Money Saving Tips for Vacations in Israel

Money Saving Tips for Vacations in Israel

Welcome to Part 2 of my Vacationing in Israel series. You can read part 1, my family’s trip report, HERE. Today, I’m going to be talking about how to save money on your upcoming trip to Israel.

Money Saving Tips for Vacations in Israel: From deals on airfare and hotels to rental cars and souvenir shopping

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!)

Money Saving Tips for Vacations in Israel: From deals on airfare and hotels to rental cars and souvenir shopping

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 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.

Money Saving Tips for Vacations in Israel: From deals on airfare and hotels to rental cars and souvenir shopping

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.

Money Saving Tips for Vacations in Israel: From deals on airfare and hotels to rental cars and souvenir shopping

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!)

Money Saving Tips for Vacations in Israel: From deals on airfare and hotels to rental cars and souvenir shopping

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.

Money Saving Tips for Vacations in Israel: From deals on airfare and hotels to rental cars and souvenir shopping

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!

Money Saving Tips for Vacations in Israel: From deals on airfare and hotels to rental cars and souvenir shopping

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.

Money Saving Tips for Vacations in Israel: From deals on airfare and hotels to rental cars and souvenir shopping

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!


  1. Mara, How did you cancel your Golan service? I heard that the cancellation must be faxed, which I believe is pretty expensive to do from the US, and it’s difficult to guarantee that they receive the cancellation. Thanks!

    Also, Group-e has a deal on the National Parks card right now. It’s 215 NIS for a couple or 294 NIS for a family.

    • Mara Strom says

      Allison – We actually haven’t cancelled it yet, as we are letting someone else use our SIM card for the next little while (we’ve got two months left). We may also transfer it to a family member. But if we do end up needing to fax in something, I suppose I’ll just ask a friend in Israel to handle that for me.

      That deal on the National Parks card is stellar! Thanks for sharing.

      • You’re welcome! I originally wanted to go with the Golan deal for an upcoming trip, but I was reading horror stories online from Americans trying to cancel the plan after they returned to the US. I have a quote from another rental agency for two rental SIMs with the same features as the Golan plan for about $90 for our trip, including VAT and shipping both ways. It’s been the best rental deal I’ve seen, but it’s from a new company and I’ve received no recommendations to use them. Silly trip planning annoyances.

        • Mara Strom says

          If you have friends / family in Israel, canceling really shouldn’t be an issue. (Of course, if you don’t have an unlocked phone, it’s a moot point anyway.)

          Nisiya Tova! I wish I could stow away in your luggage – I want to go back already!

  2. Where did you pick up the SIM card? Did you order it before your trip? Did you ship to a family member in israel or pick up in a store?

    • Mara Strom says

      I had the SIM card shipped to a friend, who activated it for me — so that when I landed I could put it straight into my phone. If you don’t have that option, you can definitely pick it up in a store. You may need to poke around their website to figure out where to do that – but I know it’s doable.

  3. Apparently, if you have a world mastercard you do not need to pay the car rental insurance fee. We did not know about booking this way (we live here so we don’t rent cars), but my SIL got stuck with a very high insurance bill.
    Re: Golan, just make sure you cancel so they don’t keep billing you! I bought a SIM card for my brother but never activated it, and they charged me for 3 months of service! (I thought they don’t accept non-Israeli credit cards)

    • Mara Strom says

      Elana – Yes, no issue with paying with an American credit card, thankfully. My understanding about the insurance is that there is CDW and Liability. I can’t remember what CDW stands for, but the Mastercard will only cover one of those two, so you’ll still have to pay the other. Yes, the insurance is VERY expensive! It’s best to be prepared for it, though, so it doesn’t come as a shock at the end of your trip!

  4. Mara, as always, I admire so your ability to organize and plan in a way that maximizes your budget. Six years ago I went to Israel for the first time for my oldest son’s chassuna. It was amazing! And expensive. In retrospect many of our expenses were unavoidable. The one bit I would’ve done differently is housing. We did not have friends or family to board us. I looked at several “alternative” options that friends recommended including staying at a nursing home. The cheapest option we found was a rental apartment in Geula. It was incredible, and seriously, I wouldn’t change the experience I had there for anything! That being said, I saw ads for apartments on fliers in a yeshiva (while we were there) that were much cheaper. Next time I will try to access that–someone who is planning to be away from their apartment and wants to rent it. The apartment we rented was owned by a small company that owned several apartments. I’m bookmarking this post for my next trip.

