To say the least, Egypt is rich with temples: soaring lotus-bud columns, enormous stone portals laced with delicate carvings, elaborate underground tombs, windswept desert monasteries, and richly decorated mosques. But as extraordinary as these sights are, they will probably not be the things that linger in your memory after you return home. It is the rhythm of life in Egypt–-from the Mediterranean feel of Alexandria to the electric pace of Cairo to the timelessness of desert villages–-that is unforgettable. In a world that seems to get smaller and more homogeneous by the day, Egypt, outside a few pockets, is still a place that exists for its residents, not its visitors. It is the real thing. As a visitor, you will have to learn how to accommodate Egypt and not hope that Egypt, with 5,000 years of momentum behind it, will accommodate you.
Flying time to Cairo from New York is 10 hours on a nonstop flight; from the West Coast, the minimum flying time is 17 hours (you’ll need to make at least one stop). Cairo is 4 hours from Paris, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt, and 5 hours from London.
If you need to book domestic flights after you have arrived in Egypt, you’ll need to visit an EgyptAir office (or book online) or a reputable travel agent at least one day before you fly—but don’t expect there to be seats available that late, especially in peak season. Book flights to Abu Simbel as early as possible as these flights fill up fast at all times of the year.
Cairo International Airport is the country’s primary international airport and the only one that has nonstop flights from the United States. Terminal 3, which opened in late 2008, is devoted to EgyptAir, both international and domestic flights, and EgyptAir’s Star Alliance partner airlines that fly to Egypt (at this writing, Austrian Airlines, BMI, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, and Turkish Airlines). Small numbers of scheduled flights from Europe also land at Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada, and Luxor.
If you book a package through a travel agent or have prearranged a tour, your airport transfers will almost certainly be included in the price. Look for your company’s sign as you exit baggage claim. If you book independently, then you may have to take a taxi. Ask your hotel if it has a limo transfer service; most hotels do, and though the vehicle is not a true limousine, it will be a vehicle in good condition. You will be charged more than the normal taxi fare for this service (some hotels include transfers if you book an executive-floor room), but after a long flight, the stress-free transfer may be worth the extra money.
Cairo Airport also offers fixed-rate car service (called a limo, although it is generally an average sedan) to all hotels. Private taxis try to charge the same, but with the limo, there’s no need to haggle a fee, and the vehicles are in good condition.
Be sure to give yourself a full two hours for international check-in, and allow an hour to travel to the airport from Downtown/Zamalek unless you are flying late at night or early morning when it can take a little more than half an hour.
Flights to and from Egypt
Only EgyptAir and Delta Airlines offer nonstop flights to Egypt from the United States. Both fly from New York’s JFK into Cairo. Most European airlines offer flights to Egypt, and the majority of Americans must connect in Europe to reach Cairo. Some European budget airlines also fly to Egypt, though few of these airlines have telephone numbers in the country, relying instead on their Web sites.
Privately owned buses are the cheapest way to get around Egypt, but because of security concerns, the Egyptian authorities dissuade independent travelers from using them on certain routes, specifically from Cairo down the Nile to Luxor and from Luxor east to Hurghada.
Bus transport in Egypt is divided geographically, usually with one major company providing services in each region, except in the Sinai and Red Sea coastal areas, where there is some competition. Fares are cheap, and buses are generally modern and in good condition, though the stream of video entertainment played at high volume and overzealous air-conditioning can make the journey slightly unpleasant. Driving standards are poor.
Cairo has a new bus terminal, called Turgomon, for all of its bus service around the country. The station is located near Downtown and all the ticket windows are labeled with the geographic region. There are a handful of bus companies. The East Delta Travel Company runs from Cairo to the Suez Canal and the Sinai; El Gouna Transportation runs from Cairo down the Red Sea Coast; Super Jet offers services from Cairo to the Sinai and the Red Sea; the Upper Egyptian Bus Company has service from Cairo down the Nile to Luxor and Aswan and east from Luxor to Hurghada; the West and Middle Delta Company covers routes to Alexandria, and along the Mediterranean Coast to the Libyan border and Siwa Oasis.
Driving in Egypt can be a stressful and harrowing experience. Egyptian drivers usually ignore speed limits on open roads and drive vehicles that are dangerous from a structural and mechanical point of view. Out in the countryside, there are no pedestrian walkways, and the road shoulders are not well defined. You’ll need to watch out for little children, goats, camels, and oxen—constant vigilance is required. At night these same animals can still be problems, but worse is the fact that few Egyptian drivers use their headlights after dark, so it’s not always easy to see oncoming traffic.
