10 Useful Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Egypt

Egypt is the country on everybody’s bucket list. The Pyramids, the Nile, the history, the culture; it’s the stuff of dreams for so many.

Introduction
Tipping and haggling
Local guides
Scams and safety
How to avoid crowded tourist sites
Getting around
Religion
Food
Infrastructure
Additional Information

Introduction to Egypt

For many people, Egypt is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s not difficult to romanticise it as the land of ancient wonders and mythical Nile Cruises. At its core, we found Egypt to be everything the storybooks depict, and a truly fascinating place. The culture is rich and exciting, the hospitality generally exceptionally warm and the historical sites a real must-see.

However, particularly in recent years, Social Media seems to paint Egypt as a terrifying place where you’re bound to fall prey to scams, deal with harassment and no doubt be stressed out the whole time you’re there. This was not our experience, at all! We loved Egypt and feel like we genuinely experienced it in a stress-free way, but it really does pay to be aware of a few things, so we wanted to share our tips with others.

Overall, we’d say that Egypt is a mix between its two reputations; a fascinatingly rich history combined with a raw and interesting modern life. The complexity of its past has made it what it is today.

So, what do you need to know before you go?

A view of the pyramids with Giza in front of them
Giza and the pyramids
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1. Tipping is almost mandatory

Tipping (also known backsheesh) in Egypt is something that really no one seems to talk about! At least we didn’t hear much about it before we went. More than just an expectation, it is a part of the culture of Egypt and a means of expressing politeness (not just appreciation). Almost every person you encounter in Egypt will expect some kind of tip.

Of course tipping isn’t exactly compulsory, but as a part of daily life in Egypt, it will make a big difference to the locals who help you. Not only does it inspire excellent service, and is an entrenched part of culture in Egypt. It should also help you get much better service, and avoid any issues which can arise from people feeling undervalued. The below is a quick guide, but if you’re really confused about tipping in Egypt, check out our longer guide here.

People you should consider tipping:
  • Serving staff in restaurants – 10-15% is fine
  • Toilet attendants – a few EGP
  • Tour Guides – around $10 per tour (or per day for a multi day tour) is appropriate
  • Taxi drivers – 10% ish
  • Attendants (at sites like tombs, doors to mosques – basically people helping to preserve the space) – a few EGP is fine
  • Anyone who helps you with your bags (carrying them for you, loading onto buses) or helps pack bags for you (such as in supermarkets etc)
People we didn’t tip and that seemed to be OK:
  • Bus drivers (though, actually, we later found out this is expected!)
  • Shop keepers, though if anyone packs your bag for you, a tip is customary
  • Anyone we had bought a product from rather than a service

When we were out with a local guide, he was literally carrying round a wad of small EGP notes with him and just handing them out to basically anyone we encountered, from mosque attendants to serving staff to drivers. It didn’t even really seem to matter how much it was, it was almost like a gesture of thanks, and they were always very grateful even for 1 or 2 EGP.

If not using a guide (see point 3), it is advisable to do this yourself and if in doubt, just tip.

Haggling

Haggling for products and services is customary. In our experience, once you have agreed a price for a product (for example a souvenir), you don’t have to give a further tip, unless you receive any further services, such as someone packing a bag for you or taking a photo. We found that once you had haggled for a service however (such as a day tour), a tip was still the expectation.

A shot of the the front of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation
There are so many amazing things to do in Cairo!
2. There is more to see and do than you think

We budgeted 2 weeks in Egypt but ended up staying quite a bit longer. Honestly we could have spent months there and still not seen everything! In Cairo alone, you’d pretty much need a full week to see and do the bulk of it. Luxor was similar, as was Aswan – it’s unbelievable how many temples there are and they are all amazing and worth a visit.

If short on time, you can check our upcoming 2 week Egypt itinerary, but ideally we’d recommend adding on at least an extra week so you can take a more relaxed pace or maybe add on Siwa or Alexandria. For more information on Siwa, you can check our guide here.

3. In most places, you will have a much better experience with a local guide

I.e. a tour guide or point of contact for the duration of your stay, not individual guides for each attraction. You can do this on really ANY budget in Egypt (yes including shoestring for backpackers).

