If Egypt isn’t on your must-see list then you, my friend, are insane. Seriously though, because my Egypt vacation was amazing; it was of the coolest travel experiences I’ve ever had and I would say that Egypt is now one of my favourite places.
I finally, and I do mean finally, got to Egypt in November of 2017. It had been a dream destination of my brother’s and mine since we were kids, and we actually tried to go once before. However, that was in 2012, not long after the revolution and when everything was still up in the air. So we cancelled, and ended up losing over $1000CAD each in the process. Not one of my finest moments.
But, now that I have been, I can’t help but think it was a good thing. Our original Egypt vacation was supposed to be a guided tour, which sounded great but was expensive and limiting. Our actual vacation we planned by ourselves, did what we wanted, and it didn’t cost us a fortune. Oh, and both of us felt welcome and safe in the country the whole time.
Sounds like a good plan? I think so too, which is why I’m going to break down how to plan an epic 2 week Egypt vacation on your own, so you too can experience the magic of one of my favourite countries.
The Best time for an Egypt Vacation
Egypt is a year round destination, but unless you absolutely love the heat you probably don’t want to go between May and September as the temperatures rise up over 40 degrees Celsius. December to April is high season, with Christmas and Easter being some of the busiest times. We went in November which wasn’t yet high season but had cooler (around 25 degrees C) temperatures. That being said, it still got really hot mid-day, so plan to explore or book your tours during the morning before the mid-day heat.
Visa Requirements and Money
First things first, most people will need an Egyptian Visa. As Canadians, we could get ours on arrival or we could apply for it head of time. Hoping to save ourselves some time and money, we thought we would do it in advance. That plan backfired when we misunderstood the instructions and thought we could get it same day when they actually needed over a week. Oops.
Thankfully, this was actually a good thing as we saved ourselves a lot of money. Applying in advance was going to cost us about $50USD each, getting it at the airport was $25USD and only took a couple of minutes. I just had to hand over my passport and the cash. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Or something like that.
Speaking of USD, you will want to bring some with you. American dollars are widely accepted across Egypt, especially when it comes to tours. However, you will need Egyptian money as well as it will likely be what you end up using the most. Egyptian pounds are best for tips, shopping at the markets, taxis, food…pretty much everything.
I usually recommend not getting local currencies in advance because the exchange rates are so much better if you get the money direct from ATMs in the host country, but Egypt and my bank card did not get along. At all. I actually had to withdraw cash from my visa a couple of times which landed me interest fees, even though I paid it off asap. Moral of the story; consider getting some Egyptian pounds ahead of time and bring some backup USD just in case. Credit cards are accepted at most hotels, but are not commonly used in restaurants or local shops.
Book Tours and Accommodation in Advance
If you listen to one of my tips, make it this one: book things in advance. Why? You will save yourself time, hassle, and money. Everywhere we went in Egypt, everyone just happened to be a tour guide for hire. Amazing! Sadly, many of them were hard to understand and not professionals. Let’s be honest, if you are coming to see Egypt and the historic temples, you want a pro who’s going to tell the stories and point out the details; these guys aren’t going to cut it.
I booked all of our tours in advance, mostly through Get Your Guide which I know uses reliable and trusted local professionals. They didn’t disappoint.
Another reason why I suggest booking in advance is that you pay upfront, meaning no added fees will be tacked on. We met a few fellow travellers who were told a rate when they inquired, only to find it had increased significantly by the time they arrived.
The same goes for hotels and taxis, especially at airports. Do yourself a favour and book your hotel in advance and choose one that offers a pickup service. Trust me when I say it’s worth the extra dollar or two (or, it might actually save you money if you’re not a great haggler) and avoids a lot of stress.
I recommend using booking.com for accommodation; I’ve always found it trustworthy and reliable, plus most properties will allow you to cancel without losing your money if something comes up.
Travellers to Egypt need to pack smart, especially the women. Egypt is hot, and can be roasting during the day. But, you also need to be respectful and cover up. I wrote a packing guide to Egypt for women with suggestions on what to bring based on what worked well for me.
All travellers should also make sure to bring plenty of sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and bug spray (the mosquitos are awful- and this is coming from a Canadian who spends her summers in the bush). A little medicine kit is always a good idea as well, make sure to bring some Imodium or even a prescription anti-biotic in case of any stomach problems. My brother and I both fell victim to what we think was contaminated ice cubes. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.
