Travel Guide: Egypt

When it comes to picking a destination to travel to, the conversation between Jenna and I typically goes something like this: I share where I want to go, she shares where she wants to go, and then we come to a “compromise” and go where she wants to go. The one country I was always firm to veto was Egypt. For as long as I can remember Jenna has been nagging me to go, and for as long as I can remember I have said no. With the recency bias of terrorism and the Egypt Revolution back in 2011, it took me a a while to warm up to the idea. It wasn’t until I had some friends that recently visited that I finally felt comfortable heading to the Arab Republic of Egypt. After doing thorough research eight to nine nights in Egypt seemed like ample time to see the highlights, as we traveled during the week of Thanksgiving in 2018.

I’ve divided this guide into two parts: first you’ll find vital information for your trip and overall pain-points that we experienced. If by the end of that you’re still committed to visiting Egypt I’ve provided an outline of our itinerary to give you a model for your own adventure planning. Much of my tone is sarcastic, negative, and passive aggressive. This may be because I spent most of the trip frustrated and annoyed because while I did extensive research on what to do and what to see, I was not prepared for some of the pain-points I have listed below. So with that disclaimer, let’s dance.

What to Know Before Traveling

Currency

I had a very difficult time tracking down currency for this trip. I typically buy foreign currency from Chase bank before we depart. When they don’t carry the currency on hand any Chase branch will order it for you to receive in a couple days. I’ve always thought of this as a nice little travel hack, that was until I was notified Chase didn’t have Egyptian Pounds (abbreviation LE) to order let alone on hand as apparently it’s not a currency they can acquire. No worries I thought, I can get some at the airport before we depart. Usually a last resort due to the fees but I have a phobia of traveling internationally without some cash on hand. When I inquired at O’Hare, Toronto Pearson, and London Heathrow (I don’t recommend 2 stop flights FWIW) , nobody carried LE either. My next best opportunity was an ATM once we got through customs, as luckily you can buy your Egyptian Visa in cash with USD for $25 per person upon arrival at Cairo airport before customs. I’m sure this is a freak coincidence but when I attempted to acquire said cash my ATM card got “stuck” inside the machine at Cairo airport. Their ATM’s operate a little differently in Egypt; the card slowly gets sucked all the way into the machine so once it’s in it’s basically a Venus flytrap. I tried using another card and even my keys to wedge it out to no avail, at which point a minor panic attack ensued. I’ve been trying to acquire Egyptian currency for over a week to avoid this very scenario and I’ve been in the country for less than 30 minutes and I’m properly fucked.

I approached an airport employee about my predicament to find an elderly couple also had their card swallowed by a different ATM in the airport. Conspiracy! Thankfully the employee was able to fish my card out of the ATM, no news on the other card though. Suckers! Throughout the rest of the trip I utilized ATM’s only at our hotels. It’s worth pointing out that the maximum amount I found you can take out in one transaction was 3,000LE (at the time of writing that is equivalent to $167 USD), i.e. not very much. I say not much in the sense that of all the museums, sites, and temples we visited, they only accepted cash in exchange for tickets so having LE on you was paramount. Oh, you wanted to buy tickets in advance? Good luck. So depending on your length of stay be prepared to go through a whirlwind to track down some Egyptian Pounds and for multiple ATM trips throughout your stay.

It Feels Safe, but the Threat Remains

Terrorism is still a real threat in Egypt. During the writing of this post, there was a roadside bombing of a tourist van in the vicinity of the Pyramids in Giza. The U.S. Department of State has Egypt labeled as Level 2 due to terrorism. However, for reference some other countries currently labeled Level 2 due to terrorism are Germany, Spain, Italy and several other European countries.  As far as Egypt goes, avoiding the Sinai Peninsula is highly recommended and staying away from large crowds and demonstrations. I always register on STEP before we travel anywhere internationally and I would recommend others do the same as well.

Security at many of the hotels in Egypt are quite tight, often featuring armed guards, metal detectors, and K-9’s sniffing away at every vehicle and individual that comes and goes. A lot of this is likely used as a deterrent but it does make you feel safer. Even at the airports security seems tighter than other airports, especially compared to smaller ones. We’ve been to (earmuffs Mom!) some airports where you could likely sneak a battle-axe onto the flight but at the airports across Egypt you’re forced to go through three metal detectors and checkpoints for a single flight, something I had never experienced before. These often include an individual pat down of each person. While this gets annoying quite quick it does give you the sense of security.

