Backpacking Egypt: Top experiences

 

  1. Diving in Ras Mohammed National Park in the Red Sea
  2. Interpreting the heiroglyphs at the temple of Karnak
  3. Seeing mummies and King Tut’s gold headpiece at the Egyptian Museum
  4. Pondering the mysteries of the pyramids of Giza and the sphynx

 

Jump to the list of posts from Egypt, or read on for my comprehensive Egypt travel guide.

 

Egypt itinerary ideas

 

Your Egypt travel itinerary will probably focus around the ancient attractions. Some of the most interesting places in Egypt include the Pyramids of Giza, the Library of Alexandria, and the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. If you have extra time, spend it diving in the Red Sea, beach bumming on the Sinai Peninsula, or visiting the remote Siwa Oasis and the Western Desert.

 

You can hit the main highlights of Cairo, the pyramids, Alexandria, Luxor and Aswan on about a two week Egypt travel itinerary. You could easily tack on another couple days in Dahab or Sharm el-Sheikh for diving. If you want to go all the way out to Siwa Oasis, a month would be ideal (travel times are long).

 

Egypt weather and when to visit Egypt

 

Egypt weather is hot and dry most of the year.
The weather in Egypt is pretty much always hot and dry. After all, you’re in the Sahara Desert. Photo by Fynn schmidt on Unsplash.

 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the country is mostly covered by the Sahara Desert, but — Egypt weather is hot and dry.

 

The best time to visit Egypt is in winter (November-February), when it’s pleasantly cool during the day and downright chilly at night. I was backpacking Egypt in December and was totally comfortable in long sleeves and long pants. I wished I had a jacket most evenings after the sun went down. The one downside is diving in the Red Sea can be very cold. You’ll need a 5 mm wetsuit or even a dry suit if you’re sensitive to the cold.

 

It’s definitely worth avoiding backpacking Egypt in summer. The temperature in Cairo skyrockets to well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit most days. Even sedentary activities like a Nile River cruise would not be much fun.

 

When you’re planning your trip to Egypt, be sure to consider what month Ramadan falls in (often May or June). Traveling during Ramadan has its pros and cons — read more about it here — but you should make an informed decision about whether you want that experience.

 

Language in Egypt

 

Egyptian Arabic is the main language you’ll encounter while backpacking Egypt. It’s the most widely spoken and understood form of Arabic in the Middle East and is quite similar to Modern Standard Arabic. If you want to learn a few words and phrases before your trip, this site is a good resource.

 

In Aswan and further south, you may encounter some people who speak a Nubian language as their first language. They typically also speak Egyptian Arabic.

 

English is widely spoken, written or understood by anyone who works in the tourist industry. But beyond that, the vast majority of Egyptians don’t speak it at all. You’ll have a much easier time while backpacking Egypt if you learn some standard phrases and how to read the Arabic numbering system. This goes especially true for women traveling alone — fewer Egyptian women speak English, and you’ll want to know a few phrases like “shame on you” and “get your hands off me” to fend off creepy men.

 

Budget for Backpacking Egypt

 

Visiting every temple gets pricey -- read your Egypt travel guide to decide which are most worth it.
An ISIC card will allow you to get into temples like this for half price.

 

Backpacking Egypt is outrageously cheap. You can travel reasonably comfortably for under $15 a day. The biggest costs are admission to historical sites, diving, and long-haul transportation.

 

If you can, get an ISIC card (international student ID card) before you go. You’ll pay half-price at all museums and historical sites.

 

Sample Costs

 

Private room in a hostel or simple guesthouse: 150 pounds

Street-stall meal of fuul or kushari: 15 pounds

Cup of tea: 10 pounds

Museum or historical site admission: 120 pounds (half price with ISIC card)

Daytime train ticket from Cairo to Luxor: 120 pounds

Taxi from Cairo to Giza: 120 pounds (depending on your bargaining skills!)

