COMPLETE EGYPT TRAVEL GUIDE
In 1922, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was present when Howard Carter first peeped into Tutankhamen’s tomb. When Lord Carnarvon asked him what he could see, Carter famously replied: ‘Wonderful things.”
That is quite the understatement. You’ll find this comprehensive Egypt Tavel Guide, the Ten Day Egypt Itinerary and my many posts on the treasures of ancient Egypt liberally peppered with superlatives. I am yet to visit another country that can boast such a vast array of extraordinary heritage sites. And certainly none as steeped in antiquity.
Is Egypt safe for tourists? This guide addresses that principal concern and many other questions related to Egypt travel – including the new Cairo Pass & Luxor Pass – that have been raised by readers and friends ever since our visit.
I’ve tried to include as many details as I could think of, collated from my notes and experiences from the journey. All newly updated with inputs from our local guides. If you have anything in particular that you still need answers for do feel free to drop me a line here.
DISCLAIMER- The information provided below has been meticulously checked for accuracy at the time of writing. While efforts will be made to keep it updated periodically things can change without notice. Please do corroborate all details with relevant companies/websites before finalising your travel plans.
IS EGYPT SAFE FOR TOURISTS?
Let’s get that burning question out of the way first.
Yes, Egypt is safe for tourists. Incidences of major crime are relatively less across areas frequented by foreigners. Tourists, especially solo women travellers, do face a certain amount of hassle, mostly around popular tourist sites like the pyramids. But it isn’t dangerous and best ignored. If you hire a guide he/she will act as a buffer.
With tourism being a major contributor to the economy, it is in Egypt’s interest to ensure the safety of visitors. Tourist police presence is prominent in the cities and frequent check points along highways are comforting even if they add hours to your journey. The massive downturn post the 2011 revolution – and now due to the current pandemic – will only make tourist safety even more of a priority.
That said, you’ll need to keep your wits about you against scammers and pick pockets when visiting busy sites. Also, wandering off into sensitive areas like northern Sinai and the region bordering Libya is likely to get you into trouble.
Heed your government advisories based on current political developments. Violent attacks claimed by terrorist groups aren’t uncommon, but then where is it these days? There was a shoot out in Brussels Central Station hours before my friend and I arrived in 2017. And there have been numerous incidents in London, Paris, even normally tranquil Sri Lanka.
“Nowhere in the world is 100 per cent safe.”
The primary attractions included in standard Egypt itineraries are the Pyramids of Giza, Abu Simbel Temples (from Aswan) and the tombs and temples of Luxor. These highlights, along with a dreamy felucca ride on the Nile, can be covered in a bare bones itinerary of about a week.
It would be a pity, however, to miss out on the fascinating layered history of Cairo, the exquisite tombs of the Old Kingdom necropolis of Saqqara, experiencing, however briefly, the slow rural landscape of the villages along the Nile and the exceptional out of the way temples like those in Abydos and Dendera.
MORE THINGS TO DO
If exploring history and culture in an endless loop of ruins and temples is not your thing, here are a few suggestions to swap with some of the ancient sites.
ALEXANDRIA, founded by Alexander and once renowned for the lighthouse that was one of the seven ancient wonders, is an easy day-trip from Cairo.
RED SEA BEACH RESORTS – There’s a whole load of resort towns to choose from. Here’s an article that will help you pick the right one.
MOUNT SINAI is a pilgrimage site in Egypt popular with Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. According to the Old Testament, this is the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
You could combine a visit to Saint Catherine’s Monastery and a sunrise hike to Mount Sinai with the Red Sea resorts. This post shows you how.
WHITE DESERT – Camp under the stars in this surreal desert. Something I look forward to doing if I return.
TEN DAY EGYPT ITINERARY
You need 10 – 12 nights to experience much of the cultural landmarks of the Nile Valley without feeling too rushed.
Here’s a detailed itinerary for an epic ten days through the best places to visit in Egypt: Crawl into the Great Pyramid, admire the Sphinx in Giza, explore Cairo, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Luxor, Abydos and Dendera like a pro.
It includes current (2020) entrance fees, travel times, transport options and links to more stories and guides. Do go through the alternative suggestions at the end to customise it to your needs.
