Traveling to Israel Is Easier Than Ever, Traveling Inside Israel Is Another Story

Public transportation isn’t available on Shabbat, information is only available in Hebrew, tourists cannot find their way

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Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport.
Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Israel hosted a record of more than 2 million tourists in the first half this year, a number boosted by more flights and cheaper airfares. But once they arrive, visitors face the same traffic as Israelis do and have to cope with a public transportation system that is tourist-unfriendly.

Visitors have to cope with an absence of English-language instructions and the inability to buy tickets in advance. Many of Israel’s historic sites and national parks are only accessible by car and car rentals can often be difficult and expensive. Many tourists are rudely surprised to learn that there’s nearly no public transportation at all on Shabbat.

“The lack of public transportation for tourists is crazy. The country is celebrating our three-millionth tourist and the transportation system doesn’t work for them and doesn’t speak their language – it even ignores them. It hurts them and it hurts us,” said Yossi Saidov, a founder of the mass transit advocacy group 15 Minutes.

The inconveniences can seem minor, but for a visitor to Israel, they can make or break the trip.

For instance, the Transportation Ministry doesn’t allow bus companies to sell tickets in advance online, which makes it impossible for visitors to arrange an itinerary in advance. The one exception is Egged routes between Uvda Airport and Eilat during the resort town’s tourist season.

In theory, Egged can also sell tickets from Eilat to elsewhere in Israel, but a user trying to order them will find the offerings only in Hebrew, not in English.

The website for Rav-Card, which Israelis use for usually weekly and monthly passes, is in Hebrew only and demands personal details, like an identify card number, that tourists don’t have. Riders can buy a Rav-Card from a bus driver but not the weekly- or monthly-pass version, which is much cheaper.

In any case, bus drivers no longer sell tickets of any kind, including single-ride tickets, to passengers in a pilot program now underway in Jerusalem that will probably be expanded nationwide later. That leaves many tourists stranded.

The Transport Ministry official website of travel times and prices is in Hebrew. A tourist’s only option is use to use a help line the ministry operates.

Of the bus companies, Metropoline’s site is exclusively in Hebrew and while Dan has some English, search results often only bring up Hebrew results. Dan said it was working to fix the problem. Metroline declined to respond.

Israel offers little public transportation to historic and religious sites. Even the Western Wall in Jerusalem is only served by two bus lines and they run through ultra-orthodox neighborhoods. Other parts of the city have no direct lines. The same obstacle applies to the Biblical Zoo, which is one of the city’s five-top tourist destinations.

But perhaps the most serious problem is the absence of any public transportation at all from Friday afternoon until sundown Saturday. That leaves many tourists stranded at their hotels or, worse, finding themselves take advantage of by taxi drivers.

“Many tourists arrive in Israel without doing any research beforehand and are surprised to find out that there are no trains or businesses on the weekend and that it’s almost impossible to get to the airport and back except by taxi,” said Alon Spitzer, manager of the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv.

That puts hotels in the difficult business of finding transportation solutions for their guests – and even that sometime fails.

Spitzer recalled the story of a Belgian tourist that arranged for the hotel to pre-pay a taxi that would pick her up from Ben-Gurion Airport. When she left the arrivals terminals, another cab driver approached her and falsely claimed he had an arrangement with the hotel and would take her.

Along the way he charged her an extra 200 shekels ($55) as a “weekend surcharge” but said the hotel would repay her for it.

Not surprisingly surveys of tourists conducted by the Tourism Ministry give routinely show low grade for transportation services in Israel, usually scoring under four on a scale of 1-5.

The situation in Tel Aviv is better for tourists, partly because the city is more compact than Jerusalem and many sites can be reached by foot. In addition, the city offers bike rentals and jitneys. However, said Meital Lehavi, deputy mayor responsible for transportation, “the moment they lave Tel Aviv, tourists are trapped – both at night and on weekend – unless they have private transportation or a rental car.”

In response, the Transportation Ministry said it had set up a Rav-Card facility at Ben-Gurion International Airport for tourists and said the card can be refilled online or at machines around the country.

It said it was also working to improve English-language offerings and is working together with the Tourism Ministry to improve public transportation to tourist sites and national parks.

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