Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport: Testing Tourist Fortitude
Having very recently returned from a honeymoon in Israel, I’ve realised just how little us gentiles know about the world of wonder that awaits for tourists to the Holy Land. Searching for information on Israel will lead you down a rabbit hole of political news coverage, or you’ll find yourself enveloped in religious pilgrimage propaganda — neither of which are much use for millennial newlyweds hoping to plan the trip of a lifetime. As such, I’ve made it my mission to spread the good word, and publish everything that we might have liked to read or needed to know before we made our way there.
Today’s important lesson: Ben Gurion Airport is a test of your worthiness to enter Israel. Be prepared.
Let’s illustrate through anecdotes, shall we?
On Day 1, we landed and made our way through immigration and customs mostly without incident — our first real sticky moment coming once we’d collected our bags and walked out into a blast of dry Israeli heat. We quickly realised that “just hopping on a bus or a train” into the city wasn’t going to be as simple as we’d anticipated… even with the combined powers of two paper maps, a bunch of signs (all in Hebrew), and our phones. The airport wifi was sketchy at best, and we definitely banked a little too much on English being the lingua franca. We found signs that looked like they may have pointed to a bus stop, but we couldn’t actually see any busses. There was a timetable of some sort on the wall, but it could have been for busses or trains or the bloody flights that day, for all we knew. Long story short: we ended up getting definitely ripped off by “David”, one of the shonkiest cab drivers in the Middle East.
David clearly sensed our desperation, and swooped in to save the day with his offer of safe passage by cab into Tel Aviv. He took a very strange and roundabout route (we panicked a bit when there were signs saying “Tel Aviv straight ahead” and he turned right — which happened more than once); David waved off our concerns with an explanation in heavily-accented English about traffic congestion. He chain-smoked the entire way, strong-armed us both into trying sips of his cold (and kinda murky?) coffee, and did not use his indicator once… but he was also really lovely, on the whole, and got us to the hotel in one piece, so we felt we had no choice but to fork over the fistful of cash he demanded. So, take note: 250NIS (around $100AUD) is far too much to pay for an airport transfer, and you should really sort something out ahead of time, lest you end up in the hands of David.
For most honeymooners, that would have been the end of it: we wouldn’t have had to waste another moment’s thought on it, save for having the hotel concierge arrange a transfer for us to return to the airport upon departure. Right?
On Day 3, we realised that we had once again proven ourselves to be those idiot philistine tourists: our plans to “hop on a bus” to the Dead Sea were going to be foiled by the Shabbat. Yes, Shabbat is a fucking serious business — gentiles, be aware. Our options, according to the always-friendly and very-patient hotel manager in Tel Aviv, were to catch a cab (with a fare running in the vicinity of 600NIS (about $250AUD)… or hire a car. We did a spot of Googling, and — believe it or not — the latter turned out to be the more economical option. And our only opportunity to secure this economical hire car would be that very afternoon, before the whole bloody country shut down for a day of rest. Right!
My new husband carefully mapped out a route to get us back out to the airport via public transport, where we could rent a car and drive it back to the hotel (no amount of Googling could find us a car rental office in the city, so we figured we’d just going to it). The first leg — walking to the bus stop — went fine, but it all turned a bit pear-shaped from there. The bus took forevvveerrrr to arrive. I’m not ashamed to say I panicked: I swung my phone around wildly, trying to connect to the dodgiest wifi in the history of the Internet so that I could download a copy of the timetable. My husband (the prick) remained cool as the proverbial cucumber, and sure enough — on my eighth attempt to re-load the website — the bus arrived.
The bus itself was fine: we didn’t have any trouble getting a ticket (we can’t speak Hebrew but our larrikin-tourist sign language is top-notch), and we weren’t travelling for very long… but we were dropped in what I can only assume is one of the circles of Hell. The throng that we had no choice but to join was made up of exclusively sketchy types, including one woman — clearly having a Very Bad Day — taking an alarmingly long hit off her homemade bong in the middle of the street.