    • Mara Strom says

      Thank you – that is such a kind comment!

      One thought I just had for you — or anyone looking for a rental in Jerusalem — is to sign up for Janglo, which an English-language listserve for Anglo residents in Jerusalem. Often people will list their apartments if they are going to be away during the chagim, in particular.

  5. As expensive as it is make sure to get insurance. When I rented a car in Israel from another company i picked up the car and they give me a paper with the tiny nicks and scratches and dents that were there from before. After a 10 hour flight I didn’t really have patience to sit there and inspect the car. When I returned the car later that week the car company checked it like a hawk somehow finding many scratches that he claims weren’t on the car before, pointing to little dots on a paper as if I can tell from it. Make a long story short, I didn’t pay an extra dollar since I had insurance. Btw I don’t think I even made any new markings, though I can’t say for sure someone else didn’t mark up my car while I was parked.

    • Mara Strom says

      Oh that’s such a good point. My husband took pictures of the car with our cell phone before driving it out of the rental car lot. DEFINITELY do that – even with the insurance, most have a deductible and it’s a huge pain to be standing their arguing with them over that. Or so I’ve heard 🙂

  6. As far as sight seeing goes, if you are staying with friends, ask them about free things to do in the area you are staying in. Here in Modi’in, there are plenty of hiking trails on the outskirts of the city and in close-by Park Canada and Ben Shemen Forest, all of which are free. We also had a circus on chol hamoed with many free attractions and shows. In general, if your readers are planning a visit on Passover or Sukkot, many museums are free. The major museums will be packed, so you’d have to deal with crowds, but the lesser known museums are often fine.

    One last thing–if you’re splurging on a restaurant,, has coupons for 10% off for restaurants throughout the country.

    Glad you and your family had such a fabulous trip.

  7. Frema gordon says

    Please include me in your blogs we are planing to vacation in Israel for 2 weeks beginning 5/1/14 5 adults 4 children

  8. FYI on my last trip to Israel I brought a Brita water bottle with me (filter attaches to the cap and can be replaced). Saved me so much money that would have been spent on bottled water. I could refill anywhere. Highly reccommend it.

  9. Lauren Rosen Gerofsky says

    I am forwarding links to your posts on travel in Israel to my college-aged son. He is taking a Birthright trip soon, but also planning to stay a bit longer with a camp friend who lives near Tel Aviv. I am sure his friend will have fun ideas for a young person to do, just hang out etc. and my son will have done all the traditional sight seeing. But my son takes alot of meds and will need water, so the Brita idea is great! Also, I will investigate my son’s cell phone situation, so thank you. If someone can briefly explain “unlocking” a phone, we’d appreciate it. I do not know what it means. Tips on snacking/eating while out and about have been helpful too, as on his trip, my son is on-his-own for several meals.

  10. How far in advance did you order your SIM cards and how long did it take for them to be delivered?

  11. A few more tips:
    1. Keep looking through the coupon sites to purchase hotel and b&b accommodation, entry to tourist sites, etc (groupon, baligam, etc there are lots of them). You can also use sites like that gather all the coupons from different sites into a single site.
    2. If you can be flexible, weekday accommodation is soooooo much cheaper than weekends
    3. If you want a cheap accommodation option, the IYHA hostels are fantastic. They all have private rooms (4-6 beds) with ensuite bathrooms, a hotel-like breakfast included, and are clean and simple and cheap.

    • Mara Strom says

      Great tips, Nicole. We were originally going to stay in a hostel in Machtesh Ramon, but then had to reschedule that part of our trip (not enough time, sadly, during chol hamoed). They are very nice!

  12. Thank you for all of this helpful information. T-Mobile now seems to offer international texting and data at no extra charge and seemed to say that calling over WiFi from Israel to the US can be done at no extra charge (if the phone has WiFi calling capabilities).

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