In the city, you’ll need to watch constantly for other traffic and for pedestrians who cross the street anywhere. They can and do appear from behind stationary vehicles, and they cross in the gaps between moving traffic.
Wherever you travel by road in Egypt, you meet police checkpoints. The authorities control all traffic but particularly vehicles carrying foreign tourists. If you are traveling along the Nile Valley in Upper Egypt by car, you should travel with a guarded traffic convoy. Visit the tourist office to find out where the convoy meets and at what time; if you don’t join the convoy, you’ll be stopped at the first checkpoint out of town and either turned back or told to wait for the next convoy or for a guard to be assigned to your vehicle. Waiting for a guard can take well over an hour and could ruin any carefully prepared itinerary.
Between Alexandria and Cairo, Turbo trains are the fastest form of transport (average journey time is two to three hours), and tickets for these services cost £E52 for first class and £E29 for second class. There are three types of trains: Turbini, Spanish, and French. The Turbini takes two hours and 10 minutes, the Spanish two hours and 20 minutes, and the French takes three hours, although trains often run late.
Currently, Turbini trains depart from Cairo at 8 am, 2 pm, and 5 pm; Spanish trains at 9 am, noon, 5 pm, and 10:30 pm; and the French trains at 6 am, 8:30 am, 11 am, 3:10 pm, 4 pm, and 8 pm. From Alexandria Turbini at 8 am, 2 pm, and 5 pm; Spanish trains at 7 am, 3 pm, 7:30 pm, and 10:15 pm; and French trains at 6 am, 8:15 am, 11 am, 3:30 pm, 5 pm, and 8 pm.
Trains also travel between Cairo and Upper Egypt. From Cairo to Luxor, a one-way ticket is £E90 in first class and £E46 in second class; from Cairo to Aswan it’s £E109 in first class and £E55 in second. First class offers you more space, and you have a choice of traveling during the day or at night. For night trains, foreigners sometimes only have the option of riding first class, so if the train is fully booked, you might not find a seat. Buy your tickets one day in advance. Considerably more comfortable sleeper cars run by private company Abela make the daily trip to and from Luxor and Aswan. Buy your tickets far in advance (at least one week). Fares are in U.S. dollars, and the price is $60 per person each way in a double compartment.
For exact schedules and ticket prices, inquire and purchase tickets a few days before departing at the main Ramses train station in Cairo.
Taxis are the backbone of transport in Egypt. Fares are cheap and, in theory, regulated, but if you take a black taxi, you’ll need to haggle. Ask your guide or hotel concierge what are realistic fares between destinations before you depart. Taking a taxi to or from any hotel will always be more expensive than taking one from the street. And always make sure you agree to a fare with the driver before you enter the taxi.
In Cairo, white and yellow taxis have meters. Make sure the driver turns on the meter when you enter. White taxis start at £E2.50 and yellows at £E3.50. They typically charge £E0.50 by the kilometer and the same for one minute of waiting. Yellow taxis charge less for the wait, so if you take one to a tourist site, it is not a bad idea to ask the driver to wait for you outside.
In Sharm El-Sheikh, taxi fares are posted at major taxi stands, but visitors rarely make it to these places to check out the prices. Hikes in fuel prices in 2008 have also played havoc with well-established fares.
Paid Internet access of some kind is available in almost every hotel. Most of the five-star hotels in Cairo have paid access in the rooms, though free Internet access is usually one of the privileges of booking an executive-floor room. In remote areas of the country, Internet access is typically only at Internet cafés.
Wi-Fi is becoming more prevalent in the better hotels, particularly in Cairo; it is usually free but generally exists only in the lobby and some public areas, rather than in your room. Most modern coffeehouses use the Internet through a service provided by one of the mobile phone operators in Egypt. If you make a purchase, most places will give you a free scratch card for access, but you will need to input a local mobile phone number. There are dozens of Internet cafés in Cairo, and usually one or two in each of the major towns and resorts. Access prices vary from £E5 per hour in Internet cafés in the capital to £E30 per 30 minutes in hotels.
To call Egypt from the United States, dial 00, then the country code 20 and the local number
Calling Within Egypt
To make a local call, you must dial the regional code plus the seven-digit or eight-digit number (Greater Cairo has eight-digit numbers). Directory assistance for calls within Egypt is 140; its operators are known to speak English well.
