In May 2016 we travelled to Egypt on the Jewels of the Nile tour with Travel Talk Tours. Keep reading for:
- daily diary
- extras budget
and our personal opinion on whether or not it’s safe to travel to Egypt.
Here’s 15 hot tips (get it? It’s hot in Egypt this time of year!):
- Have 20GBP or 25USD in cash with you when you arrive at Cairo airport for your visa
- Currency is EGP, Egyptian Pounds. At the time of travel, 1GBP = 12EGP
- Keep small change when you get it (toilets are around 1EGP per visit)
- Nothing comes for free in Egypt, even if vendors say so
- Learn the words ”la shukran” which means ‘no thank you’
- Drink bottled water and check the seal (I saw a local guy filling up waterbottles from taps in the toilets!)
- Don’t eat the lettuce or fresh salads as they’re almost always washed in tap water
- Pack imodium and hydration salts – locals drink the water but they’re used to it, we’re not! Lots of sick tummies in our group!
- Pack bug spray!
- Our favourite optional extras were Abu Simbel, Valley of the Kings and the Nubian dinner
- If they say no photos, don’t take any as they might ask for a tip (otherwise known as ‘baksheesh’) or confiscate your phone / camera if you do
- Our hottest day was 43 degrees celcius so pack a hat, sunscreen, sunnies and a cool long-sleeved top and/or scarf
- Wi-fi is limited even in nice hotels, so, if you need internet access the best option is a data sim card from Vodafone for 30EGP (for 1.2GB), about 3GBP (sadly I’d already paid 90EGP for 1 day of internet on the cruise boat that you could only use in the reception)
- Don’t expect drivers to follow road rules
- Most souvenirs are made in China unless it’s an official Government store
Day 1 Flight to Egypt, River Nile cruise buffet
Started with a day at work. Got to keep as many holiday days in the bank as possible! Our flight wasn’t until around 10:30pm so we had plenty of time to get to Heathrow. We flew to Cairo with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul which seemed like the right choice at the time we booked but a direct flight would have been nice! Our flight from London to Egypt via Istanbul was a total of around 8 hours. I’m sure with everything that has happened in Egypt recently the flights are much cheaper now!
We didn’t get much sleep on the plane. I must have dozed off eventually because next thing Harry was tapping me on the shoulder urgently so I could see the pyramids from our plane window. Wow! We’re really here! We arrived around 8:30am and couldn’t wait to… go to sleep. A Travel Talk representative was there waiting for us and helped us with the visa process. There are a few different banks you can get one from inside the airport. I don’t think it matters which one. They all cost the same! Once you pay your 20GBP or 25USD, you get an Egyptian visa sticker added to a page of your passport. And voilà! You can go through to collect your bags.
There were 3 others joining the Travel Talk tour from the same flight as us. None of them were as silly as us flying from London though. Our journey to the Cataract Pyramids Hotel was a crazy 20 minute journey in a mini bus weaving in and out of honking cars and a few random horse and carts. The hotel was very large and modern, almost like a resort! In a middle-eastern kind of way. Fast forward until 4pm. A night’s sleep recovered!
We missed lunch so ordered some room service to get us through until meeting the rest of our tour group at 6pm. That was a challenge over the phone and we ended up with a bread basket. Bread is actually really delicious in Egypt. Cost 27EGP. Washed down with our first Sakara beer on the balcony (around 32EGP each). Bliss!
It was time to meet the others. On the way to reception we watched some cats play in the garden until they got smoked out by a large white mist of mosquito repellent the hotel were spraying over the grounds. Hmm indicator of how bad the bugs are going to be! So we did a double take and went back to our hotel room to cover ourselves in insect repellent. Turns out when we arrived at reception we were 1 hour early because daylight savings didn’t go ahead as planned!
There were 27 people on our Travel Talk tour. A mix of mostly Aussies and Kiwis with one each from Canada, Spain, England and America. Ze, our tour guide, talked us through the plan for the next 9 days in Egypt. Our first adventure was a cruise buffet on the Nile this evening! Cost 200EGP each. On the bus journey there I discovered the girl sitting in front of me is from Emerald! Not far from my home town in Queensland, Australia. And of course we know a few of the same people! Small world!
