Planning a trip to the land of the pharaohs? Here are the top 9 Egypt travel tips you need to know!
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Top 9 Egypt Travel Tips
For those of us from Western nations, Egypt is a different planet. While it has been a popular tourist destination since….well, basically forever, it still is completely unlike our home countries. So, before traveling to Egypt, I read practically every blog post and article there is to read on things travelers should know about the land of the Pharaohs. Is it safe? What clothes should you wear (especially women)? Can you drink the water? What about the culture? Where can I ride camels?! (Let’s be honest, that was my most important question).
While I found lots of helpful information, much of what I read ended up being completely WRONG. So I feel the need to set the record straight on a number of questions, as well as give you some other tips I wish I had known before visiting Egypt.
1) You can wear what you want (just be respectful!)
The first of my Egypt travel tips: you can wear what you want (even if you’re a woman!). Yes, Egypt is a conservative Muslim country. The majority of Egyptian women wear headscarves, and many keep themselves completely covered. But Egypt is also very used to tourists from around the world and how they dress. Women in Cairo often pair their hijabs with skinny jeans, tight shirts, and pounds of makeup. I saw locals wearing eyebrow-raising outfits more often than the tourists!
I asked our native Egyptian tour guide for the truth about what Egyptians think foreigners should wear when in Egypt. His answer? Egyptians don’t care. There are no set rules (such as not wearing sleeveless shirts), and as long as you dress modestly, you’ll be fine. Unlike other Arab nations, Egypt is very open and tolerant to different cultures and ways of living. They don’t force outsiders to wear or do anything that they don’t want to do. For example, when we visited the Mohamed Ali Mosque, we non-Muslims were not even expected to wear a headscarf (even though every single article I read before the trip said the opposite).
I had also read that women who don’t wear headscarves are more likely to get harassed. I never felt harassed by anyone except the street vendors who wanted money for something. I certainly got lots of compliments (Egyptians are definitely more forward than the men at home, especially towards pale, blonde women), but I never felt uncomfortable because I was dressed like a normal Western female.
An interesting thing our tour guide said was that Egyptians do prefer American and British tourists because they at least read articles on what to wear before visiting Egypt and try to be respectful, whereas other Europeans do not – many of them have no qualms about wearing string bikinis or going topless while vacationing at resorts on the Red Sea. I can’t confirm the veracity of this claim (I’m sure there are plenty of Americans who read nothing before visiting Egypt), but our tour guide made clear that so long as you try to be respectful, no one actually cares what you wear.
When packing clothes for Egypt, I found this article to be helpful (and now having been to the country, I can confirm her advice is accurate): What to wear in Egypt
2) You don’t need to use Egyptian Pounds
Don’t be me: don’t exchange dollars for a bunch of Egyptian pounds (EGP), expecting to use all of those EGP while in Egypt. Because it turns out that that is much harder than I expected it to be.
One of those good-to-know Egypt travel tips is if you need to exchange money for something while in Egypt, ATMs are very common. There were only two instances where we absolutely had to pay in cash with Egyptian pounds: King Tut’s Tomb in the Valley of the Kings and the ticket for going inside the Great Pyramid at Giza. Everywhere else took credit cards, Egyptian Pounds, or American Dollars. Euros were less common, but some places took those too. Much to my surprise, many places and people actually preferred dollars to anything else because they are worth more.
Egyptian pounds are useful for street vendors because they are more likely to have change in EGP, so it is useful to have at least some on hand. But you won’t need them for every purchase on your trip.
3) Nothing is free – NOTHING
Speaking of money, if you learn nothing else from this list, remember this most important of all Egypt travel tips: literally nothing is free in Egypt. Not the toilet paper in the bathroom (more on that later), not taking pictures of random camels, not having locals take pictures of you – NOTHING. Everyone expects a tip for any service done for you, even if you don’t consider it to be a service.
For example, we visited the Pyramids on our very first day in Egypt. At the base of the pyramids was a camel. We wanted to take picture of said camel with the pyramid in the background, and so we did. Next thing we know, the camel’s owner comes running up, asking us to pay him for letting us take a picture of his camel. He proceeded to follow us all the way back to our bus, demanding money.
We learned our lesson after that, but this incident happened over and over again on our trip. People would offer to take pictures of us in some temple, or tell us information about a painting, or even just hold a door open for us. Next thing you know, they are demanding money for doing something nice for you. Moral of the story: do not take anyone up on their offer to do anything for you, unless you are willing to pay for it.
4) Bring your own toilet paper
Yes, you read that correctly. Ok, I lied, also remember this other most important of my Egypt travel tips: bring your own toilet paper stash!
Why this isn’t highlighted in bold and neon colors in every “Egypt travel tips” article on the internet is beyond me.
