A Christian pilgrimage to Israel is one of those ultimate trips on most believers’ lists. I mean, who wouldn’t want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and see all the places where biblical events happened? I just returned from my own trip, so I wanted to let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly so you can make an informed decision if you were to ever take the trip yourself someday. BTW, I do not receive any kickbacks from anyone for my opinion.
Tour Companies Make Money By Selling You Tour Packages.
That might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many Christians are overly trusting when it comes to looking for a tour company. Most of the companies are legit, honest companies that try to give you good value for your money. There are some out there who are not. You need to be vigilant in your research to filter out the bad ones. No one is going to do it for you.
The cost for one of these trips can range anywhere from $3-5,000 a person. I’ve seen some companies charge more. This is a huge financial investment, so don’t pick the first tour company out there.
Look For A Company That Will Accept Credit Cards.
Some of the companies out there I contacted wanted me to pay for the trip in cash. $10,000 in cash. They would not accept PayPal or any credit cards. There was no way to protect me if the company should belly up or cancel my trip. I couldn’t get any airline points for my purchase either. The companies would get offended when I would tell them why I wasn’t choosing their tour. They think that just because they are a Christian company, that I should blindly trust them. I hate to say this, but many Christians have scammed me out of money more than once in my life, so I am not taking the bait this time. In this day and age, we live in a global economy, which includes doing business with credit cards. If a business has a problem with accepting credit cards, then you should look elsewhere. The company claims about charge backs being the reason, then their company is not strong enough to afford a couple charge backs once in a while. That is the price of doing business today. Besides, credit card companies don’t always perform the charge back for the consumer unless fraud is going on or the company didn’t provide services/products promised. You need to protect yourself.
If You Can’t Afford To Pay The Entire Amount Up Front, You Usually Can Arrange To Make Scheduled Payments Over A Period Of Time.
Most companies want a deposit, payments every 3 months, and then a final payment a month before the trip. Plan ahead and have a budget already worked out for this trip so it can be more affordable for you. A savings account with some money auto deposited every paycheck really works. You use this to pay the credit card bill, BTW.
Choose The Company And Itinerary To Meet Your Needs.
Newsflash: All the tour buses go to the same places in Israel. At every bible location we were at, there were 50 other tour buses there with us. Don’t fall for the sales pitch that they have “hidden” or “secret” places that no one knows about. Trust me, all the tour guides know about them. Look for details on where you will actually be going to. Some companies see fewer sites. How many days is the tour? Most are 7-10 days. How much free time will you get, if any? (On my trip, we didn’t get any free time during the tour.) What is included in the price? Find out if airport transfers are included, and how many meals you get(We had to pay for lunches on ours.)
Decide Whether You Want Land Only Packages(No Airfare) Or If You Want Everything Included In The Price.
Keep in mind that the more that it is included, the less control you have. I use frequent flier miles to pay for my flights because I want to fly business class over the ocean. I also wanted to fly on my own airline and airport of choice and sit with my husband. Be aware that most touring companies that include airfare in the price, usually require you to fly from JFK or Newark. They tell you when you will fly also. They buy consolidated tickets that are non refundable and do not earn frequent flier miles. That’s how they can include it in the price. They buy coach tickets that are not upgradable. But maybe those things aren’t important to you as long as you get a good deal and someone else to do all of the arrangements. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as that is what you want.
You Must Read The Fine Print On The Cancellation Policies!
Do not skip this or you will be sorry! Some will refund your deposit. Others won’t. Some will only give you a credit for a future trip. I highly recommend you purchase your own travel insurance for your trip. Don’t buy the insurance sold by the airlines or the tour company. Go to www.insuremytrip.com to pick a policy that fits your specific needs. Again, this is a huge investment and bad things can and do happen during travel.
You May Not Feel Anything Different When You Arrive In Israel.
Don’t get me wrong, you will be exited that you made it there. I’m just saying not to expect to feel some supernatural or spiritual feeling just because you are in Israel. Some Christians use terms like,”I just felt like Jesus was actually there.” or “I could feel the presence of God there.” That very well have been true for them, but it wasn’t that way for me. I felt hot, tired and jet lagged. I really wished the Lord would have stepped in and made me feel more spiritual. As the angels say, Fear not. If you are a believer, the Holy Spirit already lives inside of you 24/7, even if you can’t feel Him. Our faith doesn’t rely on feelings that change from day to day, but on facts. I just wanted to alert you to this so you don’t feel like there is something wrong with you.
It’s Not Like The Movies.