The cruise buffet was a great way to get to know our tour buddies. The meal was good and I enjoyed a few wines to celebrate our holiday (90EGP).
Side note: By the way I’m including most of the costs during the post to give you an idea of how much extra cash you’ll need. I’ll summarise total extras cost at the end of the post.
We spent some time on the top of the boat to soak up the views of the Nile at night. The air was warm and there were lots of boats with neon flashing lights! Definitely didn’t expect that. After a while we went back downstairs to see the belly dancer. Harry was picked from our group to dance alongside her as a willing (nominated) volunteer. Then two men came out one after the other covered in colourful clothing and headscarves. They twirled and played small instruments and the final performer said hello in Chinese and ‘gday’ in… well… Australian.
It was an early night for us, heading back to the hotel around 10pm. But, there was entertainment at our hotel! Until around 1am. At this point we were thankful for our giant sleep during the day. And the mosquitoes! They were bad even in the room so the bug spray is an essential item to pack. In saying that, Harry was snoring away next to me and didn’t get a single bite.
Day 2 Once in a lifetime trip to the PYRAMIDS!
Early morning, up at 6am to leave by 7:20am. Our first stop was the Sakkara Step Pyramid. We were the only tourists there. Ze explained to us that this was the first ever Egyptian pyramid. Therefore built before the Pyramids of Giza! Amazing! Other nearby pyramids had crumbled but somehow remained in a pyramid shape.The Sakkara Pyramid itself however was still standing strong. At least on one side! The other was covered in scaffolding with no workers in sight.
There were a few locals around ready with their donkeys to take your photo with them for a tip. Once Ze finished telling us about the Sakkara Pyramid, he gave us some free time to explore. Despite his advice not to engage with the locals, and our initial laughs at everyone else for immediately getting their photo taken (AND telling the locals we had no money), Harry was soon whisked onto a donkey and whipped away from our group. Literally. I was wondering at what point I should start to panic before he launched off the donkey, threw back the headscarf that had been wrapped around his head in exchange for his cap and started running back towards us. I yelled out to Harry to get his phone back from one of the guys who had been taking the photos. And they STILL asked us for a tip! Lesson learnt. Be firm.
- they are closer to the city than we thought
- you get great access to them, you can even climb up onto the Great Pyramid
- less tourists there than expected
- the pyramid is made up of large blocks
- the Great Pyramid is not the one with the white / smooth tip
So there we were, at the feet of the Great Pyramid, staring up at one of the Seven Wonders of the world both today and in the Ancient world. We learnt from Ze how the pyramids were made and that the Great Pyramid was the tallest structure in the world until the Eiffel Tower was built. Thankfully there were stairs to climb to get a few giant blocks up for a memorable photo. You can pay extra to go inside the pyramid, but Ze advised us it was nothing spectacular. We trust you Ze! Our total cost for entrance fees to the Sakkara Pyramid and Pyramids of Giza – 160EGP each.
We then got back on the bus and drove past the other pyramids to the starting point of the camel ride. But before the camel ride, we just HAD to pose for those famous, must have photos with the three pyramids in the background! Anyway back to the camel ride. I’d done this before in Morocco, but for some reason I was extra nervous today. Harry and I were hooked up with two others in a chain of four camels, with me in third place and Harry at the back. To reduce my chances of falling off I held both the front and back of the saddle and unknowingly unhooked Harry’s camel from mine. After a while I turned back to look at Harry and he was about 20 metres behind me at a standstill. Oops! From then on I was always at the back of the chain. Let’s just say my camel riding days are behind me. Oh, and costs were 70EGP each. This includes a tip though they will still ask for a further tip if they take your photo! You get some amazing photos from it, so if you have small change on you, totally worth a tip of up to 10EGP.
The Sphinx was next to see. It was large, impressive and there were lots of tourists getting their photo taken with it up close. So, we walked to a spot on the hill where you could get the Sphinx and Pyramids in the same photo. Minus the tourists. We later learned in the Sound and Light Show on our final night in Cairo that the Sphinx was considered to be the ‘protector’ or watchful eye over the Pyramids. I feel like there are still many mysteries to be unravelled here!