Two-tank dive in Ras Mohammed National Park: $65 USD

 

Egypt Visa Requirements

 

Most Egypt tours visit the Temple of Karnak in Luxor
Egypt tourism involves a lot of looking at old hieroglyphs like this

 

Travelers from Western countries who are backpacking Egypt need a visa. Most people can get their Egypt visa online. If you’re taking a flight to Egypt, you can also get your visa on arrival at the airport in Cairo. The only exception is if you cross by land and only visit the Sinai — in that case, you can stay for 15 days for free.

 

A 30-day visa costs $25. You must pay in hard currency (euros, USD or British pounds).

 

If you’re crossing from Israel via the Sinai, it’s easiest to get your Egypt visa in Tel Aviv or Eilat. In Eilat, if you go first thing in the morning you’ll receive your visa in just enough time to catch the last bus to the border at Taba. Still, this is far easier than trying to arrange your visa on arrival, as you have to pay a travel agency in Taba an extra $10 and wait for them to sort out the paperwork. No such hassle exists at the ferry crossing with Jordan.

 

Accommodation in Egypt

 

There are hostels and cheap hotels near most Egypt tourist attractions. You might have slightly less choice in the Western Oases.  Prices range from $3 for a dorm to $10 for a simple private room. Cairo is significantly more expensive than the rest of the country.

 

Standards of guesthouses hostels in Egypt are quite high, but look at a few places before deciding. There are enough options that you never have to settle for somewhere grungy.

 

Some guesthouses will aggressively push their tours on you. If you’re getting a pushy vibe when you check in, find somewhere else to stay. Some of my favorite low-pressure guesthouses were Dahab Hostel in Cairo, Dinah’s Hostel in Cairo (women-owned! but currently under renovation), and Fontana Inn in Luxor.

 

You never have to book a room in advance when backpacking Egypt. Tourism is at very low levels due to the ongoing political troubles. Even at the most popular places listed in your Egypt travel guide, you’ll be able to get a room on the spot. Your bigger problem will be meeting anybody else at your guesthouses and hostels!

 

Food in Egypt:

 

You can find great bakeries in Cairo Egypt.
If you’re backpacking Egypt on a budget, look for the amazing bakeries around Cairo — a croissant is around $0.25. Photo by Olia Gozha on Unsplash.

 

Egyptian food is delicious and reasonably healthy. This is one country where vegetarians can enjoy street food with abandon — you’ll never encounter mystery meat.

 

The most common street-food dishes are falafel, fuul, and roasted sweet potatoes. You should also try kushari — a cup of noodles, lentils, and other toppings.

 

Sit-down restaurants are the best place to try various grilled meats, river fish, and a greater variety of veggie dishes. They generally cater to tourists in the most popular tourist areas — you won’t see many Egyptians dining out.

 

Dahab is famous for its international, backpacker-friendly restaurants. You can get super-cheap sushi and to-die-for pizzas, but it’s not as cheap as local fare.

 

Food prices have been skyrocketing for years in Egypt (in fact, the rise in food prices is often cited as a key contributing factor to the Revolution). Expect to pay at least $1 for a street food meal, and upwards of $4 to sit down at a restaurant.

 

Drinks in Egypt

 

You can buy tea in Egypt at small cafes and hookah bars.
Black tea is the most popular beverage in Egypt. Photo by Mariam Soliman on Unsplash.

 

Like most of the Middle East and North Africa, tea is very popular in Egypt. Coffee is widely available as well, but it’s generally instant coffee. Both beverages are most commonly served at traditional cafes and hookah bars. Unfortunately, women backpacking Egypt alone will likely feel uncomfortable in most of these places. Solo women can head to McDonald’s for a safe caffeine fix in Cairo (seriously, that’s as good as it gets).

 

You can find alcohol at most tourist-oriented places and some local restaurants in Egypt, but it’s expensive. You’ll pay at least 25 pounds for a local beer. Solo women drinking in public — or even women drinking in public with their partner — will attract a lot of attention.

