Egyptian public transport is, on the whole, pretty good. There is an efficient rail network linking the Nile Valley, Delta and Canal Zone, and elsewhere you can travel easily enough by bus or shared (service) taxi. On the Nile you can indulge in feluccas or cruise boats, while in the desert there’s the chance to test your camel-riding prowess. For those in a hurry, EgyptAir provides a network of domestic flights.
While you can travel without restriction through most areas of Egypt, travel permits are required for desert travel between Bahariya and Siwa oases (permits available in Siwa), to Ain Della and the Gilf Kebir/Jebel Uwaynat in the western desert, for the desert east of Marsa Alam, and if you want to camp around Berenice and the Red Sea coast south of Marsa Alam. In principle, permits to visit restricted areas in the eastern and western deserts are obtainable from Military Intelligence (Mukaharabat), whose office is next-door to the Nasser Mosque at Abbassiya in Cairo (you’ll need two photos and photocopies of the identifying pages of your passport and your Egyptian entry visa, plus a detailed intinerary), but in practice, you are very unlikely to get a permit by approaching them directly, and it’s much easier to go through an authorized travel agency or, failing that, Misr Travel, 1 Sharia Talaat Harb, Cairo t 02 2393 0010, e [email protected]. You don’t currently need a permit to travel directly from Mersa Matrouh to the Libyan border, for example if taking a bus or service taxi to Benghazi or Tripoli, but the rules sometimes change, so it’s wise to check first.
Covering a limited network of routes (Cairo to Alexandria, the Delta and the Canal Zone, along the coast to Mersa Matrouh and up the Nile Valley to Luxor and Aswan), Egypt’s trains are best used for long hauls, when air-conditioned services offer a comfier alternative to buses and taxis. For shorter journeys, trains are slower and less reliable.
Timetables are posted up in major stations, but in Arabic only. Schedules and fares for services between major stations are posted on the Egyptian Railways website (w enr.gov.eg), where you can also buy tickets online. Schedules for sleeper services are available on the website of the company which operates them, Watania (w wataniasleepingtrains.com).
From Cairo to Alexandria or Aswan, there are fast a/c trains, including sleepers (also called wagons-lits) and snail-like non-a/c local services. However, on the Cairo–Luxor/Aswan route, foreigners are only allowed to use four “tourist trains” (two of which are sleepers), whose compartments are guarded by gun-toting plainclothes cops.
Buying tickets can get complicated at the largest stations, where separate queues exist for different ticket classes.
Air-conditioned trains nearly always have two classes (although occasionally a/c trains will be first or second class only). The most comfortable option is first class (daraga awla), with waiter service, reclining armchairs and no standing. They also screen videos until midnight. Second class superior (daraga tania mukayyifa) is less plush and more crowded – but two-thirds the price of first class. Both classes are comfortable enough to allow you to sleep on an overnight journey, at a fraction of the cost of a sleeper (see Wagons-lits (sleepers)).
Seats are reservable up to seven days in advance. There is occasional double booking but a little baksheesh to the conductor usually sorts out any problem. One common difficulty is that return tickets can’t necessarily be booked at the point of origin. The peak seasons for travel are summer for Alexandria and winter for Upper Egypt.
In terms of fares, a ticket from Cairo to Luxor costs around £E165 in first class (the only class allowed for tourists), while Cairo to Alexandria costs £E50 in first class, £E35 in second. Students with ISIC cards get at least a third off on all fares except on sleepers. Many travel agencies sell first-class tickets for a small commission, saving you from having to queue.
Many tourists cough up for a bed in a sleeper car (wagons-lits), which may comprise an entire train, or be limited to a couple of carriages tacked on to a regular service. Fares are relatively hefty (though still cheaper than flying) at $60 one way from Cairo to Luxor or Aswan. Passengers get a comfortable two-bed cabin (a single traveller can book one exclusively for $120, or pay the normal fare and share with someone of the same sex) with a sink, plus breakfast and dinner, and access to a dining car and a bar. In summer (mid-June to mid-Sept) there’s also a sleeper service from Cairo to Mersa Matrouh.
Bookings for wagons-lits can be done at Ramses station, through the operator, Watania (t 02 3748 9388, w wataniasleepingtrains.com), or through American Express; payment must be made in US dollars or euros.
