The Hebrew word for a native-born Israeli is sabra, which is the name of a prickly cactus that’s sweet inside. You meet sweet Israelis if you get lost or have automotive difficulties—helping hands are quick to arrive—but behind the wheel, Israelis are aggressive and honk their horns far more than their Western counterparts.
Some travelers 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 who serve their guests, and most are familiar with all parts of the country and happy to quote you a daily rate.
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 Tiberias Junction." Brown signs indicate tourist sites.
In Israel, streets are generally named after famous people or events, meaning that almost every community has a Herzl Street and a Ben Gurion Street. Don't worry about the "boulevard" or "alley" attached to many street names—Israelis just use the proper name. You don’t find a Jabotinsky Street and a Jabotinsky Alley in the same city. What you likely encounter is a street that changes names after a couple of blocks. Street numbers follow the standard format, with odd numbers on one side and even numbers on the other.
If you know history, you'll have an easier time finding your way around Jerusalem's neighborhoods. In Baka a block of streets are named after biblical tribes, in Rehavia they're medieval Jewish scholars, and in Old Katamon, the brigades who fought in Israel's War of Independence.
Towns in Israel that have functioning Old Cities, some dating back to biblical times, include Jerusalem, Jaffa, Akko, and Tzfat. Streets and alleys in these areas have names, but sometimes it’s hard to find numbers.
Gas stations are 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 (though gas tends to be cheaper in Eilat). Most offer both full- and self-service pumps. If you go the full-service route, ask for a kabbalah (receipt). Attendants don’t expect to be tipped. Most rental cars take unleaded gas, which at the time of this writing costs NIS 6.15 per liter. Most stations accept international credit cards.
In Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, parking laws are stringently enforced. Expect a ticket of NIS 100 on your windshield if you've overstayed your welcome at a paid parking spot. Cars are towed if parked in a no-parking zone. Pay attention to the curb, as parking is forbidden where it’s painted red. In downtown areas, parking is permitted only where there are blue and white stripes on the curb, meters, or pay stations.
Parking in Jerusalem costs NIS 5.70 per hour, and in central areas, pay stations print out small parking tickets to wedge at the top of the car window on the curb side. Parking in Tel Aviv costs NIS 6.20 an hour and you can only pay with a cell phone payment service like Pango. Read the signs carefully: in some areas free evening parking begins at 6, in others at 7 or 8.
Sound complicated? Stick to parking lots. Covered and open parking lots are plentiful in the major cities and can cost around NIS 15 per hour or NIS 70 per day.
If you plan on heading north to the Golan or Upper Galilee, a rental car is a significant time-saver. If sticking to cities, a rental car is often more bother than boon. In Jerusalem, a combination of walking and taking cabs and the city tram is your best bet.
Familiar American car-rental companies operate in Israel, as do local ones such as Eldan. Rental rates in Israel start at around US$35 per day and US$200 per week for an economy car. 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 renting from a city office.
Drivers must be at least 21. Your driver's license is acceptable in Israel.
Rental Cars in the West Bank
There are no restrictions on driving Israeli rental cars into West Bank areas under full Israeli control (known as Area C). However, your rental-car insurance coverage doesn’t extend to West Bank areas under Palestinian control. If you rent from companies at the airport, in Tel Aviv, or in West Jerusalem, you are unable to drive the car to Bethlehem, Jericho, and other towns under the Palestinian Authority. If you plan on visiting these areas by car, use Dallah or one of the other Palestinian-operated car-rental companies in East Jerusalem. Have your passport with you to show Israeli guards at West Bank checkpoints if asked.
Even if you're using GPS, it's always a good idea to discuss possible routes with your car-rental company if you plan on passing through the West Bank.
Local Rental Agencies
Best. *8883; www.best-car.co.il/English.
Dallah Rent A Car. American Colony Hotel, 1 Louis Vincent St. , East Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. 02/627–9725; www.dallahrentacar.com.
Eldan. 03/977–3400; rent.eldan.co.il/en.
Green Peace Car Rental. Mount of Olives Hotel, 53 Mount of Olives Rd., East Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. 02/585–9756; www.greenpeace.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 (south of Tel Aviv), and ends about 138 km (85 miles) north at the Ein Tut Junction near Yokneam (in the Lower Galilee). Electronic sensors read your license plate number and transmit the bill to your rental-car company. Car rental companies set their own rates for driving on Route 6, so be sure to ask what they charge. 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 International 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 am to 9:30 am), 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, and downtown.
Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv are all clogged with traffic during the workday. In Jerusalem, the Old City and Jaffa Road are closed to private vehicles, with traffic routed around the periphery. Don't consider driving in Jerusalem if not comfortable negotiating narrow spaces or parking in tight spots.
If 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 desert wadis (streambeds that are usually dry) with little warning, washing out roads and posing danger to motorists. It's best to postpone your desert trip if there's heavy rain in the forecast.
The desert can be unbelievably hot, sometimes even in the winter. It's a good idea to carry extra water—both for yourself and your car—while driving at any time of year.
In case of an accident or roadside emergency, call the police. Should anything happen to your rental car, call your rental company for roadside repair or replacement of the vehicle.
Police. 100; www.police.gov.il.
Rules of the Road
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 0.05%. 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 110 kph (68 mph). Highways with green signs have speed limits of 80 or 90 kph (50 or 56 mph). Urban roads are 50 kph (31 mph).
Headlights must be turned on in daylight when driving on intercity roads from November 1 through March 31. A flashing green traffic light indicates that the red stoplight is about three seconds away and you should come to a halt.
Children under eight must be seated in age-appropriate car seats, and children under 13 aren’t allowed in the front seat.