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Trip Report Back from Israel -- Week-long, Independent Trip

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First of all, I'd like to thank the many Fodorites who helped me in many ways -- convincing me to go, planning for the trip, and answering my numerous questions. I'm glad I went. Below is a brief summary of my itinerary, and I'll fill it in more as we go or based on questions from the forum.

* Airline: El Al (Warning: Do NOT fly El Al if it's your first time to Irael, as the intense interrogation and search can ruin your trip initally, unless you consider that as part of your Israeli experience. :) I survived but it wasn't pleasant. More about it later.)

* Getting Around: Rental car from Avis. Best to buy full coverage insurance. Even then, car rental is still cheap-- around $30 USD a day. We had no incidence, but seeing how people drive and park, it's good to have peace of mind. (My DH was brave enough to drive everywhere, even in Jerusalem and other cities. I told him he qualified to be a cab driver out there.)

* Hotels: Expensive and very poor in service and quality for what you paid ($200 to $300 USD). Even big chains like the Sheraton and Dan are managed poorly by standards elsewhere. Many places the rooms and hotels (even on executive floor) are run-down, outdated, even dirty--more like bad motels in the US. Worst is the unpleasant service, as if the management is trying to swindle you. (Similar experience outside the hotel, but it's more understanable for the little guys on the street who try to make a few bucks here and there, but at a big reputable hotel?)

* Shabbat: Guidebooks should definitely include a section on how to survive Shabbat. Where to find food? Many if not all the good restaurants that were open were fully booked until almost 10 p.m.!

* Most amazing places in Israel: Jerusalem, the Dead Sea


Itinerary
* 1/27 (Fri) -- Flew in on Fri night.
-- Hotel: Sheraton Tel Aviv ($300 USD), My rating: 2/5, Only good thing is the ocean view from our room
-- Restaurant: Raphael -- Modern Mediterranean. Best restaurant on our trip. Great food, nice and classy ambience, professional service, good value. Their freshly baked bread was amazing--I'd be happy just to eat that alone. Open during Shabbat. Fodor's, make Raphael your Fodor's Choice! Currently, it's not even listed. We found it on tripadvisor, and my DH's Israeli colleagues also highly praised it and considered it their best and most favorite.

* 1/28 (Sat) -- Jaffa in the morning (beautiful, historical) . We just drove around T-A, and it's disappointedly run-down looking, more like India. Even the few Bauhaus I saw were grimy and not white. Lots of graffiti everywhere, and apparently that's part of the tourist attraction as I saw there's a tour to scout out the graffiti in T-A. Not sure how it's called Miami Beach of Israel. Skip T-A if short on time.
-- Afternoon we drove to Ein Bokek via Toll Road 6 south via Arad. Beautiful drive from Arad descending to the Dead Sea, and the road was drive and easy to drive even when it's raining elsewhere.
-- Hotel: Le Meridien Hotel. My rating: 4/5. Best use of our hotel points, as the hotel costs $350 USD a night. Best hotel on our triip. Nice to have heated Dead Sea water pumped into their giantic indoor pool. Absolutely essential to go to a hotel or spa with heated Dead Sea water if you travel there in the water--extremely cold to get in the Sea.
-- Food. We ate at some random restaurant in a shopping mall. Nothing great and expensive.

OK, gotta run now.. Will do more later.

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    Some notes about Tel-Aviv:
    - south Tel-Aviv (adjacent to Jaffa) is the older and slummier part of the city. So it is not fair to judge the city if you only drove around those areas and did not go to north Tel-Aviv.
    - there are over 1,000 Bauhaus buildings in Tel-Aviv. The main concentration (and the restored/renovated buildings) are found in the Rothschild Blvd area and up along Dizengoff. The fact that you saw only a "few Bauhaus" confirms my impression that you saw only a very small part of the city. Don't forget that UNESCO has declared these area of Tel-Aviv a "World Cultural Heritage" site:
    http://www.white-city.co.il/english/index.htm

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    mbgg, thanks for the feedback. Yes, we probably missed many parts of T-A. But we stayed in the north part of T-A, the Sheraton Tel-Aviv, and drove along some major boulevards to get down to Jaffa. We even checked out some revived hip neighborhood recommended by Fodor's and were not impressed. From what we saw, buildings were poorly maintained and lots of graffiti and trash everywhere, even right outside the Sheraton.

