It probably won’t come as any great shock to those of you who have followed this blog for a while, but… we didn’t do a great job in preparing ourselves for our honeymoon. One thing that we really should have locked in ahead of time is managing money in Israel. There were a lot of tips and tricks that, had we known before we left, would have made the trip much smoother. Here’s everything with which we really should have armed ourselves before we jetted off, put all together in one place, just for you!
Formally, Israel’s currency is the Israeli New Shekel, but pretty much everyone calls it by its former name: the New Israeli Shekel. This gets abbreviated to “NIS” a lot. Technically, the NIS breaks down into “aragot” (100 aragot to the NIS, so it’s the exact equivalent of cents in the dollar), but we didn’t see prices in aragot all that often. Most prices are rounded off.
For Australians: I couldn’t find a single Australian bank offering a traveller’s card that could be loaded with NIS. (If you’ve found one , please let me know in the comments below!) As such, cash and a standard domestic credit/debit card are going to be your only options. Forget about bloody travellers’ cheques! They haven’t been accepted since Jesus paid the tab for The Last Supper…
USD is accepted in some areas (particularly those with sites of particular historical/religious significance, like Jerusalem), given the high volume of tourists from the U.S. Still, there’s no guarantee, so we didn’t want to rely on that. We used NIS the whole way through.
Within an hour of landing in Israel, we made a friend in David – the world’s shonkiest cab driver (you can read the full story of our harrowing journey from Ben Gurion airport here). David strongly suggested that we should never attempt to exchange money in Israeli banks. Instead, he insisted, we would be much better off going to the “change stores” (on every corner in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem), where we would get a much better deal. We took it with a grain of salt. After all, he was a shonky cab driver!
We shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss his advice. The TripAdvisor forums absolutely back him on this one. In-branch bank exchange rates are absolute crap. Tourists are much better off visiting ATMs to withdraw cash using card, or exchanging currency at one of the change stores (which are actually very competitive).
One of the easiest ways to minimise fees and the cost of exchanging/withdrawing cash is to do it all in a single transaction. Still, no matter where you travel, carrying around large sums of cash on your person is ill-advised at best. Luckily, Israeli hotels have you covered on this front. Every room we stayed in had a re-programmable safe. Just drop your cash in one of those when you check in, and only take out what you need each day. Safe as houses!
(If your hotel doesn’t offer this particular amenity, try asking at the front desk – they may have a safe where they can store your cash and valuables during the day. Otherwise, keep it in your knickers or something, I suppose.)
ATMs and EFTPOS
Both Rowan and I have Visa cards, so our advice will be skewed in that direction. Visa is accepted at a lot of merchants (restaurants, larger stores, etc.), even when they don’t have a sticker or a sign indicating that they do so. Just ask: the staff will be more than happy to take your plastic money, if that’s how you wish to pay.
A word of caution, though: this wisdom doesn’t necessarily apply to the ATM network. A few of the ones we tried (especially the ubiquitous Bank Hapoalim, identifiable by their red square logo) didn’t accept Visa. They would spit our cards back out at us without dispensing any cash, much to the chagrin of the disgruntled Israelis lining up behind us. It’s not the end of the world, you can find ATMs that are compatible (and, indeed, it’s advisable to do so if you find yourself short, rather than go into a bank). It’s just that it’ll be a bit of a bear hunt each time if you’re using Visa.
Plus, the more often you hit the ATM, the more often your bank will sting you with foreign ATM fees and foreign currency transaction charges. The cheapest course of action will likely be to try and change as much money as you need before you go, and take it with you.
One big upside is that the ATMs all have an English option (well, at least in the areas we were visiting, anyway). In fact, they will usually switch to English automatically when they detect that you’ve entered a foreign card. There are still some old-school machines where you have to press a button to change the language, but that won’t kill you.
