There’s plenty I can share about the six weeks I spent going around the country. In this post, the first of my Egyptian series, I want to start with the basics: all the practicalities you need to know to navigate the country safely and comfortably. If you’re an independent traveler, a backpacker, or a solo female traveler, this is the only Egypt travel guide you’ll need.
There are plenty of particularities in the country, and you’ll be running into them daily. Some will surprise you, some will shock you, some will put a smile in your face… but all of them will make your stay in Egypt a unique time in your life. You’ll see heartbreaking poverty, but also genuine joy for life. You’ll run into more than one scam (even the police asked for backsheesh!), but you’ll meet truly hospitable people. You’re truly in for a ride in this country full of contrasts. Welcome to Egypt!
One topic I have to, sadly, address right up-front is that foreigners are seen as walking money to people working in tourism. Even the government set rules up to squeeze as much as possible from the visitors. There are “foreigner prices” for everything. The most outrageous one is entry fees to temples, mosques and museums. An Egyptian will pay 5 EGP, while a foreigner will be charged anywhere between 50 and 400 EGP.
We are expected to spend. A lot. To buy every single thing we’re offered, and to hire every guide that crosses our path. Every ‘no’ is met with a ‘why?’. That means that the highly tourist areas can be overwhelming –think Giza and Luxor, where people can even be aggressive and will use any technique in the book to try to scam you. If you have a local with you, whether it’s a friend or a trusted guide, you’ll get pass this and actually enjoy the country. Because, trust me, it’s one you don’t want to miss!
There are around 50 countries whose citizens can apply for a visa on arrival for Egypt, including all EU members, UK, US, Australia, Canada, Japan and Chile. To obtain it you have to enter the country through any of its international airports: Cairo, Hurghada, St Catherine, Alexandria, Sharm el-Sheikh, or Luxor.
The visa on arrival is the easiest you’ll ever get. It’s not even a visa. It’s a sticker you buy for 25 USD (they prefer if you pay in American dollars, but euros are also accepted, usually as an equivalent to USD). There’s a bank just before passport control. You hand the money, they give you the sticker. It takes two seconds. They don’t even ask for your passport. Then you go to immigration, where they paste the sticker in your passport, stamp it, and that’s it, you’re in for 30 days.
If you want to stay longer, extending the visa for an extra 6 months can be done in the immigration office of any big/touristy city. It costs 1700 EGP, and all you need is a photocopy of your passport data page and the page with the visa. If you’re only overstaying for up to 2 weeks, then you don’t need to do anything –there’s an unspoken free extension (this was confirmed to me in the immigration office of Sharm el Sheikh, and I personally had no issues whatsoever when leaving after six weeks on a 30-day visa).
At Cairo airport there are a few stalls selling SIM cards after you pass passport control and security. They all offer pretty much the same. I got 18 GB + 1000 minutes valid for a month for 150 EGP (9.6USD – 8.3€). You can pay in any of the currencies, even with a credit card. I got an Orange SIM, only because the stall was empty, and the internet was a lot more reliable than expected after reading horrible reviews of internet in Egypt. While there I heard better comments about Vodafone, though.
The local currency is the Egyptian Pound (EGP). In 2016 there was a huge devaluation of the currency, which means that for foreigners the country is super affordable. As for 2021: 1EUR = 19EGP / 1USD = 16EGP. There are plenty of ATMs and an exchange office at the airport. Get at least some pocket money there.
How to get out of the airport in Cairo and how to move within cities
I was lucky enough to get a ride from the airport to the train station (my first encounter with Egyptian hospitality –more on that later), but there are two easy ways. The cheapest is to use the mwasalat misr, a bus that for a couple of euros will take you to the downtown area.
The easiest one, though, is to get an Uber. The ride will be around 150 EGP, but it’s 100% hassle free. Same goes for moving within cities. Uber works in Cairo, Alexandria, Hurgharda, Mansoura, Tanta and Damanhour.
