“Where are you going this summer?” A typical question asked of me, an educator, starting around February.
“Egypt!!” I respond, excitedly, eyes widening with a big excited smile.
“Ohhh. Is it safe?” Said with concern, and narrowing eyes of the asker.
“I don’t know. Is it safe for me to be anywhere?”
For a decade, I’ve dreamed about Egypt. I’ve seen myself in front of the pyramids, meandering through Valley of the Kings, walking up the platform to Hatshepsut’s temple and being on the Nile River, the giver and taker of life, a place so sacred to the ancient brilliant Egyptians.
It goes without saying, though I will address it. I had read about the recent history of violence, especially in the 2011 Revolution. Tourism dramatically decreased after that. I read the U.S. government site about tourism and safety. I took all of this into account all the while looking from the outside in, too. What sad events do people in other countries read about that take place in my own country?
I decided it would be best to use a travel company for the first time. This was the best decision, on so many levels. After much research, I discovered Egyptian Educational Travel’s (EET) site and ultimately decided on this company. If you want to know more about how I decided, contact me.
After numerous email conversations with Romani Gaballa, of EET, my friend, Marie, and I boarded a plane bound for Egypt.
I’d spent countless hours scouring travel sites and blogs about Egypt. Information is as varied as people themselves. Recommendations are just that. Here’s my experience and what worked well for me! Keep in mind we were in Egypt when it was hot, about as hot as it is during our California valley summers, so the dry heat wasn’t shocking for me.
Costs-What to expect
Our travel package included all accommodations, many meals and all transportation. Not included: air travel to and from Egypt, a few meals, mementos, tips, and any extra charges you may choose to incur at some of the sites. Some places require a permit to take pictures inside (such as inside the tombs at Valley of the Kings). This is completely optional, but reasonable and worth it to me. Going inside Tut’s tomb is extra; a non negotiable for me, though many people don’t.
Passport and Visa required.
Entry into Egypt requires a visa, too. You can obtain the Visa in advance or get it inside the airport. I opted for EET to get it for me. Cost $25 USD. This was so convenient. It’s a little sticker placed inside the passport upon arrival.
I have only my backpack and a carry-on. Pack smart and light for Egypt. As long as I have my passport and credit card, if I forget anything I can usually find it when I arrive.
This is not a complete list. You know about the basics! All of these items carefully packed into a suitcase small enough for the overhead bin on the plane and a backpack for under the seat.
Sunscreen (Some sites recommended bug spray which I took, but didn’t need.)
Hat – I didn’t see many people in baseball caps. A sun type hat is perfect.
A journal – you won’t possibly remember everything unless you write it down.
Snacks just in case. I usually take small protein bars and almonds.
Shoes – I took four pairs. Many sites recommend closed toe shoes for walking. I was fine in my sandals (with a back strap) except at Valley of the Kings where sandals would have been cumbersome because of all the sand. Flip flops for the hotel. Nicer sandals for cruise dinners.
Bathing suit and coverup
Dinner wear for Nile River Cruise
Light sweater for evenings and mosque visits
Smaller backpack and small purse for sight seeing. Items are subject to security at all sites.
U.S. dollars. I brought more than a hundred. I left most in the hotel safe and carried about 20 each day. This was really convenient, especially for toilet use and small purchases. It was easy to negotiate purchases with US dollars.
Medication. In the original containers according to the travel sites. Nobody asked to see medications in any airport, but I’d be safe on this one.
Let’s talk clothing
Since we were here in the heat, many travel sites recommended wearing 100% cotton, modest attire to be culturally sensitive, and long sleeves to cover up in the mosques. I didn’t go the 100% cotton route since I didn’t want to purchase a new wardrobe. I selected loose fitting clothing, 3/4 or long sleeves, always pants or a long skirt. We did see tourists especially in Cairo definitely not adhering to the cultural sensitivity suggestions. I don’t recommend this.
We also did some hand washing of under garments. Laundry service is available in the hotels, but we were not there long enough. On the Nile River Cruise, we had a few items laundered and ironed to be ready for onboard evenings which calls for evening wear (not formal).
Marie purchased an entire new wardrobe at thrift stores for around $60 prior to departure. She knew she’d leave these clothes behind which made room in her suitcase for our purchases. Smart!
Our cell phones worked fine! Contact your cell company to find the international plan that works best for you. I have AT&T. I spent $60 on a plan that had a small amount of data, and unlimited data when using wi-fi in hotels and such. Some travel sites suggest buying a SIM card upon arrival. This wasn’t necessary for me.
Cell phone usage is different on the Nile River Cruise, just as it is when on any cruise. You can purchase a data package for the boat. I opted out. I only want to check in at home with my loved ones and post a few travel pics anyway.
No direct flights from San Francisco. It will take a day of travel to get to Cairo. Don’t let this be a show stopper.