The lack of traffic lights, lanes, or signage makes the driving or riding in a car feel a bit uneasy. Those factors coupled with limited roads and massive over-population in Cairo likely contributes to Egypt ranking as one of the highest rates of traffic deaths in the world. Seeing children hanging onto the back of vans going ~40MPH isn’t out of the ordinary, and always use caution when crossing the road on foot. I would not recommend renting a car or driving anywhere yourself.  Armed military police are stationed at checkpoints at many of the popular roads so prepare to see more weapons than an episode of “Sons of Guns.” It also seemed like the police shook down a few of our drivers for cash, but didn’t question us at all. Standard procedure I suppose.

All in all I never felt threatened or unsafe aside from your standard hassling and haggling. Which is a good segue to my next point….

Prepare to be hassled and haggled

In non-breaking news, Egypt is extremely poor. While we may not be the most experienced travelers in the world, Jenna and I have now traveled to 20 different countries both prosperous and poor. Many other countries we’ve visited which were poor: Cuba, Thailand, and Indonesia to name a few didn’t have quite the same sense as Egypt. There was a genuine feeling from the people in those countries that even though the were poor, they were honest, trustworthy and wanted to share the culture and knowledge with you to assure you were leaving with a proper and positive impression of their culture. We know how to say no and we know how to negotiate, however Egypt felt different. Just about everywhere we went we stuck out like a whore at church. When walking the streets you will experience the usual soliciting of goods where everything is marked up 800% and you can haggle your way down to pennies on the dollar. They are very intrusive, will try to earn your trust by any means necessary. This won’t be out of the ordinary for experienced travelers.

What did annoy me was the constant pressure of tips or “baksheesh” as they call it. I always due my part to tip hotel workers, drivers, or wait staff whenever we travel and actually feel like I’m more than generous. Likely part of the reason why I’m so anal about having cash with me (see point #1). However a majority of the baksheesh inquiries were from random people that you wouldn’t expect. This is including but not limited to; Guy at airport that showed you towards your gate, guy at museum that pointed something out to you (in arabic mind you) that you don’t give two Koshary’s about, guy in bathroom mopping the floor, dude at temple that checked your ticket, guy working at a tomb sitting on his ass all day. Literally every worker you come in contact with will ask for tips. And with every additional request for a baksheesh you’ll want to yell “get off my back, sheesh!” As you’ll learn in the itinerary section, many of the sites you visit will require you to buy a photography permit. Even at these sites, guards and staff will request a tip for taking photos. It’s a never ending cycle so prepare accordingly.

The only semi-pleasant part of the hassling came from kids. Anytime we went to a temple or museum there were tons of kids on field trips that wanted to take selfies and photos with us. No, they didn’t recognize Jenna from Instagram, but likely because we were the first white people they’d ever seen in person. This was fun and made us feel like C-List celebrities. We obliged as much as possible since kids were literally ecstatic to meet us, plus I wanted to do my civil duty to mend international relations that has been damaged in the past years.

Don’t Trust Anyone

I booked a guide and driver for just about everything we did. By doing so I thought it would help us from getting hustled. Unfortunately, that tactic did not work. Just assume that wherever and whoever you are with, best efforts will be made to take advantage of you. Even at the sites we visited, our guides would attempt to persuade us to buy premium tickets. Our guides often veered from the plan to take us to bazaars, papyrus and oils shops to pressure us into buying goods. Throughout the trip we spent time with six different guides and it became an underlining joke that each one would tell us that whichever shop we had been taken to had the most authentic and highest quality goods in the country.

Our main point of contention came when setting up plans through the hotel. As you’ll learn in the itinerary portion, we spent half a day at the pyramids exploring and riding camels. We decided that the time spent just wasn’t enough and thought one more trip to the pyramids would give us ample time to soak in the scenery to the fullest extent. I had asked the concierge at the Fairmont in Cairo if they could arrange a “Sunset Camel Ride” at the pyramids for us. This seemed like a fairly common request given the pace at which it was arranged for us. I assumed that by having the hotel arrange this I could trust that we would be with reputable people, unfortunately that was not the case. They hooked us up with a driver and guide for the evening, though immediately upon arriving at the pyramids I became suspicious. Instead of parking at the pyramids like the previous day, we parked at a strip mall about half a mile away. What ensued was a 30 minute camel ride through the slums of Cairo. The expected view of the pyramids was instead a view of dogs picking through trash. Once we did get a view of the pyramids, the sun had already set and we were several football field lengths away. We weren’t there for long before I instructed our guide to take us back to the car and knew we were less than pleased. After another lovely ride through the slums we were met by the camel pimp who asked for 2000 Egyptian Pounds in exchange for the ride. Now, we had pre-arranged and paid for the driver and guide with the hotel, and the concierge noted I would need “a little cash” for the camel ride. The previous day a camel ride cost 15 Egyptian pounds, today I was being quoted 2000. A bit of an animated discussion ensued between myself, the camel pimp, and our guide. I hadn’t just taken a round-trip camel ride through the slums after sunset to try to get hustled once again, however we were in a strip mall in a foreign country with three shady men, so it was rather diplomatic. Due to my displeasure, the camel pimp agreed I did not owe him any money, under the circumstances I kept the story of the evening to myself. Sorry bro.