What a day so far! It was time for lunch so we went to a place nearby that was busy with a mix of locals and other tourists. We had three courses (total of 70EGP per person) and our favourite of it all was the falafel and hummus in the starters. The baklava dessert was pretty delicious too.
There are lots of perfumeries in Egypt, and one of them was next on our agenda. They really know their perfumes. You can tell them a perfume you like and chances are they have something either similar or the same. At much cheaper prices. They got a few sales from our group!
We swung by the hotel to pick up our bags and a dinner bag (delicious kebab and chips / crisps!) for our long 8 hour drive to Luxor. The drive started around 4pm and we had our own ‘rambo’ on the bus. Not sure if this is the technical term but basically a local guy with a gun. Ze told us that we were the only tour bus on this stretch of road and we had attracted some attention. They have tourist police in Egypt who ensure the safety of tourists. In fact Ze said that they know where we are at all times and this is validated at checkpoints along the way.
At most checkpoints the check was done without them needing to board the bus. However, at one of the checkpoints a guy walked down the aisle of our bus and counted everyone on board. At another checkpoint about 8 hours into our journey (yes, we were running late), our rambo and the police at the checkpoint had a loud argument in Arabic. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. But, Ze explained the next day that it was simply our guy saying we need to go as we’d been on the road for 8 hours, and the other guy saying we can leave when he says we can leave. All resolved soon after with a phone call to confirm we could continue our journey.
We were relieved to arrive after a total of 9 hours on the road, into a beautiful hotel in Luxor. Sadly we only spent 6 hours there before we were off for more adventures and a new destination.
Day 3 Valley of the Kings, Alabaster Factory, Hatshepsut Temple
Another life changing daily itinerary. Starting with breakfast overlooking the Nile. It – is – beautiful. Harry was offered 20 million camels for me whilst getting cash from the ATM across the road – another life changing experience. Followed by the Valley of the Kings. When you arrive here, it looks like barren land with nothing worth looking at. You soon discover that actually there are lots of tombs here and so much history, deep inside the mountains. A much more hidden approach than a pyramid. But still, most of the tombs had been emptied from their treasures long ago. There was one very famous exception. King Tutankhamun. I actually remember his name from school! He was a pharaoh in the New Kingdom (in Egypt’s history there is an old, middle and new kingdom). Tutankhamun became King at the age of 9 and reigned for a period of 10 years. His tomb was uncovered in 1922 underneath another tomb. Treasures inside!
Your ticket (100EGP) gets you into 3 tombs. We explored the tombs of Ramses IV, Amenotep I and Horemheb. All were colourful and well decorated and at this point I wished I could read hieroglyphics. They all had a long entrance downwards leading to the tomb. You can pay extra to see certain tombs like Tutankhamun’s though Ze explained they are all as impressive as one another, and his treasures are in the Egyptian Museum anyway. Well, as Ze would say, ”walk like an Egyptian”! It was time to go to the Alabaster (translucent, typically white stone-like material) Factory.
They put on a good show there. You could tell they put a lot of practice into their funny and entertaining routine. Some of their products even glowed in the dark! So of course the lights go out momentarily to see them in full glow. They were friendly and not pushy at all. I think the major difference being that they were a Government approved shop with beautiful quality products that sell themselves.
Next. Temple of Hatshepsut. It’s a temple carved into a high wall of rock mountains. It was so hot when we arrived so after Ze told us about this female Pharaoh and which areas of the site to explore, we climbed the many stairs to find immediate shade under the temple ceilings. The statues and designs on the walls are so old (but still in such good condition) it’s almost unbelievable that you’re there, having seen similar pictures in your schoolbooks. Harry and I agreed that if we had a chance to see places like Egypt before first learning about them, we would have really soaked up the knowledge in history class! Cost 50EGP each and if you want a ticket for the electric train (like a long buggy / cart) to save some walking, it’s an extra 10EGP. Worth it in the heat.
