How to Plan a Group Tour of Israel
Would you like to plan a tour of Israel for your church, synagogue, friends, family, work, or organization? You may need some guidance through the process of organizing the tour. We would like to help!
There are three ways in which we can help:
How to Organize Your Tour
This guide is intended to be somewhat detailed and raise many considerations you must take into account as you plan a group tour of Israel. It may be more convenient for you to simply let an experienced tour company handle all of the details.
Tour Organizer • Time of Year • Tour Length • Plan Itinerary • Plan 1 Year in Advance • Quotes & Reservations • Tour Cost • Organizational Details • Publicize • Register • Group Size • Educate the Group • Stay in Touch • Get Feedback • Let us Help
1. Choose a Tour Organizer
First, you'll need a tour coordinator. This must be someone from your church/synagogue/group. This person will do all the major planning, coordinate with the various tour organizations, and act as the go-to person for your tour.
There is a lot of work involved for this position, so choose someone who has the time, who is organized and detail-oriented, and who is knowledgeable about Israel. If you need help organizing your tour, feel free to ask us questions or hire us to do this work. Please read on to discover what the tour coordinator's work includes.
2. Choose your Tour Dates
Time of Year to Visit:
The first important decision to make is what time of the year you want to visit Israel. There are many important things to take into consideration: weather, transportation and accomodation cost, Israeli holidays, and your tour participants' availability to get vacation time. You can visit our When to Visit Israel page to help you weigh your decision. You'll also need to talk to people who are interested in joining your tour to find out when they can get vacation time. You need to be flexible and work around their schedules too.
Length of your Tour:
After you've chosen the time of year to visit Israel, then you need to consider how long your tour will be. Undoubtedly, you'll want to see as much as you possibly can, but several things will determine how long your tour in Israel can last: the age and health of your tour participants (older people may require shorter trips), the amount of vacation time your tour participants can get off work, the tour coordinator's personal schedule, and the number of sites you want your tour to include. Please make sure you factor travel time into your schedule as well. Generally speaking, from the United States it will take 24 hours of traveling just to arrive in Israel. Furthermore, you need to be considerate of recovery time for your tour participants who must return to work after your tour. Jet lag and international travel may require 2-3 days of rest before work can be resumed.
To accomodate the typical work schedule of your tour participants, we suggest that typical tours probably may not be able to last more than 14 days. Many people can only take 14 days off of work at a time. So, working within that 14-18 day window (depending if starting and ending weekends are included in the 14 days of vacation time), and removing one day for traveling to Israel and one day recovery after the tour, you realistically should plan to have a 10-12 day maximum tour. This is certainly enough time to see all of the most important sites in Israel and have an incredible tour.
Considering now from the minimum tour length, we would raise a few suggestions. First, traveling to Israel from the US will probably take at least 24 hours. Therefore, you'll want to have enough days of touring to justify that enormous amount of travel time required just to get to Israel. Second, you'll want the tour to be long enough for people to enjoy many touring days after they've gotten over jet lag (it may take 2-3 days to regain strength and not be groggy after international travel). Third, your tour participants are going to be paying a fair amount of money for this trip. You need to make the trip long enough for them to feel as though they got their "money's worth." Finally, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many of your participants. If they're only going to visit Israel once in their lives, then it is important for them to see as many of the important things in Israel as they can. As you plan the length of your tour, you need to make sure your tour participants get the best experience they can possibly get. Therefore, we suggest that your tour has at least six full days of touring (minimum) in addition to travel time.
Therefore, you—the tour coordinator—should probably plan a 7-13 day tour (including travel time). To decide how many days you want for your tour, you'll need to make several decisions: what sites do we want to see in Israel? (you'll need to be familiar with the sites in Israel), is it feasible to see all of these sites? (you'll need transportation between sites and some sites are not very close to each other), and how much vacation time off work can my tour participants get? Planning your tour length is certainly a balancing act. Please look ahead to planning your itinerary to help you decide your tour length.^ Top of Page
Planning your Itinerary:
One of the most difficult steps in this process is planning your tour's itinerary. The tour coordinator who makes the itinerary must be familiar enough with Israel's sites to know which sites to visit or skip based on your tour group's interests and/or focus. There are so many sites to see in Israel that one could probably never see them all. Thus, the job of the tour coordinator is to find the right balance for your tour group of the sites to see that are important to your group. There are many pre-made, sample itineraries for you to reference. Perhaps one of those would work well for you. Or perhaps you need to customize your itinerary a little more. This is why experience and knowledge of Israel's sites comes in handy. To help you with the process, we have sample itineraries for you to reference, and we have pages about important sites in Israel for you to learn more about them.