Non-a/c trains comprise ordinary second class (daraga tania aadia) carriages, with padded bench seating, or third class (daraga talata), with wooden benches. Both are invariably crowded, the rolling stock ancient and often filthy, and schedules fanciful. Few foreigners use them, but on a few routes they are the only services available, and over short distances you might enjoy the disorder.
There is no advance booking for seats on these services and you needn’t even queue for a ticket at the station – these can be bought on-board from the conductor, with just a small penalty fee of £E1–2 added to the fare.
Egypt’s three main bus companies, all based in Cairo, are: Upper Egypt Bus Company (Nile Valley, Fayoum, inner oases and the Red Sea Coast down to El-Quseir); East Delta Bus Company (Sinai and the Canal Zone); and West and Middle Delta Bus Company (Alexandria, Mersa Matrouh, Siwa and the Nile Delta). An independent firm, El Gouna, runs buses from Cairo to Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh. Key routes (Cairo to Alexandria, Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada) are also covered by Superjet (red, black and gold livery, known as “Golden Arrows” or “Golden Rockets”), a subsidiary of the Arab Union Transport Company which operates international services to Libya, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Major routes are plied by a/c buses, usually new(ish) and fast. Local routes usually have cheaper non-a/c buses, generally old rattletraps. Superjet buses have a/c, toilets, videos and expensive snacks.
Terminals and bookings
Though most towns have a single bus depot for all destinations, cities such as Cairo and Alexandria have several. English- or French-speaking staff are fairly common at the larger ones, but rare in the provinces. Schedules – usually posted in Arabic only – change frequently. Bus information can be obtained from hotels in Sinai and the oases, and tourist offices in Luxor, Aswan and the oases.
At city terminals, tickets are normally sold from kiosks, up to 24 hours in advance for air-conditioned or long-haul services. In the provinces, tickets may only be available an hour or so before departure, or on the bus itself in the case of through services, which are often standing-room only when they arrive. Passengers on a/c services are usually assigned a seat (the number is written in Arabic on your ticket), but seats on “local” buses are taken on a first-come, first-served basis. Fares are very reasonable: Cairo to Alexandria costs £E17 by ordinary bus, or £E30 on the deluxe Superjet service, while Cairo to Luxor is £E100 by Superjet.
By service taxi
Collective service taxis (known as servees) are one of the best features of Egyptian transport. They operate on a wide variety of routes, are generally quicker than buses and trains, and fares are very reasonable. On the downside, maniacal driving on congested roads calls for strong nerves; accidents are not uncommon.
The taxis are usually big Peugeot saloons carrying seven passengers, or microbuses (meecros) seating a dozen. Most business is along specific routes, with more or less nonstop departures throughout the day on the main ones, while cross-desert traffic is restricted to early morning and late afternoon. Show up at the terminal and ask for a servees to your destination, or listen for drivers shouting it out. As soon as the requisite number of people (or less, if you’re willing to pay extra) are assembled, the taxi sets off. Fewer people travel after dark in winter or on Friday, when you might have to wait a while for a ride to a distant town; travelling in stages can be quicker.
Service taxis have fixed fares, which you can ascertain by asking at your hotel (or the tourist office), or seeing what Egyptians pay. You can also charter a taxi – useful for day excursions or on odd routes, but you’ll have to bargain hard to get the right price.
Driving in Egypt is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced motorist. Cities, highways, backroads and pistes each pose a challenge to drivers’ skills and nerve. Pedestrians and carts seem blithely indifferent to heavy traffic. Though accidents are less frequent than you’d think, the crumpled wrecks alongside highways are a constant reminder of the hazards of motoring.
The minimum age for driving in Egypt is 25 years, the maximum is 70. Foreigners require an International Driving Licence (obtainable from motoring organizations at home).