You can tell we got up early because after all that, it was finally time for lunch. We caught the bus from Hatshepsut Temple to as far as we could go before having to walk the rest of the way. One of the daily prayers was ringing out above us as we walked through local streets to get to a BBQ and buffet on the balcony. Though I’m sure they don’t call it a BBQ. Cost was around 70EGP each plus drinks. The food was delicious, especially the kebab meat and chicken. And whilst I’m not a big soft drink drinker, Coca Cola tastes much more delicious and refreshing in this warm weather!
At the end of the meal Ze gave us two options. A 3 hour bus journey on local roads or 5 hours on roads that tourists should travel on. The local roads in this case were no different than the tourist road, other than the tourist roads having lots of speed bumps. So we closed the curtains and travelled 3 hours to Aswan, arriving at a 5 star hotel overlooking the Nile!
One of the optional extras is the Nubian dinner at a family home. Highly recommend it! Cost is 13GBP each. We travelled about 30 minutes by boat on the Nile at night with one small flashing light. The sky was clear and the water looked like satin. They have beers in an esky on the boat for you to enjoy and pay later for a cost of 20EGP each. The walk from the boat to the family home was pleasant and the dirt road was lined with shops filled with beautiful clothing, trinkets and friendly faces, not hassling you to buy anything.
Before dinner, the family showed us their two crocodiles! Apparently keeping crocodiles at home is considered normal in their culture. Harry, an Australian, held his first ever crocodile in southern Egypt. The family then served up an array of chicken, kebab meat, vegetables and strangely a bowl of crisps. The food was delicious! We arrived back at the hotel around 9:30pm for another short sleep before Day 4.
Day 4 Abu Simbel and sleeping on the Nile
It was tough getting up at 3am. But we had to otherwise we’d miss the 4am convoy with the other tourist buses to Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, near the border with Sudan. When we arrived we had a short walk to get to the temple. Ze asked us to ”follow the handsome tour guide” and not look to the left towards the temple so that we could see it for the first time, standing right in front of it. Looking to the right meant that we could admire the large man made lake, stretching out as far as the eye could see.
Tip: make the effort to see Abu Simbel. As well as having its own story, in 1968 it was completed moved 60 metres up from rising waters so that it was not lost forever.
There are two parts of Abu Simbel to explore. The Ramses II temple which has 4 statues at the entrance to show his different stages of life. And the temple he built for his favourite wife Nefertari.
It was soon time to drive back to Aswan and split up into three groups:
- those cruising the Nile on a cruise boat (5 people)
- those cruising the Nile on a felucca (21 people)
- those not cruising at all (1 person)
Whilst I would have liked to experience the felucca for at least one night, the thought of two nights on a sail boat with no toilet and potential mosquitoes made me feel satisfied with the cruise boat choice when we initially booked the Travel Talk tour.
In saying that, those on the felucca raved about the experience of sailing together, sleeping next to one another, jumping into the water to cool off, sharing large platters of delicious local food and ofcourse for a mostly Aussie and Kiwi crew, chatting over a few cold beverages.
Back at the hotel in Aswan, after picking up our bags, we were rushed off to our cruise boat as the lunch buffet had already started. Unfortunately, the bus wasn’t going anywhere (technical issue) so we were piled up into a small taxi, bags precariously placed in the storage area on top of the car for a short journey a few minutes up the road. Much more fun than the bus and all part of the local experience!
The food on the boat was delicious and we were really starting to get into holiday mode. Had our first nap this afternoon! The rest of today was spent relaxing upstairs on the sunbeds and dipping our feet into the pool. Unfortunately the boat did not start cruising until Day 6 so we experienced traffic as background noise until then. And we’re STILL happy with our choice!
Day 5 Aswan markets
It was a nice change to have the day to ourselves. Still, we wanted to get out and see a bit of Aswan. So, our first adventure of the day was finding Vodafone to get a sim card for internet access for the rest of our trip.
We attracted a lot of attention walking around in Aswan. One guy even tried to convince us that he was from our boat and responsible for buying spices from the local market. We were later told by our new Travel Talk tour guide on the cruise (Ze was on the felucca!) that they often use tactics like this to get you to go with them. Sadly we also had two young girls pleading with us for money and trying to open our bags while we were attempting to cross the road. As a female I recommend covering up (no shoulders or knees showing) because even when you do, you will still attract looks and comments, particularly from the men. And definitely don’t walk around on your own if you can help it.
