Egypt is inexpensive and good value. Providing you avoid luxury hotels and tourist-only services, costs for food, accommodation and transport are very low, though Sinai and Hurghada are pricier than other parts.
Most prices listed here are in Egyptian pounds. The main exceptions – airfares, prices for top-flight accommodation and dive or safari packages – are given in US dollars or euros, depending on what establishments quote. Despite this, you can almost always pay in Egyptian pounds, according to the prevailing exchange rate.
If you’re trying to keep expenses down, it is possible to get by on £25/$40 a day by staying in the cheapest hotels and eating street food, but you won’t have much left over for sightseeing or activities. On £65/$100 a day, you can eat well and stay in a reasonable two-star hotel. If you want to stay in tip-top accommodation, you could be paying upwards of £200/$300 a night, but even if you travel everywhere by taxi and eat in the very best restaurants, you’ll be hard put to add more than £50/$75 a day to that figure.
Although Egypt is cheap, there are hidden costs that can bump up your daily budget. Most restaurant and hotel bills are liable to a service charge plus local taxes (Cairo, Luxor and Hurghada have the highest), which increase the final cost by 17–25 percent (unless already included in the price). You’ll also need to add in the cost of tickets for archeological sites such as the Pyramids and the monuments of the Nile Valley (typically £E20–60 a throw), and don’t forget the tips you’ll need for custodians of tombs and temples and the medieval mosques of Islamic Cairo.
Inflation peaked at over twenty percent in early 2008, before falling back to just over eight and a half percent in mid-2012. Costs of luxury goods, services and most things in the private sector rise faster than for public transport, petrol and basic foodstuffs, whose prices are held down by subsidies that the government dare not abolish.
Student and other discount cards
ISIC student cards entitle holders to a discount of fifty percent or slightly less on most museums and sites, thirty-percent discount on rail fares and around fifteen percent on ferries. It’s best to get the card at home (see w isic.org for outlets) or – with proof that you are a full-time student – for £E100 at Egyptian Student Travel Services (ESTS), 23 Sharia al-Manial, on Roda Island in Cairo (daily 9am–4pm t 02 2363 7251, w estsegypt.com); you can get there on foot from the El-Malek el-Saleh metro. The International Youth Travel Card (available to anyone under 26), and International Teacher Identity Card (for teachers), at the same price from the same places, give similar discounts. Note however that, due to the number of forged cards in circulation in Egypt, some archeological sites have stopped accepting them.
Spring (March–May) and autumn (Oct & Nov) are the best times to visit, when it’s hot but not debilitatingly so. In summer (June–Sept) the south and desert are ferociously hot and the pollution in Cairo is at its worst, with only the coast offering a respite from the heat. During this time, sightseeing is best limited to early morning or evening. In winter (Dec–Feb), most places are reasonably warm during the day, but chilly at night, while the desert can get very cold indeed. The Mediterranean Coast can be windy and wet in winter.
The temperatures given in the chart below show the average for each month – although of course the temperature is not always average. Summer peaks in Aswan, Hurghada or Sinai, for example, can hit 50°C (120°F) in hot years. The dryness of the air and absence of cloud cover makes for drastic fluctuations, though they do also make the heat tolerably unsticky outside Cairo and the Delta.
Crime and personal safety
Egypt has always had a low crime rate, and tourist-related crime has traditionally consisted either of sly forms of theft such as pickpocketing or stealing unguarded baggage, or else scams and cons of one sort or another. Robbery as such was extremely unusual. Since the revolution the crime rate has increased, and although it is still low by Western standards, certain areas have become unsafe to drive in at night due to the rise in carjackings, while street muggings and burglaries, though nothing like as common as in other countries, are nonetheless on the rise.
Minefields (the Arabic for “mines” is algham, with the stress on the second syllable) still exist: from World War II along the Mediterranean coast, and from Israeli conflicts in the interior of Sinai and along the Red Sea coast. Don’t take any risks in venturing into fenced-off territory unless locals go there often.
Terrorism and direct action
In the 1990s and 2000s, Egypt’s image as a safe country to visit was shattered by sporadic waves of terrorism, with bomb attacks in Cairo and Sinai. Then in 2011, the Arab Spring arrived, accompanied at times by violent confrontations and shootings. The former terrorists are now represented in parliament by the Salafists, who are increasingly part of the political establishment, which has to a certain extent neutralized Islamism as a direct threat to tourists.
Since the revolution there has been an increase in lawlessness, banditry and political direct action. The Sinai in particular has seen a string of incidents, with regular attacks on a pipeline delivering Egyptian gas to Israel, an attack on an under-construction nuclear power station, and a siege in January 2012 of a tourist resort near Taba, though no tourists were actually in it at the time. Bedouins in Sinai also kidnapped 25 Chinese workers in Sinai and (a week later) two American tourists, though all were released unharmed, and the two Americans praised their captors’ hospitality in what seems to have been a very Egyptian kidnapping. Sinai Bedouins feel they have been neglected and discriminated against since Mubarak’s time, and the revolution has emboldened them to take action, which can directly affect tourists. It is particularly inadvisable to travel in remote regions of Sinai away from major roads.
Meanwhile, there are still armed police and often metal-detecting arches at tourist sites, stations and upmarket hotels, and plainclothes agents in bars and bazaars. Along the Nile Valley, foreigners travelling by rail are only supposed to use services designated for tourists, which have plainclothes guards riding shotgun. Tourist buses from Aswan to Abu Simbel must travel in a convoy (kol) with a police escort. There is no ban as such on visiting once “risky” areas of Middle Egypt such as Assyut, Sohag or Qena, but the local police will keep a close eye on you if you do.
