Lessons Learned Part 1: Trip Planning

Trip Start May 14, 2008
Trip End Jun 17, 2008

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Most tourists that we saw were on bus tours.  This is by far the easiest way to visit Israel, as the days are fully planned, coordinated and guided.  In this way, you see the maximum number of sites in a 10-14 day vacation.   There is no question that there are significant advantages to this style of travel.  If however, you want to extend the pleasure of your trip two or three fold, AND you enjoy dreaming, planning, researching, coordinating logistics AND are also the type of people that can handle the daily choices and the unexpected, then independent travel in Israel is the way to go!  The people we met were friendly, most people speak English, and there are so many possible sites and activities that you will have the opportunity to tailor the itinerary to your preferences.  I enjoy the pre-trip planning immensely, the trip itself and the after-trip journal writing and photography processing is icing on the cake.  For us, our journey to Israel was something that we had anticipated for many years and was a dream come true!

These are our lessons learned and will be presented in multiple parts: Pre-Trip Planning, On the Trip; Afterward - Changes at Home, Personal Themes or Takeaways, Touchstones and Photography Tips.  Maybe your style of travel and personal preferences are different.  Our perspectives are shared in the spirit that they will stimulate your own thinking and be a springboard for discussion with you and your traveling partner.

WHAT MAKES ISRAEL UNIQUE?  Read about the country of Israel and ask, what makes this place unique?  What is it that makes this place, this place?  Why is it worth my time to go?  What is of interest to me?  Perhaps it is its religious sites and history. Perhaps it is its landscape.  Perhaps it is the gardens, museums, markets, music, nightlife, or the industry.  Maybe it's people watching.  Then, plan your activities so as to be able to experience it.  
PERSONAL INTERESTS.   Consider expanding your itinerary beyond the standard tourist sites that group bus tours will be going to.  One of the advantages of traveling independently is that you can tailor your itinerary in any way you like!  Take advantage of that freedom!  What are your personal interests?  Be it religion, music, architecture, dancing, archaeology, science, crafts, hiking and nature oriented activities, wildlife, history, different cultures, food, wine, hot baths, politics and government, etc.  research the opportunities as part of your trip planning.  It may determine the flow of your itinerary, the travel dates or your activities.  For example, we really love music so we identified two special events:  1) the candlelight tour and concert in Petra offered only on Monday and Thursday nights and 2) The Israel Music Festival in Jerusalem offered every year sometime in May/June.  We planned our itinerary to be able to attend these events.   With our keen interest in music and with the help of TripAdvisors, we got names of Israeli performing artists, listened to their music and again with TripAdvisors' help, located venues and performers during our time in Israel.   We purchased our tickets in advance (they would have been sold out to locals if we had waited until we arrived in Israel).  This kind of planning can help set the stage for very special experiences and memories.  If you have a particular interest, ask on TripAdvisor to see what options there may be to best develop that when touring. 
DIFFERENT CULTURES. I am fascinated with different cultures and traditions, so I research what those groups are and seek out a private guide.   Personal guides can also be "cultural ambassadors", not just taking you to sites, but explaining about the people and culture.   Without someone personally sharing information and walking through the streets with you, you would only be looking at buildings and not gain any insight into a particular history and culture, of which you know very little.    We will do more guided cultural experiences on future trips.  (Reference experience: Yemenite tour in Tel Aviv, which had as its basis our interest in Yemenite music.).

MEETING ISRAELIS.  Talk to people who have been to Israel and if anyone offers the name of someone who lives in Israel, thankfully accept and contact them!  If you are privileged to receive an offer to get together, definitely accept!   We really enjoyed meeting Avi's family and having Shabbat dinner in their home and meeting Debi, a TripAdvisor, for dinner.
WALKING TOURS.  These are a great way to learn about a place or a special interest.  There are many options:  self guiding from a guidebook  and signposts on location (Frommers, Fodor's, Jerusalem Easy Walks by Aviva Bar-Am), an audio headset offered by many museums, walking guides downloaded to your mp3 device (www.jerusalemp3.com), guided group walking tours usually lasting several hours, or a private guide.   We have done all except the downloaded guide.  When there is an audio tour offered, we will always go for that; you can go at your own pace and usually get more information that you could possibly ask for.  We also always go for a movie if it is offered.  With respect to group walking tours, a small group of 10-12 would be the maximum size so you can easily hear the guide and can go at a reasonable pace; be sure to ask in advance what the typical number of people are.  Private guiding allows for going at your own pace, developing your tour around your interests, the opportunity to ask questions and meet a local person who will share their enthusiasm and knowledge about the place.  We believe our private guides made a big difference in these locations:  the Science Garden at the Weizmann Institute, Tsfat, Jerusalem, Jordan and the Eilat Mountains, Masada.  We like to have guides as special treats, but not to over do them.  We enjoy finding our way from place to place, pacing ourselves, meeting people and experiencing the unexpected - which is daily fare when we travel by ourselves.
GUIDED TRIPS (OTHER THAN A CITY WALKING TOUR).   For a trip to Jordan or the Eilat Mountains, it makes sense to choose an adventure travel outfitter.  Find names of outfitters or guides by researching on the web and asking TripAdvisors.  Check references.  Before committing to a particular itinerary with specified activities, be sure to ask if the activities are appropriate for the season, what are the "must see" natural attractions of the area, how much time driving, and how much time actually doing activities.  For example, in the heat of the summer it might be better to do a night wildlife tour in the Eilat Mountains rather than hiking in a canyon in the heat of the day.  Communicate your preference for time driving versus activity time.  For example, we prefer more personal action than time driving around; kind of like choosing snowshoeing or cross country skiing over snowmobiling.  We always will opt for the non-motorized, more athletic back-to-nature activity. Make sure these preferences are in your itinerary.