We found some local markets and not long after we walked through the entrance we were befriended by a man who guided us around. We didn’t mind his company but still walked where we wanted to instead of actually letting him guide us. He didn’t ask us for money during our time together and we assumed he earned a portion of the purchase made by our tour buddies.
We were the only tourists in the market and there were a mix of comments like:
- where are you from?
- how can I help you spend your money
- please buy we have no tourists
- look in my shop
- no hassle
All in all they were friendly enough and we felt safe at all times. The markets had a range of clothing, fruit, spices, meat, live animals and more. They even had doves! Doves are a traditional symbol in wedding ceremonies here in Egypt.
Before returning to the boat, we asked a man selling water and softdrinks if we could purchase beer from him. Cost 25EGP each and a wait of around 5 – 10 minutes. You need a special licence to sell alcohol in Egypt and we hadn’t seen any shops nearby. Almost half an hour later he returned and we were surrounded by a small group of people during the transaction including a police officer who had introduced himself to us while we were waiting. Interesting experience for a saving of 15EGP per beer in comparison to the cost of beers on the boat!
Buffet lunch, snoozing, poolside drinks and music and a swim filled our afternoon. Oh and how could I forget?! A 3 minute massage tester from the boat masseuse that convinced us to book in for a massage the following morning.
Note: All food on the boat is included in the cost of your Travel Talk tour.
Day 6 Cruising the Nile, Kom Ombo Temple and Edfu
Wow this blog is long. Here’s a summary of Day 6 to speed things up a bit:
- boat started cruising during the night
- we took the phone off the hook but they still knocked on the door (breakfast wake up call)
- first stop Kom Ombo temple but we got so hassled that we quickly returned to the boat
- massage on the boat (300EGP each)
- second stop Edfu for another temple 20-30 minutes walk away or a shorter horse and cart ride though we stayed on the boat (it was not recommended as a must see!)
- icecream thanks to Harry’s adventure across the road in Edfu to a convenience store
- people selling clothing, towels and tablecloths from their small boats in the water in a large lock our boat was going through (if you showed interest, they threw them up to you and one of them landed in our pool!)
- enjoyed THE best dinner of the cruise (nothing particularly different, just lots of it and delicious!)
- bought a dress on the boat for 40EGP on the way to bed
Day 7 Temple of Karnak
It was time to check out of our luxury cruise boat. And just when you think you’ve had enough of temples, the Temple of Karnak is one you must see. But first, a quick stop at another Government approved store selling papyrus (thick type of paper made from a plant). The Temple of Karnak is claimed to be one of the biggest religious sites in the world and is home to the tallest obelis you can find anywhere.
Ram and lion sphinxes line the pathway (a sphinx can be any two animals) and according to Ze, Asians and Russians believe if you walk around the scarab near the sacred lake 7 times your dream will come true. The site is a maze you could spend just about forever exploring. It was great having Ze there to tell us all about its history and what some of the carvings and hieroglyphics meant, thanks to his studies in Egyptology.
For the next 8 hours we were on the bus, heading back to Cairo. We stayed at the same hotel, the Cataract Pyramids Hotel. We knew that the hotel entertainment would be on until late, so we decided to join in and watch the performers while enjoying a delicious dinner, wine and apple shisha with a few people from our tour.
Day 8 Seeing Tutankhamun’s treasures
First lesson learnt today from Ze whilst pointing at a map in the Egyptian Museum was that Sahara means ‘desert’ in Arabic. Therefore Sahara Desert is actually ‘desert desert’. To differentiate, you should specify the desert area e.g. Moroccan desert. Didn’t even learn that in Morocco!
Well, Day 8’s title says it all. Today’s highlight was seeing Tutankhamun’s treasures (85EGP each including headsets). There are 7 layers in which his mummy was found: 4 box shrines and 3 mummy shaped coffins. The final coffin is gold and weighs 110kg. His mask has a cobra to keep away evil and the beard is curled to illustrate him as ‘passed’ into the afterlife. There are cases and cases of jewellery, chairs and other golden treasures that were originally found stacked up in his tomb on top of one another.
