7 Useful Tips when Travelling to Egypt.
We really feel our experience and impressions can be of use if you are planning to visit Egypt soon!
We’d been thinking about it for years, but always ended up postponing this trip due to the turbulent years in the region, with its unstable politics and the threat of terrorism… but at last we felt it was time, and 2019 was the year that one of our dreams became true: Travelling to Egypt!
Theses advices are meant to respond to some of the doubts and questions we had before the trip, and hopefully they can help you clarify them too!
This one is straight forward: undoubtedly, the best time is between November and March, the winter months in which the temperatures are still mellow and tolerable. Outside of these months (we actually travelled in April), be prepared for hot or even extreme temperatures depending on which area of the country you are visiting.
NOTE. The High Egypt (Aswan, Luxor…) is usually a lot warmer that the Low Egypt, which includes Cairo and the Mediterranean area. In any case, make sure you pack light clothes and, more importantly, sunscreen, as the visits to the temples are long and some are inevitably during the mid hours of the day.
On the other hand, this is a great excuse to spend a few days on the coast of the Red Sea and enjoy some refreshing time on the beach.
Read more about this on our post about the Red Sea and Marsa Alam!
2. ON YOUR OWN OR WITH A GUIDE?
Firstly, moving around is complicated. A tourist can’t just rent a car and roam the country freely. There’s the traffic factor, hectic and chaotic, but in the end quite similar to we’ve experienced in other African or Asian countries (we travelled all accross Jordan on our own, for example). But the main issue here is that there are police and military controls along the roads of the whole country (or at least those that connect the main points of interest), where they make sure that every tourist has someone accompanying them, along with the corresponding license to do so.
VERY IMPORTANT. Make sure the guide you choose is good and really has the knowledge. Many of them will just repeat over and over the same quick explanation to then bring you to the shop or stall of his friend for you to buy valueless souvenirs.
We had great references of Ali. He has a website were you can see his packages and contact him www.alichinotours.com. He speaks Chinese, Spanish and English fluently. He studied egyptology and has real passion for his work and his culture. We organized it all in advance with him via whatsapp, but we made some changes to the plan on the go, and he had all the resources and connections to make them work.
3.CAIRO, WHERE TO STAY?
We had a lot of questions about this, and couldn’t make a decision easily. But there was this dream in our minds about waking up to sunrise in front of the Pyramids of Giza, and seing the sun set behind them.
The Giza area has plenty of accomodation in offer, many of them with a view to the pyramids. But be advised that this is not a nice or beautiful area to stay in, and most hotels are quite basic. There’s also not much to do around there, so you are better off having dinner at the hotel than wandering around its dirty streets.
We DO recommend spending a night there, finding a hotel with a good rooftop to contemplate the majestic views and see the light show at night (not worth paying for it at all if you’re staying nearby, as it’s not a great show), and have the most amazing breakfast the next morning.
But that’s all, don’t spend any more nights there (even if your budget allows for one of the high end resorts loke the Marriot, one night is more than enough).
That’s what we did, and then we spent two more nights in Zamalek. This is an island on the Nile, at the heart of Cairo, populated by embassies and hotels, which makes it really safe and wealthier than the rest of the city. It’s also a very lively area, full of quality restaurants and nice shops.
Although we moved around in lur guide’s car, Zamalek is not far at all from the Egyptian Museum of Cairo and Tahrir Square.
Head to our 10 days itinerary post for all our accomodation info!
4. CRUISE OR CAR?
The positives and negatives of both options.
If you decide to visit the temples located along the strech of river between Luxor and Aswan by car, you’ll have to book a package that will include the guide, transport and hotels, all in one.
This is probably a cheaper option than the Nile River Cruise and, in our eyes, can have one major advantage (which will largely depend on your guide and/or group): you can schedule your visits to the temples to avoid some of the crowds that come with the cruise ships.
But, just like sunrise over the pyramids, we wanted to have the experience of sailing down the Nile. And we highly recommend it! Being able to contemplate from your room or the sundeck the life of the river edges is a once in a lifetime experience. You’ll get transported thousands of years back, and witness scenes that have remained unchanged for centuries, just like out of a history book. This fertile riverbed will make you feel part of history, it’ll make you realize that not much has changed in the cradle of civilization.
But getting back to the practical aspects of it! Choose your cruise wisely: both the ship and the direction of the trip can make a huge difference.
We chose the highest quality ship that we were offered (5 star superior luxe) and still, be aware that the hygiene, cleaning and luxury standards are not the same in Egypt as those to which we are used to. Despite being «superior» class you may find towels are not quite clean or the bathtub sink takes its time…
CRUISE TIP. You’ll need plenty of water to stay hydrated, but drinks are not included on the cruise package. The price on the boat can be 5 times as much as on any local shop, so buy them while you are out on an excursion.
Or you can also negotiate the price of the package as we did, with one big bottle on the room per day. Not much, but will get you through a couple hours at least! 😉
Our initial plan was to it from Luxor to Aswan sleeping 4 nights on the cruise (400€ per person, full board, with all the usual excursions included, even Abu Simbel). But all these plans went out of the window once there… Spending the last few days of our trip in Marsa Alam (Red Sea), made us realize that the connection would be better if we did 3 nights from Aswan to Luxor (following the natural flow of the Nile).
