Egypt Travel Tips: The Good The Bad, and The Hustle
Oh, Egypt. What a mixed bag of adventures you were!
Before we’d left on our round-the-world trip, I’d put some effort into researching Egypt itineraries and travel tips from other bloggers. I’d wanted to get a good feel for what to expect from independent travel there.
The reports came back with a ton of variation.
And mine will be no different.
Egypt is such a unique place. It’s full of all the incredible sights and history you’ve probably learned about from a young age. Because of this, tourism plays a huge part in its economy, and it has done so for a long time. Ultimately, this is both to its merit and detriment, the way I see it.
As for us? Our experience ran the gamut from some of the best days to one of the worst days we’ve had travelling. But overall, it was a net positive.
In any case, we have no doubt that we’d like to return someday. To help prepare you for a potential trip, here’s our first hand experience of travelling Egypt for two weeks. It’s everything we got right, and the things that we wished had gone better.
Egypt Travel Tips: The Best View of the Pyramids
One of the best choices I made in Egypt was booking a guesthouse in Giza instead of Cairo. It came with an incredible rooftop view of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. One of the main reasons we came to Egypt was to see these iconic structures, so we didn’t want to fight traffic just to rush there and away.
Some people say they’re disappointed to learn that the Pyramids and Sphinx aren’t in the middle of the desert, like they appear to be in so many pictures.
Don’t be! You can take advantage of their location in Giza, a not-so-nice-looking suburb of Cairo, by booking a guesthouse nearby. We stayed at Atlantis Pyramids Inn for $28 USD per night based on its strong reviews. And we loved it.
Since I had made our reservation, I knew what to expect in terms of how close we’d be to the Pyramids. My husband, on the other hand, couldn’t believe it until he saw it.
Though we felt exhausted when we arrived at the guesthouse at 3am, our weariness disappeared when we went to the roof. The same thing happened when we woke up for breakfast and got our first Egyptian meal: fresh falafel, eggplant, omelettes, beans, hummus and pita. Something about getting to stare at the Pyramids magically took our tiredness away.
For dinner the next day, we ordered a home-cooked meal of grilled chicken and salad and ate them on the roof, still mesmerised. And the best part? We got to watch the nightly sound and light show from up there, without paying the 300 Egyptian Pound (approx. $19 USD) entrance fee.
(Turns out, the show wasn’t that impressive overall. But since we didn’t have to pay… we didn’t care!)
The Best Time To Visit Egypt
My husband and I visited Egypt in late November and early December. This turned out to be nearly perfect for us. It was right before their busiest season (late December and January), so it didn’t feel too crowded for the route we took. And it actually surprised us that it was downright chilly in the mornings and the evenings.
If you visit in these months, definitely bring a sweater or two. I was actually uncomfortably cold on more than one occasion, including during our felucca ride on the Nile River. But that’s mostly because I’d only been in tropical climates prior to that. The rest of the time, the midday temperature was perfect for exploring ancient sites, enjoying a cup of tea and sitting outside.
We heard that it’s best to avoid visiting Egypt in the summer months, June through August. That is, unless you’re planning on visiting some of the country’s popular Red Sea beaches. Otherwise, the temperature in the south of the country regularly hits 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (32-37°C) or more.
Trust us, you want to visit in the winter, spring or fall.
Egypt Travel Tips: To Avoid Scams and Hassle at the Pyramids, Consider Hiring A Guide
Looking back, I’m very glad we decided to hire a guide from our guesthouse to help us understand Giza and Cairo. It ended up being $40 USD per person for a day tour, including lunch and transportation (but excluding entrance fees and parking). Even though it wrecked my Egypt budget from day one, I felt that our guide’s explanations and insights really helped set the tone for the trip.
We met our guide, Khaled Shalabi, at 8:30am the day after we arrived. By the end of our tour, I wished he had been one of my college professors. His light blue eyes sparkled as he passionately told us stories and facts. I loved that he explained the importance of the historical sights we saw along with the social context of Egyptian society today.
I’ll always be grateful that Khaled helped us understand the concept of “baksheesh” and how it functions in Egypt, for better and for worse. Had we not observed this practice while touring with him, I think we would have ended the trip feeling frustrated and disappointed.
The Bright Side of Baksheesh
You can think of baksheesh as akin to tipping, but it’s more than that. Baksheesh seems to make the world go round in Egypt. With wages being relatively low, people’s lives depend on this extra cash to cover their basic costs of living, which are rapidly rising. In a way, baksheesh functions as a social safety net, from person to person, Khaled explained.
