Although Israel is a very small country, its wealth of different terrains, climate zones, and historical periods can make it overwhelming to tackle on your own. But should you join an organized tour? That depends on whether this is your first visit to Israel, if you have friends or family in the country, and how much local color you want to take in.
If it's your first time in the Middle East and you're looking for a general overview of the main historic, religious, and natural sites, an escorted tour can be both efficient and cost effective.
All package tours are led by licensed tour guides and include visits to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Masada, and the Dead Sea. It's not difficult to find itineraries tailored to your religious affiliation or areas of interest. If an organized trip is not for you, a private tour with a licensed guide is another option.
Dozens of companies offer guided tours at a variety of price levels. Package deals include hotels, meals, transportation, guides, and admission fees. But all tours are not equal—be sure to check out the itinerary to make sure it matches your pace, and whether the accommodations and restaurants are up to snuff.
Licensed tour guides must undergo a rigorous two-year training program with annual continuing education required to maintain their credentials. Licensed guides can put together a complete customized itinerary for your group or take you for a couple of days on a private guided tour. Many are native English speakers and have fascinating backgrounds they are happy to share with you.
Freelance guides may approach unaccompanied travelers near the Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem and other places on the beaten path. These guides are not licensed, so it's impossible to know whether the tour they're offering is worthwhile or if they're planning on taking you to their best friend's souvenir stall. It's best to ignore them and walk on.
Israel Tour Guides (054/465-3762. www.israel-guides.net.)
Modern, air-conditioned limousines and minibuses driven by expert, licensed guides are a great way to see the country for anyone whose budget can bear it. At this writing, the cost was $450 to $550 per day; add another $100 for bigger vans. An additional $150 to $200 per night is charged for the driver's expenses if he or she sleeps away from home. Half-day tours are also available, and you may hire a guide without a car.
Guided Limousine Tours and Superb Limousine Services offer good vehicles and knowledgeable guides. Haifa-based Abboud Tours, run by Israeli Christian Abboud Maroun, specializes in private minibus tours of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, Nazareth and the Galilee, and the fascinating walled city of Akko.
Abboud Tours (04/852-5077. www.abboudtours.com.)
Guided Limousine Tours (03/642-1649. www.glt.co.il.)
Superb Limousine Services (03/973-1780. www.superb.co.il.)
Several major international tour companies offer all-inclusive trips geared to the general traveler. These generally cover all the major sights and include midlevel accommodations. D.D. Travel, Escorted Globus Tours, Isramworld, and Trafalgar Tours all have one- to two-week trips that are perfect for first-time visitors to Israel. British-based Longwood Holidays is another well-established company offering weeklong tours, with optional extensions in Eilat or Tel Aviv, at very competitive prices.
On a smaller scale, two Israeli-based companies—Egged Tours and United Tours—offer one- or two-day bus tours to many parts of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including Bethlehem and Jericho. Prices start at $100 per person for one-day tours and $240 per person for two-day tours. These tours are good options for solo travelers or for people who don't want to be part of a tour for their entire trip.
D. D. Travel (866/403-8457. www.ddtravel-acc.com/tours.htm.)
Egged Tours (03/920-3992. www.eggedtours.com.)
Globus Tours (800/942-3301. www.escortedglobustours.com.)
Isram (800/223-7460. www.isram.com.)
Longwood Holidays (20/8418-2516. www.longwoodholidays.co.uk.)
Trafalgar Tours (866/544-4434. www.trafalgartours.com.)
United Tours (03/617-3333. www.unitedtours.co.il.)
Haifa-based Israel My Way offers exciting five-day "Art Lover" tours that include the latest exhibits at the country's top museums, studio visits with local artists, and a chance to take in the best of Israeli music, opera, and dance.
Israel My Way (77/300-5717. www.israelmyway.co.il.)
Israel's EcoBike Cycling Vacations offers an eight-day countrywide bike tour as well as one-day Tel Aviv and Jerusalem trips. The Jerusalem Cyclists Club can give you advice about local conditions and recommend routes. They organize one-day tours from Jerusalem on occasional Saturdays. For Saturday tours in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, try the Tel Aviv Bicycle Club. Walkways runs countrywide one- to two-week trips with professional guides. These tours combine cycling and hiking along biblical paths around the Carmel area, the coastal plain, the Galilee, the Red Sea, the Sinai Desert, as well as Petra in Jordan.
Most airlines accommodate bikes as luggage, provided they're dismantled and boxed.
EcoBike (077/450-1650. www.ecobike.co.il.)
Walkways (02/534-4452. www.walk-ways.com.)
Genesis Cycling (604/537-3526. www.genesiscycling.com.)
Spring is the best time for bird-watching in Israel. Eilat, in southern Israel, hosts an annual Spring Migration Festival every March. The Kibbutz Lotan Center for Birdwatching offers bird-watching tours for small groups during the winter and spring around Eilat and Lotan. Many people report spotting more than 100 species.
Kibbutz Lotan Center for Birdwatching (800/200-075. www.birdingisrael.com.)
Israel is a hiker's paradise, with terrains ranging from desert to forest to mountains. Try a segment or two of the 580-mi Israel National Trail if you want to experience the diversity of the landscape. For hiking the Galilee, the 36-mi Jesus Trail combines rugged scenery with historic and religious sites. Israel Extreme can create an itinerary for you, while Women Walkers arranges hiking tours of Israel exclusively for women.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, or SPNI, runs a "field schools" across the country, and conducts city walks and nature hikes. SPNI no longer offers English-speaking tours, but for nature hikes, where the experience matters more than the explanations, you might want to consider it. Most guides speak English. Many tours are family-oriented, but require you to have your own vehicle.
Israel Extreme (052/647-8474. www.israelextreme.com.)
Israel National Trail (03/638-8719. www.israelnationaltrail.com.)
Jesus Trail (www.jesustrail.com.)
Hi Road Adventures (614/581-4251. www.hiroadadventures.com.)
Jewish Educational Tours
Keshet runs customized guided tours from one to ten days, focusing on Judaism and Jewish history. An experienced team of Jewish educators and guides staff Keshet.
Keshet (646/358-4058. www.keshetisrael.co.il.)
Da'at Educational Expeditions (888/811-2812. www.daattravel.com.)
Amiel Tours (03/538-8444. www.amiel.com.)
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