Arrival in Cairo Airport
Arriving here after nearly 24 hours of travel was exciting! Mohammed was at the gate for us with our Visa stickers to promptly place on a blank passport page. Getting out of the airport was easy and quick since we had no luggage to retrieve. Mohammed was our driver for much of the trip. Though he spoke little English, he was delightful, and it’s when I meet people like this, I’m reminded we don’t need to speak the same language to communicate. A smile is a beautiful gift.
Mohammed took us to the van where Ayman, one of our guides, met us. Mohammed drove and Ayman welcomed us and gave a quick overview of what to expect, while on our way to our hotel. Our hotel was lovely and offered our first glimpse of the Pyramids from our room!
Population 22 million. We began and ended our holiday in Cairo. It’s busy. Buildings are tall. Traffic. Horns honking. People stay up late! I had read somewhere, “If you love Cairo, Cairo will love you back.” This is a place where you can see a motorcycle, a car, a tut tut, a bus, a mule drawn cart carrying an abundance of watermelons, and horses all using the same roadways. Crossing the street is an experience in itself. Yes, there is trash and roaming dogs. The city is attempting solutions. In our short time here, we can’t fix it. If you love Cairo, it’ll love you back…Be fascinated, not frustrated. Romani helped up navigate this city, perfectly. Be sure you get lessons on how to cross the street. After a day or so, we went out alone and crossed streets, Egyptian style, no crosswalks and pedestrians do not have the right of way.
The currency is Egyptian pounds. I made a little conversation guide for myself (Egyptian Pounds to USD), and I also have a currency conversion app on my phone.
U.S. Dollars were accepted almost everywhere. I entered Egypt with a few hundred U.S. Dollars and more than one hundred one dollar bills for tipping. There are ATM machines available – not everywhere, but they are available. Most ATM machines accepted my card. As I became more confident in the money conversion, I realized it was beneficial to pay in pounds. Many places accepted my credit card.
The Tipping Culture
Egypt has a “tipping culture.” Americans call it tipping. In Egypt, expect to hear “appreciate” as in “appreciate your driver ” vs. “tip your driver.” I’d read about it. It’s true, even using a public bathroom at the airport or a museum will “require” an appreciation. This is why I came with so many $1 bills. Let me be clear. Every bathroom/restroom/toilet/ WC (whatever you call it) was always clean. The attendant will hand you toilet paper as you enter and will most likely walk into the stall, wipe the seat (again) to be sure it’s clean. When you’re finished and wash your hands, the attendant will give you more toilet paper (to dry your hands). We did think this was unusual, but common. I gave $1 USD to the attendant each time I used the facilities.
I did find it interesting to read the complaints out there about bathroom tipping! My thoughts are I’ve invested thousands of dollars into this experience, and I can’t possibly complain about the petty cash I spent on clean facilities not to mention helping somebody earn a living (meager as it is). This is not worth complaining about.
Other tipping guidelines:
Tour guides = $10 USD per day
Drivers = $5 USD per day
Purchasing items at the tourist sites or on the streets is comparable to places such as Mexico, Jamaica, or any other place where you’ve had to come to an agreement with the seller. It’s like that in some areas in Egypt. You can ignore the sellers or give it a try. In fact, you should engage at least a little just for the experience. It’s “easy” for us to offer opinions and judgement about this system, but remember… fascination not frustration or just avoid it altogether.
There was never a moment when we felt unsafe. Not. one. moment. ever. In fact, continue reading. I purchased a sling-back backpack full of safety features. RFID and safety closures. It was convenient for carrying items, but all of the safety features really weren’t needed. Since we had Mohamed, our driver, who stayed in the van, usually we left most of our belongings and I carried only a small crossbody bag.
We were on our own a few times, even during these times, we wandered through the cities feeling safe and comfortable.
We did have routine safety checkpoints when traveling by car out of Cairo. We stopped, the guards asked our driver a few questions in Arabic, our driver responded in Arabic, and the only part we understood was the word Americans. Then off we went.
Twice during the trip, we used Egypt Air, once to fly to Aswan (about an hour trip) and once to fly back to Cairo (about an hour). Airport security is alive and well here. Expect it! Appreciate it! Keep your passport handy. We needed it in every hotel to check in. You may need it from the time you enter the airport until the time you board. Just like at home, the liquids rule applies, even flying within Egypt my water bottle half-full water bottle was politely confiscated.
People welcomed us every place we went. “Welcome to Alaska” was a common phrase many of the street vendors used. We appreciated their humor, especially given the heat! Egyptians thanked us for visiting. They asked us to return again. They smiled, a universal language, and many speak English. Many of the places we visited for shopping offered a welcome drink, usually hibiscus tea, refreshing on a warm day. After a purchase it was common to receive a thank you gift. I love these traditions.
Egyptians didn’t seem to be early risers. Breakfast was always available at our hotels or on the boat. Lunch is around 2pm-4pm. Dinner is 8pm or later. (This is why I pack snacks.) We had breakfast in the hotels. A wide variety of food options available. Lunch and dinner was with our guide – always delicious, usually grilled meats and vegetables served with pita bread and sauces for dipping. Egyptians don’t usually drink alcohol in public. (Different on the cruise.) Mint lemonade is delicious and refreshing. Water was always bottled.
