Five months ago, I went to Egypt. When I returned, I planned to write a rave review and urge others to visit Egypt too—for reasons I’ll get to later. But a lot has happened since then; namely, the crash of EgyptAir flight 804 in May (the airline I flew several times within Egypt) and in June, the attacks on the Istanbul airport, which was my connecting airport for this trip. I have rewritten this post several times, trying to reconcile my enthusiasm for Egypt with the legitimate concerns of travelers in an increasingly uncertain world. So, this is where I’ve landed. Understanding that many aren’t willing to travel to Egypt these days, I hope to shed some light for those who are.
Why You Should Go to Egypt
As if you needed another reason to visit Egypt—whose name alone conjures images of pyramids, camels and hieroglyphics—going to Egypt now has some significant advantages. Namely, fewer crowds. With Egypt’s tourism industry in serious decline, you’ll enjoy being among the few tourists at popular sites. At the pyramids of Giza, for example, I noticed only a handful of tourists. In fact, most people at tourists sites were actually locals, in particular, school groups who I assume are less accustomed to the tourist crowds of Egypt’s heyday. Many of them waved, said hello or asked to take selfies with my husband and me.
On our Nile cruise, we were the only Westerners onboard, among Egyptians and Lebanese, and the staff went out of their way to make sure we were happy. We were assigned to a group (us and three retired Egyptian couples) and a tour guide for the duration of the cruise. I was glad to spend time with locals rather than other tourists; we had great conversation (everyone spoke English) and a truer experience of the real Egypt.
Some moments of the trip felt particularly special. Like standing among the ruins of temples, alone, with the exception of a few guards and some birds who had taken up residence. In these moments, we had time to reflect on the history (there’s an overwhelming amount to absorb), marvel at the grandeur of Egypt’s art and architecture, and of course, take photos without being photobombed. And in places where photos are not allowed (there are many), we were able to linger and really pay attention to the details.
The one notable downside, though, is the vacuum left by the declining industry. Street vendors are understandably desperate to sell their wares and are more aggressive. A simply no, or la shukran, did little to deter them. We bought a few items—some cheap, some pricey—practiced our haggling skills, and even bought some things we didn’t want for the sake of supporting the locals. Everywhere we went, we could feel the void the tourists left behind.
The Nile cruises, we were told, have about 25 boats still in operation, compared to the 300-plus boats that used to run (info from March 2016). While we didn’t select a bargain vessel, we got a lot of bang for our buck—another benefit of the weak market. Our flights and hotels were also quite reasonable, especially considering the lack of advanced planning; we booked only a few weeks out.
While scrambling to put this trip together, I also researched issues of concern to most travelers—from cultural differences to general safety concerns. I chose to dress conservatively (long, loose clothing with a scarf in tow for visiting mosques) and I felt perfectly safe and comfortable during the entire trip. I never felt I was in danger due to my gender or nationality. (However, I cannot speak to the experience of traveling alone as a woman, another topic I researched before traveling.) We were welcomed into mosques (one imam even sang for us) and people were generally quite nice and helpful.
The one question we were asked repeatedly is why Americans no longer visit Egypt. I said I didn’t know but promised to help spread the word. Promise kept!
Now that I’ve convinced you to go to Egypt, here are some recommendations to get you started. And if that doesn’t work, browse my photos. It was very difficult to narrow them down (from thousands to just 50) since every day of my trip was interesting and different than the day before.
Planning Your Trip
- Check the State Department website for up-to-date travel advisories (e.g., it is currently not recommended to visit the Sinai Peninsula).
- Check the weather. Summer is the low season due to high temperatures. High season is winter (October–February) but September, March and April can also be pleasant.
- Take a Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan (or vice versa). This will serve as your floating hotel room and will stop at all of the places you want to see along the Nile. I recommend the Sonesta Moon Goddess. It’s not a cheap option, but it is definitely worth the money. The boat was clean and modern with excellent food, a courteous staff, and a knowledgeable tour guide. See cruise itineraries.
- In Cairo, visit the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities to see King Tut’s mask and treasures, and the mummy rooms (for an extra fee). Guides hang out near the entrance and will offer their services. If you’re interested in actually learning about the pieces and you don’t have a detailed museum guide, it’s worth it. Otherwise, you can pop in and out in an hour.
- In Cairo, book day tours to the pyramids, Islamic and Coptic Cairo (and more, time permitting) through Emo Tours. A driver and a guide will pick you up at your hotel, take you on the tour, and then drop you back off. While you can take taxis and tour sites yourself, using a tour company is very convenient and not very expensive. Plus, you know exactly how much to pay; no haggling required. Another selling point: the tours are private. It was just me, my husband, our driver and guide. Additionally, we emailed the company ahead of time to customize our tours and they were very amenable.
- Visit Abu Simbel! Once you see the photos, you’ll understand. It’s a short, 45-minute flight from Aswan and you’ll have several hours at the site before your return flight.
- Learn to haggle and eats lots of koshary and date bars.