NILE CRUISE OPTIONS
Drifting along Egypt’s legendary river has been romanticised to such an extent that it feels sacrilegious to not take a cruise. I did consider cutting it out but was vetoed by the husband.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM A NILE CRUiSE
Standard Nile river cruises ply in both directions, departing from Aswan or Luxor and returning the same way. Most ships offer three to four night itineraries that include the most important sites in Aswan & Luxor as well as Kom Ombo, Edfu & Esna along the way. They are all inclusive and cover all meals and standard beverages. A few offer two night itineraries.
The sailing is minimal, limited to a few hours on the first couple of days. It is anchored all night. And all day once in Luxor/Aswan until the next departure. Departures are staggered to avoid congestion on the route. (Be sure to tally your flights with exact day of departure.)
THE BEST NILE CRUISE BOATS
‘Best’ is relative. If you have deep enough pockets, high end boats like the Oberoi Zahra and the Sanctuary Sun Boats are top of the line.
In the mid range, Oberoi Philae, M S Mayfair and the Movenpick boats are among the best rated.
We chose the Oberoi Philae since it is part of one of the best hotel chains in India and we were able to get a good deal from their India office. It lived up to the high Oberoi service standards but the boat was much in need of refurbishment at the time and the food and the ‘Egyptologist’ allotted to our group was sub par. It has since been completely revamped and is probably as stellar as its pricier sister ship.
Dahabiyas (twin-sailed river yacht) and steam ships “bring turn-of-the-century-travel on the Nile back to life.” They are slower and their smaller size allows docking at villages the larger boats cannot reach. So you get a more authentic, immersive experience. The slower speeds result in longer itineraries, however, and the more ‘comfortable’ boats might not be much cheaper than the regular cruises. Take a look at this drool worthy craft. Or this.
IS A NILE CRUISE WORTH IT?
That depends a lot on one’s interests, travelling style and budget.
For those unwilling to take on the logistics of inter-city travel and daily excursions, a cruise is the ideal way to ‘do’ this part of Egypt. Everything is taken care of and one is living the age old romance of river travel that was the only means of transport up until a few decades ago.
Experienced travellers might seek more than romance, however. The group excursions can feel restrictive after a point. There is an option to hire private guides but that drives up prices further.
With hindsight, I recommend and would opt for overland travel myself if I were to return. Especially considering one can organise private transfers and sightseeing for less than the cost of a well reviewed cruise.
ORIGINAL LONG NILE CRUISE
A couple of high end companies offer cruises from Cairo all the way to Aswan or vice versa. Movenpick MS Darakum & Steigenberger Royale are the two main vessels plying this route. Termed the ‘Long Cruise’ the two week itineraries cover more sites along the way including Abydos and Dendera. Ideal for travellers who do not have the time or inclination to plan themselves. They don’t operate through the year, however, and chances of cancellations due to lack of demand might be high. Check directly with the respective companies or your local provider if interested. I’d appreciate feedback in case any of you use this route.
LAKE NASSER CRUISE
Few people consider taking the Lake Nasser cruise from Aswan to Abu Simbel or in reverse. I find the idea of approaching Abu Simbel from the lake very appealing.
The Movenpick MS Prince Abbas & Steigenberger Omar El Khayam depart every Monday from Aswan and return on Fridays from Abu Simbel.
With the possibility of flying from Cairo to Abu Simbel (via Aswan), taking the 3 night Nasser Lake cruise option to return to Aswan might be a great way to maximise time in Abu Simbel. It would easily fit into the ten day itinerary above. Dates – and budget – permitting.
ALL ABOUT THE CAIRO PASS & THE LUXOR PASS
The Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt has introduced city sightseeing passes for tourists in Cairo & Luxor.
The Cairo Pass allows visitors unlimited entry to over 30 attractions in Cairo, Giza and Saqqara – including entry inside pyramids – for five consecutive days.
You do not need tickets for the site you are buying the pass from. Just state your intention to buy it and you will be allowed in. There are posters stuck at ticket offices in all three locations that you can point to in case something gets lost in translation. Specify the date on which you wish to start the pass and they will enter it accordingly.
