Egypt is an incredible country to visit, but a somewhat difficult one – especially if you’re from Europe or North America. When I went, I learned a lot! But here are the things I wish I knew ahead of time – and things you should know before you go to Egypt.
1. Just because English numbers are called “Arabic Numerals” does not mean modern-day Arabic uses them.
This is one of those moments where you realize exactly how lost you can get, and easily! The Arabic number set does not use the numbers that you and I are familiar with. Crazy, right? I’m so used to being in other countries with foreign languages, but I’m not as used to foreign number sets. You’d do well to study the numbers ahead of time just a bit – I got lost with which platform to go to for a train, and sometimes vendors put different prices on things for people who can read numbers in Arabic and those who can’t.
2. You will be hassled more than you ever thought possible.
Especially since the government floated the Egyptian Pound in 2016, it’s lost about half its value. This means it’s an incredible time for you to go and get a bit of a deal. It also means that most Egyptians are dealing with insane inflation. With tourism hurting in Egypt but still one of the main industries, you will get hassled quite a lot. I tried to remember that these people are feeding their families, but just be prepared for it. If you go on an organized tour, you’ll likely have a bit less hassle because your guide will make them go away (Unless, of course, you take a budget tour – and then you’ll be taken to buy from them!).
3. The Pyramids might not be the most remarkable thing in Egypt.
I went so I could see the Pyramids as one of my bucket list items to see all 8 wonders of the world. I stayed and I was so much more awed by the temples and sights in Luxor and along the Nile. The temples at Abu Simbel are definitely a highlight!
4. Be prepared to tip.
I have never experienced a tipping culture quite like Egypt’s. They have certainly found the idea, and held on to it! You will be expected to tip for just about anything and everything. And sometimes even past that. I had people come up to me in the street to give me directions I did not ask for to places I did not want to go and expect a tip for their generosity. If someone so much as breathes in your vicinity, a tip will be expected. You should plan to tip anyone who handles your bag, any and all tour guides, all drivers, all housekeepers, anyone who you ask for directions and then gives them to you, and the list goes on. Luckily, because the Egyptian pound is so depressed, this doesn’t turn into much. But beware every time you hear the word “Baksheesh?” because you will hear it a lot!
5. A Nile Cruise should not be optional.
I thought about not going on a Nile cruise. They’re somewhat expensive (on a backpacker’s budget), and I didn’t know how I’d feel about it. I am SO glad I chose to go on one, because it was a life highlight. It’s actually a great way to see a ton of sites in Egypt, and most cruises include room and board, and tours off the boat. When I added it up, especially with “Baksheesh” and swindlers who would see my single blondeness, I realized it would actually be about the same cost if not cheaper to take a Nile cruise than to try to buy individual tours. And it was so much easier! The boat feels like an oasis, because you aren’t constantly being asked for a tip or bothered (but do know that the crew expects tips – you’ll be given guidelines on when and how much).
6. Seek out and don’t be afraid to pay for once-in-a-lifetime extras.
I went on a hot air balloon ride at sunrise in the Valley of the Kings. It was $100, and it was something I will never forget! Egypt is FULL of these kinds of things, and it’s amazing what you can do for not a ton of extra money. High tea at the Old Cataract Hotel? Sign me up! Agatha Christie sat and wrote Death on the Nile there, and it’s probably got the best sunset Nile view there is. Everywhere you look, Egypt is filled with these kinds of experiences, and while they’re expensive by Egyptian standards, they’re not especially expensive overall.
7. Consider upgrading your usual hotel.
Egyptian hotels are remarkably cheap, especially when you look at brands and what they normally charge everywhere else. I found the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons both under $200/night. The Hiltons are almost always under $100. I found the Movenpick in Aswan for about $40 a night. I stayed in a Hilton all-inclusive on the Red Sea for $50/night. And so on. Even if you’re usually a budget traveler – look around for an upgrade in Egypt. You can travel very well for what you’d normally get a not-so-nice hotel for! If you want a place to start, I made a list of hotels to consider in Egypt.
