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Egypt Highlights

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I just returned from a two week tour of Egypt & Jordan with Egypt Highlights.

I considered several tour operators, including Misr Travel, Adventure Center, GAP Tours, and Djoser, but settled on Egypt Highlights based on multiple recommendations from the Fodors.com forum. I was nervous (and skeptical) about having to wire the trip deposit ahead of time (they don’t accept credit cards), but everyone else on the forum seemed to have the same concerns, and no one encountered any problems. I guess that is just how things are done in some countries. I had the same dilemma when I traveled to Myanmar. I ended up asking if I could pay half of the trip cost as a deposit, with the remainder due on arrival, in cash.

The agency is run by a husband (Magdy) and wife (Walaa) team. Walaa does the emailing, and she responded promptly to all of my email inquiries. I settled on the "Egypt & Jordan Highlights (with Nile Cruise) 15 days/14 nights" tour, selecting the 5 star accommodation option (given a choice of 3, 4, or 5), sleeping train upgrade from Cairo to Aswan, and optional flight to Abu Simbel.

Magdy met us at the airport, even before we cleared passport control, holding a sign with our names on it. We already had our visas, obtained from the Egyptian Consulate in New York, hoping to save time with immigration. However, you can get a visa on arrival, and we didn’t save that much time.

Magdy had a van waiting for us (emblazoned with the Egypt Highlights logo, although the name of his company is called Destination of the Countries Travel). He gave us our itineraries, hotel and cruise vouchers, plane e-tickets, and some helpful pamphlets on Egypt & Jordan. It would have been helpful to have the pamphlets pre-departure, so ask Walaa to email them to you beforehand. They are exceedingly well written and contain important advice on tipping (baksheesh) which is widespread but not nearly as bad as everyone makes it out to be.

Someone in the Egypt Highlights guest book commented that the 5 star upgrade wasn’t worth the price, but I disagree wholeheartedly. I was repeatedly amazed by our hotels throughout the entire trip, which far exceeded my expectations. In Cairo, we stayed at Le Meridien (Giza). Magdy even upgraded us to a room with a view of the Pyramids. On checkout, I noticed the rate was US$220/night, but half price for Egyptian nationals. I was glad I didn’t try booking on my own (as I usually do), as Magdy presumably got us the preferred rate.

Our guide in Cairo was the incomparable Marwa (often mentioned in the Guest Book). Marwa was always punctual and spoke perfect English. I would definitely request her if you can. She guided us through the Pyramids (camel ride LE100, a rip off) and the Egyptian Museum (Royal Mummy Room LE100, also a rip off but worth it). Remember to carry an umbrella with you at all times. It will serve as welcome shade from the relentless Egyptian sun as you tour temple after temple after temple.

That evening, we boarded the overnight train to Aswan. Fortunately, we were able to use the gym showers at the hotel before departing (since we had to check out that morning). I had read some bad reviews about the sleeping train, but it is similar to overnight trains I’ve been on in Central and Eastern Europe (not that clean, drop toilets). You get free dinner and breakfast, which is also not that great but was still edible (contrary to what I had read). The trip is long (12 hours) so I think if I had to do it over, I would spend the extra money and fly instead.

In Aswan, we were met by a local representative. As I found throughout the entire trip, the connections from place to place were seamless. There is always a representative and driver to drop you off, and another pair to pick you up. In this regard, Egypt Highlights was really outstanding. I can’t think of a more organized trip I’ve been on. Also, all of the tours are private. I wasn’t expecting that. I figured we would be put on a tour bus with a bunch of strangers. Not so!

Our hotel in Aswan was the Pyramisa Isis Island Hotel, which is part of the Pyramisa Hotel chain. The hotel is located on an island in the Nile, just south of Elephantine Island, and is accessible only by ferry (free, runs 24/7). For such a remote location, it seemed to have everything… two pools, spa, tennis, miniature golf, shopping bazaar, four restaurants, bar, nightclub, zoo (with monkeys) and even a Nubian Village.

The next morning, we took an optional flight to Abu Simbel, which is worth seeing although less impressive than I had imagined (I had really high expectations after seeing it on TV). The whole trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel and back takes less than four hours.

That afternoon, we boarded our cruise ship, the Nile Festival, which was definitely a highlight of the trip. The ship was amazing – newly remodeled interiors, rooms the size of a normal hotel room with flat screen TVs, and a space-age bathroom with a futuristic shower “pod”. I really was flabbergasted having never been on a cruise before. The food was just average, but the good thing is you get to inadvertently try all of the dishes found in traditional Egyptian cuisine, whether you like it or not.

Our guide for Aswan and the Nile Cruise was Mohammed (also mentioned in the Guest Book). He is very knowledgeable, but he kind of mumbles (unlike Marwa). He also forgot to tell us about Egyptian daylight savings time (which occurred on a Thursday!) and proper meal times on the cruise. But he is a very nice guy, and he was with us for 6 days (Aswan, Felucca, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Esna, Luxor). He kept trying to get us to see the Nubian Village (presumably for a fee) but we ended up doing it on our own, for free (take the Movenpick Hotel ferry to Elephantine Island, walk pass the lobby towards the river, and follow the narrow footpath along the water to the Nubian Village). I brought along candy to pass out to the kids.

