Israel travel tips you might not find in your guidebook

Travel guides to Israel always offer handy advice, like don't forget your AC adapter. But sometimes, your best tips come from another traveler's real-life mistakes.

Here's my short-list:

*If you live in the Bay Area, avoid flying El Al from Los Angeles.

It's easier on the body and the psyche to catch a domestic, nonstop flight to New York and then take El Al.

I flew El Al from L.A. and ended up traveling for a tortuous 23 hours. In addition to the extra flight time inherent in flying south before flying east, the travel time included one hour at the Oakland airport, 3-1/2 hours at the L.A. airport and 1-1/2 hours in New York where we weren't allowed off the plane. Ugh.

*No matter how idiotic it looks to your seatmates, use one of those U-shaped, blow-up pillows that wraps around your neck.

It made all the difference on my marathon flight. While others squirmed in their cramped seats, I rested my head comfortably on my velvet-coated pillow of air. And I actually slept well.

*If your Hebrew is rusty, brush up ahead of time.

I found myself on the trans-Atlantic flight trying desperately to make conversation with an older Israeli couple who spoke no English. Avram and Rachel could only offer me mints and kind smiles, while I struggled to relearn my stunted vocabulary of about a hundred words of Hebrew.

*If you know no Hebrew, learn a few fundamental phrases beforehand. (Though to be honest, you don't need to know any Hebrew as a tourist in Israel. So many Israelis know English.)

B'vakashah, please. Todah, thank you. Slichah, excuse me. B'seder, OK. Medaber Anglit?, Do you speak English? Eyfo ha-sherutim? Where is the bathroom?

*Bring a toothbrush and toothpaste onto the plane. Ditto on bottled water.

*Once you've arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, exchange some of your cash for shekels while you're waiting for your luggage.

Israel's major banks have airport branches and offer reasonable exchange rates. It's great to have a wad of shekels right off the bat.

*Never make calls from your hotel room's phone.

One woman made a few calls using her long-distance calling card. She still was charged $15 for simply using the phone. So before your trip, find out how your phone company handles international calls from public pay phones. For local calls within Israel, buy a public-phone card at any little corner store.

* If you're ever getting any kind of bodywork (i.e., massage or mud treatments) in Israel, specify at the time you set the appointment which gender you prefer for your body worker.

There is definitely a more open, more European attitude in Israel toward such trivialities as who will be touching your bare bod. No comment.