Topics include Transportation, Dining Scene, For Foreign Visitors & more!
On Your Own or Through a Travel Agent or Guide
In view of substantial cultural differences and language barriers, Egypt may be a difficult place to attempt to navigate on one's own without prior experience and familiarity. Although the internet has facilitated one's ability to obtain information, a first-time trip to Egypt may be better organized through a private guide and/or a travel agent located in the country. However, before entrusting one's precious vacation and money in the hands of a local representative, it is best to research and obtain feedback on the quality of services offered. Tripadvisor offers some discussion of Egyptian agents and Egyptologists in its forums.
Flying, in Egypt:
Travelling across Egypt can be tricky without proper planning. Distances by road are long & it is important to choose the right mode of transport to get to a place, if you want to avoid tiring out.
Egypt-air is the only airline available. Book all your tickets online, from home. Be sure, especially during peak seasons, to book well in advance…….flights can get booked out surprisingly soon! The website is efficient & easy to navigate. Make allowances in your itinerary, for flight re-scheduling. But, for each of these, you will receive email notifications from Egypt-air, much before you are due to travel. Re-booking is mostly hassle-free. If you receive any such notices during your trip, just walk into the local Egypt Air office & they will sort it for you. It is advised to check your e-mail from time to time, during your stay in Egypt too, to watch out for re-scheduling notifications.
All flights are mostly on time & your luggage reaches you, more often than not. At the airports, make sure you are alert…..flight boarding announcements are poor and often announced by the ground staff, without any public announcement system. Check-in is smooth. Luggage limit is 20 kg per person for check-in. If you have a higher allowance while flying in from your country, please check Egypt Air’s policy about allowing the excess luggage without any charge, for internal flights. This will avoid last minute arguments during check-in.
Security checks are not as tight as you would be used to, in some other countries. At immigration, they may not even verify details & just let you out! Flights typically do not serve meals, as the flying time is short. You will be offered water or juice. For children, the elderly & invalids, it is better to carry some food, for emergencies. All airports do have cafes or snack bars, where you can pick up something.
Egypt by road:
Travelling by road in Egypt is smooth. Most roads (say, Aswan to Luxor, Aswan to Abu Simbel, Sharm to Dahab, Dahab to Sinai, Cairo to Bahariya) are in good condition.
You have to travel by the convoy from Aswan to Abu Simbel. There is no rash driving, as was mentioned in some posts…..guess it depends on your luck too. Though they drive at good speeds, the roads are empty & the entire convoy uses a good indicator system while overtaking or warning about bad/narrow roads ahead. Convoys do not stop for bathroom or food breaks, so be prepared. The drive to Abu Simbel is non-stop. The drive to Luxor has breaks at 2 sites – Kom Ombo & Edfu.
Be warned though, even when not in a convoy, there are very few rest stops during road travel, for bathroom breaks. So, when you find one, use it…..there may be none available for a long time.
Travelling in the desert is a different ball game altogether……no food or bathroom breaks, unless you arrive at an oasis / town. There are paved roads linking the oases together, but, if you travel into the desert, it has to be in a 4-wheel drive. They have to be driven fast, over bumpy surfaces, climbing over sand dunes if necessary, at odd angles. All in all, it feels like a long roller coaster ride. People easily prone to nausea are advised to take anti-nausea tablets before the drive. Carry some lemon juice, soda or mints…..it helps reduce the nausea.
Travelling within towns / cities:
Most towns / cities are absolutely safe….even when you are out late into the night. You can easily walk a lot & use public transport. Carry a good map / guide-book with you. Also carry your hotel address & phone number at all times. In fact, it is a good idea to ask your hotel staff to write down both these details for you, in Arabic, as it helps if you have to get directions from people who cannot read English.
Pick up a local SIM card for your mobile as soon as you reach Egypt…..it helps to make calls to your hotel / guide, as there are no coin operated public phones available. You need to get a calling card for these phones, but, in any case, these phones are hard to come by.
In places along the Nile, you have plenty of options to travel back & forth from the east to west banks……feluccas, motorboats, the public ferry (baladi). Haggle hard for felucca & motor-boat prices. They are moored in docks along the Corniche (road along the Nile). It is extremely hard to not come across one. The public ferry service in Luxor, particularly, was very efficient. They run till mid-night. You just ask for the public ferry dock on the Corniche….it’s a huge ferry & not a small motor-boat (which some boats- men would lead you to believe). You buy a ticket & hop on to the ferry. There’s one every 15 minutes or so. The ticket costs 1 LE per person, for 1 way.
