22 Things to know before travelling to Egypt. A complete guide with everything you need to know about travelling to this incredible country.
Egypt is a fascinating country, rich in history and culture. It is home to some of the most remarkable ancient sites on the planet and is packed with things to do and see. In our opinion, this is a country that you really MUST visit and below is everything you need to know when planning a trip to Egypt.
1. About Egypt
Egypts official name is the Arab Republic of Egypt and is located in the north east corner of Africa. The country borders Libya to the west, Sudan to the south and Israel to the north east. The Mediterranean Sea sits at the countries north coastline and Red Sea sits to the east coastline. More than 90% of Egypt is made up of dessert, with the two main deserts being;
- The Western Desert (aka the Libyan Desert) to the countries west and a part of the Sahara desert
- The Eastern Desert (aka Arabian Desert) which borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez to the countries east
The nile river which flows from Sudan through the entire length of the Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea, separates the deserts and unequally splits the country in two.
The national religion in Egypt is Islam.
2. Best time to visit
By far the best time to visit Egypt is during the cooler months of November-March. Cairo occasionally experiences rain at this time, however it is unlikely to rain in Luxor and Aswan. December and January are the busiest months, so expect bigger crowds. Prices will generally be higher at this time, particularly accommodation.
November was perfect for us as the temperatures were a lot milder and there were less people around.
The summer months can be incredibly hot, with temperatures ranging from 40°c-55°c. June-August are the hottest months and heat can be extreme. Whilst Aswan and Luxor experience dry heat, the humidity in Cairo can make temperatures even more uncomfortable.
Don’t miss our Highlights of Egypt blog HERE.
Most travellers will need a visa to enter Egypt and many (but not all) can obtain visas on arrival at Cairo International Airport and Marsa Alam International Airport. There is a bank window at both airports, just before customs/immigration where you can buy your visa. The fee is US$25, payable in USD cash (new, clean, crisp unmarked notes should be used, as older damaged notes can sometimes be rejected). Ensure you have the exact money to avoid any issues. The process is very simple, just queue up, pay, get your visa and proceed to customs/immigration.
Alternatively, e-visas’s are available for citizens of many counties who can’t get a visa on arrival. Theses can be obtained 3 months prior to arrival and are valid for 30 days from the date you enter the country. Obtaining an e-visa in advance can speed up your immigration process. E-visa applications can be completed at https://www.visa2egypt.gov.eg.
When we visited in 2017, it was not possible to get visas on arrival at land borders.
4. Local currency
The official currency is Egyptian Pounds, abbreviated to LE and is divided into 100 piastres. As of May 2020, US$1 = LE15.85.
You will find ATM’s at airports, in most big cities and in some hotels. There is a limit of around LE3000 per withdrawal. Withdraw odd amounts from the ATM so that you don’t just get a bunch of LE200 notes.
You can exchange USD, Euro and Sterling at exchange booths, exchange machines, banks and some hotels. Avoid taking large denominations such as 50 or 100 bills as these can be difficult to exchange. 10’s & 20’s are your best bet.
TIP – Make sure any foreign currency is in good condition. Notes that are marked or torn may not be accepted.
Credit cards are widely accepted in hotels and shops, however, may also incur high bank fees. Make sure you check this first to avoid any nasty surprises!
5. More on Money
You will need to use cash for most things in Egypt. Entrance fees to most attractions are only payable in cash. Some sites may have card facilities, however, they don’t always work. ATM’s are found in all major cities, but not necessarily at tourist attractions. So make sure you have enough local currency with you when you go out.
We withdrew cash at ATM’s at each city we visited. It’s important to check what the maximum withdrawal limit is per day on your bank account, as you may find yourself making multiple withdrawals in one day.
Accommodation booked online is often quoted in USD. We were always able to pay in local currency, however, some hotels offered poor exchange rates to do so. So it’s not a bad idea to have some USD with you as a back up. Like wise, tourist class train tickets between Cairo and Aswan are charged in USD.