The highest speed limit outside towns is 90km/h (56mph), despite old signs on some highways which still say 100km/h. In built-up areas, the highest speed limit is 60km/h (37mph), and on some stretches of road, the limit can be as low as 30km/h (18mph). Road signs are similar to those in Europe, but speed limits are usually posted in Arabic numerals. Vehicles drive on the right, although traffic in cities is relentless and anarchic, with vehicles weaving to and fro between lanes, signalling by horn. Two beeps means “I’m alongside and about to overtake.” A single long blast warns “I can’t (won’t) stop and I’m coming through!” Extending your hand, fingers raised and tips together, is the signal for “Watch out, don’t pass now”; spreading your fingers and flipping them forwards indicates “Go ahead.” Although the car in front usually has right of way, buses and trams always take precedence. On country roads – including the two-lane east- and west-bank “highways” along the Nile Valley – trucks and cars routinely overtake in the face of incoming traffic. The passing car usually flashes its lights as a warning, but not always.
Most roads are bumpy, with potholes and all manner of traffic, including donkey carts and camels. Beware, especially, of children darting into the road. If you injure someone, relatives may take revenge on the spot. Avoid driving after dark, when Egyptians drive without lights, only flashing them on to high beam when they see another car approaching. Wandering pedestrians and animals, obstructions and sand drifts present extra hazards. In spring, flash floods can wash away roads in Sinai. On pistes (rough, unpaved tracks in the desert or mountains) there are special problems. You need a good deal of driving and mechanical confidence – and shouldn’t attempt such routes if you don’t feel your car’s up to scratch.
Police or military road checks – signposted in English as “Traffic Stations” – occur on the approach roads to towns and oases and along major trunk routes. Foreign motorists are usually waved through, but you might be asked to show your passport or driving licence.
Renting a car pays obvious dividends if you are pushed for time or plan to visit remote sites, but whether you’d want to drive yourself is another matter – it’s not much more expensive to hire a car and driver. Branches of Misr Travel, and numerous local tour agencies, can fix you up with one, or you can charter a taxi. If you bring your own vehicle, you are required to re-export it when you leave – even if it gets wrecked.
A self-drive car can be rented through one of the international franchise chains, or a local firm. It’s worth shopping around as rates and terms vary considerably. At the cheaper end, you can get a car with unlimited mileage for around £50/$75 a day. Most companies require a hefty deposit, and not all accept credit cards. You cannot bring a rented car across the border into Egypt.
Before making a reservation, be sure to find out if you can pick up the car in one city and return it in another. Generally, this is only possible with cars from Hertz, Avis or Budget. Before setting out, make sure the car has a spare tyre, tool kit and full documentation – including insurance cover, which is compulsory with all rentals.
Fuel and breakdowns
Petrol (benzene) and diesel stations are plentiful in larger towns but few and far between in rural and desert areas. Replace oil/air filters regularly, lest impurities in the fuel, and Egypt’s ubiquitous dust, clog up the engine.
Egyptian mechanics are usually excellent at coping with breakdowns, and all medium-sized towns have garages (most with a range of spare parts for French, German and Japanese cars). If you break down miles from anywhere, however, you can pay a lot to get towed back.
All car rentals must by law be sold with third-party insurance. Accident and damage insurance should be included, but make sure. In the case of an accident, get a written report from the police and from the doctor who first treats any injuries, without which your insurance may not cover the costs. Reports are written in Arabic.
Driving your own vehicle, you will need to take out Egyptian insurance. Policies are sold by Misr Insurance (t 02 3335 5350 or t 19114, w misrins.com.eg); offices are found in most towns and at border crossings. Premiums vary according to the size, horsepower and value of the vehicle.
Motorbikes and bicycles
Motorcycling could be a good way to travel around Egypt, but the red tape involved in bringing your own bike is diabolical (ask your national motoring organization and the Egyptian consulate for details). It’s difficult to rent a machine except in Luxor or Hurghada. Bikers should be especially wary of potholes, sand and rocks, and other road-users.
Bicycles, useful for getting around small towns and reaching local sights or beaches, can be rented in Luxor, Aswan, Hurghada, Siwa Oasis and other places for a modest sum. Cycling in big cities or over long distances is not advisable. Traffic is murderous, the heat brutal and foreign cyclists are sometimes stoned by children (particularly in the Delta). If you’re determined to cycle the Nile Valley, the east bank expressway that runs down as far as Aswan is the safest route.
Most towns have repair shops, well used to servicing local bikes and mopeds. They’re unlikely to have the right spare parts but can usually sort out some kind of temporary solution.
