Although Israel is a very small country, its wealth of different terrains, climate zones, and historical periods can make it overwhelming to tackle on your own. Should you join an organized tour? That depends on whether this is your first visit to Israel, if you have friends or family in the country, and how much local color you want to take in.
If it's your first time in the Middle East and you're looking for a general overview of the main historic, religious, and natural sites, an escorted tour can be both efficient and cost effective. These trips are led by licensed tour guides and usually include visits to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Masada, and the Dead Sea. It's not difficult to find itineraries tailored to your religious affiliation or areas of interest.
If an organized trip isn’t for you, a private tour with a licensed guide is another option. However, all tours aren’t equal, so be sure to check out the itinerary to make sure it matches your pace and whether the accommodations and restaurants are up to snuff.
Licensed tour guides must undergo a rigorous two-year training program with annual continuing education required to maintain their credentials. Licensed guides can put together a complete customized itinerary for your group or take you on a private multiday tour. Many are native English speakers and have fascinating backgrounds they’re happy to share with you.
Freelance guides may approach unaccompanied travelers near the Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem and other places on the beaten path. Some of these guides aren't licensed, so it's impossible to know whether the tour they're offering is worthwhile or if they're planning on taking you to their best friend's souvenir stall. It's best to ignore them and walk on.
Modern, air-conditioned limousines and minibuses driven by expert, licensed guides are a great way to see the country for anyone whose budget can bear it. At this writing, the cost was US$500 to US$600 per day; add another US$100 for bigger vans. An additional US$150 to US$200 per night is charged for the driver's expenses if he or she sleeps away from home. Half-day tours are also available, and you may hire a guide without a car.
Abboud Tours. Haifa-based Abboud Tours, run by Israeli Christian Abboud Maroun, specializes in private minibus tours of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, Nazareth and the Galilee, and the fascinating walled city of Akko. 04/852–5077; www.abboudtours.com. From $80 to $150 per person for day trip from Haifa to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea; price depends on size of group.
Consolidated Tour Operation. This experienced tour agency was founded by Moshe Eshed, a former president of the International Association of Tour Managers. The company arranges everything from day trips to Nazareth and the Galilee to a few days in Petra. Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv. 03/522–5253; www.highlightstoursofisrael.com. From $71 to $89 dollars for a day tour of Jerusalem from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
Superb Limousine Services. Getting around Israel can be daunting, so leave the driving to this experienced company. The company also arranges private tours for special interests such as archaeology or hiking, so prices vary widely. 03/973–1780; www.superb.co.il/eng/.
Several major international tour companies run all-inclusive one-to-two-week trips geared to the general traveler. On a smaller scale, two Israeli-based companies—Egged Tours and United Tours—offer shorter excursions. Prices start at around US$50 for half-day tours, US$100 per person for one-day tours, and US$300 per person for two-day tours. These tours are good options for solo travelers or people who don't want to be part of a tour for their entire trip.
Egged Tours. This well-regarded local company runs half- , one- , and two-day bus tours to many parts of Israel and the West Bank. There are also four-day tours that take you farther afield. 03/694–8888; www.eggedtours.com. From $88 for day trip to Nazareth from Tel Aviv.
Israel Discovery Tours. Perfect for first-time visitors to Israel, this company has tours that give you a general overview of the country. Tours last from 7 to 12 days and often include seldom-visited sights. 800/362–8882; israeldiscoverytours.com.
United Tours. If you want to explore mostly on your own, United Tours has great half- and full-day tours that give you the lay of the land. Several trips cover just Jerusalem, while others take you to Masada and the Dead Sea or the Roman ruins at Caesarea. 03/617–3333; www.unitedtours.co.il. From $104 for a one-day trip including Caesarea, Haifa, Akko, and Rosh Hanikra.
Israel My Way. Haifa-based Israel My Way has exciting six-day "Art Lover" tours that include curator-guided tours of the latest exhibits at the country's top museums, studio visits with local artists, and a dinner in a chef’s private home. They also offer other private tours tailored to your interests, such as architecture, diving, Israeli lifestyle, and other themes. 77/300–5717; www.israelmyway.co.il.
Tourist Israel. For a few half-day bike tours (or a bike-and-hike combination) throughout Israel, try Tourist Israel. 058/713–5678; www.touristisrael.com. From $55 for a half-day bike tour in Tel Aviv.
Carmel Birding Tours. The highly regarded Carmel Birding Tours is run by Dr. Carmel Zitronblat, an experienced birder whose single- and multiday tours for small groups include well-known birding destinations in the Beit She’an and Hula Valleys. 054/800–1212; www.carmelbirdingtours.com.
Kibbutz Lotan Center for Birdwatching. The center arranges bird-watching tours for small groups during the winter and spring around Eilat and Lotan. 08/635–6888; www.kibbutzlotan.com.
Israel Extreme. This company can create custom hiking itineraries for you in the Galilee and Golan, the Judean Desert, or around Eilat. You can also book kayaking tours and biking excursions. 052/647–8474; www.israel-extreme.com.
Israel National Trail. Try a segment or two of the nearly 1,000-km (620-mile) Israel National Trail if you want to experience the diversity of the landscape. Note that this is a trail; it's not a hiking tour. 03/638–8719; natureisrael.org/INT. Trail is free.
Jesus Trail. For hiking the Galilee, the 65-km (36-mile) Jesus Trail combines rugged scenery with historic and religious sites. You can do the trail on your own, and the creators of the trail also offer tour packages of different lengths. www.jesustrail.com.
Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel runs "field schools" across the country and conducts city walks and nature hikes with commentary in Hebrew. 03/638–8683; www.natureisrael.org.
Jewish Educational Tours
Da'at Educational Expeditions. Providing in-depth explorations of the country and its history, Da’at Educational Expeditions is staffed by an experienced team of Jewish educators and guides. Another option is a tour with a private guide. The company offers Jewish-themed trips around the world. 888/811–2812; www.daattravel.com.
Keshet. Offering customized guided tours, Keshet focuses on Judaism and Jewish history. 646/843–6221; www.keshetisrael.co.il.