Egypt is one of my favourite countries in the world and I hope that my enthusiasm for the country has pursuaded many of you to ignore the mass media and come and see it for yourselves. I you are planning a trip to Egypt then here are 20 things you need to know before you go.
I love Egypt, I think that much is pretty clear by now, and in very general terms it is such an easy place to travel through independently as a backpacker on any budget, but there are some things that I wish I had known before my very first trip here and a few practical things that you should know before you arrive that will make your trip all the easier and better, so here are twenty things about travelling through Egypt that the guidebooks won’t always tell you, the good and the bad!
Visas are easy to get, so don’t worry.
Most countries nationals require a visa to enter Egypt, including those of the UK, Europe, USA, Australia and New Zealand amongst others.
The easiest way to get a visa is online before you arrive at the official Egyptian Visa 2 Egypt site. You can get a single entry e visa for $25 USD or a multiple entry e visa for $60 USD. Both are valid for 3 months.
Alternatively you can get a visa on arrival which costs $25 USD and lasts for a month.
You can pay for your visa on arrival in a variety of currencies at the direct exchange rate.
On arrival at Cairo airport, the visa Kiosk is immediately on your left hand side before you reach the immigration counters. You can conveniently pay in either Egyptian pounds (if you have any), British Sterling, Euro or US Dollars. There is also a currency exchange counter further to the left at the other side of the arrivals lounge, again before you get to the immigration counters.
Egypt can get chilly, so pack accordingly.
It is really easy to fall into the trap of thinking Egypt is just hot, hot, hot all of the time, but that isn’t necessarily true. Egypt does obviously have a warm desert climate, and in the summer months the temperature can get painfully hot, but if you are out in the desert in the evening or the night or up on the Mediterranean coast in somewhere like Alexandria during the winter months then it can get pretty cool, and the northern coast has a more moderate Mediterranean climate than it does down in the South. Most of the time of course it will be relatively warm and dry, but it never hurts to pack an extra couple of layers.
Yes, Egypt is safe!
Forget all the media scaremongering about riots, revolutions and terrorism, Egypt is a very safe place to travel to, and there is no reason at all to stop anyone from coming here regardless of what you may hear.
The hassle is not that bad.
And on the same note all those horror stories of touts hassling you at tourism sites and trying to rip you off incessantly are overblown too. Yes there are touts, and yes sometimes they can be annoying, but that is it. You will find the majority of the time a simple no thank you or ‘la shukran’ is enough to end it.
Taxi drivers will still really try your patience.
Like anywhere else in the world taxi drivers are the worst kind of con men. Okay, that is probably a little harsh as there are some genuinely nice ones out there but they are few and far between. If anything will annoy you, if anything will get under your skin in Egypt, it will be the taxi drivers. They refuse to put the meter on half of the time, endlessly quote three times the going rate the second they see you aren’t an Egyptian, endlessly try and sell you tours or get you to hire them for the day once you are in there (to the point where sometimes you just want them to shut up) and the actual rice is never the final price with them, even with the meter on they all say no, it is actually three times that price or ask you to pay more.
It isn’t a major problem, you just have to do your research and know how much the fare should be (roughly) and be very firm. It does however get extremely tiresome.
But at least there is Uber (in some parts at least).
Cairo has Uber! And it is slowly making its way to other parts of Egypt too. Hiring an Uber isn’t always perfect and can come with its own set of problems like anywhere in the world, but at least it saves you from having to deal with the hassle of the taxi drivers and you know you won’t get ripped off.
Everything is extra.
Be aware that in Egypt the price of the ticket isn’t necessarily the price you will end up paying. This isn’t a con or a scam, just an example of how grasping the tourism industry has become.
And no, this is a separate issue from Baksheesh, which I will get to.
The entrance fees to any given site or museum or attraction are generally very cheap, but if you want to take a camera in with you (despite many places not allowing photos in certain parts) then that is extra. Want to take a camera and a smartphone then that counts as two cameras, so you need two tickets, (I’m looking at you here, Egyptian museum!) You have a tripod with you? That’s an extra ticket too. Want to climb inside the pyramid? See certain sections of the museums? Do something specific on site? That’s an extra ticket too!
It isn’t a huge problem and only really bumps the price up by a couple of pounds or so, but it can get really frustrating, especially when guards or ‘guardians’ in the tombs constantly harangue you to see your photo tickets in the hope that they can catch you out and fine you.