During our tour, we watched as Khaled greeted people, from ticket takers to cleaners to security guards, with a smile. He’d shake their hands and discreetly give them small sums of money. Khaled explained that he believed that the way he acted in this life was important for his next life. This showed us how baksheesh traditionally serves as charitable alms giving, and as a tenant of Islamic faith.
At the same time, these small acts also ensured that our experience at the Pyramids was hassle-free, another function of baksheesh. It became clear that there was significant goodwill between him and the people he saw on a regular basis. We received speedy and efficient service everywhere we went that day. Only 5-10 Egyptian Pounds each time (the equivalent of a $0.25 USD or pocket change) made all the difference.
Overall, this prepared us to be more generous with our baksheesh for the rest of the trip. We met so many kind people in the tourism and service industries. In guesthouses and restaurants, people told us over and over again: “Welcome. Please feel that this is your home now”. Their efforts to go above and beyond for us, along with their lighthearted attitudes, really made us fall in love with the people of Egypt.
The Hassle and The Hustle
Here’s the flip side to all of that. Even though we intellectually understood the concept of baksheesh from Khaled, it was still difficult for us to adjust and operate this way 24/7.
That person who offers to help show you the way or help you with your luggage? They expect baksheesh. The guard who asks to take a picture with you? Baksheesh! The kid who tells you you’re beautiful then tries to wash your feet in the sacred lake at Karnak Temple? (True story and yes, baksheesh.)
Ultimately, we got really frustrated by two things by the end of the trip.
One was directly related to baksheesh: that we often thought people were genuinely being nice or courteous through their offers. But what was really happening was that they were performing a service to earn baksheesh, for a service that we didn’t request. When they expected money, we were often caught off guard and felt more reluctant to hand over a tip. What started as a positive interaction would turn bitter, as both parties felt like they didn’t get what they wanted.
The other thing that got old was the constant asking. It felt relentless at times, like going through a gauntlet of saying “no, thanks” to everyone around you. The questions were persistent, and one “no” was never enough. This wore us down on days when we wanted to explore independently later on in our trip.
So, the advice that I’d give around this is to really be prepared for baksheesh in Egypt. Not only in a practical sense (i.e. get lots of small bills!) but mentally and financially as well. Including a healthy tip amount in your budget will likely save you a lot of hassle.
Beware of Scams and Touts
Hopefully I haven’t scared anyone off at this point. But since I’m already on this topic, I feel that there’s one last thing that travellers should prepare for before going to Egypt: scams and touts.
We are very lucky that we didn’t fall for any scams. But, there’s plenty of people who have. Like in tourist spots all over the world, there are unscrupulous people in Egypt who can find “creative” ways to make you part with your money. I recommend reading up on these before you visit so you’re not surprised. Some of the common ones include:
- Paying for a service, then finding out the person expects British pounds instead of Egyptian pounds
- Handing over your phone for a picture on a camel, then someone holding your it hostage until you pay more money
- Getting offered something as a “gift” then having someone demand payment for it
Having something like this happen to you can be extremely frustrating, so take steps to avoid them at all costs by steeling up your street smarts.
And as far as tourist touts go, just be aware that almost any time someone takes you to a shop of a “friend”, they usually get a commission if you buy something. As I said before, this obviously isn’t unique to Egypt but it feels especially prevalent in big cities there.
To be honest, this forced shopping was the only thing I didn’t love about our Pyramids tour with Khaled. Though we didn’t feel pressured, but we were still taken to various shops (papyrus, essential oils, carpets and cotton) where I had no desire to buy anything. We sat through spiel after spiel, until it was time to politely excuse ourselves.
I recommend being clear about this up front with your guide, and perhaps offering to tip them more in the end if they avoid it.
All that being said, we still really loved people and travel in Egypt, and I can’t stress this enough. After the Arab Spring in 2011, tourism dropped significantly, and it is only just now picking back up. Egyptians are eager to have people visit again, and they will truly welcome you with big smiles and open hearts.
Spend More Time in the Egyptian Museum
One of my biggest regrets in Egypt is not scheduling more time to spend at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Officially called the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, it holds over 120,000 Egyptian artefacts, including the incredible Tutankhamen mask.
Since we had an afternoon flight to Aswan from Cairo, we only spent about two hours in the museum itself, which barely scratched the surface. Luckily, we went with Khaled for a guided tour again, which made the visit efficient and informative. Otherwise, you’d probably still find us wandering around in there, peering into dusty display cases and taking endless pictures of sarcophagi.