I’ll admit that I almost expected the Holy Land to look something like the movie Jesus of Nazareth. My brain does know that those epic movies were done on an elaborate set, but I kind of expected some of the biblical sites to be preserved the way they were in some way.
It takes a lot of imagination to visualize how it was during biblical times because modern day Israel is present with all the traffic, cars, modern buildings, and hoards of people going to work. There was trash near the Place of the Skull. Construction going on at many places like The Wailing Wall and The Church of the Nativity, for example.
We Saw A Lot Of Archaeological Sites On Our Tour.
None of them have complete restorations. Sometimes you just have a few pillars and a couple of walls at a dig. They have some pictures of what they think it looked like in its day, but you still have to imagine a lot of it. It is very rare to find a biblical site intact from the first century for a very good reason. Israel has been captured and recaptured 44 times by various civilizations over 2,000 years. You have the Romans, Moors(Muslims), Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Byzantines, and a host of others who would wage war against Jerusalem, destroy it and then build a society on top of it. You have several layers of civilizations under your feet. Archaeologists continue to look for evidence of biblical sites and artifacts to restore, but it takes time and costs a lot of money.
You May Be Touring 10-12 Hours A Day.
Tour companies promise a lot in order to make the pilgrims happy. And so they have to deliver on those promises by jamming in as many sites as possible on the tours. That’s not bad in itself, as long as you are aware of this and it’s what you want. We were woken up between 5:30 and 6:30 AM every day. Breakfast was between 6:30-7:30, all depending on the schedule for the day. You get back to the hotel by 6 PM, eat dinner around 6:30 PM. You go back to your room, take a shower and have some time to relax before bed. That’s how most tour companies operate. We didn’t get a free day unless we decided not to get on the bus that day. Our lunch was about an hour at a place designated by our guide. Most of us on our bus were over 40 years old. It was a challenge to do that many hours of touring. The bus is comfortable, but that’s the only time you get to sit and rest is during driving between sites on the bus.
There Are Many Many Stairs And Steep Hills.
I have never climbed so many stairs in my life. I’m not an athlete, but I do workout regularly. I was really winded and having a hard time with all the stairs. So was everyone else, except our tour guide, who worked out in the hotel after 12 hours of touring with us. He also drank 12 cups of coffee a day. Make sure you have good athletic footwear that is broken in. Choose comfort over fashion. Absolutely no high heels or flimsy sandals or you will be in a lot of pain. Don’t risk breaking your ankle! Make sure you get used to walking a mile at a time because you will walk 5 miles a day on these tours. Try finding a few flights of stairs to walk up before your trip. You will thank me later. There are no elevators. There are uneven surfaces everywhere you go. This is the oldest country in the world, so don’t expect anything around Israel to be new. If you have mobility issues, then you need to pick a tour company that will accommodate your bad knees, hips, feet etc. Most of them move at a swift pace.
It Will Be Hot And Humid.
I picked my tour dates for the end of October because I thought the weather would be cooler for touring. We brought long sleeved shirts and roasted the first day in the heat. It was 80 degrees the first day. We went to the store and bought t-shirts to wear. I live in Phoenix, so heat is something I am familiar with, but I had a hard time with the heat and humidity. Maybe it was the jet lag or the altitude changes. Apparently it is always hot in Israel, so bring summer clothes for sure. It rained once while we were there, but it wasn’t much. Only one day was what I’d consider a cool day. You will need long sleeves and long pants and a head covering for the churches, The Wailing Wall, and the Temple Mount or they won’t let you in.
It Is Unbelievably Crowded.
I expected some crowds being a popular destination, but the crowds were mob-like. You think Disney World is crowded? Think again. The lines for popular sites like The Church of the Holy Sepulcher are hours long. You have other pilgrims like yourself, resident Jewish population, resident Muslims, and 1% resident Christian population. The traffic reminds me of Los Angeles traffic. I really tried to find tour dates that were not during Holy Days(Yom Kippur or Ramadan) or peak visiting times(Christmas/Easter/Passover). We went the day after a Holy Day, so we thought it would be easy. It’s always crowded in Israel I am finding out.
Pilgrims Can Be Surprisingly Rude And Pushy.
This was one thing that disappointed me most. Here we are, Christians coming together to see where Jesus walked on this earth, worship, and commune with other Pilgrims. Unfortunately, human nature and selfishness rear their ugly heads, even in these places. We had one tour bus that seemed to follow us everywhere. They were oblivious to anyone else but themselves. They were blocking stairs, standing in the middle of a room to take a picture, or cutting in line in front of us because they didn’t want to wait. They didn’t speak English, so they pretended not to understand when we confronted them on their rudeness. Our multilingual tour guide was a huge help with that.
