BUDGET Travel Guide
Let’s be honest, Egypt has been a popular travel destination for thousands of years. Yet often just a street away from the madding crowd, you will find a friendly and rich culture at the crossroads of the Middle-East, the Mediterranean and Africa. Going off the beaten path is not always easy, but all the more rewarding in a country full of contrasts and surprises.
Visa Policy For Egypt:
Visa On Arrival & E-Visa
If there was a prize for the most confusing immigration policy, Egypt would be a strong contender. Rules, and their enforcement, always change, are interpreted differently from one border post to the other, and pretty much anything is possible. Traveling from Israel is NOT a problem.
E-Visa/Visa On Arrival. Most European countries, the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Russia can get a 30 day single entry visa for 25 US dollars at any port of entry, or electronically. Some airports seem to charge more for the visa on arrival, and land borders regularly run out of visa stickers. So if you are eligible, play it safe, get the e visa and skip the queue. In practice, it would seem that most Latin American countries can also get a visa on arrival. For all other nationalities, you will have to apply at an Egyptian embassy, ideally in your country of residence.
Sinai. If you enter Egypt via the Taba land border with Israel, the Aqaba – Nuweiba ferry from Jordan or Sharm El Sheikh airport in the Sinai, AND you are from one of the many eligible countries, you can get a 15 day Sinai only visa stamp for free. Beware, if you want to stay longer or leave the Sinai peninsula for Cairo and beyond, this is a major hindrance. Getting a visa on arrival is notoriously difficult at the Taba border, and even at the airport immigration officers regularly mess it up. If you can, get the e visa!
Visa Policy For Egypt:
Visa Extension & Overstay
Staying for several months up to a year is a relatively easy process, although some bureaucracy is involved. This makes Egypt particularly well-suited for slow travel.
Visa Extension. It is possible to get a 6 or 12 month extension for around 70 – 100$ in local currency. Your visa remains single entry. For another 35-40$, you can get a multiple entry add-on for the first 6 months. The level of bureaucracy one has to face varies a lot between offices.
The most tourist-friendly option is currently El Tor, the administrative capital of Sinai, where the rather painless process takes one morning. Cairo is also an option, but already more complicated. Long-term visas are considered as proof of “residency”, and in many instances such as museums and national parks, unlock the local tariff. This can significantly reduce the costs of your stay.
Overstay. For many years, the lax policy regarding overstaying made it a tempting and often economical option. The fine is now much higher, and more strictly enforced, even after a single day of overstay. You could still get lucky with the immigration officer, but this loophole is being gradually closed.
Entering The Country
By Air. There are plenty of cheap flights to Sharm El Sheikh, Cairo and Alexandria. The Turkish low-cost carrier Pegasus based in Istanbul is a good place to start your search.
By Sea. The daily ferry from Aqaba in Jordan is overpriced at 80$, but avoids any inconvenient evidence of travel to Israel. You might be able to board the occasional ferry from Duba in Saudi Arabia to Safaga, although this isn’t official yet. The opposite direction remains off limits to foreigners for now.
By Land. The Taba border in the Sinai is open to travelers coming from Israel. The crossing is straight-forward, but you have to pay a 105 ILS Israeli exit tax and another hefty 400 EGP entry fee on Egyptian ground. In the South, the border to Sudan can be crossed by bus and ferry between Wadi Halfa and Aswan. Custom procedures can be painfully slow, bring a healthy dose of patience.
Public Transportation In Egypt
By Train. Egypt has a good railway network along the Nile and in the Delta. This is by far the cheapest and most comfortable form of public transportation if you are traveling between Alexandria, Cairo and Aswan. Tickets can be easily booked online with a foreign credit card, just sign up on the ENR website. Alternatively, it’s always possible to just hop on the train and pay on board against a small surcharge. The fancy Al Watania sleeper is an overpriced tourist trap. It’s a good idea to book a few days ahead, especially around holidays. Bring water and snacks.
By Bus. A multitude of companies ply the different routes between major cities. Go Bus and Blue Bus are slightly better, but overall standards are mediocre. Never go through agencies and touts, always by directly from the offices of the company. Or, if it works, online through the company’s website or app. Make sure you know where your bus stop is!
By Microbus. Countless small minivans offer a faster and cheaper but cramped alternative to the buses. They are often the only form of public transportation between smaller cities off the tourist trail. For inner-city travel too this is a far cheaper option than a taxi. Locals will be happy to assist and direct you to the relevant vehicle. The police used to stop foreigners from taking long-distance microbuses, and this is still the case in the Sinai. Elsewhere, this rule seems to be gradually relaxed.
