Like many countries around the world, Israel is moving towards cashless buses. The reason for this is mainly safety: removing the need for drivers to deal with passengers, cash and dishing out change will allow them to concentrate more on the actual driving and might also speed up boarding for everyone.
Rav Kav cards are handy. They can be used on both buses and trains and save you time and having to carry cash around. I love my San Francisco Clipper Card and my London Oyster Card. I enjoy the ease of use, even if I don’t so much enjoy the Black Mirror-like tracking aspect of electronic travel cards. In theory, this move is a very good idea.
But like everything in Israel, this reform has been poorly planned and executed by people who most likely have never actually seen the inside of a bus. The result is a Hebrew-centric mess that leaves even Israelis confused, let alone tourists and English speakers. Luckily, DIY Tel Aviv is here to help you work it out! This information will also find its way to the next update of the guide at some point.
What’s the deal?
There are several bus companies that serve Tel Aviv. You now officially can’t use cash to ride Dan buses (the most common ones), but this will be extended to other metropolitan bus companies as of January 18th. Even if you already have a Rav Kav card, you will not be able to charge it on the bus.
If you’re headed out of the Tel Aviv extended metropolitan area on an intercity bus from the central bus station, you can still just purchase a ticket as normal.
So do I have to get a Rav Kav card to travel on Tel Aviv buses now?
The good news is that you don’t. There is a free English language app called HopOn that you can download to your phone and use it to pay on the bus. You will scan a QR code with your phone when you board the bus and pay that way. You can also use this handy app to pay for a Tel-O-fun bike (the city’s community bike scheme) and to find out when your bus is coming. The downside to this app is that you need to have a smartphone and be willing to input payment details (i.e. your credit card) into it. It will make your life a hell of a lot easier, though. If you really hate the thought of putting your credit card details in your phone (and I know a lot of people do), I’d consider getting one of those disposable / rechargeable cards and using that instead of your regular card in the app.
The HopOn app is, in my opinion, the best way to deal with this new reform as a tourist or visitor, though not as quick as using a Rav Kav. If you think you’ll only be using buses occasionally while here, it’s a lot easier to make this work than it is to buy and charge a card. It also won’t leave you with unused money on the card if you miscalculate your amount of travel and then go home.
Of course, if you don’t have a smartphone, this is somewhat less helpful, so let’s look at other ways to make this work if you’re smartphone-challenged or the app doesn’t like your credit card.
Buying a Rav Kav card
You can buy these at designated stalls around town including all Tel Aviv train stations, the central bus station (level 6 next to where you buy bus tickets and level 7 by the info point) and even at the arrivals hall at the airport (supposedly it’s open 24 hours on weekdays there). It costs 5NIS.
I’ve not tried it myself, but supposedly there is a transition period that will go on for a month or so, where if you don’t have a Rav Kav yet you should be able to board a bus, pay the driver 10.90 NIS in cash and get a Rav Kav card plus your paid ride. You will get no change, though and won’t be able to charge your Rav Kav on the bus beyond that ride. I would suggest using an alternative method to pay, as set out below, but this is good for an emergency. You’ll get more sympathy as a tourist even if the transition period is over. It’s important to note that a lot of supposedly temporary things in Israel end up being extended indefinitely, so who knows? You may be able to buy a card on the bus for quite some time.
Charging the card
The HopOn app will let you charge the card from your phone, if your phone has NFC. This is handy if you use buses a lot and don’t want to be faffing around with your phone and scanning codes every time you board a bus. Not all smartphones have NFC, though, so this may not be right for you.
Luckily, you can also charge Rav Kav cards using a card at cash points, kiosks / convenience stores and big chains like Superpharm, Good Pharm (pharmacies), Tzomet Sfarim (book shops) and charging points that are supposedly going to be scattered around town, including Tel-O-fun docking stations. Look out for purple stalls or units with the green and purple Rav Kav logo / colour scheme which can be seen on top of this post. Information is often in Hebrew, so you may miss it otherwise. In shops there are generally no special units. Just pay at the till. Some places let you charge your card using cash, but not all.
Extra bonus info
If you’re buying a Rav Kav and want to use it to tour the country (great idea), please note: if you charge your card with “Erech Tsavur” (pay as you go) rather than a travel card or a particular plan, you can just touch and go on buses, but you can’t touch and go for trains. You need to go to a machine first and buy a journey with the money on the card.