I mean the price difference really is nominal and I would happily pay that full price in just one single ticket to get into sites like the Giza plateau, Abu Simbel and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, so just make it simple, stop annoying everyone and just charge one price with everything included!
But you can save a lot with a student ID card.
If you are a student when you are travelling to Egypt it is really a good idea to get yourself an ISIC card, as you can get up to half price off most museums, sites and attractions all over Egypt. This really can add up to a good amount of money that can be put to better use in upgrading your accommodation, spending a little longer travelling or even more activities!
Egyptian authorities really don’t trust cameras!
Yes it is a DSLR, yes it is a good lens, yes it does have a microphone, but no I don’t work for the BBC for crying out loud!
Everywhere you go in Egypt if you have a decent camera you will be questioned at every major site if you want to take it in with you, and some sites don’t even allow it at all. I’ve heard every question from who do I work for, am I a professional (of course not, I’m a cleaner), did I work for the BBC (because surprisingly that required permission from the Supreme Council of Antiquities who technically no longer exist- and a very hefty extra payment of course) to even superstition about not being allowed to record because of the secrets of the Sphinx.
They can be really funny about it, but completely inconsistent with any ‘policy’ (and no, it isn’t policy on the Giza plateau to not allow tripods and a microphone attached to your camera regardless of what they tell you). I suspect extra baksheesh was expected in those circumstances.
It can get a bit frustrating.
The only time and only reason I can get behind anyone not wanting me to take any photographs is if security, police or military are in shot. I completely understand that and respect it. Funnily enough those guys were the most easy going about it.
Get a local SIM.
Wherever you go in the world getting a local sim is the best way to stay connected and have data wherever you are. In Egypt Vodafone is your best bet (there are others available, I am not sponsored in any way here) simply because they have the best coverage, shops that sell the sims are everywhere and there are tons of branded Vodafone shops that offer great service and can really help you out with the technical side if you need it.
Once you have it of course, and you buy some data, you are connected everywhere and signal is pretty decent in most places. Just as importantly as well if you want to use the free wifi in public spaces, you will need a local sim to be able to do so.
Learn some Arabic.
Learning at least the basics of the local language is always a good idea wherever you go in the world, even if it is really just the absolute basics like hello, goodbye and thank you. That small effort can make a huge difference to your experience and in any case is just simple good manners. But in Egypt this courtesy takes on a more practical role too.
This may be a little surprising to most people but outside of the major tourist sites like Giza, English is not widely spoken in Egypt.
There are enough English speakers that you can usually find a local who has at least some English if you are really stuck, but the majority of people only speak broken English, if at all. So learn a little Arabic, partner that with their broken English and you should be fine.
And also remember that Egyptian Arabic can be as different to other countries Arabic as much as Scottish can be to English!
You don’t need to cover up completely.
This is a question I get asked almost exclusively by female travellers but to an extent it does apply to both men and women.
No you don’t have to completely cover up with headscarves to visit Egypt.
Egypt is a conservative Islamic country with a large population of Muslims, but saying that they are also very used to Western tourists and in general very warm, accepting and welcoming, and in general terms Western dress is largely accepted all over Egypt.
It is absolutely fine if you wear shorts and T Shirts, and no one will expect you to wear a hijab or anything similar, but at the same time it always pays to be a little respectful and mindful of the culture you are in too, and trousers (or a long skirt) and a T shirt or top that covers the shoulders (bare arms are fine) may make you feel more comfortable, will be similar to what many locals will be wearing and allow you to blend in a little more. And trust me, blending in and being discreet, male or female, is always advisable.
It is always a good idea for women to carry a scarf with them too just in case you want to visit one of the many mosques in Egypt (and there are some amazing ones).
You will need insect repellent.
Egypt is not at risk of malaria, but mosquitoes are still present and can carry other diseases such as dengue, so it is essential that you bring a decent insect repellent with you and use it frequently, especially if you are on or near the Nile!
There is so much bad advice and misinformation about which insect repellent you should use out there, much of it centering around ‘natural’ remedies. The truth is though that most natural remedies are no better than scented water for repelling insects and there are only 4 ingredients that you should be looking for when choosing your repellent, at least 20 – 50% DEET as the gold standard, then PMD, Icaridin or IR3535. Watch this video for more information.
Carry a good refillable filter bottle.
