Ahh, the question every potential traveler to Israel wants to know – can you travel around Israel on a budget?
Hopping from Asia to Israel last fall was like a slap to the face. Before arriving I knew the prices would be a lot higher than what I had become accustomed to in places like Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, however, I still experienced sticker shock.
The prices in Jerusalem where on par with what you would expect to pay in Scandinavia (exorbitant!), and in places like Tel Aviv they were closer to what you’d pay in Western Europe or North America (not cheap).
I think the key to travelling around Israel on a budget is coming to terms with the fact that you are going to have to dish out more cash than you would on the average trip, and then trying to be wise with your shekels and stretching them as much as possible.
My daily budget in Israel was anywhere between $75-150 USD per day (depending on whether I was doing any tours).
Here’s a little rundown of what a trip like mine might cost you:
Accommodations will be, by far, the biggest expense of the whole trip. I stayed in a mixture of hostels, inns and hotels, and I was fortunate enough that all of these places had breakfast included – one less meal to pay for.
If you’re passing through Jerusalem, Nazareth or Tel Aviv, here are some places to consider:
Abraham Hostel, Jerusalem
What I loved about this hostel is that it wasn’t just a place for twenty-something backpackers. There were young adults travelling with their parents, families travelling with young children, and even seniors touring the Holy Land. All of them were looking for a budget friendly option in the city, and this resulted in a really cool communal feel that felt like a big international family.
Abraham Hostel had a range of rooms from dorms to family rooms to private rooms. To give you a better idea of the rates, it was 79 ILS ($22 USD) for a bed in a 10 people dorm, 290 ILS ($82 USD) for an economy double room, and 580 ILS ($164 USD) for a 5 bed family room. I assure you that in Jerusalem, that is a bargain!!! And if that were not enough, Abraham Hostel was also recently voted the 5th best extra-large hostel in the world!
It’s worth noting that Abraham Hostel also offers free accommodations if you are willing to volunteer for a minimum of 6 weeks. If you’re planning on an extended stay in Jerusalem and you can offer 5-6 hours a day for 5 days a week, that could really cut down your accommodation costs.
Fauzi Azar Inn, Nazareth
The Fauzi Azar Inn was one of the most unique places I have ever stayed in. This 200 year old Arab mansion located in the heart of the Old City of Nazareth made my stay in the city all the more special. The setting was perfectly serene and there were days when I just wanted to sit in the garden listening to the trickle of the water fountain with a novel in hand. The place had a very homey feel, and this was further accentuated by the free tea and home baked cakes available ALL DAY LONG!
You might think you can’t afford to stay at a fancy mansion if you’re on a budget, but Fauzi Azar Inn catered to all budgets with both private rooms and dorm rooms. Room rates ranged from 90 ILS ($25 USD) for a bed in a 10 person dorm to 330 ILS ($93 USD) for a private double room. So there you have, you can stay at a mansion and not break the bank!
Gordon Inn, Tel Aviv
This little place really turned out to be a gem of a find. It was located in a residential neighbourhood that was outside the city centre, yet it was conveniently 2 blocks away from the beach – score!
Its location meant I could easily take the public bus into town in the mornings and then spend my afternoon sunning on the Mediterranean.
The rooms where very light and breezy, all the linens and the furnishings were white, and they also had a little mini-fridge which meant I was able to do some groceries down the street and buy a few items for a do-it-yourself meal (fresh bread, cheese, deli meats, and a few ice cold beers for the boys).
The Gordon Inn was also a really short walk to one of my favourite restaurants in town – Café Hilinka. Just when I was starting to think that Israeli food was all the same, this little café surprised me with its modern twist on classic dishes. Want a grilled cheese sandwich? How about a grilled goat cheese sandwich with sun-dried tomatoes and pesto instead? I visited this place several times during my stay.
Overall, at 300 ILS ($85 USD) a night for a double room with a private en suite or 85 ILS ($24 USD) for a bed in a 7 person dorm, I thought the Gordon Inn was a bargain for a city like Tel Aviv.
While in Israel the majority of my sightseeing was done with Abraham Tours. I wanted to make the most of my 10 days in the country, so having an experienced driver and guide to take me around and explain the significance of the places I was visiting made a lot of sense.
I took several tours while I was there, but I wanted to highlight some of my favourites and also show you that you can do them on a budget:
Best of the West Bank Tour - Price: 360 ILS ($100 USD)
While it’s impossible to even begin to comprehend the complexities of the West Bank/Palestine on a 1 day tour, I felt it was important to go and see it for myself.
One of my fondest memories from the day was walking through a local neighbourhood right by the dividing wall – my dad was with me and he somehow ended up befriending a Palestinian man along the way. Neither really spoke the other’s language, yet something happened; they stopped to shake hands, said their names and their place of origin (Argentina and Palestine), and they warmly smiled at each other. I know it sounds so simple, but their handshake was one of acknowledgement and acceptance. It was a handshake that said ‘I know you’re here on the other side, you are not forgotten’, and one that echoed ‘thank you for visiting and trying to understand’.
What I took away from the trip wasn’t a political agenda, rather a small glimpse at a very warm and welcoming people.
