14 Things I Wish I had Known Before Visiting Egypt

As I sit here, writing this post, I’m struggling to find the right words to describe my feelings about Egypt. Spectacular, awe-inspiring, infuriating, exhausting, and annoying are the first words that come to mind. Visiting the Pyramids of Giza, taking a cruise down the Nile, and learning all about the ancient Egyptian pharaohs were experiences-of-a-lifetime. But being constantly hassled by touts to buy their souvenirs, ride their camels, and give them a baksheesh (tip) at times made me hesitant to leave my hotel room.

I tried my best to prepare for Egypt. I scoured travel blogs and guides, I read travel advisories with warnings about past terrorist attacks, and mentally prepared for the best of times and the worst. Or so I thought. After spending 30 days in this crazy, amazing country I’ve come away with a list of 14 things that I really wish someone would have told me before I landed in Cairo. Hopefully this list will help you prepare for the madness that awaits you in this amazing country! 

I should clarify a few points before you read on: 

  • First, I refer to “Egyptians” in a negative context a few times in this article. I’m generally only speaking about Egyptian men who speak proficient English (among other languages) and work in tourism. Most Egyptians are very lovely people and in general won’t try to hassle you.
  • Second, I am a blonde haired, blue eyed, fair skinned American woman and I traveled to Egypt with my husband (who also happens to have blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. No, we are not related). So we likely generated more attention as it is 100% clear-as-day that we are not Egyptian. And it is likely that I would have had a different experience if I was traveling alone (or if I was traveling as a brunette).
  • Third, if you visit Egypt with a tour group, you’ll likely escape many of the negative experiences that I describe in this post. Your tour guide will act as a kind of bodyguard to shield you from the touts.
  • And lastly, do NOT let this post dissuade you from planning a trip to Egypt. It is a spectacular country that everyone in the world should visit. But if/when you do make the trip, you should probably be a bit more mentally prepared than I was…

Pyramids of Gaza, Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys

Things to Know Before you go to Egypt

It is an incredibly safe country to visit

My husband and I had talked about visiting Egypt for months until we actually bought our tickets and to say I was nervous would be an understatement. We had family members warn us of possible kidnappings and nearly everyone we told that we were going responded with “are you crazy? Isn’t it really dangerous?”

I read blogs and travel advisories and convinced myself that I’ve lived an epic life so it’d be okay to die a bit earlier than anticipated. So we booked our tickets and made arrangements to stay for the entire length of our visa-on-arrival and I pretended to be really excited.

And of course, I was wrong to be so nervous (just like I was wrong to be nervous about visiting Turkey). And I was kind of ridiculous. I found Egypt to be incredibly safe and the people to be quite welcoming. They seem to love Americans and think that Trump is crazy and I never even for a second felt unsafe.

Cotton candy vendor in Cairo, Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
Beware of the cotton-candy-duck-monster roaming around Egypt!

Sure it’s a bit scary trying to cross the street but actual physical danger? No way. As an example, if you want to visit the Cairo Museum you’ll pass through 3 different security checkpoints (complete with 3 separate bag and body scans).

That being said, while we were in Luxor there was a terrible attack on a mosque in the Northern Sinai region which is still notoriously dangerous. We would not recommend visiting the Northern Sinai peninsula area, nor would we recommend a land crossing from Israel. The Suez Canal is heavily guarded which is how the remainder of Egypt has managed to stay safe from the forces occupying the peninsula.

The most frightening danger in Egypt is school children and their selfies

We couldn’t figure out if it was because tourism has been so terrible in Egypt over the past 7 years so children have never really seen tourists or if kids are just naturally curious, but the biggest danger we ever faced in Egypt was children and their cell phones. Specifically at touristy destinations (these kids are likely visiting from smaller, remote villages). At the Pyramids of Giza I was constantly surrounded by 30-ish children trying to touch my hair, shake my hand, and take a selfie with me. The only English words they seemed to know were “photo?” and “what is your name?”.