Two final considerations when it comes to planning your tour dates. First, on what day of the week do you want to arrive in Israel? This will determine the order of your itinerary to some degree, since some places are closed on certain days of the week (some Jewish sites are closed on Fridays/Saturdays, some Muslim sites on Fridays, and some Christian sites on Sundays). You can often plan around the days when things are closed, but you must be aware of this fact when making your itinerary. Second, does your preferred airline (if you have one) have a flight to Israel on the day you are planning to arrive in Israel? Generally, this won't be an issue, but it is something you should take into account.
As a word to the wise: generally speaking, you need to plan your tour of Israel 1 year in advance. Many parts of this process (including airline and accomodation booking) require advanced reservations. In addition, many of your tour participants may need at least one year to save enough money for their trip. So, please plan well ahead!^ Top of Page
3. Make Tour Reservations
Once you've chosen your tour dates and made an itinerary that works for your group, then you need to take two major steps: get price quotes and make reservations.
You need to contact and get price quotes from companies that offer guiding services, transportation (both to Israel and within Israel), and accomodation. Regarding transportation within Israel: do you want to use public transportation (busses, trains, and taxis) or private transportation (rental cars or tour busses)? Regarding accomodation: do you want to stay in hostels (cheap, but limited guest services) or hotels? Probably the easiest and most cost-effective way of taking care of these services is to contact a tour company that can handle all three of these services. They can give you one lump price quote based on your itinerary. There are many reputable tour companies out there—headquartered both in and outside of Israel. We have a few recommendations for tour companies if you are interested. You may want to get quotes from multiple tour companies or quotes on several different itineraries to do some price comparison. For your transportation to Israel, you many need to contact a separate travel agent, since many tour companies do not also book flights.
As you make reservations with a travel agent to fly to Israel, keep a few things in mind. First, what are the travel agent's fees or commissions? Second, does the travel agent have a good reputation and know what they're doing? Third, does the travel agent have good customer service, and do they charge additional fees for changes to your reservation? This becomes especially important if someone in your group misses their flight or needs to change their reservation. Make sure you check out your travel agent! Fourth, which airline should you fly? Does the airline have a good reputation for safety, security, and comfort? Does the airline charge additional fees for luggage or meals? Fifth, which airport should your group depart from? For the best price, you'll probably need to fly out of a major airport. Most flights to Israel have certain hubs from which they fly (Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, Newark, etc.). Will there be an additional cost to get you to that airport?
Once you've received a price quote from a tour company that you are willing to accept, then you need to make a reservation with them to book your accomodations, transportation, and guide. This may involve you signing a contract and/or paying a down-payment. These specific terms depend on the tour company. You'll need to check with them about their reservation requirements. If you do sign a contract or make a down-payment, you must be certain that you can fulfill your contract. In other words, it might be good to make sure you have enough committed tour participants to justify booking the tour.
A word about tour guides: by Israeli law, groups of more than 10 people are required to have an Israeli-licensed tour guide. There are many licensed guides available—Jews, Christians, Muslims, secularists who can speak your native language. Thus, finding a guide should not be a problem, especially if you contract with a tour company to take care of all these details. Only be certain that you have an Israeli-licensed guide. Very serious legal and financial penalties can be assessed against you and your group if you violate this law.
Some comments about price quotes given by tour companies: First, be sure to read the fine print. Some tour companies try to add additional fees (such as taxes, tips, or surcharges) to the base price. Make sure you know the total cost they will be charging you. Additionally, some travel agents issue a plane ticket price based out of an airport far from you. Thus, getting to that airport could be an additional cost to you and your group. Also, ascertain what deadlines and financial penalties are involved if you have to cancel your reservation. Second, usually the tour leader/coordinator will be free of charge if there is a minimum number of paying tour participants (often 20 or 25). This is a nice bonus for the tour coordinator who will usually do many, many hours of work to organize the tour. Third, as a word to the wise: Israeli guides have many ways of making money. You will pay them a fee for their services. In addition, you will tip them and the bus driver at the end of your tour. They will also get commissions at restaurants and stores that they take you to while in Israel. You just need to be aware of these additional costs to you and your group as you plan your tour.^ Top of Page
4. Organize the Tour Details
So, now you've set your tour dates; made your itinerary; reserved your flights, guide, hotels, and transportation. Now the tour coordinator needs to take care of all the other organizational details.