City codes within Egypt include Cairo 02; Alexandria 03; Luxor 095; Aswan 097; Sharm El-Sheikh 069; and Hurghada 065.
Rates for calling within Egypt vary by the hotel, but local calls are sometimes only a few piastres per minute unless you are calling from a five-star hotel, which charges significantly more, varying from one hotel to the next.
Calling Outside Egypt
From Egypt, just dial 00–1 plus the area code and number to call the United States or Canada. For the international operator, dial 120. It’s cheaper to call after 8 pm in the evening.
The AT&T USA Direct and MCI calling cards can be used in Egypt. Simply dial the access number and follow the instructions. If you use a pay phone to call, you may require a coin or card deposit. Some hotels block the use of these numbers. If this is the case, try contacting the telephone company operator for a connection.
Phone cards, which are sold at gift shops and supermarkets, can usually give you considerable savings if you’re calling the United States or Canada.
The mobile phone network is well established in Egypt. Vodafone, Mobinil, and Etisalat are the three major companies in Egypt, and they have offices all across the country. If you have a quad-band GSM phone, it will probably work in Egypt, but you can also bring an old phone from home (get the phone company to unlock the phone for you) and buy a SIM card once you get to Egypt so that you can receive calls and texts on a local number. Phones start at £E180, SIM cards cost around £E25, and you can buy top-up minutes from £E10 to £E200 at one time. To call internationally, the cost is £E1.99 per minute, but you might have to contact the provider first to get this price.
Local eateries are no more than street kitchens with a couple of tables, though you can find better restaurants serving local food in Cairo and the major tourist towns.
Cairo and Alexandria are both well known for their ahwas (coffee shops). Today U.S.–style joints offering caffeine in a range of flavors and styles are joining these traditional cafés.
In all major towns, you’ll find a range of international cuisines including Thai, Chinese, and Italian. The best restaurants are usually found in upscale hotels. Vegetarians will always be able to find local salads, hummus, and rice to sustain them; however, finding variety during a trip may be a problem (pizza is available in most tourist destinations, as are delicious soups, just be aware that some of these soups are made with meat-based stocks).
Meals and Mealtimes
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed are open daily for lunch and dinner.
The main meal of the day is lunch (ghada). It starts with a soup, such as shorbat’ads (lentil), for which Egypt is famous throughout the Middle East, or molukhiyya, a thick green-leaf soup. A wide range of mezze (appetizers) follows, and this can make a meal in itself. You’ll taste dips like tahini (sesame-seed paste) or baba ghanouj (mashed roasted eggplant), wara einab (stuffed grape leaves), a crispy local ta’ameya (Egyptian felafel), and fuul (stewed fava beans). The main course is invariably grilled chicken, often roasted whole in a rotisserie oven, lamb or beef shish kebab (skewered in chunks), or kofta (minced lamb on skewers). Hamam mahshi (stuffed pigeon) is popular. Fresh vegetables are hard to come by, except in the rather generic cucumber salad, but stewed vegetables such as bamia (okra) are common. Every meal comes with round loaves of pita-style bread, either ‘aish baladi (coarse-grain wheat) or ‘aish shami (white). ‘Asha, or dinner, is composed of a similar menu, although many Egyptian families partake in only a light meal at night, consisting of fruit and sandwiches.
For fitar (breakfast), you can do as Egyptians do and indulge in a steaming plate of ful, accompanied by fried eggs, bread, and pickles. Lighter fare includes croissants and other savory pastries, bought fresh from the local bakery and topped with cheese or jam. In Cairo, there are a few American-style breakfast restaurants, but these are by no means widespread. Certain places like El Fishawy Café in the Khan al-Khalili stay open for 24 hours.
In the countryside, few Egyptians eat out and so restaurants there tend to be rudimentary affairs. In cities and resorts you’ll find a range of restaurants, from street kitchens to gourmet spots with silver service. Most restaurants stay open throughout the day, so you’ll always be able to find something when you get hungry.
Credit cards are widely accepted in hotel restaurants; less so in private establishments. More private establishments in Cairo and the Red Sea resorts accept cards than in the rest of the country.
Reservations and Dress
Make reservations when planning to dine in upscale hotel restaurants, particularly if you are not a guest. Restaurants requiring a jacket and tie for men are rare, with the notable exception of several restaurants in the Sofitel Winter Garden Hotel in Luxor. Diners in upscale Cairo restaurants tend to dress up, however.
