I just got back from my trip to the Middle East and after spending a lot of time researching my trip on here, I wanted to share my experience.
3 nights in Istanbul
8 nights in Egypt, Sharm el Sheikh including 2-day excursion to Cairo and Luxor
7 nights in Jordan, throughout the country including a day trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem
... due to the volcanic ash cloud, we had another 3 nights in Amman, Jordan and one more night in Cairo
Hotel reviews: I've just posted all reviews for the listed hotels on TripAdvisor under laurengucsb (they may not be live yet though) so I won't be reviewing any hotels further on here.
1 April: Flew GVA-IST on Turkish airways, getting in about 10pm. The plane was terribly hot and left a little late but had an on-time arrival. The flight attendants weren't friendly at all, the food was average at best and there were individual TV screens, but no movies were offered.
At the airport: There was an ATM before passport control so you can get lira in order to buy your visa. We paid in USD, there was no line, very easy to get, they just hand it to you and you put it in your passport yourself. The airport is actually pretty nice, looks like it's been recently redone.
Cab to the Conrad Istanbul. After all the horror stories on cabs, we were nervous, but the 30 minute drive came out to about 35 lira, so less than €20, which is what we were expecting to pay. There's a huge amount of security at the hotel so our cab was checked with mirrors, etc and then our bags were screened and we walked through a metal detector.
2 April: Sightseeing in Istanbul
Walked from our hotel along the Bosphorus to the tram station at Kabatas which is the end of the line. The walk was about an hour, but my husband was stopping to take photos along the way, could probably be done in 20-25 minutes. We walked by the Dolmabahce Palace but didn't go in. For the tram, which is extremely cheap, you'll need change as they don't take any bills and the machines aren't in English. I think it's either 1.50 lira per ride. From Kabatas, it was about 10-15 minutes by tram to the Blue Mosque and the stops are announced and clearly labeled.
For the Blue Mosque, you have to cover your head and remove your shoes, they provide plastic bags for your shoes. Non-Muslims can't enter during prayer times and these seem to change by the day of the week it is, for example, we went on a Friday and it was closed between 12:30 and 2:30. The good thing is, there is so much to see within 5 minutes of each other, that you can easily go do something else and then come back when it's open. The lines seem long, but move very quickly so it's worth waiting. There are several oblisks in the long garden walkway to the side of the mosque that are worth looking at.
Next we went to the Aya Sofia which is rather chaotic, so many people and lots of tour groups. Make sure you head to the entrance on the left for tickets, the one in the front is just for exiting. Also be careful to count out your change right at the counter. I grabbed the tickets and left my husband and the guy tried to say that he had already given us change which he hadn't -- there are lots of these types of things in Istanbul. Luckily we still got the change and headed inside. We personally were impressed but didn't need all that much time inside, maybe 30 minutes max. We walked around, got some photos, but there really aren't that many nooks and crannies that will keep you busy much longer.
After stopping for a beer, we headed across the street to the Cistern which was awesome. Highly recommend this and if you're a photographer, bring your tripod. My husband got some decent photos, but said they would have been much better with a tripod. Again, this sight doesn't take much time to experience, maybe 30 minutes and the line was out the door, but still only took maybe 10 minutes to get in.
Next we went back to the Mosque so we could go inside as it was open again. After, we walked around looking for a good kebab but finally ended up just down the hill from the Aya Sophia, on the street that the tram goes down (there's only one!) at a restaurant that had a woman making the traditional Turkish bread right in the window. It seemed a bit touristy, but after not seeing anything else, we popped in for a little snack and the fresh bread was delicious.
Next we headed to Topkapi Palace but we got there right at 4pm and since the palace closes at 5pm, they don't let anyone in after an hour before closing. There were a lot of disappointed people showing us, but at least we knew we could come the next day.
Headed back to the hotel, which is about 30 minutes from Sultanahmet, so we asked the concierge for a restaurant recommendation as we didn't want to head back to the main area. We got a horrible recommendation, only because we were very casually dressed and asked for a traditional casual Turkish restaurant, and were referred to Feriye restaurant near our hotel. After a long and expensive cab ride, no umbrella in the rain, etc, we walked into a very fancy restaurant (all the waiters were in tuxedos) and immediately walked out. We eventually found another place but it was very disappointing. Definitely watch what you eat -- we saw the bread basket from our table go straight to another table...