Selfie Mob at the Pyramids, Giza, Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
Help me!!!

It sounds fairly harmless right? What kind of monster would complain about taking photos with children? Well once you say yes to one, then another will see and then another and soon enough you will be surrounded by a mob of crazy kids demanding your attention for a selfie (or 3). And god forbid they get organized and take one group shot, that would be far too easy.

If you have blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, anytime you see a group of young children approaching, RUN!

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Women likely need not fear passive-aggressive groping

A strange phenomenon occurs in many conservative countries that I not-so-lovingly refer to as “passive-aggressive groping”. It’s when men unnecessarily brush up against women’s bodies in a creepy attempt to cop-a-feel. It happened to me so many times in India that I started carrying an umbrella under my arm with the point facing backward to keep men away from my butt. And I gave a serious scolding to one emboldened gent who “tripped” up the stairs and caught himself with my buttcheeks. Not cool.

Sunset at Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
But it’s a good idea for women to cover their shoulders and their knees

I read several blogs stating that this was also a problem in Egypt and that there was an effort to educate younger boys in school that this behavior is wrong and won’t be tolerated. I even shed a few tears just trying to mentally prepare myself to deal with this again (it makes me crazy that some people believe it’s okay to touch another person’s body without their permission).

But not even once in the 30 days that we spent in Egypt did anyone touch me in any way that made me feel uncomfortable, even a little. Sure a few men tried to put their arm around my shoulders for a picture but they refrained as soon as I said no. Passive-aggressive butt rubbing doesn’t appear to be an issue in Egypt, or at least it wasn’t for me, thank god.

(And PS if you’re thinking that it’s probably because I don’t have a nice butt, you’re wrong, I totally do!)

Women will get catcalled, but it’s reasonably harmless

I also read plenty of blogs warning women about making eye contact with men in Egypt as they would get aggressively catcalled. So I was ready for some good old fashioned whooping, hollering and whistling. And during my first day in Cairo I refused to make eye contact with anyone (which actually makes it really difficult to see where you’re going).

The cutest old lady in Alexandria, Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
She totally catcalled me…

And I did get catcalled a bit. But it was pretty harmless. “How many hearts did you break today?” and “how much do you cost? I’ll give you 1 million camels” were the most common. I did have one man tell me that he would kill his wife for me which seemed a bit over-the-top but (hopefully) he meant it in jest. Most of the catcalls seemed to be more funny and flattering than anything else.

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Many Egyptian people are at a point of desperation

In 2016 the value of the Egyptian Pound (LE) fell significantly. It had previously been pegged which was causing turmoil in the country. While prices have been somewhat adjusted for the inflation, wages have remained more or less the same as before. Meaning that many Egyptians are earning about half of what they were earning prior to 2016 but paying higher prices for everything.

Because of that, the Egyptian people are really struggling to make ends meet. In areas like Luxor and Aswan that rely heavily on tourism, you can actually feel the desperation in their pleas. It’s incredibly sad and difficult to understand. And sadly, for tourists it makes for a very frustrating experience.

The next few things that I wish I would have known prior to visiting Egypt will make it sound like we had quite a negative experience. That is not the case, most of the time. But there were times where this desperation facing the Egyptian people was so infuriating that I was tempted to jump on the next flight back to the US. It helped to remember that many people in this country are truly struggling and some view tourists as their only option to earn money.

A tip (“baksheesh”) is expected for anything and everything

Possibly due to #5 on the list, Egypt has developed a culture where a tip, or “baksheesh” is expected for anything and everything. We had two pretty hilarious and memorable “baksheesh” requests. The first was when we left a restaurant to get into our Uber and there was a man standing nearby who claimed he “didn’t let anyone else steal our Uber” and tried to demand a tip (he was not successful). The second was when we went into a phone store to replace the screen protector for my iPhone and the store owner requested a tip beyond the price we paid. We still don’t really know what for.

Temple guard in Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
This pic was worth every baksheesh!