Transportation In Egypt:
Cairo. As a foreigner you have to constantly bargain hard. Drivers navigate by landmarks, and often cannot read a map or use a GPS. Ridesharing apps Uber and Kareem will avoid you a lot of hassle, and provide a valuable tool for estimating a reasonable fare. Be prepared to hand over your phone to a nearby shopkeeper, the drivers usually call to confirm the pick-up location.
Other Cities. With no ridesharing app available, be prepared to pay more than in Cairo. Know your prices, stay firm and be ready to walk away. There is no shortage of taxis. Yellow and black Indian-made tuk-tuks should be slightly cheaper.
Private Hire. For places with little or no public transportation, hiring a taxi can be convenient. And if shared between a small group it still works out reasonably cheap. Same price or cheaper than a car rental in most cases. As a rough estimate be prepared to pay the equivalent of 0.60 to 0.80 US dollars in local currency per kilometer.
Transportation In Egypt:
Hitchhiking in rural Egypt is relatively easy, just stick your hand out. Some drivers will offer impromptu taxi services, especially if you are near a touristic area. Make your intentions clear. Outside of the Nile valley you might get stopped and turned around at police and army checkpoints, “for your safety”. Or given a ride by the police!
Budget Accommodation In Egypt
Hotels. A plethora of fundu’ have popped up for the local and foreign travelers alike. The budget category is often grim. Always have a look at the room before committing, and be prepared to bargain hard. Never pay more than the equivalent of 10$ for a simple double room without attached bathroom. If you are staying for more than one night, you can work towards getting a good discount. Rates drop off sharply after a week.
Airbnb/Booking.com. The offerings tend to be slightly overpriced, but you can find the occasional bargain. It’s also a good way to find accommodation away from the touristy parts of town. A word of caution: the online world is not exempt of scams, do your research with more care than usual.
Long-term Rentals. If you are staying for a few weeks or even months, you can find wonderful fully equipped apartments for cheap, usually no more than 100-300$ per month. Inquire locally, make some friends. This is by far the best way to a more authentic stay in Egypt.
Typical Food. Egyptian cuisine is mostly based on legumes and vegetables (see the “Vegetarian” section below). Meat is usually grilled under the form of shawarma (sliced meat on a vertical rotating spit), kebab (meat skewers) and kofta (meat balls). BBQ fish and seafood are popular near the Red Sea.
You will hardly taste the incredible variety of dishes outside of an Egyptian home. The best stews, soups and rice dishes are cooked with love. If you are invited for an authentic meal, say yes!
Drink. Sipping a shay (black tea) or ‘ahwa (coffee, usually flavored with cardamon) in a small café and watch daily life run its course is one of the quintessential Egyptian experiences. Egyptian beer and wine is sold in small bottle shops in upper-class neighborhoods and touristic areas.
Grocery & Fruit Shops. Bigger supermarkets are a rare sights, but plenty of small grocery shops provide all the essentials, from snacks to staples. Try the gibna rumi if you are after decent local cheese. Fruit and vegetable shops have an excellent selection of local produce, often supplemented by farmers directly selling their crop on the streets. Egypt’s climate accommodates a large variety of both tropical and Mediterranean fruits and vegetables. From tender green beans to juicy mango to fresh herbs, if you like to cook you will be in heaven.
Vegetarian. Egyptian cuisine is very accommodating even for vegans. Most fast-food classics like falafel (made with fava beans and cilantro), foul (mashed fava beans), baba ghanoush (eggplant dip) and batatis (potato) don’t contain any meat. Only the gibna (cheese) is dairy-based. Eggs are popular too. The national dish, koshary, is also vegan. A mixture of rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and fried onions is a popular late afternoon snack.
Off The Beaten Path In Egypt:
A Few Hints
Escaping the tourist trail can be challenging in Egypt. Vast swathes of countryside are off-limit for foreigners, or require a guide. Nevertheless, you don’t always have to look very far to find authenticity. Often, it’s just a couple of streets away from the touts and tour groups.
- Skip the Pyramids, get lost in Old Cairo instead. The further you walk away from the main sights, the friendlier the atmosphere. Enjoy a fresh falafel sandwich while admiring the skills of young men on bicycles balancing large trays of bread on their head. Be humbled by the hard working people, supporting entire families with one tiny shop.
- Take an Arabic course. A big city like Cairo is a perfect place to learn and practice Arabic. Build your friendship with the local greengrocer, become a regular client of the café around the corner.