In 2011, revolution broke out across Egypt, and particularly in Cairo. Violent clashes left hundreds dead. Since then, revolutionaries opposing military rule have clashed several times with police and troops in Cairo, Suez and other cities. Foreign tourists are not directly involved, and are advised to steer well clear, but the military invariably blame the violence on foreign spies and agents provocateurs, and while most people do not take this very seriously, there is an undertone of xenophobia and hostility to non-Muslims within the population which it plays to. Even among the protestors, use by troops of American-made tear gas has led to claims that “This is a conspiracy between the United States and Israel to slaughter us,” and there have been a series of attacks on and arrests of foreigners in Egypt. Mostly these have affected only journalists, but the Slovenian ambassador was beaten up in December 2011 by a mob who took him for a spy because he was photographing the neighbouhood. Especially in times of trouble therefore, it is wise to keep a low profile, and not to go around taking snaps of things that Egyptians might not expect a tourist to be interested in.
While relatively few in number, pickpockets are skilled and concentrate on tourists. Most operate in Cairo, notably in queues. To play safe, keep your valuables in a money belt or a pouch under your shirt (leather or cotton materials are preferable to nylon, which can irritate in the heat). Overall, though, casual theft is more of a problem. Campgrounds and cheap hotels often have poor security, though at most places you can deposit valuables at reception (always get a receipt for cash). If you are driving, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t leave anything you cannot afford to lose visible or accessible in your car.
Since the revolution, the police (in disgrace for supporting the old regime) have massively reduced their presence, which has led to a rise in certain types of crime, notably burglaries and carjackings. Some roads are now unsafe to travel, especially at night, with SUVs being particular targets. The Sinai is the biggest hotspot and it is inadvisable, for example, to drive from Sharm el-Sheikh or even Suez to Cairo overnight. Middle Egypt is also tricky, and even the road from Cairo to Saqqara and the Fayoum Desert Road are considered unsafe to drive on at night. There has also been an increase in sexual assaults. Women should avoid being alone with an Egyptian man (for example with a microbus driver if you are the last passenger left), and always sit in the back of taxis.
As a result of this increase in insecurity, a lot of people are now armed, mostly with things like cattle-prods or pepper spray, although some people carry guns – in January 2012, for example, a motorist shot dead a microbus driver in a Cairo road rage incident. Other crimes, especially high-publicity ones, may be related to the political situation – a spate of incidents in early 2012, for example, was attributed by many Egyptians to the ruling junta (SCAF) deliberately causing instability to justify retention of military rule.
While most of this is unlikely to affect tourists, you should obviously keep your ear to the ground, and keep your eyes open when wandering around at night, as you would in any Western city. Central Cairo remains pretty safe, but in some suburban areas it is wise to avoid deserted streets at night.
Insofar as any danger can be predicted, it is wise before leaving home to check government travel advisory websites such as the UK’s w fco.gov.uk/travel, the US State Department’s w travel.state.gov, the Canadian government’s w voyage.gc.ca, or the Australian government’s w smartraveller.gov.au.
To reduce the risk of petty squabbles or misunderstandings developing, always respect local customs.
If you’ve got a problem or need to report a crime, always go to the Tourist and Antiquities Police (t 126). Found at tourist sites, museums, airports, stations and ports, they are supposedly trained to help tourists in distress, and should speak a foreign language (usually English). Ordinary ranks wear a regular police uniform with a “Tourist Police” armband; officers wear black uniforms in winter and white in summer. The more senior the officer, the better the chance they’ll speak English.
The Municipal Police (t 122) handle all crimes and have a monopoly on law and order in smaller towns. Their uniform (khaki in winter, tan or white in summer) resembles that of the Traffic Police, who wear striped cuffs. Both get involved in accidents and can render assistance in emergencies, though few speak anything but Arabic.
The largely conscript Central Security force (dressed all in black and armed with Kalashnikovs) guard embassies, banks and highways. Though normally genial enough, they shift rapidly from tear gas to live rounds when ordered to crush demonstrations, strikes or civil unrest.
Egyptian Military Intelligence (Mukhabarat) is only relevant to travellers wanting to travel to remote parts of the Western Desert or south beyond Berenice on the Red Sea coast, for which you need travel permits. The State Security Investigations Service (Amn al-Dawla) may take an interest in foreigners in border areas or Middle Egypt.
All of these forces deploy plainclothes agents who hang around near government buildings and crowded places, dressed as vendors or peasants – hence their nickname, the “Galabiyya Police”.
Egypt has its own bango (marijuana) industry, based in Sinai and in the far south, and supplemented by hashish from Morocco and Lebanon. Despite a tradition of use stretching back to the thirteenth century, Egypt was one of the first countries in modern times to ban cannabis: possession merits a severe prison sentence and a heavy fine (plus legal costs); trafficking is punishable by up to 25 years’ hard labour, or even execution. Nonetheless, many Egyptians still smoke, and though Islam clearly forbids alcohol, the position of hashish is less clear. A few hotels in Luxor and Sinai even facilitate dealing to tourists.
As a foreigner, the least you can expect if caught is immediate deportation and a ban from visiting Egypt. You may be able to buy your way out of trouble, but this should be negotiated discreetly and as soon as possible, while the minimum number of cops are involved: once you’re at the police station, it will be a lot more difficult. Needless to say, your embassy will be unsympathetic. The best advice is to steer clear of all illegal drugs while in the country.
The current in Egypt is 220V, 50Hz. North American travellers with appliances designed for 110V should bring a converter. Most sockets are for two-pin round-pronged plugs (as in Continental Europe), so you may need an adapter.
Visitors to Egypt must hold passports valid for at least six months beyond their date of entry. Citizens of most countries also need visas.
Most nationalities, including British, Irish, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and EU citizens, can obtain visas on arrival at officially designated international airports and sea ports, but not at land borders. The process is generally painless and cheaper than getting a visa through an embassy or consulate, although visas issued on arrival are valid for one month only, whereas embassies issue single-visit and multiple-entry visas entitling you to stay in Egypt for three months (the latter allow you to go in and out of the country three times within this period). Visas are not available at overland border crossings or sea ports, apart from Sinai-only visas.
