I recall vividly the first time I saw Casablanca (no, not that Casablanca, the real Casablanca) because it was from the deck of a ship and all I could see was the tall minaret of the Hassan II Mosque rising like a silent falcon above the choppy Atlantic, ribbon of green tile at the top.
A beacon of promise and an invitation to the unknown.
Now, more is known. Look.
Are you looking for the next cool place? If so, why? And for God’s sake don’t go looking here.
Come to America! Visit scenic lands stolen from the locals! Overpay for fake-buttered popcorn! Observe the sermonizing of once-fêted, belatedly reviled Hollywood phonies! Pray at Walmart! It’s all so fucking amazing!
For almost as long as I’ve been traveling to Israel, and certainly when I lived there, prospective visitors have asked me the same question: where should I go? The answer to that question depends of course on what your chief interests are, but is often followed by whether you should travel independently or book a tour. To which I respond, Would you book a tour to New York City? If you crave structure and the patina of supervision, or are easily daunted by tall buildings or whatever or have another acceptable excuse, well fine. Otherwise, come on: If you’re old enough to swallow a craft beer, you’re old enough to take on pretty much any place on your own (except Florida, of course.)
Israel is a small country, it’s a friendly country, it’s an expensive country. But between flying a low-cost airline into Tel Aviv, doing hotel research in advance and perhaps using AirBnb, you will do just fine and you will also take off from Ben Gurion International Airport with a fatter wallet. Forking over a small fortune to a tour company to take you places you can just as easily get to yourself, and on your own terms and pace, is just silly. Beyond that, travel is about stories and discoveries, not scripted experiences. Right?
With the above in mind, here are four ways and reasons to travel in Israel if not for free, then at least pretty freely.
1. Are you some kind of Heeb? Can ‘ya prove it?
If you are kind of young and demonstrably Jewish, it’s likely you are eligible to travel to Israel for free on a so-called Birthright Israel trip. These free 10-day trips are brought to you by the selectively munificent and devilishly handsome casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. So if you meet the basic qualifications, yay! You’re in! And yes, I realize it’s an organized tour, but it really is free so like, hey now.
2. Are you Kim Kardashian, Conan O’Brien or some dumbass basketball player with a Coke endorsement?
If you are Kim Kardashian, Conan O’Brien or some dumbass basketball player with a Coke endorsement, you may actually be able to travel to and in Israel mainly for free because Israelis, not unlike the French, are impressed by culturally bankrupt American celebrities with small IQs and large Twitter followings. They tend to believe having them peck the Western Wall and pose by the beach in Tel Aviv is tantamount to free advertising (forget that it costs Israel’s taxpayers a bundle) and it’s well-known that the richer and dumber you are in America, the more free stuff you get.
3. Are you L/G/B/T/Q?
If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, you have probably read about gay friendly Tel Aviv somewhere–maybe even the failing New York Times! The Middle East as a whole is hostile to homosexuality and there are sizeable pockets of Jerusalem where all things gay are still largely taboo, but Tel Aviv is one big badass rainbow exception.
Now, that brings me back to the question of New York City. I don’t know of many LGBTs who would trade a week of galavanting around the Big Apple for the rigidity of an organized tour. Between online guides and apps and social media anybody can put together a fly itinerary of their own within hours, if not seconds. Tel Aviv is the Middle Eastern answer to New York City. Easy to get around. The gay beach? Smack in front of the Hilton hotel, easy to find. You can book a day trip to the Dead Sea or Jerusalem from virtually any hotel reception desk and frankly why wouldn’t you? So easy and cheap, too.
Friends, unless you have a very specialized interest in archaeology or the Bible a day in the religiously overcooked Israeli capital is enough. In fact, the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv is older than Jerusalem, and it comes with a sea breeze, too. Just like most guidebooks get Israel wrong (even one I wrote, though it’s otherwise almost perfect, I cannot philosophically recommend because the publisher predictably refused to put Tel Aviv, the commercial capital of Israel, on the cover. Sad!)
In other words people of the pink, you don’t need no guidebook and y’all don’t need no organized tour neither: Tel Aviv should be the locus and focus of your Israel trip. After you book your flights and hotel there, the rest is just hocus-pocus. Save your money.
4. Volunteer, bitch.
There may be ways to travel and stay in Israel for less by volunteering. For example, you could work at an archaeological dig. Or spend a week volunteering for the IDF.