On road, you can use taxis or a Caleche (horse carriage). Both require haggling for prices. Obviously, locals pay considerably less than you do. Ask for what you feel is a fair price. If it does not work for them, they will refuse. You can always try the next cab. You can ask your hotel staff before leaving each morning, for approximate costs between some places......bargain based on that.
Make sure to agree on a price before you get it, confirm if it is for both of you or per person, confirm if it is in Egyptian Pounds & not Dollars or Euros. Also, some Caleche drivers, especially in Aswan are notorious for deviating off course, to take you to ‘this great weekly market’ or this ‘shop having a sale today’. Refuse, firmly, but politely……it is nothing but tactics to get you to visit shops owned by family/friends, so that they can earn a commission.
All said & done, it feels amazing, exploring these places on your own.
Language & communication:
Arabic is the official language. Most people, though, also understand English. It is easy to get by with English, but it is recommended to learn a few Arabic words. It acts as an ice-breaker & does elicit a smile from most Egyptians. This is not to say that Egyptians are unfriendly otherwise…..they are extremely friendly. Chat with everybody, from drivers, to hotel staff, to guides…….it gives you a lot of insight into Egyptian life & lifestyle. Arabic is also useful in small restaurants & while travelling off the tourist path, for buying essentials. If nothing works, try sign language or sketching on a piece of paper…..works!
Learning to recognize Arabic numbers is another life saver. All hotels prepare bills in English. Almost all restaurants too, have English menus. But, again, off the beaten path, it’s in Arabic. Knowing the numbers will help you to read prices. Also, while shopping in supermarkets, buying essentials or buying munchies, it helps tremendously. Prices are marked up considerably for tourists & if you can read the Arabic price on the packing, it helps you to know how much they are over-charging you. More on this in ‘Food’ tips………..
You can carry very little cash. It is sufficient to carry some Dollars/ Euros / Pounds to use at the airports during your flight to Egypt. Keep some more of these currencies as an emergency, to use when ATMs are not working. Also, try & get as much Egyptian Pounds (LE) as you can before you leave for Egypt. This can help you tide over the first couple of days. Many hotels charge for the room in Dollars or Euros. For this, you could carry the exact amounts in those currencies, which can be used to pay the hotel.
Inform you bank that you are travelling to Egypt & will be using your debit & credit cards. Some people may face problems while in Egypt, as their banks view this sudden use of cards in a foreign country as possible fraud, & block further card usage. This can lead you to being stuck without money, till the matter is resolved. Also, informing your bank will make them alert to any misuse of your card back home. When you make a withdrawal at an ATM, make large withdrawals rather than many small withdrawals. Most banks levy a standard processing charge for overseas withdrawal, irrespective of the amount withdrawn. This can add up to quite a bit.
It is advised to keep track of your bank balance while travelling, as sometimes, there are transaction errors. Carry at least 2 cards belonging to different banks. It will help you if you ace any problems with 1 bank.
You can use Visa, Master & Maestro cards without any problems. A 4 digit ATM pin works in Egypt as well. Please check your pin usability before you leave. Debit cards linked to savings accounts worked well. Cards linked to current accounts may not work well, as most ATMs do not give you the option to choose ‘current account’ as the account type.
Collect as much small change as possible, to give away as tips. Use the larger notes at restaurants & shops and then, save the change. Spend or convert all Egyptian pounds before you leave Egypt……Forex bureaus back home may not buy back LEs. Dollars / Euros work well at airports on the way back home, too.
Tipping is a very tricky & sensitive issue in Egypt. Be prepared for tipping so that it does not dent your budget. Tipping is expected, whether the service is good or not. People are usually not averse to tipping at all, but here, something as small as pointing out the obvious (say, Horus on a temple wall) may demand a tip. Learn fast…..when people come to you, offering help which you don’t need, politely, but firmly tell them “No, thanks”. A few times, people may demand more tips & get angry, but, you also have to realize that most people expect such huge tips, only because their livelihood depends on tourism.
Speak to your hotel staff or guide to come up with a ready reckoner for tipping. As on December 2008, some handy figures are:
Car driver – 30 min to 4 hours – 20 LE minimum.
Car driver – 4 to 6 hrs (half day) – 25 to 30 LE
Car driver – full day / driving between cities – 40 LE / depending on distances
Guide – half day - 25 to 30 LE
Guide – full day – 50 LE
Egyptologist guide – maybe 75-100 LE for a full day?
Felucca / motorboat captain – upto 3 hours - 30 LE
Restaurant (not up-market) – minimum 5 LE or 10% of the bill, which-ever is more.
