-cooked vegetarian meal doesn’t have to cost you much more than it would in Europe.
Especially if you hang out with a student crowd, drinking outside or cooking together at someone’s home is not uncommon. It’s one of the best ways to survive Israel if you’re on a budget. Do keep in mind though that your backpacking trip to Israel will cost you more than a similar trip to Europe, and much more than a trip to Southeast-Asia or South-America.
Public transportation is good… but hard to navigate
Israel has a very fine-grained bus network. There are 4 or 5 bus companies that serve the country, the most important of which are Egged, Dan, and Metropoline. You can get basically anywhere by bus, and it won’t cost you much. A bus ride from Haifa to Tel Aviv set me back about $8. A single trip within a city costs somewhere between $1.20 and $1.80.
The big problem is finding how to get from one place to another. Rarely will you have a direct bus, and ALL the signs at bus stops are in Hebrew only, making it very hard to figure out if there is any bus that will take you where you want to go. You can ask people at the bus stop, but often they won’t know where a bus is going unless they are taking it themselves. And it gets more complicated if you need to transfer somewhere.
In this case, Google really is your friend. Google Maps accurately taps into the databases of all the major public transportation providers and will usually give you the quickest way to get from A to B. You can get free wifi internet in most coffee shops and in many malls, restaurants, and train stations as well. This is your chance to figure out how to get to where you’re going. If you don’t want to rely on a working internet connection (which I recommend), it’s worth the effort to write down a couple of major hubs for where you’re going. You may not know exactly which bus connections to take to your destination, but if you can make it to the next hub, you can try to figure it out from there.
The only bus company that has an English-language website is Egged. Usually only one company serves a certain line, though, so you have to get lucky that Egged is the one you need. The Israeli railways also have an excellent English-language website, with a good route planner. Travelling by train is comfortable, though more expensive than travelling by bus.
Where to stay
Israel isn’t a popular destination with backpackers, and most tourism is religion-oriented or in the form of tour groups. This is not the vibe you’re looking for when travelling by yourself. In Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa you can find a couple of hostels. They are a moderately-priced option to stay the night, and probably your best bet to find other like-minded travellers.
Outside of those main cities you’re in rougher terrain, though. You’ll encounter few hostels or guest houses, and hotels will cost you $100 a night or more. Something that’s fairly popular relative to other Western countries is the option of a home stay. You’ll be staying with a local family, and you’ll typically get to experience the real Israeli life. Home stays are much cheaper than a hotel, and often you’ll have a meal included with your stay. Also, a home stay is a unique opportunity to stay in a kibbutz, where you usually won’t find any other type of accommodation.
Another excellent option is of course Airbnb. The service is well-developed in Israel, with rooms and apartments available in many smaller cities and towns. Prices range from absolute bargains to five-star luxury.
The language is a barrier
The native language of Israel is Hebrew, with Arabic widely understood by the Arab minorities. If you don’t speak either of those languages, you’ll encounter some difficulties. Most road signs are written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. This makes getting around by car easy enough. Many people have a reasonable command of English, too, although they don’t like to speak it. My host told me that this stems from a sense of insecurity about not speaking a language perfectly.
In public transportation, however, you’ll typically encounter only Hebrew. And that language has a non-Roman script, making it impossible to read for foreigners. So even if you know the name of the destination where you’re going, you still won’t be able to spot it on a bus itinerary.
Another thing where language is a problem is food. You might have familiarized yourself with some of the Israeli dishes, but looking at a menu in Hebrew will leave you confused (and hungry!). In most tourist centres and in chain restaurants they will have English-language menus available, but your local corner Falafel store probably won’t. Supermarkets will also generally display information in Hebrew only, so if you don’t recognize a product, you’re in for an adventure. Fortunately the country uses Roman numerals for prices, so at least you can get a sense of how much your adventure will set you back.
The countryside is great
If you’re looking for nightlife and entertainment, Tel Aviv is the place to be, with Jerusalem offering some nice hangouts too. But the countryside is beautiful, and there are well-marked trails to hike. Though camping in the wild is officially prohibited, this is not actively enforced and in fact many Israelis enjoy going on camping trips. Going camping in the countryside is a great way to save money and to enjoy Israel’s natural treasures.
In the South of the country there is the large desert of the Negev. It’s not the sand-dunes-kind of desert, but rather one with spectacular rock cliffs. Also, the night sky over the desert is stunning. Be careful with the Bedouin villages scattered around the desert, where the reception may not always be friendly.
In the North there is the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Height, providing a much greener natural scenery. You’ll find rivers, natural pools, mountain overlooks, and colourful flora. It’s a beautiful area for hiking and camping.
The one drawback of the countryside is that it’s hard to get to the nice spots for hiking and/or camping without a car. Buses typically won’t run there, and towns can be far away. If you want to enjoy a trip to the countryside, it really helps to make friends with some locals. The Israeli generally lover hiking and being outdoors, so the odds of getting some of them to join you on your adventure are good.
The locals are friendly and welcoming
To survive, you’ll have to ask around a lot. While the Israeli people may seem closed and rude at first sight (see my post ‘The Dutch and the Jews‘), they are actually friendly and will always try to help you if they can. They just won’t offer their help on their own initiative; you have to ask. If you’re lucky, they might even help you out more than you needed, like by offering you a ride or giving you information about what places to visit.
To deal with the problems of cost, transportation, and language, I highly recommend getting in touch with some of the local Israeli. As always, CouchSurfing is a good resource to meet people and to find a place to stay. The more rural areas are good for hitchhiking, as the Israeli are happy to give you a ride provided that you don’t look Arab or Palestinian. They never mind explaining you something about their culture, their food, or their history.