Visa applications can be made in person or by post. If applying in person, turn up early in the day. Postal applications take between seven working days and six weeks to process. Don’t be misled by statements on the application form indicating “valid for six months”; this simply means that the visa must be used within six months of the date of issue. When returning the form, you need to include a registered or recorded SAE, your passport, one photo and a postal or money order (not a personal cheque).
Getting a standard visa on arrival costs $15, irrespective of your nationality. The cost of getting a visa in advance of your trip varies according to your nationality, and from place to place. Some consulates may demand that you pay in US dollars instead of local currency, or ask you to supply extra photos. It’s wise to allow for all these eventualities.
Free Sinai-only visas (available to EU, North American and Australasian nationals) are issued at Taba on the Israel–Egypt border, at Sharm el-Sheikh and St Catherine’s airports, and at the sea ports at Sharm el-Sheikh and Nuweiba. They are valid for fourteen days only and restrict you to the Gulf of Aqaba coast down to Sharm el-Sheikh and the vicinity of St Catherine’s; they are not valid for Ras Mohammed, the mountains around St Catherine’s (except for Mount Sinai), or any other part of Egypt. They can’t be extended, and there’s no period of grace for overstaying.
In Egypt, carry your passport with you: you’ll need it to register at hotels, change money at banks, and possibly to show at police checkpoints. If travelling for any length of time, it may be worth registering with your embassy in Cairo, which will help speed things up if you lose your passport. At the least, it’s wise to photocopy the pages recording your particulars and keep them separately (or carry them in the street instead of your passport itself). If travelling to areas of the country that require permits (see Agents and operators), spare sets of photocopies are useful for producing with your application.
Tourists who overstay their visa are allowed a fifteen-day period of grace in which to renew it or leave the country. After this, they’re fined £E150 unless they can present a letter of apology from their embassy (which may well cost more).
Visa extensions cost around £E11, and are obtainable from Al-Mugamma in Cairo or from passport offices in governorate capitals such as Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan, Suez, El-Tor, Mersa Matrouh and Ismailiya. Depending on how long you wish to extend by, and on the whim of the official, you may have to produce exchange or ATM receipts proving that you’ve cashed sufficient hard currency during your stay, and you’ll need to supply one or two photos. Procedures vary slightly from office to office, but shouldn’t take longer than an hour outside Cairo. Re-entry visas (to leave the country and then come back if you don’t already have a multiple entry visa) can be obtained at the same places as visa extensions.
Gay and lesbian travellers
As a result of sexual segregation, homosexuality is relatively common in Egypt, but attitudes towards it are schizophrenic. Few Egyptian men will declare themselves gay – which has connotations of femininity and weakness – and the dominant partner in gay sex may well not consider himself to be indulging in a homosexual act. Rather, homosexuality is tacitly accepted as an outlet for urges that can’t otherwise be satisfied. Despite this, people are mindful that homosexuality is condemned in the Koran and the Bible, and reject the idea of Egypt as a “gay destination” (although male prostitution is an open secret in Luxor and Aswan). The common term for gay men in Egyptian Arabic, khawal, has derogatory connotations.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but that doesn’t stop the authorities from persecuting gay men, and places that are well known as gay locales have become dangerous for Egyptians. Foreigners seem to be safe from arrest, but if you have a gay relationship with an Egyptian man, be aware that discretion is vital. Lesbians do not face this kind of state harassment, but they have never been visible in Egyptian society. As a Western woman, your chances of making contact are virtually zilch.
Changes of diet and climate accounts for most visitors’ health problems, usually nothing worse than a bout or two of diarrhoea. Some people adapt quickly, others take longer, especially children and older people. If you’re only here for a week or two, it makes sense to be cautious, while for longer-staying visitors it is worth trying to acclimatize.
Unless you’re coming from an area where yellow fever is endemic (mainly sub-Saharan Africa), there are no compulsory inoculations for Egypt, though you should always be up to date with polio and tetanus, if not typhoid (which occasionally flares up in parts of Egypt). For vaccination clinics see w masta.org (in Britain), w cdc.gov/travel (US), w csih.org (Canada) or w tmvc.com.au (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa).
Tap water in Egyptian towns and cities is heavily chlorinated and mostly safe to drink, but is unpalatable and rough on tender stomachs. In rural areas, Sinai campsites and desert rest-houses there’s a fair risk of contaminated water. Consequently, most tourists stick to bottled mineral water, which is widely available and tastes better. However, excessive fear of tap water is unjustified and hard to sustain in practice if you’re here for long. Once your stomach has adjusted, it’s usually okay to drink it without going to the hassle of purifying it (which you can do with Halazone tablets or iodine, or by boiling it).
What you should avoid is any contact with stagnant water that might harbour bilharzia (schistosomiasis) flukes. These minute worms, which breed in the blood vessels of the abdomen and liver (the main symptom is blood in the urine), infest irrigation canals and the slower stretches of the Nile. Don’t drink or swim there, nor walk barefoot in the mud, or even on grass that’s wet with Nile water. The saline pools of desert oases are fine to bathe in.
Heat and dust
Many visitors experience problems with Egypt’s intense heat, particularly in the south, in summer and in the middle of the day (going out in the early morning and late afternoon is better). Wear a hat and loose-fitting clothes (preferably not synthetic fabrics), and a high-factor sunscreen to protect from sunburn, especially in summer. Wear a T-shirt when snorkelling, for the same reason. Sprinkling water on the ground cools the surrounding area by evaporation, and also levels the dust.
Because sweat evaporates immediately in the dry atmosphere, you can easily become dehydrated without realizing it. Dehydration is exacerbated by both alcohol and caffeine. Drink plenty of other fluids (at least three litres per day; more if you’re exerting yourself) and take a bit of extra salt with your food.
