This section originates from information collected for the guidebook published in 2000.
Most people travelling to Israel will fly there and consequently this part of the guide has concentrated on air travel. We have looked in more detail about facilities in Britain and in North America, but the same principles apply if you are starting from other places.
In Britain the best information source for disabled people is Tripscope, The Vassall Centre, Gill Avenue, Bristol BS16 2QQ website: www.tripscope.org.uk email:firstname.lastname@example.org Tel/minicom: 0845 758-5641 (with a local call rate from anywhere in the UK) Fax: 0117 939-7736, offers a wealth of practical information on travelling, and the aspects that disabled people need to consider. If you are flying and need special services, such as oxygen or if you have incontinence problems, discuss it with them.
There are a wide range of direct flights into Ben Gurion Airport just outside Tel Aviv, and an increasing number into Ovda Airport some 60km north of Eilat. In 1999 the new airport in Gaza was opened, with flights to Cairo and Amman, although the number of destinations linked directly to Gaza is likely to be quite limited for a while. El Al and British Airways have scheduled services between Ben Gurion and several UK airports. Charter flights to Ben Gurion or Ovda airport, near Eilat, tend to leave from Gatwick Airport or Stansted. A number of carriers offer direct flights from airports in North America. The main El Al enquiry number in Britain is 020 7 957-4100 and in the USA is (800) 223-6700.
Ticket prices go up significantly around the times of the main Jewish and Christian festivals, and it is often necessary to book well in advance at these times. Charter planes have the disadvantage of extremely restricted legroom, but we found that they gave good value from London. There’s a particularly clear explanation of the various fares offered by travel agents and airlines, and details of some of the conditions and restrictions which apply to particular tickets in the LP p100/101. It is worth taking seriously the injunction to reconfirm your flight at least 72 hours before departure as for part of the time, flights are slightly overbooked.
Security on flights into and out of Israel is extremely tight, and you may be asked to arrive at the airport as much as three hours before the flight time. You will probably be questioned thoroughly, and one key thing that they are looking out for is whether anyone has given you something to carry.
Advice for air travellers
There is good advice in Door to Door published by RADAR and written by Tripscope. It has a couple of chapters covering the necessary preparations for travelling by air, and on holidays generally. Airports and airline operators are generally used to dealing with chair users and other travellers with special needs, but the procedures adopted vary from airline to airline. Ultimately, what happens depends on who is on duty. If you need help to get on or off the plane, you may have to wait awhile. This aspect of ‘handling’ is normally the responsibility of the airport, and not the airline staff. In recent years it has all become much easier and more routine. As with anyone else, if you have a medical condition which might be a problem when flying, then consult your doctor. Get a brief note saying that you are fit to fly as this may be useful/necessary, and is a good insurance in the event of a hassle.
If you cannot get to the toilet, and the flight time is likely to be a problem, again, talk to your doctor. You will be in the aircraft for at least an hour to an hour and a half more than the advertised flight time to allow for getting on and off. Flight times are about four and a half hours from London and nine to eleven hours from destinations in the USA. There are simple precautions like not drinking anything before or during the journey, but your doctor may suggest the use of incontinence aids or medical inhibitors. It is essential to get proper medical advice.
The International Air Travel Association (IATA) has produced a standard medical information form (MEDIF) on which to define the help required. In some situations, for example if you have a chest condition, or if you’re recovering from an operation, medical clearance is required, and your doctor will need to complete the necessary form. The forms should be available from either your travel agent or directly from the airline. Some airlines issue a standard Frequent Travellers Medical Card (FREMEC) to people with a stable condition who travel by air. This reduces administrative hassle, but you must still inform the airline of your needs when you book.
The volume of air traffic is now so great that many airports cannot really cope and places like Heathrow and Gatwick get very congested during peak periods. Any hiccup in the system causes disproportionate disruption. But, in spite of all that, you’ll probably have a smooth flight. Take a good book with you !