Our guide Ali wisely advised that a 4th night on the ship was pointless, as you just spend it baking under the scorching sun of Luxor, surrounded by the dirt and noise of the harbour, since the ship is going nowhere else. And with not much else to see, while you miss out on some other interesting alternatives. 4 days and 3 nights for 370€ was our final choice!
And here’s what it included*:
LUXOR. Luxor Temple – Karnak Temple – Valley of the Kings – Hatshepsut Temple – Colossi of Memnon
EDFU. Temple of Horus in Edfu
KOM OMBO. Temple of Kom Ombo
ASWAN. Sail in a traditional Faluca – Nubian Village – Philae Temple – Abu Simbel
*Airport pick-up and drop off, if needed, are usually included too. All the temple visits and excursions (when necessary) were made with a guide, driver and van just for ourselves.
5. ABU SIMBEL, YES OR NO?
If you had any doubts, then get rid of them!
Definitely YES. There are two options to reach Abu Simbel: either you take a plane there for around 200€ per person, or you go on a car/van as an excursion included in your cruise package. Budget dictates.
We went for the second option, as you may have guessed. If you do, be aware that you’ll wake up pretty early. The drive to Abu Simbel is 3 hours, and most excursions will leave at around 4am from Aswan.
We had been told (and read in most blogs) that the road is closed by the military until 5am, so we agreed to that timeframe, which means you’ll get there at the same time as everyone else… If you hate crowds as much as we do, but you still do the same excursion, here’s a tip for you: even though your guide and driver may get anxious waiting by the parking lot, make sure you stay until everyone’s gone. Having the temple all to ourselves was probably the highlight of the whole trip to Egypt! Simply majestic.
NOTE. Since most people visiting Egypt will opt for the Nile River Cruise, we all end up visiting the temples at more or less the same time. We always squeezed the visits until the last minute to be left all by ourselves.
They may tell you the boat needs to leave, but their timing is even worst than ours, so don’t be afraid to make them wait. It’ worth it.
The truth about Abu Simbel is that the 5am road opening time is not real! Our good friends from lamaletadecarla.com (amazing travel blog in spanish), managed to do what we tried to and failed. Leaving Aswan at 2am will guarantee you see the sunrise from Abu Simbel with very few people around!
Don’t believe what you are told; in Egypt that’s a must! They’re consumate salesmen.
6. SUNRISE FLYING ABOVE LUXOR
If you have the chance and the time, don’t hesitate to do the hot air balloon flight over Luxor’s Valley of the Kings.
Compared to similar experiences around the world (whether Capadoccia or a flying safari in Masaai Mara), the prices in Egypt are comparatively cheaper. We actually got it for 15€ per person… which is obviously not the usual price!
It was part of the bargaining and negotiation with our guide Ali when we were trying to organize our trip to Marsa Alam in the Red Sea (read all about it here!). An overpriced transfer there was probably why we got the balloon for such a gift of a price. From what we saw, prices are often around 150€ per person when not booked as part of a package.
They picked us up from the cruise at 4:30am and took us to the other edge of the Nile on a small boat (where they gave us some coffee and snacks). Once on the other side, a van took us to the take off spot, where about 20 balloons will be getting ready to fly. That view alone, as the day gets its first clarity, with the flames filling in the colourful balloons, is enough to make your day!
Check our short video below.
The ride will last about 45 minutes, where you’ll see the sun rise above the shining Nile, the temples of Luxor and Karnak, the Valleys of the Kings and Queens and the temples of the West bank from above too! It feels like dreaming.
After landing, it’s common to give a tip to the land crew, but don’t give anything to the kids that will rush to you with their donkeys asking for money… they’re probably being forced to do it and we hate to keep those practices alive.
The van will pick you up and take you to the Colossi of Memnon, where you can have breakfast, meet your guide and start the visits of a day that couldn’t have started any better!
7. OTHER IMPORTANT ADVICE
Whatever you decide to book (transportation, excursions, balloon rides, etc.) Make sure you always agree on a fixed price IN ADVANCE. Make sure you insist until it’s made clear to all parties involved if you don’t want unpleasant surprises or heated arguments.
And ALWAYS bargain until you reach a reasonable price. They may act offended, but it’s part of their culture.
Even in the smallest and apparently friendly roadside cafe, if they dont show you a menu with the prices, ask how much it will cost you before ordering and negotiate accordingly, or you’ll end up paying a lot more than its worth!
Egypt is still recovering, but it was strongly affected by the Arab Spring and revolutions, and that’s still very present in the way they treat the tourists. Many live in extreme poverty, and they need to squeeze as much as they can from the visitors. You’ll be offered everything and anything, all the time… don’t respond agressively, but don’t smile and start conversation if you’re not interested. It can be very painful to get rid of them afterwards. A quick and dry «no» can be effective.
Tips are mandatory. Even in the cruise, they’ll make it clear that they’re not included in the price, and are expected for waiters, cooks, drivers, receptionists… they won’t be adhamed to directly ask for it! We are strongly against this system, as it perpetuates a culture of very low salaries. Our guide Ali offered us all of our packages and services with «tips included» in the price. That probably never got to anyone else’s ears in the cruise, but at least we didn’t feel bad when not giving a tip. We did tip in restaurants and bars, where a 20 or 40 egyptian pound tip equals 1 or 2€.
We hope you found all these tips useful! We really struggled with some of them when planning our trip, and we’d have loved to find a post that gives clear advice about them. Our final itinerary can be found here!