Make sure to carry bottled water with you while you’re out touring. It’s available for purchase everywhere!
Sites and Experiences
It’s impossible to see it all!! Romani and his company put together the suggested itinerary. I reviewed it, asked questions, added on Abu Simbel (at Romani’s suggestion). Some sites were optional meaning we could have said we’d rather go back to the hotel. We never opted out!
Some of the sites
The Nile River Cruise
Old Cairo – mosques
Sound and Light Show
Temples: Luxor, Ramses, Philae, Kom Ombo, Karnack, Horus
The Unfinished Obelisk
Valley of the Kings
Valley of the Queens
Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple – Al-Deir Al-Bahari
Former site of Alexandria Lighthouse – One of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World
Library at Alexandria
Family Owned Alabaster Factory
Ancient Coptic Monasteries-Where thousands of Christians escaped Roman persecution in the 4th century
Cave Church of St. Simon – Seats 20,000 people!
Boat ride on Lake Nasser
The Nile River Cruise
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served. We did have wine a couple of times. If you’ve been on a cruise before, the food is similar. Lots of buffet style meals. Our boat, The Moon Goddess, was beautiful. Remember this is a river cruise, not the Royal Caribbean, so it’s much smaller, still elegant. And, you’re on the Nile River!! Dress for dinner – not formal wear necessarily. I wore summer dresses always with sleeves or a scarf to stay covered. We had excursions each day of the cruise, included in the price already. We had the same guide, Robert, for all of the excursions who had tickets, transportation, and tons of knowledge. Leave after breakfast, return to have lunch, then more sight seeing after lunch. Return in late afternoon with time to enjoy the pool and top deck, take a nap and relax before dinner. You can opt out of any of the morning or afternoon excursions. We didn’t. I did enjoy a massage one afternoon.
What I bought
I love to return home with a few special mementos. You don’t have to buy a single item! If you enjoy a little shopping, you may be interested. If not, you can skip these places! Mostly, though the best remembrance as the memories and stories, not the “things” purchased.
Essential oils. Kind of like wine tasting, we visited two places to learn about and “taste” essential oils. It was insightful and enjoyable. One place sold only large bottles which cost around $100 USD and another places sold small bottles so we could bring home an assortment. I enjoyed giving these as gifts when I returned.
Cotton. You’ve heard of Egyptian cotton. We visited a cotton factory where I bought some beautiful pieces: a scarf, a dress, and a shirt.
Papyrus. We visited a papyrus factory and learned about the ancient method of early “paper” making. I bought a few paintings which were conveniently rolled for easy packing.
Vase. A group of people handmade alabaster vases, and I was impressed with the process and quality.
Jewelry. Having your name on a cartouche is a special memory. I returned with a bracelet and necklace for myself and my love. Silver and gold are options. I went with silver.
I did contact my doctor prior to departure. I took him up on the suggested vaccinations. He also gave me some antibiotics to carry, just in case. I never needed them.
If you research travel to Egypt, you will likely find reference to Egyptian tummy bug or The Pharaoh’s Revenge. In Mexico, it’s referred to as Montezuma’s revenge. Recommendations to eat cooked foods, no ice cubes and no salad were pretty easy most of the time. I was fine, other than a bit of an upset stomach on one day. Pack Imodium or something similar just in case.
Packing to return
Usually I check my luggage on the return trip home. It’s heavier now with my treasures, and I’m less concerned with being expeditious in the airport. By now, I’ve likely thrown out or left behind a few clothing items that I don’t care to bring home.
Expect to return with experiences so rich you can’t describe them to a person who hasn’t visited this land. History swirling in your head. Hearing the call to prayer throughout the day and night, seeing people farming the land – mostly with basic tools, maneuvering boats on the Nile, the beautiful mosques, scents of spices, friendly people…
It was Ramadan, one of the most important dates on the Islamic calendar and marks the holiest month of the year, while we were here, so the Muslims fast during the daylight hours. We made the mistake of offering one of our drivers candy; he politely declined. Sometimes restaurants were not serving food at our “usual” dinner hour. As we were preparing to leave, the people were preparing their cities for Eid al Fitr, the holiday to mark the end of Ramadan. I wish we could have stayed for the festivities.
My biggest and most crucial tips.
#1 You are visiting another country. This is Egyptian culture, not mine. It’s not my place to judge, try to fix what I “think” needs “fixing.”
#2 Fascination not frustration.
Other: This wasn’t a holiday for sleeping in and relaxing by the pool. Though we were tempted as the hotels were stayed in had beautiful pool areas. I did spend time relaxing by the pool on the Nile River cruise!
Of course you should be vigilant when in Egypt as when traveling anywhere. This should go unsaid. Be aware of your surroundings. Be careful.
Travel is much about your mindset and expectations. I expected to be mesmerized with the enormity, age, and history. I expected to be speechless. I expected to be overcome with emotion at the base of the pyramids. I expected tears when we said our final goodbye to Romani. I expect to return.