Wine, Beer, and Spirits
Although Egypt is an Islamic country and many Egyptians do not drink alcohol, the country does produce its own beer and wine. Local beers are very thirst-quenching, especially if drunk cold. Look for the trade names Luxor, Saqqara, and Heineken (brewed under license in Egypt). The wine industry isn’t competition for the French or Californian vineyards but does supply acceptable table wine—look for the labels Grand Marquis, Cape Bay, or Jardin du Nil.
Many local restaurants don’t serve alcohol, so ask before you order your food if this is important to you. Any hotel above two stars should by law serve alcohol, but outside the tourist hot spots, there may not be enough demand for hotels to hold stock. Imported alcohol and wine are very expensive, so expect to pay a premium for these when they are available. On religious holidays and during the month of Ramadan, many restaurants do not serve alcohol.
Violence against foreign tourists is very rare in Egypt; pick-pocketing and theft can sometimes be a problem in busy markets and at popular tourist sights. Tourist police patrol all main tourist areas and have brown uniforms with Tourist Police on their armbands. They are helpful, but not all the street officers speak English well.
If you are a victim of theft, you’ll need to report it to the regular police and get a case number in order to make a claim on your insurance policy. This can be a time-consuming exercise (two or three hours).
If you are ever threatened on the street or in a public place, do not hesitate to scream for help or make a scene—it will not go unheard, and you’ll find more than one person coming to your defense. Whatever the emergency, expect Egyptians to go out of their way to help.
Medical personal generally speak some English, and almost all doctors are English speakers. Medical facilities are not as good as at home, particularly throughout the Western Desert oases. Pharmacists are well qualified and able to give advice on common low-risk ailments; they can also prescribe many medications (including antibiotics and even Viagra) that are available only by prescription in the United States. Each town or district has at least one late-night pharmacy but these open in rotation—so ask your hotel concierge to find out which one is open when you need it. Pharmacies normally stay open until 10 pm. In major cities you’ll also find 24-hour pharmacies; ask at your hotel’s registration desk if you need to find a nearby pharmcy.
If you are the victim of a serious crime or accident, contact the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for assistance.
Fire Brigade. 125.
Tourist Police. 126.
United States Embassy. 8 Shar’a Kamel El Din Salah, Garden City, Cairo, Cairo. 02/2797–3300.
There are several minor hazards in Egypt that you need to bear in mind. First, never underestimate the power of the sun. Even in the coolest months, there’s a risk of sunburn and sunstroke. Stay out of the sun as much as possible, wear a hat when you are out and about, apply high-SPF sun cream regularly (international brands are available in pharmacies and supermarkets), and keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids (not alcohol).
Water quality is a concern. Never drink water from the tap water or from public fountains. Local people drink this water but it may contain microbes that your body isn’t used to. Ice in five-star hotels should be produced using purified water, but if in doubt ask for drinks without ice (min gheir talg). Bottled water (mayya ma’daniya) is inexpensive and readily available. Remember to check that the seal on the bottle is intact before you open it.
If you are traveling with children, all this advice goes double. Children may not be aware that they are beginning to suffer from dehydration or sunstroke. Give them plenty to drink even if they don’t complain of being thirsty, and keep their heads and skin covered.
Most people get some form of intestinal disturbance in Egypt. This can be a minor change in regularity put down to a change in water supply or the hot weather, but it’s sometimes more serious and may be related to the ingestion of contaminated food or water. To minimize your risk, make sure the meat you eat is well cooked, avoid unpeeled fruits and vegetables, and avoid dairy products, unless the packaging looks as if it comes from a legitimate factory and is stored in a functional refrigerator. Ask about whether the salad in your hotel has been washed in purified water. Antinal is a locally produced remedy for traveler’s diarrhea that’s inexpensive and effective, but if symptoms become severe call a doctor immediately. The main danger here is dehydration, so if you cannot keep down liquids, don’t hesitate to call for a doctor immediately.
Do not swim in the Nile, and don’t drink the river water because of the risk of picking up waterborne parasites. Avoid all standing freshwater, as there is the risk of bilharzia (schistosomiasis).
There’s little risk of malaria in Egypt—so there’s no need to take antimalarial tablets—but it’s worth protecting yourself from insect bites as some of these little critters do carry dengue fever or West Nile virus. You can buy anti-insect skin creams and sprays in pharmacies and tourist shops. It’s easy to buy the antimosquito coils that burn to give off fumes that repel the insects.
