Although this winter was not very cold in our home-town, Cluj, we still felt the need to spoil ourselves with sunshine on Mediterranean lands, after two months of Romanian winter. The Mediterranean areas have a special charm, we really liked our previous trips there, in Malta, Cyprus and Italy, so this time we decided to explore a new side of these sunny states, by walking timidly but enthusiastically from the European culture to the edge of Asia. It was a first time for both of us, so we marked on the map some important sights to see, checked the weather and went on with it, without much knowledge about tourism in Israel, but with our hearts and minds open for new discoveries and dear memories.
How to Get to Israel
From our city, there are two low-cost airlines operating flights to Tel Aviv. We chose WizzAir, which had slightly lower prices than its competition. Due to the fact that the airplane took off at 6:05 AM, we got to the airport sleepy but happy, ready to discover a new and wonderful destination. The good part was that we were able to see the sunrise closely. 🙂
Early in the morning, the airports are very busy, it’s the time frame with the most flights, so if you have an early flight we recommend you to get to the airport with time to spare, especially if you have to check in your luggage or if you have not checked in online, to be sure that you have enough time for all the formalities and the security check. The flight took about 2 hours and 40 minutes. During the last part of the flight, when entering the Israeli airspace, that is about 15 to 20 minutes before landing, you have to keep your seat belt fastened and remain seated, it’s a security rule against terrorism. So take this into account, use the bathroom or get things from the cabin bag in due time if you have to. Our flight went very well – we landed on time on the Ben Gurion airport, at a secondary terminal, from which we were taken by bus to the main building, where the security check followed.
The Security Check at the Airport in Israel
We have heard from several people who went to Israel before us that they had to wait a lot for the security verification at the airport, that there are long queues and the control is very thorough and… “intrusive”. So we had in mind the image of all our stuff being taken out of our bags, being analyzed and questioned, asked what we had for breakfast and what our ancestors were doing. 🙂 But, because we wanted so much to visit a wonderful country, a new and fascinating culture for us, this snag was just a step towards a great adventure. Indeed, there were many people waiting at the security check when we arrived, all the passengers from 2 or 3 planes, including organized groups which were herded by guides and pushed into the crowd. We armed ourselves with patience and focused on what was going to come after we crossed this point and not on the very mixed crowd and on the counters that seemed to be a mile away. Soon enough, the line started to move faster and much sooner than we though we got in the front, at the window. The young lady officer from there was very nice, she checked each page of our passports, asked us what was the purpose of our visit to Israel, if it is our first time there, where will we stay and for how long, if we are planning on going to other cities and… that’s about it. At the end of the questioning we even asked for an advice about a touristical matter and she answered politely, but… maybe this is not the best place to do that. 🙂 To prove that we have accommodation, we had copies of our Airbnb reservation and we recommend this website to you too, because the prices for hotels in Tel Aviv are much higher. After the security interview, we got blue cards with our pictures and personal data, arrival date, the time we were allowed to be in Israel (3 months) and the mention that we do not have permission to work. This card replaces a visa and you must carry it with youat all times, next to the passport, during your stay there.
After finishing with security, we exited the airport and tried to figure out how to get to the city. We soon found out that our options were very limited, because… it was Saturday.
The Sabbath in Israel
In the Jewish religion, Saturday is the holy day and the last day of the week, and the work week is from Sunday to Thursday. So, the weekend days are Friday and Saturday, most of the shops are closing on Thursday evening or Friday morning. The Sabbath starts on Friday after sunset and lasts until Saturday evening. During this time, all the government companies, including public transportation, are closed. Also, the businesses run by practicing Jews start working again on Saturday evening or, more often, on Sunday morning. So, if you get to Israel on Saturday morning, like us, the situation is… complicated. Of course, the places owned by non-practicing Jews or by people of other religions are open, but they are few. After learning this from a security guard at the airport and learning that we can get to the city, which is located more than 20 km away, only by taxi, we got over our first taste of cultural shock and started searching for a currency exchange.
Money in Israel
The official currency in Israel is the shekel (NIS). One shekel is about $0.3, depending on the exchange rate. Do not expect to find shekels at the banks or exchange offices in your country, only very rarely, at a bad rate. If you are visiting Israel, go there with dollars or euros and change them upon arrival. Also, just to be safe, it is recommended to have some money on your credit card. At the airport we found only one exchange office and of course it had a bad exchange rate and it was also charging an additional fee, so we only changed the amount needed to get to the city. Make sure you have enough money on you – the prices there are higher than in Europe, especially for groceries – the agriculture in Israel is massively subsidized, the water for irrigation comes from desalinated sea water which is expensive and the taxes on imports are high.
How to Get from the Airport to Tel Aviv
From Sunday to Thursday there are many transportation options that connect the airport to the city – trains and buses, but on Saturday taxis are the only choice. Inside the airport building, right next to the exchange office, is a machine where you can type the place you want to go, the number of people and the luggage, and it issues a ticket with the approximate price of the trip, which you then hand to the taxi driver, in the station located in front of the building. When we were there, the device was not giving any tickets, probably being out of paper, but there was a person doing the same job in the taxi stand outside. It is a good idea to look for other people who are going to the city and split the fare. We found a nice American woman who lived in Israel for several years and we shared the ride. For 3 people and a few bags, the total price was 180 shekels – very expensive, but this was just our first shock regarding prices. On the way, our travelling partner and the taxi driver recommended us different places to see and we told them about Romania.
Our Israeli adventure will continue in the next article, where we will tell you about the ancient Jaffa port – a fascinating melange of times and cultures.