I traveled to Egypt for the first time and enjoyed it a lot. I did not know what to expect and arrived in Cairo with some trepidation about a culture, religion and way of life I didn’t understand. I admit arriving with a touch of ignorance and a small tinge of fear. Before leaving I found it hard to find good information about what to expect so I thought I’d share a couple of the things that I would have liked to know before I got there.
Egypt Travel Tip: Money
Small notes (1, 5, 10) are like gold in Egypt! You pretty much tip everyone who looks at you, so you will need a good supply of small notes handy. I believe there are coins as well, but I never saw them! Wages are criminally low so Egyptians rely on tips from foreigners and locals alike, so stock up on the small notes.
Also, it’s very, very difficult to get change so try and get as much as you can before arriving (even banks are reluctant to share). One of the happiest moments of my trip was finding an ATM in Aswan that gave out 10 pound notes! (opposite the Basma Hotel, next to the Nubia Museum).
Egypt Travel Tip: Water
No surprise here; avoid tap water and only drink bottled water. Clean your teeth with bottled or boiled water, and avoid unpeeled fruits and vegetables. The real tip though for water is to remember to take it with you everywhere. Each and every time you leave your hotel room or cruise ship, grab a bottle. Sure it’s available to buy at the temples and bazaars, but you will be charged exorbitant prices and have to run the bargaining gauntlet to get your hands on some.
Egypt Travel Tip: Private tours
Egypt is a cheap place to travel so use your pennies to get yourself a private Egypt guide. Instead of trudging around the famous sites with 50 other people while adhering to their timetable, with a private guide you determine how long you spend at each place. It also gives you the chance to spend time with an Egyptian and they are always happy to share details of their life with you. Ask every question you can come up with about the country and lifestyle, you might just learn something. Also make sure your tour has hotel pick up if you haven’t been to Egypt before, it can be difficult to get directions.
Egypt Travel Tip: Dress
Yes, Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, however they are pretty relaxed and accepting of other cultures and religions. Relying heavily on tourism, Egypt values its visitors and does not expect everyone to do everything their way. As a female (and a blonde one at that, the worst kind for traveling in a Muslim country according to the guide books…), I was wary of how to dress; however it became clear very quickly I could just dress like I would at home.
I would not recommend hitting the town in hot pants and a boob tube; some discretion please, but do not worry too much about exposed legs, arms and shoulders. Skirts, shorts, sleeveless tops and dresses are all acceptable within reason, just avoid anything too short or too low cut. And for your sightseeing and day trips from Cairo – wear flat, comfortable, closed toe shoes – there’s a lot of sand to walk on in Egypt!
Egypt Travel Tip: Beer
If you are a beer drinker – beware! Due to the heat, the beer in Egypt has loads of preservatives which can unfortunately have a laxative effect. There is one brand called Sakkara which is preservative free, so I suggest you stick to this one…
Egypt Travel Tip: Hassle
Forget the Curse of Tutankhamun and how the Pyramids were built; the biggest myth for travelers to Egypt is that there will be hassle, hassle, hassle. I hate to bargain when shopping and I hate being pressured so I was definitely dreading the alleged hassle that most guide books warn you about. In contrast, I experienced minimal hassle from local shop owners. Yes they call out to you “my friend”, “free for you”, “you English?”, but a firm and polite “la shu-kran” — no thank you, was enough for their eyes to wander to the next potential customer.
Also wearing a hat and dark glasses helps avoid the eye contact which the vendors are desperately trying to get from you. Luxor is a little more aggressive than the other big cities, but this is understandable when you consider tourism is 80% of the city’s income. Overall I was pleasantly surprised and ended up with more souvenirs of the trip than I had expected.
Egypt Travel Tip: Shopping
There are plenty of plastic Tutankhamuns and stuffed camels to buy in Egypt, everywhere in the world has their fair share of tacky souvenirs, but there is also some good quality items. The biggies to look out for are Papyrus, Alabaster/granite, gold and Egyptian cotton. Regardless of what Egypt excursions you do, you will always be offered the chance to visit stores specializing in these products, often at set prices.
They may not be the cheapest but if you are like me and not into the whole haggling thing, its a great way to shop. Just remember, if you don’t want to go you can just say no thanks. Obviously guides get a commission from sales to supplement their income, but big deal, can you blame them for wanting to supplement their income? I went to an Alabaster Factory in Luxor, the one place where you feel a little more pressure, and I browsed and left without buying anything.
It was important to me to prove you are not obliged (and in fairness to my guides, they never made me feel obligated to buy anything) and I did. So take the chance to see how Papyrus paper is made and how Alabaster is carved, have a look at what’s on offer and buy if you want – your choice.
Egypt Travel Tip: Camera
No matter where you are, or who they are, do not ever give your camera to someone else to take a photo for you – it will cost you dearly to get it back. If you want your photo taken somewhere, ask your guide or a fellow traveler, not the tourist police, not the temple staff, not the friendly camel owner and definitely not the guy with the Pharaoh head-dress who appears out of nowhere ‘my friend’. This is the scam you need to be aware of, so exercise some common sense and don’t hand over any valuables to complete strangers.
Egypt Travel Tip: Egyptian Museum
The Egyptian Museum should be one of the last places you visit (and I recommend the Egyptian Museum private tour, as well). Treasures from around Egypt have ended up here and it makes for a more interesting visit once you have seen their original homes, heard their stories and understand their significance. When you gaze upon the treasures of King Tutankhamun you can imagine how amazed Howard Carter would have been to open the untouched tomb once you have seen the arid location it was discovered in. The Museum is so big that unless you have several weeks to explore it in depth, you need to know what you are looking for and want to see.
Egypt Travel Tip: Chill out!
Relax! You do not need to take any more precautions in Egypt than you would traveling to most Western countries. People are very kind and respectful and I felt safer there than I often do in Sydney. It’s a different culture, no question there, but that doesn’t make it wrong, just different. Open your eyes and open your mind and Egypt will find a place in your heart.
If you are traveling there in the future, I hope these little travel tips for Egypt help you feel more comfortable about the experience you’ll to have. For the record, I may have said no at the Alabaster Factory but there were so many nice things I had to ask my guide to take me to another one the next day — the things I do in the line of duty!