TRAVEL DATES.  Aside from taking in special events, another consideration in determining your travel dates is peak season.  Peak season may have multiple definitions:  when the weather is best and most tourists visit, when Israelis take their own vacations in their own country, major national or religious holidays that will cause Israelis to travel.  I would avoid any "peak" times.  That being said, you may find yourself on your trip with one holiday weekend.  Carefully, consider where it makes sense to spend the time based on your personalities, interests and the overall pacing of the trip.  Don't choose to go to places when they will be busy - it's a real turnoff!  This learning comes from our Eilat experience that could have been just perfect for the much needed rest if it had been during the middle of a week and not on a holiday weekend.   Even quaint places can seem overrun and this detracts from the pleasure of a place; going to Rosh Pinna on the Saturday of the Log Ba'omer holiday was too much for us (but may have been just great for others!).

PACING THE ITINERARY.  Our personal preference is that we don't like to rush.  We keep a leisurely pace, believing that less is more.  We remind ourselves - don't try to see too much in any one day!   We focus on experiencing a place, and not being so tightly scheduled that we can't stop and talk to people.  Sometimes the interactions with the people are as or more important that the tourist sites.  We try to allow for downtime, with nothing to do so we can rest the spirit. 

With this approach in mind, when designing the itinerary, this translates into the following very general patterns: 
o       3 nights minimum, giving 2 full days in any location.  Depending upon the location 4 - 5 nights may be preferable to allow breathing room each day.  
o       We're not city people.  Generally speaking 5 nights/4 days and we've had enough.  We can always return on another trip if we really want to! 
o       There are exceptions that flow beautifully, but these are typically multi-day guided trips (reference experience in Jordan).  With particularly highly active sections of the itinerary, balance following days with low key quiet days in one location (reference experience, what Eilat should have been).
FOOD/RESTAURANTS.  We are not foodies so where we eat is not a major planning item.  However, we have dietary concerns that we have to be careful about, so from that perspective we are very particular.  What we always try to keep in mind is Israel's typical foods and local products.  We try to find an opportunity to taste and try!   Sometimes you get tips from people while you are in Israel.  Our two favorite eating experiences were the Magician in Tel Aviv for falafel and shwarma and Hummus Sayid in Akko that serves, you guessed it right, the best hummus we have ever had.  That just shows how personal restaurant choices are!  Some people I am sure would choose a much more upscale, more gourmet restaurant.  It's all a matter of taste!

From another perspective, if you think you are going to want to eat in the hotel where you are staying, then ask and investigate prior to making the reservation to make sure you will feel comfortable.  For example, we want to make sure that there are sufficient selections to accommodate some of our dietary restrictions, that we won't feel pressured to have a big multi course meal, where we can feel comfortable sharing and splitting our dishes and finally, where we don't have to get dressed up, but can go casually. 

PACKING.  We continue to over pack!  Will we ever learn?  I continue to rework our packing list.  I have a thing about not doing laundry on a vacation, but on a thirty-three day trip where the weather is hot, that was not a realistic expectation.  I had worked out where we would be at a hotel long enough to do laundry.  But in the end, we found that the weather in Israel is sufficiently dry that even the wool socks dried overnight!  We had packed some very light, non-wrinkle shirts from Patagonia and ExOfficio.  These were terrific because they were so easily rinsed in the sink or shower.  They were great, in both the short and long term styles.  I hope I remember this when we pack for the next trip.  There may be hope for us on this front. 

GUIDEBOOKS.  Prior to the trip, I used Frommers and Fodor's.  I decided to bring both along and I am glad we did as it was surprising how many times we found something in one that wasn't in another.  I would only carry one in my backpack, so in the morning I would see where we were going, and then decide which guidebook to pack for the day.

HOT BATHS.  What is it about humans that no matter what civilization, there is some form of group bathing and cleansing?  It's always interesting to see how it is done.  We got started on this interest in Japan and we plan to enjoy the local custom when we travel, be it a Turkish bath or hot springs.  Our lesson learned is to be sure to check with locals such as on TripAdvisor in the trip planning process as to the best location for this experience (reference experience, Hammat Gader).

