Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Egypt

The Ultimate Guide To Backpacking Around Egypt

Backpacking around Egypt, we decided to go to Alexandra. We had been staying at a friend’s apartment and had yet to truly experience Egypt. We arrive late at Ramses Station, the main train station in Cairo.

At the ticket counter, we ask for two tickets to Alexandria on the 11 am train. It is 11:02 am. “Full. Complete.” Those were the only two words we can make out. Seeing that the train is still on the platform, we try a second teller. “Full. Complete. 1 pm next train.”

The train is still on the platform, with dozens of people getting past a man checking tickets. We try another approach. I ask the man checking tickets if I can pay him directly. He brings me into a bookshop. The bookshop manager, acting as a train station maître’d, says to let us on the train. They usher us through the checkpoint. Looks like we might get on the train after all.

The train is far down the platform, and after what seems like a 10-minute walk, we arrive. When we reach the first car, the train starts rolling forward. We hop on the moving train just before it picks up some speed.

Aside from the last few train cars, this old and rickety train is half full of passengers. The conductor passes and I tell him we are going to Alexandria. At least four Egyptians stand to talk to him, all in Arabic, about our destination. I gave the conductor the exact fare for two passengers and he gives me back half the money. Unclear and with no one to ask, we are pretty sure he didn’t charge us for Yana’s fare.

Vendors start rushing through the cars, throwing things on our laps. Nuts, snacks, tea, razor blades, socks, headphones, pamphlets, cotton swabs, you name it. It’s on our laps. We patiently wait for their return, and they pick up the unwanted sales. Several locals buy small packets of snacks and nuts, just to share with us. After politely saying no for the fourth time, their facial expressions look like we just ruined their day. Eventually obliging, we take the nuts. Backpacking around Egypt is certainly an adventure!

Backpacking Egypt: White Desert
The White Desert

We quickly realize this is the slow train. After 45 minutes, we have barely left the suburbs of Cairo. The train has no AC and is packed with locals. Luckily, most of the windows are broken letting in some airflow. Each train car has door frames with sliding doors all missing. Men gather near these openings for cigarette breaks before returning to their seats.

The train stops every 20 minutes. What should have taken two hours takes four. But, we arrive in Alexandria. We made sure to check the schedule more diligently next time and get on the fast train. As we exit the station in Alexandria, an elderly man smiles at us, and says, “Welcome to Egypt.”

Egypt Travel Guide: Mosque of Muhammad Ali
The Mosque of Muhammad Ali, Citadel

Content and photographs provided by Yana Kogan and Timon.

Important Things to Know About Egypt

Visa

Egypt Travel: Egyptian Man
Egyptian man

A visa is required for most foreigners and is available on arrival at the airport. You can also apply for the visa online. The single entry visa is $25 USD and multiple entries visas are $60, payable at one of the three bank stations directly before the customs agent. 

Do not pay anywhere else. We have heard of people trying to lure foreigners elsewhere and overcharging for the visa. Following payment, a small slip is provided, which is presented to the customs agent.

For more on visa information read here.


Language in Egypt

Travel Tips Egypt: Mosque Antique Door
An antique door at a mosque

Arabic is the main language in Egypt. Most locals do not speak English, but it is more commonly spoken in tourist destinations. However, it is good to know a few words in Arabic.

Common Words/Phrases:

  • Welcome: ahlan
  • Goodbye: ma’ salama
  • Thank you: shukran
  • Yes: ai wa
  • No: la
  • My name is: ismee …

Culture in Egypt

Egypt Guide: Traditional Papyrus
Traditional papyrus

As a fairly liberal country within the Middle East and North Africa, backpacking around Egypt gives you the chance to visit and experience its arts, culture, and history. In the past, Egypt has struggled with tourism resulting from terrorist attacks and two revolutions.

Businesses are struggling and eager for tourists. Guidebooks warn about harassment from aggressive Egyptians. In our experience, a firm NO will do the trick. The best way to avoid these situations is to say “la shukran” (“no thank you” in Arabic) in a firm tone.

