There’s a lot I could say about Egypt, and hopefully, a lot I will say about Egypt. But for now I’ll just run through the basics in the hopes of helping anyone planning or hoping to travel there.
While I was in Egypt the exchange rate was about 1 USD = 7 LE. When it came to paying for things, my shortcuts were to think of 35 Egyptian pounds as equaling about 5 dollars and 100 Egyptian pounds as equaling about 15 dollars. Since we’re just meeting, you should know that I gauge the value of money and things based on what kind of food that money or thing can get me. So, for 35 pounds, I could get a decent meal of, for example, chicken and fries with a small salad. For 100 pounds, I could get a very lovely meal of, for example, leg of lamb, with appetizers, fresh-squeezed juice (as alcohol is hard to come by in many restaurants), and dessert.
Despite the favorable exchange rate, Egypt still managed not to be cheap. This is not just because tourists pay officially higher prices for most attractions. It’s also – and perhaps mainly – because everything costs money in Egypt and if you are from the West, things will cost you a lot more money. In general, tourists can expect to pay at least three times more than the “local” price for anything from cab rides to a bottle of water to a camel ride at the pyramids. Add to this the constant requests for tips, possibility of having money stolen, and probability that someone will give you the incorrect change for something, and the reach of your wallet is suddenly half as far as you’d initially estimated.
All of that said, Egypt is unequivocally worth it.
The metro is, in my experience, mostly efficient even if it’s always crowded. It costs 1 LE one-way and though there’s a lot of inconsistency between maps and station names, it is manageable. On each train, there is at least one designated “ladies” car, which I always made it a point to find. I never took the inner-city bus but got the impression that it’s mostly manageable as well, as long as there’s no rain to interrupt the flow of things.
I took a 9-hour long distance bus from Cairo to Luxor which I do not recommend. It was cramped and while the prospect of looking out the window to find endless desert may sound enticing, it was actually quite boring. There were also many smells. Instead, I’d recommend taking one of the air-conditioned daytime express trains. The train travels parallel to the Nile River for much of the Cairo-Luxor-Aswan route, so the view features a plush, green landscape and small towns along the way. You can buy tickets for the train online but they’ll be more expensive than if you get a local friend to buy in the station. You could also check the times online and walk into a station, board the train, and pay once you’re on a train.
If you attempt to ask someone about these day trains at the station, they will likely tell you that your only option is the Watania overnight train, which is specifically for tourists. On the night train, you must buy a bed and it costs $100 per person in a double cabin and $120 for a single, both with in-cabin breakfast and dinner included. In my very humble opinion, there is no way the cost is worth it.
There are also the “very local” trains, which have no central air, no schedule and in many cases, no windows. This is the train I hastily walked onto when I was tired of trying to find other ways to get back to Cairo from Luxor. Though it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I would never suggest a friend do this unless they were going just a short distance. My ride was around 16 hours and was supremely uncomfortable.
Lastly, when in the cities, walking is a great option. Cabs, too, will be generally affordable though it’s better to agree on a price beforehand or to insist that the meter be used.
What to do
The Giza pyramids are more mind-blowing than you can imagine. Abu Simbel, in the south of Egypt near Aswan, is also awe-inspiring. The Egyptian Museum – though a bit overwhelming due to its size – is one of my favorite museums to date and worth more than one visit if you have the time. I also found the Suffi dance in Coptic Cairo to be a joyous experience, and would recommend it to anyone who appreciates live music, movement or bright colors. I arrived at a performance in the Wikalat Al Ghouri courtyard at 7:00pm and was pressed to find a floor seat, so it’s probably best to stop by earlier in the day to purchase a ticket (35 LE for tourists) or at least find out the showtime. If you’re at all interested in history, race relations, and/or black and African civilizations, a trip to a Nubian village in southern Egypt is also completely necessary.* These were my favorite things, though, of course there are plenty more options.
Where to stay
I found hostels in Egypt to be well-priced, mostly in the $5-15/night range depending on the city and your room preference. I expect that hotels are also reasonable, though, from what I’ve read, their quality can vary drastically. Keep in mind too that because tourism has declined since the 2011 “Revolution” – or “coup” depending on who you talk to – prices may be lower or more negotiable than usual in certain places.
“Do I need a guide?”
No. But you will probably find yourself paying for a few tours. For example, Abu Simbel is about a 3-hour ride from Aswan. Unless you want to hire a car, you will likely pay around $15-50 to take a shared ride out there. You should be able to inquire about these tickets in any hotel lobby, and the tours usually leave around 3 AM and return around noon.
Traveling as a [fill-in-the-blank]
As a clearly-not-from-there, black, sometimes gender noncomforming woman walking around in Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan, I experienced a lot of harassment. I consider myself lucky that I couldn’t understand much of what was said to me in Arabic since I expect a good chunk of it was racially and/or sexually charged. Nonetheless, the constant requests for my attention got old fast. By the end, I found I got the best results when I ignored people completely – no turning of head or response at all. I also found that, in the south, I had an easier time when I borrowed a friends scarf and wrapped my head. This enabled me to blend in well enough and warded off the usual calls of “Rasta!” “Jamaica!” “Sister!” “My color!” and “Felucca?” I admittedly found it disheartening that I had to tune everyone out as I walked the streets, but it truly seemed like the only way to ensure I didn’t end each day completely heartbroken and exhausted.
That’s all for now. Feel free to send specific questions to me at my email address. And you can find more photos on my Instagram, which is insistently without a theme but is occasionally about travel.
*E-mail me for specific recommendations and contact info.