The Hebrew word for a native-born Israeli is sabra, which literally refers to a prickly cactus with sweet fruit inside. You'll meet the sweet Israeli if you get lost or have automotive difficulties—helping hands are quick to arrive—but behind the wheel, Israelis are prickly, aggressive, and honk their horns far more than their Western counterparts. Try not to take it personally.
Some travelers will feel more comfortable hiring a driver, and there are plenty of ways to find someone reliable. Ask for recommendations at your hotel. Every hotel has taxi drivers that serve their guests and most are familiar with all parts of the country and will be happy to quote you a daily rate. For one day, the rate should be around NIS 800.
Israel's highways are numbered, but most people still know them simply by the towns they connect: the Tiberias-Nazareth Road, for example. Intersections and turnoffs are similarly indicated, as in "the Eilat Junction." Orange signs indicate tourist sites; national parks signs are on brown wood.
In Israel, streets are generally named after famous people or events, meaning that almost every community has a Herzl Street and a Six-Day War Street. Don't worry about the "boulevard" or "alley" attached to many street names—Israelis just use the proper name. You won't find a Jabotinsky Street and a Jabotinsky Alley in the same city. What you might encounter is a street that will change names after a couple of blocks. Street numbers follow the standard format, with odd numbers on one side and even numbers on the other. Larger apartment buildings often have several entrances marked by the first three or four letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
If you know history, you'll have an easier time finding your way around Jerusalem's neighborhoods. In Baka the streets are named after the biblical tribes, in Rehavia they're medieval Jewish scholars, and in Old Katamon the brigades who fought in Israel's War of Independence are honored with street names.
There are four towns in Israel that have functioning Old Cities dating from either biblical times (Jerusalem), the Crusader period (Akko and Jaffa), or the Middle Ages (Tzfat). Streets and alleys in these areas have names, but often not numbers.
Gas stations are to be found at regular intervals along the country's major highways, except in the Negev. On highways they're generally always open, while those in the city tend to close at midnight. Prices are standardized, so it doesn't matter which station you choose. Most offer both full- and self-service pumps. If you go the full-service route, ask for a kabbalah (receipt). Attendants do not expect to be tipped. Most rental cars take unleaded gas, which at the time of this writing costs NIS 6.40 per liter. Most stations accept international credit cards.
In Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, parking laws are stringently enforced. Expect a ticket of NIS 150 on your windshield if you've overstayed your welcome at a paid parking spot. Cars will be towed if parked in a no-parking zone. Pay attention to the curb, as parking is forbidden where it is painted red. In downtown areas, parking is permitted only where there are blue and white stripes on the curb or where there are meters. Meters cost NIS 4.60 per hour and accept 5, 2, and 1 shekel coins. Pay-and-display cards may also be used and are for sale at post offices, kiosks, and lottery booths.
Sound complicated? Stick to parking lots. Covered and open parking lots are plentiful in the major cities, and cost around NIS 15 per hour or NIS 70 per day.
In Jerusalem, a combination of walking and taking cabs or a guide-driven tourist limo-van is often more time effective—and, in the case of the former, more cost effective—than a rental car. This has become especially true of late with the increase in traffic and the confusion caused by road construction. Exceptions are the more distant West Jerusalem sights and panoramic overlooks, which have plenty of free parking. On the east side, a rental car is often more of a bother than a boon, and cabs are the way to go. If you plan on heading north to the Golan or Upper Galilee, a rental car will be a significant time-saver over bus travel.
Rental rates in Israel start at around $50 per day and $200 per week for an economy car with unlimited mileage. The cars here are generally smaller than similar American models. Minivans and four-wheel-drive vehicles are very popular and should be reserved well in advance, especially during high season. Allow plenty of time to pick up and drop off your vehicle if you're renting from a city office.
Drivers must be at least 24 years old. Your own driver's license is acceptable in Israel, but an International Driver's Permit is still a good idea. This international permit is universally recognized, so having one in your wallet is extra insurance against problems with the local authorities.