3 April: Istanbul sightseeing
First we went on a Bosphorus cruise. Most of these leave from Eminonu. These are 1.5 hr (I think) cruises and are very inexpensive, they leave every hour on the hour and you can't get off anywhere. Huge tip though. When you get on the ship, sit on the left hand side, the ship will turn around and then you'll be on the side that goes close to shore both on the way there and the way back. We were on the other side and couldn't see anything b/c we were so far from shore. It's hard to move around too as the seating on the side is so narrow.
Next we walked through the spice souk and over to Topkapi palace. This is a bit of a trek, but a great way to see the city and maybe 20-30 minutes walking. A tram would get you there really fast as well. The Palace was expensive to get into and we read the best part was the Harem, which was approx another €10. We paid for that too but we weren't too impressed. The Palace was so crowded in all areas and while there were some nice mosaics in the Harem, it wasn't anything extraordinary compared to what I've seen before (maybe I've just seen a lot of mosaics already). I'm sure some people can spend hours exploring here, but there were long lines to enter every area so after cruising around briefly, my husband and I decided we were over it.
We headed to a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant for lunch, Buhara (Nuruosmaniye Caddesi 7) in Sultanahmet, which was excellent. It's casual and slightly off the beaten-path, so affordable and just good quality Turkish food. We had freshly made hummus and shared a mixed grill and it was excellent, piping hot bread and everything.
We walked back through the Grand Bazaar which is a lot nicer than the souks in Marrakesh. This is in an actual building and there are a lot of regular clothes and stuff, not just the traditional souvenir stuff. When we exited the Bazaar, we continued through the outdoor souk and slowly made our way back to the tram line to get back to the hotel. We thought about exploring the shopping around Taksim Sq but found out that most stores are open on Sundays so we knew we didn't have to rush.
That night we went to Sarnic restaurant which was a real treat. I know it's been recommended in most guide books, but it was a fun restaurant. We had no trouble making a reservation online, which I think you'd have to make a reservation. The interior is so cool, everything is lit by candles and the food was good. I think it's definitely more of a splurge type of place and I wouldn't say the food or service was exceptional (they served the appetizer way too quickly, but then it balanced out throughout the meal), but it was very good.
We tried to go out at 360 afterwards, but they don't accept Amex and we didn't have any cash and finally gave up. Just walking along the shopping street is great though, there are so many people out, you could entertain yourself just people watching there.
4 April: The next day we headed to the airport for our flight to Sharm el Sheikh via Cairo, but note, traffic in Istanbul, even on a Sunday morning, is insane. I've never seen anything like it. We almost missed our flight despite leaving in plenty of time, although EgyptAir let us check in bags just 25 minutes before departures -- and they made it to SSH!
CAI - you have to get your visa at one of the Bank stands that says 'VISA' on it. They only take US dollars or Egyptian Pounds (LE) and there is an ATM you can use. You put the Visa in your passport, then continue through the transit area. We didn't see much of a duty free area although I later saw that they do have one.
We landed in Sharm and again didn't see a duty free area before we exited so if it's important to you, take note before you exit. Our driver from Sharm Excursions was there waiting for us and on the drive to our hotel he went over our itinerary and we finalized payment. We had booked transfers, one day snorkeling/diving and a 2-day private Cairo/Luxor by air tour, including a Pyramids light show in Cairo and a hot air balloon ride in Luxor.
