Confession: I put off going to Egypt for years because planning a trip there was too overwhelming! There is so much to know, there are rules to follow, there are so many details to pay attention to. It’s a lot. Egypt is a bucket list, once-in-a-lifetime trip for so many people, so you want to get it right the first time, right?
You don’t want to miss anything, you want to be respectful, and you definitely want to see everything! To help you out, I’ve pulled together the essentials to get you started. Here are the things you need to know to start planning your epic Egyptian adventure!
Don’t Underestimate the Amount of Advance Planning You Need to Do
Even if you are going to Egypt with a tour company, you will want to start planning your trip six months to a year in advance. There are lots of logistics to work out, including transportation (no, you can’t base yourself in Cairo and visit all the main attractions in the country), lodging, dates of Nile cruises, and more. Tickets and hotel rooms book up quickly, so if you wait to book, you likely won’t get your first choice!
Step-by-step: How to Plan a Trip
You Need At Least One Blank Page in Your Passport
This was almost a major trip snafu for me! The Egypt visa you’ll receive on arrival takes up half a page, at a minimum. I didn’t realize it until about a week before our trip, but I only had one full page available in my passport! I knew I’d need part of it for stamps in and out or Europe due to our two layovers, but I didn’t want to risk being turned away at passport control in Egypt (what a bummer, right?) if the passport checker was having a bad day and didn’t like that part of the page was taken up.
I called the U.S. Passport Information Line (877-487-2778) to get an appointment for renewal, which you are allowed to do within two weeks of an upcoming trip. I was within the date range, but they didn’t have any openings at the office in D.C. or any of the other offices in the whole region, from D.C. to New York!
So, I put a post-it note on the blank page and wrote “Reserved for Egypt Visa” on it. Thankfully, it worked! The person who stamped me into the EU at the Munich airport stamped elsewhere and gave me a bit of a condescending admonishment to get a new passport, but I didn’t care! Please make sure you have at least one full page available, and at least six months’ validity on your passport from the date of your return.
Essential Info: Your Ultimate Guide to Passports
Check Your Distances
Before you go a little crazy planning your perfect itinerary, check the distances between some of these places. For instance, a visit to Abu Simbel will take you up to four hours each way, or you could fly if you’re willing to spend a little more. But a trip to the White Desert from Cairo will set you back 7 hours—each way! (Plus, it’s actually illegal.)
Whether you’re planning a trip to Egypt or really anywhere else in the world, always map your distances before you commit. No one wants a surprise 10-hour car ride, no matter how much you love road trips!
Essential info: Why You Need to Plan Your Egypt Trip with Egypt Elite
As far as my travel experience goes, this is the only place I’ve ever visited where it is not best to visit major attractions as soon as they open. For the most part, people don’t like to be up early, so going to any attraction as soon as it opens is a surefire way to get in with as few other people as possible. This works out great for Steve and me because we’re already early birds in real life.
Not so in Egypt! Practically everyone is here on a tour, and they have a schedule to keep! They will be at the Pyramids first thing on pyramids day, Valley of the Kings first thing on Valley of the Kings day, and the Egyptian Museum first thing on museum day. So what’s a savvy traveler to do? Go an hour or two after opening. Go in the afternoon. Not convinced? I’m so glad we went with the incredible guides from Egypt Elite who confirmed this info for us!
Embrace it: How to Use Jet Lag to Your Advantage
Be Aware of Visiting During Ramadan
Before you book any plane tickets or hotel rooms in Egypt, be sure to do a quick Google search of “When is Ramadan [year]” for the year you plan to visit. What’s Ramadan? It’s a full month of fasting, prayer, reflection, and community. Think of it as a combination of the Christian/Western holidays of Christmas, Easter, and New Year’s. For more, check out this article from Britannica.
You are certainly welcome to visit during this celebratory time, and it might actually be a fascinating time to visit if you want to know more about Islamic culture, but there are a few things to consider:
- Those who practice are fasting, meaning most Egyptians are only allowed to eat or drink (not even water) from sundown to sunup. Visitors and non-Muslims are not expected or asked to practice fasting during their visit, but note that some restaurants may be closed entirely, and food may be more challenging to find during daylight hours.
- Shops may have odd hours. Some shops and restaurants may close all month long, while others may have modified hours, which you likely won’t know until you arrive and see a sign on their door. Your local guide will likely know which shops and restaurants are open or closed, but it’s something to be aware of anyway.
- Ramadan shifts 11 days earlier each year, so it’s never the same two years in a row. Be sure to do a quick Google search to find out what the dates are for the year you plan to visit.
Related: How to Respectfully Visit a Mosque
It’s Not Unsafe, but It Might be Uncomfortable
This one gets its own section. There is very little crime in Egypt, and even less crime against foreigners. And punishments are harsh. Everyone wants to protect the foreigners, because the tourism industry is such an integral part of Egypt’s culture and economy.
There is very little begging, since the Egyptian government does a good job of taking care of the poor. There is also far less pickpocketing in Egypt than there is in, say, Rome or New York City. And in my own personal experience, I never felt slighted or disrespected by Egyptian men. I did get yelled at by a Russian tourist, but never by an Egyptian!
That said, Egyptians are hustlers. They are not being nice by offering directions or playing tour guide inside a site where tour guides are not allowed to go; they’re angling for a tip. They’re going to offer to take your luggage and put it in the scanner at the airport, and they will expect a tip whether you wanted them to do that or not.
Just remind yourself that you’re allowed to say no, but it’s often better to say nothing, make no eye contact, and keep walking! You’re not in any danger. If you’re an American or come from a similarly polite culture, however, it will likely make you very uncomfortable. But guess what? That’s travel!
Here’s where it gets tricky!