Medical Insurance and Assistance
Consider buying trip insurance with medical-only coverage. Neither Medicare nor some private insurers cover medical expenses anywhere outside the United States. Medical-only policies typically reimburse you for medical care (excluding that related to preexisting conditions) and hospitalization abroad and provide for evacuation. You still have to pay the bills and await reimbursement from the insurer, though.
Another option is to sign up with a medical-evacuation assistance company. Membership in one of these companies gets you doctor referrals, emergency evacuation or repatriation, 24-hour hotlines for medical consultation, and other assistance. International SOS Assistance Emergency and AirMed International provide evacuation services and medical referrals. MedjetAssist offers medical evacuation.
Shots and Vaccinations
The CDC recommends routine vaccinations as well as a vaccination against hepatitis A; it’s also wise to have a vaccination against hepatitis B. The risk of typhoid is generally low, but if you plan to visit the Western Desert oases or stay in the countryside you should discuss this risk with your doctor; get a typhoid vaccination if you intend to take a multiday felucca trip on the Nile. Rabies is recommended for travelers spending a lot of time outdoors, especially in rural areas.
Pharmacies in Egypt are well stocked—you can even buy antibiotics over the counter—and medications are quite inexpensive by U.S. standards, but not all product names will be the same as in the United States. Pharmacists are trained to help and will be able to offer you the generic drug you need or one that will deal with your symptoms. For headaches, Panadol (more generally known as acetaminophen in the United States) is the most common remedy.
The key to packing for a trip to Egypt is to focus on lightweight and practical items for daytime sightseeing. Cottons, linens, and moisture-wicking fabrics make the most sensible choices for the heat. Egypt is an Islamic country, albeit a more open society than some in the Middle East, but attitudes toward dress are still more conservative than in the United States, particularly with regard to women’s attire. The clientele in Cairo’s upmarket hotels and nightclubs tend to dress up. Resort towns on the Red Sea are the exception; foreign women are more or less free to dress how they want.
It’s important that all travelers—but particularly women—not expose too much flesh. Pack T-shirts with sleeves that end between shoulder and elbow rather than tank tops or those with spaghetti straps. Many women wear light scarves to cover their necks and shoulders; these can be bought cheaply on the street or in bazaars. Long shorts and Capri pants are fine for women, but full-length pants are better. Skirts should be at least knee length. Short shorts and short skirts will cause stares; moreover, to visit churches and mosques in Egypt women must have shoulders and knees covered. In mosques you’ll also need to cover your hair, so if you don’t want to use a scarf supplied by the mosque, carry your own lightweight scarf.
For men, long shorts are acceptable when you’re traveling on tours, but full-length lightweight pants are preferable and are especially recommended in Cairo and in the desert, where they offer more protection from the sun. Regular T-shirts are fine, but lightweight collared shirts help protect your neck and arms from the sun better. Only a few hotels require a jacket and tie (most notably the Sofitel Winter Palace in Luxor), but men will be expected to wear long pants, collared shirts, and shoes (not sandals) in the evenings.
If you travel in winter, pack a fleece or a jacket for the cold evening air. This is especially true if you intend to overnight in the desert.
Beachwear is appropriate only around the pool or at upscale beaches. You may find visitors of other nationalities scantily dressed in hotel lobbies and even around town, but this is against local sensibilities.
Must packs: comfortable shoes, because you’ll be walking a lot and climbing up and down rickety or badly set stairs into tombs; a hat, because the sun is hot at all times of year; sunglasses, because temple facades and rock faces are extremely bright in the daylight; and sunscreen to protect any exposed skin. Pharmacies in Egypt are well stocked. Don’t bother bringing expensive prescription medicine for intestinal upsets. Instead, buy Antinal, a locally available intestinal antibiotic that is commonly used to treat diarrhea, when you arrive in Egypt, and take a couple the moment you feel any problems. It’s cheap (about $1.50), available in every pharmacy, and very effective. In more serious cases, a doctor or pharmacist can prescribe a stronger antibiotic, which will cost much less than at home.
Extra stuff that will be helpful includes a small flashlight for visiting dimly lit tombs and temples; lightweight binoculars, to allow you a clearer view of monumental temple facades, and for bird-watching on the Nile; antibacterial gel, so that you can clean your hands before eating no matter where you are.
Except in the Western Desert, you can buy almost anything you need in the cities and main towns, from baby formula to feminine hygiene products and contact lens supplies, but prices may be more expensive than at home.
