Egypt has some of the most iconic sites in the entire world. Home to the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, and the Valley of the Kings, Egypt is a top destination for every traveler. A predominantly Islamic country in northern Africa, Egypt is a much different vibe for visiting westerners. To make the most of your trip and avoid any unwanted issues, here is what you should know before traveling to Egypt.
Driving in Egypt, especially in Cairo, is chaotic to say the least. In what feels like a free-for-all, roads are often jammed with standstill traffic, and honking horns can be heard all day and all night. Cars come within inches of pedestrians calmly crossing the street and security checkpoints line all the major attractions. Needless to say, Egypt is not a driving friendly country for tourists.
I would highly suggest not renting a car in Egypt, and instead traveling with a tour group or hiring a local guide. You want a local driving around as they know the ways of the road. Many charter buses will also have a security guard traveling with you around Cairo and places like Abu Simbel. Uber is an option in Cairo as well, but I would stick to organized group transportation.
Everyone Wants a Tip
Tipping is a way of life for Egyptians. You will very quickly find out that almost everyone you interact with will want some sort of tip. If anyone asks to take your photo, they will want a tip. To use any public bathroom, there will be an attendant that wants a tip. Even people at the ancient sites will take your phone to take photos that are inaccessible to visitors and then come back and ask for a tip before you get your phone back.
In one bizarre encounter, I was with my friend at the Step Pyramid in Saqqara when the site was beginning to close. A security guard allowed us to take some more photos, and then showed us a spot to take another photo. We couldn’t believe how nice he was being. He then, with his uzi machine gun strapped around his chest, stepped in front of us and asked us for a tip.
It’s best to always be aware of people’s intentions, and to bring around small cash in both Egyptian Pounds and USD as they love US dollars in Egypt.
The security at Egypt’s airports can be a little disorganized, and different than you are used to. In Luxor’s airport, security agents will make men stand in one line and women stand in another line. In Cairo’s airport, the security lines for domestic flights became international flights with no warning, and really no reason as they both went to the same area.
In Cairo, my passport was temporarily held by a security agent as he wanted to see my ticket. I didn’t have my ticket yet, as our guide was getting all of our tickets at the desk past security, but the security agent didn’t seem to care about this or fully understand me. He kept my passport and wouldn’t give it to me until a few more people from our group came over and vouched for me that I was with the rest of the group. Security is taken seriously there, as it should be, but they go about things a bit differently than they do in western cultures.
You will be swarmed by locals trying to sell you souvenirs at nearly every tourist stop. From the time you step off the bus until you walk into the security lanes, you’ll have someone trying to sell you something. It’s best to smile and politely say no, but expect them to be very persistent - especially if you show any interest in what they have.
Every ancient site will have a plethora of shops near the entrance or exit, and after a few days you start to see that most of the souvenirs are the same. Our guide even said most of them are made in China. But group tours will take you to a few government run souvenir shops that can vouch for the authenticity and quality of the products. A few of these shops that we stopped at include a papyrus shop in Cairo, an essential oils shop in Aswan, and an alabaster shop in Luxor.
The Food Isn’t Spectacular
The food I had in Egypt wasn’t great, in fact it was sometimes very bad. But my experience with the food in Egypt was mostly limited to hotel and cruise ship buffet meals, so that is not surprising. The one meal that I ate in an authentic, Egyptian restaurant in the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar of Cairo, was one of the best shawarmas I’ve ever had in my life. The amount of flavor packed into the chicken wrap was insane. If I was eating more food like that, my experience might have been much better, but the tourist buffets that are offered at most accommodations left much to be desired.
Cash is King
Having cash on you is always a good idea in Egypt. Outside of the hotels, cruise ships, and fancier government run souvenir shops, most places will only accept cash. It is good to have small change as well for tipping, which will come up a lot. Egyptians accept both Egyptian Pounds and US dollars, but the US dollar is seemingly more valuable to them.
(Nearly) Everything is Negotiable
Besides entrance tickets to ancient sites and hotel rooms, pretty much everything else is negotiable in Egypt. Bargaining is a way of life in Egypt, and if a vendor can tell you are interested in something they are going to try and offer you a deal. They will start high, and if you are interested or ask for a much lower price, the bargaining will begin.
If you genuinely don’t want something, or act like you don’t want it, the price will drop dramatically as you walk away. It is a bit of a game that can be exhausting, but if you partake in the bargaining you will be saving yourself a lot of money in Egypt.
The Call to Prayer
If you haven’t been to any Islamic countries, the call to prayer may come as a surprise to you when you hear it in Egypt. Five times a day, speakers from mosques will blast out prayers, reminding people following the Muslim faith to pray. You will see some people that kneel down onto the ground and pray during these moments.
Wardrobe Isn’t an Issue
Egypt is no doubt a more conservative country than western countries. Before I visited I read many articles that recommended dressing conservatively, meaning no shoulders showing, no shorts above the knees, only long pants, etc. You will find that especially being a tourist, you can essentially wear whatever you want. There are people from all over the world at all these ancient sites wearing what they wear in their home countries. It’s also very hot most of the time, so you don’t want to get stuck wearing a bunch of long clothing; you're going to want to wear shorts.
At the beginning of our trip, our guide brought this up and told us we could wear whatever we want and that these “rules” of what to wear are not accurate. Having said that, it is a predominantly Muslim country so it is still best to avoid dressing overly provocative or for women to show too much cleavage.
Get a Reputable Guide / Tour Company
A great guide makes all the difference when seeing the ancient sites of Egypt. Having someone who not only knows the history and stories of the ancient culture, but who also can cater the experience to your group, is paramount in getting the most out of your Egypt trip.
Some countries are very easy to plan your travel on your own, but I highly suggest relying on the local tour companies when visiting Egypt. Take the time to do some research to make sure you are going with a reputable company and see what the rate includes, what hotels they’re staying at, and what the transportation setup is like before deciding, as these will be key factors on your trip.
Hot Air Balloon in Luxor
I’m putting this on here because it was one of the Most Unforgettable Things I Did in Egypt and wasn’t even something that was on my radar until the day before we did it. If you are in Luxor, like most itineraries in Egypt will include, this is something you should book. Floating in the serene hot air balloon over ancient temples and burial grounds, as the sun is rising, is an experience you’ll never forget.
For more information on traveling to Egypt, check out The Best Things to do in Egypt and the Ultimate One Week Egypt Itinerary.