– signified by headaches, dizziness and nausea – is treated by resting in a cool place and drinking plenty of water or juice with a pinch of salt. An intense headache, heightened body temperature, flushed skin and the cessation of sweating are symptoms of heatstroke, which can be fatal if not treated immediately. The whole body must be cooled by immersion in tepid water, or the application of wet towels, and medical assistance should be sought. If walking long distances in the sun, it is vital to carry drinking water. A sunhat can be drenched with water, wrung to stop it dripping, and worn wet so that the evaporation cools your head – you’ll be amazed how quickly it dries out. Less seriously, visitors may suffer from prickly heat, an itchy rash caused by excessive perspiration trapped beneath the skin. Loose clothing and frequent bathing can reduce it.
Desert dust – or grit and smog in Cairo – can irritate your eyes. Contact-lens users may find switching to glasses helps. If ordinary eye drops don’t help, try antihistamine decongestant eye drops such as Vernacel, Vascon-A or Optihist. Persistent irritation may indicate trachoma, a contagious infection which is easily cured by antibiotics at an early stage, but eventually causes blindness if left untreated. Dust can also inflame sinuses. Covering your nose and mouth with a scarf helps prevent this; olbas oil or a nasal decongestant spray can relieve symptoms.
Almost every visitor to Egypt gets diarrhoea at some stage. Rare meat and raw shellfish top the danger list, which descends via creamy sauces down to salads, juices, raw fruit and vegetables. Visitors who insist on washing everything (and cleaning their teeth) in mineral water are overreacting. Just use common sense, and accustom your stomach gradually to Egyptian cooking. Asking for dishes to be served very hot (sukhna awi) will reduce the risk of catching anything.
If you have diarrhoea, the best initial treatment is to simply adapt your diet, eating plain boiled rice and vegetables, while avoiding greasy or spicy food, caffeine, alcohol and most fruit and dairy products (although some say that bananas and prickly pears can help, while yogurt provides a form of protein that your body can easily absorb). Most importantly, keep your bodily fluids topped up by drinking plenty of bottled water. Especially if children are affected, you may also want to add rehydration salts (brands include Rehydran) to the water, or failing that, half a teaspoon of salt and eight of sugar in a litre of water will help the body to absorb the fluid more efficiently.
Drugs like Imodium or Lomotil can plug you up if you have to travel, but undermine your body’s efforts to rid itself of infection. Avoid Enterovioform, which is still available in Egypt despite being suspected of damaging the optic nerve. Antinal (nifuroxazide) is widely prescribed against diarrhoea in Egypt and available over the counter in pharmacies. Note that having diarrhoea may make orally administered drugs (such as contraceptive pills) less effective, as they can pass straight through you without being absorbed.
If symptoms persist longer than a few days, or if you develop a fever or pass blood in your faeces, get medical help immediately, since acute diarrhoea can also be a symptom of dysentery, cholera or typhoid.
Rabies and malaria
Rabies is endemic in Egypt, where many wild animals (including bats, sometimes found in temples, tombs and caves) carry the disease. Avoid touching any strange animal, wild or domestic. Treatment must be given between exposure to the disease and the onset of symptoms; once these appear, rabies is invariably fatal. If you think you’ve been exposed, seek help immediately.
Malaria, spread by the anopheles mosquito, exists in the Fayoum in summer, but you won’t need malaria pills unless you’re staying in that area for a while. You should nevertheless take extra steps to avoid mosquito bites in the Fayoum – use repellent and cover bare skin, especially feet and ankles, after dusk (see Mosquitoes and other bugs).
Even without malaria, mosquitoes are a nuisance, ubiquitous in summer and never entirely absent. Fans, mosquito coils, repellent and plug-in vaporizers (sold at pharmacies) all help. A lot of Egyptians use citronella oil, obtainable from many pharmacies, as a repellent, but tests have shown it to be less effective (and to require more frequent applications) than repellents containing DEET (diethyltoluamide), which are the ones recommended by medical authorities. Don’t forget to put repellent on your feet and ankles if they are uncovered when you go out in the evening. The best guarantee of a bite-less night’s sleep is to bring a mosquito net.
Flies transmit various diseases, and only insecticide spray or air conditioning offer protection. Some cheap hotels harbour fleas, scabies, mites, cockroaches and other bugs. Consult a pharmacist if you find yourself with a persistent skin irritation.
Scorpions and snakes
The danger from scorpions and snakes is minimal, as most are nocturnal and avoid people, but don’t go barefoot, turn over rocks or stick your hands into dark crevices anywhere off the beaten track. Whereas the sting of larger, darker scorpions is no worse than a bad wasp sting, the venom of the pale, slender-clawed fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus australis and a few related species) is highly toxic. If stung, cold-pack the affected area and seek medical help immediately. Photographs of the most danegrous species, plus sound information and advice can be found on the Scorpion Venom website at w web.singnet.com.sg/~chuaeecc/venom/venom.htm.
Egypt has two main types of poisonous snake: vipers and cobras. Vipers vary in colour from sandy to reddish (or sometimes grey) and leave two-fang punctures. The horned viper, Egypt’s deadliest snake, is recognizable by its horns. Cobras have a distinctive hood and bite mark (a single row of teeth plus fang holes). The smaller Egyptian cobra (coloured sandy olive) is found throughout the country, the longer black-necked cobra (which can spit its venom up to three metres) only in the south.
All snakebites should be washed immediately. Try not to move the affected body part, get immediate medical help, and stay calm, as panicking sends the venom through your bloodstream more quickly.
HIV and AIDS
Levels of HIV infection are low in Egypt but so is AIDS awareness – even among those involved in sex tourism, an industry catering to Western women or gays (in Luxor, Aswan and Hurghada) and male Gulf Arabs (in Cairo). Pharmacies in these cities, plus a few outlets in Sinai, are the only places in Egypt sure to sell condoms (kabout) – Egyptian brands such as Sportex are cheaper but less reliable than imported Durex. It’s best to bring your own supply.