 

Tap water is not safe to drink anywhere in Egypt. Don’t contribute to plastic waste — use a Steri Pen to purify your own water. It takes 90 seconds to purify a liter’s worth and it doesn’t impact the taste.

 

Activities you can do while backpacking Egypt

 

Egypt attractions include ancient sites and monuments
Tourists walk in circles around a scarab beetle for good luck

 

Most travelers are backpacking Egypt for the history. Between the Pyramids of Giza, the temples of Luxor, the Library of Alexandria and the Egyptian Museum, you’ll surely get your fill of ancient Egypt.

 

Admission fees add up quickly ($5-$15 each), so it’s worth researching sites in advance to narrow down what really interests you. A good Egypt travel guide (like this one from Lonely Planet) can help you choose.

 

My two cents: the Egyptian Museum and the mummy room (which costs $5 extra) are well worth it. It’s enough to see the pyramids from outside and go inside the ones that are free to enter — no need to pay more to go inside the Great Pyramid.

 

In Luxor, the Temple of Karnak is worth the fee, but you can see most of Luxor Temple from outside. And on the West Bank, pick 2-3 sites — preferably different ones, like a temple and a tomb. Most of the sites are small here and you’ll get the idea after a couple

 

Once you’re tired of Egyptian history, head to the Sinai Peninsula to get out into nature. The two popular activities are climbing Mount Sinai (when the security situation allows it) and diving in Ras Mohammed National Park.

 

Dahab and Sharm al-Sheikh are the diving centers — Dahab is more backpacker-y, while Sharm is more high-end. The further you go into Ras Mohammed, the more it costs. Safety standards vary, so go with a recommended company — I liked Penguin Divers.

 

A Nile River cruise is one of the most popular activities when backpacking Egypt. This is easiest to arrange in Aswan. The trip up to Luxor takes four days by boat or five days by felucca (traditional sailboat), passing ancient temples along the way. If you arrange it in advance it can get quite expensive, but show up and bargain with the felucca captains and you should be able to hire a boat for around $50 a day.

 

Finally, if you have time when backpacking Egypt, you can do a desert safari in the Western Oases. Siwa Oasis is the most popular base. Women alone should be very, very careful about these trips and should insist on going with a group — there are frequent reports of everything ranging from obnoxious sexual pestering to sexual assault, including (maybe even mostly) by guides.

 

Transportation in Egypt

 

You can mostly stick to trains when backpacking Egypt -- unless you want to visit the Sinai Peninsula or Siwa Oasis in the Sahara Desert
Most cities along the Nile are accessible by train

 

There’s no avoiding it: Getting around Egypt is a pain. There are legitimate reasons for some of the hassle — security in the Sinai is a mess. But the Egyptian government and touts are taking advantage of the chaos to try to bleed tourists for all we’re worth.

 

Most travelers take the train between Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and Alexandria. You’ll hear variations on which trains allow tourists — some of it is true, some of it is a scam to sell luxury train tickets. If you’re told you can’t take a certain train, verify it with at least two other sources, preferably including someone who has no financial stake in selling you a ticket.

 

For example, when I was backpacking Egypt, two non-luxury trains a day were open to non-Egyptians. But it took me three visits to the train station and the help of a policeman to convince the ticket saleswoman that I was allowed to buy a seat from Cairo to Luxor. On the flip side, buying a ticket from Luxor back to Cairo was totally hassle-free.

 

Elsewhere, your only choice is buses. Driving standards are horrifying. Expect frequent roadblocks, drug searches, and general harassment by police and military. Sometimes you will be forced to travel in a convoy. But at least the buses are comfortable and affordable — Cairo to Dahab is $8. Siwa Oasis (the base for the Western Desert) is only reachable by a very long bus trip from Alexandria.

 

Check the security situation in the Sinai before heading there — some roads are not safe to travel on. Foreigners may be particularly targeted.

