Egypt Travel Guide

10 Things to Know Before You Go to Egypt

PHOTO: Mountains Hunter/Shutterstock

Advice to make your trip to Egypt smoother and more hassle-free.

Some destinations seem overwhelming no matter how you look at them, and Egypt is one of those places. Most people take tours, thinking that will take all the hassle out of a trip. And don’t you wish that were true? But the reality is that some places require a bit more advance prep than others. Soon, you’ll realize that your pre-trip preparations make everything better, even if the preparation is only in your mind.

You’ll Need a Visa, but You Can Get It on Arrival

Egypt is one of the countries where Americans must have a visa, and while you can buy one in advance of your trip, there’s no need for American, British, or Canadian visitors to do that. You can

You can get a 30-day single-entry visa on arrival in Egypt for $25 USD in cash.

get a 30-day single-entry visa on arrival in Egypt for $25 USD in cash (multiple-entry visas are available in advance only for $60). After you land, look for the bank windows labeled “Visa on Arrival” before you line up to go through immigration. They’re to the left and behind you. Buy your visa stamp from one of those windows, affix it to your passport, and then go through the immigration line. Some tour companies include the visa cost in your tour package, in which case your guide will likely meet you before immigration and hand out the visa stamps. It’s as easy as that.

Security Is Tight

You’ll see security everywhere in Egypt. As buses approach hotels, they are stopped until they can be inspected. At all large hotels, you must pass through a metal detector every time you come into the lobby (though the checks themselves are not always so thorough). And every tourist bus comes with an armed guard, who accompanies you everywhere you go. Especially in Aswan, armed military police are very visible. Does all this mean you feel safe? To be honest, you are probably more at risk in Cairo from traffic than criminals or terrorists, and you can feel safe walking outside your hotel, even at night. The Egyptian government is acutely aware of its security issues, and while some places in Egypt are not safe (in particular parts of the Sinai other than Sharm El Sheikh as well as parts of the Western Desert), most tourist areas feel as safe as any other part of the world.

Tipping Is Highly Encouraged

Shutterstock/Solarisys

Because there’s a lot of personal service in Egypt, you’ll find yourself tipping often. Most people don’t expect large amounts, so a tip of 5 or 10 Egyptian pounds is often enough. You’ll certainly need to tip in public restrooms (you won’t get toilet paper until after you tip), and the attendant expects at least 5 pounds per person. Don’t be surprised if your hotel room attendant knocks on your door a few minutes after you arrive with some fresh towels or something you didn’t request; he is probably looking for a tip. Give him a little if you want to establish a rapport (20 Egyptian pounds—about $1 USD—is quite sufficient), and you might get your room cleaned a bit faster than everyone else. You should also leave a small tip every morning. Try to keep small bills for tips, and tip only in local currency if you can.

You’ll Need Cash, Especially Small Bills⁠—Lots of Them

Egypt is a country where cash is still king, so you’ll need cash for most small purchases and even some large ones. You can pay for your hotel room and some large purchases in stores with a credit card, but most of your transactions will be in cash. ATMs are common, but not all U.S. debit cards will work in all of them, so you may have to try more than one (Banque Misr ATMs usually work). Most large hotels (especially in Cairo) have a bank branch that will change U.S. currency. For that reason, bring at least $200 in U.S. currency with you, ideally in $20 bills, so you can exchange it if necessary. If you take Egyptian currency from an ATM (still your best bet), you’ll probably get mostly larger bills, so you’ll get change only when you buy something. You can sometimes exchange larger bills for smaller ones in a bank or at the front desk. If all else fails, guides know you’ll need local currency to tip and for small purchases, and the better ones will keep lots of small bills on hand to break your larger ones. But try not to tip in foreign currency if you can avoid it. There’s always a cost to exchange U.S. dollars back into Egyptian pounds, and U.S. currency can’t be spent by locals in Egypt.

INSIDER TIPIf you are approached by locals who want you to change a wad of $1 USD bills (or even €1 coins) into local currency or larger U.S. bills, try to accommodate them if you can. No one counterfeits $1 bills, so it’s a pretty safe bet they received the bill as a tip, and money-changers will not take small bills or coins.

Pack for the Heat

One cannot underestimate the effect of the Egyptian heat, particularly if you are traveling during the hottest parts of the summer from June through August, when daytime temperatures in Luxor and Aswan are routinely at least 40°C (104°F) and hotter (up to 48°C/118°F) in the Western Desert. Even then, it may be 32°C (90°F) in Cairo, and somewhat hotter at the pyramids. Winter temperatures are pleasant and occasionally cold at night but very tolerable, and there is very little rain. Sandstorms are more common in April but can occur anytime from March through May. So how do you deal with these extremes? Ironically, the answer is to cover up more, as the Egyptians do. Avoid shorts and perhaps even short sleeves (exposed skin burns quicker and gets hot quicker, and then there’s the whole modesty thing, especially for women), wear a shirt with a collar (to protect the back of your neck), bring a hat (ideally one with a brim), and a bandana (with which you can mop your brow but also cover your nose if a sandstorm erupts). For fabrics, linen and lightweight cotton are your friends, but some of the newer moisture-wicking fabrics may be just as good. Be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen because good, high-quality sunscreen is difficult to find in Egypt (and when you do find it, it’s wildly expensive). And pack a refillable water bottle; you’ll be able to find bottled water everywhere, but it’s nice to do the planet a favor and refill from a bigger (and likely cheaper) large bottle.