When visiting temples there are many guards dressed in traditional clothing hanging around. They will ask you to take a photo of them, or try to show you something in the temple, or even allow you to take a photo when it isn’t allowed (such as in tombs in the Valley of the Kings and inside of the Great Pyramid in Giza). Then they will expect a baksheesh for their efforts. It gets REALLY old really fast. But I learned that these men earn about 1200 LE per month (~$65 USD) so your tip really helps their families.

Locals never seem to want to part with small change so it can be difficult to keep small bills for your baksheesh. Hang on to 5, 10, and 20 LE bills for dear life!

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But the amount you should tip is much smaller than you might expect

When we first arrived in Cairo we had a driver meet us to take us to our hotel and we tipped him 100 LE (~$5). He was literally ecstatic. He kept shaking our hand and asking us to call him again for rides wherever we needed to go. Turns out we tipped him about 5 times what we should have.

Egyptian Money (Pounds and Piastres) by Wandering Wheatleys
At the time of writing the conversion rate was about 17.77 LE to $1 USD.

Expect to pay 10 LE for the guards hanging out at the temples. Public bathrooms will run you 2 LE. Pay the bellboy 10-20 LE for carrying your luggage to your room. And 10-20 LE/night for housekeeping is standard. The service charge is generally included in your check when dining out but if it isn’t, a 10% tip will suffice.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that if someone offers to help, it comes at a price

If I had a dollar for every time someone approached us on the street who genuinely wanted to help us find what we were looking for, I would be broke.

There were times that we were duped into thinking someone was genuinely interested in talking to Americans but it was only a matter of time until they tried to direct us to their shop or their restaurant. They seemed offended when we turned down their offer for “Egyptian hospitality” which would consist of tea in their shop while trying to “help us spend our money”.

We learned that (almost) no one who approaches you on the street really wants to chat or to help and anyone who aggressively tries to point you in any direction is lying. On the way to the entrance to the Pyramids of Giza several people on the street point to a side street claiming “entrance here! Ticket office here!” It’s not, they’re lying. And there are police officers standing 10 feet away that know this scam is going on but choose to do nothing about it.

Camel owner Pyramids, Gaza, Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
No, this photo was not free…

It’s also very difficult to ask anyone on the street for help because while they may be genuinely helpful, it’s highly likely there is a tout lingering nearby who will tell the nice person that they’re already helping you. Even though they’re really only trying to help you to find their shop. This is incredibly frustrating as they are really difficult to shake.

I wish I could give good advice but just this evening (as I write this) we had 2 people following us around at different times, pretending to just want to chat. I hate that this makes me sound cynical and I hope that you don’t find this to be the case during your visit.

“No” does not seem to mean no in Egypt

Every time we left our hotel in Luxor and in Aswan, we would see the touts start running toward us. “Felucca? Felucca? You know how much it costs? Very cheap, Egyptian price!” or “taxi, taxi, where you go?” It’s like we had giant neon dollar signs on our foreheads. And no matter how many times we said “no thank you” or “NO” or “LITERALLY STOP FOLLOWING US!” they persisted. We were often followed for blocks while ignoring their nonstop attempts to get us into their boat, car, or horse-drawn carriage.

It would seem that these Egyptians either don’t know the meaning of the word “no”, or they just don’t care that you don’t want what they are offering. They assume they’ll wear you out and eventually you’ll agree.

We learned that the best way to get them to finally leave us alone was just to ignore them. Giving a polite “no thank you” just gives them hope that they can wear you down. You’ll feel like the world’s biggest asshole pretending that the person that is walking alongside you while yelling in your ear doesn’t exist but you’ll thank me in the end.

Many Egyptians drive without their headlights on at night

For some reason many Egyptians believe that driving with headlights on really impedes the vision of oncoming drivers at night. And thus many drive with either just their fog lights or with no headlights at all. They’ll often flash their lights to inform an oncoming driver of their presence when traveling at high speeds or when few other cars are around.

For a backseat driver, or for anyone attempting to cross the street, this can be horrifying. Keep calm, relax, and rest (somewhat) assured that their visibility is increased because of it!