For carrying luggage / room service – 5 LE
Toilets / for minding shoes at mosques – 1 LE / 2 LE
For good service – use your discretion
It is nice to tip drivers at the end of the day, as you may get a different driver the next day. Guides can be tipped on the last day. At your hotel, where you would eat breakfast & maybe 1 other meal, you could tip every day, to ensure good service. At hotels, you can also leave a tip for the cleaning staff at the end of your stay. While in restaurants that have a service charge, it is still nice to tip the waiter separately, as the service charge is distributed only at the end of the month.
Please tip in local currency. It is advised to keep all the change required for tipping in a separate pouch so that you don’t have to dig into a loaded wallet while tipping. Aswan, Luxor & Cairo is where tips are demanded & expected. In Bahariya & Dahab, people seem pleasantly surprised & there is no demanding.
Clothing / Climate:
Follow all the advice given in the forum & dressed sensibly - Full length bottoms or capris, with modest tops / t-shirts. Half sleeves are not a problem anywhere. In beaches / resorts, you can dress like you would in a beach anywhere else in the world. Sleeveless clothing is quite ok in Cairo….just remember to carry a scarf / stole to throw over your shoulders, for visits to mosques.
All this minimises being stared at or lewd comments being passed. Despite this, you may be stared at, quite openly, everywhere, by both men & women! Don’t take offence……a lot of times, it is just general curiosity.
Check the whether when you go. Even in December, it can be quite hot during the day & cool at night. During the day, use a lot of sun-block, goggles & a cap / hat. You can tan quite a bit despite this. It is cool at night in Aswan, Luxor & Dahab……take something light to cover up. Cairo gets cooler than these places. The desert is the coldest……with temperatures at night hovering around 5 degrees celcius. The wind makes it much colder than 5 degrees in the city.
While climbing Mt.Sinai, layer your clothing. It is freezing at this time of the year, but, a few minutes of climbing & you start to warm up…..layers will allow you to take off warm clothes as you go up. Once you reach the summit, it becomes very cold again. For those planning to climb on a camel, you will feel much colder than the people climbing on foot, as you are not doing anything strenuous….bundle up accordingly.
Sunset, in winter, is at 4.45 or 5 pm….it can be quite disorienting to have the darkness set in so early if you are not used to it.
Food & drink:
There's a separate topic about vegetarian food options in Egypt, below. Here, some general tips:
Do not drink water from anywhere. Stick to bottled water. Do not eat raw food, be careful where you eat salads or drink fresh juice & as a rule, eat food that’s piping hot. This will allow you to travel with no signs of the ‘mummy tummy’.
When you buy any food / munchies from bakeries, stores or supermarkets, beware of how much you are being charged. You may / may not face this problem. Tourists, generally don’t mind paying slightly marked-up prices…but, you may sometimes be asked for ridiculous sums, like 35 LE for a pack of Pringles / a can of cola or 20 LE for a candy bar (locals pay just 2 to 4 LE for things like this). As a result, every time you want to munch something, you may have to go to a restaurant, which has a printed menu. This is not even at temples & other sites……but, just in the city. This is when it is useful to read the actual price printed in Arabic. This problem is more in Aswan, Luxor and to a lesser extent, in Dahab. At Cairo & Bahariya, you can get most things for the printed price.
To combat this, you can request your guide to buy something for you. Else, you could also ask you hotel staff to get you something & then tip them. Another way to beat this ridiculous pricing is to buy snacks or essentials at pharmacies (some pharmacies stock limited snacks) as opposed to supermarkets. Most of the pharmacies sell things at actual cost.
When going to sites, avoid buying anything there unless you absolutely have to……prices are expensive there. Carry some food & water. But, on a long day of site hopping, it becomes impractical to lug so many things around….on such days, it is wiser to buy & eat at sites.
As of December 2008, food was most expensive at Luxor & Dahab (50 LE per person per meal). Aswan, Bahariya & Cairo were the cheapest (25 LE per person per meal). Cairo has the most variety…..from cheap food (5 LE per person per meal !) to the most expensive options.
Vegetarians in Egypt:
Being vegetarian in Egypt is a slight disadvantage, especially for very long trips. After a few weeks, the lack of vegetarian options gets to you. One option is to self cater. The other, is to taste every vegetarian option in the book & rotate what you order, so that you don’t tire of anything. Here’s what’s available for vegetarians at all local restaurants:
Salads, fresh fruit, fresh juice.
Soup – Difficult for staunch vegetarians…..all soups contain chicken stock / meat stock, including tomato soup. The only meat-free option is lentil soup.
Main course – Bread / rice eaten with Tagen (claypot) vegetables or fuul (faava beans in gravy). Other options are Spaghetti with tomato sauce or macaroni & cheese. Also, Pizza Margherita, potatoes in gravy, French fries! Moussaka & ratatouille too are available, although rarely.