If you want to travel the local way and spend a fraction of the money, venture into a microbus. This is the most common and inexpensive mean of transportation within cities. They’re 14-seat minivans, with no marks about the destination. In Alexandria and Aswan you’ll find them going along the Corniche (the promenade along the Mediterranean and the Nile), in Luxor most will also go along the Corniche (which makes them an excellent option for going from Karnak to Luxor temple) and from/towards the train station, in Cairo… well, good luck. If you don’t speak Arabic or you’re not with a local, you have little chances to know which one is the one you need, but don’t be afraid to ask! You pay a few pounds directly to the driver (in my experience anywhere between 2 and 8), and you can get off at any point, just ask to stop.
In the capital the most efficient mean of transportation is the metro. Currently there are three lines that cover some of the touristy spots of Cairo, but there are intentions to expand it, with three more lines planned.
Language in Egypt
The official language of the country is Arabic. Please, I beg of you, don’t ask people how to say something in ‘Egyptian’!
I always suggest learning a few basic words in the language of any destination: hello, please, thank you, yes, no, goodbye, my name is… But during your stay in Egypt you’ll see that there are a few more that are impossible not to learn, since even the best English speakers will use them without noticing it. Yala (let’s go), yani (you know), habibi (my dear), meya meya (100/100, as in excellent), khalas (done, finished, enough) and taman (alright) are on top of that list. If you’re a girl probably you’ll hear surat (photo) a lot too.
The most hilarious thing I learnt was that even when driving Egyptians curse at each other. You’ll hear people honking at the rhythm of ‘Ibn Al Mitnaka’ (ابن المتناكة), which literally means son of a fucked one xD
Pay attention to this one, especially if you’re a budget traveler. Numerals in Arabic are written differently than ‘English’ ones (which is so ironic because ‘our’ numbers are actually Arabic, and ‘Arabic’ ones are Indian!). Learn them to find trains and buses, and to avoid overpaying, or at least to be aware of how much you’re overpaying.
That’s the magical word when asking for a tip. Expect to be asked for money when someone gives you directions or takes a photo of you. Even if most don’t do anything to earn it, it’s expected that you’ll give it. Even a policeman asked me for backsheesh when I asked him for directions!
The levels of poverty in the country are high, and most Egyptians think foreigners are made of money, so this can be overwhelming. If someone actually does something for you, or if you want to help, then make sure you have small bills to give around, but don’t feel pressure if you don’t want to pay. Just be assertive from the beginning of the conversation.
Water and food
Every guide I read preparing for my trip stated that foreigners should not drink tap water. Some even suggested not to eat fruits or vegetables because they were washed with tap water. Even to use bottled water to brush your teeth.
Well, I did drink bottled water when I couldn’t filter tap water, just to play it safe. But I ate plenty of fruits and vegetables, and I brushed my teeth with tap water, and I’m very much alive and healthy. I could not spend weeks without a tomato when they’re widely available. So take the advice with a grain of salt. If you know your stomach is delicate, play it safe and eat only cooked food. If you’re used to street food, then raw fruits and veggies will not be an issue.
Being vegetarian or vegan in Egypt
Egypt is actually super veg-friendly! Vegetarian meals are a cheap alternative to meat, so they’re widely available.
Staples include koshary, a carb-rich dish made from a strange but tasty mix of rice, pasta, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, tomato sauce, garlic vinegar and spicy sauce; ta’ameya, the Egyptian take on falafel, made with fava beans instead of chickpeas; foul, another fava bean dish, served as a soup or in bread as a sandwich; the classic lentil soup; and mulukhiyah, a green, brothy and slimy soup made of Jew’s mallow.
Other musts are middle eastern classics like mahshi or dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice and tomato sauce), hummus (a dip made from chickpeas and tahini), and baba ghanoush (a dip made from eggplant).
When it comes to drinks, tea is ubiquitous. Black tea can be served with mint or lemongrass, or you can ask for hibiscus tea, a fruity beverage that’s said to help with blood pressure. Fruit juices are also very popular. Don’t leave the country without trying sugarcane juice, and look for mango and guava ones during summer. If you want to try the local alcohol, the main beer brand is Stella, and you’ll be surprised to find Egyptian wine –the former is crisp and quite perfect for a hot day, the latter is decent at best.