Make sure you have the exact amount in NEW & UNCREASED bills.
Price: Adult: US$100 (€ 90); Student: US$ 50 (€ 45)
Documents required: Original passport, a copy of the main page of your passport, and a passport sized photo.
Points of sale: Egyptian Museum, Giza Plateau and the Cultural Affairs Department office on 3 El-Adel Abubakr Street, Zamalek during working hours. No tickets sold on Fridays & Saturdays (Egyptian weekend).
Luxor offers two categories of passes.
The STANDARD LUXOR PASS allows multiple entry to all the temples, tombs and attractions in and around Luxor for five consecutive days with the exception of the big ticket tombs of Seti I and Neferteri.
The PREMIUM LUXOR PASS is all inclusive and allows multiple entry into all sites without exception over five consecutive days.
Standard Luxor Pass: Adult: US$ 100 (€ 90); Student: US$ 50 (€ 45)
Premium Luxor Pass: Adult: US$ 200 (€ 180); Student: US$ 100 (€ 90)
Documents required: Original passport, a copy of the main page of your passport, and a passport sized photo.
Sales points: Ministry of Antiquities office in Karnak Temple and also in the Cultural Affairs Department office in Cairo mentioned above.
Note: While the documentation (linked to below) claims the Luxor Pass is available in ALL the Cairo sales points, currently you can only buy it in the Zamalek office. No tickets sold on Fridays & Saturdays (Egyptian weekend).
DISCOUNTED LUXOR PASS
If you opt to buy both the Cairo AND the Luxor passes, you get the Luxor pass at a 50% discount. Discount applies on the student price as well.
You need to have bought the Cairo pass first – unless buying both together in Cairo – and will have to show the actual pass and NOT a photocopy or receipt when you buy the Luxor pass.
It is possible to buy both passes together in Cairo at the Zamalek office. The link below claims both passes are sold at all four outlets, but all online accounts so far state otherwise. Have no doubt that’ll change soon.
Please note: Camera photography fee is not included in any of these passes. Mobile phone photography is free across the board as of this writing.
IS THE CAIRO PASS OR THE LUXOR PASS WORTH IT FOR YOU?
It is unlikely you will hit enough sites in Cairo on a short visit to make the Cairo pass worthwhile by itself.
The combined discounted price of US$ 200 for the Cairo and the Premium Luxor passes, however, would more than cover entrance ticket costs on this ten day itinerary. Entrance to the tombs of Seti I and Nefertari alone would add up to US$ 150+. You’ll also have the flexibility to choose as many attractions as you wish and revisit them multiple times over the five day period.
If your plan is to do some cursory sightseeing in Cairo and then join a Nile Cruise in Aswan or Luxor, neither of the passes will be worth it for you.
Here’s a link to the latest ticket prices for all archaeological sites and museums in Egypt. Add up the prices of those you intend visiting and do the math yourself. Don’t forget to include even minor attractions, anything that will need tickets to be purchased.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO EGYPT
- Capital: Cairo
- Currency: Egyptian Pound – EGP or LE (Latest exchange rate)
- Time Zone: GMT+2
- Language: Arabic
- Population: 100.2 million
- Area: 1,001,449 sq km (386,662 sq miles)
- Electricity Voltage: 220V
- Electricity Sockets: Type C and F
- Work Week: Sunday through Thursday
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL TO EGYPT
Summers between May – September are blazing hot especially in the south. We went in end September to take advantage of low season rates and it was very hot even by our (South Indian) standards. December and January are the busiest months.
October, November, February and March are ideal months to visit. The temperatures are significantly lower and you avoid the holiday season influx to some extent.
GETTING TO EGYPT
Egypt Air is the official carrier. Most international carriers operate flights to at least one of Egypt’s international airports in Cairo, Luxor, Sharm el Sheik, Hurghada, St.Catherine and Alexandria.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR EGYPT
Valid visas are mandatory for a visit to Egypt. Countries eligible for Evisas can apply online beforehand to save time. Or they can avail visa on arrival. All visas are valid for 30 days from the date of first entry.
Check if you are eligible for EVisa at the Egypt Immigration portal and follow the instructions for application if you are. Fees range from US$ 75 – US$ 110 with additional an service fee.