Travelling in the heat and taking antibiotics for an upset stomach make women much more susceptible to vaginal infections. The best precautions are to wash regularly with mild soap, and wear cotton underwear and loose clothing. Yeast infections can be treated with Nystatin pessaries (available at pharmacies), “one-shot” Canesten pessaries (bring some from home if you’re prone to thrush), or douches of a weak solution of vinegar or lemon juice. Sea bathing can also help. Trichomonas is usually treated with Flagyl, which should only be taken under medical supervision.
Bring your own contraceptives, since the only forms widely available in Egypt are old-fashioned, high-dosage pills, the coil, and not too trusty condoms. Cap-users should pack a spare, and enough spermicide and pessaries. Note that persistent diarrhoea can render the pill ineffective. Sanitary protection is available from pharmacies in cities and tourist resorts, but seldom anywhere else, so it’s wise to bring a supply for your trip.
Medical services in Egypt
Egyptian pharmacists are well trained, usually speak English and can dispense a wide range of drugs, including many normally on prescription. If necessary, they can usually recommend a doctor – sometimes on the premises.
Private doctors are just as common as pharmacies, and most speak English or French. They charge for consultations: expect to pay about £E100–200 a session, which doesn’t include drugs, but should cover a follow-up visit. There is a call-out charge for private and public ambulances (t 123).
If you get seriously ill, hospitals (mustashfa) that are privately run are generally preferable to public-sector ones. Those attached to universities are usually well-equipped and competent, but small-town hospitals are often abysmal. Private hospitals usually require a cash deposit of at least £E150 (it can go as high as £E1500) to cover the cost of treatment, and often require payment on the spot; you will then have to claim it back from your insurance provider. Despite several good hospitals in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt is not a country to fall seriously ill in. In particular, if you need surgery, it’s best to get back home for it if you can.
Professional guides can be engaged through branches of Misr Travel or American Express, local tourist offices and large hotels, and on the spot at sights such as the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza. They normally charge a fixed hourly rate, and a tip is also expected.
Guides can be useful at major sites, like the Valley of the Kings, where they will be able to ease your way through queues at the tombs. If you feel intimidated by the culture, too, you might welcome an intermediary for the first couple of days’ sightseeing. In general, however, and armed with this book, you shouldn’t need a guide.
At ancient sites, there are always plenty of hangers-on posing as “guides”, who will offer to show you “secret tombs” or “special reliefs” or just present themselves in tombs or temples, with palms outstretched. They don’t have a lot to offer you, and encouraging them makes life more difficult for everyone else.
On the other hand, especially in small towns or villages, you may meet local people, often teenagers, who genuinely want to help out foreigners, and maybe practise their English at the same time. They may offer to lead you from one taxi depot to another, or show you the way to the souks or to a local site. Most people you meet this way don’t expect money and you could risk offence by offering – if they want money, they won’t be shy about asking.
It’s frankly reckless to travel without insurance cover. Home insurance policies occasionally cover your possessions when overseas, and some private medical schemes include cover when abroad. Bank and credit cards often have certain levels of medical or other insurance included and you may automatically get travel insurance if you use a major credit card to pay for your trip. Otherwise, you should contact a specialist travel insurance company. When choosing a policy, you may want to ask whether you’re covered to take part in “dangerous sports” or other activities – in Egypt, this could mean, for example, camel trekking or scuba diving.
If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, while in the event you have anything stolen you must obtain an official theft report from the police (called a mahdar). You may also be required to provide proof that you owned the items that were stolen, in the form of shop receipts or a credit-card statement recording the purchase.
Wherever you are staying, there will either be an in-house laundry (mahwagi), or one close by to call on, charging piece rates. Some budget hotels in Luxor, Aswan and Hurghada allow guests to use their washing machine for a small charge, or gratis. You can buy washing powder at most pharmacies. Dry cleaners are confined to Cairo, Aswan and Hurghada.
Living in Egypt
Some foreigners make a living in Egypt, teaching English or diving, writing for the English-language media, or even bellydancing. Getting a work permit involves getting a job offer, then taking evidence of this to Al-Mugamma in Cairo to apply. So long as the offer is for a job where foreigners rather than Egyptians are needed, it is then simply a question of jumping through the necessary bureaucratic hoops.
Private language schools are often on the lookout for English teachers, and the British Council (192 Corniche el-Nil, Aguza t 19789, e firstname.lastname@example.org) may be able to supply a list of schools to approach; the more reputable firms will want an EFL qualification. You may also be able to find work with the local English-language media: Egypt Today sometimes accepts articles and photos, and the Egyptian Gazette may need sub-editors from time to time.
Most jobs in tourism are restricted to Egyptians, and locally based companies usually insist on a work permit, but you can sometimes fix up a season’s work with a foreign tour operator as a rep or tour guide. In Sinai, Hurghada and Luxor there may be a demand for people with foreign languages (English, German, French, Italian, Japanese, or – on the Red Sea and Sinai coasts – Russian) to sell dive courses or work on hotel reception desks. Ask around dive centres or upmarket hotels.
Divers with Divemaster or Instructor certificates can often find work with diving centres in Hurghada or Sinai, which may also take on less qualified staff and let them learn on the job, at reduced rates of pay or in return for free tuition. Dive centres commonly turn a blind eye to the lack of a work permit, or might procure one for a valued worker.
Foreign bellydancers are much in demand in nightclubs in Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Hurghada. The work can be well paid, but you have to be careful: financial and sexual exploitation are real hazards. Aside from work, many foreign dancers come to Egypt to improve their art or buy costumes.