6. The Cairo Pass & Luxor Passes
There’s a couple of potential money saving options available when travelling to Egypt:
The Cairo Pass
Gives you access to all of the major attractions in Cairo and Giza. The pass costs US$100 or €90 and is valid for 5 days. You can purchase the Cairo Pass from the Egyptian Museum, the Giza Plateau, and Saladin Citadel, as well as the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities office – 3 El-Adel Abubakr St in Zamelak, Cairo.
To purchase the pass, you will need two black and white photocopies of your main passport page, your original passport and two passport size photos. Students will need to present their valid student ID card also. The Cairo Pass is payable in USD or Euros. The notes must be clean, crisp, new and in perfect condition.
The standard Luxor Pass
Gives you access to all of the major attractions on the East & West Bank, excluding the of tombs of Seti I and Nefertari. The pass costs US$100/€90 for adults and US$50 and is valid for 5 days.
The premium Luxor Pass
Gives you access to all of the major attractions on the East & West Bank, including the of tombs of Seti I and Nefertari. The pass costs US$200/€180 for adults and is valid for 5 days.
These passes give you entry to each site without queuing, however, in reality, you still may have to queue!
The Luxor Pass can be purchased at the main antiquities administration offices (including the Antiquities Inspectorate Ticket Office on the West Bank of Luxor) as well as the ticket booths at Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings. The Luxor Passes are payable in USD or Euros. The notes must be clean, crisp, new and in perfect condition.
7. Are the Cairo & Luxor passes worth it
Buying a pass is only really worth it if you intend on visiting loads of sites. We recommend working out what you want to see and how much individual tickets will cost you. Then compare those costs to the that of a pass. Bear in mind that these passes give you multiple entry to any of the relevant sites. So if you want to revisit a site you, one of these passes may save you some money. There was no value in any of these passes for us, so we bought individual tickets to each site we visited.
8. Camera passes
Oh the bane of our existence anywhere we travel is having to pay additional fees, on top of entrance fees to take photos and or use our tripod. The rules for camera passes in Egypt constantly change, but are charged at many sites. You will typically be given a seperate ticket to prove you have purchased a camera pass.
These passes can cost up to LE300 each, and can take a massive hit on your budget. During our visit, this included the use of mobile phones! However, we have read several reports recently of tourists being allowed to use phone cameras free of charge. Be mindful that if you take a camera and don’t want to buy a camera pass, you may be asked to leave it at the ticket office. It typically cost around LE20 to use a tripod (at some sites).
9. Student & children discounts
Students aged between 12-30yrs can get student discounts if they hold an International Student Identification Card. Qualifying students must have the physical card with them to receive a discount. You can apply for a card here.
If you’re travelling to Egypt with children, you may well get some discounts or freebies. Children under 5yrs of age can often get free entrance to museums, tombs, temples etc, whilst kids aged between 6-12yrs can often get a 50% discount. You will need ID such as a passport to prove your child’s age to receive these discounts.
Although tipping is always optional, it is very much expected in Egypt (even when the service is bad!) How much you tip really depends on your satisfaction. There’s a shortage of small change in Egypt, so keep this to use for tips. Some examples of when and how much to tip are:
- Restroom assistants who keep the facilities clean and sometimes gives you toilet paper – LE5
- If an attendant offers to take a photo for you at temples etc – LE5-LE10
- When you take a photo of a person, their camel, donkey, shop etc (always ask first) – LE5-LE10
- At restaurants after a meal – 5-10% of bill (not expected but appreciated)
- If you have a driver and or guide, or take a boat ride etc – Depends on how long you go for, how many in your group and how much you paid
- Taxi drivers – depending on the ride, round up to around 5% of fare.
Tipping may not be customary in your country (it’s not in Australia for example), but it can make a massive difference to those in countries like Egypt. Don’t over tip! Keep tips minimal but relative to the service provided and fair.
