The Backpacker’s Crash Course Guide to Traveling Egypt

Egypt is one heck of an experience. Roaming in ancient temples, following the footsteps of the pharaohs, gazing at the same vast deserts they did, it all felt surreal at times. Sometimes I had to pinch myself to remind me that I was actually there. Of course, that immersion was broken as soon as you set foot in the bustling cities, the air filled with the sound of car horns and shouting street vendors. Egypt is perhaps the most polarizing country I’ve ever backpacked through.

At its best, Egypt was in a league of its own. No other country can boast the heritage and monuments that Egypt has in abundance. It is truly adventure at its rawest, from overnight trains along the Nile, epic sunrise summits over its vast deserts, and diving full on into the chaos of its big cities. Looking back, Egypt was unbelievable and its easy to romanticize my time there based on the pictures of sandstone temples basked in the golden sun and the turquoise waters of the Red Sea.

Living it, on the other hand, had its fair share of challenges and frustrations. I’m here to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes I did. Here is everything you need to know before backpacking Egypt.

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Table of Contents

Is Egypt Worth Visiting?

There aren’t many countries out there that can boast the heritage and history of Egypt. For a seasoned traveler, the chaos of its cities and forced immersion in the unique culture can be an exciting experience. Backpacking through Egypt is without a doubt, one of the greatest adventures I’ve had throughout my travels. Egypt has countless experiences that one won’t find anywhere else in the world.

While everyone has different interests and travel styles, I do think Egypt has many destinations that will wow any traveler. I can’t say that history or archaeology are my top travel interests, but it’s hard to deny the sheer shivers down my spine as I took my first step underground to roam through a pharaoh’s tomb, or the admiration and befuddlement at monuments that withstood thousands of years of a changing planet. Despite its roadblocks and culture shocks, Egypt is objectively an incredible destination. For all of the challenges and frustrations I felt in Egypt, it just simply is an awe-inspiring place. The energy of its cities are electric and its various cultures will leave their mark on you.

Is Egypt Safe to Visit?

It depends on how you define safe. For the most part, I think Egypt is safe for travelers, albeit uncomfortable and frustrating at times. Even a seasoned traveler will run into their fair share of discomforts and sticky situations. There is a reason why most visitors to Egypt do so on a guided group tour.

In short, do I think anything will happen to you while traveling Egypt? If you are respectful of the culture and religion, I think you’ll be fine. But, will it be smooth sailing and enjoyable all throughout? Probably not. There will be times where you’ll be frustrated by the constant harassment on the streets and overwhelmed by simple acts such as crossing the street during rush hour where traffic laws seem not to apply. Egypt is a vastly different country than the home country that you’ll likely be visiting from.

As always, I can only speak for my own experience. Many people have breezed through Egypt with nary a roadblock, and many would scoff at my tribulations as minor inconveniences compared to their own journey. I was frequently scammed and lied to, occasionally harassed and hassled on the streets, and on a few occasions, found myself in a hostile confrontation. Having traveled full-time for the better part of a decade, I’d go as far as to say that my skin is as thick as it gets, but one can only take so much.

For the most part, I enjoyed and felt safe in Egypt, but there were some moments where I felt defeated and just wanted to hide in my room, avoiding going out simply because I did not enjoy being there. This is not true for all of Egypt, and I would say it was just exceptionally bad in Luxor, Giza, and some parts of Cairo. Elsewhere in Egypt, I was fine and rarely bothered for the most part. Again, respecting the culture and religion, dressing modestly, and avoiding drawing attention to oneself will help with your experience.

For a solo female travelers’ perspective, here is what it’s like to visit Egypt as a solo female traveler.

Travel Insurance For Egypt

Of course, it’s important to have travel insurance whenever you’re off adventuring across the world. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels for as low as $45 a month, and their coverage includes Egypt among the 190+ countries that they cover.

What To Know Before Going to Egypt

Before heading out, there are a few things to know before going to Egypt. If you plan on diving fully into the Egyptian experience, it can be vastly different than any country you’ve been to before. Even having visited other Middle Eastern and Islamic countries before, Egypt felt like a different level of travel. Here are a few of the basics to get your feet set when you arrive.

Do You Need a Visa to Visit Egypt?

Most countries are able to get a visa on arrival when landing at the airport. For U.S. citizens, you can obtain a single-entry 30-day tourist visa on arrival for $25 USD. One can also get an e-visa ahead of time, but simply finding the official website for it is a headache. There are loads of websites that’ll overcharge you or just straight up scam you. I’d recommend just bringing some cash and getting it at the airport. There were only three people in line when I went to grab mine. Once you pay for it, they’ll give you the visa and immigration will stick it in your passport and stamp it.

