A question that tourists frequently ask is “do I need a hire car to see Israel?”
The answer depends to a large extent on where you are going and what you plan to see. The Israeli bus system is a pretty reasonable mass transit system running frequently and being clean, safe and reliable. The railway system is less well developed, but, is really only relevant along the coast (and to Beer Sheva). The train to Jerusalem is of interest for its scenic and historical interest rather than a really viable mass transit route. The sherut (shared minibus taxi) is also an option on some of the main routes between the cities and to/from the airport.
In the main cities (particularly Jerusalem & Tel Aviv) a car is frankly a pain. It is nearly impossible to park and the traffic is rotten, and of course you have all the challenges of navigation in a foreign country (although Sat Nav / GPS definitely helps.) Our advice is that a combination of walking, bus and taxi is the best. It also allows you to see more and enjoy the atmosphere more.
(On the subject of taxis — you should note, however, that taxis are limited to 4 passengers unless you get lucky & find one of the handful of bigger ones and the rule is pretty strictly enforced. Within cities, taxis are not all that expensive and so make a reasonable transport option).
A hire car can be a good option for certain reasons
If you are planning to visit areas out of the main cities – for example The Galilee, Golan, Negev and especially if you have a family or group to move, then a car is definitely more practical and convenient. If you want to see things and stay in sort of out of the way places (such as villages and zimmers) then a car becomes almost essential – it will just be too inconvenient and time consuming to get around by public transport. On the good side, driving in Israel is reasonably convenient although it does have some local quirks and customs.
For foreign tourists in Israel, they give out some reasons why they chose to rent a hire car. Some would complain that while public transportation can get them to pretty much any location in the country, it is sometimes (or often) slow. For example — they’ll have to wait for a train (or a bus) to arrive. Once they get aboard, they might find that the line has so many stops before it would take them to their destination. Because of these stops, traveling by train or bus would take about two to three times longer than traveling in a car. That’s why it makes sense to rent a hire car so that people would be able to spend more time sightseeing (or any other tourist-y activities) without having wasted long hours of waiting at the bus stop queues and line stops.
Another reason — there’s no public transportation on Shabbat, which is essentially the rest day for religious and political reasons. That means practically all bus and train operations are shut down pretty much across the country from Friday afternoon to Saturday evening. Some (if not all) lines open again on Sunday morning.
So, if tourists happen to go out on Shabbat, they need to find some alternatives to get around. They may take expensive cabs or hail a “sherut” taxi. Sherut is a local name for a shared taxi that is usually cheaper than a standard taxi and goes along the same routes as the bus. However, it is often crowded and not always a reliable way to get around. Driving a hire car is a more convenient and comfortable option.
But should you always have a hire car with you during your stay in Israel?
Absolutely not! For example, if you’re going to stay in the big cities — particularly Jerusalem and Tel Aviv — then forget the car. Sightseeing in these cities (for example — Jerusalem’s Old City, or Tel Aviv’s Jaffa or the White City) is best done by public transportation and then by foot. Besides, tourist spots tend to suffer from traffic jams and insufficient parking spaces, especially during peak travel seasons.
Renting a car is great as it helps you get around the city outskirts or even perhaps to the more far-flung areas. It helps to plan ahead so you can rent a car before and after your stay in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.