They even mummified animals and have a whole section dedicated to animal mummies in the museum. And if you want to see some of the more famous mummies, you can pay extra.
After the museum we drove to a local mosque that is still in operation. The girls had to walk through a different entrance to the boys and put on a green robe. All of us had to remove and carry our shoes and pretend we didn’t understand when they asked at the entrance for us to put our shoes on the counter. Ze told us that otherwise they ask for a donation on the way out before returning your shoes.
We walked through the mosque to the other side and sat on the floor. Ze shared with us that from the age of 7, Muslim children have to start praying and by 10 years of age they are expected to pray 5 times a day and partake in Ramadan. Allah is their God. Fun fact: if you are Egyptian, it must be specified in your passport if you are Christian, Muslim or Jewish. There was so much to learn from Ze but unfortunately we were asked to leave as there were funerals about to take place for 3 bodies.
After the mosque we drove to a Christian church that looked similar to orthodox churches we had seen in Russia. The major difference that struck a chord with me were the old portraits of Christians with Arabic writing underneath.
It was time for another buffet lunch before exploring the Cairo markets. There are more tourists at the markets in Cairo compared to those in Aswan, and almost 100% of shop owners will either ask you or motion to you to go into their shop. On the one occasion that the owner let us walk past in peace, we decided to see if we could find something inside his shop to spend our money on. Unfortunately as I mentioned earlier, most souvenirs are not made in Egypt and the quality is poor. We therefore walked away with no purchases other than a mint tea from Hussein Cafe where Ze and our tour buddies were waiting. There were lots of cats around to love from a distance but my favourite was the friendly black and white cat peering up at us from underneath the chair.
It was time to go back to our hotel. Our driver somehow manoeuvred the bus through the narrow streets and market stalls to get us back onto the main road. The winner of the Travel Talk photo competition was announced and Harry was the winner! 400EGP (35GBP) in cash. So we had a few room service beers to celebrate. And to commiserate the end of our time with Ze. Such a great tour guide!
At around 6.30pm we left the hotel in two mini buses to get to the Sound and Light show at the Pyramids of Giza by 7pm. If you’re interested in seeing the pyramids at night, it’s worth it. Otherwise, it’s not. The lighting part of the show is out dated and it was difficult to follow what was being said. What I do remember at that moment was thinking there is probably so much more to discover here. And how amazing it is to be in the presence of such historic monuments.
Believe it or not, KFC is just around the corner from the Pyramids of Giza. And yep, that’s what we had for dinner. Trying KFC overseas (outside UK and Australia) has become a ‘thing’ for Harry and I and we both agreed on the order of our preferred KFC from recent travels:
- Morocco – large pieces of fresh chicken with lots of flavour
- Egypt – almost as delicious as Morocco but with smaller pieces
- Russia – smaller and less flavoursome than in Morocco
Try not to judge us.
Day 9 Flight back to London!
The transfer from the hotel to the airport was included and prebooked so all we had to do was check out, grab our breakfast bag and get on the bus. Our flight was at 9:30am and we were there nice and early for our flight with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul. Needless to say we were the only ones from our tour on that flight route.
So, is it safe to travel to Egypt? Personal opinion is yes if you:
- travel with others
- have a tour guide (not essential but helpful!)
- remain alert
- do your research
- keep a low profile
- dress according to customs
- do not wear anything of value
- travel to areas of Egypt that are considered safe
- follow the rules e.g. travelling to Abu Simbel in a convoy at a set time
- do not assume people are who they say they are, or are who they appear to be e.g. official clothing
And how much extra money do I need to take? See the guide below for common costs (in EGP) during the tour. For 9 days the cost of extras including food, drinks, massage, activities, tips, visa and wifi / mobile data access was around 300GBP per person. Not bad for a once in a lifetime trip to Egypt!
|Cost Guide||What For|
|3 – 10||small water|
|5 – 15||large water|
|5 – 20||ice cream|
|15 – 20||soft drink|
|20 – 45||beer|
|5 – 10||porter tip|