Sharm el Sheikh, 5, 8-12 April: much of the time we spent at our hotel, Sheraton Sharm, relaxing, snorkeling, etc (they have a huge beach and an amazing reef right outside the hotel). All the details on the TripAdvisor review so I'll only note stuff outside the hotel:
Naama Bay is about 15 minutes from the hotel and while taxis will try to overcharge, using the meter is should come out to 25-40 LE depending on where exactly you're dropped off. We ate several times at the hotel, but also went out several nights based on some recommendations I'd found:
Al Fanar: definitely a bit off the beaten path as it's not walkable from Naama Bay and it's out on the end of a peninsula by itself, but the food was excellent. We saw the place by boat during the day as well and apparently it's got it's own beach and is quite the party area both during the day and at night... I guess we were a bit early though as it was only us and a few other diners. When we were leaving though a tour bus was pulling up. This is also noted in Lonely Planet as one of the best restaurants in Egypt (note, it's by no means fancy). I had an amazing seafood pizza that came with half a lobster among other seafood. Huge complaint: Just having been in Egypt about 2 hours, and in the restaurant about 10 minutes, I received about 15 mosquito bites all over my legs. Incredibly enough, I didn't get one more mosquito bite the whole trip, but the restaurant is somewhat open so definitely wear your bug repellent!
On the Deck: I also reviewed this one on TripAdvisor, but it's a great place ambiance-wise. So amazing sitting outside on the water and literally seeing the most amazing fish swim right up. Unfortunately it's a bit expensive and the food is average. You could do pretty well if you avoid some of the expensive menu items though. For example, don't get the mixed seafood platter which was about US$100 and my husband said it would have been worth maybe $50.
Mexican Restaurant, right off the main Naama Bay street, away from the water. This place was surprisingly good and as I'm from California, I know good Mexican food. Nachos and fajitas were excellent and very affordable.
Kona Kai: Sushi at the Marriott hotel. This was pretty good and I think they have an all-you-can-eat option as well, but we didn't do that. The sushi itself was tasty, even though you had an Egyptian man unwrapping previously made sushi right in front of you. It definitely looked fresh, but obviously its always better when they make it right in front of you.
Upset stomachs: Overall it's so easy to get an upset stomach regardless of what you're eating. We avoided salads always as you don't know what kind of water they're washed in, and also we were weary of rice as we heard bad things about rice being kept lukewarm in Turkey and carried that over here.
we actually got the Dukoral vaccine before we left, which you have to take one dose 2 weeks before and the other does one week before, it's a liquid form. This is supposed to help with e coli and similar bacterias. It was quite expensive (I think around $70 in Switzerland) and my husband and I were definitely not free of any stomach issues. But luckily any problems we had were minor and were easily solved with a Perenterol -- these worked like a charm and were also prescribed by our doctor.
Snorkeling/Diving: If your hotel has a dive center, definitely book your trip through them. That way you don't have to take a bus or anything, you just go direct. I think it's worth it even if it's more expensive. We booked ours with Sharm Excursions and there was too much wasted time in transport that I don't think we'd do it again. I definitely recommend one day at least though goes to Ras Mohammed. While I actually didn't think the area was any better than the reef in front of our hotel, it was great to be out on the water all day long.
Recommendation: we invested in a waterproof case for our little canon digital camera and it was awesome. We have the most amazing photos of fish and reefs in the Red Sea and while the case wasn't cheap, the quality is a million times better than a disposable camera, especially if you're going to be traveling to other places you can use it. It's great for the beach too, anywhere where you don't want to worry about getting it wet.
6 April, Cairo: Again, for a more detailed review of this excursion and Luxor, see the TripAdvisor review under Sharm Excursions (under laurengucsb). But basically we flew very early on Tuesday morning (along with quite a few others!) to Cairo and were met by our guide and driver. There is so much traffic in Cairo as well and we got to the Egyptian museum shortly before it opened. We had a great tour there with our guide, then took a Nile cruise to our lunch spot before heading over to see the Pyramids. I think it's worth doing all the fun photos too, you're embarrassed when you're doing it but it's worth it We also visited a perfumerie and a papyrus museum (briefly as this is not really our thing), before doing the Light and Sound show at the Pyramids, which I highly recommend, if at least to get awesome photos of the pyramids at night all lit up. After that a long drive back to the airport to catch a late flight to Luxor, in bed about 1am and then a 4:30am wake up call for hot air ballooning in Luxor.
7 April, Luxor: Glad we did the hot air balloon as it wasn't that much more (maybe £40pp) and I had never done it before. If you have done it before, maybe it's not as cool for you. The company we were set up with was Sinbad and my main complaint is that they had too many people in the basket (about 25) -- I was quoted by Sharm Excursions that there would be about 10-12.