- Hike and trek around St. Catherine. The mandatory Bedouin guide can seem annoying at first, but his wealth of knowledge is worth every pound. It is possible to rent a small rustic house in a bustan, one of the ingenious gardens the Bedouins built around mountain springs in the desert.
- Practice a sport. Not always really off-the-beaten-path, but it definitely has the potential. Kite surf and free dive around Dahab. Embark on a contemplative trekking or climbing trip in the desert.
- If you are into history and archeological sites, there are plenty of quiet alternatives to the big sights. Examples: the Dahshur pyramids instead of Giza. The Kalabsha temple instead of Philae. Or even better, head South to Sudan!
Sustainable Travel In Egypt
- Avoid internal flights. If comfort is really important to you, take a 1st class train or the “business class” buses with a 2+1 seat configuration.
- The big “luxury” cruise ships on the Nile pollute the only water source of the country and generate tons of waste. Sail with an old felucca instead.
- Go easy on the seafood in the Red Sea resorts. Fishing is rarely conducted in a sustainable manner, and often illegal.
- The tap water in the big cities has a nasty taste of chlorine, but should otherwise be fine for human consumption. Get a carbon filter along with your regular water treatment unit, and say goodbye to plastic bottles. In the Sinai and along the Red Sea local Bedouins get excellent drinking water from ancestral wells. It’s worth asking around.
- The flood of plastic bags plaguing the country is shocking. Try to cut their use by reusing old ones as much as possible.
- Takeaway is popular, especially in Cairo, and generates phenomenal amounts of trash for just one small meal. Eat in restaurants, avoid delivery, and bring tupperwares when needed.
- Industrial snacks are cheap and readily available. Instead, try to encourage street food stalls, small local bakeries, etc. Seek drinks in reusable glass bottles.
- Fruit and vegetables are almost exclusively local, come in wooden boxes and with little to no packaging. If you are cooking yourself and frequenting local eateries you can get by with next to no non-organic waste.
- لا شكرا (“laa, shukkran”): no, thank you (to turn down something)
- من غير كيس (“min gheir kis”): without bag
- ممكن تحطهولي في الكوباية/علبة دي؟ (“mumkin taHaTtuhuli fil kubeiya/3alba dih?”): can you put it in this cup/container?
- مش عايز كوباية/علبة تاكاواي ورق او بلاستيك لحماية البيئه (“mish 3awiz kubeiya/3alba takeaway warra au plastik leHmeyet il biyah”): I don’t want a paper or plastic cup/takeaway box to protect the environment
Food. Popular street food and busy local restaurants are generally trustworthy, although you might still face a period of adaptation. Stay away from aggressively touted restaurants aimed at tourists. Always wash your fruits and veggies with care. Bring a supply of activated charcoal, and some immodium in case you have diarrhea and must travel on the same day. Stay away from Antinal, the local go-to product for pretty much any stomach issue, which actually is an antibiotic which triggers strong side effects in many patients. Instead, carry a course of the broad-spectrum antibiotics ciprofloxacin or erythromycin as a last resort.
Water. Tap water in Cairo and the bigger cities is heavily chlorinated, but from a microbiological point of view is drinkable. At least theoretically. In any case, filtering is not a bad idea, as tanks and pipes are not always as clean as they should be. Tea and coffee is fine. In the Sinai and along the Red Sea coast, tap water often comes from desalination plants and is not suitable for human consumption. Not even for a tea.
Heat. Even in winter the sun is relentless. With the dry air it’s easy to overlook how much we sweat in a day. Drink copious amounts of water to stay hydrated.
Terrorism. Egypt had it’s fair share of attacks over the last decades. A period of calm seems to be invariably be followed by lowered security and the next cycle of violence. While such events are impossible to predict, the risk remains low and concentrated around touristic sights. We see it as yet another reason to avoid the crowds.
Theft. There is little opportunistic theft compared to popular European destinations. A little care is warranted around train and bus stations as well as busy touristic sights. But overall you can relax, not much gets stolen.
Scams. Touts, unscrupulous guides and other shady characters abound around the most popular touristic sights. Know your way, know at least roughly the prices, always deal directly with the relevant offices for entrance fees, bus and train tickets. Choose your taxi driver, not the other way around.
Women. Sadly far too many men still consider that respectable women should stay at home, especially at night. Or at least be accompanied by a male relative. To avoid unpleasant experiences, it’s preferable to not venture alone, especially after dark. Take an Uber or Kareem when needed. Don’t count on the help of passers by like in Iran. Small towns like Dahab are much more relaxed on that aspect than big cities like Cairo.