Hitchhiking is largely confined to areas with minimal public transport, or trunk routes if passing service taxis or scheduled buses are full. You usually pay anyway, and foreigners who hitch where proper transport is available may inspire contempt rather than sympathy. Women should never hitch without a male companion.
In general, it’s only worth flying if your time is very limited, or for the view – the Nile Valley and Sinai look amazing from the air – although the trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel is easiest by plane. EgyptAir (w egyptair.com) flies between Cairo and Alexandria, Mersa Matrouh, Port Said, Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada, Marsa Alam, Assyut, Sohag, Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel, as well as between Aswan and Luxor and between Aswan and Abu Simbel.
Fares rise as seats on the plane get booked up, so it’s best to book early if possible. In winter season, it’s wise to book at least a week ahead for flights between Cairo and Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel or Sharm. Always reconfirm 72 hours prior to the journey, as overbooking is commonplace.
The colonial tradition of Nile cruises has spawned an industry with over two hundred steamers. Most sail from Luxor to Aswan (or the other way), a three- to five-day trip, stopping at Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo.
The most reliable cruises are sold with package holidays, and week-long cruises plus air fare are available for as little as £560 from the UK or $2700 from North America. In Egypt you can arrange a trip on the spot from around $50–60 per day (all per person in a twin cabin). Prices escalate dramatically for a luxury cruise.
Looking for a Nile cruise in Egypt, shop around and don’t necessarily go for the cheapest deal – some leave a lot to be desired in terms of hygiene and living conditions. If possible, check the vessel first. Deluxe boats with swimming pools can be wonderful, but not all offer value for money. The best deals are available from local agents in Luxor and Aswan (or directly from the boats). Beware in particular of the overpriced trips sold by touts and some hotels in Cairo.
Feluccas, the lateen-sailed boats used on the Nile since antiquity, still serve as transport along many stretches. Favoured by tourists for sunset cruises, they allow you to experience the changing moods of the Nile while lolling in blissful indolence. Many visitors opt for a felucca cruise between Aswan and Luxor. It’s easy to arrange a cruise yourself, and several tour operators offer packages.
Local ferries, generally battered, crowded and cheap, cross the Nile and Suez Canal at various points. There are fast and slow ferries from Nuweiba in Sinai to Aqaba in Jordan; the catamaran service between Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh was suspended at the time of writing, though it may possibly be reinstated in the future. There is also a sporadic and not very reliable boat service from Aswan to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.
Most Egyptian towns are small enough to cover on foot, especially if your hotel is in the centre. In larger cities, however, local transport is useful. Learn to recognize Arabic numerals to take full advantage of the cheap buses, minibuses and trams that cover most of Alexandria and Cairo (which also has river taxis and an excellent metro).
Four-seater taxis often operate on a shared basis, making stops to pick up passengers heading in the same direction. To hail a cab, pick a major thoroughfare with traffic heading in the right direction, stand on the kerb, and wave and holler out your destination as one approaches. If the driver’s interested he’ll stop, whereupon you can state your destination again, in more detail. If the driver starts talking money, say “maalesh” (forget it) and look for another cab.
Don’t expect drivers to speak English or to know every street; you may need to name a major landmark or thoroughfare in the vicinity instead. If your destination is obscure or hard to pronounce, get it written down in Arabic. Near the end of the journey, direct the driver to stop where you want (bearing in mind one-way systems and other obstacles) with “hina/hinak kwayes” (here/there’s okay). You need to know the right fare in advance; hand it over with confidence when you arrive, together with any tip you consider appropriate. If you’ve underpaid, the driver will let you know. Don’t take taxis waiting outside expensive hotels or tourist sites, nor those that hustle you in the street, as they are sure to overcharge you.
Calèches (or hantour) – horse-drawn buggies – are mainly for tourists, who are often accosted by drivers in Luxor and Aswan, Alexandria and at other places. Fares are higher than taxis and, regardless of official tariffs, are negotiable. In a few small towns, mostly in Middle Egypt, the hantour remains part of local city transport. Ask locals about fares before climbing on board, or simply pay what you see fit at the end. Some of the horses and buggies are in pristine condition; others painful to behold. Tourists can help by admonishing drivers who abuse their animals or gallop their horses, and by not travelling more than four to a carriage.