Solo female travel in Egypt
It can be a tad overwhelming for women to travel solo through the country. I felt perfectly safe during the six weeks I spent in Egypt, but I’m used to traveling alone, and I’m very assertive. These qualities are definitely needed if you travel independently.
There will be a lot of catcalling, which is usually harmless. I heard “I love you” a hundred times, and I was even offered a million camels (jokingly, I hope). You’ll be seen as an easy target to sell things to. Prepare to be approached to offer you a cup of tea, or a quick stop at a shop to give you a business card or a small present that will end up with the vendor pressuring you to buy something expensive. Another tactic is to tell you that you’ve met before: “remember me? Mohammed from your hotel”. Just say ‘la shukran’ –no, thank you– and keep walking. It feels rude, and probably at least some of them were actually kind hospitable people, but better not to risk it, at least in the touristy areas. If you venture off the beaten path, then people will be less pushy, and in fact interested in talking to you, with less of an agenda.
Even though it gets hot, dress appropriately for a Muslim country. You don’t need a hijab, but avoid shorts, and wear tops without cleavage and that cover your shoulders. Only in the Red Sea you can dress as you please, since the vibe is completely westernized.
Backpacking in Egypt
It’s a really easy destination for backpacking. Everything is well connected through cheap trains and buses, there are accommodation options for every budget, food is abundant, tasty and inexpensive, and there’s a thriving Couchsurfing community. The country is diverse, giving you the opportunity to jump from chaotic cities, to the Mediterranean Sea, to desert oasis, to cultural/historical sights, to the Red Sea. A month seems like little time to explore Egypt!
Traveling by train
Can you imagine how magical it would be to glide through the Sahara Desert, among the fertile valley of the Nile, passing through temples and agricultural havens? Are you able to visualize how remarkable of an experience that would be? Well, I’m here to tell you that riding a train in Egypt is many things. Extraordinary is not one of them.
I’ll recognize that there’s a special mystic on the old-fashioned train following the path of the renowned Nile River. Being surrounded by palm trees, with minarets adorning the mix of unassuming new-ish buildings with derelict ones, seeing cows feeding from the vibrant greenery, conservative women playing with their young, and men in horses that makes you think they are a mirage, looking after their growth.
It’s a unique experience, but the fairytale will only stay in your imagination. If you want to embark on the adventure that is to cross the country by train, be prepared. It’s bumpy, the braking system couldn’t be any harsher, you’ll see vendors of everything and anything, the toilets are disgusting, and people will constantly walk around asking for money –actually, giving away a piece of candy or a knickknack in exchange of some cash.
The trains have seen better days. They’re quite lived in. They could use some updating and repairs, and especially a deep clean. But the seats are comfortable and spacious, which makes the journey bearable. And they’re dirt cheap. I paid 182 EGP (less than 10€) for a first-class ticket from Cairo to Aswan, almost the length of the whole country. Also, and perhaps most importantly, choosing to ride the train is safer than a bus and it makes you a more sustainable traveler.
RELATED POST → The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Travel
How to get train tickets in Egypt
The easiest way is to book them online on this link. Create an account, log in, click in “I Agree to terms and conditions above”, and choose your destination and time. You can also get tickets from the cashiers at any station, or simply go into the train and pay to the clerk that checks the tickets. I didn’t do this last one myself, but I heard the price is a bit higher this way.
In Cairo the main station is in Ramsis square (Ramses Railway Station (محطة رمسيس Maḥaṭṭat Ramsīs), also called Misr Station (محطة مصر Maḥaṭṭat Miṣr). I arrived at 4AM in the middle of the pandemic, and it was quite full. It’s a lively place. There are plenty of ATMs. Food is scarce, of low quality and –for Egyptian standards– expensive. Stock up for the ride before you get to the station.
