Now here’s a little secret: Any time you take your entire family on an airplane and fly across an ocean and stay in a different country for any period of time — it’s not gonna be cheap. And our trip was no exception.
That said, we weren’t extravagant, and we did a number of “smart” things to keep our costs down. But the most important thing we did was plan far in advance (about 10 months) so that we could save aggressively.
This way, we had our entire trip’s budget funded before we ever left the US. So just what were those “smart” things? Here’s a rundown on what worked for us.
How to Save on Air Travel to Israel
We booked our airline tickets when flights were cheap. Very cheap. We paid roughly $575 per person ($550 for the kids, $610 for me and my husband), round-trip from New York. I’m not a maven of discount tickets, so this particular sale is credited to Dan’s Deals (and with thanks to my friend Abbi - who alerted me to it).
Now even though these tickets were “cheap”, most people probably don’t have a spare $3,000 lying around. I know we sure don’t. But what we do have is a vacation sink fund, so when this deal popped up, I was able to move quickly. Which is good, because the deal only lasted for about four hours.
I do not recommend charging travel to a credit card without a clear plan for how you’ll pay off that credit this month. Paying interest and penalties on cheap plane tickets turns them into expensive tickets VERY quickly.
Our domestic tickets to New York were $50, roundtrip, because we used miles. (Even on a mileage-booked trip, you still pay $10 per person for security fees.) We booked early, to get the “cheapest” tickets (in terms of miles) possible. We also opened a Southwest credit card when they were offering 50,000 bonus points after you spent a certain amount of money in the first three months.
These points were enough to get two of our tickets for free, and then we received a generous mileage donation from my dad. Thank you, Dad!
(Disclaimer: We always pay our credit card monthly – usually weekly, actually, cuz I’m compulsive like that. Therefore, I wasn’t overly concerned about getting sucked in by another card. If you have credit card debt already, adding another card to the mix – even for the free tickets – is probably not the wisest thing to do. Pay off the debt first, then plan the air travel!)
How to Save on Car Rental in Israel
We chose to rent a car for the whole three weeks we were in Israel. With young children, and our busy schedule, we wanted the freedom that comes with a car.
If you are going to be staying mostly in one place, you may decide that public transportation and the occasional cab ride make more sense for you. (Speaking of public transportation – we got to ride the new light rail in Jerusalem and it was fantastic!)
Remember: When it comes to car rental prices, size matters. Since we only have three kids, we were able to get a sedan rather than a van or larger car. This alone saved us $1,000+.
Even if you can afford the van, I would suggest getting a compact sedan anyway. Driving in Israel is challenging enough; don’t make the narrow roads and tight parking spaces harder on yourself by driving a bigger car than necessary!
Now here’s something you may or may not know: In Israel, you can not use your credit card to cover the insurance on your rental. You need to pay for it separately – and depending on which car you rent, it will cost you a pretty penny*. In fact, our car insurance ended up costing more, per day, than the basic rental.
The car rental was only $288 – but our total bill was $732. Yikes! Another thing to keep in mind is that if you or your spouse is an Israeli citizen, you are legally required to pay VAT, which adds 18% to your bill. Make sure you disclose this, because it can cause you a world of trouble if you are caught trying to avoid the VAT.
I initially ran searches for deals on our car rental through places like Orbitz and Priceline. In the end, I found a much better deal (with excellent personal service) from Ye-Rent Car Rental. I dealt directly with the owner, Yisrael, and he was able to put together a very competitive deal for me, including all applicable taxes (VAT) and insurance. I changed my mind a few times about the size car that we wanted, and he was very flexible with my changes – and always responded quickly.
Another plus was that he was able to negotiate a discounted rate for us based on not driving the car on Shabbat or yomtov – something Orbitz certainly wasn’t able to do!
I was so impressed with Ye-Rent that I reached out to Yisrael when I got back to the States to see if he would like to offer a special for KOAB readers. (You know, I had to ask!) He said he’d be happy to offer a FREE second driver (this is usually an additional fee on car rentals in Israel) for any KOAB reader who contacts him at a special email address he set up just for my readers.
If you’d like to have Ye-Rent price out your car rental in Israel — or anywhere in the world, just contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This offer is valid thru the end of 2013, so even if you have travel planned later in the year (or next year), go ahead and reach out to him now. As long as you make your reservation before January 1st, you’ll get the second driver free.**
By the way, Ye-Rent is a booking agency, just like Orbitz. No money changes hand with them; you pay the car rental company directly when you arrive in Israel.
How to Save on Accommodations in Israel
Want to go on vacation in Israel on a budget? Stay with my friends and family. Seriously, that’s my #1 tip! We have many wonderful friends and family members in Israel who graciously allowed our family to sleep at their homes.
If we’d had to pay for hotel or even a “vacation rental” (i.e. a furnished apartment), we never could have afforded this trip. We spent large chunks of time based in Elkana and Modi’in and did day trips as often as possible.
We only splurged for three nights of hotel stays — two by the Kinneret and one near the Dead Sea. If staying with friends or family isn’t an option for you, I suggest traveling off-season. The rates of everything go up, astronomically, during the chagim (both in September and again for Pesach).
