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.
Attention four-star and five-star hotel hoppers: You know you’ve seen it there, lurking in the closet above the logo-emblazoned single-use slippers and plastic laundry bag. Your first reaction is probably something like, “Hey, that’s a really nice looking shopping bag!” to be swiftly followed by something like, “But hey, why did they stick a shopping bag in the hotel room closet? After all, it’s a hotel room, not a shop.” Followed, after a fumble as you reach out to touch it — thick! sturdy! glossy! — by a third wave of reactions: “What am I supposed to do with it? Am I supposed to use it? Am I allowed to keep it?”
Damn you, hotel shopping bag! You come on so innocently but really the angst that follows, sometimes it really is too much. We’ll think about you later, and about how you sit there in the dark night after night branding yourself in silence after we Instagram that room service menu that faux-tantalizes us with the promise of $28 challah French toast plus 15% room service charge, no gratuity included. . .
After all, when in your hotel room you’re supposed to think of other things like the bed or the bathroom or leaving your hotel room to go out and explore, or about things like airports and train stations and taxis and packing and unpacking and packing again and yes, that’s when your mind turns once again to that quixotic creature in your temporary closet, the monogrammed, or sort of monogrammed hotel shopping bag. Could you–I mean what if you—could you seriously even—why yes, I even have, and more than once!–think of it as a complimentary complementary suitcase? YES! YES! YES!
But like most pairings, what at first seems like a natural match can drift into the domain of delusion, and end up as a downright pain in the derriere.
Allow moi to tripsplain: Let’s say you’re in Paris. You arrive at your hotel with your favorite suitcase. After a day in Paris you buy a couple souvenirs. After two days you’ve acquired a bunch of new stuff in a variety of shopping bags, some nice, some just cheap plastic. After three days you’ve accumulated so much crap because you’re such a … that you’re contemplating buying an extra suitcase but–why should you when that sweet hotel shopping bag beckons? Just use it as that extra suitcase! And impress all those losers in the security line (you know, the tightwads who wouldn’t spring for TSA Pre) with the fancypants paper imprint of the Park Hyatt or Ritz or wherever you just had your (hopefully not too woefully scripted) luxe chain hotel experience.*
*Because the hotel shopping bag phenomenon is not widely seen outside the larger luxury hotels, although there are exceptions. Anyway…
Just do it! DOOO IT! Grab that bag! But hold the 420, it smells bad. Do it like so: think stacking.
That’s a hotel shopping bag from the lovely Sofitel Athens Airport Hotel, which made it through round one without a hitch: it’s pictured above, on top of my carry-on, in the lobby of the St. George Lycabettus Hotel in Athens. Shopping bags and cross-town taxi rides make for easy bedfellows.
Making it to round two, i.e. getting through airport security, is another matter altogether.
The problem is this: if like me you have seen the hotel shopping bag as a cost-free substitute for an extra suitcase, you will proceed to pack it up like one. Only it isn’t one, which will became painfully evident as everything falls out of it once you tilt it over to send it through the X-ray machine.
But let’s suppose you didn’t overstuff it and it does make it through the security process intact. It’s surely going to get scuffed between the terminal and the tarmac, so once you finally get home, if you’re going to try to impress your neighbors or fellow grocery shoppers with that hotel brand-emblazoned shopping bag, it’s fine but it will be clear that you are no Kim Kardashian, not even Dubai-dwellin’ LiLo and that you had no limousine or VIP service, that you did all the heavy lifting on this trip yourself, and that despite the glamorous patina momentarily conferred upon you by the ever-flirtatious hotel shopping bag, your dreams are as tattered as it is now, and you are still a loser.
Oh God damn you, hotel shopping bag!
Do you have a Hotel Shopping Bag story of your own? Great! Keep it to yourself.