Outside of five-star hotels, finding a clean restroom can be quite a challenge. For a safe bet go to a chain or fast-food restaurant, although some require that you make a purchase to use the restroom. Many women avoid public restrooms altogether, which is frustrating because the hot weather requires drinking plenty of water. Women should keep wipes on them to be safe. For men, finding a urinal is not so difficult, although the stench is sometimes unbearable. Public restrooms are rarely clean and often do not have toilet paper. There is also a problem with flushing toilet paper, so you will usually find a wastebasket for used paper. Most restaurants, bars, and hotels have a restroom attendant who should receive at least £E1, even if the area is not adequately clean. Tips are often their only source of income. Highway rest stops usually charge £E1 to use their facilities.
There is no departure tax when you leave the country. On services such as hotel rooms, group travel, and car rental, a 10% tax is levied. Imported goods are highly taxed, but this is included in the ticketed sale price.
Tipping, or baksheesh, is a way of life in Egypt. Everyone who performs some kind of service for you will expect some kind of monetary reward. This has become so engrained into Egyptian society that small children may come up and simply ask for money. Adults may engage you in conversation and then ask for a little baksheesh as you part company. Another ploy is to offer you a free gift, a small piece of alabaster or a scarab, then ask for a monetary “gift” in return. The amounts are small—£E1 is sufficient for restroom attendants, £E2 or £E3 is sufficient for most other small services—but it is up to you whether you feel obliged to hand over cash for such “services.” Lots of households live very close to the poverty line in Egypt, and the dollar you hand over will have far more spending power in Luxor than in Los Angeles.
A 12% service charge is included in almost all restaurant bills. When in doubt, ask. Even then it’s still expected that you will tip an extra 5% to 10% in cash (especially if you are using a credit card) if the service was to your liking. In hotels, it’s customary to leave at least a dollar per day for the hotel maid. Taxi drivers don’t expect a tip for short journeys around town, but you should tip if you engage a driver to take you to several attractions with waiting time or book a driver for a day (add 10% to the agreed fee). Hotel porters expect at least $1.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.
When entering Egypt, there are few restricted items, beyond the normal prohibited goods, such as firearms, narcotics, etc. Customs officers will be concerned if you bring in goods in large amounts to sell for a profit—for instance, large numbers of cameras or mobile phones—but most visitors have no problems.
The Egyptian authorities are very keen to keep control of their historical heritage, so you’ll need official paperwork to allow you to export anything regarded as an antique or antiquity.
If you want to bring your pet, you’ll need a certificate of origin and a health certificate. The certificate of origin should be from the breeder or store where you bought your pet. The certificate of health needs to be dated and stamped by your vet.
When you arrive in Egypt you can bring in alcohol and tobacco duty-free. You can also buy further supplies at accredited duty-free shops during the first 48 hours after you arrive. In Cairo, you’ll find shops at the airport, City Stars Mall, and in the Mohandiseen district. There are also shops in El Gouna and Sharm El-Sheikh.
The electrical current in Egypt is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC). Most wall outlets take rounded plugs, so North American travelers will need both a converter and an adapter.
If your appliances are dual-voltage, you’ll need only an adapter. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked for shavers only for high-wattage appliances such as blow-dryers. Most laptops operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts and so require only an adapter.
Dress is a very important part of respect in Egypt. Wearing shorts, short skirts, and halter tops in the streets is considered inappropriate, despite the fact that many tourists persist in being inappropriately attired. Cover shoulders and knees when you enter mosques and churches.
Beyond this, the relationship between the sexes is very different compared to a non-Muslim country. Public displays of affection such as kisses on the lips between couples are frowned upon in Egypt. This is a country where kissing and cuddling is considered private behavior. Public drunkenness is also discouraged.
Sexuality is not widely discussed in Egypt, and homosexuality remains taboo. Therefore an open gay population is hard to come by, and a general acceptance also isn’t prevalent. However, there is a large gay and lesbian population that remains underground. While there’s no law against homosexuality, gay men, in particular, can be jailed and/or prosecuted under Egypt’s wide-ranging and ill-defined indecency laws. With discretion, gay travelers can expect to get along fine, as most Egyptians will assume that the relationship is simply a friendship, and public shows of affection amongst men (holding hands and walking arm in arm) is a normal show of masculine brotherhood in Egypt and many other Muslim countries.