A trip in November or February would probably save thousands in hotel bills. But prepare yourself that even in the off-season, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything for less than $125/night.
How to Save on Food in Israel
We ate out a lot, and quickly remembered how costly that can be. For quick meals, we grabbed falafel on the go, which was definitely cheaper than sitting down at a restaurant.
When we choose to splurge on a restaurant meal, we tried to keep our costs down by getting the kids meals for our (10 and 8-year old) sons, and just sharing our plates with our four year old daughter. She eats very little as it is, so paying $10 for a kids’ meal that she barely touched was crazy.
If you are staying at a hotel, definitely, DEFINITELY, take advantage of the full breakfast that comes with your room. Everywhere I’ve stayed, the breakfast has been delicious and plentiful – and you could easily fill up until much later in the day. We also did a fare amount of grocery shopping — and ate meals at our friends’ houses.
If you are renting a furnished apartment, I’d recommend planning to eat at least breakfast and ideally dinner at “home”. Remember: Most Israelis eat their big meal of the day around lunch time, and have a light, dairy dinner. Eggs, yogurts, cheeses, and salad fixings are easy enough to stock in your fridge.
(Just don’t buy American cereal! It’s crazy expensive!)
When it came to snacks, it was great to be able to get ice cream or other treats wherever we went, but I also traveled with granola bars, “vafalim” (wafer cookies) and fruit. When you’re out all day, it’s hard to eat on a predictable schedule, so these snack foods helped the kids manage on longer-than-planned stretches between meals.
One last small savings tip: We kept bottled water in our car trunk. A six-pack of 1.5-liter bottles costs around 13-15 NIS at the grocery store. One bottle at a tourist attraction costs the same. (If you don’t mind tap water, just bring an empty bottle with you and fill it on the go!)
How to Save on Souvenirs in Israel
We gave each of our children a “souvenir” budget ($50 each, plus some extra splurge money from their grandparents).
Our boys totally got it and did a good job of weighing their purchases. Both are sports fanatics, so their big purchase were sports team jerseys. They also got a lot of new kippot – some were our treats, and some they bought with their spending money.
Word to the wise: Preschoolers don’t really get the whole concept of a money. Forget about the exchange rate (which my 8 year-old really enjoyed calculating on all his purchases), my four year doesn’t really “get” the difference between $5 and $500. Plus she kept calling her money “tickets” and didn’t understand why we had to buy actual tickets to ride the light rail.
Just a quick tip on knitted kipot if you plan to buy those: The prices will vary widely depending on where you’re shopping, but we found that machine-knitted kipot should cost no more than 15 NIS and the hand-knitted ones will be 50 NIS to 80 NIS, depending on the size.
How to Save on Cell Phone Calls While in Israel
Things have changed greatly in the world of cell phones in Israel. New laws have opened up the market for genuine competition – which means no more second mortgage to have a cell phone! One of the new companies entering the fray is Golan Telecom.
Typically, Golan charges a flat rate of 99 NIS (about $30) per month, with no contract, which gives you unlimited calls, texts and data PLUS free calls to the United States, Canada and a couple of dozen other countries. It’s a tremendous value – but even better, right now, they are offering the first three months for FREE.
So, in order to have cell phone service while in Israel, here’s what I did: I signed up with Golan and paid 50 NIS for their SIM-card, which I put inside my unlocked iPhone 4. And then got the rest of my service totally free!
We had great coverage with the exception of several spots in the Judaean Desert (it was fine by Arad and the Dead Sea hotel area – but deeper into the desert, I lost bars). For my Israeli readers who have Golan, feel free to chime in. But I found it to be a huge savings over Orange, Celcom or Pelephone.
Even if you have to pay the 99 NIS for the month (or fraction thereof), it’s still a great deal. Of course, if you don’t have an unlocked phone, this won’t work for you, unfortunately.
There are companies that rent cell phones for use in Israel, but obviously the Golan deal was far better for us. Whatever you do, do NOT use your US phone in Israel. The roaming charges alone with kill your budget!
How to Save on Sight Seeing in Israel
There’s no such thing as free admission to sites in Israel (at least none that I’ve found), but most sites don’t charge for children under 5. Not having to pay for our 4 year-old definitely saved a lot over the course of the trip, so if your kids are under 5 be sure to mention that when purchasing your admission tickets.
For those going on longer trips (3 weeks+), you may also want to consider purchasing a one-year membership to the Israel Park Service. I think when we did the math, six sites would have been the break-even point. We only went to four, so it wasn’t worth it for us, but if your family likes to be outdoors and enjoys hiking, I’d definitely recommend running the numbers at the start of your trip.
So, those are my ideas on how to save a bit on your trip to Israel. What are your savings suggestions? Please share below!
*Supposedly you can use a World Mastercard to cover one of the two types of insurance – but you’ll still have the other one. And we don’t have a World Mastercard and I wasn’t about to open another credit card.
**Ye-Rent will pay me a small commission for the first 10 KOAB readers who end up using his services to rent their car in Israel. I’m not telling you about him because of the commission – that’s just icing. I’m telling you because I really want you to save money — and when I ran all of our options, they came up as far and away our best choice financially. I hope you’ll have the same experience!