Egypt is a hot country, and you will need to stay hydrated, especially if you are going on a hike out into the desert or out on a day tour to an of the sites. The problem is you can’t drink the local water, unless you want to spend a day or so on the toilet that is, and buying endless bottles of water adds up to take up a good part of your budget and is pretty environmentally unfriendly when you are using up all that single use plastic.
Buying a refillable water bottle is always a good idea, but buying one with an attached water filter is even better, that way you can just refill with tap water from anywhere and drink away!
Never pre book anything.
Egypt is truly the land of the package tour. It has held this crown since the birth of Thomas Cook and the cruise holiday and refuses to give it up. The tourism industry centres around the package tour here.
But here is the big secret. You REALLY don’t need one!
You will see tours advertised everywhere and everyone will try and sell you one but it is so easy to arrange private transport to any site, pay the admission fee yourself and just explore on your own terms, and it is infinitely cheaper too. This is especially true for tours that you can book from agents before you even arrive in the country, and I really am talking about the difference between a few pounds at most if you do things independently, to tens or even hundreds if you buy a package.
You are a backpacker! Travel independently and haggle, haggle, haggle!
Learn to haggle!
Egyptians are famous for their haggling prowess and even as a visitor you will be expected to be able to play the game as well, and that is exactly what it is at the end of the day, a game. You give a little, they give a little, there is a lot of banter and everyone (hopefully) walks away happy. Either way you will definitely need to hone your haggling skills before you get here.
This is perhaps the one thing I absolutely cannot stand about Egypt. Everyone smokes. Everywhere. All the time. And it is absolutely disgusting. Everywhere reeks, you are constantly having to walk through clouds of the disgusting smoke and you can’t even sit in a cafe without some selfish moron lighting up. It is just disgusting, and you need to be prewarned.
Baksheesh is normal, and it isn’t the same as touts asking for extra money.
Baksheesh is a way of life in Egypt, and perhaps the easiest way to describe it would be to say it is a form of tipping, for everything. If someone gives you directions, helps you with a translation, shows you where something is, gets something for you, or you want them to do something for you (read, you want to bribe them), pretty much anything at all in fact, then it is excepted they will get just a little ‘tip’ for that, and that is all it is, so on a practical level always make sure you have a few very small denomination notes in a separate pocket (so you aren’t taking out your main stash or wallet every time). Normally just an Egyptian pound or two will suffice.
But it is important to remember that this is far more than just a ‘tip’ in Egypt, it is a deeply ingrained part of the local culture and locals will even give other locals baksheesh so it isn’t just tourists and travellers they target! If you are smart and playful with it you can even get some baksheesh yourself! (I did this a few times with success, but always had a laugh about it and found a way to give the baksheesh back as a simple courtesy and a way of connecting with local culture).
The trains are one of the best ways to get around.
There are a number of ways you can get around Egypt, bus, coach, plane, private car, and for short distances within a city a taxi or uber is probably your best bet, but for going from city to city or any long distance, then trains are very cheap (with the exception of the overnight tourist train from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan), really comfortable and spacious, and quite honestly the best way to travel.
ATMs are plentiful and easy to use.
You will be happy to know that there are a ton of ATMs that accept international cards all over Egypt, and in the main cities a lot of banks that will have them inside the building too. Most ATMs will give you the option of which language you want when you insert your card, English or Arabic, and Mastercard and Visa are widely accepted everywhere.
The only time I have ever had trouble with an ATM was near Giza, and that was only because the ATM itself had run out of money (it did not tell you that on screen). The next ATM I tried, at an actual bank back in Cairo, worked absolutely fine.
Always change your money here in Egypt.
Just as ATMs are plentiful, currency exchanges are plentiful too so if you need to exchange some cash you really won’t have too much trouble finding one. And it really should go without saying you should always use an official one in an actual bank or other main outlet like an airport though.
It is always a good idea if you are heading to Egypt to wait until you arrive at the airport to change your money, you always get a much better exchange rate (pretty much exactly what the actual exchange rate is) than you will back home where you will pay a hefty commission. That is assuming of course that your home country still exchanges Egyptian currency, at the time of writing the Egyptian pound has dropped in value so much that it is not traded anymore.
So that is it, 22 of my best insider tips for visiting Egypt that many of the guidebooks won’t tell you!
Do you have any of your own tips for visiting Egypt that I missed out? Then let me know in the comments!
Egypt truly is an amazing country and I urge everyone to go, but especially go now, because you will never find a better time to see this unique, bucket list filing destination.
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