Why is packing for this tour different from all other tours?
Travel in Israel is, in many ways, just like traveling to any other place. You need enough underwear to get through the trip, a few shirts, a few pairs of pants, etc. But there are also some unique issues involved in travel to Israel arising from local weather or cultural issues.
For example, while you may be thinking about beach-wear and desert hiking, keep in mind that, though Israel is a small country, the weather varies greatly by season and location. Meteorologists refer to the ‘micro-climates’ experienced in different parts of Israel due to elevation, weather patterns, and closeness to the sea. As you move through the country, from the Negev desert to the Golan Heights, you will need a variety of layers to put on and take off. Even in one place, such as Jerusalem in the Summer, you may be in shorts and a t-shirt during the day, but want a fleece and long pants in the evening when the temperature drops.
Another factor that makes packing for Israel different than packing for Miami Beach is the culture. During your time here you are probably planning to visit a variety of holy sites, no matter what your religious affiliation. While some people take offense at religious fiats about proper dress, just keep in mind that you are a visitor and respect the house rules. Otherwise Israeli culture is extremely informal, so bringing the right mix of clothing can be a bit tricky.
Without further ado, here are seven easy rules to keep in mind when packing your bags for Israel.
1. Layer It On
The best way to deal with variation in temperature is to bring layers. You may be wearing a t-shirt in the summer, but you’ll want a sweater or fleece to put on over it when the wind picks up or night-falls. In the winter you’ll also want a waterproof layer to put on top, as well as gloves and a hat, and maybe even some warm socks.
2. Cover up… casually
When visiting any of the Churches in the country the usual dress code is no shorts or tank-tops. Or to put it another way, knees, shoulders, and collar bones should be covered by your clothes. This applies equally to men and women, and some places you may visit will have people at the door who will give you a hard time about this if you don’t comply. That’s a headache you don’t need.
As to Jewish holy sites, for the most part there is no formal requirement, but at the Western Wall prayer area, which is considered an Orthodox synagogue, the same rules apply with one addition. In addition to pants for men and shoulder covering shirts for all, women should either wear a skirt that is more than knee length, or bring a wrap or cloth of some sort that they can throw on over their pants when entering the plaza. One can also bring a wrap to throw over their shoulders if their shirt is too revealing. Though married Orthodox women cover their hair, this is not required of visitors, and there are kippot (yarmulkas) at the entrance to the men’s side of the plaza, so no need to bring one just for this purpose. The same is true when visiting Tzfat, which usually includes entrance to at least one Orthodox synagogue, or any other day with active synagogues on the itinerary (not including archeological sites of ancient synagogues).
Pro Tip: In churches one is requested to remove hats, and in synagogues to put them on!
Other than these holy sites, the mode of dress in Israel is very casual. Don’t bring a suit unless you have a meeting at the Knesset (our parliament) or are officiating at a wedding. Business casual is more than adequate for most formal occasions in Israel, including synagogue services, and otherwise casual dress is not only acceptable but expected.
For my tour of the Old City of Jerusalem CLICK HERE. For Tzfat CLICK HERE.
3. You need two pairs of shoes
Most tours include a lot of walking, so you really want good walking shoes. Running shoes are usually perfect for this. If your tour includes serious hiking, bring hiking boots for this purpose.
But don’t forget your sandals! You will want to bring sandals that are waterproof and you can walk well in, such as Teva sandals. This is helpful for getting into the water at the Dead Sea, where the salt crystals can sometimes be unpleasantly sharp on bare feet, as well as walking in Hezekiah’s tunnel at the City of David and hiking at Ein Gedi or other ‘water hikes’ commonly done in the Summer. Check with your tour organizer before deciding to leave these at home, and please, please, do not bring flip-flops. Bring or buy a pair of waterproof sandals that won’t slip off your foot. Crocs are also not recommended as they are very slippery when wet.
For my tour including the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi CLICK HERE.
4. Traveler, heal thyself!
I don’t need to tell you about your toiletries. You know to bring a toothbrush, toothpaste and any prescription medications to last through the trip. But you might not think to bring over-the-counter drugs, such as Advil, because you figure you can pick them up at a gas station if you need them. But you would be wrong. Israelis are much less inclined to use over the counter-medications and the sale of these drugs is more highly regulated here than in the US, so for the most part they can only be purchased in pharmacies. Since a pharmacy stop is probably not on your itinerary, bring whatever you think you are likely to need. That includes everything from Advil, Immodium, or motion sickness pills to anti-histamines like Benadryl.
On the other hand, the water here is fine! You really don’t need to buy bottled water in Israel. The tap water is as safe as anywhere in the United States or Europe. If you drink from the tap at home there is no reason not to do so here. So bring that reusable bottle with you and you’ll save a bundle by not getting price-gouged at tourist traps for bottled water. However, though the water is completely safe, it does have a higher mineral content than many people are used to and so for some it takes a day or two to adjust to the flavor. If that’s the case for you, or you usually drink only bottled water, don’t worry it’s for sale everywhere.