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Uber rides are dirt cheap

… and awesome because the drivers won’t try to hassle you! Most of the taxi drivers in Egypt will not accept the fact that you only want them to take you to one place. They’ll spend the majority of the ride trying to convince you to let them take you to some other tourist attraction. And, as I mentioned above, they have a hard time taking no for an answer.

Uber Receipts in Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
Our Uber receipts…

We found that even though many Uber drivers got really really lost trying to find us (damn you one-way streets!), the wait was worth not getting hassled for more rides or duped on price. You’ll rarely pay more than $5 to go anywhere around Cairo so, of course, they appreciate (but certainly don’t expect or ask for) a baksheesh. Just be sure you ask that they follow their GPS – their way usually isn’t the best way!

The first price offered is rarely the price you’ll be expected to pay

We encountered this many many times during our time in Egypt. The locals are trying to be competitive in their pricing so they lie. Here in an example of what we encountered fairly frequently: we were walking down the street in Aswan and after dodging probably 30 men asking us to take a ride on their felucca we were approached by a seemingly nice old man who offered us a ride for 25 LE (~$1.50 USD). We were only a short distance from our destination but figured we could take a cheap boat ride and get there much faster.

Felucca ride in Aswan, Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
I was angry and ignoring this liar-liar-pants-on-fire felucca driver

About midway through the trip I started asking the nice old man about an excursion for the next day. When my question of price came up he informed me that the charge would be 75 LE/hour, “the same as our current ride”.

“Um, excuse me?” I said. “You said this felucca ride would be 25 LE.” He informed me that I misheard him and I could ask anyone what the going rate is and blah blah blah. Bottom line is that he blatantly lied to try to get our business and then flipped once our only escape was to swim back to shore.

The moral of the story is that we would have happily paid him 75 LE for his time and would have given him our business the next day if he’d just been honest. I get it, I’m being an asshole, it’s only a few dollars. But it gets so exhausting having to negotiate for everything and attempting to figure out the actual price you’ll be expected to pay at the end of your trip.

Visiting tourist sites on Fridays and Saturdays is horrifying

Fridays are prayer days for Muslims and Fridays and Saturdays are weekends for most Arab countries. So every attraction that you (tourist) want to visit, the locals want to visit as well. And busloads of schoolchildren who have the day off of school will arrive shortly after you do. Referring back to #2 of this list, you’ll not only be bombarded by people wanting to take your photo, but you’ll also need to plan on waiting in long lines and sharing small spaces with lots of people.

Local family at the Pyramids of Gaza, Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
They halted their caravan because they wanted a photo with us. And notice the man in the carriage taking a photo of the backs of our heads.

If you plan on visiting either the Pyramids of Giza on Friday or Saturday during the midday, or if you plan to visit the Cairo Tower on a Friday night… just… don’t. Trust me.

Everyone smokes. Everywhere.

I was walking through the airport, hacking up a lung and wondering why it reeked like cigarette smoke in the middle of the G gates. Turns out the doors to the “smoking room” were propped open wide so as to give the smokers inside some fresh air. That is a pretty accurate representation for all of Egypt. Smokers can light up pretty much anywhere – in hotel rooms, restaurants, in taxis, on buses. The world is their black tar oyster.

Old man in Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
My new best friend. But I had to pay him for this pic.

Be sure to request non-smoking rooms in hotels and non-smoking tables at restaurants. But be prepared for your senses to be assaulted.

Conclusion

Stained glass windows at the Coptic Mseum, Cairo, Egypt by Wandering Wheatleys
Finally found some peace and quiet!

Would we visit Egypt again? Absolutely! Are we beyond ready to leave after being here for 30 days? Yes. But you should DEFINITELY VISIT EGYPT NOW! It’s super safe, super cheap, and the things you will see will blow your mind. Hopefully these 14 things will help to prepare you for the good, bad, and ugly that you may experience while visiting this spectacular country!

Planning a visit to Egypt? Check out our favorite books!