We initially tried to visit Egypt completely independently and we made a lot of mistakes. Before visiting, we heard this was really common for tourists visiting Egypt but still thought we knew best. We got scammed, hassled (fine, we can normally cope with this, but it was a LOT), lost, we showed up to places at the wrong time (because we trusted tourist recommendations online), we were seriously confused about tipping.

On our 4th day in Cairo, we finally swallowed our pride and reached out to Rami, a local guide recommended to us by a friend who visited Egypt last year. After one evening with him, we were kicking ourselves for not having reached out sooner – the hassling completely stopped, he was taking care of the tipping for us, and he gave us some invaluable advice that changed the course of the rest of our trip.

Rami has different rates for different styles, and he owns two properties as hotels, which are different levels of luxury, so the price we got isn’t for everyone. However, to give an idea of how affordable he was: he charged us 20$ per person per day for accommodation, food (breakfast and most nights dinner), all tips (and they add up), his service fee and his driver. The only thing we paid extra was our entrance fees to certain things (like the pyramids). It was amazing actually. Whatever you are planning to do – get a comparison quote from him first.

A view over the old medina of Siwa. It is a sandstone town with a fortress at the top
We preferred visiting Siwa independently
A note on two places we preferred to visit independently:

Before meeting Rami, we had booked a tour to Siwa. The tour itself wasn’t very good (find out more here on how to visit Siwa independently), and Siwa is extremely laid back (unlike many places we visited in Egypt) so we actually think it would have been better to visit independently. The reason we didn’t visit independently was that we heard you needed a tour to get permits for the desert. This actually turned out to be incorrect anyway.

Additionally, we were really glad we didn’t take a Nile Cruise. This was personal choice and we spoke to some people who were delighted they had booked one themselves. We’ll come to this later, but for our part, we were glad we chose to visit this section of Egypt independently.

A note on Arabic

Neither of us speak Arabic. Those of you who’ve read a few of our posts will know, it’s uncommon for us to visit a country without knowing any of the local language. Therefore, we did instantly feel at a disadvantage in Egypt. We noticed when we tried speaking some Arabic people were quite receptive and we have a suspicion it would have helped us enormously to learn more before we went (so often the case).

It is a bit of a myth that everyone in Egypt speaks English. Though most tour guides do, we encountered a lot of taxi drivers/shop keepers etc. who didn’t speak English at all. Basically, if you’re planning to do anything independently, we recommend learning a few basic phrases.

A pyramid built up in step levels in the middle of a desert
The Pyramid of Djoser
4. Scams are rampant!

Without the local guide, unfortunately this is kind of just a given. The variety of scams really ranges – I certainly wouldn’t say we know all of them. Of course there are some very obvious scams, such as people demanding extra tip for showing you something you had no interest in seeing, giving a higher price than what is marked on an official price board, demanding you pay for extras (such as bags on buses etc). Generally we just ignored these and it worked pretty well, or we’d point to official prices.

There are definitely some more advanced scams in Egypt too and we can’t deny that we fell prey to some. It’s worth saying here that we had a lot of people say to us after having visited Egypt that they didn’t like it in general because of these scams and felt the country was unsafe. In general we try to avoid writing off an entire country because negative interactions with a few people (even if there are many negative interactions), but we can understand this perspective. That being said, these issues completely disappeared for us after we met Rami – it was like we were in a completely different country.

A few scams we encountered…
  • People at tourist sites offering to show you ‘hidden spots’ or take photos of you, while affirming they are ‘not guides’. We followed a guy who just seemed super friendly and wanted to show us some hidden spots around Saqqarah. 20 minutes later we ended up being forced to pay some ridiculous fee for a horse ride we didn’t want and missing half the site we were there to see. This definitely makes us sound like idiots, but we were really used to East African hospitality by this point and thought he was just being friendly
  • Uber drivers demanding you pay cash and refusing to move until you do – this wasn’t one we fell for and we just got out and ordered a new taxi after submitting a complaint for refund. We also heard about drivers parking down the road and saying they’d arrived, just to wait for your cancellation fee. We didn’t really experience this, but it’s one to look out for. There are local taxis and other apps you can use (like Careem) if you don’t want to rely on Uber, but to us it seemed the same but less secure. More on this in our upcoming Cairo post. Sign up to our newsletter here to be notified.
  • Being charged for photos any time you so much as look at a camel – again, just ignore them and walk away if you don’t want to take a photo

You can decide for yourself if you’d be taken in by these, but it’s worth knowing about them in advance in any case.