Currency in Egypt

The currency in Egypt is the Egyptian Pound, although most people working in the tourism industry will be more than happy to accept U.S. Dollars, Euros, and British Pounds. While some places do accept credit cards, I typically kept small amounts of cash on me. Egypt is quite affordable, so even heading out for the day with $20 worth of Egyptian pounds meant that I could cover all daily expenses and have some left over. Carrying large amounts of cash or flashing what you have can be a bad idea. Whenever bargaining for a souvenir or haggling for a taxi, never let them know how much you actually have.

Staying Connected in Egypt

I used an eSIM throughout my time in Egypt and found it to work just fine. I used Airalo and the plans were relatively affordable. I unfortunately have a phone with locked SIM card so I had to rely on eSIMs. If you opt for an eSIM with Airalo, you can get $3 off your first eSIM with my code ELIJAH933. Otherwise, here’s more on getting a prepaid SIM card in Egypt.

Language Barrier in Egypt

The official language of Egypt is Arabic, and it will be helpful to know a few Arabic phrases. I’d say there is a huge benefit of knowing Arabic when traveling through Egypt, although it’d be hard to recommend you to learn Arabic on a whim. It’s a challenging language, but showing even a little proficiency in the language can go a long way. People will appreciate being approached with an as-salaam-alaikum as opposed to a “Do you speak English?”

That being said, most tourist destinations will have an abundance of English speakers. Speaking English or other languages is often a gateway to earning more money for Egyptians in the tourism industry, including the more dubious types. Honestly, I have to hand it to the Egyptian hustlers. In the U.S., it is a badge of honor to even have a faint grasp on anything besides English. Meanwhile, the hustlers here will know how to scam you in seven different languages. It is very doable to get by knowing just English in Egypt, but even getting a grasp on the numbers and basics will help you avoid paying tourist prices.

Cultural Norms for Egypt

Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, and it is advisable to dress modestly, especially when visiting religious sites. Both men and women should cover their shoulders and knees, and women may consider carrying a scarf to cover their heads when entering mosques or religious places. Egypt is home to a significant Muslim population, and it is important to be respectful of Islamic customs. During the holy month of Ramadan, be mindful of those who are fasting, and avoid eating, drinking, or smoking in public during daylight hours. Here’s my full guide on visiting Egypt during Ramadan.

In many Middle Eastern cultures, the left hand is considered unclean, so it’s important to use the right hand for eating, giving and receiving items, and gestures of greeting or respect. Public displays of romantic affection, such as kissing and hugging, are not commonly practiced in public in Egypt. For simplicity’s sake, just don’t do it. Always ask for permission before taking photos of individuals, especially women and religious figures. Some sites may have restrictions on photography, so be sure to respect any posted guidelines.

It is important to approach conversations and interactions with cultural sensitivity. Avoid controversial topics such as politics and religion unless initiated, or even when initiated. Always try to be open to learning about and understanding the local customs and traditions.

Tipping is a common practice in Egypt, especially in the service industry. It is customary to tip hotel staff, tour guides, and drivers. A small tip is appreciated for services such as carrying luggage, providing directions, or serving meals. Unfortunately, you’ll often not have a choice. I would walk into a train station and someone would immediately grab my luggage and carry it for me no matter how much I refused. It leaves an awkward situation when they demand a tip at the end and refuse to leave. In this case, it’s good to have a few small bills on hand. You’ll also notice that the locals won’t be asked for tips for loading your luggage on a bus or getting directions. It is frustrating, but I’d rather part with a dollar here and there than let things escalate into hostility and ruin my trip.

How To Get to Egypt

The best way to get to Egypt is by flying into its capital city, Cairo. Other airports that might have cheap international flights are Alexandria and Sharm-el-Sheikh. However, with Cairo being an essential stop with some otherworldly places to visit, I’d recommend any first-time traveler to Egypt to start there. If you’re on a budget, use Skiplagged to find the cheapest flights. It’s free to use and I’ve saved thousands of dollars on flights since I started using it religiously.

Ferry from Jordan

There is a ferry from Jordan that takes you across the Red Sea to Egypt. I did this in the reverse, taking the ferry from Taba to Aqaba. It was not worth the hassle, considering the price would have been similar as a flight. Both ferry ports are outside anywhere a traveler would reasonably find themselves in, and the taxis to and from the ferry ports will add up. If you’re insistent on going this route, you’ll need to take a taxi from Aqaba to a ferry station about 30 minutes south of the city, catch it to Taba, and then take a two-hour taxi from there to Dahab, or the main highway and pray that a bus or minibus will come.