The American University in Cairo’s Arabic Language Institute (t 02 2794 2964, w aucegypt.edu/huss/ali) offers year-abroad and non-degree programmes, a summer school and intensive Arabic courses. A full year’s tuition (two semesters and summer school) costs roughly $30,000. US citizens may apply to the Stafford Loan Program, at Office of Admissions, 420 5th Ave, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10018-2729 (t 212 730 8800).
Foreign students may also attend one- or two-term programmes at universities such as Cairo (w cuportal.cu.edu.eg), Ain Shams (w shams.edu.eg) and Al-Azhar (w azhar.edu.eg). Like the AUC’s courses, these are valid for transferable credits at most American and some British universities. In the US, you can get information on exchange programmes from the Egyptian Cultural and Educational Bureau, 1303 New Hampshire Ave NW, Washington DC 20036 (t 202 296 3888, w eecous.net) or AmidEast, 1730 M St NW, Suite 1100, Washington DC 20036–4505 (t 202 776 9600, w amideast.org).
A number of schools in Cairo offer courses in Arabic language, both in colloquial Egyptian Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic.
Airmail letters from Egypt generally take a week to ten days to reach Western Europe, two to three weeks to North America or Australasia. It speeds up the delivery if you get someone to write the name of the country in Arabic. As a rule, around fifteen percent of correspondence (in either direction) never arrives; letters containing photos or other items are especially prone to go astray. It’s best to send letters from a major city or hotel; blue mailboxes are for overseas airmail, red ones for domestic post.
Airmail (bareed gawwi) stamps can be purchased at post offices, hotel shops and postcard stands, which may charge a few extra piastres on top of the stamp’s official price (£E2.50 for a postcard/letter to anywhere in the world). Registered mail (£E10 extra) can be sent from any post office. Selected post offices in the main cities offer an Express Mail Service.
To send a parcel, take it unsealed to a major post office (in Cairo, you’ll need to use the one at Ramses Square) for customs inspection, weighing and wrapping. Private courier firms such as DHL and UPS are limited to a few cities, and are a lot more expensive.
Post office hours are generally daily except Fridays from 8am to 6pm (Ramadan 9am–3pm), though in big cities post offices may stay open until 8pm.
If receiving mail, note that any package or letter containing goods is likely to be held, and you will have to collect it and pay customs duty; you should be informed that it has arrived and where you need to pick it up. Poste restante (general delivery) services exist, but are unreliable and best avoided if possible (you could have people write to you at a hotel). If you do use the service, have mail addressed clearly, with the surname in capital letters, and bear in mind that even then, it may well be misfiled.
Most towns in Egypt have internet cafés, and an increasing number of hotels, as well as a few modern cafés, now offer wi-fi. Unless you’re well off the beaten track, therefore, you should have no trouble checking your email or the websites of newspapers from home, as well as those of Egyptian papers or, for regional news, the English-language website of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera (w aljazeera.com).
If you can find a copy, the best general map of Egypt is our own Rough Guide map (now out of print but still available in some places) at a scale of 1:1,125,000, on tear-proof paper, with roads, railways and contours clearly marked; Freytag & Berndt’s (1:800,000) is a good second-best, as is Nelles (1:2,500,000, with insets at 1:750,000), and Gizi (1:1,300,000, with place names in Arabic as well as English). Kümmerly & Frey (1:950,000; published in Egypt by Lehnert & Landrock) makes a reasonable alternative.
City maps cover Cairo, but few other places. Diving maps of the Red Sea are available in Egypt, but some do not cover sites in the Sinai, the main diving area for most tourists.
Full-blown desert expeditions require detailed maps that can be obtained in Cairo from the Survey Office (heyat al-misaha) on Sharia Abdel Salam Arif at the corner of Sharia Giza, open daily except Friday 9am–1pm (see map), who may demand an official letter explaining why you need the maps.
Egypt’s basic unit of currency is the Egyptian pound (called a ginay in Arabic, and written £E or LE), divided into 100 piastres (‘urush, singular ‘irsh, abbreviated as “pt”). At the time of writing, exchange rates were around £E9.25 to the pound sterling, £E6 to the US dollar and £E7.35 to the euro.
Egyptian banknotes bear Arabic numerals on one side, Western numerals on the other, and come in denominations of 25pt, 50pt, £E1, £E5, £E10, £E20, £E50, £E100 and £E200. There are coins for 5pt, 10pt, 20pt, 25pt, 50pt and £E1. Some banknotes are so ragged that merchants refuse them. Trying to palm off (and avoid receiving) decrepit notes can add spice to minor transactions, or be a real nuisance. Conversely, some vendors won’t accept high-denomination notes (£E20 upwards) due to a shortage of change. Some offer sweets in lieu of coins, others round prices up. Try to hoard coins and small-value notes for tips, fares and small purchases.
Carrying your money
The easiest way to access your money in Egypt is with plastic, though it’s a good idea to also have some back-up in the form of cash or travellers’ cheques. Using a Visa, MasterCard, Plus or Cirrus card, you can draw cash using ATMs at branches of the main banks in cities, major towns and tourist resorts. Machines are usually outside banks or inside airports and shopping centres. By using ATMs you get trade exchange rates, which are somewhat better than those charged by banks for changing cash, though your card issuer may well add a foreign transaction fee, sometimes as much as five percent. Note also that there is a daily limit on ATM cash withdrawals, usually £E3000–4000. If you use a credit card rather than a debit card, note also that all cash advances and ATM withdrawals obtained are treated as loans, with interest accruing daily from the date of withdrawal.
It’s wise to make sure your card is in good condition and, before you leave home, make sure that the card and PIN will work overseas. Where there is no ATM, cash advances on Visa and MasterCard can be obtained at most branches of the Banque Misr on the same basis.
Credit cards are accepted for payment at major hotels, top-flight restaurants, some shops and airline offices, but virtually nowhere else. American Express, MasterCard and Visa are the likeliest to be accepted.
