9 mistakes travelers make when visiting Egypt

Oct 26, 2019

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For many people, visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza; the tombs of the Valley of Kings; and the many ancient temples of Egypt is a bucket list trip — and for good reason. A trip to Egypt can reveal the secrets of one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations on Earth. But modern-day Egypt is also fraught with logistical problems, and many travelers harbor misconceptions about the culture, how long to spend there and how safe it is to travel around the country.

Before my recent trip to Egypt, I frankly didn’t quite know what to expect. But I was blown away by both the ancient sites as well as the friendliness and openness of the locals. Based on my own experience, and the advice of some seasoned travelers, here are some common tourist mistakes to avoid the first time you visit Egypt.

Related: The best starter credit cards

Photo by Fynn schmidt on Unsplash
Photo by Fynn schmidt on Unsplash

Worrying about safety

Egypt currently has a ‘Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution’ travel advisory from the U.S. State Department, and that — combined with headlines about political unrest following the Arab Spring protests and uprisings from 2011 to 2015 — might make you wonder if it’s safe to go there. But to put things into perspective, Italy, France, Spain, the U.K., the Netherlands and Denmark all currently have Level 2 warnings: and they’re some of the safest places in the world. So, those warnings should be taken with a grain of salt.

I’ll admit that, before my trip, I was a bit apprehensive (mainly because, shortly before my trip, at least 20 people were killed in Cairo), but once I was on the ground, I felt at ease. I was in good hands with Extraordinary Journeys, an award-winning safari outfitter that organizes trips throughout Africa and beyond.

“It is important to travel with a respected company …” Marcia Gordon, who founded Extraordinary Journeys with her daughter, told TPG. “You have the services of a company in Egypt with outstanding guides and staff. They are aware of local conditions and can change plans for you on a dime to avoid any areas of danger or uncertainty, or get you out of the country if it should be necessary. Your safety is their number one priority.”

Other highly-rated tour companies that organize trips to Egypt include Abercrombie & Kent and Intrepid Travel.

Traveling uninsured

That said, Egypt is one of those places where you probably should get travel insurance. Aside from serious medical emergencies, a good travel insurance policy will have your back in case of lost luggage, flight delays, trip cancellation and more. I purchased a policy from Allianz, and though I didn’t need it, it gave me peace of mind knowing I was covered by one of TPG’s top-rated travel insurance providers.

Of course, if you have a credit card with good travel protections, you might not need to purchase a separate travel insurance policy. Check to see if your card includes emergency medical evacuation coverage in addition to more protections, such as baggage delay and trip delay or cancellation coverage. The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers up to $100,000 for medical evacuation coverage, and The Platinum Card® from American Express includes unlimited medical evacuation coverage, but excludes pre-existing conditions.

Karnak Temple in Luxor is Egypt
Karnak Temple in Luxor is Egypt’s largest surviving temple complex. Photo by Ali Hegazy on Unsplash

Only visiting Cairo

Travelers visiting Egypt will most likely fly into Cairo International (CAI), but most of the good stuff isn’t actually there. Yes, you can visit the Egyptian Museum, shop at the souk and see some historic mosques, churches and synagogues, but the most impressive sites are elsewhere. From central Cairo, it will take you anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours (if you get stuck in Cairo’s notorious traffic) to get to the Pyramids of Giza, and they’re not even the most impressive sites in Egypt. The most impressive tombs are in the Valley of Kings outside Luxor, and there are incredible temples along the Nile in Luxor, Edfu and Aswan.

But that doesn’t mean you should skip it completely. “I think people should spend at least a few days in Cairo to take in the world famous Khan el-Khalili market, the Cairo Citadel and try some Egyptian cuisine, like the national dish (koshary) and other delicacies like stuffed pigeon,” Elizabeth Guthrie, a professor of Arabic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told TPG.

Going without a guide

“Can you see the sights alone? Yes. Is it more of an experience with a guide? Absolutely,” Iz, the social media influencer behind the popular account @peppermintplaces, told TPG. “The guides in Cairo are friendly, reasonable and completely worth it. They know the inside stories, shortcuts [and] historic sites that are not as well known, and they are local. You will not be approached as often by [people] trying to sell you items on the street.”

It’s best to find a tour company that suits your needs and book your tours in advance. Iz used Emo Tours Egypt and raved about her guide. My guide, who works exclusively with Extraordinary Journeys, is one of the country’s leading Egyptologists. He not only explained the historic and archeological significance of the sites I visited, but also regaled me with tales of his days working as an archeologist tracing hieroglyphics on Philae Temple when it had to be relocated to an island after the construction of the new Aswan Dam.

