In Israel, Independent Tourists Look for Cheaper Solutions

Unlike tour groups, independent travelers don't have the power to command discounts from hotels and airlines. But even with creative budgeting, they are shocked at Israel's high cost of living.

Tourists sunbathe on the beach in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat.
Tourists sunbathe on the beach in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat. Credit: Reuters

When Chase (Charles) Leamy landed in Israel from Philadelphia, his Israeli friends warned him to forget everything he knew about shopping. Prices in Israel are more of a recommendation than a fact, they explained. Bargaining is okay.

One morning, while strolling down the upscale part of Dizengoff Street, he decided to take that recommendation. “I saw a shirt I loved in the window,” he says, but it was marked 425 shekels — more than $100. He told the salesman it was over his budget. He got a discount, Leamy says, smiling.

In the United States, you pay the price on the tag or you don’t buy. There can be exceptions, notes Leamy, but that’s the rule.

A few days later he repeated his coup in the Old City of Jerusalem. Strolling around the Christian quarter, he saw a ring with a blessing from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The shop demanded $300.

Leamy haggled, even using the old trick of walking out of the store. He got it for $130, he says — though even with that he knew perfectly well he was being reamed.

Leamy came to Israel solo, not in a group or organized tour. He booked his flights, hotel and the rest himself, so he was beholden to nobody. It isn’t that he had a mad yen to trek to the Holy Land — he came for a friend’s wedding.

According to a 2014 survey by the Tourism Ministry, the profile of tourists to Israel has been changing. More and more are like Leamy, coming by themselves. Last year 66% of tourists were independent, compared with 33% in 2010 (the rest come with tour groups). It’s not a coincidence.

The Tourism Ministry very much encourages independent tourists, partly because they’re the first to return after wars and other unrest (like the Gaza conflict last year). Organized tourism companies are more jumpy.

But like anybody else, the independent tourist seeks ways to save money. Unlike organized groups, he doesn’t have buying power. A pilgrim group coming to a hotel, for instance, gets a discount by booking a lot of rooms. The independent tourist has to pay full price.

Henry Jakubowicz, owner of iBookIsrael, says tourists who pick Israel have emotional motives. A lot of Jews come to visit family; a lot of Christians want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. And others come for Gay Pride week.

But, adds Yaron Burgin of the Abraham Hostels in Jerusalem, low-cost travel has brought a new kind of tourist to Israel, almost all of whom are independents. “Anybody flying low-cost isn’t about to spend $250 a night on a hotel room,” he says. If he could afford that, he could afford a better flight, Burgin notes.

Hitting the pubs

Leamy opted to stay with friends and forgo a hotel. The flight set him back $1,300 and he gave himself a daily budget of $150 for everything including meals, clothes and gifts. He ate at cafes and restaurants, nothing fancy, and went out to pubs every night.

His biggest cost during the trip was food and drink. One night he paid 180 shekels for two beers and two shots at a pub. But Leamy isn’t complaining, saying that some of the food was the best he’d ever eaten — not least the malabi, a Middle Eastern rice-based pudding not to everybody’s taste.

He also enjoyed the Tel Aviv nightlife and had nothing but praise for the city’s public transportation. Trains are reasonably priced, he adds; taxis cost about as much as in Philadelphia, maybe a bit less.

Meanwhile, take Asa and Daniel Assarsson, a Swedish couple in Tel Aviv for the weekend. They booked a room at the Norman, a boutique hotel considered one of the most expensive in the city, for a spontaneous weekend trip to mark their 10th anniversary. The hotel cost $500 a night.

The breakfast at the Norman cost them 600 shekels — more than $150. That was a shocker. The Assarssons generously note that all big cities are expensive.

Israel’s cost of living is high, and it’s expensive for tourists as well. Jenny, who hails from the United States, visited two shopping areas in Tel Aviv, Sarona and the renovated Old Train Station, and came out empty-handed.

At prices like these she isn’t even willing to break out her wallet, Jenny says, adding: “I don’t understand how you live here and pay these prices.”

Abraham, a tourist from South Africa, compares the menus in Tel Aviv bars to those at home and claims the numbers are the same — but the currency is different, rand to shekel. So prices here are basically three times higher.

According to the World Economic Forum, an Israeli vacation is the sixth-costliest in the world. Hotel prices rank 19th in the world, averaging $201 a night per person. Japan, for instance, ranks 67th, averaging $123 per person per night. The United States is 74th at an average of $115.

Amir Halevy, director general of the Tourism Ministry, says that tourists pay double the price in Israel compared to Europe. Tour organizers will have to lower prices, he says.

Falafel and Cofix

Food prices are a key issue for tourists, says Burgin — they complain a lot about that. “Even street food that used to be cheap here isn’t cheap anymore,” he says. “You can’t find a hot lunch for less than 30 shekels. A lot of tourists find themselves eating falafel day after day.”

Some have discovered Cofix, a chain that offers everything it sells, from coffee to sandwiches to cake and ice cream, for a flat five shekels. But if in Europe a liter of beer costs 3.5 euros, here it sets you back 6.4 euros, which is a problem, Burgin says — on holiday, people like to drink.

People don’t come to Israel for months on end, as they might to India, for instance. They come and go, as in Europe. But lower-cost accommodation in Israel, for 70 or 80 euros a night for a double room, isn’t as good as in Europe, says Burgin.

Still, Burgin believes that when people visit Israel, they’re generally pleasantly surprised, not expecting to find a modern country, even if costs more than they thought it would.

Airbnb data for 2014 show that 115,000 of the 2.9 million tourists who visited Israel that year (4%) used its rooms, which tend to be cheaper than hotels. This year the figure is expected to be up 50%, so the trend is clear: The independent tourist is looking for cheaper solutions. But then the tourists go into shock when the enter the grocery store, says Jakubowicz.

Another issue is the potential need for a guide. In Israel, touring the country may not be so simple as renting a car and hitting the road.

“Tourists don’t know how you get to Bethlehem, how you pass the army’s checkpoint, where they can go,” Jakubowicz says. “They hear about missiles falling in Ashdod and Ashkelon, and ask if these are cities in the territories. In Rome you can walk around alone but in the Old City of Jerusalem it’s better to have a guide.”

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