We waited two and a half hours at the Church of the Nativity. Not something I recommend, but our group of 39 was patiently waiting our turn. When it was our turn finally to go down to the cave, we had 3-4 people who were not in our group shove themselves in the door. When a couple of the men in our group tried to kick them out and make them go back to their place, one of the outsiders got into our face. It wasn’t pleasant. A tall photographer man pushed me out of the way to get a picture. As we descended down the narrow steps into the cave, our guide was already downstairs in the cave directing traffic. He called out the ones who were not in our group, made them leave, and wouldn’t let them take any pictures. Yes! (fist pump) I don’t mention these things to discourage you from making a pilgrimage, but to make you aware that it does happen.
Everything is in Hebrew or Arabic
You get a huge taste of culture shock when you arrive in Israel. Signs are all in strange characters you are not familiar with. That may be obvious when planning to visit a foreign country, but it doesn’t hit you until you arrive. It was different than me visiting Europe since I speak French and Spanish. Portugese and Italian are similar languages, so sometimes I can figure stuff out. I know maybe 5 words in Hebrew and zero Arabic. The airport has multi-lingual signs, but the rest of the country, not as much. The West Bank had very little English at all. Good thing we were with a guide. We went out to visit a friend after touring for the day. We took a taxi from our hotel and discovered the driver didn’t speak English. We had to ask the hotel staff to translate. Then we had our friend translate for us on the ride back. Make sure you know the currency conversion from dollars to shekels so you don’t get snowed. Most taxis won’t take a credit card. The moral of the story is to learn some basic Hebrew and get comfortable with currency conversion. Not everyone speaks English. Many places will accept American dollars as well as shekels. Some will only take shekels, so be prepared.
Everything Is Spread Out.
You might assume that since everyone in the bible walked or rode a donkey everywhere that the sites are close to each other. Wrong. Our favorite bible heroes walked an insane amount of miles in their day. We are spoiled in our cars, buses, and metro that cart our behinds around all the time. With that being said, I don’t recommend renting a car and driving around Israel yourself. The distance between some sites can be one or two hours away. Galilee is a long drive from Jerusalem. Without traffic. Rush hour driving is a nightmare. Drivers are aggressive. I was really glad I joined a tour group to take care of transportation. Our driver was excellent. He could maneuver the 40 passenger bus into the tightest spaces and knew how to deal with drivers who didn’t want to follow the rules of the road. We could relax in the A/C, WIFI, and comfy seats.
You Will Eat Falafel And Pita Bread Everyday.
The food was delicious and abundant. Pickled vegetables, the best hummus you have ever tasted, olive oil on everything, seasoned lamb, chicken, and of course, falafel. We had a buffet breakfast and dinner with plenty of choices. At lunch, our guide would take us to restaurants he trusted with quality food and clean bathrooms. I was stuffed every day. The portions are generous. Don’t be afraid to try something new. I had more falafel and hummus on that trip than I have in my whole life. Surprisingly, I lost 3 pounds. I bet it was from all the walking we did.
The Street Peddlers Are Everywhere.
We were told not to give any beggars on the street. There were some of those but not an excessive amount. But the street peddlers were abundant and annoying. They follow the tour buses around town and won’t take no for an answer. They would block entrances to buses and exits of store fronts. We were walking the Via Dolorosa, trying to meditate, pray and focus on the journey, but it was so distracting with all the sales people yelling at us to come and buy their Jesus junk. They all have the same made in China junk wherever you go. Don’t fall for the claim that it was made in Israel. Again, most cheap items are made in China. You can go to Alibaba Express or Wish.com and buy the same stuff really cheap.
If You Want Something Unique And Actually Made In Israel, You Will Pay Quite A Bit More.
Something handmade by an artist is signed by the artist. The craftsmanship is high, and materials are expensive. Our guide warned us about buying stuff off the street peddlers. He would take us to places that were family owned, and people he trusted. A reputable seller will be honest about his products, how they are made, and where they come from. For example, the store we went to in Bethlehem on the West Bank, had a presentation and explained the variety of choices in quality and prices in his store. Handmade olive wood figurines were signed by the artist. Then he had machine made figurines with small details finished by hand which cost less. Then you have items all done by machine, which were the least expensive. All were made in Israel, but with different methods. We bought some cheap stuff for our friends and family back home. We bought a hand carved figurine of a lion and a lamb for ourselves. It was about $500 with the cost of shipping it back home. We could tell the lion and lamb done by machine didn’t look as good on the animal’s faces. They were a bit distorted and not symmetrical. It’s ok if you are happy with the machine made items when you can’t afford the handmade prices. Just make sure you know what you are getting. We also got some Dead Sea products that were half of what I would pay for in the States. Mud shouldn’t be any more than $9 for a good sized bag.