Banks are open for business 9 to 2 Sunday through Thursday, although certain branches stay open until 5 pm. In addition, you can withdraw money from your home bank using ATMs found outside major banks and inside hotels. Businesses are usually open by 8 am and close by 4 or 5 pm Sunday through Thursday.
Egypt’s postal offices are open from 8:30 to 3. The larger post offices in Cairo—Muhammad Farid (Downtown), Ataba Square (next to the Postal Museum), and the Ma’adi offices—are open until 6 pm daily.
Shops are generally open from 9 am until 10 pm, although they may open and close later. Many close for at least an hour for Friday prayers and some close on Sundays, though in the tourist towns, souvenir shops are open daily. In the coastal resorts, shops sometimes close during the afternoons.
Egypt’s fixed national holidays include New Year’s Day (January 1) Sinai Liberation Day (April 25), Labor Day (May 1), Evacuation Day (June 18), and Revolution Day (July 23).
The Muslim lunar calendar is normally 10 to 11 days earlier than the Gregorian year. The month of Ramadan lasts for anywhere from 28 to 30 days and entails fasting—no food, water, or smoking—from dawn to sunset. It’s followed by Ead al-Fetr, known as the “small feast” in English. The “big feast” is Eid al-Adha, which occurs at the end of the Pilgrimage Period. The other two main Muslim holidays are the Muslim New Year (in late March or early April), and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (falling anywhere between late May and late June). Coptic holidays are observed by Coptic citizens only. They are Christmas (January 7), Baptism (January 20), Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter), and Easter.
It’s fine to tip tour guides in U.S. dollars, but for small tips (restroom attendants especially) local currency is better since £E1 is worth far less than US$1. Few stores accept U.S. dollars, so you should plan to exchange currency. ATMs (makinat al-flus) are plentiful in major tourist areas, and you can rely on them to restock your wallet with Egyptian pounds, but they may be difficult to find (or broken) in smaller, more out-of-the-way places. Most large tourist hotels have banks right in the hotel that can do currency exchange; some of these will also have ATMs.
You’ll need cash to purchase locally produced souvenirs in markets, cheap snacks and beverages in small stores, and for taxi, felucca, and carriage rides. All restrooms in Egypt are attended, and the staff expects a small tip of £E1 or at least 50 piastres. Be prepared to tip a few pounds for all kinds of service; £E5 and £E10 are the most useful notes for short taxi rides, small purchases, and for tipping. All major hotels, cruise ships, and leading restaurants take payment by credit cards. In shops and souks, cash is still king. Far fewer establishments outside hotels take credit cards, and paying by credit card can incur 2% to 3% surcharges.
Prices throughout are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
ATMs that accept international cards (Cirrus and PLUS) are numerous in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and in the coastal resorts of Hurghada, El Gouna, and Sharm El-Sheikh. You can find them at bank branches, in shopping malls, post offices, and in the lobbies of major hotels. Major providers include the National Bank of Egypt, HSBC, Credit Agricole Egypt, and National Societe General Bank (NSGB). Screen commands are in Arabic, English, and sometimes French.
In the oases of the Western Desert, the banking system still lags behind the rest of Egypt. Bring enough cash with you to fully fund your trip.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
Currency and Exchange
The Egyptian pound (£E) is divided into 100 piastres (pt). Banknotes currently in circulation are the following: 10pt, 25pt, and 50pt notes; £E1, £E5, £E10, £E20, £E50, and £E100 notes. There are also 5pt, 10pt, 20pt, 25pt, 50pt, and £E1 coins, the latter two being the most common. Don’t accept any dog-eared bills, as many vendors will refuse to take them. Just politely give it back and ask for a replacement.
You should change money into Egyptian pounds, as most places do not accept foreign currency, with the exception of crowded tourist areas. Beware that when vendors do accept foreign currency, you will probably not get a fair rate of exchange. At this writing, the exchange rate was approximately £E5.6 to US$1.
You can find currency-exchange offices at all airports and most major hotels, as well as on the street, and in major shopping areas throughout the island. A passport is usually required to cash traveler’s checks. Save some of the official receipts you are given with your transaction. If you end up with too many Egyptian pounds when you are ready to leave the country, you may need to show the receipts when you exchange the pounds for dollars since they are not convertible outside of Egypt. Hotels provide exchange services, but, as a rule, offer less favorable exchange rates.
Google does currency conversion. Just type in the amount you want to convert and an explanation of how you want it converted (e.g., “14 Swiss francs in dollars”), and then voilà. Oanda.com also allows you to print out a handy table with the current day’s conversion rates. XE.com is another good currency conversion Web site.