Check the exchange rate! The Egyptian Pound (EGP) has lost value in recent years, but just before out trip (like, days before), the EGP took a significant downturn, making the exchange rate about 30 EGP to the dollar (USD). This was hugely in our favor, but such fluctuations make it important to keep an eye on the exchange rate before and during your trip.
I highly suggest downloading the XE app, which will automatically calculate the exchange rate for every currency. The app will always give you the current exchange rate, up to the minute, as long as you’re connected to wifi or have cell service. Best of all, it’s FREE!
Also helpful: The Most Helpful Apps for Travelers
Tipping is Essential
Despite what your tour company may tell you, tipping is not optional in Egypt. It’s an essential part of the take-home pay, and often ALL of the take-home pay, for Egyptians in the tourism industry. Quite frankly, you would be appalled to know how little the vast majority of Egyptians make per year. If you think about it too long, you might cry on account of how much you take for granted.
That said, you’ll also be socked by how little a “good tip” actually costs you. Would you believe 10-15 EGP (40-50 cents US) is a good tip for the public bathroom attendant? Would you think 300 EGP (about $9 USD) is a good tip for a 2-hour hammam and massage experience at a fancy hotel? You’d never imagine tipping so little for that in the United States.
As mentioned above, Egyptians want to earn their tip; they’re not just begging for money. So untighten your purse strings and get over the “tipping is extra” or “tipping is optional” mentality. It’s so little compared to what you’re used to in the Western world, and it’s actually the bulk of how many Egyptians earn a living for their families.
Special not about restaurants: The 12% and 14% “service fee” you see on your check goes to the restaurant, not your server. Don’t skip the tip at restaurants, please!
I’ll help you out for free: The Ultimate Guide to Tipping in Egypt
Egyptians Do Not Consider Themselves African
Several of our Egyptian tour guides said things like, “That’s more African,” when referencing decorations, cultural practices, and artifacts in museums, especially in Aswan. I had always thought of Egypt as more like the Middle East than Africa, but geographically, Egypt is mostly on the African continent (with the exception of the Sinai Peninsula).
I always thought I was wrong or maybe even that I’d be offending someone by saying I don’t think of Egypt as “African” per se. But when we asked our guides about this, they said the same thing! Egyptians are culturally, racially, and ethnically more similar to the Middle East than to Africa, so they definitely differentiate between themselves and anywhere south of the Egyptian-Sudanese border.
How to Dress
Honestly, tourists can wear what they want in Egypt. However, it’s a good idea 100% of the time for both men and women to dress conservatively. You’re going to want breathable fabrics like cotton and linen, so leave the athleisure at home!
You’ll also want a hat, light scarf, and sunglasses all year round, and it’s a good idea to bring along a light jacket and sweater in winter. As for footwear, bring along cute sandals if you have room in your luggage, but more importantly, bring sturdy walking shoes. The sites you want to see are often semi-ruined, on uneven ground, or in the sand!
Cute and conservative: How to Pack for Two Weeks in Egypt in a Carry-on
Right-size your expectations: There will be scams! But you don’t need to be afraid of them. And honestly, most of them aren’t what I’d call scams, but more what I think of as a “hustle.” Here are the most common ones to look out for:
- “Tour Guide,” But Not: There are some sites where your tour guide is not allowed to go with you. Inside, someone might be showing you things and explaining what you’re seeing, and they will expect a tip. They are not supposed to be doing this, but they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work for them. So, if you choose to listen and engage with one of these people, be sure to tip, but if you don’t want to tip, do not engage!
- The Kickback: When your tour guide takes you into the “best” shop for whatever you’re looking for, they’re getting a kickback on what you purchase. This isn’t a scam so much as a hustle, especially since many tour companies actually don’t pay their guides a fair wage, if at all. Just know that if you don’t shop (like me), you will need to make up for it in a tip for your guide.
- NOT Made in Egypt: Egypt does not have a law or a rule that says there must be “made in” information on products that people sell. So, a shopkeeper may tell you that something is made in Egypt, or maybe you just assume that it is, when in reality, it’s likely made in China. So, ask a trustworthy guide if you want a chance at buying something actually made in Egypt!
- Luggage Helper: So, there is this guy at the Cairo airport who wants you to think you’re supposed to tip him to put your luggage in the scanner right in front of you at the first Airport security checkpoint. This is not so. You can put your own luggage on the conveyor belt. You will encounter similar things like this throughout Egypt. Americans are very compliant people, but no, you don’t have to let someone help you!
- No Change: This is common in many places in the world, including Egypt! Let’s say you need to tip the bathroom attendant, which should be around 10-15 EGP. But the lowest you have is a 50 EGP note, since you just came from the ATM. Trust me, they will have change, but they’ll tell you they don’t!
All Tour Guides are Well Educated
All tour guides in Egypt have to be certified in Egyptology. They have to complete a four-year archaeology program, and then they have to be re-certified every five years. While it’s true that some guides do a better job than others, or maybe they can express themselves in your preferred language better than others, your certified guide will know his or her information!
Take it from a tour guide: The Top 7 Things Your Tour Guide Wants You to Know
The Difference Between “Upper” and “Lower” Egypt
Ancient Egyptians, and present-day Egyptians, don’t refer to their country in terms of “north” and “south.” Instead, the reference is “up river” or “down river.” This is such an essential concept to grasp because the Nile is the source of life in Egypt. It runs the full length of Egypt, and it has literally defined the country for millennia.
So, when you’re visiting Cairo or Alexandria in the northern part of Egypt, you’re actually in Lower Egypt. When you travel to Aswan, Abu Simbel, or Luxor in the southern part of Egypt, you’re actually in Upper Egypt!
Unbelievable: The Ultimate Traveler’s Guide to the Nile in Egypt
Want more? Get everything you need (and then some!) on my dedicated Egypt Page.
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