We were in our mid-60s and had yet to take our dream trip to Israel. Even our daughter had been there twice already! We had conflicting feelings about this trip. Were we too old? Would we be able to get around to the sites we wanted to see? Was it safe to go? Finally, how could we craft a tour that would accommodate my husband’s Stage 4 (but stable) cancer diagnosis? After much research, we decided to create our own tour using a private guide. The following paragraphs explain the steps we took and the benefits of hiring a private guide.
1. Personalizes Your Itinerary
We looked at so many different “set” tours but couldn’t find one that covered all of the areas we wanted to see — geographically and culturally. Our family didn’t want to see just Jewish sites; we were interested in the Roman ruins on the northwest coast, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and the possibility of snorkeling in Eilat at the southernmost tip of Israel — and we wanted to see Petra in Jordan.
To begin planning, I reviewed travel websites and talked to friends and relatives who had visited Israel and used private guides. This research helped me develop a “long list” of places we might want to see. Then, I broke this list down to geographical areas, thinking we’d need at least two days in each area. This helped with estimating the overall trip length. Plus, I wanted to build in a rest day every third day or so. This didn’t mean we actually rested, but it gave us the leeway to relax in our hotel — or to take a leisurely tour on our own.
So, I had a lengthy list of places we wanted to see, but it was not an itinerary that took into account real life in Israel. We needed a professional to convert our list into a dream vacation. Enter Shalom Israel Tours. In business for 20 years, they came highly recommended by friends and relatives who had used their private guide service. The company offers tours for just about any interest, but they specialize in crafting private tours. This was what we were looking for!
I’m not ashamed to say that I gathered up all my assorted ideas and sent them to Shalom Israel Tours. I asked if they could sort it into a 12-day itinerary, including hotels, transportation, transfers, and anything else we might need to arrange this trip — and find us a guide who would best meet our needs. We made our own air travel reservations but coordinated with the company so that we had airport transfers.
2. Focuses On Safety And Flexibility
In visiting disparate places, we were concerned about two things: safety and building in enough flexibility for rest periods. On our own, we were likely to either go places that were unsafe or not go anywhere for fear of compromising our safety. A private guide seemed to be the best solution.
Daniel Gutman, our guide, carried a gun and was visibly on alert when we were out and about in crowded areas. A licensed tour guide born in the U.S., Daniel currently has his own tour company, Israel With Daniel. He was aware of the current “hot” areas and could tell us whether we should visit them. One such area was the Temple Mount. Although we would have liked to see this — and could do this on our own, as tourists — Daniel advised against it because of heightened tensions. We took his advice.
We trusted Daniel to be sure we were safe and secure, but we took other steps before we even started our trip. We regularly checked the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s website for traveler warnings, checked to see which hospitals had the expertise we might need and could communicate in English, and bought travel insurance.
Pro Tip: In the interest of security and safety, it’s best to check with your guide about the current status of crossing into Jordan and getting back to Israel. There have been numerous complaints by tourists about the interviews at both ends of the connecting bridge. Here’s one thing we learned from personal (painful) experience: Take a close look at your passport photo. Does it look a lot like you look now? If not, you’ll be interviewed closely in Israel and in Jordan.
3. Makes Efficient Use Of Time
Shortly after receiving my hodgepodge of notes and ideas, Shalom Israel Tours came back with an itinerary. They had covered most of the sites we wanted to see — and even added a site or two that were worth visiting because we’d be in the vicinity. This was no easy task, as we wanted to see sites all over Israel and in Jordan. They provided an efficient schedule that allowed us to see more but retained rest days.
Our trip started with an airport transfer to the Hotel Dan Panorama in Tel Aviv. After a day at leisure (translation: catch up from jet lag), Daniel met us at the hotel and drove us to Israel’s northwest coast, where we toured the Roman Ruins in Caesarea, Acco Crusader Halls, and Appolonia National Park.
The next day we transferred by private car to Jerusalem. After spending the rest of the day at leisure, we tucked into bed at the Dan Panorama Jerusalem.
Daniel met us at the hotel the following morning and took us on a tour of the Old City Jewish Quarter, the Western Wall, Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The next day, we visited important sites around Jerusalem, including Gethsemane, Mount of Olives, and Dormition Abbey. Then we had another day “at leisure,” during which we took our own tour of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. The following day, we headed to the Judean Desert, where we visited Masada, the Dead Sea, and Ahava’s Cosmetics Factory (we love their lotion!).
Finally, on Day 9, we started a 3-day group tour to Eilat in southern Israel and Petra in Jordan. Why a group tour? Our private guide could not provide this service for us, as he couldn’t cross into Jordan.
Home base was the Dan Panorama in Eilat. We toured the Red Sea Underwater Observatory but had to cancel plans to snorkel because the water was too cold.
Here’s where it pays to be flexible! Our 3-day tour “down south” was to include a trip to Petra. The rains in Petra (and the possibility of flooding) made it unsafe for us to travel there. The tour folks gave us a couple of alternatives, and we chose to see Wadi Rum by jeep. All I can say is “Wow!” The red rock formations were otherworldly, and we really enjoyed talking to our Bedouin Jeep driver and learning about his life. This was an amazing “detour”!
The next day we toured Ben Gurion’s home at Sde Boker and the Air Force Museum at Be’er Sheva. Finally, we headed back to Tel Aviv, spent the night, and were driven to the airport to catch our flight home.
4. Helps You Understand Local Culture
Having professionals plan the itinerary — and a private guide to bring it to life — was invaluable. In addition, we made friends with the concierge at Dan Panorama Jerusalem, and she had wonderful ideas that only a local can offer.
Within the walls of the Old City, it’s a particularly good idea to have a private guide. A local guide can steer you safely through the melange of cultures to the best restaurants, shops, and historic areas. We loved the Via Dolorosa, a beautiful gift shop (where spent more than we planned!), and learning how the different cultures lived together.
5. Shares History
Sure, you can look up all the facts online and do a self-guided tour. However, a private tour is about more than facts. A local private guide knows the stories behind the facts, the history that makes your visit meaningful.
6. Shows You Little Known Spots Within Popular Sites
In the hubbub of many of Israel’s important sites, there are things you won’t notice. A private guide can point out what you might normally miss. And they can point you in the right direction when you have time on your own.
Want to explore local shawarma, halva, and other specialty foods? Are you a history buff who wants to know more about the Roman ruins at Acco or the Mount of Olives? How about finding the best shops for Judaica? Your guide can provide the answers!
7. Helps Build Confidence In Planning Future Trips
Here’s the best part about planning a privately-guided trip. All the steps you take apply to just about any place you go. Just substitute your new destination and start researching. Be sure to check with friends and relatives and read reviews closely to find the best (for you) private guide. They are the framework upon which a glorious trip is based.
Ready to plan your trip to Israel? A private guide is the way to go. You’ll see just what you want, feel safe, and have the flexibility to make last-minute changes. Plus, with the right match, you’ll make a knowledgeable friend whose company you really enjoy!
See these TravelAwaits articles for more ideas: