On the one hand Israel is a country that is perfectly set up for getting to all the main tourist sites by car: good roads, and generally quite short distances between major areas. You can drive from Nazareth in the far North to Eilat in the south within 5 hours, meaning you can create an itinerary that doesn’t require many long journeys.
Hiring a car here will save you time and isn’t too costly (we were able to hire a car for $20 per day). You can set your own timetable and go with the flow as well as accessing areas which aren’t covered by public transport.
However, we’ll be honest: the driving in Israel is probably the worst we have seen anywhere in the world. We’ve driven in lots of countries including Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia and Italy and we have never seen anything like the driving in Israel! At points you feel like you’ve entered a level of Mario Kart - the rules go out the window and all everyone else cares about is getting ahead of you at any cost.
This isn’t a place to drive if you aren’t confident as the driving is extremely aggressive. The horn is 100 times more likely to be used than an indicator… however do we regret driving there? Definitely not.
Here’s our tips for driving in Israel as a foreigner.
What it’s like driving in Israel
The first thing we noticed about driving in Israel is that just about every car has a thousand dents and scratches on them. This is an indication of the crazy driving that goes on in the Holy Land. Finding a damage free car is pretty rare and even our rental company gave us a car that looked like it had been in a war zone - ironically a good thing as they couldn’t possible charge us for any damage!
Driving in the cities in Israel
The worst experiences driving in Israel are in the cities, with Tel Aviv being a particularly bad offender. In these places, drivers quite often act as if you’re not there. We were cut up on the motorways, cut up on quiet roads and we were even cut up whilst stopped at a traffic light (drivers here love to go down the hard shoulder and then cut right in front of you to ensure they get away first). People change lanes and pull off crazy manoeuvres here, expecting you will just deal with what they throw at you.
You’ll also find that beeping the horn at traffic lights is a national pastime, and within milliseconds of the light going yellow (yep, not green) you’ll have a fanfare of car horns telling you to get moving. This causes very slow moving traffic as well as long traffic jams in the major cities, so always add time onto your journey.
The best time to drive around any of the cities is Shabbat, when the roads are pretty quiet and your stress levels will drop.
Read next: The best things to do in Eilat
Driving outside the cities in Israel
On the whole, driving outside of the major cities is straight-forward. Israel is equipped with a very good highway system that is quick and relatively quiet. You’ll have sections around the Dead Sea where you can get stuck behind lorries trying hard to chug up the steep hills, but otherwise the easiest driving is on the roads outside of places such Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Eilat.
Read next: The best things to do in the Negev Desert
Hiring a car in Israel
Hiring a car in Israel is the same as hiring a car anywhere in the world. You can do it online before you arrive and pick up at multiple locations. We recommend getting insurance to cover the excess (you can do this online with several companies, as a part of your travel insurance or - gulp - with the car hire company themselves for an extortionate price).
Insurance with car hire can be incredibly confusing and it is something we’ve never really got our heads around. It tends to be that you legally need to cover Third-Party Liability, Collision Damage and Theft Protection.
We always book with rentalcars.com because those insurance policies are covered in the price you are quoted 99% of the time. It is well displayed on their search results, so you can always see if you have it included before you book.
We have read in a couple of places of people turning up to find a cost of $15-20 a day or more for an insurance policy that wasn’t included in the cost. Just make sure you book with someone who has included it before you get there as $20 was the price we paid in total per day including all insurance.
Every car hire company has an excess that they will charge you in the event of damage or an accident. You can get that covered by an insurer before you get there.
Israel Driving Rules
Which side of the road?
First things first, Israel drives on the right side of the road. Good for most of the world, something to work at for Aussies and Brits.
Israel is quite uniform in its speed limits and is well sign-posted. On the whole you’ll find the speed limits to be:
Urban areas: 50 kmph
Green Roads: 80-90 kmph
Highways (Blue): 100 - 120 kmph
Unlike the US, you can’t turn on a red light. You need to wait for a green light to do anything… or you know orange out of fear when all that beeping starts!
As far as we could see, the only toll road in Israel is Highway 6 which went from North to South. You can avoid it if you want, but it will be a much slower journey.
Otherwise most cities and highways are free.