Traveler’s checks can still be converted into local currency and in Egypt (unlike some other destinations) can still provide a reliable back-up. Since American Express is one of the world’s largest providers of traveler’s checks and has offices in all major tourist destinations, it is the company of choice for most travelers. It can be difficult to exchange traveler’s checks in banks, and traveler’s checks are rarely accepted as payment by even major hotels.
U.S. and EU citizens can buy tourist visas on arrival in Egypt at any Egyptian international airport; the process takes only a few minutes, and the windows selling visas are immediately before immigration (look to the left in Cairo). The current cost of a single-entry visa is $15 (payable in U.S. dollars, euros, or pounds sterling), and it is valid for two weeks. If you plan to stay longer you will have to apply at the Mogamma, a building that serves as the bureaucratic center of the country, located in Cairo across from the Egyptian Museum. The visa is often more expensive if you buy it in advance in your home country. You’ll find a kiosk immediately before immigration in every major airport. All visitors must have at least six months validity on their passports to enter Egypt.
If you have booked through a tour operator or have arranged a transfer with your hotel, the representative will be waiting for you in the arrivals hall and will help with this process, but it’s not complicated.
If you arrive in Egypt via Israel at Taba you will not be able to buy a full tourist visa at the border crossing. They will only issue a visa limiting you to the Sinai region; to get a tourist visa that allows you to travel to other parts of Egypt, you must visit the Egyptian Consulate in Eilat.
Egypt has suffered a number of terrorist attacks in the past two decades; a spate of attacks in Luxor and Cairo in the mid-1990s, as well as bombings in the Sinai and in Cairo in 2004 and 2005. These attacks appear to have been undertaken by domestic terrorists whose purpose is to unsettle the government by hitting the tourist market (the country’s biggest money earner) rather than part of a wider terrorist network.
The U.S. State Department advisory on Egypt gives clear advice on travel to these regions.
Security measures are in place to protect foreign travelers in Egypt. These include providing armed officers to travel with tourists, arranging visitors traveling by road into convoys, and ensuring that all hotels have guards and X-ray machines to check all incoming bags.
That said, the atmosphere in the streets and at attractions, cafés, and hotels is generally relaxed, with no threatening overtones. Most Egyptians are very welcoming of foreign visitors, and if you get a chance to chat with any Egyptians, they are usually very interested in finding out about you.
Violent crime against tourists in Egypt is very rare and even petty theft is at a low level compared to other international destinations. While robbery is unlikely, you are more likely to be ripped off by a taxi driver or a vendor who makes easy money from tourists who are poor hagglers. However, in Red Sea and Sinai resort areas where there are a lot of tourists, crime (particularly theft) is rising, and you should exhibit the same caution you would in any unfamiliar destination. Never leave items on the beach when you go for a swim. If you have a safe in your hotel room, use it.
You’ll be approached for baksheesh (tip money) for almost anything. Young kids will feel happy to say hello as you pass, then as you reply immediately open their hands for money. At major attractions, men may engage you in conversation as you cross a road then stop the traffic to ease your crossing—then demand a cash reward. One should always be mindful of the poverty of many households, but on the other hand, should you pay out for services that you did not specifically demand or even want? Don’t feel obliged to hand over money if you don’t feel that it has been earned.
Beware a young Egyptian male who attaches himself to your party as you explore the markets. He’ll notice your interest and produce samples of bread or dates for you to try, then eventually will ask for “guiding” money. Another scam is to encourage you into a local shop in the pretence that it’s only for tea and a chat, only to press a sale once you’re seated and relaxed. But, remember too that these individuals are mixed in with hundreds of very genuine Egyptians who are willing to help for no reward except a chance to chat with a visitor and practice their English, so don’t treat everyone with suspicion, just be aware that these approaches do happen.
Women may find themselves on the receiving end of attention from teenage boys and men. This attention is mainly blatant staring and some kind of opening gambit to engage you in conversation, but it can also include very inappropriate comments. This sort of behavior is best ignored. Assault is not common, but occasionally men will attempt to touch women. If this happens to you, do not stay silent. Shout, “Leave me alone” or “Stop that” loudly, and this should result in a chastened offender. Make it very clear you find this behavior offensive.
Egypt is two hours ahead of GMT. The country alters its daylight saving time each year so it is best to check the local time upon arrival.