Visa On Arrival fees are $25USD. Make sure you have the exact amount in crisp, new, US Dollar. Pounds Sterling or Euro bills. The visa sticker is sold at the bank counter in the arrival hall. You’ll need to stick it on your passport and proceed to passport control. Visa on Arrival is for single entry only.
Do note: Visa on arrival is only applicable for arrival by air into international airports. You’ll need pre-approved visas for land crossings.
Individual Indian citizens are neither eligible for e-visas nor visa on arrival. The only option is to apply for a tourist visa physically at the Embassy of Egypt in New Delhi or the Consular office in Mumbai. If you do not reside in either of the two cities you can authorise an agent or representative to submit and collect your documents.
EGYPT VISA COST FOR INDIANS
Visa fees for Indian nationals: Single entry – Rs. 2900/- per person; Multiple entry – Rs. 4000/- per person.
VISA PROCESSING TIME: 3-6 days.
DOCUMENTS TO BE SUBMITTED
- Visa application forms duly filled and signed
- Valid passports with six-month validity from the date of arrival (also carry your old passport)
- Two recent passport size photos with white background, measuring 5X5cm and showing face clearly
- Personal bank statement for 6 months in original with bank seal
- 3 year Income tax returns or Form 16
- Salary slips for the last 3 months (business/company details if self employed)
- A covering letter mentioning reasons and details of travel
- Day to the day itinerary details
- Confirmed return flight tickets
- Hotel confirmation vouchers
WHERE TO STAY IN EGYPT
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We do not usually stay in large chain hotels when we travel but we consider them the best options for Egypt.
We opted not to stay in Giza on our last trip so recommendations are based on feedback from like minded friends who have stayed there. It is an accepted fact that the Marriott Mena House isn’t what it used to be when it was an Oberoi property, but it is still the best option in Giza. There are a couple more basic options in the vicinity with equivalent or much better views from their rooftops.
The Sofitel Legend Old Cataract in Aswan and the Sofitel Winter Palace in Luxor are historic properties and ideal places to stay if they fit into your budget. The Old Cataract is where Agatha Christie camped out for a whole year while she wrote Death On The Nile. On hindsight, we feel we should have splurged on these hotels in place of the Nile Cruise. We stayed in the Movenpick Resort & Spa in Aswan and recommend it.
We seriously considered the Hilton Luxor Resort & Spa and finally opted for the Sonesta St. George for its location and much cheaper price at the time. Our experience wasn’t the best. We tried shifting to the Hilton but too high last minute prices did not merit the change.
The New Memnon Hotel is a highly rated, family owned hotel in Luxor just 100 metres from the Colossi of Memnon. It’s a great option for those focusing on the West Bank sites, especially armed with the Luxor pass.
In Cairo, Four Seasons On The Nile is fabulous, also the priciest. Sofitel Cairo Nile El Gezirah is relatively better value for the same location as is the Kempinski Nile Hotel. We stayed in the Fairmont Nile City and loved it even though location isn’t as central as the others. With price being equal I’d pick the Sofitel.
Hotel: Le Meridien Cairo Airport is the best option if staying your first or final night near the airport.
CHECK FOR MORE OPTIONS TO FIT YOUR BUDGET HERE
WHERE TO EAT IN EGYPT
Note: Free standing restaurants outside of hotels in Aswan & Luxor rarely serve alcohol.