Total Tour Cost:
First, the tour coordinator needs to calculate the total tour cost. In addition to the tour company cost (for transportation, accomodation, and guiding) and the travel agency cost (for flight to/from Israel), there are many additional costs to consider. Additional tour costs include: travel agent fees, airline luggage/meals fees, bus driver(s) tips, guide(s) tips, bank fees (for wire-transfers or checks to pay for tour services), single-occupant fees (usually tour companies charge for double-occupancy rooms, so a single roomer will have to pay more), hotel tips (for bellboys and waiters), the tour leaders' tour cost (if the tour leader(s) want to travel without personal cost), and profit (if the tour is designed to generate profit for the tour organizer or sponsor). There may be other events not on the itinerary you want to pay for, as well, for an additional cost. In additional to all these other costs, you'll want to take two other factors into consideration: exchange rate fluctuation (the dollar or euro may lose value compared to the Israeli shekel) and price increases/surcharges (by the tour company or travel agent due to fuel prices or other reasons). Lastly, you will also probably want to build some "cushion" into your tour cost in case there are unexpected price increases. Thus, you may want to build an extra 2-7% into your tour budget, just in case. Often, breakfasts and dinners are included in the hotel cost, so this may be a savings to your tour participants. However, the tour participants themselves may have additional costs that you'll need to warn them about: airline luggage/meal fees, flights to the airport your tour departs from, meals, souvenirs, snacks, driver/guide/hotel/meal tips, additional entrance fees, and additional transportation costs (eg, taxi fares). As the tour coordinator, you need to take all these additional costs into consideration so that you can give your tour participants an accurate idea of how much their tour will cost.
Tour Legal Details:
The tour coordinator will also need to produce a payment schedule, so that the tour participants know when and how much to pay (if they will pay for the tour in installments, that is). In producing this, the tour coordinator must consider travel agent and tour company payment deadlines so that the tour coordinator has enough money to make these payments on time. Since ensuring tour participants pay on time can get quite complicated, it may be more convenient to contract with a tour company that takes care of all these details. This way the tour coordinator insulates himself from tour participants being angry for being charged late fees or being removed from the tour due to late or missed payments. As the tour coordinator plans the payment schedule, it would be wise to allow some "cushion" in the deadlines, since tour participants often are late on deadlines. It may be wise, too, to assess a late fee for missed or late payments. A word to the wise: in our experience, requiring tour participants to pay a sizable, non-refundable deposit at registration is always a wise thing to do. If a tour participant already has a large amount of money invested in your tour at the outset, he or she will be less likely to drop out of the tour for minor reasons later.
One final legal detail should be prepared by the tour coordinator. A legally-binding Terms & Conditions or Release of Liability document should definitely be prepared, and all tour participants should be required to sign this to join your tour. There is always danger when traveling, and it is only wise to insulate the tour coordinator and tour sponsor from lawsuits if something should go wrong. The Terms & Conditions or Release of Liability should address: costs associated with the tour, covered and additional expenses, circumstances under which the tour can be canceled with no notice (natural disaster or security reasons, eg), and a liability waiver for medical emergencies, natural disasters, or terrorism. A lawyer should probably be consulted in drafting this document. The tour organizer needs to be wise- and informed-enough to know when he or she should cancel the tour due to security reasons. Israel does have its occasional problems with terrorism, and the tour organizer needs to be responsible enough to cancel the trip during times of extreme danger.^ Top of Page
5. Publicize your Tour
After the tour coordinator has established all of the details for the tour, then it is time to publicize your tour. Annoucements, emails, brochures, posters, and website postings should be utilized to tell your target audience about this incredible opportunity to visit Israel. If you are targeting your tour to your church, synagogue, work, family, or friends, then the publicity process will be somewhat easier since you already know your audience.
6. Register your Tour Participants
When you have people interested in signing up for your tour, then it's time to register participants. First, the tour organizer needs to establish a registration deadline. If you are certain that you can easily recruit enough people for your tour, then a deadline only a few months before your trip may be acceptable. If you are less certain that you'll have enough participants, then it may be helpful to have a signup several months before your tour so you can cancel your reservations with less penalty if you find out you don't have enough people to make the tour viable. Second, the tour organizer should probably collect a sizable, non-refundable deposit from tour participants to ensure that they are less likely to cancel their enrollment in the future. Third, the tour coordinator needs to collect information from the tour participants. This information includes: full legal name, passport information (make sure the tour participants have or immediately apply for a passport!), contact information, and emergency contact information. This can be collected digitally (through email, your website, or Google Forms, eg) or through paper forms. Be sure your tour participants sign your Terms & Conditions or Release of Liability, too. You will also need to ensure that the tour participants have medical insurance that covers them in Israel. Travel insurance may also be a wise investment for them in case they have to cancel their enrollment in the tour or if the tour gets canceled.