Egypt has had a rough time through out the last decade. Terrorist attacks have shattered the country and its tourism industry over the years and to some degree, still do. We could never say a country is perfectly safe, as anything can happen, anywhere in the world, at any moment. But during our 3 week visit to Egypt in November 2017, yes we felt safe. We followed our governments safety advice (Australian Gov – Smart Traveller), avoided high risk areas such as the Sinai Peninsular and used precautions as we always would. From our perspective, we felt safe backpacking. You do however need to be alert, aware of your surroundings and take reasonable caution. But honestly, we would recommend that anywhere in the world.
12. More on safety
Here’s a few extra things you will notice when travelling to Egypt:
Police and military presence
It’s not uncommon to see armed guards or police at tourists sites, train stations and on the roads. Tourists are considered quite important in Egypt and although you may get a lot of hassle from locals, all of the police we encountered gave us the royal treatment and made sure we were very much looked after. We were a little apprehensive at first, but honestly, the police were some of the nicest locals we encountered and definitely made us feel more relaxed!
These used to be required when driving between certain cities or sites, especially on remote desert roads like Aswan to Abu Simbel. However, many of these no longer apply, allowing tourists to travel more freely through out the country. There are now more security checkpoints in place instead.
It’s not uncommon in Egypt to got through security checks as you enter sites, hotels or train stations. You’ll need walk through a metal detector whilst your bags go through an x-ray machine.
13. Food and drinks
A highlight for many when visiting different countries is of course food. We typically like to eat cheap local food when we travel. And there were definitely lots of options for this style of eating in Egypt. We spent as little on US$1-US$2 on lunches and dinners and our favourite local dishes were:
- Koshari – Egypts national dish, consisting of Egyptian rice, lentils, macaroni, fried onions and a spicy tomato chilli sauce. Found in virtually every restaurant and home
- Fiteer – An Egyptian flaky pastry like pizza stuffed with cheese and various fillings
- Falafel Sandwiches – Pita bread stuffed with falafel, hummus and salad
Of course it’s possible to spend a lot more on food if you eat at tourist or more upmarket restaurants. Breakfast was included with all of our accommodation and usually consisted of boiled eggs, falafels, bread, spreads, fruit, tea/coffee.
Tea, coffee, fresh juices and beer are all widely available across Egypt. You can also find liquor stores in big cities like Luxor and Cairo. If staying at an all-inclusive resort and you want to drink beer/wine, double check if this is included in the price (it usually is, but not always).
14. About the tap water
We both read and were told conflicting advice about the tap water in Egypt. We believe the tap water in Cairo is actually safe to drink, but it’s not recommended as it is heavily chlorinated and can causes stomach upsets. The tap water from the Nile Valley and the Red Sea coast, well we’re not 100% sure, so we wouldn’t recommend drinking any of it, just to be safe!
15. Solo women travellers
Westerners can expect a different cultural attitude towards women when travelling to Egypt, to what they are typically used to in their home countries. To avoid unwanted attention from local men, we strongly recommend for women travelling solo (or even travelling with a male or friends), to dress conservatively. This means covering up shoulders, upper arms, chest and legs by wearing loose fitting opaque clothes. This will demonstrate respect for the local culture and aid in a more comfortable travel experience. Egyptians working in resorts along the Red Sea coast are more familiar with western culture, therefore a more relaxed attitude to clothing is usually exhibited.
It’s advisable for women travelling to Egypt solo, to avoid taking taxis and walking around alone, especially at night in downtown Cairo.
Having said that, plastic pollution is a real problem in Egypt. In order to combat that and save money on buying water, it’s worth investing in a good quality reusable water bottle, with a filter that removes bacteria, viruses and purifies your water at the same time, such as GRAYL. These are great, especially if you’re a frequent traveller.
16. Local customs
Men should also consider their clothing choice when travelling to Egypt. Wearing trousers and covering their shoulders will ensure they fall in line with how the local men dress. It’s considered inappropriate to wear shorts, unless at beach resorts. Men and women need to be completely covered when visiting a mosque. Shoes must be removed and women must wear a headscarf.
Public displays of physical affection should not be made. This includes holding hands and greeting people of the opposite sex with hugs and kisses.
The best way to turn down a persistent vendors attempts to sell you something, is by holding your right hand over your heart and politely declining. This is seen as a sign of gratitude and a very polite way of saying no.