A Common Mistake Is Overpaying For Products.
Bartering is part of Israeli culture, but watch out for inflated starting prices. You should aim for paying a fair price, but no more. Some sellers will start with really high prices and then will give it to you for half price at the end of bartering. That is a sign they are taking advantage of you. Reputable sellers will start with a price that has 10-20% bartering room. Cheap, made in China products from street vendors, like scarves, magnets, hats, purses are not worth more than a few dollars. Walk away if they won’t budge. The competition is fierce, and you can buy it from someone else down the street.
Don’t buy from anyone on the street on the West Bank(Bethlehem, Jericho) unless your guide has a trusting relationship with them. Our guide told us that the money from those vendors goes to fund Syrian and Muslim extremists. You don’t want to be a part of that for a souvenir.
The Liberal News Media Has Fake News.
The news channels have the main goal of getting people to watch their network. Needless to say, some of what passes as journalism is fake news. It takes events and blows them out of proportion, gets people’s emotions up without verifiable facts to back it up. When it comes to news, Israel is no exception. How many times have you seen media coverage about fighting on Syrian and Lebanon borders? How many times have Palestinians been made out to all look like terrorists? Well, I am here to tell you that I’ve been within a mile of the Syrian and Lebanon borders, and there was no fighting going on. I saw with my own eyes, the Israeli patrol cars along the border, as well as The United Nations building in the background. It is peaceful and safe. We were in the West Bank several times during our trip as well. Israel citizens are not allowed into the West Bank. The tour buses were allowed with no problem. Yes, there was poverty, unemployment, and beggars around, but we never felt unsafe there. The Palestinians were warm and welcoming to us. The street peddlers were really annoying, but harmless. That is the way they support their families, so I tried to be firm, but kind.
There are huge walls that keep the people inside. Christian Palestinians are not allowed to leave. It really is like a prison with no way to make money or improve their station in life. Religious freedom doesn’t exist on the West Bank. When we went through the border clearance to leave the West Bank, I asked our guide whether any Christian Palestinian has tried to sneak onto the bus to escape. He replied that although the guards did not search the bus today, if they did, and found a Palestinian on the bus, our entire group would be taken to prison. That was a sobering thought for sure. I was grateful for my freedom. Please keep our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters in prayer.
Israeli soldiers walking around Jerusalem were plenty, but my husband noticed that their weapons were unloaded. The magazines were in their back pack ready to go. They mostly stood around talking with each other and people watching. Brian got a picture with some of them.
We didn’t go anywhere near the Gaza strip, which was where most of the violence takes place. When I told people I was coming to Israel, many of my friends and family were afraid for me. Do not be afraid to come to Israel! It is safe, although I would recommend a native guide with you for the language barrier, avoiding places you shouldn’t be in, or defusing tensions that might arise.
You Won’t Have A Lot of Time To Meditate and Pray.
We are pilgrims, not tourists. We are here to meditate on Jesus, not just visit a bunch of tourist traps. With the schedule you will be keeping, which I have already mentioned, there isn’t a lot of free time or enough time to pause and reflect at each place. The reality is that real early in the morning before you go to breakfast is time for your quiet time. You can probably do your devotions after dinner before bed. That is unless your roommate wants to watch an action movie on the hotel TV or share cat videos with you from Facebook. That doesn’t put you in the spiritual mindset. You will be tired, just like at home after going to work.
During the tour, we were rushed from one site to another. Yes, our guide read scripture verses at each site. Sometimes short prayers here and there. The only worshipful times for us were in the boat on the Sea of Galilee and communion at The Garden Tomb, which was very special. The rest is up to you. My only complaint about my tour company was that we were rushed all the time. I would have rather seen less sights at a slower pace. I would have liked more music too, but that’s just me. So the rest of it is up to you to find that time with the Lord. Don’t expect them to give it to you.
You Will Bond With Your Group In A Special Way.
My sister has been a tour guide in France for 20 years, and she was hoping that we would get a good group on our special trip. There are always “that guy” who drives everyone nuts in the group. Someone who is always late, complaining all the time, and irritating people. Well, the Lord blessed us with a really fantastic group of people from all our the U.S. Everyone was gracious, kind, patient, loving, and friendly. There wasn’t one bad apple in the bunch. Maybe Brian and I were the ones lol! We helped each other get up the stairs, fend off rude pilgrims in line, sang together, worshipped together. We exchanged contact information and promised to keep in touch. No matter where you live in the world, when you have Jesus in common, you have a bond.