You May Not Be Happy if You Are an Animal Advocate

Shutterstock/MaruokaJoe

Despite a lot of big talk about improving standards, the lives of Egyptian animals have not improved much in the past decade. Stray dogs and cats still roam the streets; horses work in hot and crowded conditions, especially at the pyramids and at the docks in Edfu; and exhausted camels stand by to give tourists rides almost everywhere. The situation at Edfu affects tourists the most because the magnificent Temple of Horus is deep in the city and far from the docks where cruise ships dock, so almost all tour guides arrange for their guests to take the horse carts to the temple. Guides will choose the best middlemen to help them find reliable operators, but there’s no doubt that the horses all look the worse for wear. It may be possible to take a tuk-tuk, but they are not generally allowed to approach the cruise docking areas. The best thing tourists can do is to insist that animals be treated humanely and complain to tour operators when they are not, especially when animals are a part of a tour activity. You may choose not to ride a camel or horse, but there are times when one or the other is unavoidable.

You Will Be Able to Drink Alcohol, but You May Not Drink Well

Although Egypt is a religiously conservative society, alcohol is readily available, especially in big hotels and also in some restaurants. Even modest hotels in Cairo likely have a rooftop bar, and while many upscale cafés do not serve alcohol, most restaurants do (though likely only beer and wine). As you go south, the atmosphere is more conservative, and when you get to Aswan, you’ll likely find fewer options for drinking outside of the big hotels and their restaurants. Of course, you pay for the privilege. Imported alcohol of any kind is expensive, so you may find that you want to try the local beers and wines instead. Three local brands are widely available, but you’ll see other brands. The best of the lot is Cape Bay (produced in Egypt from South African grapes), then Omar Khayyam, then Obelisk; any of these will do in a pinch, but you won’t want to take any bottles home with you. Two beers are found almost everywhere:  Stella and Sakara, and they are both pretty good. You might be safer sticking to imported gin and tonic. But there are also some no-nos. Drinking on the street is always unacceptable. Local alcohol stores include Drinkies and Cheers, and they deliver. Whatever you do, stay away from any of the very cheap, local, hard alcohol.

Choose Your Foods Carefully

Shutterstock/nutsiam

Food poisoning is a frequent complaint of visitors to Egypt. The origin is often from food that has not been stored and refrigerated properly. If you want to be safe, stick with the rule of boil it, peel it, or forget it; but in upscale hotels, you may be tempted by fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and other salads (most vegetables in luxury hotels are rinsed in filtered water and are OK to eat, but you are always taking a chance). You will undoubtedly be tempted by fresh hummus and baba ghanoush (cold meze are unavoidable at Egyptian restaurants), and it’s probably safe to eat these dips in most decent spots. Avoid actual street food, but you do not need to avoid all grilled meat in restaurants as long as it’s cooked thoroughly. A lot of Egyptian food is fried, so although it’s not a healthy option, it does increase the likelihood that you won’t get sick. Western fast-food chains are abundant in Cairo and tourist spots and maintain good food-safety standards. Even if you are willing to take a chance with fresh vegetables, never drink anything but bottled water, even in the nicest hotel. Use it to brush your teeth as well. If you are concerned, one precaution is to take a Pepto-Bismal tablet daily. If you do become ill, pharmacies are widely available, and pharmacists can and do prescribe antibiotics and other remedies without a doctor’s input.

Egypt Is Multifaceted

While Egypt is growing increasingly religious and conservative, it’s still a very worldly country. It’s the center for the biggest movie business in the Arabic-speaking world. You’ll undoubtedly see women covered in hijab (headscarves), niqab (face veils that leave the eyes exposed), and even burka (a full-body and face covering). But you are just as likely to see locals dressed in modest Western styles. During Ramadan, alcohol sales are not completely forbidden, as they are in some Arab countries, and foreign tourists may notice few differences other than busier than normal streets after sundown. Women may still find unwelcome attention, especially if they are not dressed modestly. And both men and women are expected to wear long pants in mosques, but women should have some kind of head covering or scarf. The south is more conservative than the north, especially as you get farther away from highly touristed areas.

Be Prepared to Bargain

As in most Middle Eastern countries, prices for most things you’ll buy (other than goods in grocery and convenience stores and a few fix-price stores) are not set, and you are expected to bargain with the seller until you agree on a price which theoretically satisfies both parties. So goes the theory, but the reality is that this is perhaps the most frustrating part of shopping in Egypt since

Just don’t be surprised if the seller reconsiders and chases you all the way to the door of your bus.

nothing happens quickly. As a tourist, you’ll almost inevitably overpay, so the best you can do is bargain hard and refuse to buy something if you do think the price is not worth it. If a seller offers a price, counter with no more than half (and likely no more than a quarter). That will at least put you on a solid footing for your negotiation. You may need to steel yourself because sellers can be aggressive, so if you aren’t interested in an item, it’s probably best not to inquire about it. Just keep your head down and move on. If you stop to touch or admire something, you’ll inevitably be asked to name your price. However, if you can’t agree on one, it’s also ok to walk away without regrets. Just don’t be surprised if the seller reconsiders and chases you all the way to the door of your bus. Cairo has the widest selection of goods, but many are imported and not of very high quality. The touts at some of the post-temple markets along the Nile are among the pushiest sellers, especially in Edfu and Esna. Many people think it’s more pleasant to shop in Aswan, but you’ll still need to bargain hard.