After that we went back to the hotel to meet our guide to go to Karnak which was awesome, definitely my favorite of all these types of sights we saw throughout Egypt and Jordan. Very well-preserved and so much detail. The afternoon included a visit to Valley of the Kings (very cool but we only had 3 tomb visits on our ticket and I wish we had seen more), then the monument of Hapshipsu (sp) which was also worth seeing. Next an alabaster museum, again, not my cup of tea but you have to stop with your guide and then we had a bunch of time to kill before our evening flight back. We took a Nile cruise which was very relaxing. Banana island wasn't that cool though so I wouldn't spend time going there.
Tipping: I read so many posts about tipping and although it was like what everyone was saying, it wasn't all that bad. You keep whatever small change you can to use the bathroom as it's true that many place have someone handing out toilet paper waiting for a tip. For our guides, I believe we tipped the Cairo guide about $50 as he was extremely knowledgeable, enthusiastic and we felt he went out of his way to show us things. We gave the driver $10 as he was very good too, always where he was supposed to be, safe, etc. In Luxor I think we gave a little less, about $40 as the tour part of the day was shorter and he only guided us in Karnak, the other 2 stops you couldn't have a guide. We're not sure how this compares to other tips, but we felt it was fair for the service provided.
12 April: SSH-Amman Jordan, drive to Petra. We flew on Royal Jordanian which was really nice. We had read that they have a lot of flight cancellations but we had no problems. The staff were very friendly and they served a snack on board (so rare for a 45 minute flight!).
We booked our tour through Jordan Inspiration Tours, whom I'll fully review further down. They met us at the airport and drove us the 2.5-3 hours to Petra. We chose not to stay at the recommended Movenpick right at the Petra entrance because the price was so high and we were just going to be spending the night in the hotel, no more time. We found the Amra Palace (reviewed on TA) which was great, about 2.5km from Petra so you'll need a car, a driver or a cab as it's a big hike back up. 3-star but very clean, friendly staff, great breakfast and nice, while small, rooms. We had just enough time to check in, change into warmer clothes (I wore a t-shirt, a long sleeve shirt and a light jacket, along with a scarf, jeans, tall socks, sturdy shoes and brought gloves). Once I got walking, I was definitely warm enough, but I would bring a hat and layers just in case. We ate a quick dinner at Al Arabi Restaurant just around the corner from the hotel (the Arabic shwarma was so delicious and so cheap) and then the driver picked us up to go to Petra at night which starts at 8:30.
Petra at Night: a Must-do for sure but they only do it certain nights (M/W/Thu I think). It's a great experience to walk through the area just by candle and moonlight. The path is lit up so it shouldn't be a scary experience for anyone. It's not a long walk either, maybe 35 minutes back to the Treasury, which is just gorgeous all lit up. There are rugs laid out and everyone sits down while traditional music is played (which got a little too long) and tea (so delicious!) is served. Then you have some time to hang around and take photos, or walk back right away. We stayed til the end b/c my husband was trying to get good photos, he brought his tripod but wished he had brought his flash as well. it's a hard area to get photos in, but he got some great ones. When facing the Treasuring, go to the back right corner and there's a rock you can climb up on to get a higher perspective. We saw other people on here too so it should be easy to find. We waited to be the last ones out while they were cleaning up and we were able to get some great shots on the path without anyone in front of us. Even as the last ones, we were back out to our driver at 10:45. Also, there's no need to bring a torch, it was actually really distracting to see the light from torches.
