Quick Guide to Israel: Visa-free travel for South Africans

2018-06-20 14:08
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Tel Aviv coastline with Israel Flag, Israel

Tel Aviv coastline with Israel Flag, Israel (Photo: iStock)

Politics aside, Israel is one of the of the greatest places to visit on the planet.

From the cosmopolitan bars and beaches of Tel Aviv to the salty waters of the Dead Sea; from multi-coloured sandstone canyons of Makhtesh Ramon to the Jesus Trail taking travellers from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee, from ornate synagogues, the Western Wall and the holy city of Jerusalem to wine-tasting in Golan Heights - Israel is a complex, enigmatic and beautiful nation of contrasts.

Head on down to Israel and be challenged, excited and surprised by this fascinating country in the ancient centre of human civilisation.  

Here's what you need to know if you go:

Visas: Not required for holders of South African passports. A tourist visa, valid for a 3-months stay, will be issued upon entry to Israel. Passports need to be valid for at least 30 days after the return date.

National Carrier: El Al Israel Airlines

Airport Hub: Ben Gurion International Airport

Useful app to download: VISITLV, an app with a comprehensive list of things to see and do in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality.

Flight Route Access: Airlines that service South African travellers heading to Israel include: Ethiopian Airlines, Kiwi International Airlines, Air Sinai, Jet Airways, El Al Israel Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, Air France and Swiss International Airlines.

Flight time: Johannesburg to Tel Aviv: 9 hours. Johannesburg to Eilat: 14 hours.

Currency: Israeli New Shekel

Medical and health: Israel, like many Middle-Eastern countries, should be approached with reasonable caution when it comes to medical care and disease prevention. Beyond the routine vaccinations, you may want to consider some specifically for travel.

You should be up to date on routine vaccinations while travelling to any destination. It is recommended that you also get inoculated against some relatively common medical problems.

Common illnesses experienced by travellers in Israel include heat illness and travellers diarrhoea which is, fortunately, preventable and easily treatable so stay hydrated.

Religion: Israel is a Jewish state, which means the majority of the population practice Judaism. That being said, due in no small part to its complex history, it hosts a substantial Muslim community.  

Travel Adapter: Yes - The power sockets are of type C, D and H. The standard voltage is 230V and the frequency is 50Hz.

Country code: +972

Time Zone: IST (UTC +2), IDT (UTC +3) Israel is 1 hour ahead of South Africa.

Emergencies: Police: 100. Ambulance: 101. Fire: 102.

Public Transport:

Israel by rail

Israel Railways offers travellers a simple, comfortable and convenient way to get around the country. The oldest line on the railway links Tel Aviv with southern Jerusalem making this an effective way to see the country in comfort while still being able to enjoy the scenic surrounds. It is important to note that trains do not run after midday on Fridays until late on Saturday in accordance with Shabbat.

Biking around Israel

A great way to get a real feel of Israel is to bike around. With relatively short distances between the cities, villages and tourist sites. Off-road biking trails are increasingly common in the country as it further embraces environmentally friendly practices.

Tel Aviv has a well-developed network of bike paths so you should find getting around on two wheels in the city to be a breeze. Bicycles can also be safely stowed on intercity buses and trains for no extra charge making this mode of transport even more appealing. That being said, it can be very taxing on your body cycling around in the heat so make sure you plan ahead and stay hydrated.

Minivan taxis or sheruts

Another useful way to get around is on minivan taxis known as sheruts. They are infinitely pliable and very simple to make use of as they have no pre-set stops meaning you can get off practically wherever you want. These sheruts are usually faster than buses and operate on a 24-hour basis except on Shabbat and Jewish holidays when they’re less prevalent. You can hop into the sheruts from any recognised taxi rank.

Israel, a world leader in modern technologies, like the rest of the world, has a number of applications that can make getting around a breeze. You should consider using the  Gett Taxi app which is essentially a cab-hailing application much like Uber if you’re looking for a convenient way of getting around.

Useful App to download: Moovit is the public transit app that can help you get to wherever you want to go.

Climate: The climatic conditions in Israel vary considerably. The coastal areas, including Tel Aviv and Haifa, are marked by typical Mediterranean climates with rainy winters and long, hot summers. The northern areas are semi-arid with hot summers, cooler winters and less rain than is experienced in the Mediterranean areas. The mountainous regions of Israel are typically windy and cold, even experiencing the occasional snowfall.