    Fodor's, please REMOVE Sheraton Tel-Aviv from Fodor's Choice. I usually trust Fodor's Choices but this one was way off the mark. Total ripoff for $300 a night. We should have trusted tripadvisor more in this case. Other than the lobby, the rest of hotel was run-down, walls were detaching from drywalls with visible stains of water damage everywhere. Bathroom hardware was old and rusty. It's more like a bad motel in the US! Service at check-in was bad too. At first they put it in a room on the 4th floor saying it has the best view of the ocean. The room was too close to the street and it's noisy and you could see power lines and cars and graffiti right from your room. Worse, they lined a towel right along the sliding door to the balcony and it was soaking wet with rainy water. What kind of sh*hole is this? We called the front desk to switch our room, and they said oh nothing was avaiable--give me a break, on a Friday night when most business travelers would have already left, and in the winter too?? Finally, they moved us to the 17th floor--the view was much better--unobstructive view of the Mediterranean, but the condition of the room and hallway was still bad. Definitely, don't stay there, esp. at that ripoff price!

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    Highlight moments from my trip:

    1) I met Israel President Peres and UN Secretary-General--no kidding!! On my first day in Jerusalem, as I was walking from our hotel to the Old City, I saw escorted cars with flashing lights pulling into the famous King David Hotel, where all dignitaries to Israel stay. I decided to walk in to check out what's going on. Red carpet, the press and cameras everywhere to cover a meeting between UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Israel Prime Minister Shimon Peres! I was able slip in easily unquestioned and at one point when those men were walking down the red carpet, I was literally 2 ft away -- what kind of security was that, esp after what El Al had subjected me to at the airport!!

    I started taking pictures of the event like the press, and even tried to include myself in some photos. One press photographer even offered to take pictures of me. I followed the whole entourage to the Ambassador Hall where the formal press conference was to take place. Finally a guard asked me whether I was from the press, and I um-ah and got kicked out. Ha ha, the press, with my dingy, little camera?!

    Afterwards, I told my walking group tour about the incident and they all cracked up. The tour guide said, it's your first day in Jerusalem and you've already met the president!!

    2) Dinner with my college freshman roomate's family. Before this, I wasn't sure it's kosher for me to visit her at her house or at a restaurant somewhere since she's Orthodox Jew. But she invited me home to have dinner with her lovely and happy family, and compared to other more Orthodox folks in Israel, they seemed pretty much like normal Americans. They're both working professionals--she's a researcher at the Weizmann Institute and her husband a professor at a local university. Their 3 kids-- ranging from 5 to 11--were so adorable and well-mannered and bilingual, except for the youngest who only knew Hebrew. AFter dinner, the kids each took turn to do a talent show for me. It was fun and relaxing evening for me, and besides catching up with her I had a personal glimpse of how some moderns Jews lived.

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    Glad to hear that you enjoyed your day in Jerusalem. Hey - I haven't met Peres yet - I'm jealous :-)

    A bit of Tel-Aviv geography: the Sheraton isn't really in north Tel-Aviv, more like on the border between north and south. So your visit was equivalent to someone spending half a day in NYC and only touring in South Bronx and Harlem :-) As you go further north the city becomes much more affluent. In the south there are many interesting neighbourhoods that have been gentrified in recent years - Neve Zedek, the Bauhaus area, Ajami (Jaffa), etc. There are entertainment & shopping areas such as the old Tel-Aviv port (very north) and the old Turkish railway station (HaTachana). Tel-Aviv has a lot of interesting markets, quite a few interesting museums, the beach, a lot of culture to offer, many restaurants on the level of Rafael - all things you must do on your next visit !

    Too bad about the hotel. I haven't seen the Sheraton recommended at all on the various travel forums so I guess it has gone downhill in recent years. There are many reasonably priced hotels that get consistently good reviews and recommendations on the forums.

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    Reading your trip report I am glad that mbgg came along and explained some of your misconceptions. The biggest complaint tourists seem to have about Tel Aviv is that it is like any other modern city in the world, nothing Israeli. You definitely missed a huge section.

    Concerning El Al's security check. Israel is, unfortunately located in a very bad neighborhood, surrounded by people who wish to wipe her off the map. While all passengers going to Israel, regardless of airline are subject to strict security El Al is sometimes more intensive. This is because some would see destroying an El Al plane as a really large achievement! Personally, I feel a lot safer on El Al and will answer whatever questions they through my way, comfortable in the knowledge that they are also asking others these questions and we will all be flying safe.

    Where did you stay in Jerusalem? I stay in a high middle priced hotel and while some of the rooms are slightly dated there has never been a dirty room! Unfortunately Israel suffered for many years of intifada with tourist numbers way way way down. Those hotels that survived did so by the skin of their teeth. It takes years to recover from such a financial loss and as the hotels slowly recovered they redid their public areas. Many places are now working on guest rooms. Hopefully in a few more years there will be all up to date rooms. I haven't had problems with guest services, finding front desks more than happy to help.