To have money wired, Western Union’s main agents are branches of the Arab African International Bank and a firm called International Business Associates (check w westernunion.com for specific locations); Moneygram’s main agents (w moneygram.com) are branches of United Bank or Bank du Caire.
Banks and exchange
Arriving by land or sea, you should have no trouble changing money at the border, and airport banks are open around the clock. It is illegal to import or export more than £E5000 in local currency. Banking hours are generally from Sunday to Thursday 8.30am to 2pm (9.30am–1.30pm during Ramadan). Branches in five-star hotels may open longer hours, sometimes even 24/7. For arriving visitors, the banks at Cairo airport and the border crossings from Israel are open 24 hours daily, and those at ports whenever a ship docks.
The best exchange rates for cash can be found at foreign exchange bureaux – private moneychangers found in large towns and tourist resorts (although they seldom take travellers’ cheques and will offer poor rates if they do). They are also open longer hours and perform transactions more quickly than Egyptian banks, where forms are passed among a bevy of clerks. You’ll also generally get faster service at foreign banks in Cairo and Alexandria, branches in hotels, or offices of American Express (in Cairo, Hurghada, Luxor, Aswan and Port Said) or Thomas Cook (in Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan, Port Said, Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh; w thomascookegypt.com). Commission is not generally charged on currency exchange.
US dollars, euros and English sterling notes are easy to exchange, although due to forgeries some banks may not accept worn or pre-1992 $100 bills. Hard currency (usually US dollars) may be required for visas, border taxes and suchlike. Don’t bring New Zealand dollars, or Scottish or Northern Irish sterling banknotes, which are not accepted; Israeli shekels can only be changed at the Taba border crossing, and at one or two banks (in five-star hotels) and some Cairo foreign exchange bureaux. Sudanese pounds and Libyan dinars are similarly hard to change.
There’s sometimes a currency black market, but it’s best to avoid illegal street money changers, who are usually rip-off artists.
Opening hours and public holidays
Offices tend to open Sunday to Thursday from 8.30am to 5pm. Shops are usually open from around 10am to around 8pm, sometimes later, with small places often closing briefly for prayers, especially Friday lunchtime between noon and 3pm.
During Ramadan, all these hours go haywire. Since everybody who keeps the fast will want to eat immediately after it ends at sunset, most places close early to allow this, and may open early to compensate. Offices may open 7am–4pm, shops may simply close to break the fast, reopening afterwards, while banks open 9.30am–1.30pm. Ramadan opening times are given, where available, throughout the text.
Public holidays include Eid el-Adha, Ras el-Sana el-Hegira, the Moulid el-Nabi and Eid el-Fitr, all following the Islamic calendar. Others, following the Gregorian calendar, are: Coptic Christmas (Jan 7), Sinai Liberation Day (April 25), Labour Day (May 1), Evacuation Day (June 18), Revolution Day (July 23), Flooding of the Nile (Aug 15), Armed Forces Day (Oct 6), Suez Liberation Day (Oct 23) and Victory Day (Dec 23). Sham al-Nassim (Coptic Easter Monday) falls according to the Coptic calendar. Banks and offices close on public holidays; most shops and transport operate as usual.
All towns and cities have at least one 24-hour telephone and telegraph office (maktab al-telephonat, or centraal) for calling long-distance and abroad, or you can buy a card at grocers or kiosks to use in public phones on the street. Rates are around twenty percent cheaper at night (8pm–8am).
Cards such as Egypt Telecom’s Marhaba card, with a scratch-off panel covering a PIN, can be used from private landline phones (but not public phones or mobiles) by dialling a toll-free number, then the PIN on the card (sometimes in two separate parts, the second part being your “password”), and finally the number you wish to call. They are available from Egypt Telecom offices, and sometimes from grocers or kiosks.
If you want to take your mobile phone with you, you’ll need to check with your phone provider whether it will work in Egypt and what the charges are. You may pay extra for international roaming, and to receive calls in Egypt. A US cellphone must be GSM/triband to work in Egypt.
If planning to use your phone a lot in Egypt, especially for local calls, it’s worth getting a SIM card from one of the Egyptian providers, Mobinil, Etisalat or Vodafone. You may need to pay a small fee to have your phone unlocked (assuming it’s possible to unlock it). You can get a SIM card (khatt) for £E5–10, and top-up cards in denominations from £E10 to £E200. Mobinil tends to have better coverage than Vodafone, especially in the Western Desert and on the Mediterranean coast; for optimum coverage in remote areas, you might even consider buying two SIM cards and swapping between them.
Proceed with care. Before taking a picture of someone, ask their permission – especially in rural areas, where you can cause genuine offence. Also be aware that during the revolution, foreigners taking photographs have been set upon as suspected spies, so assess the situation before snapping away, and be particularly wary of photographing anything militarily sensitive (even bridges, train stations, dams, etc). People may also stop you from taking photos that show Egypt in a “poor” or “backward” light.
Most of the mosques and madrassas (Islamic colleges) that you’ll want to visit are in Cairo and, apart from Al-Hussein and Saiyida Zeinab mosques, are classed as historic monuments, so they’re open to non-Muslim sightseers (though you should avoid prayer times, especially at noon on Friday). Elsewhere in Egypt, mosques are not used to seeing tourists and people may object to non-Muslims entering. If you are not Muslim, tread with care and if possible ask someone to take you in.
At all mosques, dress is important. Shorts, short skirts and exposed shoulders are out, and women may be asked to cover their hair (a scarf may be provided). Above all, remember to remove your shoes upon entering the precinct. They will either be held by a shoe custodian (small baksheesh expected) or you can leave them outside the door, or carry them in by hand (if you do this, place the soles together, as they are considered unclean).
Egyptian monasteries (which are Coptic, save for Greek Orthodox St Catherine’s in Sinai) admit visitors at all times except during the Lenten or other fasts (local fasts are detailed in the guide where appropriate). Similar rules of dress etiquette to those for mosques apply, though unless you go into the church itself you don’t need to remove your shoes.