13 April: Petra and Wadi Rum
We woke up early and were walking in Petra with a guide by 8:30am. It was already warm, but I was okay in lightweight pants and a t-shirt all day -- lots of sunscreen and a hat though! There are shops right before you go in to stock up on water and stuff, but there are also places at certain points throughout as well. Our guide was informative and it took over an hour to make the fairly short walk to the Treasury as he was stopping to explain things. At that point we decided we would go off on our own. We knew we didn't have much time as we needed to be back by 2pm so we headed out to the High Place. They say it takes 1 hour by foot and 20 minutes by donkey, we went by foot and it took 20 minutes. We're 28 and 34 and not in amazing shape but in good shape, so hopefully that helps gauge. There are definitely lots of steps though, but you get a great view over the area and hike next to all sorts of other cool sights, many of which are labeled. Then we continued on to towards the monastery/museum, this took another hour. It's best to go towards the monastery when you see the option to go left as opposed to going right to go straight to the museum. You'll pass this on your way back anyway so it's pointless to go there first. The hike up to the monastery is serious, lots and lots of steps and many go up by horse or donkey. We hiked up and it took 40 minutes but it was really hot so make sure you have water at this point. There are places along the way to get some too. We took a few photos and I wish we had more time to hike around this area, but had to head back. It was about 30 minutes or so down. Do not hike from the monastery to the High Place, only the other way around, otherwise you'll be hiking all uphill as opposed to downhill. From the base of the monastery to the Treasury wasn't too far (maybe 20 minutes) and b/c we were late we took a horse carriage which still took maybe 15 minutes and it's not a very comfortable ride! But the good thing is they take you all the way to the exit. This cost JD20 which is not cheap and you can't negotiate. Definitely wear good shoes, I would think that would go without saying, but I saw a woman walking in socks and carrying her heeled shoes!
Overall, i definitely would not recommend only a morning to explore Petra. It worked for us as we had gone the night before and we packed a lot into the morning, but I would say at least one full day if not longer.
We went back to Al Arabi for lunch before driving to Wadi Rum with our driver, which was 1.5 hours from Petra. What I've noticed is that km-wise distances aren't that far in Jordan, but everything takes a lot longer than you'd think. Also, there are security checkpoints throughout Jordan. We never had a problem here, they're always very nice and only occasionally want to see your passport. Regardless, keep it with you at all times.
We stayed at Captain's Camp (also reviewed on TA) and took a 2-hour jeep tour. I was fun, but we didn't drive very far into the Wadi. We did stop at a Bedouin tent for tea which was a little awkward at first b/c it was just us, our driver and then several other Bedouins came by. But the tea was good and they dressed us up in local clothing which was cool to experience the full veil and everything. Then we bought some tea before cruising to a different area to watch the sunset, which was really nice. I would bring your own roll of toilet paper and sheet if you can, the bathrooms were really nice but ran out of toilet paper by the end of the day. The bedding seemed clean, but it wasn't very bright in the tent! Apparently these camps go off on the weekends, but we were there on a Tuesday night so it was pretty low-key.
14 April: Wadi Rum to Karak desert castle and to Dead Sea resort.
We woke up and left by 8am to go to Karak (3 hours from Wadi Rum). It's the largest desert castle in Jordan and was cool to see, it's up on a hill so you get great views of the surrounding and get to go inside all these rooms and stuff. It's decently labeled but a guidebook helps. Overall, it's a nice stop to break up the trip back north, but if it's not on your way, I wouldn't go out of your way to stop unless you love desert castles
Ah, finally at the Dead Sea! Full review on TA, but the Marriott was amazing. The resort, the food, the service, the spa, everything was just great. We relaxed by the pool with drinks that afternoon, then headed down to the Dead Sea to mud up and float. It was great! Note: do not wear light colored swim suits, the mud can stain and I had to toss one swimsuit as it sort of turned orange after. Also, don't shave the day you're going in -- any cuts will burn like crazy! I read suggestions to bring 'water shoes' and I did bring water sandals. Overall, unless you're going to wear them other times, I wouldn't bother. Sure, there are stones, but nothing sharp so most can survive the few steps into the water.