Egyptians are very friendly people and will go out of their way to aid tourists. In their culture, sharing is really important, especially when it comes to food. Don’t be surprised if someone asks you to join them while they are eating.

Most businesses open around noon and many people are just eating breakfast during lunchtime. Locals stay up late being social, eating, drinking freshly squeezed juice, and smoking sheesha. We really love the culture in Egypt.

For more information check out: Things I Wish I knew Before Visting Egypt


What to Wear in Egypt

Places to Visit in Egypt: Luxor Temple
Luxor Temple

Egypt is liberal in several things including the arts, culture, entertainment, and nightlife. However, for tourists backpacking around Egypt, it is best to stick with conservative clothing choices. Keep in mind the temperature in Egypt is extremely hot. Bring clothing that is lightweight and breathable.

Women in Egypt often wear a hijab (headscarf) and fully cover their arms and legs. Tourists are not expected to do the same, but here are some suggestions for how to dress in Egypt:

  • Cover knees and thighs
  • Wear tops that cover the entire chest area
  • Bring a lightweight scarf (good for uncomfortable situations and entering mosques)
  • To enter mosques, men and women must wear long pants that cover the ankles. Women must wear long-sleeve shirts that cover their arms.

Currency

Backpacking Egypt: Meze Plate
Typical mezze plate

The Egyptian Pound (E£) is the national currency of Egypt. For years the pound was weak and with no economic confidence, the bank rates were not accurately reflecting the true value. Black market rates for currency were nearly double the bank rates.

In late 2016, Egypt took a bailout loan from the IMF. One stipulation was for the pound to float freely. Overnight, the pound devalued by 48%. The currency remains the same since that day; however, costs adjusted appropriately.


Food in Egypt

Egypt Travel Guide: Family in Garbage City
A family in Garbage City, Cairo

Starting in the morning, cafes serve Egyptian tea, Turkish coffee, falafel, and roasted aubergine. Around noon, businesses open for the day. Restaurants and street vendors offer an assortment of mezze plates (aubergine, pickles, french fries, hummus, tahini, falafel, fowl), grilled meats, falafel, shwarma, crepes, and koshary.

In the coastal towns, fresh seafood is available at fish markets and seafood restaurants. Food is inexpensive in Egypt; however, it usually will come with some negotiation. Restaurants commonly have an Arabic menu with prices for locals, and an English menu with tourist prices. Here are typical (local) costs:

  • Coffee: 5 E£
  • Falafel sandwich: 2 E£
  • Shwarma wrap: 10 E£
  • Fowl – bean dish for breakfast: 5 E£
  • Koshary – pasta with lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce, garlic, and hot sauce: 5 E£ – 10E£
  • Aish Baladi – pita bread: 1-2 E£
  • Mezze – eggplant, pickles, french fries, or other small mezze plates: 2-3 E£

Microbus Transportation in Egypt

Egypt Travel: Luxor Temples
Luxor temples

Unlike most of Africa, local microbus transportation in Egypt is confusing, especially in Cairo. Microbus rides typically cost 1 E£ – 5E£ for short distances. Microbuses also go long distances but may have transfers or confusing departure stations.

Several large bus companies go from Cairo to destinations in the Nile Valley, the Red Sea coast, Alexandria, the Sinai, and the desert. Buses start at 40 E£ for shorter trips to 230 E£ for long hauls. Try not to take the economy bus and pay the extra fare for deluxe/VIP for longer distances.


Train Transport in Egypt

Travel Tips Egypt: The Sphinx
The Sphinx

Trains are an excellent option for transportation between Cairo, Alexandria, and the Nile River cities. There are three types of trains – the “local” trains that stop at every stop (7 – 30 E£ for tickets), Spanish AC trains (usually 40 – 120 E£ for tickets), and the faster Special Service trains (70 to 200 E£).

The difference between first and second-class seats is that the first class is much quieter. First-class seats are wider and recline more. Be ready for tundra-like winter conditions on the AC trains.

To check schedules, routes, and pricing, go to the Egyptian National Railways website.