You Will Make Friends With Those Different Than You.
I have a teacher who is an Israeli Jew. She is married to a Muslim. Contrary to popular belief, she says Jews and Muslims don’t hate each other. She has an Uncle in Jerusalem who is a Torah Scribe. He is one of the best in the world, and can copy the complete Torah within 6 months. My teacher arranged for us to meet him on our trip. That was the highlight of our trip. He showed us how the Torah is preserved and copied by hand, with a homemade quill made out of a turkey feather, with special ink. He wrote our names in Hebrew on calf skin. I asked if he minded hanging out with a bunch of Christians. He said most Christians don’t want to hang out with a Jew! We all should be bridge builders. We made a new friend and had a great time.
My husband made a friend with A Greek Orthodox priest at the Church of the Holy Sepulcre. The beard has a way of building bridges! Some people in Paris thought he was Jewish. When we visited Giverny (Monet’s House), they thought he was a Claude Monet Impersonator! The morale of the story is to reach out and be friendly. Take a risk and you will be rewarded.
The Geography In The Bible Will Come Alive.
Geography isn’t my best subject. I know the basics. But when I read the Bible, I kind of gloss over the location details. Not anymore. When I see a map of Israel now, it really helps that I’ve been to those places like Jericho, the Sea of Galilee, and Jerusalem. I now know what all the walls and gates look like. I know the highways and the significance of them. I’ve seen the evidence that these places are real, the people are real, and not just fairy tales, because of the archeological discoveries. You realize how far it is from Bethlehem to Egypt or the size of the Judean Wilderness. You will love it.
You Will Want To Dig In Your Bible And Study More.
Bible study is my forte, (more than being a prayer warrior) and I can study and read for hours. Seeing the Holy Land and learning so much for our guide on the sites made me want to go home and jump into those Scriptures even more. You will too. You could never know everything. It is a lifetime of study for sure. That’s the fun part! It’s always fresh and new. By the way, Wayne Stiles has a website that is a great resource for preparing for your trip to Israel. He has a blog, devotionals, videos all about Israel. I recommend his materials. He really helped me.
The Trip Might Not Change You.
I heard from many Christians who have gone to Israel that the trip changed their lives. I was hoping that this pilgrimage would bring a proverbial kick in the pants for me. I had been through some real trials, I was tired, and frankly a little numb. I needed a good long vacation and some refreshment. I already told you about many of the challenges I experienced with our trip. Trust me, I am glad I went. I am grateful for my salvation, and my freedom. It wasn’t exactly restful, but still exciting. When I got home from our trip, our jobs were waiting for us, I had chores to do, and jet lag to get over. My problems were still there to meet me. I still struggled to find time for my quiet time with God. It was still hard to separate the noise from God’s voice.
I had asked my husband if he felt any different after the trip or his life was any different. He seemed to mirror my thoughts that the trip reinforced what we already know about Jesus and the Bible. Our beliefs were validated. We know the geography of the places in the Bible because we’ve been there. An important point is that our faith, our salvation is not dependent on our feelings, thankfully. The earth didn’t move. We are not jumping around singing Gospel songs at 4 AM. We didn’t have an “out of body” experience. That’s okay.
I think about the pilgrims pushing me out of the way to kiss a stone. For some reason, some pilgrims felt the need to stand in line to touch a statue or kiss a star on the floor, as if doing those things would gain any extra favor from God. Apart from being highly unsanitary, it is nothing but idolatry.
I remember when I was saved at 13 years old. It seemed that everyone around me who got saved glowed or something. They were all smiles all the time. Every word that came out of their mouths had Jesus in it. They didn’t have any struggles abandoning with their previous sinful life. You know Christians like that. I didn’t have that experience. I prayed alone on a bunk bed ladder at 10 PM for Jesus to save me. It was a sincere prayer, and I meant every word. But afterwards, I didn’t feel anything. No electricity or warm fuzzies. So I prayed again just in case I didn’t do it right. Then I went to sleep. My life did change. It was a long struggle in my Christian walk. I have learned to rely on what God says about me instead of how I feel. There have been times when I could feel the presence of God in a special way. It was always when I least expected it. I think about those times when I am struggling to hear The Lord’s direction.
So, you may have the opposite experience in Israel than I did. You may feel the presence of God there. Your life may change dramatically. That is wonderful if that is the case! Just don’t think that there is something wrong with you if you don’t.
I hope I gave you some food for thought for your possible future trip to Israel. It is definitely worth the money to go if you can afford to. You will never read the Bible the same way again. Have you been to The Holy Land? What was your experience?