I often get questions from people about traveling in Israel. A common question is about using public transportation, buses and trains while touring Israel.
The answer, as always with this country, is complicated. Let’s start on a positive note: Yes, you can use public transportation in Israel.
Buses in Israel
Israel has a fairly extensive system of buses covering practically every city, town and village (or kibbutz!). This doesn’t necessarily mean frequent buses. In some places, usually inside big cities, buses run every 7-10 minutes. In remote areas, some villages may have a bus going through only once or twice a day.
The buses are modern and most won’t be overcrowded, although you could end up standing if you go during rush hours. Using buses requires careful planning, but it’s doable, especially if you’re not in a hurry.
Prices vary according to the length of your journey. Expect to pay under 10 shekels for most in-city buses and 30-80 shekels going in between cities and towns. Children under 5 don’t pay, and there are discounts for senior citizens.
Here’s a link to the website that has the timetables for all the bus companies:
Trains in Israel
Trains will get you anywhere from Be’er Sheva in the south to Nahariya in the north, with several stations in Tel Aviv in the middle.
Trains usually go on time (more or less) and you travel in modern air-conditioned carriages. It can get crowded on Sundays and Thursdays and during rush hour. Expect to see a lot of soldiers on the train during these times – many armed. Don’t worry, they’re just our kids going back to base or back home.
There is also a regular and reliable service going to Ben Gurion Airport and you can get from the airport to Tel Aviv and most other stations day or night using the train. Very convenient, as the train gets right inside the terminal.
You could even get to Jerusalem on a train, although the route is curvy and slow and it takes several hours to get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this way (as opposed to 45 minutes by bus).
Train tickets cost anything between 25-50 shekels, with discounts available for senior citizens.
Taxis in Israel
Cabs, or taxis, are available in every big and medium-sized city and town. They usually wait for passengers in designated places at central bus stations and near train stations. You can also hail a taxi on the street and you can phone in for one.
Prices vary according to the length of your trip. Israelis don’t usually tip cab drivers, though you may want to if you have a lot of luggage and you get a good service.
You will almost always be offered a fixed rate for your ride, but you can ask to have the meter running. It’s illegal for the driver to refuse so you can insist. As with cab drivers worldwide, there is always a risk of them overcharging (either with a high fixed rate, or just “taking the longer route” with the meter running). Tip: tell them in advance that you’re going to need a tax receipt. That way they know they can be traced if they cheated you.
Your chances of getting a good service are better when you go with a recognized operator. Avoid people who “hassle” you to go with them as you go out of a train or bus station. Keep walking until you get to the official taxi point, which is signposted and supervised. Alternatively, if you’re not coming out of a train/bus station, call in for a taxi.
So, Should You Rent a Car or Use Public Transportation in Israel?
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, right?
I think a car would definitely be more convenient. Israel is a small country and you can do a lot of sightseeing in one day with a car. Driving for 20-30 minutes will get you from one attraction to another so that you could visit several places on the same day.
For example, with a car, you can head out of Tel Aviv and be in Nazareth in an hour and a half, visit the town and be at the Sea of Galilee half an hour later. Travel the various sites along the coast of the lake, including Capernaum and Tabgha, each about 10 minutes away from the other in driving distance. Then drive on to Sefad, the Upper Galilee, the [[Hula Nature Reserve]] and even the Golan Heights and you can even drive back to your hotel in Tel Aviv. All in the same day without rushing it too much.
You just can’t do that with a bus. You’d be lucky to do both Nazareth and a bit of the Sea of Galilee and head back to the center. And you’re likely to be spending a couple of hours at least just waiting for your bus to arrive.
Car rental can be expensive though, so you need to consider your options.
Here are some things to consider –
- The length of your visit – if you have several weeks and intend on taking it slowly, you can certainly rely on trains, buses and the occasional taxi. However, if you want to cram a lot of sightseeing into a week or two, you would definitely need a car.
- Traveling with children – if you travel with kids, you probably want a car where you can keep a change of clothes, toys, snacks etc. You’d want to avoid the potential waiting times at various bus stations, some of which could be remote.
- Shabbat (Saturday) – trains and buses stop on Saturdays, the Jewish Shabbat. Service stops on Friday afternoon and resumed either on Saturday evening or Sunday morning. If you rely on public transportation, you should plan on spending Fridays and Saturdays in a big city where you can get around on foot or with a taxi.