We found the train station and (would you believe it) walked straight into a pack of soccer hooligans. The security was like nothing you’ve ever seen — dozens of IDF soldiers manually checking every bag, rifles slung across their shoulders and mouths set in steely resolve. We got through the scans and metal detectors, jostled on every side by men in football jerseys and scarves shouting non-stop at one another in some motley combination of Hebrew and Arabic. We joined the queue for tickets (though I say “queue” in the absolute loosest sense, the place was a fucking zoo).
We somehow made it to what appeared to be the front (politely allowing dozens of angry teenaged boys to barge their way in front of us, around us, behind us, under us…) and procured our tickets from the very unfazed young girl manning the desk. We dutifully navigated our way to the assigned platform, where we found yet more hooligans, hooliganing all over the joint, watched over by yet more soldiers with big guns. Two minutes before our train was due to depart, the previous train still hadn’t left the station, and my husband realised that the platform for ours had changed. We hastened to the next platform, me gripping his hand for dear bloody life, and this time we ran straight into a different type of crowd. This one was ready to fucking riot. The train was there, sure enough, ready to depart with ample space for additional passengers to come on board (as far as we could see through the windows, anyway)… but some prick with an earpiece and a God complex only let about five people climb on board before summarily shutting the doors.
We sensed that the crowd was about to erupt, so we bid another hasty retreat. There were about a billion announcements blaring from speakers in all directions, but they were all in Hebrew, so about as useful as tits on a bull. After a few minutes of scampering back and forth, we blessedly overheard one guy tell another guy in English that the next train to Ben Gurion airport was departing from Platform 3, so we just ran for it and got there by the skin of our teeth.
We high-fived, once on board, thinking we’d made it! Indeed, the train pulled out and it didn’t take long to get to the airport at all… but the adventure wasn’t over.
Upon arriving, we somehow managed to make our way to the car detailers’ office instead of the service desk, and we found ourselves on the receiving end of what we’d come to call Traditional Israeli Customer Service. We overheard another lost soul asking one of the detailers how to find her car bay, and he helpfully suggested that she “go outside and look”. You can’t make this shit up, folks!
When we found the actual desks, it was another fucking zoo (as if we hadn’t had enough of that for one day). There were easily 100 people lined up at some of the outlets, all hot and cranky and tired from long-haul flights (like they could be anywhere near as harrowing as what we just went through). By some divine providence, our reservation was through the only outlet that didn’t have a queue; we could have cried with relief by this point.
The interaction at the desk took us about 40 minutes all up, but we still didn’t have it as bad as some folks; we overheard the guy in line behind us say that he had waited in line at another outlet for over an hour, only to get to the desk and realise that he’d been standing in the wrong queue. Poor bastard.
Anyway, even once we were sorted, it took us a while to find the car — the signs on the sign-posts indicated very different numbers to the ones spray-painted on the ground (turns out, we should have followed the signs for Bays 13–20 to find our car parked in Bay 51 — silly us!). I quickly determined that my husband and only my husband should take the wheel: Israelis drive on the right, and I’m a nervous driver at the best of times — this didn’t seem like the time to learn how to do everything the other way around. This bloody wonderful husband of mine managed it like a pro, navigating the insane Israeli traffic and winding highways encircling Ben Gurion with just the GPS tablet to guide him.
By the time we got back to the hotel, needless to say, we were completely fucking wiped. To add insult to injury, the hotel manager was kind enough to advise us the next morning that she would be happy to guide us to car hire outlets located in the city, rendering our entire little life-threatening expedition the previous day entirely redundant. Still, the whole thing seemed pretty bloody funny in retrospect — amazing what a belly full of food and a good night’s sleep will do for your perspective…
The lesson here, folks, is this: transit to and from Ben Gurion airport will chew up and spit out even the most resilient of travellers. If you’re a first-timer travelling to Israel, I would strongly recommend arranging an airport transfer through your accommodation prior to your arrival — maybe you’ll pay a couple extra dollars, but it will keep you out of the grips of the far-more-expensive David or the far-more-harrowing public transit options. Don’t say I never taught you nothin’…
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To read about our final expedition to the airport departing Israel, hot tips, insider tricks, and other fun anecdotes, check out my blog series: www.ourhoneymooninisrael.com
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