We’re approaching that special time of year in Israel. Remembrance Days followed by Independence Day followed by festivals and more holidays all taking place under the warm sun that Israel basks in throughout the spring season. To all of you reading this column in a sedentary pose, take heed of this timely quote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Penned by Samuel Clements, known better by his pen name Mark Twain, his legacy of quotes and insightful quips are legendary.
Within his most popular book, The Innocents Abroad published in 1869 disguised as a travel book, is actually a droll observation of his travel experiences, most notably his visit to the Holy Land. In more shock than awe of the country, he wrote of a desolate country whose rich soil is given over wholly to weeds. Traversing the country, his impression was of a silent mournful expanse. He was amazed by the small size of Jerusalem, the poverty he encountered, the lack of grandeur surrounding the holy places. He opined that a fast walker could encompass the entire area of the Old City in less than an hour. Nearly 150 years later, he would be wise to follow his own advice: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." This spring will see over half a million tourists visiting Israel with a similar number of Israelis taking advantage of the spring weather and breaks from work to explore every nook and cranny of this country. They’ll find the parks full, the springs flowing, the tourist sites operating at near full capacity and the hotels charging rates that would make a chambermaid blush.
In the spirit of forewarned is forearmed, let me present some tips to avoid becoming an Innocent Abroad.
Keep in mind that flying to Israel has never been cheaper. In fact, the major economic achievement of the last government wasn’t lowering cellphone rates but opening up the skies to and from Israel. Europe was the biggest beneficiary with airlines from Easy Jet to Wizz Air adding flight frequency and destinations at a ferocious rate.
Legacy carriers such as El Al, Air France and Lufthansa created low cost offshoots to compete with these newer upstarts and the flying public has enjoyed airfares at near historic lows. Coupled with the dramatic decrease in airline fuel, even destinations farther away from Europe, such as North America has held their airfares steadfast and in many instances dropped them substantially.
Group rates and individuals have found tremendous savings in their airfares through a wide variety of channels.
Employing methods of online travel sites and travel consultants ensconced in brick & mortar locations, nary is heard any complaints of price gouging when it comes to airline fares.
Just remember to always book enough connection time between flights. Leaving a window of at least an hour and a half between connecting flights will significantly drop your chances of missing your flight or having your luggage left. Having only 45 minutes to connect between flights might seem doable, but it’s often not enough, especially in large airports where the gates could be far apart. Never rely on airlines to do the math; flights can’t be booked unless there’s a minimum connecting time but there’s no guarantee it’s enough time.
Always make sure you know what the next flight is in case you do miss the connection; try very hard to avoid taking the last flight of the day. Many airlines will not pay for an overnight if the missed connection was your fault.
It’s when seeking a place to rest one’s head where the majority of complaints can be found. For years the Israeli Hotel Association has defended its member’s practice of charging rates more suitable for a suite at the Savoy Hotel in London by stating that expenses here are far higher than other similar locales. On one hand when comparing Israeli salaries to Turkey or Greece there is some merit in their argument. It’s when one compares hotels in Eilat to France or Spain and finds them far more expensive that their argument loses its point.
Do expect to pay more if you’re staying in the center of the city, be it Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. However paying more for a hotel that’s in the middle of the action can be a better financial decision in the long run than staying out in the suburbs. While I have nothing against the hotels around Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, I tend to recommend them for groups due to their far lower rate knowing they’ll be on a bus every day then a family who will want to spend more time at night walking in downtown Jerusalem.
Here are seven tips to avoid getting scammed this spring and summer season: 1. Get the facts
All of them. Before you pay for your trip, be it just the airfare or the hotel or the rental car or the entire package; make sure get all the facts about your itinerary and the costs of each aspect of your vacation. The fewer details that are being provided, the more likely it is that you’re getting scammed.2. Protect yourself with travel insurance.
Depending upon your health, your age and if you have an existing condition, travel insurance can run the gamut from very reasonable to what may seem expensive. Most policies don’t only cover visits to doctors or if hospitalized, but also loss or theft of personal items, legal representation if arrested, and trip cancellation. Travel insurance can make the difference between financial crisis and inconvenience.
As my namesake Mark Twain penned, “Never put off tomorrow, what you do the day after tomorrow.”3. Do an independent follow-up
Stop relying on only one source for your information.
There are dozens of sites that can give honest and reliable feedback on an airline or a hotel. I always prefer an informed client rather than one swayed by a picture of a beautiful hotel lobby. It’s great to be adventurous but better to be educated. Even if sites like tripadvisor.com elicits debates regarding the authenticity of guests’ testimonials, the website does allow travelers the opportunity glance at tourist taken photos and a picture is most definitely worth a thousand words.
Okay, you’ve done your homework, gotten the facts, feel confident in your choices and have arrived at your destination.4. Be wary of shady taxi drivers
Most airports have licensed taxi companies who have paid good money to win the exclusive right to an airport. Ben-Gurion Airport is no exception. In fact frequent travelers can often hear the warning coming over the PA system warning arriving passengers to only deal with a licensed cabbie. The ways that unsanctioned cabs take more than their share of money by unscrupulous means are many, including high unstated charges, less than efficient routes and even incorrect change returned. The biggest risk is when your driver suggests turning off the meter and he’ll give you a special rate. If he claims the meter is broken, get out and find another cab. In Tel Aviv the popularity of Uber and Get Taxi has brought rates down and to date have had minimal consumer complaints.5. The tour guide scam
In Jerusalem’s Old City and in Bethlehem, there are many unofficial tour guides lingering around.
They pester tourists with express entry into different churches even when there are no lines and hound you for a history lesson. I highly recommend that you stick with an official tour guide or group since these scammers are almost always up to no good. It’s not that all do-gooders you encounter will want a tip, but sadly the majority will wish to be compensated and saying ‘no’ can prove to be quite unpleasant.6. Eating like a tourist
It sounds straightforward, but try to eat like the locals eat whenever you can, and that means deliberately avoiding the tourist traps. To avoid shelling out cash for lousy food, I always try to chat up the locals, and not necessarily the hotel concierge. Ask regular people, your taxi driver, the waiter at your hotel. You should also be able to tell where locals are eating by the look of a place.
If it’s a place trying to attract the tourists, walk on by.7. Shopping
Do not settle for the first price offered on anything when at the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem or Shuk Hacarmel market in Tel Aviv. This is the Middle East – haggle away.
Israel’s value added tax is at 18 percent, but if you’re a tourist, you can get the tax refunded on many big ticket purchases. Only purchases of more than $100, made at participating stores though are eligible. Make sure you see the “tax refund for tourists” sticker on the store’s front door. A standard receipt though is not enough to ensure your refund, insist they write you out a special tax-refund invoice. If an employee tries to make an excuse as why they can’t provide you with this form, then make sure you lower the price by at least 18%.
To get your money back, visit the tax refund booth at Ben-Gurion Airport departure hall in Terminal 3.
You will need to present both the receipts themselves as well as the items in question, so make sure to keep them in your carry-on baggage.
In concluding, this is a fantastic time to visit the country and enjoy all that she has to offer. The people, the sights, the experiences can and should be repeated time after time.
One final tip to avoid being an innocent abroad from my favorite humorist, Mark Twain: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem For questions & comments, email him at mark.feldman@ ziontours.co.il