Accommodation in Egypt

Egypt Guide: New White Desert
The New White Desert

As you backpack around Egypt, you’ll find budget rooms are available from 90 £E and mid-range from 200 £E in Cairo. Outside of Cairo, budget rooms are similarly priced; however, mid-range rooms get cheaper. Many budget options exist throughout Egypt, all available for 80 – 100 E£ per night for a double room. Here are some recommended places to stay:

Cairo

  • BudgetFreedom Hostel is a great location with rooms from 140 E£ ($8 USD)
  • Mid-RangeChez Lay 2 has studio apartments with a kitchenette for 800 E£ ($45 USD)

Alexandria

Luxor:

  • Mid-RangeAmon Hotel has nice double rooms starting from 560 E£ ($32 USD)

Aswan:

  • Budget: Noorhan Hotel is the cheapest in town (but run-down) with single rooms for 60 E£ and doubles for 70 E£. Check out Baba Dool with nice double rooms from 230 E£ ($13 USD) for an upgrade but low-cost room.
  • Mid-RangeThe Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel is a very nice resort with double rooms from 1,700 E£ ($96 USD)

Hurghada

  • BudgetMarina Square Hostel has double rooms and mixed dormitories for 120 E£ ($7 USD) and a double room for 210 E£ ($12 USD)
  • Mid-RangeView Villa Apartments are very nice furnished apartments for 730 E£ ($41 USD)

Dahab


Tipping in Egpyt

Places to Visit in Egypt: Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel

Tipping is not required in Egypt; however, it is part of the culture. Generally is a small amount is acceptable, 5 E£ for smaller bills and 10 E£ for larger bills.  Service is included at some restaurants for up to 10%.

For sheesha, if service is good, it is proper to tip the sheesha server. If you leave a tip on the table it will go to the server. To tip the sheesha attendant, leave coins in the sheesha tray.

When backpacking around Egypt, don’t be surprised if locals ask for more money and tips, even if a price has been agreed upon. Just say no. Lastly, always check your change. I can’t count how many times we were short-changed. Kindly ask them to give you the correct change.


Safety in Egypt

Backpacking Egypt: Mount Sinai Sunset
Mount Sinai Sunset

When backpacking around Egypt, safety is a concern and there’s no way to avoid this topic. Facts speak for themselves. Several incidents occurred in 2015, including the deaths of several tourists in the Western Desert by the Egyptian government (they mistakenly thought they were terrorists), an attempted suicide bomb in Luxor at the Karnak Temple, and the kidnapping of an Italian student in the Sinai.

There also were two mysterious plane crashes. The Metrojet 9268 in October 2015 from the Sharm el Sheikh airport en route to Russia was suspected to have a bomb. And EgyptAir flight 804 suddenly crashed into the Mediterranean while en route from Paris to Cairo.

While Egypt has been hit by terrorism in recent years, we did not feel threatened or unsafe while visiting the country. We do not recommend going to the desert without a proper tour guide and we’d recommend staying away from the northern part of the Sinai. While some may find the risk too high to go to Egypt, others see it as an opportune time to explore this amazing country with little to no crowds.


Student/Teacher Discounts at Temples in Egypt

All attractions have student and teacher discounts. The discount is typically 50% off. If you are a student or teacher, don’t forget to bring your ID card.


Backpacking around Egypt

Egypt is one of the best countries in the world to backpack. Not only are they very friendly and cater to backpackers around the country, but it is also one of the cheapest places to travel.

In every city we visited, we found a backpacker hostel and private rooms that were very inexpensive for couples. If you enjoy street food, Egypt has some of the best, and it is dirt cheap.

Where else in the world can you visit an Ancient Wonder of the World for $30, scuba dive for $15, eat for under $1, and spend less than $7 on a private room? Not too many, and none as good as Egypt.


Top Attractions and Places to Visit in Egypt

Cairo

Egypt Travel Guide: The Great Pyramids of Giza
The Great Pyramids of Giza, Cairo

No backpacking around Egypt would be complete without visiting the main attractions in Cairo. It’s a large city with several important sites that could easily take three days to explore.

Don’t miss the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Citadel, the Khan al Kalili market, and Islāmic Cairo. Other important places to see if time allows include the Egyptian Museum, Coptic Cairo, and Garbage City.