8. Covering your hair will not make you stand out any less.
I think there’s a myth that goes around for women that if they cover their hair in Egypt and other Arabic countries, they won’t stand out as much. In Egypt, you’ll stand out just as much either way. If it makes you more comfortable to cover your hair – go for it! But if it makes you uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to not cover it. Egyptians are very familiar with who’s a tourist, and the standards are a bit different.
9. Use Uber to get around.
Either get an international data plan on your phone or get an Egyptian SIM card, but make sure you have a way to use Uber in Egypt. Egyptian cabs are notorious for not taking tourists where they want to go. It’s pretty common to want to go to the Pyramids and then take a cab and end up a ways away at the cab driver’s best friend’s camel shop. Uber solves this problem. Uber also solves the problem of giving directions – because it’s all through the app, your driver can take you where you want to go easily.
10. The Red Sea is surprisingly remarkable.
I feel like so much in Egypt is focused on the Pyramids and the ancient sites. But the Red Sea is an absolutely incredible place. I highly recommend trying to figure out a few days to be there- whether in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Dahab, or Hurghada. The snorkeling and SCUBA diving are world-class, and the resorts make you feel like you’re in Cancun. (Except for all the people speaking Russian.)
11. The people are genuinely excited to have you there.
Yes, you will be hassled.
You will also be thanked more times than you can count. Egypt is hurting right now, and every tourist brings much-needed money into the economy. I can’t tell you how many people stopped me to just say “thank you for coming to Egypt!”
12. Smaller airports do not require you to be there too early.
I’m so used to the American way of doing flights – you had better be at the airport about two hours early, just in case, and be ready for security. The smaller airports in Egypt (Luxor, Aswan, etc) do not want you there that early! Ask your hotel or guide how early to get there, and trust them! They know!
13. Crossing the street in Cairo feels like playing Frogger with your life.
As far as I can tell “Walking like an Egyptian” means walking with purpose as you cross any street.
The streets in Cairo are busy enough and crazy enough that traffic will not stop for you to just cross the street. You basically have to take it lane by lane, and make sure you are intentional in your actions. Drivers in Egypt are quite good at going around pedestrians – as long as you don’t freak out and stop! When in doubt, wait for an Egyptian to come and need to cross the road and simply follow them!
14. Egypt really is pretty safe for tourists.
Yes, things happen, and yes, you hear about bombings and whatnot on the news. But alas, those things are clearly happening in Europe too. In Egypt, most of the terrorist activity is focused on other Egyptians – not tourists. So generally speaking, you’re going to be quite safe. Keep your wits about you and don’t do anything stupid, but don’t be afraid to go to Egypt. You can read my full thoughts on visiting Egypt as a single blonde female.
15. Do not expect to hear an Egyptian compliment another Egyptian.
This one surprised me, but I came to laugh about it. Egyptians (at least those in the tourist industry)
seem to be constantly tearing each other down. Uber drivers would tell you about how terrible all the other Uber drivers are. Tour guides will point out how much other tour companies suck.
Food establishments will tell you about the other food establishments making people ill. No matter what, it seems like the tourist industry in Egypt tears itself down by all of the sniping. So don’t be afraid if you never hear anyone speak well of anyone else!
16. People will stop you for photos.
Be prepared to feel famous. People will stop to ask you for your photo, or if you’d take a photo with them. It’s up to you how to handle it.
My rule of thumb was that if it was a woman, child, or family asking, I’d usually agree and take pictures with them. If it was a single guy asking, the answer was a very polite no. Most people are extremely accepting of that no!
17. Be prepared to pay to take your camera with you.
There are some places that will require you to pay extra if you want to take photos there. The Egyptian Museum is one. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings do not permit any photography. I did know people who got caught taking pictures by the guards, and offered them the equivalent of about $20 USD and we fine.
I’m not sure how comfortable you are with that kind of thing, but beware it exists. (I am not ok with it, which is why I don’t have any pictures from inside the tombs!)
18. You will be so happy you went.
Egypt is a hard country to travel in, but it is so central to history. The country is remarkable, and the sites are really unlike anything else in the world. The vast number of artifacts will leave you speechless, and you’ll be telling stories about it for ages. And yes – the hassles during your trip? Those become the best stories after!
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