When you book your flight, tell your travel agent any relevant facts about your disability and say what help you need; get hold of the tickets in good time, and check them; make sure that the airline has been notified that it is carrying a passenger with special needs, and preferably have something in writing with you either from your travel agent or the airline. Remember that there are special procedures for carrying an electric chair, and that is best checked directly with the airline. Airlines may be unable to carry some batteries, and if that is the case you may need to organise a replacement to be available at your destination. Consult Yad Sarah about this if necessary; if there is any doubt, carry a doctor’s note saying that you are fit to fly; travel light, and take an absolute minimum of hand luggage; if you have a wheelchair put a label and luggage tab on it before you travel, and remove anything that will come off, such as arms, footplates and cushions. Bring a soft empty bag to put these in; arrive in good time, and make your needs known at the check? in desk. Ask what the procedure will be; use a toilet at the airport before you leave, and make sure that the staff give you time to do this. Unisex toilets are available at most airports, so that your spouse or companion can help if necessary; on arrival check your wheelchair for any damage in the luggage handling system – and if there is, make sure it is reported and recorded at the airport. Keep a copy of the record and relevant reference number.
At most airports there are long distances, and disabled walkers are advised to make use of the special motorised buggies available at most airports.
One of the biggest difficulties for disabled people in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories is getting around to see and visit the sights. Choice is limited. The main public transport system is based on buses (with steps) together with taxis which are conventional cars. Tour operators mainly use coaches, again with steps.
The method that we used for getting around was that of hiring cars, which gave us the maximum amount of flexibility. In the two big cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv we also used taxis from time to time, since it solved parking problems, and meant that we didn’t always have to navigate.
Your choice of transport will have a huge impact on what you can do. In particular places, it needs to be integrated with the location of your accommodation. In Jerusalem, for example, it might be possible to stay in Beit Shmuel, and walk and wheel to a range of the major sights, taking a taxi to a few that are a long way away. In Tel Aviv, you might want to use the Center Hotel which is right by Dizengoff Square. In Bethlehem and Nazareth, there is a lot to be said for staying overnight near the main sights (in the Bethlehem Hotel or Casa Nova Guest House in Bethlehem – or the Galilee Hotel in Nazareth).
One of the basic assessments you need to make is whether using cars most of the time is in fact practicable. One thing it depends on is whether there is one (and preferably two) reasonably confident and competent drivers in the group.
There are a few companies offering adapted transport of one kind or another, and this is what is used by some of the operators running special tours for disabled people. The adapted transport can be quite expensive to hire, and many of the companies involve insist on providing a driver – for which the passengers also pay. Some will not go into PNA areas.
For many independent travellers, particularly those who cannot use the buses, travelling around by car is the only practicable way. There is information about car hire and for a small group of people travelling together it can both provide good value, and enable you to visit many of the key sites before (or after) most of those who rely on tour buses to get them around.
Driving is not for the faint-hearted, although outside the two big cities (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv), there’s not much too it, provided you are sensibly cautious and defensive. The driving style in Israel can be pretty aggressive, with some horn blowing and impatience. This is particularly bad on the route 1 linking Jerusalem with Tel Aviv, and also to an extent on the coast road up to Haifa. In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, you may prefer to choose your accommodation in a location from which you can either walk or wheel to many of the sights, or use a taxi. Up in the Galilee, down by the Dead Sea, in the Negev and in Eilat, driving is pretty easy and relaxed, and the freedom which a car can give you is invaluable.
Some of the signposting on the biggest roads is quite good, but most of it in the towns and on smaller roads is dreadful. One of the problems with the signs in the towns is that they are too small to be read while driving a car in strange and sometimes slightly chaotic conditions. Having a reliable navigator to map read and look out for signs makes an enormous difference. Street names are also put up in small print, not even filling the area of the sign. Even accepting the difficulty in many places of needing signs in Arabic, English and Hebrew, the final result often isn’t adequate for the visitor.
In towns, you have to get used to looking out for the blue discs with arrows which indicate which turn/s you can make at junctions and from what lane. British drivers will not be used to this system, and often you can only see and interpret these signs when you are quite close to the traffic lights (and you are probably in totally the wrong lane !). Note that a kerb marked with red and white stripes is a no parking area while one marked with blue and white means that parking is permitted. In many places parking seems to be totally anarchic, but as in many other countries, the enforcement of the regulations will become stronger as the number of cars increases. There is adequate parking at a great many of the main tourist sites, and also at most hotels and hostels. Even Jerusalem and Tel Aviv there are MSCPs or UGCPs in the city centre areas, and you don’t have to walk or wheel too far to get to the shops or restaurants.