Dress. Egyptian society is very conservative. This applies to both Muslim and Coptic Christian communities. Swimwear is only acceptable at the beach in the resort towns of the Red Sea. The rest of the time it’s best to have at least shoulders and knees covered for both men and women. There is no need for women to wear a headscarf, but loose, less revealing attire will greatly help reduce unwanted attention. For men, city youngsters can sometimes be seen in shorts. However, a better compromise are 3/4 length shorts covering the knees. T-shirts are OK.
In resort towns like Dahab you might encounter the strange sight of bikini and niqab-clad women on the same street. Needless to say, while you can get away with a lot more in these seaside areas, a modicum of modesty will help create a better, respectful relationship between visitors and hosts.
Shaking Hands. Like in much of the Arab world, hand shakes tend to be soft. A firm hand shake can be considered rude. Between men and women, it’s usually up to the woman to offer the handshake, which will be very light and gentle. Alternatively, a hand on the heart does the trick, and is also the polite way for a woman to refuse a handshake from a man.
Invitations. Sooner or later, you will be invited for tea or even a meal. It’s a wonderful opportunity to enter a real Egyptian home. Foreign women often get a special status equivalent of a man in such occasions, while maintaining access to areas reserved to women in a home. Male guests will often be limited to a single room when invited into a home.
Alcohol is readily available in Egypt. Nevertheless, especially outside of resorts, it’s best to keep a low profile. Drink it at home or in one of the few pubs, not in public.
In touristic areas you can easily survive with English. The educated upper-class speak it fluently. Elsewhere, even a few words of Arabic will go a long way. In any case, learning basic greetings and numbers can be considered essential. Spending a few hours learning the script, including numerals, will greatly facilitate navigation and communication in Egypt and beyond.
The Egyptian dialect of Arabic is well-known throughout the Arab speaking world. This makes it much easier to find decent learning material. If you can get your hands on a cheap copy of the Michel Thomas Arabic Foundation and Advanced courses you can acquire a footing in the Egyptian dialect in less than 20 hours.
Wifi. More and more places have it, but never count on good, reliable Wifi. A better option is to get a local SIM card.
Mobile Internet. 4G has recently been deployed to most cities, and is often faster than the Wifi. Vodafone has currently the best nationwide coverage. You can get a local SIM card at any official Vodafone shop, all you need is your passport. Airport offers are unsurprisingly overpriced. Your line will be valid as long as your visa. Data packs are affordable.
Money & Budget
Cards & Cash. Egypt’s economy is still largely cash-based. Only a few upmarket shops and hotels accept foreign cards. Carry all the necessary money in cash. Denominations smaller than 5 pounds are in short supply. It’s not a bad idea to keep a few 1 pound notes and coins for toilets.
Tipping. You will read in all the guides that tipping is the norm across Egypt. This is only true for establishments frequented by the upper class and tourists. The working class usually doesn’t tip. Order a tea or falafel in a local low-key eatery doesn’t incur any surcharges. Likewise, your Uber driver will give you the exact change, although rounding up is not uncommon. Use your common sense and only give baksheesh wisely, lest we exacerbate the walking ATM image of tourists.
ATMs. There is no shortage of ATMs in Egypt, and most accept foreign cards. However, cash supply issues are not uncommon. It’s wise to always keep a small cash buffer. QNB Bank and Bank of Egypt don’t charge any fees. Combined with a card that has no foreign currency fees and mark-up, this is the most convenient solution.
Changing Money. In touristic areas and airports many ATMs have two slots, as seen on the picture above. These can usually exchange US dollars, Euros and British Pounds at decent rates. Follow the on-screen instructions and insert your notes in the machine. The best rate is for US dollars at Bank Of Egypt ATMs. In an emergency, most shops will change at least US dollars, but don’t expect a favorable rate.
Bargaining. Egypt has a reputation of systematically overcharging tourists. This might be true in Luxor, Aswan and some parts of Cairo, but it is exaggerated. Taxi drivers require, like elsewhere in the world, good negotiation skills. Bargaining for trinkets in the touristic bazaar will involve some serious haggling too. But small green grocers, street food stalls and shops don’t tend to overcharge (much). Rule of thumb: if there are rarely tourists around, it’s usually fine.
Budget. Especially if you opt for a long-term rental, cook for yourself or eat a local restaurants, 10 US dollars a day is plenty. If you move a lot and pay entrance fees regularly, 20$ a day is a better estimate.