Traveling Overland into Egypt

I don’t have any experience with this, and it’s hard to find reliable sources on the internet. Since Egypt borders Libya, Sudan, and Palestine, very few travelers would find them in this situation. I met a friend who traveled overland from Palestine/Israel and the process was not easy. Tensions and security are high at the border crossing, and there aren’t many convenient options for public transportation. Here’s a guide on crossing from Israel to Egypt and vice versa, although if flying is an option, I’d recommend that instead.

How To Travel Around Egypt

The best way to travel around Egypt largely depends on your preferences, budget, and the specific destinations you plan to visit. Egypt offers various transportation options to cater to different travel needs.

Domestic Flights in Egypt

Egypt has a well-established domestic flight network, making it convenient to travel between major cities such as Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria, and Sharm El Sheikh. Flying will save you a lot of time because the distances between Egypt’s main attractions can be vast.

Bus Travel in Egypt

Despite flying being the convenient option, there is a charm to chugging along the Nile in a musty bus or sleeper train. Bus services are available throughout Egypt, connecting various cities and towns. While buses are the most economical option, they take much longer to reach destinations compared to other modes of transportation. Weigh your options. I had plenty of time to travel in Egypt, so I didn’t mind the long journeys of reflection and Netflix. Go Bus is the main bus that I used in Egypt, as it was easy to book tickets online.

Trains and Overnight Trains in Egypt

Egypt’s railway system connects many cities and towns, offering an affordable and comfortable mode of transportation. The overnight sleeper trains between Cairo and Luxor/Aswan are a popular choice for travelers who prefer to cover longer distances while sleeping. Here was the guide that I used extensively for train travel in Egypt.

Where To Stay in Egypt

Accommodation in Egypt varies from luxury hotels to budget hostels. Despite there being many travelers in Egypt, the majority of them weren’t backpackers. The hostel scene was quite limited, and outside of one or two hostels in each town, many of them were lacking atmosphere or a social scene altogether.

Here are my hostel recommendations for Egypt.

Dahab Hostel in Cairo was the best hostel I stayed at in Cairo. It was affordable, with dorms being under $10 and privates being around $20. They had a great rooftop, free breakfast, and plenty of cats roaming around to cuddle with. They organized tours and activities and were very helpful with anything you needed. The social atmosphere was lacking, but it was possible to meet people through their tours or in your dorm.

Rafiki Hostel in Dahab was the best hostel I stayed at in all of Egypt. Staying there was definitely a highlight of my trip. They organized tons of social activities, from hiking Mount Sinai to secret bonfire parties in the mountains and along the beach. They had a pool to relax in and the aesthetic of the hostel was gorgeous. I loved everything about this hostel, and despite not having opened the 7,000+ unread messages in the hostel’s WhatsApp group chat, I can’t bring myself to leave it all these months later.

Few backpackers make it up to Alexandria, but Ithaka Hostel was a great hostel right along the Corniche. The hostel had beautiful common areas and the kindest staff of any hostel I stayed at in Egypt. The rooms were basic and quite noisy being along the street, but I can’t imagine there being a better hostel in Alexandria.

Besides those three, I can’t fully recommend the ones I stayed at. Happy Land Hostel in Luxor was basic but had a nice rooftop and served as a good enough home base for exploring the area. Seko Kato Hostel on Elephantine Island was a relaxing hostel with a gorgeous view of the Nile, serving as a nice respite from the noise of the cities. However, it was very basic and secluded from the rest of Aswan. It’s a quick boat ride, but still might not be desirable for those who prefer to be in the heart of a city.

The Must-Visit Destinations of Egypt: Sample Itinerary

There’s a tried-and-true backpacking route for Egypt that I’d recommend following for first-timers. This was the route that I followed.

Cairo: 3 Days

Start your adventures in Cairo, spending about three days in the sprawling city. A day tour will help you visit Memphis, Saqqara, and Giza all in one go. There will be mandatory stops at over-priced tourist trap shops selling things like fragrances and papyrus scrolls. Just hold strong and don’t buy anything and the cost of the guided day tour is well worth it. Having a local guide was huge in adding context to the ancient things we were seeing, and the convenience of transportation from place to place made the price worth it. While I also prefer figuring things out on my own and the freedom to explore at my own pace, Egypt can be overwhelming and the price was very reasonable.

Another day can be spent visiting the museums of Cairo, specifically the Egyptian Museum, home to thousands of artifacts including King Tut’s tomb. Spend a few hours here, leaving some time in the evening to explore the historic Khan el Khalili district. You can also squeeze in a visit to Saladin’s Citadel, walk along the Nile, and visit Coptic Cairo if that piques your interest. The last day can be spent taking a day trip to visit the Bent Pyramid and the other, lesser-visited pyramids of the Dahshur area.