 

Safety When Backpacking Egypt

 

Political issues

 

I’m not going to lie — Egypt is not the most politically stable country. Terrorist attacks are tragically frequent and political change is rapid. Currently, the U.S. State Department advises against all travel in the Sinai Peninsula (except if you take a flight to Egypt that arrives in Sharm el-Sheikh) and the Western Desert.

 

The odds are pretty low that something would happen to a tourist backpacking Egypt. The military has a heavy presence at historical sites, and most attacks target locals.

 

I can tell you from my experience being there during two of the most chaotic weeks in recent Egyptian history, a politically unstable Egypt is not an enjoyable Egypt to travel in. That goes double for women alone.

 

At a minimum, seek local Egypt travel advice before venturing here. Be aware that if you ask hotel or tour companies if it’s safe to travel in Egypt, they’ll probably say yes regardless of whether it’s true. You’re better off posting in TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet message boards or asking local contacts who have no financial stake in your trip.

 

So is it safe to travel to Egypt? Probably mostly. But is it worth the hassle right now? I’d definitively say no. If you just got the chance of a lifetime to go and don’t think it’ll ever happen again, fine, go. But if you can possibly wait it out another year, two years, five years, whatever — I would.

 

General hassles

 

Regardless of the political situation, backpacking Egypt presents some risk on a day-to-day level.

 

The touting and scamming in Egypt was the worst I’ve experienced — by a long shot. The most aggressive touts don’t take “no” for an answer. They follow you around. They spit at you, swear at you, and shout at you. And they even grab your arm to stop you from walking away. All you can do is ignore them and try to keep moving.

 

Everyone will expect baksheesh (small tips), whether they actually do something for you or not. At historical sites, if someone starts explaining something to you without being asked, walk away immediately to avoid pressure to pay. Hiring a guide can go a long way toward dissuading these bores who typically know little about the history.

 

On the street, if you need help, approach someone — preferably a woman or family — and proactively ask, rather than relying on whoever offers.

 

Egypt travel advice for women alone

 

Is Egypt safe to travel in? Maybe, but if you're a woman, it isn't much fun.
My #1 piece of Egypt travel advice: Don’t travel alone as a woman

 

In short, my Egypt travel advice for solo women under 40 is: don’t travel to Egypt alone. Take a tour. Go with your partner. Go with a friend, male or female. But don’t go alone.

 

I’ll admit that my take on backpacking Egypt as a woman alone is very negative. Some women report having a relatively easy time in Egypt. But I can only speak to my experience (and the fact that Cairo has been found to be the most dangerous megacity in the world for women).

 

I felt unsafe nearly every moment I was outside my guesthouses in Egypt — and sometimes in my guesthouses. The street harassment was constant. I couldn’t walk two feet without being spat at, hissed at, grabbed, or shouted lewd comments at. Men would follow me around shouting, “come back or I’m going to rape you.” It was literally almost every man, regardless of age or social status.

 

By some miracle, nothing even bordering on actual violence ever happened to me. But I don’t think our standards as women for where is safe to travel should be measured by “well I didn’t actually get assaulted, so…” The threats were enough to make me completely miserable my entire trip.

 

A big part of why my experience was so extreme is the country was in a state of chaos when I was there. But women in Egypt now — both locals and tourists — still report extreme harassment.

 

On the other hand, there are plenty of cheap Egypt tours where you wouldn’t have to deal with the harassment. And women who travel with other women, men, or larger groups report almost no problems.

 

If you’re planning a trip to Egypt as a solo woman, be sure to check out the awesome work of HarassMap, an organization that aims to stop street harassment by shining a light on its prevalence. When you get here, ask as many local women as possible for Egypt travel advice — both because they’ll warn you about unsafe places, and because it helps you make friends.

 

Ready to get started? Check out the posts from Egypt.

 

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From the Pyramids of Giza to the temples of Luxor and diving the Red Sea, you'll never be bored while backpacking Egypt on a budget. Start planning your trip today with this FREE Egypt travel guide...