To date, Egypt remains one of the most challenging places I have ever visited. With the number of Egyptian friends I have (and that often took me around while I was in Cairo), you’d imagine everything would have gone smoothly. But it didn’t, and there were so many things I wish I had known before traveling to Egypt.
You see, Egypt is a gorgeous country, with a unique, complicated, and incredibly interesting history; it has a rich culture, and there are lots to see and do. Add to this the friendly people – some of the most generous you can hope to meet – and the tasty food, and you can see why the country world-famous for the Pyramids is a favorite tourist destination.
Yet, it’s worth asking yourself a number of questions before visiting Egypt – and looking for answers for them. So, I thought I’d come to assist you and tell you everything you need to know before traveling to Egypt and share a few Egypt travel tips that will help you make your trip a smoother one.
17 Things To Consider Before Traveling To Egypt
Is Egypt safe?
The first question most travelers ask themselves before considering a trip to Egypt is whether the country is safe. If you are thinking of traveling to Egypt, you need to understand that this is an extremely complex country. Though you can visit independently, I wouldn’t recommend a trip that is spontaneous and not properly organized.
In the past few years, Egypt has notably been the target of terrorist attacks targeting both tourists and Egyptians; and since the protests that started with the Arab Spring (and which unfortunately didn’t bring much improvement in the daily life of Egyptian citizens), much turmoil has been reported. Yet, violent crimes against tourists are not a common issue – though you need to beware of scams and petty crime (more about this later).
With this in mind, the best place to look for updated and accurate information about any sort of security concerns would be your government travel advisory – for US travelers, it’s this one; whereas this is the British Government travel advisory.
My experience in Egypt was good and I never felt unsafe – but remember, I spent most of my time there with local friends. Keep in mind, anyways, that no place in the world is 100% safe – I was in New York on 9/11, and only know too well.
Army is everywhere
Going back to the issue of safety, one thing you will notice when traveling to Egypt is that there is a strong military presence (from this point of view, it’s similar to Israel actually!). Soldiers with heavy-duty rifles are everywhere, in all major tourist sites (in fact, in all hotels, stations, and tourist landmarks you will have to go through airport-style security). This should not intimidate you at all! Remember that Egypt relies a lot on tourism and making sure tourists are and feel safe is important.
Scams, hassling and bribery are an issue
This was probably the most challenging thing for me when I was traveling to Egypt. Not a day went by without someone trying to lure me into a scam, or trying to bribe money out of me. Not even when I was with my local friends. In some places – the Pyramids comes to mind now – I was literally followed around by street vendors – but it could have been carriage drivers, or people offering camel rides – who couldn’t take no for an answer. It was annoying, to say the least, and it partially ruined my experience.
In a country that relies so heavily on tourism, where the Egyptian Pound has lost value even more dramatically in the last few years and where salaries are incredibly low, many see tourists as an easy buck and rely on tips and bribes to make a living.
Just make sure you go prepared, and thicken your skin, because the level of harassment you will experience in Egypt is extreme. A polite but firm no is the way to go – and if that doesn’t work, just ignore it. And remember that nothing is free – not even taking photos of a camel you see in the distance.
You need a visa
You will need a visa for traveling to Egypt. Citizens of many countries can get an online visa really easily. For example, if you’re traveling from the UK you’ll need a valid passport and an Egypt visa for British citizens.
Though you also have the option of getting your visa at the airport when you arrive (you can buy it at the National Bank of Egypt counter before immigration for $25 USD), I recommend you do it online, as this will save you the hassle of having to stand in line at the airport to get your visa. The online process will take you a few minutes, and if you have everything in order your Egyptian e-visa will be sent to you via email in a day or two.
Tourists’ visas for Egypt are valid for 30 days and your passport must have at least 6 months validity from your scheduled return date.
The visa is valid for 30 days and you must have a passport with at least 6 months validity beyond your scheduled return date.
Travel insurance is essential
Travel insurance is something I recommend getting for any trip – including a trip to Egypt. Get yours here.
A local SIM card will be handy
One of my Egypt travel tips that will truly help you during your trip is having a local SIM card, and if your phone is unlocked you can get one as soon as you land at Cairo International Airport. You will find an Orange Kiosk at the arrivals, close to baggage claim. You will need to show your passport – the overall process takes no more than a few minutes.
Tipping is expected
Salaries are low in Egypt, and although there is no set of rules and tipping is meant to be optional, it pretty much is mandatory – so you can safely assume you will have to tip for just about any service. The porter takes your bag from the car to the door? TIP! Bathroom attendant? TIP! Waiter at a restaurant offers to take a photo of you and your family? TIP! Tour driver? Definitely tip! You get the idea.
If you come from a tipping culture, this will be easier for you. It was not the case for me, as tipping in Italy is not really a thing – and I had to learn quickly, to avoid any embarrassing situation. So, be prepared to always have some small change for you and to tip anything between 5 and 10 % of the price you paid.
Beware that everything has an additional fee
One of the things I found really confusing when visiting Egypt was that for whatever thing I paid for, I had to pay an additional fee for a full service. So for example, if you visit the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, you will have to pay the regular ticket and, on top of that, a separate ticket to visit the Royal Mummy exhibit; if you visit the Pyramid, there is a separate fee for the burial chambers (which are so bare, it’s not worth paying, to be honest!). Not to mention, each and every site has an additional charge for photography permits.