A camel standing in front of the step pyramid
Pictures of camels are so much better with no people in them!
A quick note on safety

Like we always say, safety is really subjective. Personally, as two white tourists, we did feel a little unsafe at times in Egypt. This was only the case when we were alone; with Rami, we never felt at risk. We like to reflect on these things and ask ourselves why, since technically, nothing bad happened to us and we were never really in danger.

Personally, as a woman, I got a lot of stares. I wore a headscarf for the entire time we were in Egypt and very modest clothing, and (especially in Cairo), this did absolutely nothing to stop men giving me attention. Men would also often ask if I had a husband in front of Murray. This was even the case when I was holding hands with Murray and we realised that he actively had to put his arm around my shoulders to even deter people slightly.

This was most often the case in Cairo, however I mostly felt safe there as there were a lot of people. As with any city, keep an eye on valuables and exercise standard precaution.

5. It’s best not to ride camels

We knew this one already, but riding camels in Egypt really isn’t a great idea. They’re almost always not treated well…

This is a bit of a tricky subject, since a lot of Egyptian locals use camels every day for labour and tourism. It’s a huge industry and one that we feel tourists can’t really pass judgement on. To be clear, in this instance, we are absolutely not making judgements on any Egyptian locals who need to use camels in daily life – it’s of course very similar to the use of horses in countries like the UK. In any case however, we don’t like to buy into any industry where animal mis-treatment is common, so for this reason, we avoided riding camels and we’d suggest to our readers to do the same.

Yes, the photos look cool, but they look equally good, if not better, if you get a camel in the shot without a tourist riding them, so maybe skip the camel rides and take a photo of the camel on its own instead.

6. It’s best to AVOID the times cruise ships are visiting temples

As you get further down the river Nile to places like Luxor and Aswan, the cruise ships take a pretty standard route. Every cruise ship aims to hit as many temples as possible so that their guests can pack in as much as they can in a short space of time.

If you’re not planning to take a cruise ship down the Nile, it’s worth finding out exactly when these ships will be at each spot and avoiding these times like the plague!! You may still find that each site is busy, but it will not be as busy as it would be if you hit it at the same time as a cruise ship. For example, cruise ships set off for Abu Simbel from Aswan every day at 4am and arrive at 7am when it opens.

What this essentially means is that arriving at opening time is the worst possible time you could be there, as it will be crammed full of people and you photos will be full of other tourists. Instead, we left Aswan at 7am, arrived around 10am and had the place almost entirely to ourselves as all of the tours were leaving. We booked this private tour with Viator – it was worth EVERY penny, and would have been even better value if we’d have had more people.

There are similar excursions to almost every tourist site in Southern Egypt: Valley of the Kings, Philae Temple, Karnak Temple etc. So a great plan is to make a list of when the cruises hit every site so you can avoid these times and have a much better experience.

Times most tours hit each site (this does vary):

For the sake of being useful, we did some research for you guys and found out the below. It’s not exact and we know certain days are busier than others, but looking at a few Nile cruise itineraries, you can expect the below:

Karnak and Luxor Temples – seem to be busiest on Sundays and Tuesdays, before midday
Edfu – seems to be busiest in the afternoons
Kom Ombo – seems to be busiest Thursdays or Saturdays around 9am
Sobek – cruise visits are around 4pm each day
Aswan Dam and Philae – cruise visits seem to be at 7am on Tuesday or Thursday
Abu Simbel – this one has been confirmed in person. 7am is the busiest time, ever day (4am start from Aswan)
Temple of Khnum – 10am seems to be busiest
Valley of the Kings – mornings are busiest (we confirmed this in person) usually Saturdays and Tuesdays or Mondays

Murray is standing in front of Abu Simbel temple with four statues of Ramses 2nd.
Abu Simbel was so much more impressive with no one else there
7. The trains are very expensive for tourists, buses are not

In 2022, the law around train travel changed in Egypt so that now tourists have to book at a completely different booth from the locals. In most stations, the two booths are at opposite ends, which (when you realise the difference in price) is for good reason. Tourist now pay around 4-8 times more than locals for all trains (a 350% increase according to Seat 61), see our shot of tourist prices below. The government asserts that the additional cost goes towards the upkeep of tourist trains and touristic sites. Apparently it’s also in the interests of keeping tourists safe on only travelling on certain trains, since some terrorist attacks in 2009.

