Our great list aims to drive you through the traps and knowledge for things to know before going to Cairo Egypt (another article with our sightseeing activity in Cairo will follow). It was our first time there and it was quite different from going in a European country or USA. We consider our experience very valuable and as you will read along you will see that it is very important to know specific things before going there.
Overall it was a positive experience, but it was like that only due to a set of rules and a specific framework that led to that positive outcome. Read about all the goods and the not so good ones. Also do subscribe to our newsletter for another post for Alexandria of Egypt.
Ground rules for Cairo Egypt
1. Avoid to go alone. Go through a travel agency.
The agency will take care of any kind of paperwork and will arrange for you to have a guide there. In our case we were very lucky since our guide also spoke Greek, apart from English, Arabic, etc and was living there and was a certified tour guide too. His name: Dimitris.
2. Ask your travel agency about the “actual” money you will spend.
Ever heard of “bachtsiss”? This is an amount of money expected by all those that provide you with some service, no matter if they are paid already by an agency (Dimitri was excluded from that but even our bus driver was expecting that). It is what we call as “tip” or “gratuity” or “pourboire” in Europe and USA. These money are extra and there are “minimum” amounts expected. Your guide will tell you about this too.
3. Follow the instructions of your tour guide
We really hope that you will have a great guide like the one we had. Knowledgeable and willing to protect us from many cases where our money would be a waste to spend (tourist “traps”). Locals can be obtrusive (not hostile) in their effort to get any (Egyptian) pound from you, especially in tourist locations (i.e. Pyramids). We cannot stress enough on the importance to have a knowledgeable guide that really knows local history. Our guide managed to take us through the Cairo museum key-sections by semantically separating information for different Era’s of Egypt according to their achievements. So, he showed these to us in many details and explained how these developed through history. This can save you lots of time from just wandering around in a huge museum. Also we learned that the government of Egypt plans to build a new, bigger and far modern one.
4. Nutrition. Avoid tap water. Avoid fresh, raw, uncooked vegetables
You will see that a city next to the desert that hosts 19 million people is not a clean one. When you are about to visit Giza and the pyramids you will see rivers filled with garbage. Dust, dirt and fog is everywhere. We were instructed to consume only bottled water and cooked food, so we suggest the same.
5. Do not take solo night walks or walks in dark alleys during day time
Especially if you are a woman. You are in an country where the majority of people follow the Koran. Women are allowed to many things (i.e. than in Saudi Arabia) but still… Women are confronted in “a way” and especially blonde young women are an object to attract the eyes in “many ways”. Maria and I walked through the Cairo with a local as our guide all the time and just as a company to a Nile cruise ship. We could feel the tense around. Lots of poverty. Do not flash jewelry around. Better safe than sorry. Take a taxi. It is very cheap. Just to know, 1 Euro/USD= apprx 8 EGP and taxi in the city usually costs around 20 EGP.
6. Especially for Women: Must. Respect. Local. Culture
Ladies, as already mentioned, you are going to land in a country where Koran rules mostly. Women there are treated differently by men. That doesn’t necessarily mean bad. So, in relation to men and women, their culture permits different things but also has a fair/safety valve to avoid extremes. Women are required to dress solemnly. Totally avoid mini skirts or hot pants. If you go during winter or other seasons where the temperature is around 20 degrees you are fine without them.
7. Road traffic and driving “habits”
Best day without traffic? Friday for sure and maybe Sunday. In all other days expect tons of delays along the roads. Even in major highways. Example: driving from/to airport to/from Cairo center is around 15-20 minutes, but it can take from 1 hour to unknown. Thus you may hear the term “Egyptian time”. Other times small distances can take more than 3 hours. People drive like crazy without any kind of respect to rules. Do you want to cross the road to get to the opposite pavement? It is like a Russian Roulette. You just pray and place your foot down and hope that the signal that you do to the coming car will be respected. Almost all cars have dents from hitting each other. They pass each other in a 2cm distance and you have to be a Kung Fu master of foot breaks. Our group was a 6 persons one in a comfy mini van. Many were the times where we said… “We are going to crash!!!”. We never did though. So, yes, drivers maybe “crazy” but their Kung Fu is good, Obi-Wan.
8. Safety Measures first
Since the latest events at 2011, Cairo (and logically Egypt in general) saw a decline in tourism. At streets you see a lot (but not too many) of policemen or military police with automatic weapons moving around. At some places, i.e. along the road towards the airport, you will see army urban armored vehicles, blocking the street for random checking of cars and drivers.
However, the feeling we got was that of safety rather than of threat. For example, when we had to enter a hotel to pick up other group members we had to stop the van at the gate and our driver had to give his phone number and personal data every single time. Also a police dog (K-9) sniffed all around the car and they also checked the trunk and in some cases under the car. When we had to enter our hotel we had to pass that along with another gate (in every different hotel entrance) and a baggage scanner. To be honest, not all the time the gate beeper was buzzing we received a more thorough search…
At the Pyramids, we had to go through the same plus a thorough visual scanning from the guards there.
9. Currency: Piaster vs Egyptian Pounds
Check your change when you pay in USD or Euro. You don’t want Piaster for change. You want Egyptian Pounds only. Piaster is used but it is an old currency that is removed from the market. Hot Tip: If you come from a country with Euro currency you may get more Pounds per Euro if you exchange in Cairo and not in your airport of departure. If you stay in a nice 5 star hotel (i.e. we stayed at Ramses Hilton) then they have in-house banks that work 24/7 and lots of ATM’s that accept credit/debit cards just fine.
Either use the agency minivan or a taxi. You can go i.e. to Giza with 20 EGP (a bit more than 2 Euro). Always agree on the price before taking the taxi, and not after.
Avoid public transportation. You will see tons of minivans in Cairo, plus buses. The ones that are something between a bus and a minivan are all over. People tend to jump in and out, while an assistant to the driver may hung out from the open door while the vehicle is moving in order to yell to people waiting for a bus to board. Add heavy traffic to such and you get the idea.
11. Cairo by night
If you go with a group, the schedule is predefined. We think that there are different “tourist traps” but even from such you will get a nice experience in a fair price. Also, what each traveler likes or not is subjective. Yes, we too, saw the belly dancers and a performance from a colorful whirling Dervish and had a 2 hour cruise along the Nile.
Forget pork and all products related to pork. Here chicken and lamb rule. Additionally you can eat amazingly cooked vegetables, rice, different kinds of meatballs, etc. Also there are some great desserts, but we concluded that Istanbul was far better for these.
13. Go to the Bazaar and argue on the price
It is not called a bazaar for no reason. You go there and find tons of local souvenirs. They tell you a price. Bargain a 90% discount! Yes, that’s the spirit. Egyptians love to discuss the price back and forth. Locals say that you must not pay for the price you are served with. The final one can be very low and this means you pay the actual price. Do not forget though that a traveler also supports the local economy when they buy something. So, do consider that when you are asked for 50 EGP, this actually means that you pay around 6 Euro/USD.
Yet, do it for the fun of it. Bargain the price, then -as part of the whole thing- say “no, thank you” and slowly walk away. There you will learn the final and actual price!
The “No Problem” mentality in Cairo, Egypt
You will hear that many times. Locals tend to use this phrase in every difficult situation. Had a car crash? They will solve it by using the “No Problem, my friend”. Delays? Who can control them? So… No Problem.
The “No Problem” mentality can definitely save you from lots of anxiety.
So, from these points you can realize that Cairo is a place where you can have lots of fun, but by taking care of some ground rules first. Stand by from our exclusive article on what you can do and see in Cairo Egypt, along with Alexandria.