Read the full article on the Top 10 Things to do in Cairo.


Alexandria

Egypt Travel: Port of Alexandria
Port of Alexandria

This Mediterranean gem has more history than any other city in Egypt. Founded by Alexander the Great, Alexandria stood as the capital of Egypt for several millennia.

An economic boom in the 1940s saw this coastal city thriving before a nationalist regime in the ’50s cut off outsiders from Egypt. Buildings have stood in disrepair since the 1940s.

Alexandria is a blend of Egypt and Europe with many cafes and restaurants, and it is the arts and cultural capital of Egypt. Don’t miss the Citadel of Qaitbay, the Bibliotheca Alexandria, and the Catacombs of Kom El-Suqqafa.

Read the full article on Alexandria.


Nile River Valley Temples

Travel Tips Egypt: Medinat Habu
Columns at Medinat Habu in Luxor

The Nile River Valley is home to thousands of temples, the most impressive of which are congregated in Luxor and around Aswan. The best way to get to Luxor and Aswan is by joining a Nile River cruise or taking the train.

Luxor is the world’s largest site for ancient temples, so you’ll need several days to see all the famous sights. Don’t miss out on Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, Temple of Hatshepshut, Temple of Medinat Habu, Ramesseum, and Valley of the Kings.

Continue south to the Nubian city of Aswan where a sunset felucca is a must, as well as visits to the famous temples, Philae Temple and Edfu Temple. If time permits, do not miss Abu Simbel temple located 25 miles north of Sudan.

Read the full article on the best Nile River Cruises.


The White Desert

Egypt Guide: White Desert Sunrise
Sunrise at the White Desert

The White Desert can only be visited by a two or three-day tour starting from Bahariya. This desert, the best in Egypt and one of the best in Africa, has a bizarre landscape and rock formations.

The tour includes a visit to an oasis, salt lakes, hot springs, the Black Desert, the Old White Desert, and the New White Desert. Some tours camp in the desert for one night while other tours camp for two nights. This tour was one of our favorite experiences in Egypt.

Read the full article on our trip report of the White Desert tour.


Scuba Dive at the Red Sea (Sinai)

Places to Visit in Egypt: Thistlegorm Wreck
Scuba diving at the Thistlegorm wreck

While Sinai has a bad rap due to the terrorist activities that have occurred in the north, the south of Sinai is a tourist haven. It is no surprise that the towns of Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab are some of the most visited cities in Egypt. Both have excellent options for accommodation, world-class scuba diving, and top-notch restaurants.

Sharm has more resorts and is great for families, while Dahab is a popular backpacker choice. Dive shops offer some of the best prices globally to scuba dive. Don’t miss some of the famous dive sites – the Blue Hole, Thistlegorm, and the Yolanda Reef. Also, visit Saint Catherine’s Monastery and hike up Mount Sinai for sunset as you backpack around Egypt.

Read the full article on Dahab Scuba Diving.


Sample Itineraries for Travel in Egypt

Backpacking Egypt: Egyptian Bedouin Food
Egyptian Bedouin Food

One Week backpacking around Egypt

  • 2 days exploring Cairo
  • 2 days visiting the temples in Luxor
  • 1 Day Aswan
  • 2 days river cruise from Luxor to Aswan

Two Weeks backpacking around Egypt

  • 3 days exploring Cairo
  • 5 days at Nile River sights in Luxor and Aswan
  • 5 days enjoying the beaches, snorkeling, or world-class scuba diving at the Red Sea

Three Weeks backpacking around Egypt

  • 4 days exploring Cairo
  • 2 days visit to Alexandria
  • 4 days touring the Western Desert to Bahariya Oasis, the Black Desert, and the White Desert
  • 5 days in the Nile River sights at Luxor, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Aswan, and Abu Simbel
  • 5 days enjoying the beaches, snorkeling, or world-class scuba diving at the Red Sea

That’s It – We hope this guide helps you in planning and preparing for backpacking around Egypt!


Planning a trip to Egypt? Check out our favorite books and travel guides!


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