Dips – Tahini (sesame seed paste), Hummus (chick-pea paste) & Babaghanoush (Eggplant paste)
Mezze – there are vegetables / vine leaves stuffed with rice and a lot of eggplant based options.
Dessert - most have eggs – difficult if you don’t eat eggs!
If you eat eggs, you can add omelets & crepes to your list of options. Cairo affords more options – falafel & kushari.
Shopping in Egypt, presents a mind-boggling range of choices. In Southern Egypt, you get Nubian handicrafts & gifts. In eastern & western Egypt, you can get Bedouin options. Of the 3 souqs (Aswan, Luxor & Cairo), Aswan can be rated the best. Though, Cairo’s Khan-Al-Khalili is the largest. Even the shops by the sea, at Dahab, have interesting buys.
If you are looking for specialties like Nubian or Bedouin work, it is best to pick them up at the local souqs, rather than at Khan-Al-Khalili. Not only is the best variety available in the local souqs, the prices too are considerably cheaper than Cairo.
If you plan to visit factories - perfume, alabaster, papyrus, carpets etc, remember not to be forced into buying anything. Visiting these factories can be good, as they explain how these products are made, but, there is a lot of hard-sell. If you are uncomfortable about it, make sure you let your guide know that you do not want to go….it is quite okay to do so. If you do visit them, but are not tempted to buy anything, you can leave a tip behind for the factory / the person who showed you the demonstration, as a gesture of appreciation.
In the souqs, bargain hard. It can be particularly distressing for people not used to bargaining. Make your offer, of what you feel is a fair price. Remember to start a little below your final price, as you eventually have to step up your offer a bit. If it is not viable for the shopkeeper, he will refuse. Walk away, or say that you’ll think about his final offer & come back later…..most times, this does the trick & they call after you. If the shopkeeper had genuinely quoted his lowest price, he will not call you back….then, you can decide later if you want to go back or not. Do not feel guilty about haggling…..but remember – bargain politely & with a smile…..this allows for no hard feelings. Nobody will ever sell you anything below cost price, for a loss (contrary to what they may tell you while selling it). You can get most purchases for almost 1/4th the quoted price. Another trick to use is to ask your hotel staff for prices of some items like hats, t-shirts, carpets, keychains, jewellery etc. This way, you have an idea before-hand, and bargain accordingly.
Many toilets are of the squat type. Western WCs too are increasingly common, especially in larger towns & in cities. Do not expect very clean toilets. Keep lots of toilet paper handy, maybe even disinfectant wipes, for wiping toilet seats. If you know the trick to using a squat toilet, it is more hygienic, as you will not be sharing a seat with thousands of others. Carry some liquid / paper soap too, as it is non-existent in these toilets.
In many toilets, it is expected that you pay a small charge – 50 piastres to 1 LE should suffice. Some toilet attendants dole out a small wad of toilet paper when you go in….but, you can never be sure. All toilets will have water, either a tap or a squirter, for washing.
While travelling or going from site to site, make use of all toilet breaks. In remote locations, it may be a while before you come across the next toilet.
A small request - a lot of toilets are choked, not because of lack of flushing, but, because tourists try to flush toilet paper, as they are probably used to, elsewhere. It does not work here……Egyptian plumbing lines are not designed to take the load of enormous quantities of toilet paper being flushed down. All toilets have a waste bin…..please dispose the paper in it. There are signs to this effect put up in a lot of places, but, many people pay no heed to it. Please do your bit to keep the toilets clean & working, for other people.
Carry small locks to use on your suitcases / backpacks…that way, you can leave valuables / cash behind in your hotel room, in peace. Many hotels will also have a safe box in the room, or at the reception……make use of them & leave behind passports, jewellery & money. Crowded areas like souqs could have pick-pockets & it is not advisable to carry everything on you.Of course, many people may also prefer to carry documents with them, in a secure pouch strapped to the waist.
Carry a photo-copy of your passport with you, at all times. Nobody ever asks you for it, it is just in case of emergencies. While travelling in convoys & climbing Mt.Sinai, you may be asked to carry original passports…..so check before you leave your hotel.
To beat the heat, leave your hotel early in the morning, as early as 6 am. A lot of sites open early & are less crowded at that time. In the afternoons, relax on a felucca (the Nile is quite cool), go for a swim in your hotel pool, hang out in a café or get into one of the numerous museums. A lot of the museums are also open (Aswan & Luxor) till almost 10 pm…so, you can save them for then, after the other sites close for the day.