LODGING.  Where we stay contributes to our overall experience of a place.  It is very much a part of the experience, not just a place to put our head to sleep.  I keep a list of guidelines that we review after each trip, make changes and then refer to it when planning our next trip.  Here is our most current version as a result of this trip:
o       Location, location, location - focus on convenient access to areas you will be visiting.  In the countryside, be mindful of "commuting" back to a base location, the time and quality of the roads.  In cities, location is especially important so you can walk to most places on our itinerary.  If a taxi is required, it's nice to be in a convenient location to get to other places.
o       Sense of place.   Some ambience, sense of history or in special location.  Local architecture and furnishings, not the homogenized hotel that could be anywhere in the world.
o       Quiet - able to get a good night's rest!  This is the highest of all requirements!  No road noise or sounds from area (not facing an alley where trash will be picked up early in the morning).  Within the hotel, a quiet location (not near an elevator or vending machines - preferably at the end of a hallway and on the top floor).  Be sure NOT to get a room that has a connecting door to the next room, since this will not be soundproofed (probably for families).
o       Size of lodge/hotel.  Small usually will provide a comfortable environment, more like a home away from home, people & staff having the time to talk.  Not too fancy or polished; unpretentious style. 
o       Guests.  Geared to couples, not families. No bus tours.  Not just Americans.
o       Friendly place (usually goes with hotels that are geared for independent tourists and not lots of bus tours).  This human factor of guests and staff can make all the difference in the experience of a place!
o       Choice of restaurants on premises, within walking or easy driving distance.  Menu offering so can eat light and not feel pressured for a multi-course fancy meal.  Within 10 minutes of hotel.
o       Balcony or terrace with a view; chairs & small table for comfortably sitting or lounging.  Enables enjoyment of the area.  Makes hotel room more spacious.  Cabins can also be very special, based on the "special location" that is tranquil and scenically beautiful.
o       Cleanliness of room - good housekeeping, refreshing towels
o       Breakfast included in room rate - nice environment, good selection, friendly staff
o       Concierge may be a factor depending upon the location.
o       Internet wireless, either free or very reasonable
Possibilities in future:  renting apartment, home or cabin. Visit a place first and consider on following visit.  Note, I like having breakfast served on vacation and communal breakfasts are a good way to meet people!

When choosing a location for rest and rejuvenation, do extra investigation to ensure that the location, accommodation and dates will meet that expectation.  Sometimes it is not the facility, but the fact that you may be there on a peak holiday weekend and it is just too full and busy.  If that is the case, choose an alternate location.

GETTING IN THE FRAME OF MIND.  Ask TripAdvisors and look on Amazon.com to choose books and on-line newspapers that will enable you to learn about the history and to also expand perceptions by learning more about modern day Israel.    Harvey likes to read the Jerusalem Post, an English language newspaper that is available on-line.  Our book recommendations: The Source (James Michener), The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land (Donna Rosenthal), The Haj (Leon Uris), and Kabbalah: A Love Story (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner).   About a month before departure, I take out these two books and re-read them and refreshing myself with some of the suggested exercises:  The Way of the Traveler by Joseph Dispenza and The Mindful Traveler by Jim Currie.

PREPARE A DAILY ITINERARY WITH PRIORITIZED OPTIONS.  Read guidebooks, scour the web for activities and sites to see, get advice on TripAdvisor.  Then prioritize the possibilities, with the help of TripAdvisor and your own interests.  For example, I came up with a list of sites in the Galilee, but since I knew we would not have the time for all of them, I asked for input from TripAdvisors as to the higher priority "must sees".    I created a prioritized list of daily options for each day.   Then, each day we reviewed the possibilities, letting our curiosity and what sounds interesting that day guide our choices.    Check hours of operation, movie times, and times of English guided tours in advance.  Include that on the daily options list.  On the bottom of each page, in bold type, print the touchstone "We don't have to see and do everything on this list!"

RESEARCH ANY PASSES TO PARKS OR MUSEUMS THAT WILL SAVE MONEY.  If you belong to any memberships that might get you discounts, check that out.  In Israel, we got free admission to several museums with our Platinum Mastercards (Zichron Ya'acov Museum of the First Aliyah, and Haifa Maritime Museum and Immigration Museum).  The National Park Pass worked out to be a significant savings for us, as did the Holy Pass.

MAPS.  If you are renting a car, get driving maps before you leave.  If you will be in a city, get walking maps.  This saves time while in Israel and allows you to visualize where you going.  As the days go by, mark the map where you have been.  This makes it easier to match up your itinerary with your photos when you are back home and also makes a nice momento of the trip.  Ask on TripAdvisor for any particular publisher.  For Israel, we really liked the "Israel Touring Atlas and Easy Guide" from A Carta Atlas, as well as a large folding map of Israel, and a detailed map of the Jerusalem.

CAR RENTAL.  Verify what insurance, if any, you are eligible for from your credit card insurance.  Consider excess waivers depending upon coverage and your comfort level with the insurance offerings.

RESOURCES.  Get on-line with TripAdvisor!  It is a great community of people sharing information and their love of Israel.  www.tripadvisor.com

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