Lunch: Felfela | Koshary Hakkaya | 139 Restaurant (Mena House) | Pizza Hut (Only for its famed views)
Dinner: Andrea (Egyptian. 30 min away by road) | Restaurants in the Marriott Mena House/Le Meridien Pyramids Hotels
Al Dokka (River views.) | Soleih Nubian (On Bigeh Island with Philae temple views. Best combined with temple visit.) | The Terrace at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract (River views. Reservation recommended) |Panorama Restaurant & Bar and Mezze at the Movenpick Resort (Elephantine Island) | Nubian Dreams (Elephantine Island)
EAST BANK: Al Sahaby Lane (Egyptian with views of Luxor Temple.) | Aboudi Coffee Break (Egyptian with views of Luxor Temple) | Sofra (Egyptian) | Gerda’s Garden (International)
WEST BANK: Maratonga cafe right opposite Medinet Habu | Marsam (near the ticket office are both good spots with shady terraces)
Lunch – Koshary Abou Tarek | Egyptian Pancake House (for fiteer – sweet & savoury pancakes) | Khan El Khalili Restaurant & Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop | Fishawy Cafe | Fasahet Somaya (Homestyle Egyptian) | Felfela & Zooba (Shawarma/Felafel chains)
Dinner – Le Tarbouche (Egyptian) and other restaurants in the Le Pacha 1901 venue | Studio Misr in Al Azhar Park (For great citadel views.) | Loads of dining options in 5 Star Hotels including Le Deck By Laurent Peugeot in the Sofitel El Gezirah ((French) & Bab el Nil in the Fairmont Nile City (Middle Eastern)
EGYPT TRAVEL TIPS
GETTING AROUND EGYPT
Flights are the quickest and most convenient way to travel between cities. The 23kg domestic baggage allowance is generous and snacks/meals are included in the price. Book directly on the Egyptair website.
Buses are the cheapest mode of inter-city travel (11 hrs to Luxor; 15 hrs to Aswan). GoBus is reputed to be reliable with an App for booking on the go.
First Class air conditioned VIP Tourist Trains to Luxor (10 hrs) and Aswan (13 hrs) are reputed to be excellent. Others not so much. Tickets can be booked directly at the station, through a travel agent or via the Ernst Website. Overnight sleeper trains need to be booked in advance.
Cruising the Nile is a decades old option that I have dedicated a separate section to above.
Cairo has a decent metro system with fixed rates per zone. Uber, introduced four years ago, is the most convenient way to get around. If you have to take regular taxis find out the approximate fare range from your hotel and agree upon a price beforehand.
Also get hotel staff to write down the name of your destination in Arabic or have images of nearby landmarks on your phone that you can show the driver. Having smaller bills in cash is preferable, you do not want to waste time haggling over change.
In Luxor, I recommend hiring taxis/ private car & driver for the day. Caleche (horsecarts) are commonly used. Just make sure the horses appear well looked after.
Self driving is NOT recommended in Egypt. Traffic in Cairo is horrendous and navigating through the checkpoints along highways could prove stressful. Many also need prior security clearance. And many regional roads are closed from sunset to sunrise.
We generally hire a taxi (within cities) or private vehicle and driver (for longer excursions) for the day.
Vodafone, Orange, Etisalat and WE are all reputed companies offering reasonable packages and good coverage across Egypt. All four have offices in the arrivals halls between baggage claim and terminal exits. They are open 24/7 in the Cairo airport.
Payment is in EGP but they accept credit cards. You’ll need to have an unlocked phone for local sim cards to work and you’ll need to show your passport. Best to get the vendors to activate the card for the instructions are mostly in Arabic.
Check for the best and latest packages on their individual websites.
- Expect to pay a fee for the use of cameras inside many attractions. They range from EGP 50 at museums and less popular sites to EGP 300 at the more iconic. Mobile phone photography is free almost everywhere. Tripods are always charged extra, usually EGP 20.
- Camera passes in the Valley of the Kings cost EGP 300 for a group of three standard tombs only. You’ll need to buy additional passes if you want to visit/photograph more tombs. You can buy batches in advance at the main Antiquities Inspectorate Ticket Office and at the respective ticket counters.
- Drones are illegal to fly in Egypt. You will not be allowed to bring it in.
- Photography of military buildings is prohibited.
WHAT TO WEAR IN EGYPT
Knowing Cairo is a conservative Islamic country expect to dress modestly.
Men have few restriction barring bare bodies and too short shorts. Ladies should avoid anything too revealing or too short. especially for sightseeing in historic parts of Cairo where you will be mingling with locals.
Skirts, dresses and loose pants/khakis in natural materials will be most comfortable. Sleeveless tops are fine for excursions but always carry a shirt, overlay or stole to cover up if/when required. Covering your hair isn’t expected except when entering mosques, so keep a large scarf or stole handy.
Restrictions do not apply on board cruise boats and in beach resorts.
If you are travelling in winter carry a light jacket for the evenings. Also handy for dawn activities like balloon rides.