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    MY EL AL EXPERIENCE

    Elkaz, I knew about El Al's strict security measures beforehand, and was preparing myself for it, including bringing copies of my company's profile, my company ID and job description, of my husband's itinerary and business contacts in Israel (since he was flying on a different airline. BTW, his flight with UA was a breeze. He said it was easier to enter Israel than coming back to the U.S.!). But El Al security didn't even bother to look at any of my papers. I dutifully showed up to the airport 3 hours early, and my detention took all 3 hours, and I was the last one to board the plane!

    Now I have many Jewish friends and colleagues, and even the much-admired founder of my company is Jewish-American and a great philanthropist in my community. So I have total sympathy for Israel’s cause, and was all excited about taking the trip (as you can see from my numerous questions on Fodor’s pre-trip), until the experience with El Al dampened my spirit, initially.

    From my experience, El Al's conduct was totally UNPROFESSIONAL, SLOPPY, and UNSCIENTIFIC. It was bordering on HARRASSMENT. If you have another airline choice to go to Israel for vacation or business, why bother with El Al? It can definitely ruin your trip, and give you a very bad impression of the country and its people. Details below.

    * Their profiling didn’t make sense. Out of the entire jumbo jet, only 3 people (2 guys in the late 30’s and me) were singled out for intense interrogation and search (they said it's random). Maybe because we were solo flyers, but none of us looked anything that fitted the profile of a terrorist in our ethnicity, and we were all professional-looking and mild-mannered. Hey, I saw much scarier-looking people on the plane! J And very seasoned travelers too, as we all packed light and neatly. On the other hand, the scene of many other passengers was a mess—families and old people carrying wide open bags that were sloppily packed (some not even proper luggage). Some apparently never flew or didn’t fly often and didn’t know about luggage weight and size limits, and had to panic repack their bags at the check-in counter and even at the gate. A terrorist could easily slip explosives into the bags of these folks without needing to board El Al!

    • I was locked up in a back room in behind the ticket counter for a strip search by 2 women security guards – Israeli of course, as El Al doesn’t trust TSA. It looked more like a torture chamber from a Bond movie (imagine Daniel Craig in N. Korean prison)-- devoid of decoration or furniture except for a metal chair, harsh lighting, dirty walls, and totally nasty, grimy cement floor. I told them the floor was really dirty when they ordered me to take off my shoes—what if there were incriminating junk on the floor that could soil me! The scary thing was they didn't test the samples right there but took it outside, who knows where, and how do I know if the samples get contaminated and I got unfairly incriminated? I was shocked by how casual the guard held the sample wand while trying to push on the heavy metal door to go outside for the tests—she could have easily contaminated the sample by accident. Totally unprofessional and unscientific.

    • I was fine with having my luggage thoroughly searched and delivered directly to the gate. But they confiscated my laptop. The head security guard at first told me laptops were not allowed on the plane, and I said I never heard of such rule. Another passenger overheard and said but I carry my laptop onboard. She quickly shot a bunch of Hebrew at him to shut him up. She said your laptop beeped when they scanned it, and it had to be shipped separately. I said scan it again, as I never had problems with it before (I always requested for manual search to avoid too much x-ray exposure with my frequent flying). She said no. I told her you better not lose it or damage it, as it’s my company laptop with important proprietary data in it, and I need it for my meeting right after this trip. She said don’t worry we’ll show you the box and pack it in front of you, so you can see how safe it is.
    Hours later, 2 security guards came to escort all 3 of us to the gate, one in the front and one in the back, bypassing TSA. I still didn’t see the box and laptop, and asked the head guard where’s my laptop, she said it’s already at the gate. Just go there now. At the gate, the guards told me to board the plane and I asked where’s my laptop? They asked, what laptop? I said call the head guard to bring me my laptop, I’m not boarding. I waited for another 20 minutes at the gate and the guard showed up with a cardboard box all wrapped up, saying it’s my laptop. I said open it and let me see, and she said no. I was boiling at this point, and wrote down her name and said you’ll be personally responsible for it if anything happens to it. By then I was the last one to go on board, but I wanted to make sure the laptop was going on this flight. I watched her as she handed to the guy at the door, and then he handed it back to her and she walked away. I asked the guy is it going on this flight, and he said yes. I was feeling uneasy about it the whole time, and quite mad that I didn’t have my laptop as I needed to get some work done.

    At the Ben-Gurion airport, I had to wait for all the luggage to come out on the conveyer belt and still no laptop box. I kept on asking the El Al personnel at the baggage claim and they said just waited and finally told me to go to Lost and Found, who directed me to a different conveyer belt for cargoes and large boxes. By then, I was so p*ssed to see the cardboard box came out soaking wet. I walked up to L&F to witness I open the box and check my laptop to make sure it’s functioning. I said if it’s damage, El Al had to compensate me with $10M!

    • On the flight out of Israel, I flew business class on El Al to China for a business meeting (btw, worst business class I’ve ever been on). This time, less interrogation and search, but security dumped the entire content of my check-in luggage in various containers to search. I told them please be careful and don’t lose any of my stuff, as it’s hard for me to replace them in China. And what ya know, they lost my contact solution!