A Sample Week Itinerary for an Amazing Egypt Vacation
Over the course of two weeks, my brother and I managed to explore Egypt’s most famous temples and sites as well as spend a few days relaxing and scuba diving in the Red Sea. Given the feedback and questions I have received since; this is kind of the ‘ideal’ itinerary for most travellers interested in combining history with a beach break. If that’s what you are looking to do, here is what I suggest:
Day 1: Arrive Cairo
What time you arrive in Cairo depends on where you are coming from; we arrived at 9pm meaning our first day involved checking into our accommodation, having much needed showers after 14+ hours of travel, and climbing into our beds.
Where you stay in Cairo kind of depends on what you want to do and see. If you are really only interested in the Pyramids, then you may as well stay in Giza. If you are also interested in the museum and exploring Cairo, then stay in downtown Cairo. We stayed within walking distance from the museum and it was good for shops/restaurants/exploring though we did have to take a couple of taxis to get to the old area.
Day 2-3: Cairo
I’m not going to lie; Cairo sucks, even the Egyptians say so. So don’t spend longer than you need to here. That being said, it is kind of a must for two main reasons: to see the Great Pyramids of Giza and to explore the Egyptian Museum. Both are half day activities, so if you arrive early on day 1, I recommend visiting the museum then. Or, if you are on a tight schedule and want to get in and out of Cairo, you can do both in a day. We chose to split them into two days so we could a) have naps and adjust to the time zone before hitting the more exciting areas and b) check out the city a little bit. If you choose to go this route, be sure to head to Old Cairo where you can explore the massive Khan El-Khalili bazaar and look at some of the beautiful mosques and architecture. Or, you can head to Alexandria for a day to explore the historic mediterranean city.
Do yourself a favour and spend the money on a professional guided tour with pickup/drop off for the pyramids. To be honest, I would recommend a guide for the museum as well. We were told that we wouldn’t need one since the signs were in English, but signs were limited and we truly wished we had someone to show us the highlights and explain what we were seeing.
Day 4: Luxor
Fly from Cairo to Luxor, which only takes a little over an hour. Luxor is much smaller and quieter than Cairo so you don’t have to worry about crowds and traffic as much. Spend your afternoon exploring the city; check out the bazaar, and go to the light and sound show at Karnak Temple. Don’t stay up too late though, because you really should book a hot air balloon flight over the Valley of the Kings for the following morning. It’s a once in a lifetime experience and absolutely worth getting up early for.
Day 5-9: Nile Cruise from Luxor to Aswan
Based on our research, a five day Nile cruise (which included accommodation, transportation, all meals, and a private professional guide), was the best ‘bang for our buck’. We paid $395 CAD each for all of this on a high-end boat and found it both comfortable and relaxing. Plus, we lucked in and had the world’s best guide, Abdul for each daily excursion.
The excursion starts around 8am, so you will have time to get back from the hot air balloon ride and have breakfast before you start. For the five-day cruise you will explore Luxor, Edfu, and Aswan. Included in the cruise itinerary are the following sites:
- Valley of the Kings (entry to 3 royal tombs) and Queen Hatshepsut’s temple
- Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple
- Edfu (Horus Temple) and Kom Ombo (Sobek and Horus temple)
- High Dam, Philae Temples
- You will also have the option to visit the Nubian village and Abu Simbel Temple. These are not included in the Nile cruise, but are definitely worth adding on. Note that Abu Simbel is a three-hour drive from Aswan and it gets very hot and very busy. The earlier you leave, the better so while getting up at 4am seems horrible at the time, you will be thankful for the early start once you arrive.
While having all these tours, accommodation, meals, and transportation taken care of for you is a huge benefit, one of the biggest highlights of choosing to do a Nile Cruise rather than planning it all yourself is that you also get to enjoy the scenic cruising down the Nile River, which is absolutely beautiful. We did our tours in the morning and were back in time for lunch to relax and lounge under the umbrellas on the sun deck.
Once your Nile Cruise is over (usually early afternoon on the final day) head to the airport to catch a flight to one of Egypt’s best beach destinations.