PACKING ESSENTIALS FOR A TRIP TO EGYPT
Read my essential packing list for a general travel checklist.
- Comfortable shoes/ sandals
- Light cotton/linen outfits
- Light jacket (see above)
- Sunscreen & wide-brimmed hat.
- Couple of pairs of sunglasses. More if you are prone to losing them.
- Scarves are handy to cover up in mosques and when out in the sun.
- Plenty of tissues. Toilet paper is either missing or doled out rather stingily. I prefer carrying my own.
- Portable water filters and water bottles.
- Hand sanitiser.
TIPPING IN EGYPT
Tipping is expected. Everywhere. Waiter, porter, driver, guide. It can get annoying but you have to understand that the average citizen is paid below subsistence salaries and relies on gratuities – even from locals – to make ends meet. Things will likely get far, far worse in a post-pandemic scenario.
So budget for it. And make sure you carry small bills. In local currency. A cardinal rule for any third world country you visit. It isn’t easy for people lower in the service chain to exchange foreign currency. And coins, not at all.
How much to tip? Here’s a great article on Egyptian tipping culture, guidelines and etiquette.
GENERAL PRECAUTIONS WHILE TRAVELLING IN EGYPT
- Student discounts require the presentation of valid IDs. Preferably an International Student Identity Card.
- Avoid visiting popular sites like the Pyramids on Fridays and Saturdays (Egyptian weekend).
- Payments in USD/ Euro will need to be done with crisp new bills. Even ATMs seem to be programmed to reject slightly creased bills!
- Tap water is not safe to drink in Egypt. While bottled water is plentiful and reasonably priced in most places, carrying refillable water bottles and portable water filters would be eco friendlier options.
- Have a reasonable cash back-up. It is best to change money in Cairo. While ATMs are present in Aswan & Luxor, you might not find them handy close to the attractions. Credit cards are accepted in hotels & larger establishments but you’ll need cash for all entrance tickets and local markets.
- Warning on alcohol consumptions & pricing in Egypt
- Drinking alcohol in public, outside of bars & restaurants with permits, is illegal.
- Most free standing restaurants in Egypt, especially in the smaller towns of Aswan & Luxor do not serve alcohol. While hotels and high end restaurants do, be aware that there is a huge tax levied on imported liquor (quite like in India) that might not always be evident in the menu but will show up in the final bill.
- Local beers – Stella & Saqqara – and wines are reasonably priced.
- Some restaurants allow you to bring your own bottles and charge a small corkage. Cross check with each restaurant whether that’s a possibility.
- Alcohol will not be served anywhere during the month of Ramadan.
- LGBT travellers are advised discretion. While homosexuality isn’t technically illegal, public declaration or support have resulted in arrest.
SHOULD YOU HIRE A TOUR COMPANY/GUIDE?
Egypt is perfectly doable on your own. We booked all our hotels ourselves as well as all the domestic flights directly on Egypt Air. And visiting Abu Simbel independently was a breeze.
But we did hire private guides and drivers for day excursions to Dahshur & Saqqara, Karnak & Luxor temples and for the Abydos & Dendera day-trip. Our felucca ride was organised by a local agency as well. Our other Luxor sightseeing was covered by our cruise or we would have likely hired guides for those too.
In short, I wholly recommend hiring reputed transport providers/guides at least for the longer day-trips for more efficient use of limited time.
The complimentary copy of the Ten Day Egypt Itinerary includes names of travel companies that I routinely recommend to friends I’ve helped plan trips for. Download your copy now.
MORE EGYPT STORIES AND GUIDES
RECOMMENDED BOOKS/ SHOWS
Dongola: A Novel of Nubia – Idris Ali
Taxi – Khaled Al Khamissi
Voices from the Other World: Ancient Egyptian Tales – Naguib Mahfouz
Omm Sety’s Living Egypt: Surviving Folkways from Pharaonic Times – Omm Sety
The New York Obelisk – Martina D’Alton (EBook/PDF)
The Treasures of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings – Kent R. Weeks (Illustrated Guide)
The Story Of Egypt – Professor Joann Fletcher’s (4 part show on Amazon Prime)