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    HOTEL SERVICE

    A side note: I only found out my contact solution was lost when I arrived in the hotel in China late at night. I called the hotel (Sheraton) front desk, and they said all optical shops were closed now but they’ll send a bottle up to my room right away. I got it in 5 minutes, and kept it for the whole week as I didn’t have time to go out to buy another. Now that’s service! On another trip to China at a different Sheraton, the charger of my temporary GSM phone didn’t work, and it was already 10 p.m. but amazingly enough, the business center had an array of diff phone chargers and found one that worked with me. Now, that is service.

    By contrast, in the Dan Panorama in Haifa and Jerusalem, I couldn’t even get a bottle of water, even we were staying on the executive floor. When I called the front desk, they said I could get bottled water from the executive lounge, which wasn’t open at the time. Apparently, they expected people to raid the lounge and hoard up bottled water during its limited opening hours. And I saw people had no choice but to do it, since they don’t give you bottled water in the room, except for the 1st night. At the Dan Panorama Jerusalem, I complained to the front desk what kind of service is this, even at the executive floor, and they told me, they’ll ask management and see what they we can do. Twenty minutes later, a staff brought a big bottle to my room, I thanked him, and he then handed me a bill to sign. Heck, don’t waste my time here! The Dan Panorama management was also trying to scam us on our hotel bill too. But that’s another story. Unbelievable. A national chain representing Israel should really try to put their best face forward instead of acting like a sleazy third-world operation.

    Others may have better experience than ours, but ours was not pleasant, as the staff wasn't even attempting to make our stay pleasant. There's one exceptional personnel in the Dan Jerusalem though. More later.

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    I am shocked,disgusted and embarrassed by your report. I suggest that you send letters of complaint to El-Al AND the Ministry of Tourism, as well as copies to the Jerusalem Post and Ha'Aretz newspapers. It makes me wonder why I devote hours of my time to helping people plan their vacation when those idiots at El-Al can ruin everything in an instant.

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    mbgg, no, don't think I want to create a big fuss about it. And originally I hadn't planned on including so much detail, but somehow kept on going during my odd jetlagged hours here (notice all the typos). I still appreciate all your (and other Fodorites') help in planning my trip and now reading my report!

    I got over it once I was in Israel, and met many kind strangers. The experience in no way negatively affects my feelings and attitude toward my friends and colleagues and Israel in general. I know how people have to follow rules or orders from the top, and sometimes it's not conducted as well as one would expect. In fact, now I even consider El Al my initiation rite. ;)

    And thanks for letting me know that I'd missed many nicer parts of T-A, and would love to check out more Bauhaus buildings, etc. if I get a chance to go again. And I'd love to go back and see the rest of the country.

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    I really think that you should complain. Everyone appreciates the security on El Al but lately I have been reading too many complaints by innocent tourists who were subjected to exaggerated and unnecessary security checks. You are correct that professional and trained staff should have quickly realized that you were not a threat. You should point out in your complaint that while the Ministry of Tourism is spending millions to attract visitors these security personnel are doing their best to drive them away. I follow several forums and believe me that there are many questions posted by ordinary people who have heard about these incidents and are hesitating to come to Israel because of them.

    I'm looking forward to reading the next installments of your trip report. ! :-)

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    Hey, even the TSA here in the States has been pulling some totally unnecessary 'sh!t' (young children, elderly with physical disabilities, body searches, etc.) which info has hit the media.

    While the TSA refutes the complaints (of course), changes are being made. So there's no reason why you don't complain to ElAl directly, and the Israeli media.

    Security is one thing, but stupidity is not.

    Had to chuckle though your description of visitors with the largest and worst packing of their luggage. The only other place I've seen such bags was in Asia. Admittedly, there are many people who might be on their first flight and don't know.

    But I do recall years back when 3rd-world refugees were entering the States, and having to navigate an 'escalator' to Immigration, only to be falling down, cutting themselves with blood everywhere... the airlines then shut them down to be used as 'steps' only and to avoid further incidents.

    You see/hear what's wrong and fix it.

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    I fly as a single traveler ( also business) and I have never had that problem. I don't envy you and I can offer no explanation. BTW boxes coming into a separate place at TLV--I know that!! Of course I know that because after waiting over 1 hour for my box, someone finally told me!!!

    RE: Dan Panorama--I am very familiar with that hotel and shocked. I may contact someone and tell them how disappointing it is.

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    'By contrast, in the Dan Panorama in Haifa and Jerusalem, I couldn’t even get a bottle of water, even we were staying on the executive floor...'

    Am I correct in thinking that this sentence should read...
    'I couldn’t even get a free bottle of water...?'

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