As I write this, I'm getting ready to take a couple of buses and head over to Teveria (Tiberias).
Taking buses and trains is fun and easy in Israel, and it’s been a core part of our experience here, in mostly good ways. If you’d asked two years ago, here's what most olim could have told you about taking public transportation:
- Israeli bus drivers make change - if not cheerfully or graciously, than as an accepted part of their many duties.
- Israeli public transportation is, mostly, prompt and on-schedule.
- Trains in Israel are a pleasure - except when they're closed or on strike.
- Drivers are not so helpful if you're looking for a particular destination, but passengers universally are.
- Local bus fares are generally good for 90 minutes, with any number of stopovers, in any direction.
- Buses never have washrooms – even long-haul buses like the Haifa to Eilat run (6 hours). There are 2 stopovers in miserable little truck stops.
- Trains are generally more comfortable than buses – especially if you need to get up, walk around and/or use the washroom. You might pay a few shekels more, but it’s worth it.
|Haifa's wonderful new high-speed "Metronit" buses.|
Though Israel is low-tech in a lot of surprising ways, there is one bit of high-tech that has made travelling by public transit a real pleasure, and that’s…
The Magic Info NumberIt’s possible that you have Moovit or Google Maps or whatever app you like to use to tell you when buses are coming. But every single time, when I’m standing at a bus stop with my daughter, I have an even better, more accurate way of knowing when the bus will arrive: the Magic Info Number.
Remember this number: 058-322-2333
(The same number works all over the country!)
You do need some Hebrew to use this, but not much. Every bus stop in the country has a sign with a 5 digit number on it. When you call into the Magic Info Number, you press 1, then enter the number on the bus stop sign (plus the “sulamit” – #). Then, enter a specific line number or just *# to find out all the next buses.
(You need enough Hebrew to figure out the times it will tell you – like “chamesh dakot,” but it generally speaks clearly and slowly.)
But that is not the biggest and bestest new development in public transportation in Israel. Oh, no…
The biggest change: the Rav KavThese days, my most important tip when it comes to public transit is: get a Rav Kav. Immediately.
The Rav Kav is a "multi-fare" card that you fill up with fares. They came in maybe five years ago, but over the last couple of years, transit companies have started to get really serious about them.
|Here's what a typical Rav Kav looks like.|
- On trains, you can no longer get a round-trip ticket except on a Rav Kav.
- In Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and some other places, you cannot get a paper transfer anymore; if you pay cash, you cannot transfer to another bus or take advantage of the 90 minutes of travel included in your fare.
- Israeli senior citizens and children automatically get discounts when buying multiple fares on their Rav Kav. (My parents were getting discounts on buses and trains for 2 weeks before someone asked them for ID and they discovered that these rights are only for Israeli citizens!)
What kind of Rav Kav?There are two kinds of Rav Kav:
|It’s free (10nis if lost to replace)||Costs 5nis|
|Must line up at Rav Kav office and present your passport or Israeli ID card (teudat zehut)||Can buy from local machines (but can be hard to find one)|
|Has your picture & name on it||No photo|
|Automatic discounts for seniors / students / children||No discounts|
|POSSIBLY get your fares back if your card is lost. (This is not an easy process, however.)||No refund if the card is lost.|
Around here, you can buy a Rav Kav from one of these platform fare machines:
|Fare machine at a typical Metronit platform.|
There are also 2 ways to fill up your Rav Kav. These work on either type of Rav Kav, personal or anonymous.
- Stored value – some bus companies simply let you put, say, 50nis on your Rav Kav. Then, they deduct from this each time you take the bus. If you pay a certain amount, you usually get a “discount.” In Tel Aviv last week, I paid 50 and the driver put 60-something on my card.
- Individual “tickets” – some companies let you buy a certain number of fares, usually in multiples of 5 or 10. This is sometimes called a כרטיסיה/Kartisiya or “multi-fare card.” This is also how train fares work if you buy multiple tickets.
If you’re staying with Israelis, they may have a spare Rav Kav they can lend you. I have an extra one, and we now have a couple of spare anonymous ones that were given to us by a neighbour who moved away. Even if it’s completely empty, it’s worth taking it so you don’t have to wait in line or pay for a new one.
Otherwise, go out and get one before you spend a single agorah on public transportation. It’s SO worth it.
Helpful Public Transportation Words!Have your words ready before you get on the bus. Drivers do NOT like to dilly dally.
Omit unnecessary words when boarding a bus. Try to ask passengers before you get on if it goes where you’re going, because the driver may not know anyway. (It can also be helpful to identify English-speaking passengers before you board!)
If it’s a local bus, try to just hop on board and hand over your money or Rav Kav. For intercity buses, you can state your destination and wait to be told how much to pay. Make the transaction as simple as possible for him, because he’s trying to keep the bus moving and on schedule.
Whatever you do, omit all politeness and pleasantries. No אני רוצה/“ani rotzah” (I want) or בבקשה/“bevakasha” (please) when you’re talking to bus people. You will hear the sighs and feel the jostles of everyone behind you in line if you do.
When you’re buying train fares, you could go to the cash register and pay, but often, the automated kiosks “speak” better English. Push the “English” button and put in your Rav Kav and you’ll probably be able to figure out the choices without having to know a word of Hebrew.
But just in case you do…
- הלוך ושוב/Haloch v’Shov – literally, “go and back,” a round-trip fare
- הלוך וחזור/Haloch v’Chazor – same as Haloch v’Shov
- כיוון אחד/ Kivun echad – one way
- מגיע ל…/ Magiah l’…? – “Do you / does the bus / train go to…?” (grammar sticklers: yes, it has a ה at the end if it’s a train, but it sounds nearly the same)
- פעמיים/ Pa’amayim – twice, ie if you’re paying for two people. Every extra person is a “/ pa’am” (time) – thus, “shalosh pa’amim” for three, “arba pa’amim,” etc. (“Pa’amayim” is very useful to know if you’re ordering two of anything – coffee, for instance.)
- כמה/ Kama? – how much? (do not ask “kama zeh oleh,” “how much does it cost” – you will only irritate EVERYBODY standing behind you)
- כרטיסייה/ Kartisiya – multi-fare pass
- חופשי חודשי/ Chufshi-Chodshi – literally, “free month,” an older type of pass where you paid once and travelled free for a month. I guess? This predates our arrival.
- עודף/ Odef – change. Very important. I always forget to collect mine, especially when paying with big bills, and then everybody shouts at me to go back and get it.
- מקום שמור / Makom shamur – reserved seat, only on trains. Very important, especially if you’re travelling at peak times. These are only 5 nis, so very cheap. Get one on Sunday morning or Thursday evening, for sure! (Caution: reserved seats are also QUIET seats; no cell phones or conversation allowed.)
Is Israel a public-transportation-friendly country?In some ways, yes. Coming from Canada, where it’s impossible to get from one city to another without a serious shlep, it’s easy and fun to get around this tiny country. Within most cities, I wouldn’t even want to drive if I didn’t have to.
However, there are still many places that we haven’t visited because it’s tough without a car, like the Golan and upper Galil. It’s possible by bus, but the travel times and transfers become a little prohibitive.
Taking a bus or train in Israel is definitely an experience.
You could end up with a new best friend, or witness a heated debate between a religious driver and a non-religious passenger about the right way to keep Shabbat or some obscure Talmudic passage.
Local buses often take on a “party” air, with everybody chatting noisily with somebody beside them – often, people they didn’t know at the start of the trip. Trains and intercity buses not so much, but still – they are incredibly efficient, clean and safe, and a great way to get around.
I'd love to hear your transportation stories, questions (nightmares?) in the Comments!