The good news is that there’s actually a brand new museum, called the Grand Egyptian Museum, that’s set to open in early 2020. It’s supposed to be more modern and visitor-friendly. As a bonus, it will be closer to the Pyramids of Giza.
This means we have another reason to come back—and you have another good reason to visit.
Egypt Travel Tips: Make Sure You Visit the South
After visiting the Pyramids and Sphinx, the next sight we wanted to see the most in Egypt was the temple complex of Abu Simbel.
Nearly as impressive as its enormous size and its condition is the fact it’s not in its original position. It had to be moved, block by block, in the 1960s, to protect it from flooding during the creation of the Aswan High Dam.
To see Abu Simbel, we needed to head south to the city of Aswan to arrange our day trip there.
We took an hour-long flight from Cairo, but you also have the option of taking a day or night train instead. The overnight sleeper train is $80 USD, and the government encourages most tourists to buy these tickets. The express day train is much cheaper ($21), but it’s prohibited to sell these tickets to foreigners at the stations. There are ways to get around this, but we decided to make it easy on ourselves and fly.
Stay in the Nubian Village in Aswan
I choose a guesthouse in Aswan based on good online reviews again, and I’m grateful that we ended up at Aragheed Nubian Guesthouse. It’s the west bank of the Nile and cost $30 USD per night for a double private room.
This guesthouse is located in a colourful and peaceful Nubian village that is much less hectic than the built-up city on the east side of the river. It’s only 5 Egyptian pounds ($0.32 USD) to take the public ferry to the other bank.
We really appreciated Bassam, the owner of the guesthouse. He went above and beyond by sharing traditional coffee, Nubian music and food with us.
Because of his generous spirit, we decided to book three different activities through him:
- One afternoon, he arranged a half-day trip for us to visit the Tombs of the Nobles and to go sandboarding. We went with two guides on two feisty camels, Fox and King, and it cost $30 USD per person.
- Another day, we took the day trip to Abu Simbel like we’d planned ($40 USD per person).
- Finally, he helped us leave Aswan by sailboat. We took a one-day, one-night felucca ride with Bassam’s cousin down the Nile River. The whole boat would have cost $120 for two of us but we were able to get the costs down by splitting the boat ($30 USD per person for four people). An activity like this is a GREAT use of the Travltalk app, because you can find other travellers to do this kind of trip with you!
Try to Spend the Night in Abu Simbel
If I could do it all again, the only thing I would change is finding a way to stay longer at Abu Simbel instead of just doing a day trip.
For a day trip, you need to be ready around 3:30am to meet the convoy of buses and vans that take tourists to the site of Abu Simbel. It takes three hours to get there, and then you only get to spend around two hours there before driving the 3 hours back.
You can avoid the most crowded part of the day (the morning) by staying at a guesthouse on Lake Nasser in Abu Simbel. This will give you much more time to enjoy the experience and scenery. You’ll be quite close to the border of Sudan, and I guarantee that it’ll be peaceful and quiet so far out there in the desert.
Egypt Travel Tips: Experience Luxor, The Land of Palaces
Our final stop in Egypt was the city of Luxor. We’d seen pictures of the archaeological sites here and were excited to visit. Specifically, we knew we wanted to see the Karnak Temple. It’s the world’s second largest religious temple complex after Angkor Wat.
Based on our experience in Aswan, we decided to stay on the west bank of the Nile River. The Cleopatra Hotel was only $17 USD per night for a double private room, and it had a great rooftop. Many travellers also report having a good experience at Bob Marley Hostel on the east bank of the Nile, for $20 USD per night.
While Cleopatra Hotel did offer tours to the many sights of Luxor, we were determined to visit them on our own. Since we’d spent so much cash on organised tours in the prior days, we knew we needed to seriously slow our cash flow. Luckily, our online research on Luxor showed that it was entirely possible to walk, rent bikes or take local transportation to get around Luxor. Our guesthouse confirmed it would be fine, too.
Our Experience Walking
It might have just been bad luck or something in the air, but it didn’t turn out so well for us both times we went out walking. What we ultimately saved in money, we lost in sanity and patience.
Without the help of a driver and guide shielding us each time, we felt the full brunt of local touts offering their services. A ten minute walk to and from Luxor Temple felt like it lasted ten years. “Come take a ride in my Egyptian Ferrari!” “Welcome to Alaska!” “I’ll give you 100 camels for your wife!” What? It was so relentless that it was simultaneously bewildering and comedic.
