Many people who travel to Israel do so for a vacation, to see a few sights, eat some food and head back to the hotel.
My trip was more complicated. Having not been there since the 1980s, I headed in December of 2016 to a journalism conference in Jerusalem, followed by a drive to the Sea of Galilee area for some reporting. It was the best trip ever. I learned a lot, including some things that absolutely everyone who is thinking about traveling to Israel must know. Here’s half-a-chai’s worth. (Is that a thing? Can it be a thing?)
Nine things to know:
- GPS. When your GPS tries to send you on a “shorter route” through the West Bank, don’t accept it. Be aware of where the West Bank is if you’re inexperienced in Israel, while renting a car and driving yourself.
- Malls. Everyone will tell you Mamilla Mall is the place for shopping in Jerusalem, which is absolutely true if you live in Israel and you want to shop in their version of the Gap and Banana Republic. If you’re looking for cheesy mementos and even elegant Jewish-themed gifts, Ben Yehuda Street is a better bet. Don’t fall for the Mamilla myth.
- Bumper cars. Just be aware of this and stick up for yourself as needed. Israelis in the city hit the gas like a Chicago Uber driver on a bad day. At one point, a taxi took me on quite a long trip down a major Jerusalem road. In reverse. In the leisurely north, by the Sea of Galilee, they’ll stop their cars in the middle of the road to have a chat. Don’t panic – they know you’re waiting behind them and will eventually move along. Eventually.
- Curvy driving. Roads are not always a straight shot around there. Things can get curvy, twisty and turny. If Dramamine is your friend for flights, consider extending your friendship with the happy pill into other parts of your trip. After a bus took a curvy route from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to shave off a few minutes of driving in traffic, I asked for a better route on the way back.
- English. There’s a lot of really impressive English speaking in Israel. There are exceptions, but you can get by. That I knew the Russian word for “thank you” actually came in more handy, after a Russian market owner let me take pictures.
- Cell phone money trap. This is boring and annoying but you must think about it. Turn off cellular data roaming before you land in Israel. If you leave cellular data roaming on in your phone settings, you could be charged in Israel for apps connecting with cellular networks without you even knowing about it. You’ll know about it when you get the bill for international roaming. You can turn off cellular data roaming and still use WiFi in Israel while at your hotel, etc.
- Cell phone use. You want more than hotel WiFi? Call your cell phone provider (like AT&T or whatever) and ask them how much their international plan costs or if they will allow you to rent a SIM card for your phone (some providers block them). If their international plan is a good deal, use that. If they’ll let you rent a SIM card, that can be a cheaper option than the international plan. You might not think your slim lil’ phone takes a SIM card, but there is a hidden slot – Google it for a tour!
- WiFi bubble. If your international plan is not cheap and your provider won’t let you temporarily replace their SIM card in your phone, you can do what I did. I rented a WiFi device that created a bubble of WiFi around it, which I kept in my pocket. Then, my phone connected to that WiFi. I rented from nesmobile.com, which also offers SIM cards. The signal on their mobile WiFi device came in strong and other journalists at the conference were, frankly, delightfully jealous.
- Cultural differences. Be aware. Israelis are big on lunch. Eating lunch matters. And in the Midwest, if you say, “I think I might want a different falafel,” that means you hate the falafel and you’re done with it. You’re ready to throw it against a wall. In Israel, it just means you think you might want a different falafel.
Rob Golub is editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.