15 April: Day trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, border crossing
Our driver picked us up at 7am and even after getting a little lost, we were at the Allenby/King Hussien border by 7:30. it doesn't open until 8am though so we just waited. You then give them your passport and wait in a room, then about 8:30 they load up the bus full of passengers and then give you your passport back with your exit stamp on a separate piece of paper. Then the bus makes the (short) drive across the border, stopping at various gates. At one point someone came on the bus and called our last name, we got up and showed our passports and then they waved us through, really weird. Once you get to the Israeli side, you get off the bus and line up to have your passport looked at again and just a sticker goes on it, then you line up and go through security, then you get your immigration form, fill it in and wait in line again. Once called, you will be asked all kinds of questions, what your doing there, do you know anyway, where are you going, when are you leaving, etc, etc. At this time I asked for the stamp to be on a separate piece of paper and again they ask why. I just explained that we might want to travel to other countries that don't allow access with that stamp. Then she asked if we had specific plans and my husband said he was going to Dubai for work in a few weeks, but otherwise not. She was fine then and stamped on a separate paper. Then you go through another area and hand over your immigration form and you're finally out!
Our guide was waiting there and then we drove the 45 minutes into Jerusalem. We visited Mt Olives and the church, the Western Wall (so many people pushing to get to the wall, it was hard to keep the moment sacred), then to Mt Zion where there's teh tomb of David and the room where the last supper was. Then we went to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Sometimes getting through this border to Palestine can be bad, but our driver actually had an American passport and we didn't wait long at all either way. While I've been told to skip Bethlehem, I think it was worth a visit and it was cool to see another city since Jerusalem is so spread out. We then got lunch and when in a souvenir shop for about 2 minutes before heading back to the border. Our guide was very personable and interesting to talk to about the country but knew nothing about the sights or the history. We were supposed to have a driver and guide so it was very disappointing that we did not have a guide at each of the sights (and no guidebook either). Our guide was Issac at Yabous Tours & Travel
Although I specifically chose to go on a Thursday b/c the border closes early on Fridays and is closed on Saturdays, our guide said that the Allenby border closed at 3pm that day so we'd have to go to the Northern border. I was not happy about this as it would add a lot more time, but asking several times if we could check, finally we just went with it. After passing the entrance for the Allenby border (which looked open and we later found out from other travelers that it was open until 5pm! we could have made it!), we drove a bit further before the van broke down. The van had no air, no seatbelts and had a noise beeping for the entire day that our guide told us had to do with 'oil' and then it breaks down. We waited for 45 min in the heat before another much nicer van came and got us and too us to the border. we got there around 7pm. You have to pay your exit taxes 100sh pp, you can pay by credit card. Then you go to get your passport checked. We didn't asked her not to stamp, but she didn't anyway, she stamped our entrance form. Then you walk through the duty free area to the bus stop, there were a lot of people waiting but we still got on, just had to stand for the short drive across the border. Once back in Jordan, you have to buy another visa JD10 and then get it stamped and then you can leave. They check this when you're driving out too. It took about 1 hour to get from one side to the other start to finish, then another 2 hours to get back to the dead sea. So we got back at 10pm, which was about 3 extra hours to go through that more northern Sheikh Hussein border. But our friends who got back the Allenby border, while they made it faster, despite asking, they got their passport stamped so I guess it all balances out. I think the northern border is a bit more relaxed.
All in all, I'm really glad I saw Jerusalem and Bethlehem. i knew it was going to be a very long day so I was prepared for it. Based on the brief time I was there, I'm glad I did it as part of this trip as I don't think it's the top of my list to spend more time there. I know many people say there's no way you can do it in a day, but if you're prepared to spend almost more time traveling/getting through the border than you are in the actual city, then you can get through it and get a good taste of it. We didn't take out any local money as we had a few USD, which is widely accepted.
16 April: much-needed relaxation day at the resort, but note, Fridays many locals come to the Dead Sea resorts as they can pay a day-fee. While there are some pools that are limited to just guests, the resort gets so packed and chairs are hard to find. Therefore I recommend doing a daytrip on a Friday so you're away from the hotel.
17 April: Checked out of dead sea resort, visit Mt Nebo, Madaba, Jeresh, Aljoun Castle, Amman
We left at 9:15am and took the short drive (about 30-min) to Mt Nebo. Unfortunately it wasn't a very clear day so you couldn't see as much as you can other days, plus the church is under renovation. There's a tented museum with a mosaic from the church, but this was a bit disappointing because of the circumstances.