Most Egyptian men smoke, and offering cigarettes around is common practice. The most popular brand is Cleopatra. Matches are kibreet; a lighter is a wallah. Traditionally, respectable women aren’t supposed to smoke in public, but women are increasingly seen nowadays smoking sheeshas in Cairo’s coffee shops. Don’t expect restaurants or public transport to be non-smoking, though Cairo’s Metro is.
Egypt is on GMT+2, which means that in principle it is two hours ahead of the UK, seven hours ahead of the US East Coast (EST), eleven hours ahead of the US West Coast (PST), six hours behind Western Australia, eight hours behind eastern Australia and ten hours behind New Zealand. Daylight Saving Time at home or in Egypt may affect these differences. Egypt’s clocks move forward for daylight saving on the last Friday in April and back again on the last Friday in September.
The Egyptian Tourist Authority (sometimes abbreviated as EGAPT; w egypt.travel) has offices in several countries. Their website gives a good overview of Egypt’s tourist attractions. Better still, w touregypt.net has quite a lot of useful information, including details of main tourist attractions and listings of hotels, nightclubs and internet cafés.
In Egypt itself, you’ll get a variable response from local tourist offices (addresses given throughout the guide), where the level of knowledge and assistance may depend on who exactly you speak to.
Egyptian historical and archeological sites are the responsibility of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA; w sca-egypt.org), whose website carries information about most sites open to the public, and certainly all the important ones. For more detailed archeological information on ancient Egyptian sites, including the more obscure ones, see w egyptsites.wordpress.com.
Travel agencies and hotels
Private travel agencies can advise on (and book) transport, accommodation and excursions, though their advice may not be unbiased. The state-run Misr Travel (w misrtraveleg.net; offices in major cities, listed in the guide) operates hotels, buses and limos, and can make bookings for most things. They also have an office in New York (1270 Ave of The Americas, Suite 604, New York, NY 10020 t 212 332 2600). American Express and Thomas Cook also offer various travel services. In Luxor, Aswan, Hurghada, Sinai and the Western Desert oases, many hotels and campgrounds double as information exchanges and fixers.
The monthly magazine Egypt Today has features on Egyptian culture and travel, and some useful listings of restaurants, cinemas, theatres, galleries and language schools in Cairo and Alexandria, which are the cities where it’s sold. Selected events are listed in the daily Egyptian Gazette, and the weekly English-language edition of Al-Ahram, which are more widely available.
Public toilets are almost always filthy, and there’s never any toilet paper (though someone may sell it outside). They’re usually known as toileta, and marked with WC and Men and Women signs. Expect squat toilets in bus stations, resthouses and fleapit hotels. Sit-down toilets have a nozzle that squirts water into your bottom – make sure you’re positioned right before you turn it on. Though it’s wise to carry toilet paper (£E2.50/double roll in grocers and pharmacies), paper tissues, sold on the streets (50pt–£E1), will serve at a pinch.
Travellers with disabilities
Disability is common in Egypt. Many conditions that would be treatable in the West, such as cataracts, cause permanent disabilities here because people can’t afford the treatment. People with disabilities are unlikely to get jobs (though there is a tradition of blind singers and preachers), so the choice is usually between staying at home being looked after by your family, and going out on the streets to beg for alms.
For a blind or wheelchair-using tourist, the streets are full of obstacles which, if you walk with difficulty, you will find hard going. Queuing, steep stairs, unreliable elevators and the heat, will take it out of you if you have a condition that makes you tire quickly. A light, folding camp-stool is invaluable if you have limited walking or standing power. In that case, it’s a good idea to avoid arriving in the summer months.
For wheelchair users, the country’s monuments are a mix of accessible and impossible. Most major temples are on relatively level sites, with a few steps here and there – manoeuvrable in a wheelchair or with sticks if you have an able-bodied helper. Your frustrations are likely to be with the tombs, which are almost always a struggle to reach – often sited halfway up cliffs, or down steep flights of steps. The Pyramids of Giza are fine to view but not enter, though the sound-and-light show is wheelchair accessible; Saqqara is difficult, being so sandy. If you opt for a Nile cruise, bear in mind that you’ll be among a large throng and will need to be carried on and off the boat if you depend on a wheelchair (often by people who don’t understand English), an experience you may well not relish.
Cairo is generally bad news, especially Islamic Cairo, with its narrow, uneven alleys and heavy traffic, but with a car and helper, you could still see the Citadel and other major monuments. There’s a lift in the Egyptian Museum, and newer metro stations have elevator access from street level to the platforms, though none of the older ones do, which unfortunately includes all those in the city centre. Most five-star hotels in Cairo are wheelchair-accessible and have adapted rooms.
Taxis are affordable and quite adaptable; if you charter one for the day, the driver is certain to help you in and out, and perhaps even around the sites you visit. If you employ a guide, they may well also be prepared to help you with steps and other obstacles. Some diving centres in Sinai and Hurghada accept disabled students on their courses, and the hotels in these resorts tend to be wheelchair-friendly.
There are organized tours and holidays specifically for people with disabilities, and some companies, such as Discover Egypt in the UK, offer packages tailor-made to your specific needs. Egypt for All (58 Sharia al-Gabal al-Shamali, Hadaba District, Hurghada t 0122 396 1991, w egyptforall.com) run a range of tours, offer tailor-made holidays to your specifications, and may be able to arrange transport or equipment rental.
It’s a good idea to carry spares of any clothing or equipment that might be hard to find; if there’s an association at home for people with your particular disability, contact them early for more specific advice. And always make sure that travel agencies, package firms and insurance companies, even travelling companions, are aware of, and can cover, your particular needs.
Everything you need to know before you set off.
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Planning your trip to Egypt
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