Traveling by bus
Foreigners will only have access to seats in buses marked as VIP. Don’t get too excited, though. The buses are new-ish, clean and safe, but their usually crowded and the seats are tight.
If you can avoid night buses, absolutely do. They keep the AC running, so it’s cold, and you don’t even have space for your knees not to touch the front seat. It’ll be a miserable night. In all honesty I used to take overnight buses as much as I could to save on accommodation. But through the years I’ve fallen out of love with them. I really need my beauty sleep, otherwise I’m a zombie all day –so maybe it won’t be too bad for you if you’re younger than me.
Every bus I took made a few stops along the way in a café/kiosk where you can get a cup of tea or coffee, water/soft drinks, and snacks, and usually they have a toilet (have a few coins at hand to pay for it, and bring your own toilet paper).
There are three major companies that operate in Egypt: Upper Egypt (for the Nile Valley up to Abu Simbel, and the Red Sea western coast), East Delta (for the Sinai peninsula and the canal area), and West and Mid Delta (for Alexandria, Marsa Matrouh, Siwa and the Nile Delta). There are many other independent companies, as Go Bus, El Gouna, Super Jet and Express El Wadi, serving Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada and the Bahariya oasis, among other destinations.
If you choose any form of transportation other than train or cruise, you’ll run into several check points, especially in the Sinai Peninsula. The police will stop your car/bus/bike and randomly check ID cards, passports and luggage. These add up and can end up delaying your trip by a few hours, so take them into account when scheduling. As an example, from Cairo to Sharm el Sheikh my bus was stopped 9 times –some asked for passports, some checked the luggage, some just made us wait a few minutes for no reason!
They are supposed to be there for safety reasons, but in all honesty I think is just a way to create jobs for unnecessary policemen, and to give them the opportunity to get easy access to bribery.
The Arab world is known for people’s hospitality, and Egypt is not an exception. Be careful, though, because a lot of people hide scams as being welcoming. Many times you will be invited into someone’s shop for tea where you’ll be given a small gift to guilt you into buying something expensive, and you’ll run into many people in the streets that will ask from where you are (and immediately bring up how their best friend is from there) to make the conversation long enough to get you into their shop.
With that being said and warned, you’ll in for a treat if you meet Egyptians that don’t work in tourism. I got a ride from the airport to the train station (which was completely out of his way) by the friendly local that was sitting next to me in the flight to Cairo, I was given fruits by a lovely lady in a local bus, the guy that sold me sugarcane juice refused to take money for it when I told him it was my first time trying it, a Sudanese lady at a souk gave me a homemade cream because she thought there was a good vibe about me and she wanted us to be friends (hi Maryam!), I was offered accommodation by a family on a train because it was going to be dark when we arrive and they wanted me to be safe… the examples are countless, even more when I add the wonderful experiences I had with the people I met through Couchsurfing and in the trips to the desert.
You’ll have to be a good judge of character to know if someone is seeing you as walking money, or if they genuinely are being hospitable. Chances are that the more off the beaten path you are, the more people will be truly interested in welcoming you and getting to know you.
The mistreatment of animals is heartbreaking. From the awful conditions in which camels, horses and donkeys are used as tourist attractions, to the terrible state of stray dogs, if you care for animals, you’ll have a bad time in Egypt. On the souks you’ll see hundreds of cluttered bunnies, pigeons and chickens ready to be slaughtered. Even their beloved cats are found dirty and malnourished in the streets. This was the hardest part for me to deal with, because there’s nothing I could do to help.
I would suggest avoiding any kind of animal related attraction, but if you want a camel ride or a horse carriage ride, make sure the animal is not mistreated. Be warned, animals are seen as mere objects, so it won’t be easy to find an ethical option.
Now that you know how to safely and comfortably navigate the country, check my post with an overview of the main Egyptian destinations, covering from the classics to the off the beaten path, so you can plan your own itinerary!
The country might sound a bit tough, but if you’re prepared and know what to expect, it’ll be a rewarding experience. I’m sure that after reading this Egypt travel guide you have all the info you need to thrive though the country! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions, and about your experience when you return from your trip!