*We booked our Nile cruise through Viator who set us up with Love Egypt Tours. If I were doing it again, I would go straight through Love Egypt. Their team was kind, professional, and incredibly knowledgeable about everything. Our guide, Abdul, was the best guide I have had anywhere. I’m by no means associated with the company, but can’t recommended them enough based on our experience.
Day 10-13: Hit the Beaches
After days of exploring temples and tombs it is time to relax by the sea. Whether you are looking for some scuba diving or just want to soak up the sun, Egypt has some amazing resort areas to choose from.
We chose to stay in Dahab for some scuba diving based on a recommendation from my buddy Justin from the Art of Scuba Diving who has spent a lot of time diving in Egypt. Dahab is a cool beach town popular with divers and those looking for a place to just chill. To get to Dahab you need to fly into Sharm El Sheikh airport then take a one-hour car ride.
We did our scuba diving with Liquid Adventures, who were fantastic. They arranged affordable accommodation at the nearby Acacia Hotel and took car of airport transfers as well. Our dive guides were awesome, the team was professional, and all the rental gear was in great condition. I definitely recommend using Liquid Adventures for any scuba diving in Dahab.
Two other popular beach destinations are Sharm El Shiekh and Hurghada. I can’t speak from personal experience for either, but from my understanding both are bigger, busier, and more resort-based than Dabab. Water sports, including scuba diving and snorkeling, are popular at both.
Day 14: Depart from Cairo
After two weeks of exploring, your Egyptian adventure is over. Hopefully it will be as amazing as ours. Last minute tips: Cairo airport is located quite a bit away from the city, so if you have an early morning flight, fly back into Cairo the night before and choose a hotel close to the airport.
Getting Around/ Transportation
Egypt is pretty big, so if you are planning on visiting the main temples and sites, you better do some advance planning. Most people tend to think that the sleeper train is the best idea as it covers transportation and accommodation, but more than one traveller has had a problem trying to get tickets to the train. Plus, based on our research, the train was actually just as expensive, if not more expensive, than a flight. We opted to save on time and used Egypt Air flights to get around. It was safe, comfortable, and on time. Plus, they give our really good mango juice and cookies which is always a win. Book your flights in advance to get the best deal.
When it comes to ground transportation, again try to choose accommodation that offers a pickup service. Having a trusted driver who isn’t out to hassle you makes a huge difference. If you do need to take a taxi, take a proper taxi. Don’t just get in though, make sure they will use the meter or agree on a price ahead of time. It’s also a good idea to have your address in Arabic as not all of the drivers understand English.
Going to Egypt is an amazing destination, and while both my brother and I felt perfectly safe during our visit we did end up getting sick. Thankfully we have the recommended medication, but you can’t be prepared for everything.
There have also been stories about people having chemical burns from henna tattoos (I got a henna tattoo without knowing this and was fine, but after hearing these stories I’d advise against it just in case), but that just goes to show that, like everywhere in the world, anything can happen at any time. For this reason, I highly suggest purchasing travel insurance before you go.
- Egypt is an amazing destination, and my brother and I both felt very safe and welcome during our two-week visit. However, as with everywhere else in the world, it is important to be mindful of your surroundings and respectful of the local culture.
- Tipping is common and expected, for everything from toilet attendants to tour guides. Remember tips are a huge part of Egyptian’s income. We tipped guides 100 Egyptian pounds for half day tours, and gave the drivers 75. Food and taxis we usually gave 20-50 Egyptian pounds and bathroom attendants got 5. These amounts seemed to be fine and appreciated by all.
- Haggling is expected; so do it. You will pay more than locals, but you can still get some great deals. Smile and be friendly while bartering, and don’t express interest in things you aren’t truly interested in.
- Egypt has some great souvenirs; cartouche necklaces with your name in hieroglyphics, alabaster statues, papyrus, and perfumes or oils. Of course quality differs, with many fake items being sold in the streets. If you are looking for something specific, ask at your hotel or your tour guide for advice. Know that they will probably make a (small) commission off your purchase, but it’s better than ending up with a banana leaf painting instead of papyrus!
- When it comes time to book a Nile cruise, do your research. Some are proper cruise ships while the cheap options are feluccas which are only for the adventurous; they usually don’t have toilets and involve sleeping on the deck.
- Internet in Egypt sucks. Our Wifi rarely worked and most hotels that offered it only had WiFi in the reception area. Another reason to book and plan in advance!