Egypt is a dream trip for so many of us! And I don’t know about you but I’m seeing lots of travel “influencers” visiting the country and planning group travel there. It boasts relatively low COVID infection rates and like so many other international tourism destinations, the pandemic has hit their economy hard.
As more air travel opens up even in the midst of these relentless variants, Egypt is on more folks’ radar. So here are some tips to help you plan if you’re heading to the jewel of the Nile.
Before you go:
Check the COVID travel requirements.
As the situation with COVID changes daily, it’s important to know exactly what to expect when you get ready to board your flight. When I flew out of JFK via Emirates, I needed to have a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours that had a QR code. It was important for it to be printed out. Regardless of where you’re transiting through (ie layovers when you don’t have a direct flight), you need to follow Egypt’s (your final destination) requirements. The US State Department keeps this list up to date but I’d also advise checking with your airline because they will be checking your test results and making the decision to allow you to board your flight. Check the US Embassy website to be prepared for what you’ll need to do to return to the United States, or your final destination’s embassy site.
This is a general rule for international travel but print out all your airline, hotel or any other reservations just in case you don’t have internet access or something happens to your phone. Also make sure to have print outs of your passport and vaccination card. I also take photos of all of these things and save in a folder on my phone, however, technology fails sometimes and paper copies provide an extra layer of security.
Get your phone plan situated.
The wifi in Egypt is hit or miss depending on where you are and frankly the level of your accommodations. I recommend finding out the international data rates of your current phone provider to see costs and accessibility. Then you can decide if it’s worth paying the extra fees, ie Verizon will charge you $10 a day, OR getting an Egyptian SIM card when you arrive to put in your phone. Getting a local SIM card will likely be cheaper but you have to keep refilling it so that is something to consider. I have Google Fi as my phone plan here in the States and it allows me unlimited data and text in 50 countries by pinging off of local carriers. (In the US, it runs on T-Mobile’s network.) I’m not getting paid to say this but it’s been a godsend at $80 a month and not being stressed about wifi during international travel. If you’re curious, here’s a referral link to sign up.
Download the Xe app.
The Xe app allows you to do currency conversions on the spot and doesn’t require wifi. It comes in handy when the math is complicated and you’re trying to bargain.
Be prepared for lots of security checkpoints.
Egypt is a police state. So please know there are multiple security checkpoints at the airport, both before check-in and after check-in. Also there are checkpoints all over the roads, meaning you will be stopped as you travel by car from one district or area to another. I think it’s best to travel with a tour group unless you are with trusted local people you know on the ground. Even when you are entering more high end hotels or malls, you will have to go through a metal detector. Also, always have your passport.
Plane >>>>> Train for domestic travel.
Since there’s so much to experience across Egypt, it’s likely you won’t want to stay in only Cairo. Train travel seems appealing but it could seriously derail (lol get it?) your travel itinerary. Egyptian trains are notorious for being late and/or breaking down. You don’t want to be stuck in the train station overnight like two of the travelers I met who were taking a well intentioned leisurely scenic route to Luxor. Take a flight and save yourself the stress. While domestic flights are certainly not always on time, it is a bit safer to be waiting in an airport where you are more likely to get information about delays. Just make sure to get to the airport at least 2 hours early to get through security before check-in, to check-in, and then get through gate security to board your flight.
Dress modestly, pack appropriately.
This applies particularly to women and femmes. While you will see more younger women wearing things like skinny jeans, they are still pretty covered up and show little skin. Admittedly I visited in late December/early January when the weather was cool, I would still suggest loose fitting clothes with more muted tones particularly if you’re not traveling with a group. Some tour guides may say differently but you will attract more attention with flashier clothes especially from street merchants.
Also it’s important to note that gender roles and presentation are still quite binary as it is in much of the world. For example: when at the Luxor airport, they split security check by gender to get on the plane. A woman with short hair who was dressed in more traditionally “male” clothing was in the women’s line behind me. The security woman questioned to her colleague if this person was in the right line. I don’t speak Arabic but I knew what was happening. I shook my head affirmatively and said aloud, “Yes she’s good!” automatically even though I realized they may not understand me. They ended up letting her through security but it was a reminder that if your gender presentation is non-binary, there may be some uncomfortable questions or moments.
On the ground
Carry tissues and toilet paper!
Many bathrooms do not have toilet paper so be prepared. At more touristy places you’ll have to pay for bathroom use and toilet paper but restaurants or airport bathrooms may not have any available.
Everything is negotiable.
Ok not everything but a lot! Except for restaurants, chain or grocery stores, you can negotiate the price. I negotiated a “fixed” price in the Cairo airport for a private taxi even though the brochure looked official. (I looked at Uber’s price and counter offered!) You will likely be told a ridiculous price for an item so you can do the conversion in Xe or in your head if know the conversion rate of Egyptian pounds to your currency. It is part of the culture so don’t be afraid to advocate to get a fair price. I also liked shopping at Fair Trade locations because it was a fixed and fair price and you know you’re supporting local women artisans around the country.
Uber is hard if you don’t know Arabic.
When I tried to get an Uber from the Cairo airport it was a shitshow. It might be easier at smaller airports but for Cairo, you have to exit the airport and find your way to the Uber/ride share app location. Then depending on the time of day, find your car by reading the license plate number. But the numbers are in Arabic so if you’re not familiar with the language it can be very stressful. Uber is awesome if you’re staying at a hotel where a concierge can help. But if you’re on your own, spring for a private car and pay the extra fee especially if you’re a woman or non-binary person traveling alone. (See above tips on negotiating!)
Cairo has TRAFFIC! So be prepared to spend time in it especially if you’re traveling in the afternoon and evening hours. I suggest building extra travel time in between activities and excursions to account for traffic…and to give you time to process and appreciate all of the sights.