Another 10-15 minutes to Madaba. The church mosaic is really cool, but this was the only place our tour included and from what we heard it was the best mosaic so we opted out of going to the other museum and churches in town.
Then we drove about 1 1/4- 1 1/2 hour to Jeresh which was really cool. Besides Karnak in Luxor, and of course Petra, this was my other favorite old city. Definitely get a guide, we had one and it made all the difference. There are so many little things they show you that are just amazing and help you understand the importance, otherwise is just more columns, etc.
Another 35-40 minutes to Aljoun Castle. This isn't a huge castle, but on top of a huge hill overlooking a really fertile area so it's different than the desert castles. Not an absolute must-see, but was still interesting. It will be much better with a car here b/c of the big hill.
It's about 45-1 hr back to Amman and we stayed at the Le Meridien (review on TA). To make up for the lack of guide in Jerusalem, our driver took us to dinner at a great restaurant, which now I can't find the name to but I'll look again.
18-21 April: Supposed to fly home but the volcanic ash prevented that so we returned to our hotel for 3 more nights. 2 day we spent at the hotel and one day we went out to the Citadel which was cool, on top of a hill so you get to see a lot of the city and it even has some of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a museum on-site that doesn't even required an additional entrance fee! We then walked down to the Roman Theatre which is right across the street (down a bunch of steps) but kind of hard to get to. When you exit the Citadel, walk to the end of the street, then wind right, the street will then wind left and on the righthand side you'll see a staircase down, follow that and then you'll come to another one that will get you down to the street. I would just be daring and make your way across as we walked all the way around and it was not worth it. The entrance is toward the right though, so if you do turn, go that way! From there we went to the Nymphaeum, which is really run down. It's free to go in, but there's not much to see. We then caught a cab back to our hotel, about 15-20 minutes, and while the meter looks funny and we were freaking out because we thought it was JD12 (we paid JD6 on the way there and that was in the hotel's mercedes so we knew it was overpriced), it turned out to be JD 1.20, the meter just reads funny. So it's very cheap to take cabs around the city!!
We only ate at the hotel for our other meals in Amman so not much more to review. Although we did get one-day spa packages at the hotel for JD100 which were a great deal with a 30-min salt scrub, 50-min mud wrap (with a free facial for me) and a 50-min massage. It was great!
A cab between AMM and the Le Meridien was JD24 flat fee. It's about a 35-min drive.
Driving Tip for Jordan: If you're a confident driver, you could easily manage in Jordan. Most of it is open roads, but in cities like Karak, there are a bunch of one-ways and I would imagine it would be difficult to navigate. One thing I did notice though, is that parking is fairly easy at most of the sights we visited. Our driver was always able to pull right up and he never had to pay.
21-22 April: Only made it as far as Cairo before seeing that we'd have to spend the night. We used more starwood points to stay at the Le Meridien a few miles from the airport. Didn't do much there, had a nice Thai dinner, then back to the airport at 6am the next morning to catch the flight back to GVA -- finally!
Egypt Air: we flew this airline from Istanbul to SSH and from Amman Jordan to Geneva via Cairo. The service was friendly, the planes were fine but if you're ever in a difficult situation, you probably don't want to be on this airline. Unfortunately when the volcanic ash cloud loomed, we had to deal with them and got absolutely no where. They have no customer service, they knew nothing, literally we knew when the GVA airport opened before they did. They would not let us fly to Cairo until GVA was open, but unfortunately that meant that we missed 2 days of flights to Geneva as it took us time to get to Cairo and we missed flights. It was pure chaos at the Cairo airport when we finally got there and after getting to the airport at 6am as advised to get on a waiting list for the flight, an hour before the flight they just called out 'Anyone trying to go to Geneva?', no list, nothing. Luckily we got on.
Jordan Inspiration Tours (JIT):
I did a huge amount of research on different tours in Jordan. I knew we wanted a private tour as we didn't have a huge amount of time and we wanted to dictate where to go and when.
Here are the others I considered:
-Desert Horizons: Didn't find them until the end but their pricing was competitive (while not the cheapest). They were great at responding and so nice and helpful. Even when I told them I'd be going with someone else, they were very kind. Highly recommend from a planning prospective but obviously didn't take the tour with them.