Tour Group Maximum Size:
The tour coordinator should set a maximum size for the tour group. Tour prices typically decrease (and the tour leader is typically free of charge) with 20 or more tour participants. However, when tour groups start getting much more than about 30 people, then organization gets much more complicated. Larger groups are cheaper because one can buy airline tickets, transportation, and hotels in bulk. However, large groups have their disadvantages. Larger groups can typically see less sites because more time is required to assemble everyone in the morning, load and unload busses at each stop, eat, use the restrooms, and see the sites. Larger groups are also more difficult to keep track of everyone so that no one gets left behind at a stop. It may be more difficult to accomodate very large groups at the same hotel, on the same bus, or at the same site or restaurant. Also, larger groups typically get to know each other less and do not bond as well as smaller groups. Smaller groups, on the other hand, have their advantages. Smaller gruops can typically see more sites because they move more quickly. Smaller groups have less trouble staying at the same hotel, in the same bus, or being at the same site simultaneously. Smaller groups tend to bond more because it's easier to get to know one another. Smaller groups, however, are typically more expensive. Whether your group is large or small, more than likely your participants will have a great time. The question is: how large do you want your group to be?
If possible, we like to suggest that church, synagogue, family, or work groups stay between 24-30 people. Larger groups are certainly possible, and may even be necessary at some times, but in our opinion, smaller groups are better overall. As the tour organizer, you will have to make the decision of maximum group size. Most tour companies can accomodate groups from 10 to 1,000 people. One other thing to note: if possible, it is usually preferrable to have an even number of tour participants, since most tour companies issue quotes for double-occupancy hotel rooms. Single-occupant rooms are usually more expensive.^ Top of Page
7. Educate your Tour Participants
For many of your tour participants, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You need to help them make the most of their trip. Very few people learn anything by being exposed to it only once. Your tour participants will be seeing and learning so many different things during their tour. Very soon into their trip, they'll start forgetting details and blurring together the different sites they've visited. To help them cope with this reality, you should plan to teach them about the sites they'll visit several different times: before the tour, during the tour, and after the tour. Before and after the tour you can help them learn about the sites on your itinerary by holding orientation meetings or classes, assigning reading from the Bible or books, or by giving them resources which they can use on their own to learn more about their trip to Israel. We have a list of recommended reading about Israel. We also have a list of Bible readings that can be done for some of the major sites in Israel. And, of course, you can recommend that your tour participants use ShalomIL.com to learn more about the sites they'll visit in Israel.
You'll need some way of mass-communicating with your tour participants, so plan to collect their email addresses, set up a website, or have regular meetings with them to keep them informed as the tour approaches. You'll probably need to get in touch with them several times before your trip, so plan to have a means of communicating with them. As your tour participants will probably be mostly first-time visitors to Israel, we recommend you hold an Orientation Meeting ahead of your tour to walk them through your itinerary, answers their questions about what your tour will be like, and give the participants a chance to meet one another.^ Top of Page
This is the fun step! Go and enjoy yourself in Israel! Enjoy the marvelous beauty, powerful history, and rich culture of this amazing place. Have a spiritual experience as you walk in the Holy Land!
While you're in Israel, don't forget about the people back home. Plan ahead and have some way of mass-communicating with friends and family back home so that they can follow your progress and learn a little about Israel through you, and so that they can be informed about your safety. We recommend using email, a blog (like Blogger or Wordpress), or Facebook, Twitter to stay in touch with loved ones back home during your stay in Israel. See an example of this.
While you're in Israel, please be mindful of your group's safety. Israel has its share of problems like anywhere else, so you need to be prepared for emergencies. Know in advance how to communicate with your home country's embassy in Israel in the event of a natural disaster or terrorism. Know how to get in touch with the police or a hospital in the event of a medical emergency, accident, or terrorism. And don't forget to keep your friends and family back home informed in the event of an emergency (see above). Make sure your tour participants have their medical insurance information with them at all times.
9. Gain Feedback
Lastly, after your tour, it is important to gain feedback from your tour participants to help you improve the next tour. Have a survey for them to do to evaluate the hotels, busses, bus driver(s), and guide(s) you used, and the sites you visited. Ask them to make suggestions to improve your future tours. Then, be sure to implement their suggestions next time!^ Top of Page
Organizing a tour of Israel for your church, synagogue, friends and family, or work may seem a little daunting, but the benefits of enjoying a tour of Israel together make the difficulties well worth the trouble. Visiting Israel will forever be a highlight of your tour participants' lives, and you will have had the immense privilege of making that happen! What a joy!
So, may we encourage you: whether this year or next, whether you use our help or not—please visit Israel! Your life will be forever changed, and the people of Israel need your support. Make visiting Israel a goal you achieve in your life, and inspire others to share your enthusiasm for Israel!
We are here to help. Please feel free to email us your questions. We'd be glad to help you visit Israel anyway we can. If you need help organizing your tour, if you'd like to hire us to organize your tour, or if you'd like us to point you to someone else who can help, please don't hesitate to contact us. Our passion is helping people just like you come to love Israel. So, please, let us be a resource anyway we can to help you visit Israel.