Hello! I just want to report on a fantastic visit to Egypt by my wife and I in April-May 2011.
First, we decided to visit Egypt, and started planning, with a very short time to go. We decided in January (2012) to see if we could visit Egypt this year. Due to scheduling, my wife could not go in the fall. Everything we read said after about April, it could get too hot. It was now or next year. We settled on late April as the best compromise. Thanks to Aeroplan (Air Canada) points and scheduling, we could book April 13th to May 2 as the time to visit.
Next was - how would we do this visit? We have always been "do it yourself" type travellers. Our only actual fully guided tour was 2 years ago in Tibet, where an accompanying guide was a legal requirement. However, others who had visited Egypt strongly suggested NOT trying to wing it on our own. This turned out to be very (very!) good advice, as I will explain later.
The next step, we looked at options and browsed various travel forums and talked to a few travel agents. A group bus tour is not our style. We have memories of following a lady with a new hip and new knee up and down the stairs of York Minster tower... 2 weeks of that sort of travel with 30 or more such people would drive us crazy. Plus, we like to take our time in some places and bus tours were usually rush, rush, rush. Finally, most package tours did not list a lot of the sites we wanted to see.
In internet searches we found names to follow up with. We sent out emails to a select variety of possible trip organizers. Ahmed Hamed Yousif (email@example.com) was one, of them, and for example, a company in Egypt was another, and a company (recommended by a co-worker) with offices in New York and Egypt. I specified what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, laid out a rough itinerary, sites, etc...
One replied with "we can help you. Please tell us where you want to go." Did they not even read my email? Another replied "here is a suggested itinerary" and appears to have pasted a tour plan from their brochure without reading our email! (We had said "we do not want a Nile cruise" and their reply included one.) Mr. Ahmed was the only response in half a dozen that was actually a response. He had read our email and replied in detail to it. Because of this response and the many positive recommendations we had found on travel forums, we decided to make our plans with Ahmed Hamed Yousif and we were extremely pleased with the result.
Ahmed helped us in a number of ways. We had a number of back-and-forth emails to finalize the details of the trip, but on such short notice, everything was arranged perfectly. He lives in Cairo and also knows the rest of the country, which was a lot more helpful than dealing with a travel agent sitting in an office back here in North America.
We had originally thought that 3 or 4 star accomodation was sufficient, but found that 5-star did not change the final price too much. We were very pleased with the result. The rooms were always clean; the beds were comfortable and back-friendly; the plumbing was modern. All hotels included breakfast buffet, and this too was first rate. When we left too early to have breakfast, we got "breakfast boxes".
We relied on Ahmed's knowledge of the hotel options and we were not disappointed. In Cairo, we stayed at the Mena House Oberoi, a historical establishment with a pyramid view. Note - that one side of the hotel faces the Cairo street traffic instead, and so there is a big difference in 5-star price and view; Ahmed made sure we got the good rooms. In Aswan, we stayed at the Mövenpick on Elephantine Island with a fantastic view of the city and the Nile west bank. In Luxor, in the Steigenberger, we had a room with balcony in the inside courtyard, so the hot setting sun did not shine into our room. In fact, we could watch the Lebanese restaurant's floor show dancers each night from our balcony. In Sharm el Sheik, Mövenpick had just bought the hotel from Sofitel and it had private beaches with reefs and a fantastic view of Naama bay. In Petra (or, Wadi Musa) our Mövenpick hotel room was across the street from the entrance to Petra.
We had seen a very good review of the Kempinski Nile Hotel, a downtown hotel in Cairo. We thought it would be interesting to stay in the downtown. Ahmed told us (correctly as we found out) that a downtown location would make travel through notorious Cairo traffic difficult and that there was not a great deal to see in that area of Cairo anyway. We agree with him now that a room next door to the pyramids is much more desirable, since when you think of Egypt, you think pyramids.