I’m assuming the guide phoned back to the hotel to warn that a very angry American man was on his way back since the manager was waiting for us at the entrance. I dismissed the guide and expressed my displeasure for doing business with such shady individuals. Ultimately, perhaps I could have done a better job of understanding the expectations going into the evening, but I put my faith in a notable hotel like the Fairmont. The hotel ended up refunding our ride and guide, and provided the car service and breakfast for us to the airport in the morning. So they did their part to make it right, though I still find it odd that I got a notification that the hotel manager viewed my LinkedIn profile later that evening.

In summary, be wary of everyone, trust your gut and stick to your guns. If it doesn’t feel right, it likely isn’t.

Getting around is tough

From trains, planes, and automobiles, Egypt is a logistical nightmare. Let’s go right down the list starting with the trains. We’ve been spoiled traveling via bullet trains in Europe and Asia, the trains in Egypt pale in comparison. They run very slow, quite filthy, and obtaining tickets is like trying to find a missing sock that’s been separated from it’s partner. Since I had done research on the train situation we abstained from utilizing them. However, the group of friends we had met up with weren’t as lucky and had some absolute nightmare stories from the infamous “sleeper train.” Some of the photos we saw featured enough defecation to rival Two Girls One Cup. Their experience validated everything I had read leading up to the trip. So take it from us, train ain’t worth it.

Now let’s talk planes. Egypt Air is the prominent airline within the country, although there is one fundamental problem with Egypt Air; their website doesn’t accept a majority of U.S. credit cards. You’ll get through all the steps, have it authorized by your bank, and it will still be declined. Don’t worry as this is very common. The only way to bypass this is to call Egypt Air on the phone, book your flights, and they will e-mail you an authorization form for you to fill out and send back. A bit shady in 2018 to manually write down your passport and credit card information, but there isn’t any alternative. My recommendation when doing this is to go through the steps of booking all the flights you wish to purchase on the website, and once you are denied the ability to book, call Egypt Air and give them your name and they should be able to retrieve your flight plans even though you weren’t successful. This will save you from having to do this manually over the phone and limit room for error. If you do happen to have success booking using the website, switching your country to Egypt will yield cheaper flights than when using United States. I love the hustle Egypt, they just love tourism!

So to recap, trains are not for the faint of heart, booking flights is a pain in the ass, and there’s a bit of danger involved in automobiles as mentioned earlier. In addition, a majority of taxi drivers speak solely Arabic and the literacy level in Egypt is so low that even using Google Translate or attempting to leverage Google Maps on your phone to route them to your destination rendered useless. There are no taxi meters and for the cabbies that do speak English, they’ll likely quote you four times the fare so do your best to talk them down. With that said, hiring a driver is the most plausible way of transportation most of the time and for the long trips like Aswan to Cairo or Cairo to Luxor flying will be optimal as long as you go through the process of booking the flights like it’s 1970.

If you’re still reading I take it you’re pretty committed to this trip.

Sample Itinerary

Day 1: Travel and land in Cairo

Upon landing in Cairo, we obtained visa’s for $25 each at a bank counter inside the airport. Stick this to a blank page in your passport before getting to the front of the customs line to avoid a verbal thrashing. Your passport must also be valid for at least six months for admittance into the country. Even though taxis and Uber are prevalent and cheap in Cairo, I had arranged the hotel car to pick us up. The up-charge on this service is always a bit preposterous but there’s something about landing in a foreign country after a long day of travel with someone waiting for you that makes you feel at ease. I’ve chosen to set up this service on some trips and elected to navigate myself to the hotel via public transit or haggling with a cabbie on many occasions, and I never regret the former even if it means splurging a little. From the moment you lock eyes with a driver holding a sign with your name on it, you feel like you’re on vacation.