According to our tour guide, Egyptians don’t use toilet paper, so they only have it because the tourists use it. And that’s when the bathrooms actually have it stocked. Which, 90% of the time, they don’t. Or, they have a lady in the bathroom who expects you to pay her for giving you two squares of toilet paper. So you can save yourself a lot of confusion and annoyance by just keeping your own roll in your purse (for the ladies, anyway).
5) Get your visa at the airport
Most people arriving in Egypt must get an Egyptian visa. There are two ways to get one of these: online ahead of time, or at the Cairo airport when you arrive. If you’re like me, you may think “oh I’ll just get it online and save myself the trouble of dealing with it in Egypt.”
The next on my list of Egypt travel tips: DON’T do that. Wait to buy the visa at the airport. It’s $25 USD cash (yes, you must have cash). It’s a very easy process and doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes. If you try to do it online, the website is not user-friendly and can take weeks to be approved. One friend on the trip with me tried to do it online and wasn’t actually approved until the day before we LEFT Egypt. He ended up having to spend money to get it at the airport (since the online process was so slow) and for the one he tried to get online.
So save yourself the trouble and just get it at the Cairo airport. This is one of those rare times where doing it online is not actually the most efficient option.
6) Have a tour guide
I’m one of those people who prefers to make all of my own travel arrangements and will only hire a guide if I’m short on time in a city or really want to make sure I learn all of the important things. But I’ve never been anywhere where I was so thankful to have a tour guide along with us for the trip as I was in Egypt.
For starters, Egypt is, obviously, extremely historic. But for some reason, there are little to no informational signs anywhere! Not in the museums, not at the temples, nothing. And if there is something, the sign or plaque is out of date by several decades. Without a guide, it’d be very easy to go to Egypt and say “I saw the pyramids and some impressive statues but I didn’t learn anything about them!” And how sad would that be?
Second, Egypt is very chaotic and the language barrier is real. Finding out what time sites open, how much tickets cost, how to get from point A to point B would not be easy without having someone who knows what’s what to help you.
Because my trip was booked through a tour agency (read my Exoticca review here!), we had one tour guide with us for the whole week. But if you don’t want to do that, I suggest at least hiring a guide for all of the important sites. You won’t regret it.
7) Don’t rent a car
Seriously. Just don’t even think about it. There are absolutely no rules and no insurance. Ubers are plentiful. Use them.
(For the record, I did already assume this was true before my trip, but I just want to emphasize it here in case you’re holding out hope that you can drive yourself around Egypt)
8) Let the kids take pictures with you
After our experience at the pyramids, the cynic in me thought that the hordes of children that kept coming up to us were just trying to get money. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to discover that that was not what was happening at all!
Between Egypt’s revolution in 2011 and the COVID years, Egypt has not had many tourists in the past decade. The numbers were so low, in fact, that many schoolchildren have never met a foreigner! Now that tourism is returning, the kids have a competition with each other to see who can take the most selfies with international tourists.
So if you are a white, blonde, obviously non-Egyptian like myself – you might be frequently mobbed by children. Don’t worry – all they want is your picture!
9) Yes, Egypt is safe!
The top question everyone asked when I said I was going to Egypt was “but is it safe?” And to be honest, that was the first thing I googled when I booked my trip (“whoops, now that I have paid money to go on this trip, guess I should make sure I’ll get home in one piece”).
And it’s a fair question. For westerners, “The Middle East” evokes images of suicide bombs and radical jihadists. And Egypt itself, with its revolution and the rise of the Muslim brotherhood and subsequent ISIS attacks, does not have a scot-free safety record in the past decade.
But nowadays, Egypt (at least the tourist areas) is very, very safe. Yes, there are parts of the country that are off-limits, like the Sinai peninsula, due to terrorist activity. But there isn’t anything there you’d want to see anyway! Everywhere else is heavily patrolled by military men with AK-47s. Every hotel and tourist site has a bag scanner and extra security measures. And, due to an agreement between the US and Egypt, every tour group that has an American must have its own personal security guard. As someone who lives in downtown Washington DC, I felt much safer in Egypt than I do at home!
Other blogs give a very detailed list of why people think Egypt isn’t safe and why they are wrong – this one is a great example. So I won’t go into an in-depth explanation here because others have already done the work. But know that the Egyptians have a vested interest in keeping tourists safe – tourism is their main economy, after all. And the locals are extremely welcoming and friendly! So the last of my Egypt travel tips: Do not let the fear of Egypt being unsafe keep you from visiting.
No matter how much or how little you prepare, there will be things you didn’t expect when traveling to Egypt, which is all part of the adventure! It’s an incredible country with the nicest people, amazing historic sites, and gorgeous scenery. I hope this list helps you take a little bit of the stress out of your planning and make the most of your journey to the land of camels, mummies, and pyramids!
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