In Luxor, our hotel was the Nile Palace Hotel (formerly a Le Meridien, but now part of the Steigenberger Hotel chain. The hotel was rated by Conde Nast as the third best in Egypt and sixth best in all of Africa. There’s a decent Chinese restaurant next door (small portions) and a KFC/Pizza Hut about 1/8 mile to the right as you come out of the hotel.

That evening, our guide took us to a sound and light show at the famed Temple of Karnak. Unfortunately, he mixed up the times, and we missed the English version, so we had to sit through 2 hours of French. The only thing we understood was “moi.” On the bright side, the narration was supposedly very cheesy, but when you hear it in French, under a starry sky, it becomes rather romantic. Remember to wear insect repellent, as the amphitheater is next to a giant pond (I didn’t get bitten once during the entire trip, nor did I get “mummy tummy” either.

From Luxor, we flew to Sharm el-Sheik. The van was late picking us up from the airport, so it was slightly confusing. But we made it safely to our hotel in Dahab (the Hilton, which is older but well maintained with interesting architecture and picturesque grounds). Magdy arranged for me to dive ($150 for equipment and three dives – Lighthouse, Canyon, and a night dive at the Islands). The dive center (located at another hotel) was called Oxygene Dive School, part of a Swedish chain. My divemaster was Mohammed El Shinawy, who was excellent. He used to work for the American Consulate in Cairo. Not only was he my private dive guide, but he also accommodated my requests to dive at specific sites. On the other hand, the dive shop at the Hilton, Sinai Divers, puts people in large groups (6-15 divers) and their itinerary is fixed (Blue Hole & Canyon twice a week, the other days are boat dives).

From Dahab, we traveled overland to Taba, through Eilat, Israel, and onto Aqaba, Jordan. Again, Egypt Highlights had impeccable timing with regards to the transfers. Someone dropped us off at Taba, we exited Egypt, entered Israel, and someone was waiting there to drive us to the Israel/Jordan border. We then exited Israel, entered Jordan, and again someone was waiting for us.

From Aqaba, we drove by private car (Hyundai) to Petra. Our hotel in Petra (Movenpick) was phenomenal, and the location couldn’t have been any better (it’s right at the entrance to Petra). We had a great buffet dinner (it was the first night of Ramadan) and then did Petra by night. It was a great prelude but maybe too much for some in our party who had just hiked Mt. Sinai that same day.

I was concerned about traveling during Ramadan, as I read on Fodors that things close early and food is hard to come by, but it really was not a problem. All of the guides made it clear that tourists were not expected to fast and that they really did not mind if you ate or drank in front of them (although we tried not to). All of the tourist establishments were open for business, and shwermas were even available off the street.

The following day, we entered Petra again. You have to pay for the horse ride whether you use the horse or not (obligatory for guided groups). The horse doesn’t go very far, then they make you get off and you have to hike the 1 km “Siq” on your own. You can take a horse or carriage back out, but that costs extra too. Once you’re past the Treasury, you can hire a donkey or camel. I highly recommend hiring the donkey to El Deir monastery. It’s a steep climb (the best $5 I’ve ever spent), and the donkey ride was quite fun. We joked that on this vacation, we had taken every conceivable mode of transportation (plane, train, monorail, subway, bus, car, van, truck, jeep, motorboat, sailboat, riverboat, horse, carriage, camel, donkey…)

From Petra, we made our way to a “Bedouin” camp in Wadi Rum, where “Lawrence of Arabia” was filmed. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to learn that there were no actual Bedouins in the camp… the staff hailed from Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. The camp (Jabal Rum, mentioned in Lonely Planet) was better than I expected, however, with more than 50 private tents. Each tent had a few cots elevated off the ground with clean linens and area rugs. Sinks, toilets, and showers (with hot water) were available in a block building behind the tents. Dinner and breakfast were served around a large campfire with live singing and dancing.

From Wadi Rum, we headed back to Cairo via the Sinai. It’s a long drive (7 hours). Rather than return to Cairo, one person in our party opted to leave from Amman, with a visit to the Dead Sea along the way. I think this is a better option, if you can arrange the open jaw flights.

On our last day, we reunited with Marwa for a visit to the Step Pyramid in Saqqara, the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo, the Muhammad Ali Mosque at the Citadel, and the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar.

Overall, we had an outstanding trip. Egypt Highlights was phenomenal. They are exceedingly well organized and placed us in the best accommodations available (including the Nile cruiser). The tours are private, the transfers are seamless, and the guides are excellent. Their prices are very fair and a real value considering the quality of the tour and accommodations. Without hesitation, I wholeheartedly recommend Egypt Highlights for anyone considering a trip to Egypt & Jordan.

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