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14 Things I Wish I had Known Before Visiting Egypt! If you're headed to Egypt and have questions about safety, what to wear, or what to expect when you visit make sure you check out this post by the Wandering Wheatleys!

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. Yes! I related to this post so much! When I visited Egypt, I remember that there was one time a street was so busy, I couldn’t cross, so a police guard stopped traffic and asked for a tip for doing so lol. Nevertheless, it is still an amazing country to visit.

  2. Elaine C. Johnson says:

    Thanks Val,for your reality check. In the late 80’s, I visited Jakarta and Singapore (alone). and in the early 2000’s China (with my daughter) Standing out as a member of an ethnic minority (very tall!, caucasian and fair haired)-let alone a ‘rich and naive ” foreigner, was a good experience in understanding what it is to stand out so much. I think a benefit was to help to make me appreciate more personally what it feels like to be a in a minority. And all these countries were a joy to visit Most people were wonderful and the experience not to be missed.

  3. mikkelpaige says:

    This was an awesome post! I learned so much – it’s great to know what to expect before going. I don’t have it on my travel list for the near future but I’ll be better equipped when/if I go with this information!

  4. I loved this post – i completely understand what you mean about being mentally prepared for a country. I was blindsided when I went to Guatemala, and was hassled day and night (blonde hair thing again). If I had been mentally prepared it would have been ok. So thank you, will keep this in mind for my future adventure to Egypt!

  5. Tammy says:

    Thanks for the tips! I haven’t been to Egypt yet, but have experienced all the things you have all over Asia. My husband is a dark-haired, bearded, fair-skinned American and I’m an American of Thai descent with tan skin and unnaturally colored hair. We’re both quite large and in charge as well, so we’re basically walking targets. There’s also that whole stereotype of the “rich white guy with southeast Asian mail-order bride”. It’s exhausting and infuriating, but it hasn’t stopped us from traveling anywhere yet. We’ve developed very thick skin and what I like to “and iron heart of no mercy.” Elders or children can beg us for money all they want and we won’t even flinch. It makes us sound like cynical, jaded travelers. We are, but we still love it. ?

  6. Jasmine says:

    Thanks for this article! Interesting… it’s on my bucket list but I keep hearing about safety issues which makes me hesitate. But the smoking is really a turn off for me

  7. Byron Miller says:

    I’ve always wanted to go to Egypt and was curious as to how it is today after so much turmoil the past decade. Going to see the pyramids is a dream of mine, hope to give it a go one of these days. Thanks for the interesting article!

  8. Amel says:

    Hi there,
    Glad you still want to go again. Unfortunately what you went through happens more frequent now than ever. The “touching” specifically is new & horrible act that is foreign to the authentic Egyptian culture. Also the “helping for a reason” is too foreign to the authentic Egyptian culture. Such habits used to be shamed a few years back.

    I am the author of the book, “The Tomb Opens”. If anyone wants to know more accurate details about the Egyptian culture before or after visiting Egypt, pick up a copy of this novel.

    You’ll be able to learn about egyptians’ emotional patterns, attitudes & behavioural cues.

    Egypt is a very rich culture. The typical Egyptian is by nature generally modest, friendly, helpful to the extent of giving you his own jacket if you are cold.

    Having said that, touting tourists is known to be a culture of its own amongst the people who work in that industry.

    Certainly egyptians have been through a lot that buried their genuinely beautiful nature to a great extent. Yet once you trigger that buried side in them, it will easily surface up.

    Enjoy.
    Amel A.

  9. Paula Archer says:

    Thank you for the information. As a blonde haired, blue eyed and fair skinned women heading to Egypt in a few months your blog is really helping me prepare. Enjoy your travels.

  10. Marianne says:

    Thanks for the info! Please tell me about your boots- totally in love.

    1. Valerie Wheatley says:

      I’m so glad you like them – they are Sorels and they are seriously the best boots I’ve ever owned!!! They are on Amazon here; https://amzn.to/2Mak57T. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

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