(As first seen on JewishJournal.com) Whether you travel professionally as a journalist with a group or as an individual on a selected tour, you have to realize: you’re not getting all that you can from your visit. Really, it’s akin to being in a Communist country and only getting your news from approved sources. You won’t get to see the grittier parts of cities, restaurants that don’t play footsie with the local CVB’s (convention and visitors bureaus), cultural events unsupported by the city. You’re likely not going to have the time you need to take the best photos, chat with locals or feel unrushed.
How to have authentic travel experiences? You’re going to have to have a DIY attitude and fortitude. Recently, I traveled to Israel and was hosted to experience Shlomo Sixt car rental. I was happy to learn about the brand! Many in the US may be familiar with this European-based company, but they certainly know their stuff. There’s a whole range of vehicles, from compact through luxury cars and mini vans. I was thrilled to learn they had an automatic transmission car for me! They have 25 branches throughout the nation, with one open 24/7 at Ben Gurion Airport. The desk person saw that we were a tad disheveled after our long haul flight and offered us several glasses of water. That was sweet!
I was given use of a cute little Renault that had such great gas mileage, it only had to be refilled before returning the car. As I filled out paperwork, a Shlomo Sixt staffer took cell phone pics of the car, so that we could document its condition. That little keyless engine that could went back and forth from Tel Aviv up to the northern borders of the country, then to Caesaria, Tiberias, Akko, Nazareth and Jerusalem.
When you rent a car in Israel, there are some places you cannot go – such as Bethlehem – because of the current political situation.
When you’re driving in Israel, whether in downtown Tel Aviv, in the countryside or in the desert, you want a reliable car. We certainly had that! In Old City Nazareth, we found ourselves on “streets” that haven’t been for maybe centuries: little steep, curving, narrow footpaths that the locals still swing into to get into their stone building homes, but not real thoroughfares. Forget 3-point turns, try 20 point turns! Without good pickup on the car, I’m afraid I’d be still stuck in a Medieval-era road.
Though my car didn’t have GPS, it did have a life-saving component: a USB outlet. I was able to recharge my phone, which I relied on for directions! Now, there’s a GPS app – Waze — that was developed for Israel. Though you can set it to greet you in English, it still shows streets in Hebrew. I don’t read Hebrew. Further, it never worked audibly for me, so I think Waze needs to go way back to the drawing board.
What other experiences can you have in a Shlomo Sixt car? When you see an amazing pull-over place along the road, you can have an impromptu picnic. I was able to keep lots of bottles of water in the car, some fresh olives and other fruits to snack on. That saved us money! Though I wasn’t in the south where camels travel, I did see some ponies on the road om Tiberias.
Being on our schedule, we were able to linger over dinner with famed chef, Uri Jeremias of Uri Buri restaurant. We could chat with locals, arrange our own personal guide, take time haggling in the markets . . . though I don’t know if we were any good at it!
We were also able to see how real Israelis live, by staying at a couple of Airbnb’s. We got to see inside a settlement and even attend a highly charged community vote!
Last minute deviations and additions could easily be accommodated with our own rental car, including: a “calling” to the Church of Fishes and Loaves on the Galliee at sunset.
And, let’s not forget the shopping! Good luck hauling big and heavy things on a tour bus or van. So many of Israel’s towns have an ancient market, where you can get everything from spices to Judaica to gorgeous silk rugs! I scored all of the above.
Returning the car was simple. There’s a gas station to fill up right before you get to the airport security booth that accepts credit cards. After signing off, we boarded a van that whisked us right to the airport door.