Egyptians use their left hand for the toilet and to remove their shoes. They use their right hand to eat and to hand someone something.
17. Backpacking Egypt vs organised tours
Travelling to Egypt as a backpacker is totally doable. However, it comes with a whole lot of hassle that to be honest, we could have done without. The most frustrating thing about planning our travels in Egypt, was the lack of accurate information available, especially regarding transport. Online information is often outdated, or non existent and finding accurate information within Egypt isn’t always straightforward either.
If you are planning on backpacking Egypt, we recommend on having a plan with a flexible itinerary and time frame, just to allow for any issues that you may not plan for.
Travelling by train was super easy and in our opinion the best way to get between cities. Having said this, we were very confused about how much a fare should cost between Cairo & Aswan. Definitely check out Seat61 for full up to date details about train travel in Egypt, inclusive of timetables, fare prices and how to get around tourist restrictions and ‘tourist fares’.
Check out our Red Sea blog HERE
And if backpacking sounds all too overwhelming, then travelling to Egypt via an organised tour is a great option. Not only will you meet lots of other travellers, but a tour company arranges everything for you, taking away all the hassle. All you’ll need to do is turn up! Check out Intrepid Travel for some great Egyptian itineraries.
18. Wifi & internet
We found it pretty easy to get online in Egypt. Every hotel we stayed in offered free wifi, which was reasonably good. If you’re after wifi all day long, you’ll need to grab a SIM card. You can grab these at Cairo’s International Airport or in any big city.
19. Haggling and shopping
It’s impossible not to want to buy a souvenir or two when travelling to Egypt. And shopping and haggling go hand in hand if you want to buy something from a street vendor or market stall. Vendors will always offer an inflated price, with the hope of selling their goods at a reasonable price, once the haggle has stopped. Our tactic is to suss out prices in fixed price stores to get an idea of what things cost. We then decide on the maximum amount we want to pay, go in low and work our way up. If we can’t agreed on the price we want to pay, we walk away and if the vendor starts chasing after us, then we knew our price was ok! If not, then maybe we went too low.
Don’t enter into negotiations if you don’t actually want to buy an item. Remember that it’s not always about paying the lowest price, but paying a fair price that both you and the vendor are happy with. And as a tourist, you will always pay more than a local!
20. About the ‘hassle’….
If you are travelling to Egypt, you should absolutely expect to get hassled, especially if you’re travelling alone (as opposed to travelling in an organised tour). Generally speaking, Egyptians are very friendly and if they can speak English, they will chat with you. However, you are also a tourist in their country, so they may well be trying to sell you something. And if they’re not, someone else will! Our approach to this is simple; remain polite, don’t engage in too much conversation, if any at all and just keep walking! As soon as you open any dialogue, you’ll be followed around for hours!!
We found that school kids and teenagers wanted to take our photo A LOT and their approach was far more aggressive than expected. If you don’t want to be in someones photo, politely say no.
21. Take toilet paper with you!
That’s right, you’ll need a decent stash of loo roll when travelling to Egypt. Yes, accommodation should all provide this, however public toilets, including those at attractions and local restaurants often don’t have any.
22. Packing Essentials & Tips
There’s a few essential items that you need to take with you when travelling to Egypt:
- Small daypack to take on day trips
- SUN PROTECTION – sunscreen, hat, sunnies, light-weight long sleeve shirts, scarf to help cover shoulders etc from the sun
- Comfy shoes for walking around all day
- Emergency funds in USD, Euro or Sterling
- Camera or decent phone camera
- Spare camera batteries, chargers & universal charging adaptors
- If you want to take a drone, you’ll need special permission, which can be difficult to obtain. Otherwise, it will be confiscated at the airport
- Toilet paper
- Fins, mask & snorkel (if spending a lot of time on the Red Sea)
- Take snacks with you for long journey & day trips
- Drink lots of water especially in the summer months
- The standard voltage is 220 volts. Primary sockets take the 2-pronged European variety
Planning a trip to Egypt? Check out our other Egypt blogs:
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