Luxor: 2 Days

After Cairo, follow the Nile south to Luxor. If you have time, stop at some of the smaller towns and lesser-visited temples on the way. Known as the world’s greatest open-air museum, Luxor is home to the Karnak and Luxor Temple complexes, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and the Temple of Hatshepsut, all of which provide insights into ancient Egyptian history and architecture.

One can see the highlights of Luxor in two days, especially if you are arriving early in the morning on the overnight train from Cairo. The first day can be spent visiting Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple. The second day can be a day tour to Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut, and the other temples of the Nile’s West Bank. You can book a guided day tour or negotiate with a taxi to take you from place to place.

Aswan: 3 Days

After Luxor, take the train down to Aswan. This picturesque city is located on the Nile River and is famous for the Philae Temple, its Nubian villages, and being the gateway to the Abu Simbel. The temples of Abu Simbel are known for their massive statues and impressive architecture, and being on the cover of my favorite Earth, Wind, and Fire album.

Be sure to visit some Nubian villages. There is a famous and very Instagrammable Nubian village that I didn’t visit, but a short boat ride from Aswan can take you to the Nubian village on Elephantine Island. I stayed at a hostel on this island and enjoyed roaming the labyrinthine streets and meeting friendly locals. I truly felt honored when three kids passed by me riding a donkey and remembered my name from the day before, when I hijacked their rowboat while swimming in the Nile. Elephantine Island was definitely a highlight of my time in Egypt.

Most travelers visiting Egypt will stick to these three highlights, but there is much more to see. Once you find yourself back in Cairo, the options are limitless.

Recommended Detours from Cairo:

From Cairo, one can detour to Siwa Oasis, a remote hidden gem known for its natural beauty and ancient ruins. You’ve probably seen all those Instagram influencers floating in those natural turquoise pools.

Another potential detour from Cairo is a camping trip to the White Desert, characterized by its otherworldly landscapes of chalk rock formations. Most tours from Cairo will involve camping overnight, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the breathtaking natural beauty of this hardly-visited region of Egypt. On a clear night, the stargazing here is breathtaking.

Alexandria: 3 Days

From Cairo, or Siwa Oasis, one can head up to Alexandria. The coastal city was great to visit if you’d like to see another side of Egypt’s urban areas. It had a lively atmosphere that was more relaxed than that of Cairo. Alexandria offers a blend of ancient history and modern charm. Highlights include the not-so-ancient Library of Alexandria, the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, the Citadel of Qaitbay, and the beautiful Corniche overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I was particularly fond of just roaming around aimlessly and admiring the aesthetic architecture of its old buildings and feasting on the fresh seafood and local cuisine.

Dahab: 4 Days

From Alexandria, take the bus to Dahab, perhaps stopping at Sharm El Sheikh for a day on the way. I didn’t spend any time at Sharm, but there is an extravagant mosque and some impressive shisha cafes that I wish I had a chance to visit. Dahab is a laid-back beach town favored by backpackers and divers. It has a much more relaxed and bohemian atmosphere. Dahab is renowned for its beautiful beaches, excellent diving sites like the Blue Hole, and its proximity to the stunning landscapes of the Sinai Peninsula. Summit Mount Sinai while you’re in Dahab, and then take the bus back to Cairo or catch the ferry to Aqaba, Jordan to continue your journey through the Middle East.

All in all, this took me about a month, although I did spend quite a few days doing nothing and just relaxing. Elephantine Island near Aswan and Dahab were perfect chill out spots. I also added a few extra days in Cairo and Alexandria just to enjoy exploring the massive cities at a slower pace. They can be quite intense, so instead of pushing myself to do as much as I can in a day, I’d often go do one or two things before catching my breath back at the hostel.

Closing Thoughts on Backpacking Egypt

Egypt can be a wild ride, but if you come prepared for the challenge, it can be an unforgettable one. It’s been half a year since I’ve visited Egypt, and I still don’t know if I can fully find the words to describe my experience there. Although the negative experiences and emotions have became naught but a distant memory, I still find it hard to write about my experience without an occasional flashback of arguing in a dungeon-y room with a tour operator trying to scam me, or the train station employees laughing as they charged me for three tickets and told me there was nothing they could do about their mistake.

At the end of the day, I came out of it unscathed and with an abundance of adventures that I’ll remember for a lifetime. Egypt is not for the faint of heart, but approach it with the resolve of a seasoned traveler and an open heart, and it can be one of the most incredible destinations you’ll ever visit.

cairo giza egypt pyramids

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