Dead Sea Chill Out Tour - Price: 150 ILS ($42.50 USD)
I honestly felt like a pretty lucky girl because this was my 3rd time venturing to the Dead Sea in the span of 2 months. My first time I visited at Mineral Beach on the Israeli side, the second time I got to take a dip on the Jordanian side at the Kempinski Ishtar, and the third time I got to visit another private beach that trumped the 2 former ones with the amount of black mud all around. Like the name suggests, this was a very relaxed tour and we finished the day off at sunset with cups of mint tea and sweet dates in hand.
Meet the Orthodox Jews - Price: 130 ILS ($37 USD)
I know this sounds like a rather unusual name for a tour; I too was a bit perplexed by it – “Umm, what kind of setting are we doing this in?” – but it was a lot more casual than it sounds. Basically, this tour was an opportunity to learn about the cultural and religious diversity of the Orthodox Jews.
We were met my a member of the local Orthodox community in Jerusalem, and together we set out to explore the neighbourhood while learning a little bit about their lifestyle along the way.
We stopped at a synagogue, visited a bakery and learned about kosher cooking, we went to a Hasidic library for a look at Jewish texts and artifacts, and then we finished off the day at our guide’s home, where we enjoyed a beverage while she talked about family roles, the community, and her people’s legacy. It was a bit unusual in the sense that it’s not your average sightseeing tour, but I appreciated the opportunity to ask lots of questions along the way (because I had lots!)
For someone like me who knew very little about the Orthodox Jews and their belief system, this was a really interesting way to spend the evening.
For a look at some of the other day trip options around Israel, you can click here.
Free walking tours
Walking tours are a great way to get to know a new city, and when they’re free it’s all the better! (Of course, technically you are expected to give your guide a little tip at the end of the day, however, this sum is at your own discretion.)
In Jerusalem I joined a free walking tour that guided us through the Old City. Aside from this being a great way to get better acquainted with the maze that is the ‘Old City of David’, it was also an opportunity to learn about the historical and religious significance of each place I visited. Considering the Old City is divided into 4 different quarters (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian), you can imagine that there are many variations when it comes to the stories behind each site. Overall, it was a really informative tour and like I said, free!
If a walking tour isn’t available in the city you are visiting, you can easily create your own. All you need to do is pick up a good map (these are often free at your guesthouse), choose a few places that interest you, and set out for a day of wandering and exploring.
When it comes to dining, I found that eating out was relatively affordable depending on the type of cuisine. I opted for small restaurants specializing in Middle Eastern food, however, if you’re in the mood for international flavours, that’s going to cost you a little more.
My idea of a budget lunch included a mix of the following: homemade hummus with fresh pita (a must when in the Middle East!), tabbouleh (a refreshing salad made with tomatoes, parsley, bulgur, mint, onions, garlic, and lemon juice), shakshouka with a loaf of bread (a nice dip of tomato sauce with eggs cooked overtop), or a pita wrap with falafel. For dessert I usually opted for a plate of knaffe (a cheese pastry soaked in sweet syrup), or malabi (a sweet milk pudding).
This usually kept my meal anywhere between 25-42 ILS ($7-12 USD).
What you need to keep in mind before you even start thinking about transportation in Israel is that the Sabbath plays a very important role here, and that means certain modes of transportation completely shut down when the sun begins to go down on a Friday afternoon.
If you’re catching a flight Friday night or Saturday morning, don’t take your chances thinking you might be able to flag a cab down on the street. Book your transportation ahead of time!
Now here’s a look at some of the different ways to get around:
The sherut is a large minivan that acts as a shared taxi. You can take it within a city (where it acts a lot like a public bus but on a smaller scale), from city to city (which is a lot cheaper than taking a taxi), or you can catch them from the airport into Jerusalem. The nice thing about taking a sherut is that it doesn’t just stop at designated bus stops; you can literally hail it down anywhere in town and if the driver has room he will stop for you.
Taxis were not cheap, however, since I was travelling with Sam and both my parents, it was easier on the wallet because we were splitting the costs. Just to give you an idea of the rates you can expect to pay, a taxi ride from Nazareth to Tel Aviv can cost upwards of 500 ILS ($140 USD), and that’s for a ride that is just a little over an hour. Taking the taxis within Jerusalem also proved to be quite pricey. We usually ended up paying over 100 ILS (around $30 USD) to get across town, which meant we actually ended up walking a lot.
The train is very modern and effective, however, it was a tricky mode of transportation to navigate as a foreigner since hardly anything was printed in English. I remember trying to catch the train to the airport in Tel Aviv and my ticket was printed in Hebrew and all the signs at the station were also in Hebrew. I had to ask for help several times to even find the right platform and even so I ended up missing my train. If you go with this option, just give yourself plenty of time to find your way around.
These are just some of the methods I used to get around Israel. For more information on transportation around Israel, you can click here.
So to sum things up:
- Choose a hotel where breakfast is included in the price.
- Keep in mind that even nicer inns and guesthouses may have budget rooms in the form of dorms (like that 200 year old mansion did!) Also, consider staying outside the center of town.
- Join free walking tours whenever possible (but still leave a tip at the end).
- Be willing to splurge on a few day trips that interest you. You came all the way here, so you should get to visit the places you’ve been dreaming about!
- Eat what the locals are eating. The local cuisine is always going to be cheaper than international fare.
- Opt for shared or public transport whenever possible.