There is currently very little adapted transport available in Israel (mini?buses with tail?lifts, cars with hand controls, etc). Eldan Rent-a-Car have just three cars with adaptations for hand controls.
Three companies with minibus/vans with a tail-lift are:
Hesseit, POB 470, Kfar-Saba 44103 Tel: 09 742-5432 Tel/Fax: 09 742-7177 have eight adapted vans with lifts. These are only available for hire with a driver at a rate of about $300-350/day (probably defined as an eight hour day). The vans cannot be used in PNA areas.
Orthopedit Rehabilitation Accessories, PO Box 2276, Kfar-Saba, 44425 Tel: 09 766-2627 Fax: 09 766-2688. They can offer full size vans which can take two chair users, and three others, and a safari which can take one chair user and two others. They have quoted us a rental charge for these vehicles of some $140 per day. They also say that the cost of renting a vehicle with a driver is nearly $50 per hour. The vehicles can be used in PNA areas; and,
Zer Services Ltd, Tel: 03 732-1132 Fax: 03 573-1037. They have adapted vehicles which can be used only with their driver, and cost about $400 for an eight-hour hire.
The prices quoted are simply those given to us in reply to our general enquiry. More detailed negotiations are clearly needed before renting a vehicle as there may be some distance from the hire company offices to where you are staying, and you need to clarify when the charges start. Distances in Israel are generally quite small, so unless you are going down to Eilat or the Negev, there should be no extra charge for the distance travelled. The question of being able to enter PNA areas is clearly important if you want to visit Bethlehem, Jericho, Nablus, or other places under PNA control.
Nazarene Tours Ltd, PO Box 86, Nazareth 16100 Tel: 06 645-2171 Fax: 06 657-1524 can offer an accessible bus which can carry up to ten chair users, and sixteen other people, all for $500 per day. A good offer for a group of people.
By bus or sherut (service taxi)
The main public transport system is based on a combination of buses and of shared taxis called sheruts. These provide an economical and effective method of getting around, but they can hardly be described as ‘accessible’. The buses are crowded, and it is a fairly competitive business getting on board. There are steps up to get into a bus, and most sheruts these days are mini-buses with two big steps to get in. It is not a method of transport that most disabled people will be able to use. The service taxis are usually either stretched Mercedes cars carrying six or seven passengers, or minivans carrying about a dozen people. They go, generally from recognised ranks and operate with fixed fares which are a little above those on the bus. Service taxis leave when they are full, and on the more popular inter-city routes they fill up quite quickly. If you can manage the access and negotiate the language difficulties they can provide a really good way of getting around.
This is where the Middle Eastern character of the country is displayed. Taxis are normally large Mercedes cars, and provided you can get in OK are potentially very useful. However overcharging (particularly of unwary tourists) is almost the norm. If you use taxis, do not believe the ‘my meter isn’t working’ story, nor the one which says ‘for you, my friend, a special price’ – which is probably twice as much as it should be.
Getting value and fair play is difficult, and yet you don’t want to be spending all your time thinking that you’ve been ‘done’. There are honest drivers around, and the best thing is to get one or two rides where the driver has agreed to use the meter. You can then reward that by giving a reasonably generous tip, and you have a good yardstick for comparing other fares which are demanded or requested later. Your hotel or hostel may well be able to order a cab that will operate fairly – in that the driver will want to keep his reputation and get repeat business.
Overcharging is not something to worry about unduly. You are on holiday in unfamiliar surroundings, and what you are there for is to enjoy yourself, and see and experience many new things. If you get ‘taken for a ride’ once or twice, put it down to experience, and think of it as being part of that. Once you know the form you can protect yourself against most of the excesses. More serious is that some taxi drivers are unwilling to stop for (or carry) chair users. Although we haven’t found this to be a major problem, be aware that it does exist. You just have to be patient and persistent – and you’ll get a cab eventually.