Ahmed also arranged our flights - to Abu Simbel, Aswan, from Luxor to Sharm el Sheik, to Amman, and back to Cairo. I have to say that Air Canada could take a lesson from Egypt Air and Royal Jordanian. They always left on time (and twice, left early once everyone was boarded!) We were at first concerned that he had not given us a flight itinerary right away, but he mentioned that due to low tourist volumes, Egypt Air was cancelling, combining and rescheduling flights; a week before our departure, one flight was altered again. The day before we left Luxor, that flight too was again rescheduled. When the entrance to the Luxor airport was blocked due to some labour dispute we were taken to the military gate and driven by bus to the terminal - and still left on time! (Are you hearing this, Air Canada??)
Ahmed is a licensed Egyptologist and did our Cairo area tours himself; he speaks excellent English and has been guiding and arranging tours for 15 years. He has contacts and made arrangements for the guides, drivers, airport pickups, etc. as well as hotels for the entire trip, including our side trip to Petra in Jordan. He was continually phoning this staff to ensure all was going smoothly - and it did. Everyone Ahmed arranged for us spoke good English and was very helpful and honest. Ahmed even got a local SIM card with credits for my phone so we could call or text if any issues came up. He was available 24 hours a day and replied right away.
The tours did not disappoint. Others have mentioned this, but I have to repeat it. In our trip to the Cairo Museum, Ahmed bypassed the crowds at opening and took us straight to the King Tut room while everyone else in the big bus groups was getting the guided tour leading up to it - so there were about 5 people in the room when we got there, and then for about 10 minutes we had the room with King Tut's gold mask, gold sarcophagi, jewelry, etc. all to ourselves! After that, we worked our way back to see the rest of the collection. This was a pattern with all of the sites we visited - for example, lucky for us, sad for the industry, we had Abu Simbel temple all to ourselves, as the only other tour group at the time began their tour with a video presentation, then went to the lesser temple first; while our private tour guide took us directly there. Ahmed had arranged for our guide and driver to drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel, so they could drive us to the temple, and we could bypass the rest of the plane-load of people that were taking the bus from the airport. We arrived shortly after the morning caravan of buses had departed back to Aswan, thus leaving us alone at Abu Simbel. Since we drove from Aswan to Luxor, we arrived at both Kom Ombo and Edfu temples at a different time than the passing cruise ships.
As our trip progressed, my wife kept reminding me - "you wanted to do this on your own! How?" Egypt is not like Europe. Because everyone does tours or has guides, nothing is simple for a westerner on their own. Public transit is poor, supplemented by many microbusses where discovering routes and negotiating prices is an art that requires the local language. Signage is mostly Arabic. Even if you could drive (you don't want to!!) you would not find your way. Getting a taxi and negotiating the price is also an art, and assuming the taxi driver even speaks enough english to understand where you want to go, do they know where to go and will they actually take you there? Saqarra and Darshur, the second and third most important pyramid sites, are down poorly marked country roads through small villages. I shudder to imagine dozens of large busses driving these when tourism was busy. The narrow streets of old Alexandria leading to the catacombs were equally challenging. The hazard with unknown or untrusted drivers or guides the Hotel might arrange just for the day - how do you know what you are getting? True, all certified Egypt guides need to have taken university courses on history, etc., but asssuming they are certified, quality of an unknown is luck of the draw, and locals can also make as much in commission by delivering you to the tourist shops as they could make in tips. With Ahmed and the rest, we never went to any tourist shops unless we agreed (We went to the "Leather Museum" when I needed a belt because I had forgotten to pack one).
Same with the internal flights - it was one thing to look on Expedia and see "oh, we can book these flights from A to B in Egypt". How and where to check for sudden changes to those flights? I am glad Ahmed was looking after this for us. Similarly, we had thought that a leisurely trip to Alexandria could be done taking the train. First there's the delay getting to and from the train station in Cairo traffic. Apparently this train is not reliable, especially these days where demonstrations and strikes often seem to block or delay it. (Our Aswan tour guide said the return from Cairo recently took 20 hours instead of 13 because someone had blocked the tracks; and his return train to Aswan was cancelled the day we flew out of Luxor.)