Luckily, once we got inside the temples, we were left alone again. We got what we were craving: the benefit of getting to explore on our own time. We wandered slowly, took pictures to our hearts’ content, and just enjoyed the magnificence of the sites.
The Karnak Temple complex is huge, so you need to give yourselves at least two hours to wander around it. Luxor is smaller, and I recommend you see it before you visit Karnak so you’re still impressed by it. It costs 160 EGP ($9 USD) to enter Luxor Temple. It’s 200 EGP ($12 USD) to enter Karnak Temple.
You Can Bike to Tombs on the West Bank
We also rented bikes one morning for 50 Egyptian Pounds each (about $3 USD) to explore some of the archaeological sights on the west bank of the Nile River. It was our original intention to visit the Colossi of Memnon, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Valley of the Kings. The latter two are magnificent-looking tombs and temples that we had heard good things about, but didn’t know if we should spend money on.
It took us about 30 minutes to ride to the Colossi of Memnon. We arrived right before the tourist buses came and swarmed them, so go early if you can.
Like I mentioned, we were originally planning to buy tickets to go inside the tombs. But as we rode, we became distracted by the sight of these:
We debated back and forth, but in the end we decided to go for it. We traded the experience of actually visiting the inside of these monuments for a completely different view of them… from above.
The Cheapest Hot Air Balloon Ride…in the World?
The managers of our guesthouse in Giza, Soso and Eissa, had told us that they had a friend in Luxor who could get us a hot air balloon experience for the “regular” price, without taking fees for commission.
We were somewhat sceptical at first, but we’d had such a great experience with them that we decided to take the risk.
And guess what? We called their friend, and he only charged us 900 Egyptian Pounds (~$56 USD) for a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the west bank.
I knew this was one of the lower prices because I did my research. We had asked at our guesthouse, looked online, and talked to a guide on the street. Although it became yet another instance of us not sticking to our budget, we knew Luxor was the best place to do it. When we were in Myanmar, we’d seen hot air balloon rides advertised for $350 USD to fly over the temples of Bagan.
The only place where I’ve seen similar prices online is through the company Magic Horizon Hot Air Balloons. If you enquire about their last minute flights, they can offer you a discount. Trips normally cost about 100 EGP or $130 USD, and you can get up to 50% off the ride.
Of course, these cheap tickets will be in hot air balloons that have baskets full of people (up to 24). But we didn’t care that it wasn’t private; it was totally worth it. It was one of the most magical sunrises we’ve seen on our whole trip.
And just a note: you’re technically not supposed to take photos with anything other than a phone during the flight. That’s because these companies want you to buy their photos/videos. Of course, this is an example of where baksheesh functions well. We kept our camera in our backpack and then tipped the captain generously before we left. He was a good natured guy and made our flight a blast.
Egypt Travel Tips: Buy a SIM Card and Use Uber
Our flight out of Egypt left from Cairo, so we decided to take a day train from Luxor there. We had no problems buying the tickets online and boarding the train at the station.
The only issue for us came when we arrived in Cairo late at night. Our SIM cards, which we had bought at the beginning of our trip, both ran out of data. We originally planned to use Uber to go to our hotel near the airport. But now that we couldn’t, we needed to ask the local taxi drivers.
Sadly, our last trip didn’t go as planned. Our taxi driver couldn’t understand where we needed to go, and we had no GPS. After driving for twenty minutes, he realised he couldn’t drive close to the airport without a permit. He kicked us out of the cab and made us go with another driver the rest of the way.
Lesson learned: Uber is a much better way to take trips in Cairo.
Yes, It’s Safe to Visit Egypt—And You Should Go
One of the questions we got before visiting Egypt was, “Is it safe to visit?”
Even with the nuisances and the hassles and scams I wrote about above, I’d still say a resounding YES. There’s a difference between feeling unsafe and feeling annoyed. I only felt the latter at times, but it would never be enough to stop me from encouraging people to visit Egypt.
Khaled, our guide in Giza, said it best when I asked him: that if you reach out and meet the hearts of Egyptian people, you will find only love.
We only saw a small portion of the country and left out so many other sights on this trip, from visiting desert oases to diving in the Red Sea to more ancient sites than I can count. It surprised us how much we loved our trip there, and we will absolutely come back.
Have you ever visited Egypt? What did you think?
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