Israel is more expensive than a lot of its Middle Eastern neighbours. For my countrymen: it’s pretty much equivalent to Australian prices for most things, perhaps sometimes a bit more exy.
(That said, my husband and I are used to living pretty cheap at home, and less adept to doing so overseas, which may account for the perceived difference.)
The tips to scrimp day-to-day are pretty much what you’d expect back home as well. Buy your food from the shuk (market) as it’s cheaper than the am:pm (convenience stores). Public transport is cheaper (if less convenient) than cabs. If you can manage to tip appropriately and bargain well (see below), that will help a lot as well.
Tipping was a little strange for us, given that we come from Australia where gratuities are entirely discretionary. Israel considers it to be more “discretionary, but expected“.
The expectation applies mostly in bars and restaurants. A 10% tip is the accepted minimum, 12% is about average. Some touristy restaurants (though none of the ones we went to, in fairness) will automatically add service onto the bill, so keep an eye out for that.
Outside of bars and restaurants, it starts to get a bit vague. You do not need to tip taxi drivers (especially when they’re ripping you off – I’m looking at you, David!), and locals typically don’t. You can tip your tour guides, if you want, but again it’s not really expected. Our tour guide in Jerusalem, Hava, was really considerate; she mentioned at the end of the tour that we were welcome to leave a tip for her to split with the driver, but we were by no means obligated to do so. It made the whole experience a lot more comfortable!
Beyond those circumstances, it gets even more murky and mysterious. Ultimately, the general guiding principle seems to be that you should tip when you think it is warranted – there are no hard-and-fast rules. As for us, no one shouted or swore or spat in our faces when we tipped or didn’t, so I’m assuming we did okay. We just left roughly ten percent pretty much everywhere.
As our Travel Diary can attest, this is the bit that we really, really sucked at. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time reading up on this since we returned (good idea to wait ’til after the trip, eh?), and here is what I’ve learned.
- Do not look to happy when you’re in the store. Do not appear to be enthused, gregarious, or combative when you’re dealing with the shop owner. Your jolly disposition will offend them (Lord knows why), and they will tell you to get bent.
- Only bargain with the owner. Don’t bother in larger stores or shop-fronts where they have a part-time student on the register. The student doesn’t give a fuck if you’re being over-charged; it’s hard enough to get them to point you to a bathroom, let alone getting them to apply a discount on your purchase. Stick to the head honchos.
- Shop owners will call you “friend”. Do not be fooled by this. It is more like an admonishment than a compliment – you are not their friend.
- Make a point of only having/showing them as much cash as you’re willing to pay. Count out the exact amount in shekels. For the love of all that is holy, do not go in there with a 200 NIS note. Have exact small change ready to go.
- Bargain first when it comes to food and drink. Don’t wait until they’re handing the containers to you – you will have a snowflake’s chance in hell of getting a discount, and will likely cause a scene. We learned this one the hard way in Jerusalem.
- Always thank them. In fact, always be just a little bit genuflectional. Use non-confrontational language, be self-deprecating, and offer endless gratitude. Don’t try to be too friendly or familiar. Remember: their main goal is to get your money and get you to piss off, so they can go back to having a cigarette and a coffee with their real friends.
- If you can speak Hebrew, or look at all like you’ve assimilated even a little, do it. Otherwise, you will definitely get suckered in with tourist prices.
Managing Money in Israel: A Summary
In sum, you really just want to make sure you’ve got an idea of what you’re doing before you go. Either change all of your money up front before you leave, or plan to hit the ATMs/change shops while you’re there. If you’re looking to save a few bucks, catch the busses and trains and shop mostly at the shuks. Tipping can be a little tricky, but tourists from countries where gratuities are the norm shouldn’t have any trouble with it. Bargaining is the really tough part – bone up on my tips above, and rehearse it in your head before you give it a go.
Most importantly, never forget: money ain’t where it’s at. You’re in Israel for a good time! Live a little! Count your shekels when you’re dead.