Tips for Trips
Passport and Visas
Entering Americans with valid passports do not need to apply for a visa to enter Israel in advance. It can be obtained at the border. Check with the Israeli Embassy about passports with evidence you have visited other Middle Eastern countries. If you are planning to visit Jordan from Israel, you should get a visa for Jordan in the USA unless you are positive about which border crossing you will be using and the current rules. You can obtain visas only at some borders.
A few Arab countries (especially Lebanon and Syria) will not let you enter carrying a passport with an Israeli stamp. If you plan to travel a lot in the Middle East, ask at immigration into Israel, “Please do not stamp my passport.” Carry your passport and visa with you at all times. You may have to show them at check-points or if you are stopped by the police. (Some people prefer to make a photocopy of the first page of their passport and visa and leave the passport in the hotel safe.)
Entering and Exiting Israel at Ben Gurion Airport
Upon arrival, stand in line for immigration and visas, then pick up your baggage and go through customs. If you have a Palestinian travel agent meeting you, he or she can meet you there only AFTER you go through customs. They are not allowed to enter the immigration hall. It is “fairly easy” unless you are of Arab descent or have a Muslim or Arab sounding name, which may entail questioning and a luggage search. People obviously going to stand in solidarity with Palestinians get more questioning. Entering from a neighboring country entails the same basic process (see below).
Exiting Israel at Ben Gurion airport is often more difficult. You wait in lines until it is your turn for security. There will be questioning about what you have done, why you are there, who you have met and where you have been, along with the usual questions as to whether you are carrying anything for other people, etc. Be sure the first person from your group is knowledgeable about the details of the trip because other people’s answers will be compared with those of the first person.
Only after you pass security are you allowed to get your seat assignment and boarding pass, go through immigration and go to the departure area. Sometimes groups are allowed to go through a group security check in. If you feel intimidated, remember that you haven’t done anything criminal. Part of this questioning is tight security for the airplanes and part is information gathering by Israeli security.
If your group is working with a travel agency, they are likely to have you met at the airport with a bus or van. If you are a small group or are not being met, take a shared taxi to Jerusalem. After you go through customs you will enter a hall crowded with people waiting for friends and relatives. Go out the door marked Taxis and ask for a “Nesher sherut (pronounced shay-root) to Jerusalem.” When it fills up the driver will take off for Jerusalem.
When you reach the city, you will be treated to a fascinating ride around the neighborhoods as the driver drops passengers off at their house or hotel. Some drivers do not want to go into Palestinian areas, and you occasionally find one who does not want to take you to your address. If you have any trouble with the driver, remind him that Nesher has a monopoly and he must take you any place in Jerusalem. If there is any more trouble, start to take down the driver’s name and numbers and you will find him amenable. Don’t be conned into changing into another taxi once you reach Jerusalem because the new driver will also expect you to pay.
To return to the airport, call Nesher the day before and make an appointment to be picked up. Allow plenty of time since you might get another tour of the city before the van fills up and leaves the city. The Nesher office is not open on Shabbat (Saturday) so call on Friday before noon and a taxi will pick you up on Saturday. For Sunday pick ups call on Friday.
Entering by land from Jordan
If you are going to Jerusalem go to the Allenby (King Hussein) Bridge. When you arrive at the bridge, you will go through the Jordanian security and exit procedures. There is an exit tax from Jordan. Crossing this bridge allows you to come back through the bridge. (There may be a time limit.)
A bus will take you across the bridge to the building where you go through Israeli security and immigration. There will be shared taxis to Jerusalem (and other cities) once you pass through customs and immigration on the Israeli side. Nijmeh (Star) taxi is a shared taxi, also known as a “servees” and runs from the bridge to Jerusalem.
If you are going to the northern part of Israel the Sheikh Hussein crossing might be better.
To return to Jordan, arrange transportation to the bridges through Abdo Travel opposite the Damascus Gate. There is an exit tax from Israel, which you must pay in sheckels. You will go through the same procedure as entering but in reverse. If you purchased your visa at the airport in Amman, you are allowed to come back to Jordan within 30 days without getting another visa.
When you get to the Jordanian side, you will be approached by private taxis, which are very expensive. There are also shared taxis and buses but you must be persistent to get them. They go from the immigration building which serves Jordanian citizens.
Entering by land from Egypt
It is NOT possible at this time.
The Gaza Airport was destroyed by the Israelis in 2002.
New Israeli Shekels may be obtained right at the airport or border at no commission but at a very low rate of exchange. Change your currency instead when you get to your destination. You can pay your taxi fare in dollars instead of shekels. There are licensed money changers in small booths and stores as well as banks and hotel cashiers. Money changers usually give you the best rate. Credit cards, such as Visa, Master Card and American Express, are acceptable in stores and restaurants. There is an extra fee for cashing travelers checks so carrying cash is actually better. Personal checks are often acceptable. In many places (especially in the West Bank) American dollars and Jordanian Dinars are also accepted.
Prescriptions and other Health Concerns
There are no major health hazards and no vaccinations are required unless you are going to work on a farm. Tap water in the major cities is clean and food in restaurants is also safe. Wash all fruits or vegetables you buy in the market or stores very well. Most of it is OK but a lot of people handle it on the way to market and in the market. Unless you have a very tender stomach you won’t have trouble but bring anti-diarrhea medicine just in case. Bottled water is readily available for those with stomach problems and is a good idea in some parts of the West Bank and Gaza especially where the Israelis have damaged the water lines. Ask for advice.