We stayed at the Fairmont Nile City, the price for a standard room was about $150 per night. During my research I discovered that upper echelon hotels in Cairo were rather affordable. The Ritz Carlton and Steigenberger Hotel El Tahrir are two hotels I would recommend which are very central and can be had at modest prices.

Day 2: Day trip to Alexandria from Cairo

I booked a private day trip to Alexandria, Egypt’s second most populous city through Trip Advisor which included a driver, guide, and lunch. It was an early start (7AM) and what should have been a two and a half hour drive turned into twice that thanks to a sandstorm which shut down the only road to and from. Apparently this is known to happen a couple times a year. We sat at a rest stop for a couple hours getting acquainted with our guide and driver. Once in Alexandria we made multiple stops including the catacombs of Kom el-Shoqafa (one of the seven wonders of the Middle Ages), Pompey’s Pillar and the Serapium (the temple of god Serapis), the Fort of Qaitbey (the site of the ancient lighthouse, Pharos), and the New Library of Alexandria. The library was very modern and our favorite stop of the day. For lunch the guide took us to Chicken Tikka to indulge in the buffet that consisted of some of the best hummus I’ve ever had and sweeping views of the Alexandria coast. The drive back to Cairo was another three and a half hours, and since we were wiped out following the long day we ate dinner inside the hotel at Saigon.

Day 3: Cairo/Giza (Pyramids, Sphinx, Bazaar, Khan al-Khalili market, etc.)

Half Day tour of the Pyramids and Sphinx, the must stop visits in Egypt. Tour also included a camel ride and by having this pre-arranged helped keep the hawkers away. You can choose to pay extra to go inside the great pyramid, but there’s not much to see. The journey up to the top is not for those that suffer from claustrophobia I can promise you that. I would only recommend if it’s important for you to know that you went *inside* the pyramids and you’re in modest aerobic shape to get up and down inside. Our entire group was drenched in sweat by the time we emerged.

In the evening we took a cab to the Khan al-Khalili market. What we didn’t know is the night happened to coincide with Mawlid (Muhammad’s Birthday celebrated by all Muslim countries), which made the market and streets surrounding an absolute madhouse. Fun atmosphere if you’re into chaos. It was an all out ordeal, from getting solicited by every shop owner, trying to flag down a cab in the hectic streets, then navigating said cab back to our hotel. I feel no guilt in saying I hated every minute of this night, but given that it was Mawlid it’s difficult to properly judge Khan el-Khalili market which came highly recommended by many.

Day 4: Last Day in Cairo (Cairo Museum, Mosque of Muhammed Ali, Cairo Citadel, etc.)

We hit up the Grand Egyptian Museum first thing. This is where many of the great artifacts of ancient Egypt are kept, including two of King Tut’s tombs and his mask/helmet/lid. We bought the all-access tickets which gave you the ability to see the mummy’s, as if we would pass that up! In addition to the price of the ticket you need to purchase a photography ticket if you wish to take photos. As you’ll learn, this is common theme through the tourist sites in Egypt. As you’ll also learn, even with a photography ticket many of things you’ll want to photograph are prohibited from photos even with the ticket. That’s Egypt in a nutshell really.

After exploring the museum at a snails pace due to the dozens of selfie requests from the kiddos, we Uber’d over to the Mosque of Muhammed Ali. Our Uber driver dropped us off behind the site where there was no entrance, so we walked 1.5 miles around to the front, reminding me that Egypt love tourists! The mosque is open to the public and Jenna was able to take photos without covering up, so it was a win-win. The mosque sits atop a hill with some swell views of Cairo.

Our evening consisted of the “Sunset Slums Camel Ride” disaster mentioned earlier. Two full days in Cairo is really all you need, and in theory you could jam the pyramids, sphinx, museum, and mosque all in one day if necessary.

Day 5: Flight to Luxor, East Bank (Karnak and Luxor Temple)

We had a 7AM flight from Cairo to Luxor (see point 5 in Things to Know on insight on how to book flights). Given the traffic in Cairo, flying early in the morning is recommended. We breezed to the airport from downtown in about 25 minutes, had it been any other time in the day it likely would have taken over an hour. We were on the ground in Luxor by 8AM, haggling with taxi cab drivers per usual. The fare they were quoting was so ridiculous I actually walked away and found another driver who agreed to my proposal, only to walk me back to the original driver I had been haggling with. I was once again reminded of the hustle here. Egypt loves tourists!

We checked into the Hilton Luxor Resort and Spa which I would recommend. Luxor is divided up into two parts: the east bank and west bank. Each has enough sites for about half a day of sightseeing. On this day we elected for the east bank, hired a driver and guide take us to Karnak and the Luxor Temple. Both were full of history and absolute must visits.