You may want to avoid traveling to Egypt during Ramadan (or not)
The majority of Egyptians are Muslims, and they will observe Ramadan, and will thus fast during that time. Though it is perfectly fine to visit Egypt during Ramadan, whether or not you do so is completely up to you. Tourists usually observe little differences – it’s business as usual – but opening hours for many places change, and eating or drinking in public is frowned upon, and many places won’t serve alcohol (which, by the way, is easy to find in Egypt). If none of these things bothers you, you may want to go then: it may be quite an enriching experience.
And in the summer months
When should you be traveling to Egypt? Let me put it this way: definitely not in the summer months!
The heat during the summer months is fierce, with temperatures getting well above 40° C (104° F) on any given day, sometimes going as high as 55° C (that’s 130° F). While the south of Egypt – Luxor, and Aswan – is dry, humidity in the North – Alexandria, and Cairo – is high and adds to the heat.
With this in mind, you should avoid visiting Egypt between May and September. The best time to visit is between October and March, with the largest crowds in December and January. I visited between the end of April and the beginning of May, and day temperatures were typically 30° C (86° F) and above.
Driving is crazy
I have been to a lot of countries where driving is insane, but honestly, nothing compares to Egypt when it comes to driving. The combination of high amounts of cars on the streets, no such thing as speed limits, no traffic lights, no understanding of lanes, and everyone on their horns means that it just is crazy. There is no time of day or night when traffic stops, and the only place you can escape cars in Cairo is the Citadel.
You may think that traffic is not as bad outside of cities and in rural areas – but if anything, it is worse. Road conditions are bad, with two-lane roads where the center is used to pass (in both directions) regularly causing heart attacks to unaware tourists. Add to this the fact that people have a thing for speeding and that there are regular checkpoints, and you will easily conclude that renting a car is out of the question.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there are no zebra lines or crossing lanes either. If you want to cross the street, your best bet will be to follow a group of locals and hope for the best.
Dressing modestly is recommended
Egypt is a conservative country. Unless you are visiting a hipster bar in Zamalek, Cairo’s most up-and-coming neighborhood, you really are better off covering your arms, legs, chest, and shoulder. It’s a sign of respect, and it will save you from unwanted harassment.
There is a lot to see
Egypt is a beautiful country, with an incredible history and stunning landmarks. Cairo itself, with the impressive Egyptian Museum, the Citadel, the many mosques, the Coptic Cairo, Khal el Khalili market, and the hipster Zamalek and Mohandessin deserve at least 5 days – one alone to visit the Giza Pyramids), and if you have an extra one you can take a day trip to the lesser-known pyramids of Saqqara (where the burial chambers of King Teti are actually incredibly ornate and well kept) and Dahshur.
Alexandria, on the shores of the Mediterranean, can be visited on a day trip from Cairo too.
Other places you should definitely consider visiting are Luxor, home of the Karnak Temple Complex, where you can see the tomb of Ramses V and VI (KV 9); Awan, where you can see the stunning Philae Temple; Abu Simbel, closer to the border with Sudan, where the temple dedicated to Ramesses II is located. And if you like diving, or want to relax at the beach, you may want to make your way to Hurghada or Dahab.
Consider joining a guided tour
Even though you may personally prefer traveling to Egypt independently, and you are the kind of person who doesn’t like a guided tour, I beg you to reconsider. Your time in the country will be a whole lot better if you actually have an expert local guide – and even better, an Egyptologist – and a driver.
An expert guide will be able to share all sorts of relevant information on the sites you will be visiting, giving it historical and cultural context. He will be able to inform you about the local customs and traditions, and even about scams.
A driver will be able to dodge the terrible local traffic and take you safely to all the best places to visit.
Tap water is not safe to drink
If there is a country where tap water is not safe to drink, that is Egypt. Not only you should directly avoid drinking tap water, but you should not even use tap water to brush your teeth, and you should avoid things such as salads and cocktails with ice unless you are 100% sure that tap water has not been used. As plastic waste (in fact, waste in general) is a major issue in Egypt I recommend carrying a Lifestraw water bottle and filter and refilling regularly.
Droning is out of the question
In order to fly a drone in Egypt you need to get a license from the Ministry of Defense – which, as a foreigner, you can’t obtain. Unless you want to risk having your drone confiscated at the airport, face a fine and even end up in jail (which really, honestly, truly you want to avoid in this country), you are way better off leaving your drone at home.
Nile River cruises are expensive
Although I really wanted to, I ended up not doing a Nile River cruise during my trip to Egypt, because it was way more expensive than I thought it would be – especially if booked with a good company with good reviews.
Another thing you should beware of is that during the cruise you actually have very little time at attractions (which you typically visit with a large group of other passengers) – most of the time is spent commuting from the port where you are docked to the actual attraction. You don’t even cruise that much, in the end!
A good alternative to a traditional luxury river cruise may be sailing on a traditional Egyptian felucca – but keep in mind it is not nearly as comfortable.