Not staying in luxury hotels

Compared to many other parts of the world, luxury hotels are a bargain in Egypt, especially if you’re willing to go in the low season, like I did. (Peak season is December and January.) Yes, going in the summer or fall means it will be hot (think: 110 degrees Fahrenheit hot), but it also means you can get a room at the five-star Marriott Mena House in Giza for as low as $100 or 17,500 points per night. Some rooms even have views of the pyramids.

Likewise, the Sofitel Winter Palace in Luxor currently shows rates as low as $95 and you can earn or redeem Le Club Accor Hotels points. Rooms at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan — where Agatha Christie penned part of “Death on the Nile” — start at $217 per night and many rooms come with Nile River views.

The Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel is a grand dame with fantastic views of the Nile. Photo by Fabrice Rembert
The Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel is a grand dame with fantastic views of the Nile. Photo by Fabrice Rembert

Even in Cairo, luxury hotels are a steal. When it opens in the summer of 2020, the Category 5 St. Regis Cairo will have rooms from 30,000 points per night on off-peak dates. (Compare that to The St. Regis Hong Kong or The St. Regis New York, both of which are Category 8 properties that start at 70,000 points per night on off-peak dates.)

Essentially, Egypt is a great place to plan a luxury trip while still sticking to a budget.

Getting caught in the crowds

In addition to getting better rates at hotels, you’re going to have an overall more enjoyable experience if you avoid the high season with its crush of tourist crowds. If you want to do a Nile River Cruise — which you should — this is especially important. In the high season, cruise ships let thousands of passengers off all at once, which leads to crowding in the temples. There are a couple of ways to get around this: Go in the low season, or take a small private dahabiyah (a traditional wooden Egyptian boat), so the crew can time your shore excursions in order to avoid the cruise ships.

“Egypt is still a bit quiet following the unrest of 2011 through 2015, but the visitor numbers are rising every year. Thanks to lots of new hotels and cruise ships and some creative timing and infrastructure by the Egyptian government, you can still have a very quiet and intimate experience in most of the monuments,” Marcia Gordon told TPG, adding, “The Great Museum is meant to attract a lot of new visitors, and word of mouth will continue to spread, creating a tourist boom over the next few years. Go now while we can still find ways to avoid the crowds and give you not just the beauty and the fascinating history, but the awe inspiring magic of each location.”

Haggling over taxi fares

If you travel with a tour operator, you won’t have to worry about this, but if you’re trying to get around Cairo on your own, it can be a bit of a nightmare. Many taxi drivers will try to get you to pay a higher fixed rate than what you’d pay if the fare is metered, which it should be. If you do take a taxi, insist the driver turn on the meter. Or, if you have a Wi-Fi connection or international data, you can use Uber or the Dubai-based ride-hailing app Careem. Both are quite cheap in Egypt.

Abu Simbel Temple. Photo by AussieActive on Unsplash
Abu Simbel Temple. Photo by AussieActive on Unsplash

Expecting things to run on time

While this wasn’t an issue during my trip, I’ve heard it from others who talk about things running on “Egyptian time.” It’s partly a cultural difference, but also with traffic as bad as it is, you can hardly expect to stick to a tight schedule. “If you have an appointment with someone in Cairo, bring a book. You might be waiting an hour or more for them to show up,” said Elizabeth Guthrie.

Falling for scams

“When I was visiting the Egyptian Museum, I fell for an all-too-common scam,” TPG contributor Stefanie Waldek said. “‘Friendly locals wait outside the entrance gates for unsuspecting visitors, then tell them the museum is temporarily closed for one reason or another.” They told Waldek the museum was closed for prayer, and would reopen in an hour.

“My friend and I were then somewhat forcefully ushered across the street to a trinket shop to pass the time, where we were told we’d get great deals because it was a government-run store. At this point, we knew we were being scammed and immediately left for the museum. Of course, the museum was not closed for prayer — it turns out the scammers get a cut of whatever money their victims spend at the shop. Luckily, we only lost time, not money.”

It’s not uncommon for taxi drivers to try to scam tourists, too. They might try not to use the meter when they’re supposed to, or vice versa. Taxi drivers have also been known to take tourists to their friends’ shops in order to get a commission on whatever they buy. If a taxi driver or some other local does something that seems fishy, don’t be afraid to insist they take you directly to your destination, stop the car and let you out.

Featured photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

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