Can you travel around Israel on a budget?

by Audrey on February 9, 2014 · 22 comments

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).

The historic centre of Old Jaffa, Israel.

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

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 in Jerusalem.

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 in Nazareth, Israel.

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!

The Gordon Inn in Tel Aviv, Israel.

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.

Day trips

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:

Visiting the West Bank / Palestine.

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.

Getting muddy at the Dead Sea.

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.

Learning about the Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem.

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.)

Walking around Old Jerusalem, Israel.
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.

Food

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.

Middle Eastern food

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).

Transportation

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!

Transportation

Now here’s a look at some of the different ways to get around:

Sherut

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

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.

Train

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.

Have you ever travelled in an expensive destination?

How did you help keep the costs down?

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel of Hippie in Heels February 9, 2014 at 2:13 pm

It’s so funny reading this because Isreal was your shock from Thailand, while Thailand was my shock from India! lol. Granted I went to the popular islands which were a lot higher, but after being in India for a year before, I was baffled at seeing 9 dollar sunscreen and such expensive lodging (15 or so dollar huts). My friends I met in Thailand that had come from the U.S. kept saying “it’s so cheap!” and I’m like “nooo, India is cheap!” to keep costs down, I do like you and try to find somewhere that offers breakfast.
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Audrey February 10, 2014 at 4:43 am

That’s so funny! For me it was the same way with Hong Kong. Prior to flying out to Israel I thought Hong Kong was pretty pricey ($40 for a cramped room in a rundown building – outrageous!), but by the time I flew back I had no problem paying that sum – I actually thought it was a bargain. It’s funny how our perception changes depending on where we are… And I agree, you can’t beat India’s prices!

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MollyG February 9, 2014 at 4:46 pm

As an American who speaks and reads Hebrew with relative ease, I never thought about it before, but I can totally see Israel as being impossible for non-speakers! Not to mention that outside of major cities few people even speak English. It actually reminds me of Thailand, a bit. Not much English on signs there either. Ah, the joys of being an international traveler… Well, I hope the train station people were nice about the missed train at least! (Though, unfortunately, I doubt it…)
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Audrey February 13, 2014 at 4:22 am

It was a bit tricky with the language in the smaller cities and towns, but in the big cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem pretty much everyone spoke English. I think in part this is because they are very international cities – I met many Americans, French, and Brits who had moved to Israel to explore their roots.

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Elora February 9, 2014 at 6:48 pm

Oh, you have won me over. I absolutely have to go to Israel someday, write a book about it or something. It has been something I’ve wanted to do, but seeing your pictures and all the things you shared, I’ve just revving now. Good grief. And I have no idea when I’ll be able to shlep out the door for the airport.
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Audrey February 13, 2014 at 4:23 am

I hope you get to visit soon, Elora! There really is so much to see and do in the country. Even after 2 visits, there are so many places I still want to get to.

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Emily February 10, 2014 at 1:16 am

Interesting post! I’d love to go to Israel and those tours sound neat. I’ve been to the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea and loved it so would definitely go for that again – it is such an unreal experience.
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Audrey February 13, 2014 at 4:24 am

Oh yes! The Dead Sea is a lot of fun! I wouldn’t mind floating the afternoon away with a book in hand right about now. ;)

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Nina February 10, 2014 at 10:05 am

Good advice as always Audrey. I am SOOOO SUPER LUCKY….. I went on my birthright, which is pretty much a free trip to Israel, because my mother raised me Jewish. Yes, very lucky indeed. I only needed a few bucks for lunch and dinner everyday otherwise, my trip was FREE! I want to go back, but I’ll have to wait until I get some more cash! :)
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Audrey February 13, 2014 at 4:27 am

That’s awesome, Nina! That’s a really cool initiative to help people discover their roots. Did you join up with a group of travellers also on their birthright trip, or did you have to travel around solo once you got there? I’m curious as to how a birthright trip works. :)

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Shelley February 10, 2014 at 11:25 am

During our RTW, we actually wound up in Jerusalem the day that Hamas military commander, Jabari, was assassinated. That was pretty intense, with rockets being fired at Jerusalem for the first time and air raid sirens going off in the old city. We’d planned on visiting Tel Aviv, but with situation being as tense as it was, we chose to stick it out Jerusalem. We were able to keep our budget down to $115 for both of us, but we didn’t take any tours and mostly stuck to eating falafels and shwarmas, had a private room at Citadel Youth Hostel for about $50.

We are heading to Scandinavia in a week to see the northern lights, and the price of things there has me in shock. Aside from a safari in the Serengeti, I think it’ll be the most expensive place we’ll have visited.
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Audrey February 13, 2014 at 4:35 am

Yikes, sounds like a really bad time to be there! I’m glad you guys were okay. Also, I’m impressed that you guys were able to keep it down to $115 for the 2 of you – that’s some great budgeting on your part! :)

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Corinne February 10, 2014 at 6:38 pm

Israel might be a little more expensive than some other places to travel, but it was well worth it. It had such a mixture of old world and new world vibe that I just loved! I wish I’d taken the Orthodox tour…sounds great!
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Audrey February 13, 2014 at 4:38 am

I agree! It’s a really fascinating place to visit – there’s so much history everywhere you turn!

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Dariece @GoatsOnTheRoad February 11, 2014 at 6:42 am

Thanks for such a detailed and informative post! That’s somewhere in the Middle East that we would love to visit.

Cooking for yourself is one of the best ways to keep costs down. Also, couch surfing would be good for accommodation.

Cheers :)
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Audrey February 13, 2014 at 4:40 am

After last year’s visit I’m even more intrigued by the Middle East. I’d also love to explore the region more thoroughly, but that’s going to take a lot of saving up. ;)

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Lauren Meshkin February 11, 2014 at 9:48 am

Definitely bookmarking this for future planning. Thank you for all of the amazing tips, Audrey! Also “…free tea and home baked cakes available ALL DAY LONG!” I’M SOLD!

Happy travels :)
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Audrey February 13, 2014 at 4:36 am

Thanks, Lauren! I hope you get to visit soon!!! :)

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Heather February 18, 2014 at 4:38 am

This is interesting, I had no idea Israel was so expensive! Thanks for the money-saving tips!
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Backpacking Panda March 6, 2014 at 5:44 pm

You wrote here some great tips. I didn’t realize that Israel is expensive for travel cause I live there, but I think it’s a special country with intresting history and so many things to do, so it’s worth it. Whenever I travel I really miss the Israeli food. also someone here wrote that almost no one in Israel speaks English and I think he had a bad luck, cause everyone I know speaks English really well, especialy in the big cities!(=
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Ria July 11, 2014 at 5:04 pm

And Palestine?

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Pamela October 15, 2014 at 4:45 am

Hi! I am currently a volunteer at the Fauzi Azar in Nazareth! I’ve found it a great way to travel and save money. Because I am a volunteer, I am also able to do a lot of the Abraham tours for free (provided they’re not full). I’m so glad you enjoyed your stay. Its’ the kind of place you can’t help but fall in love with!

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