-JD Tours: very competitive prices, in fact, I think the cheapest I found but horrible communication. It literally took weeks and weeks for them to answer me and when their price for a Jerusalem day trip was $400+ more per person, they didn't even look competitive anymore
-Jordan Tours and Travel: While they were fairly responsive and their price was competitive, they could only give me another email address to contact the Jerusalem tour person directly. When that person never replied, I didn't consider them anymore.
Mohammed at JIT was excellent. He replied immediately no matter what time it was, made many changes to my itinerary, was so patient and I had a personal recommendation from a friend who had gone with them last fall. Unfortunately their price was significantly more expensive than the others so I was still hesitant. I tried negotiating and he budged slightly but said he couldn't do any more without hurting the tour. Finally I decided that if I could get the price close to that of Desert Horizons, then I would go with JIT because I'd been working with him for several months and I had the recommendation. He was able to get very close, so I booked. I had to do a bank transfer of 50%, then we paid the other 50% in person in Petra by credit card.
Overall the tour was fine, everything that was supposed to be included was, which was the following:
Meet upon arrival at the airport.
Transportation with modern and full option A/C vehicle throughout
English speaking driver throughout.
English speaking sites guides in Jerash, Petra and desert guide in Wadi Rum
Entrance fees for all the sites mentioned in the itinerary.
Petra by nigh visit on April 12th
4WD Jeeps in Wadi Rum for 2 hours.
1 night camping in Wadi Rum including dinner and breakfast
1 day trip to Jerusalem in day 4
English speaking driver/guide in Jerusalem in Day 4
Lunch in Jerusalem in Day 4
Visa and departure tax.
Personal travel insurance & expenses.
Accommodations (we wanted to book our own)
Lunches & Drinks
Tips and any other not mentioned above.
Our driver Mohammed was very nice and friendly, but didn't speak much English (or perhaps he was just shy) and we were really disappointed b/c we'd heard how welcoming Jordanians are and how excited they are to share the culture with you. We weren't looking for a tour guide for a driver, but we were with this guy for 6 days so we were hoping that he'd be engaging and enthusiastic about talking about his country. We got very little out of him, although occasionally he told us where we were and asked if we wanted to stop for a photo. The car was fine, it had AC, but had papers in the back pockets, wasn't all that clean, etc. These aren't complaints, but because I still felt that I was paying more for this tour, my expectations were a bit higher as well.
Our driver was always clear on where he'd be waiting and he was always there, on time and professionally dressed. For the most part he drove safely.
Another area that sort of bothered me is that he wasn't all that aware of our itinerary. He dropped us at the hotel the first night in Petra and said, what time tomorrow? And I was confused that he didn't know that we were going to Petra at night an hour later. This happened several times, once he dropped us off, again, what time tomorrow, and we said, you have the day off tomorrow, we're just staying at the hotel. All this had been planned ahead and I assume he just needed a copy of the itinerary. While nothing major went wrong, I expected him to know this stuff and make suggestions for what time we should leave, giving us info on how long it will take to get to the next place, etc. There wasn't any of that.
I do have to say that Mohammed the planner back at the office was wonderful throughout. He called numerous times to see how things were going. The hard part was, nothing was necessarily wrong, so it wasn't like we could say, well, we were hoping for a more enthusiastic driver. I think it just really turned out that I felt we were paying quite a bit more than other tour organizers and I was convinced that our whole experience would be a notch above what was expected. Everything was done to a satisfactory level so if I had paid one of the lower prices, I probably would've been more satisfied overall. But I don't think Mohammad the driver is cut out to be a driver unless he's paired with a guide. I think for a driver-only, even though they're not required to be knowledgeable in the history, they should be more sociable because it really changes the whole experience, especially when you're in their car for hours on end over the period of a week.
Sorry, longest report ever, but hopefully a least a bit of this info is helpful to different people.
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Trip Report: Istanbul, Egypt, Jordan & Israel, 18 days in April
I just got back from my trip to the Middle East and after spending a lot of time researching my trip on here, I wanted to share my experience.