Over exposure to the sun is a greater hazard especially in the summer. The sun is very bright so you will need sun glasses and a good suntan lotion if you are outdoors much of the day. A sun hat is helpful, especially if it has a brim. Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration since much of the climate is dry.
Bring enough of any prescription medicine which you usually take. Everyday over-the-counter remedies are usually available but expensive. Bring copies of your prescriptions as many prescription medications are available if you lose what you brought. There are excellent hospitals and ambulance service available to tourists.
Winter is the rainy season and summer the dry season but there is a wide range of climates in the country depending on altitude. The Mediterranean coast is very hot and muggy in the summer and mild in the winter. The area from Ramallah to Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Hebron is hilly and on the edge of the desert. Even when it is hot, it is dry and most of the time. It is breezy and cool in the evenings. In the winter it is rainy and cold with the remote possibility of snow. Many buildings do not have central heating and use only space heaters. In the spring and fall be prepared for warm days and cool evenings so bring lots of layers. The Jordan Valley is hot and humid almost all the time.
Israelis dress very informally and Palestinians tend to dress up a bit more; most international tourists dress informally. It is unacceptable to wear short shorts or halter tops in conservative Palestinian or Israeli areas, including the Old City of Jerusalem. In touring, pants are acceptable for women unless they are too tight; skirts are acceptable and should be at least knee length. Women do not have to wear long skirts but if you are visiting religious sites it is a good idea to carry a light weight scarf and wear short or long sleeves (no sleeveless shirts or halters). If you are visiting ultra Orthodox Jewish areas, women must wear long skirts and long sleeve blouses. Slacks are prohibited. The Mediterranean beaches and Eilat are generally “anything goes” territory.
Men can dress in open neck shirts or pullover shirts and slacks but bring along one necktie for a special occasion. Men who wear shorts at religious sites are often given a skirt to wear over them. Men will need to wear a head covering in Jewish religious areas such as synagogues. The area closest to the Western Wall is an outdoor synagogue but men can obtain paper yarmulkes (kipot) at the entrance.
Sandals with bare feet are appropriate for both sexes even in religious locations. In the winter you will see sandals with socks on many feet. Since there is stone paving, the best solution is confortable sturdy shoes with socks for everybody.
Israeli electricity is 220 volts, 50 cycles. Round two-pronged plugs, like those in many parts of Europe, are used. Be sure your electrical appliances are compatible and have a converter if you bring 110-volt appliances as well as a plug adapter. Bring a flashlight and batteries. Batteries are available but expensive. If you bring a computer, you may wish to bring a surge protector. Despite the fact that the electricity is more erratic than in the USA, surge protectors are hard to come by. Palestinians get their electricity from Israel so the same rules apply.
Some stores, such as grocery stores, department stores, etc. have fixed prices. In the Old City and in some Arab areas there are no prices displayed and you are expected to bargain. The store owner will quote you a high price so you need to counter with a price that is considerably lower. You will go back and forth or even talk about other merchandise or buying several objects until you come to a common price somewhere in the middle.
To prepare yourself, take time to compare stores and quality before bargaining and know in advance what you really are willing to pay for an object. Keep in mind that the merchant also has to make a living. Don’t overlook quality in buying a “bargain.” (For example, cheap pottery will chip faster than better quality.)
Holy Days and Holidays
Jews observe a rest on Saturdays beginning with sundown on Friday and stores and offices are closed. Frequently offices close at noon on Friday. Many buses don’t run on Shabbat. The Shabbat is 25 hours in length and begins with the sound of a siren.
Christians take off on Sundays and most Christians close their stores on that day.
Muslims observe Fridays with noontime attendance at the mosque and some close their stores all or part of the day, although they are not as strict at this as Jews and Christians. It pays to know your merchant’s religious affiliation if you shop Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
Many churches are closed to tourists on Sundays except for worship services and a few, in Jewish locations, are also closed on Saturdays. Muslim sites are closed to non-Muslims on Fridays and Muslim holidays and many Jewish places frown on tourists on Saturdays.
The Jews in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, celebrate many more holidays than Jews in other parts of the world and offices tend to close for long periods of time around major holidays. It is not unusual for people to take a long holiday in the fall from Rosh Ha’shona through Succoth and then again in the spring for the whole of Passover. They celebrate the smaller holidays with days off and there are also closings for national holidays.
The Muslims use a lunar calendar so their holidays change date according to the Western calendar, getting earlier by about eleven days each year. The approximate days can be given in advance but the exact date is known only on the spot as the clerics check the phase of the moon.
Ramadan, which lasts a lunar month, is a time when Muslims do not eat or drink during the day but do so at night. You will hear the Ramadan cannon go off at sunset to tell Muslims when they can break the fast and you might even hear the pre-dawn drums waking the faithful for the last food and drink before sunrise. Ramadan is a very holy month so it is impolite to eat or drink in Muslim areas during the days of Ramadan even if you are not a Muslim. It is also difficult to get taxis in Palestinian areas at sundown during Ramadan since the Muslims are home breaking their fast.
The Western Christians (including Eastern Catholics) and Eastern Christians celebrate many holidays on different dates because of the differences in their calendars. If you are traveling around Christmas or Easter, check the dates and times of services carefully. Smaller festivals affect specific churches or locations.
In the spring, the country goes on Daylight Savings Time. In the early autumn, sometimes in early September, they go back on standard time or “wintertime.” The exact date in fall depends on when Rosh Hashona occurs. Israel and the Palestinian territories often change on different days and Jordan has been known to change on a third date. Services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stay on “wintertime” all year around. If in doubt, check the times of services. The Christian Information Center has this information. Go on to their website at www.CICTS.org