Rental Cars in the West Bank
There are no restrictions on driving Israeli rental cars into West Bank areas under Israeli control (known as Area B). However, your rental car insurance coverage does not extend to West Bank areas under Palestinian control (known as Area A). If you rent from companies at the airport, in Tel Aviv, or in West Jerusalem, you won't be able to drive the car to Bethlehem, Jericho and other towns under the Palestinian Authority. If you plan on visiting these areas by car, use Green Peace or one of the other Palestinian-operated companies in East Jerusalem. Passing through the checkpoints within Israel is usually stress free, as tourist vans and rental cars are routinely waved through with no need to show identification.
If your rental car comes with a GPS system, check to see if it includes or excludes West Bank routes. If the West Bank is excluded, the GPS will route your journey from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea along a circuitous three-hour route instead of a more direct one that takes less than an hour. Even if you're using GPS, it's always a good idea to discuss possible routes with your rental car company if you plan on passing through the West Bank.
Best. 800/220-015. www.best-car.co.il.
Budget. *2200. www.budget.co.il.
Eldan. 800/938-5000. www.eldan.co.il.
Green Peace Car Rental. 02/585-9756. www.greenpeace.co.il.
Sixt. 70/050-1502. www.sixt.co.il.
Israel's highway system is very modern and has signs in English as well as Hebrew and Arabic. Route 6, the main north-south toll road, can save significant time on longer journeys. The highway starts at the Maahaz Junction south of Kiryat Gat and ends about 87 km (54 mi) north at the Ein Tut Junction near Yokneam. Electronic sensors read your license plate number and transmit the bill according to the distance you travel, to your rental-car company. Expect to pay around NIS 60 to drive the length of the highway.
Route 1 is the chief route to Jerusalem from both the west (Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion Airport, Mediterranean coast) and the east (Galilee via Jordan Valley, Dead Sea area, Eilat). The road from Tel Aviv is a divided highway that presents no problems except at morning rush hour (7:30 to 9), when traffic backs up at the entrance to the city. For this reason, some drivers prefer Route 443—via Modi'in—which leaves Route 1 just east of the Ben Gurion Airport, and enters Jerusalem from the north (most convenient for East Jerusalem locations). Route 1, which enters Jerusalem under the Bridge of Strings, is more convenient for Givat Ram, West Jerusalem, downtown, and Talbieh.
Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv are all clogged with traffic during the workday. Central Jerusalem is now almost completely closed to private vehicles, with traffic routed around the periphery. Don't consider driving in Jerusalem if you're not comfortable negotiating narrow spaces or parking in tight spots.
If you're driving through the Negev, watch out for camels that can come loping out of the desert and onto the road. In the winter rainy season, sudden flash floods sometimes cascade through the wadis (streambeds that are usually dry) with little warning, washing out roads. It's best to postpone your desert trip if there's heavy rain in the forecast.
The desert can be unbelievably hot, even in the winter. It's a good idea to carry extra water—both for yourself and for your car—while driving at any time of year.
In case of an accident or roadside emergency, call either the police or Shagrir, the national breakdown service. English-speaking assistance is generally available.
The local representative of AAA is Memsi. Should anything happen to your rental car, call your rental company for roadside repair or replacement of the vehicle.
Memsi (03/564-1111 in Tel Aviv; 02/625-0661 in Jerusalem. www.memsi.co.il.)
Rules of the Road
More Israelis have been killed by car accidents than in all of the nation's wars combined. Use extra caution when driving a car here. By law, drivers and all passengers must wear seat belts at all times. Police crack down on drunk driving; the legal blood-alcohol limit is.05%. It's against the law to use a cell phone while driving.
Speed limits vary little across Israel: motorways (represented with blue signs) have speed limits of either 90 or 100 kph (56 or 62 mph). The exception is Route 6, where the limit is 110 kph (68 mph). Highways with green signs have speed limits of 80 or 90 kph (50 or 56 mph). Urban roads are 50 or 60 kph (31 or 37 mph).
Headlights must be turned on in daylight when driving on intercity roads from November through April 1. A flashing green traffic light indicates that the red stoplight is about three seconds away and you should come to a halt.
Children, ages nine and under, must be seated in age-appropriate car seats, and children under 14 are not allowed in the front seat.
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