So, Steph, talk to me: Egypt. What's the deal over there? Is it safe to go?
Well, western media certainly portrays Egypt as this chaotic and tumultuous place, with riots on every street corner. And while it's best that you avoid Tahrir Square during your time in Egypt, beyond that acreage, there's little sign that political upheaval is going on. It is quite interesting to see the charred remnants of Mubarak's former offices right next to the Egyptian Museum, and evidence of government issues can be seen in the stalled construction and restoration projects across the country. But little of this actually compromises your safety or your enjoyment of your time in Egypt. In fact, this is actually an argument to go now, or soon, because many would-be tourists have been scared off by the media sensations, and now even peak tourism season is affordable and not so crowded.
What's the visa situation? How do I get one?
US citizens and a number of other countries do not need to acquire a tourist visa in advance. Most people enter through the Cairo Airport, and you just have to buy the tourist visa from any of the bank windows that line the room before Immigrations. The visa is a sticker that is typically a single-entry tourist visa valid for up to three months, and costs $15, or around 100 Egyptian pounds. This site has some more specifics about which countries' citizens can or can't get tourist visas upon arrival in Cairo.
What's the best way to get around Egypt and visit all the places I want to go?
This is very important: Egypt is not the country for individual travelers/individual traveling. The people I met on my travels were lovely and interesting, but that doesn't mean there aren't people who wouldn't take advantage of a confused foreigner. Furthermore, the public transportation infrastructure is unreliable and in many cases don't allow foreigners on board.
The best thing you can do for touring Egypt is to do a group tour. There are many companies that provide a variety of tours that can cater to all kinds of travelers, from luxury to budget to adventure. You can choose to join up with a larger group with other travelers, or arrange your own, smaller, private tour with friends or family. My friends and I organized a private, customized tour through Egypt Uncovered. For a little over $100 per day, we got tour guides, private van transportation with nice drivers, accommodation at 5-star Egyptian hotels, a sleeper train from Luxor to Cairo, all entry fees to sites paid for in advance, airport transfer, and FREE GOODIES, like this extra-large t-shirt:
Okay, I mostly just wanted a reason to use my long-abandoned webcam. Moving on...
The two different guides we had (one for Upper Egypt, one for Lower) had different styles but were both really informative and helpful people. It really helps to have your own form of hired transportation. I cannot stress this enough: Egypt is NOT the place for individual travel, both for logistical and safety reasons. Looking into tour companies beforehand will be the best way for you to make the most of your time in Egypt.
What are my touring options in Egypt?
Rather than providing a list of tour companies you can look into (I wouldn't even know where to begin--or end--that task), I'm just going to give a quick rundown of some transportation options you have:
- Nile cruise - This is probably the most relaxing option. Most cruises run between Aswan and Luxor, with side trips going to famous sites or temples via bus or even horse-drawn carriage. You won't actually be doing a lot of cruising, but this takes care of the transportation business for you.
- Felucca - More adventure-y types can consider a trip down the Nile on a felucca, or traditional canvas-sail boat. It's like floating down the Nile in your room, with mattresses on the deck, crew members preparing meals for you, sleeping on the boat, and, uh, doing your business out in the wild. Like camping without the moving and the hard work.
Our felucca, with our first guide on the left.
- Vans or buses - These can be organized for you via your tour company. It's worth doing a little extra research to make sure that your tour company provides reliable vehicles etc etc. These are the most popular and easiest ways to get around the sites.
- Train - Not all trains accept foreigners, and if they do, you usually are confined to the first-class cars. Some tour companies will arrange a train ride for you as part of your tour, which is the way I think most foreigner visitors use trains in Egypt.
Overall, Egypt is very accommodating of and friendly toward tourists. The touristed areas are well-developed, and while pickpocketing and scams still exist, they usually won't bother you too much if you keep your wits about you. Some issues you may encounter, however, include stalled construction and unregulated safety measures. Did you hear about the deadly Luxor balloon crash that happened recently? Yeah, the hot-air balloons are a fairly popular touristy thing to do for more affluent visitors, but they don't have a really good track record of safety, as the result of confusing safety standards that don't seem to be properly carried out.
The good thing is that, according even to our tour guide, the balloon ride was just so-so: it's not as if you see anything spectacular from up above. He didn't even push my friends and I too hard to consider the ride, and I wasn't sorry about not doing it.
An extra word of caution for female tourists: many Egyptian men still seem to think that female foreigners are opportunities for them to hone their skills of seduction and flattery and get some foreign female ass as a reward. I highly advise that females not travel alone, and try to be in a group with some males. The one hour during our trip that my friends and I had the time and interest to wander around an Egyptian city on our own resulted in a constant barrage of stares, catcalls, uncomfortable references to our physical features or race, and propositions. I consider myself a fairly confident young woman who doesn't let guys mess with her, but even I was overwhelmed with the gazes in just that short amount of time.
Let me summarize: the Egyptian men won't try anything physical, but they can be persistent. Don't make eye contact, don't react to what they're saying, and look like you know what you're doing.
Let me know if you're planning a trip to Egypt and want any more info!