Read next: The top places to visit in Israel
Top tips for driving in Israel
Parking doesn’t need to be expensive
Parking in the cities can be a very difficult affair. The kerbs are painted with codes to show you what to do:
red & white - no parking at any time
yellow & red - bus stop or something that will stop, but you can’t
blue & white - paid parking
The rule of thumb for the whole country is that car parks with dirt (not concrete) are free, so if you find a patch of dirt with a lot of cars, that will be somewhere you won’t have to pay. Using this method we parked for free throughout the country.
The hardest place for parking is Jerusalem, where you can only pay for parking with an app (that only Israelis can download, we tried on multiple phones). We recommend booking accommodation with parking on site, or finding this spot below in Liberty Bell Park near the Old City of Jerusalem to park for free. We parked here for days and didn’t need to pay! Just make sure you park on the dirt though and not the concrete.
Avoid Palestine with Car Hire
As far as we are aware, no car hire company will insure you if you drive through the Palestinian Territories. While we highly doubt you’d go to Gaza, it applies primarily to the West Bank and if you want to visit places such as Bethlehem (To visit Bethlehem, park you car and walk through the border wall).
This will mean that the timings you see on google maps may not be accurate. We had to take many long detours to avoid taking the car into Palestine.
Many gas stations don’t accept foreign cards
After 3 weeks in Israel, I still had no idea how to fill up at a gas station. All the displays are in Hebrew and require some magic code which only Israelis have. Be prepared to have to ask someone working there to do it for you.
Not all gas stations will accept foreign credit cards, so try to have cash on hand to avoid an embarrassing situation - like being sent into town and hitting the inevitable traffic jam and thus taking around an hour to get back with the cash, yes this happened to us!
Average cost of Petrol in Israel
Gas in Israel tends to cost about 6-7 shekels per litre ($1.68 per litre or $6.35 per gallon!).
Don’t hire a GPS, download Google Maps
We discovered that Google Maps can save maps to your phone, allowing you to do route guidance completely offline.
On your phone click on the menu (it should be 3 horizontal lines in the search box) -> offline maps -> custom map -> select the area you want to visit and download! This will save you money and alleviate the fear of getting lost. Not everywhere is on Google Maps, but it will enable you to get to most places. We found Google Maps to be generally accurate for all but the odd dirt road destination.
Many places to visit in the Negev Desert are on dirt roads
If you are looking to visit places in the Negev Desert, be prepared for long drives on dirt roads. Having an SUV for these areas will help, especially for the rougher roads like Wadi Baraq where the road has large rocks on it. We found this mainly applied to hiking destinations.
The majority of the rest of the country has paved roads in good condition.
Make long journeys on Shabbat
If you can make your long journeys during Shabbat. The roads are much quieter and we found the driving much more pleasant. Even driving around Jerusalem during Shabbat was a breeze!
Now while we wouldn’t suggest honking your horn with the best of them we would say that you will need to be a bit forceful to drive in Israel, particularly in cities. The alternative will often mean you will be stuck somewhere for ages waiting for a ‘safe moment’ to make your move.
So do you have to hire a car?
No it isn’t completely essential. If your plan is to visit Jerusalem or major cities, you can get by as the public transport system in Israel is pretty good. If you like to explore a little off the beaten track or you love hiking then it is necessary.
In our opinion a lot of the best things to do in Israel are only accessible by car and also gives you complete flexibility over your itinerary. Certain places in Israel get really busy so you may want to make early starts which may or may not work with public transport.
Besides, if there’s two or more, a car may become better value than paying for multiple tickets on public transport and the odd taxi ride. Taxis are extremely expensive in Israel even for very short city hops.
Where to rent a car
We always use rentalcars.com when we book car hire abroad as it gets the prices from all the major car hire companies (and a few we’d never heard of). It usually includes insurance for collision, third party liability and theft protection.
You can get a quote below.
Read next: Stunning things to do in the Dead Sea
Items that make driving easier
You don’t need to purchase a GPS as you can download maps from Google Maps to your phone. Simply find “offline maps” on your app, then select the area and download. This will mean you won’t need wifi or data to use Google Maps through Israel.
If you plan on using your phone, you will need a phone holder (no car rental company will provide one) and a spare cable so that you don’t have to keep bringing it with you from your hotel room or case. You can buy them on Amazon by clicking below.
This post may contain affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, that we will earn a small commission if you click through and decide to make a purchase. This helps towards the costs of running our website. :-)
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Are you planning a trip to Israel? Where is the craziest place you’ve ever driven? Let us know in the comments below!