And while we’re on the subject of toiletries, bring a pack of tissues or a roll of toilet paper with you. Public restrooms are not always restocked as efficiently as we would like!
5. Bring a comfortable day pack
Most travelers to Israel can’t make their trip with only a carry-on. I don’t suggest you try. Check one bag, and make your carry-on a light and comfortable backpack that you can easily carry with you throughout your trip. You will need somewhere to keep extra layers of clothes, medications, water bottle, sunscreen, hat, tissues/toilet-paper, snacks, and whatever else you want to carry with you every day. Often this can be left in the vehicle for short stops, but you’ll want it to be something you’re actually willing to carry around for longer stops. Personally I use a mid-size Camelbak backpack with 2 liters of water and a nice amount of room to hold anything I might need while keeping hydrated. Even if you usually do fine with a large purse or shoulder bag, the weight of carrying a water bottle around while doing a lot of walking is likely to wear on you. The backpack will make your trip much, much more pleasant.
6. For everything there is a season
We touched on this back in #1 about layering, but it’s worth expanding on seasonal weather here in Israel. The summer months are hot and dry. So from May or June through to September, you don’t need to worry about rain at all, and you don’t need a coat. You still may want a sweater or fleece at the top of the Hermon and in the evenings throughout the country. Desert climates usually see a significant temperature swing when the sun goes down and Israel is no exception. So bring a layer to put on over your light summer clothes, even if the high temperatures are in the 80s and 90s (fahrenheit!).
Also, for those truly scorching days, it’s actually better to cover more skin with light, loose-fitting, breathable clothing, than to uncover as much as possible. A Columbia long sleeve shirt made for the purpose will keep you cooler than a tank top, AND protect you from the sun. Also, you need a hat. No, seriously. You really need a hat, preferably one with a broad brim. This is the best way to protect yourself from heat-stroke. If you don’t have one, go buy one now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
By contrast in the winter months from roughly November through February, it gets surprisingly cold here, and often wet as well. The temperature rarely drops below freezing, and daytime highs will likely be in the high 40s or 50s, but that is likely to go with (usually brief) periods of wind and rain and colder temperatures at night. Also, buildings in Israel don’t tend to be extremely well insulated, so you’ll want to stay warm and not rely on heating up once you go inside. Bring long sleeves, a fleece, a warm hat and gloves, a raincoat and a pair or two of warm socks.
But on the other hand you may also get surprisingly beautiful weather even in the dead of winter with temperatures in the 70s, so bring a short sleeved shirt or two just in case. You will likely also still need those sandals mentioned in the footwear section for going in the Dead Sea and other activities that involve walking in water, and yes, you still need that hat I mentioned before. Bring a hat!
Spring and Fall
The intermediary seasons between summer and winter can swing wildly between the two weather patterns, so be prepared for everything. Pack both beachwear and a coat, unless you’ve already seen the specific weather forecast for your upcoming trip and are ready to bet your comfort on it’s accuracy.
7. Everywhere Takes Plastic
Although Israel is not known for pickpockets, it’s never a great idea to carry tons of cash on you if you can avoid it. Luckily almost everywhere in Israel takes credit cards, and there are also ATMs nearby in any urban area. So while bringing a few hundred shekels worth of cash to have it on hand when you land is a good idea, there’s no need to carry big wads of bills with you. All the national parks and most other tourist destinations take credit cards, as do almost any store (with the exception of some small stalls in the open air markets), restaurant, or other service providers. One thing you will need cash for is tips. In Israel it is common to tip a tour guide and driver at the end of your trip. It is also normal to tip 10% at restaurants, but this can usually only be done in cash, not added to the credit card bill. If you are planning on taking cabs, download the ‘Gett Taxi’ app to your phone and you can order a taxi easily any time and pay with a credit card. For some reason we do not tip taxi drivers in Israel. Don’t ask me why, but that’s the way it is!
Bring a Small Flashlight
If you are planning to see the City of David in Jerusalem, to climb Massada before sunrise, go crawling in a Bar-Kochva cave, or any other activities in the dark, please remember to bring flashlights. Usually a small, inexpensive LED flashlight is more than enough. When it’s truly dark enough to need it, a little light goes a long way!
Hezekiah’s Tunnel is part of my Old City tour HERE.
Israel is a first world country, so don’t stress too much. In a pinch, you can get anything you need here, from undergarments to medications, to outdoor gear. Phone not working? Ask a random Israeli if you can borrow their phone for a minute to make a call. This is normal here, and people almost always will let you. Need to refill a prescription? An out of pocket visit to a private doctor here costs about as much as most insurance co-pays in the US. Need some socks or a broad brimmed hat? Stop at the local mall. These things all take time, and I wouldn’t plan on dealing with these things once you’re here, but you’re not going to a desert island either, so do your best and carry on… with a comfortable backpack.