Day 6: Luxor West Bank (the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Colossi of Memnon)

Add Valley of the Kings and Temple of Hatshepsut as must see sites. You will get price gauged at both though, as in order to see the premium temples you need to pay additional fees. Photo permits also cost extra. Once again there are certain tombs that even with the photo permit you can’t take photos of, such as King Tut. However, I haggled with the guard inside to let me take a few photos. Of course after we agreed and took photos, he wanted twice the amount we agreed too. Have I mentioned that Egypt loves tourists? Valley of the Queens and Colossi of Memnon can be skipped, and even if you want to see all four this can be done in half a day.

I paid for the King Tut photo so you don’t have to

Day 7: Travel to Aswan

Since there were no flights from Luxor to Aswan I hired a driver for $100 USD to take us the four hour journey. The faster route between the two cities cannot be traveled by tourists for some reason so we were forced to take a service road the entire way. Immediately upon arriving in Aswan I knew it would be the highlight of the trip. The Nile river in Aswan feels like the centerpiece of the city as opposed to a nuisance divider like in Cairo and Luxor. We checked into the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract which is an absolutely gorgeous property and wouldn’t recommend staying anywhere else. A Victorian palace built in 1899 that has hosted the likes of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter and Princess Diana. I would rank it in the top five hotels that Jenna and I have had the privilege of staying at. Unlike the other hotels in Egypt, you will pay the premium for your stay but I felt it was worth splurging. We spent the evening exploring the grounds of the hotel and had some wine on the hotel terrace.

Day 8: Day Trip to Abu Simbel

We started the day at the airport once again and headed to Abu Simbel, one of the hidden gems of Egypt that was spoken highly of by everyone who has made the journey. Abu Simbel consists of two 100 foot high rock temples built around 1264BC and relocated down to it’s current position in the 1960’s to preserve it from flooding. There isn’t anything to do down here besides go to the temple, which is why there are shuttle bases waiting at the airport upon your arrival to transport you to and from free of charge (I believe the buses are provided by Egypt Air but aren’t labeled as such). We landed in Abu Simbel at 7:40AM and were flying back to Aswan at 10:40AM as you’re not allowed to be at the temple for more than three hours. In actuality it was the optimal amount of time to get shuttled to the temple, explore, shuttle back, and be back in Aswan by lunch time.

Other sites to see in Aswan include Temple of Philae, the Aswan Botanical Garden, Aswan Museum, the Nubian Village, and the Unfinished Obelisk. If you do stay at the Sofitel, it’s worth noting that there is a jetty behind the hotel with many boats and feluccas for hire. I haggled with a guy to take us to the Nubian Village and back for a couple hundred Egyptian Pounds. There’s many small islands on the Nile with sites and restaurants you can access via these boats. However if you do go to the Temple of Philae you would need to cab down to the area and transfer to a boat since it’s on the other side of the dam.

Day 9: Flight from Aswan to Cairo, Cairo to Home

So all this was accomplished in a little over a week. Obviously you can go faster if you wish to skip Alexandria or Aswan, or you can slow things down for some additional rest and relaxation (ideally at the Luxor Hilton or Sofitel in Aswan). The only thing to report about our journey home was that our bags ended up in Zurich instead of Munich > Chicago. They turned up a couple days later but had the potential to be disastrous. Close calls like these are a good reminder to carry your most prized possessions in your carry on as even in 2018 bags have the potential to go missing.

Restaurants:

Self admittedly we weren’t as adventurous with the food as we normally are for a couple reasons a) we had some long days so once back at hotel didn’t feel like leaving b) as stated earlier, it was hard to get around and navigate taxis where to go, so didn’t feel it was worth the hassle. With that said, here is a list of restaurants that I would recommend based on my pre-trip research and recommendations from others.

Cairo: Carlo’s Le Pacha, Zooba, Cairo Kitchen, Birdcage.

Luxor: Aisha, 1886, Sofra, Al Sahaby Lane,Gerda’s Garden

 

In conclusion, Egypt was quite the ride with many up’s and down’s. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t ever see the need to do it again. Kind of a reiteration of the aforementioned points, but you would think one of the most ancient countries in the world featuring some of the most sought after artifacts and “Wonders of the World” would have a grasp on tourism, but they don’t. If you do go remember to stay vigilante, plan ahead the best you can, and roll with the punches to avoid frustration. Hopefully the tips and insight given here will set your trip up for success. If you have any questions or additional points of clarity, feel free to reach out!

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