So unlike Europe, Australia, NZ, or even China - we did not do it on our own. We were driven wherever we went in a clean, private air-conditioned minivan; a guide collected our tickets for us and showed us through the sites, then leaving us a bit of private time to look more or take pictures. Coming or going from the airport, someone met us and a private vehicle picked us up. I could certainly get used to this sort of touring. The best part of having Ahmend Hamed Yousif organize this tour was that we saw what we wanted to see and covered almost everything. He was accomodating to last minute changes.
We saw the Cairo museum and its many highlights; we saw old Cairo and Coptic Cairo; we saw 3 most important pyramid sites, Giza, Saqarra and Darshur; we saw 13 temples from Abu Simbel in the south to Abydos north of Luxor, with many interesting road trips in between, including Hapshepsut's temple and the Karnak complex. We saw Valley of the Kings and went into 5 tombs, including the (extra cost) tombs of King Tut and Ramses V/VI. We saw tombs in the workers village, and tombs of nobles; we saw the unfinshed obelisk in Aswan and took a balloon ride near Luxor. We snorkelled in Sharm el Sheik, and climbed Mount Sinai to watch the sunrise; we visited Petra and floated in the Dead Sea, we saw the city of Alexandria.
Basically, we covered almost everything we could. We can't sing the praises of Ahmed Hamed Yousif enough (firstname.lastname@example.org). Everything we had read online about his services we experienced first-hand. (Apparently half the men in Egypt are named "Mohammed" and half the rest are named "Ahmed", so to identify someone you have to use the full name). We found Ahmed because a lot of others posted positive comments about him on multiple sites. We are posting too now, because we enjoyed the trip he organized and executed. He was accomodating to last-minute changes. We also want to mention him because he is charming, honest, and a warm and friendly guy; we were very sad when we had to leave him. The personal service and excellent job is something a lot of people in the same position could do - but in all our internet searching only Ahmed's name came up consistently - anyone could do this, but only Ahmed does it. We cannot praise enough the job he does. It includes the personal touches, like calling in favours to help when we thought our camera was lost, or arranging (unrequested) for a birthday cake during our stay in Cairo, when he noticed the date on my passport.
Finally, let me add one more advertisement for the people of Egypt. They were all so incredibly happy and friendly. Since the revolution, and all the bad press, tourists seem to be afraid to visit Egypt. When I told people at home where I was going, half said "that's my dream trip too!" and half said "don't get shot!". When we drove through Tahrir square and there was nothing - about 4 tents and a few banners, but otherwise nobody to see and traffic just zipping through. There was a major (peaceful) demonstration one Friday while we were there, but no evidence of problems where we were or any tourist sites. The day after we left, a bunch of masked armed men (likely former secret police enforcement thugs) attacked a peaceful sit-in outside the Defence Ministry and killed about a dozen people, which has sparked follow-on demonstrations, but there was no evidence of this sort of trouble where we were and this sort of event has zero impact in any tourist areas. Cairo is a huge city of 20 million; much of the trouble occurs around a few small areas by government offices, well removed from tourist hotels or sites. Cairo seemed much safer than North American cities. I did not feel threatened; the carriage drivers in Luxor may have been annoying and persistent in their sales pitch, but at no point was I feeling physically in danger. Ahmed or our other guides accompanied us at each attraction, so there were a lot fewer harrassing souvenir sellers, and we never felt intimidated by anyone and a local guide can understand if a situation is difficult enough that it is time to leave.
Tourism has suffered to the point where many attractions are almost deserted - our gain but the people's loss. When we were at Valley of the Kings, there used to be big line-ups to go inside every tomb, but we went into each with no delay, including the 2 extra. There is no reason to avoid Egypt. Whatever you may hear about politics in the months ahead, the country is safe to visit, and the best way to see the country is with someone local.
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Hello! I just want to report on a fantastic visit to Egypt by my wife and I in April-May 2011.