Best time to go: The best time to go are from June through August as the late spring and autumn period which provides travellers a chance to explore the country in weather that isn't oppressively hot.

Language: The official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic.

Useful phrases to know: Though the urban population of Israel tends to be cosmopolitan and relative well conversant in English, it's never a good idea to assume that people will speak your language. Outside of the tourist centres, you should expect less English to be spoken and as such, it's a good idea to learn a few phrases to ensure that your stay runs smoothly.

Useful app to download: Duolingo (Android, iOS) makes learning a new language easy and fun.

  • Boqer tov (Good day/morning)

  • Erev tov (Good evening)

  • Shalom (Hello)

  • Lehitra'ot (Goodbye).

  • Mi nombre es… (My name is…)

  • Hen (Yes)

  • No / lo (No)

  • Cama ze oleh? (How much does this cost?)

  • Toda (Thank you)

  • Yofi (Beautiful)

  • Sababa (Cool, alright)

  • Yalla (Let’s go)

  • Yesh! (Yay!)

  • Eizeh derech la...? (Which way to the...?)

  • l'chayiym! (Cheers!)

Practical Tips:

  • Don’t be afraid to bargain when visiting the markets of Israel. It’s expected practice and in prohibitively expensive Israel, saving a few shekels is a great idea. Don’t be a sucker - haggle.
  • Try not to be offended by the brusque manner and disposition of the Israeli people. It is useful to think of cactus fruit, or sabra, when attempting to characterise the Israeli people - curt and gruff on the outside but warm and friendly once you peel back the layers.
  • To expand on the above point, the Israelis value directness and honesty over politeness and the projection of niceness. When Israelis ask you direct, personal questions - do not be offended. They are just being open and honest. You should reciprocate.
  • There is a line when it comes to honesty and directness however and that line is politics. The political situation is complex, to put it mildly. It's better to avoid expressing an opinion on the conflict unless your comment is explicitly sought out.
  • You may be familiar with the notion of ‘African time’ well it seems that Israel is equally averse to punctuality. Being on time for social events is not seen as being a major issue so expect anything you plan with Israelis to start 30 minutes later than the stated time.
  • Expect to come home from a night out with your hair and clothing smelling like an ashtray. Israelis smoke a lot. From cigarettes to nargillah (or shisha) to marijuana (which has recently been decriminalised) - expect a lot of smoking.
  • Evidencing the contrast of this fascinating country, the liberal tendencies are reserved for certain times and specific places. This is most evidenced in the religious sphere. When you’re in Jerusalem and other holy spaces, make sure to dress modestly. That means covering legs, arms and shoulders.
  • Every week, from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset the Jewish Sabbath is observed. Israel quiets down and activity crawls to a near standstill. It is best to do as the locals do and avoid driving around or causing a commotion of any kind.
  • To get an authentic experience of the main city areas, walk around on foot. Pack good, comfortable walking shoes and a light rain jacket and pack a warm sweater.

Top attractions in Israel: 

A trip to Israel would not be complete without a visit to the vibrant, cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv. With year-round great weather, you'll have plenty of time to chill on the great stretches of golden beaches, meander through colorful and fragrant markets, find inspiration in the artistic and cultural scene or just eat and drink up as you enjoy the fantastic culinary and nightlife this city has on offer.

The lively “Capital of the North”, Haifa is Israel’s third largest city and by far one of its most exciting. Oft considered to be a benchmark for Arab and Jewish coexistence, this coastal city is rich with cultural diversity. With excellent beaches and awe-inspiring attractions such as the must-see Bahá'í World Centre, you won't lack for great experiences here. 

This holy city is an open invitation for travellers to go on a journey. This city is one of the most sacred in the world for the major Abrahamic religions of the world and is a fascinating space to see how that history is manifest in the present. Whether spiritual or physical or some combination thereof, this ancient city radiates with a hallowed spiritual essence. With hikes and mountains to climb, major religious sites to see and markets to peruse this city is a near unparalleled sensory experience.  

Head to the lowest point on earth and feel your stress and anxieties escape your body as you literally float on the surface of one of nature's most fascinating marvels. Utterly devoid of life and marked by extreme salinity this is a very cleansing place for the body and mind. So relax a bit, float in the water and maybe have a mud bath, its all possible by the Dead Sea.