If there's a downside to living in a Jewish country, it may be the fact that everybody celebrates the same holidays. That means everyone is on vacation at the same time. Which means, in turn, that every attraction, every highway, every bus route and train line, is going to be jam-packed if you're heading to the most popular destinations - and even some unpopular ones.
This Pesach was our (hmm...) eighth chol hamoed living in Israel (Sukkos / Pesach year 5774, Sukkos / Pesach 5775, Sukkos / Pesach 5776, Sukkos / Pesach 5777 - omg, I can't believe it.)
Our very first chol hamoed (Sukkos 5774), we headed to Yerushalayim, little suspecting that everybody else in the country had the exact same idea. Public transportation in Yerushalayim isn't entirely reliable at the best of times, and this was NOT the best of times. We spent a large chunk of the day stuck in traffic. Very frustrating!
I'm not saying Jerusalem is out of the picture. But based on our experience and some others over the years (!), I've come up with a few rules for planning chol hamoed activities with the least possible stress.
Here are five tips that will help you sail through chol hamoed with the greatest of ease:
1. Book ahead
Lots of attractions here let you pre-book a specific time slot. We did that for a few activities this chol hamoed, including the Dialogue in the Dark exhibit at the Israel Children’s Museum in Holon, a jumping / bouncy castle attraction (also in Holon, we made a day of it), a local trampoline place, and the movie theatre. Last year, I also bought tickets to a play at the Haifa Children’s Theatre Festival. During previous chol hamoeds, we’ve done various circus things. There are always choices like this, which allow you to plan ahead.
The movie theatre is a great example. Sure, they charge something trivial like 5 shekels extra to pre-book, but you get to pick not only your movie time but also your seats. Yet the throngs at the box office bely the fact that this is 2017 and such a thing as the Internet even exists. People show up and then act surprised that there are so many other people; they get into the theatre and act surprised that the good seats are already taken. Plan a good surprise – prebook and you can waltz right in anytime. We had to kick people out of our seats, but I tell myself they could have booked online, too.
2. Show up on time
The flipside of booking a specific time slot is checking the tickets to find out what time you need to actually arrive. Lots of people breeze in the minute the thing – whatever they’ve booked tickets for – is supposed to start. This can mess stuff up for everybody else in your group, and make your own family feel rushed and panicked, rather than just having a nice day out. For the Dialogue in the Dark exhibit, I believe the tickets said to show up 15 minutes ahead. That’s because there are lockers where you have to stash your stuff, and a preliminary talk by a sighted host before you go in to the dark area. I hate showing up early for anything; I’m kind of on the late side, pathologically. But even I have learned to respect ticket times. Often, those times are listed for your own good – so follow them.
3. Don’t be random / rude / crazy / entitled (ie, Israeli)
This one shouldn’t need a ton of explanation. The people doing this are usually the ones who DIDN’T prebook but insist that they be treated specially because… well, just because. These are the folks who show up at the car rental place before a busy weekend and insist that they be given a car (I have been there several times and listened to this spiel more than once) because a) they are very special, b) they are a frequent customer, c) they have rented a car for a different date and just want to EXTEND the rental they booked (this last is utterly ridiculous.
A man in the movie theatre last week had kind of a snit because he showed up at the box office at the last minute and only managed to get a couple of single seats for him and his teenage daughter. He was trying to get various groups of people to move around and sit separately to accommodate him. He simply didn’t get why people who had tickets together wanted to sit together. And why nobody seemed willing to make concessions for his vast and overriding specialness.
4. Public transportation
I know buses and trains can’t get you everywhere, but there’s something to be said for simply NOT DRIVING. It may still take you forever to get where you’re going, but at least you will be a little relaxed and be able to spend time with your family rather than stopping and starting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Trains pretty much stick to the schedule, though there may be delays of a couple of minutes simply due to crowds on platforms. Buses can be delayed for the same reasons cars are – traffic, accidents, I guess that’s it… but it’s still more fun to watch a video or listen to music or whatever than have to concentrate on the road.
If you do take the train, I recommend a reserved seat ticket (כרטיס מקום שמור / cartis makom shamur). If they’re available (not every train offers this), they cost 5 shekels per person and entitle you to a seat in the northernmost car of the train. Sometimes, this is great and you get a table where everybody can sit and hang out together and play Mad Libs, hangman, and all kinds of wholesome family fun. But even if you don’t get seats all together, at least you get to sit down on a train in which often people will be sitting on floors, aisles, stairs, and in front of the door. You will be grateful you have a seat.
5. Stay off the beaten path
If possible, use chol hamoed to go somewhere NOT everyone else is going. This can be tough, because lots of places, like museums all over the country, have special activities or are even free chol hamoed. We went to the Haifa Zoo one Pesach because it was free. It was also… well, a zoo. The park outside the zoo was also overcrowded, and littered with junk from all the families hanging out, picnicking, etc. I don’t think I’d do that again. There are obscure museums that might be free and which you might enjoy more simply because not everybody is there.
There are also sometimes other days when you can have just as much fun without the crowds. The few days before a chag, or the day after (isru chag) are sometimes vacations from school and may be less crowded at the big attractions because many adults still have to work.
Finally, if you ARE heading somewhere you know will be busy and popular (like Yerushalayim - or one of the many free family activities all over the country during chol hamoed!), you don't have to cancel your plans. There are ways to succeed, relatively speaking. Leave early; be prepared to be extra-patient and wait in lines and at bus stops everywhere you go. Pad your schedule with extra gaps between activities and extra travel time if need be.
However, I strongly recommend planning only ONE high-stress, highly-popular activity. Don't pack them in day after day - your family will probably not thank you and I doubt you’ll have a great time doing it. It’s a holiday. It’s meant to be relaxing and fun.
Find out what your family REALLY wants. After a couple of days out, my kids are even grateful for the chance to have a day just letting off steam at home.
I’d love to hear your tips for having a great time in Israel on chol hamoed – without stress, headaches, or spending a fortune. Leave your suggestions in the comments!
Tzivia / צִיבְיָה
Photo credit © ZAKA