We don’t know how much truth there is to this and it does seem like a dramatic increase. In any case, those wanting to stick to a budget would be better served to take a bus where possible (note: this is NOT possible between Aswan and Luxor). Buses in Egypt are a fixed price for everyone, can usually be booked online and are actually really comfortable and pleasant.

Seats are spacious and comfortable, there is usually a USB or plug socket to charge devices, and some of them even have WiFi, though we never found it to be very reliable. You can book some buses on Busbud, others need to be booked on Go Bus (the local company). You can also book in person with Go Bus at bus stations.

A city view of Muhammad Ali Mosque with silver domed rooves
Muhammad Ali Mosque Cairo
8. It’s not very religious (until it is)

Of course, as most people know, Egypt has a mostly Islamic population. The bulk of the population are practising Muslims, so you’ll find many customs synonymous with Islam, such as ubiquitous mosques, modest dress for women and so on, however Egyptians are certainly very accepting in most parts of the country of non-Muslim tourists and the customs they bring with them.

For example, it is not mandatory for tourist women to wear a head cover in most parts of the country and there will even be lots of local women without headscarves too. Personally I did actually choose to wear a headscarf for the bulk of the time I was in Egypt as I felt a bit better protected from the elements (t’s quite dusty!) and from men staring (that happens a lot).

All of that aside, there are certain times and places where religious customs are in full effect and must be respected; for example, when entering a mosque, it is imperative to dress respectfully (covering your arms and legs – men and women) and to remove your shoes. We visited Egypt in Ramadan, when all practising Muslims will be fasting during the day. This made getting food during the day a little tricky in some places (for example Alexandria, we really struggled), but it is mostly fine in the more touristy areas such as Cairo, Luxor and Aswan.

The side of a rock with a carving of a Christian fresco on it
Coptic Church Cairo
9. In some places it’s trickier to eat meat than to eat vegetarian

Most Egyptian food is either naturally vegetarian, vegan or very easily adaptable. We have a full guide on eating vegan in Egypt here, but tameya (an Egyptian form of falafel), foul (beans), pita and tahini are some of the most common foods, along with dates, olives and tabbouleh. Even the national dish of the country (koshari) is completely vegan by accident!

The only meat dish that is super common throughout the country is shawarma, which is usually available in fast food restaurants as well as more formal ones. It’s not exactly difficult to get meat if you want it, but basically it was only countries in Africa where I did not struggle at all to find vegan and vegetarian food,

10. The infrastructure in Egypt is great

In terms of modern conveniences, Egypt is really well set up (compared with a lot of countres we visited in Afriica). Electricity is pretty great and available almost everywhere that you would go as a tourist (the only place we didn’t have it all the time was Siwa, which is less well connected being in the middle of the desert). Likewise we never struggled to find WiFi or data connection (again, except in Siwa). There are buses and trains connecting everywhere to everywhere, and things generally run to time with no major infrastructural issues that we could see.

Note: if you choose to purchase a sim card at the airport in Cairo, it’s important to check your data allocation. We bought a sim that had ‘unlimited data’ but it turned out this only applied to certain apps (such as WhatsApp) and if we wanted to do anything else online, it wasn’t always available in our allowance.

Other things that are good to know:
  • Visas – almost 100 countries can apply for an e-visa online, check if your country is eligible here.
  • Currency – the currency of Egypt is the Egyptian Pound (EGP). You may be able to order it through your home country – if not, you can easily take out money in ATMs on arrival or exchange USD or EUR

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Written by Emma Cartwright 21 January 2024

Emma

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