I’m a big fan of organized group tours. I do also enjoy visiting places on my own, especially countries with a minimal language barrier, but there’s something to be said about paying a chunk of money and having no other responsibility except showing up on time.
One area of the world where I don’t feel completely comfortable doing my own travel thing is in the Middle East/North Africa region. Based on stuff I read online about people’s experiences traveling there, going with a guide seemed to be the best choice. Egypt has been on my travel list for a long time, and we decided that now was probably as good a time to visit as any. I looked at a few different companies and decided to give Trafalgar a try since I had a great experience with them touring all around Europe on my first solo international trip when I was 21.
The short version: the tour was excellent, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to visit Egypt.
The tour we chose was a 9 day trip called Best of Egypt. Here’s a link to Trafalgar’s official website if you want to check out the details. Half of the time is spent on a small cruise ship on the Nile river, and the other half is spent in Cairo.
A few random notes before I go through the detailed itinerary.
- None of the ATMs I used over there charged any fees of any kind. Your home bank will still charge you a fee for using a foreign ATM unless you have something like a Schwab debit card.
- I read a lot of stuff online about whether or not shorts were appropriate for grown men. The online consensus seems to be that shorts should be avoided but plenty of tourists (not just Americans) were wearing shorts everywhere we went, so I too broke out the shorts on the days that were especially hot. The only exception is if you visit any mosques; then you’ll need long pants.
- Wifi is spotty everywhere. The hotels have decent wifi at 3 AM when everyone who doesn’t have jet lag is asleep, but during normal hours the internet is really slow because everyone’s trying to use it at the same time. If having internet access is important to you, then buy a SIM card at the airport. There are a few different wireless companies that sell them, and it’s not that expensive. Mrs. Lite got a card with 2 gigs of prepaid data for under $15, and they have many cheaper options with less data as well.
- The weather was hot in October, but not too humid. Clothes dried quickly. Read here why this is important if you’ve not read any of my older articles.
- Unless you’re visiting in the winter, the heat is brutal, and it gets worse the further south you go. Have plenty of water with you anytime you’re outside, and wear a hat. I’m not a hat person at all, but wearing one for this trip was a good idea.
- Whether you join a tour group like we did or go on your own, there are three things you absolutely must see while you’re in Egypt: Valley of the Kings, Abu Simbel, and the Pyramids of Giza. All the other stuff we saw was awesome as well, but those are the ones that you can’t miss.
- Nothing is free here. If anyone who isn’t a fellow tourist helps you in any way, he’s going to expect a tip. Don’t hand a random stranger your camera to take a picture of you unless you’ve got some money to give him so you can get your camera back.
So here’s a brief run-down of what we did each day:
Day 1 – Arrive in Cairo. The only item on the itinerary is to show up to Cairo on this day. No planned activities. Our starting hotel was the Hilton Heliopolis, which is only 3 miles away from the airport, and the hotel grounds contain several different restaurants on site which is good because there’s not really a whole lot else in this area within a comfortable walking distance. We arrived in Cairo a day earlier so we could chill out for a day and catch up on sleep after a long series of flights.
Even though it’s really close to the airport, it still took a long time to get from the airport to the hotel due to the insane Cairo traffic. Many visitors take a taxi from the airport to get where they want to go, but we chose to use Uber, and for our group of 4 it ended up being around 6 US Dollars for the ride. To use Uber, you need a smartphone and cell coverage, so Mrs. Lite got a local SIM card at the airport after we went through customs & immigration. Activating local service on her iPhone was straightforward (the guy who sold us the SIM card did everything) and didn’t take long at all.
Our Uber driver was super friendly, and we didn’t have to deal with bargaining with pushy cab drivers which is always a plus. It isn’t really clear upon exiting the airport where passengers are supposed to wait for the Uber pickup but we eventually figured it out: you walk straight out the front doors, cross the street where you’ll find sets of stairs. You go down the stairs, keep walking away from the airport, and you’ll see a parking lot which is where the pickup points are at.
All we did the first evening (the day before official Day 1) and the entire next day was take naps, walk around some, eat some food when necessary, and relax.
There is an optional excursion to Alexandria available on Day 1 for those wanting an extra day of activities. We chose to skip it. It’s 3 hours in a car to Alexandria, about 6-7 hours of nonstop sightseeing, and a 3 hour car ride back to Cairo. That’s a lot of time sitting in a vehicle. If there was something in Alexandria that was considered a must-see, then maybe we would have considered going, but there really isn’t; at least nothing that caught my eye.
Day 2 – Luxor. So the reason why Trafalgar picked a hotel so close to the airport is that on the day the tour really begins, the first thing you do is wake up at 4 AM, pick up a breakfast box, and hop on a bus to head straight back to the airport to catch a short 1 hour flight to Luxor. Arriving in Cairo a day early to sleep & do nothing ended up being an excellent decision considering the super early start on this day.
Sightseeing included Karnak Temple (awesome), Luxor Temple (also awesome), and a visit to a papyrus store. The papyrus store was one of the standard tourist traps that is unfortunately part of every group tour like this, and after you’ve been on a few of these tours you’ll recognize them immediately. I’m not a big souvenir person and rarely buy stuff other than food & drinks when I travel, but these shops do offer some good stuff for people who are interested in picking up trinkets and other locally made items.
This is also the day where we boarded our cruise ship and settled in for the first of four nights. The boat was quite nice with clean rooms, excellent service, and good amenities. The food was surprisingly tasty with lots of variety. We were all impressed.
One of the optional excursions on this day that you can pay extra for is an evening sound and light show at Karnak Temple. Our local guide discouraged us from going to this, implying that it really wasn’t worth our time and money, so no one in our group ended up going. Which was fine because we were all super tired from being awake since 4 AM.
Day 3 – Luxor, Valley of the Kings. After an early breakfast on the cruise ship, we hopped on a bus for a short ride to Valley of the Kings. Incredible place and one of the highlights of the trip. Once inside the gates, you get to go into your choice of 3 different tombs out of the several they have available. Our guide had a Masters degree in Egyptology and made some good recommendations for us, so we followed his advice. It costs extra to get into King Tut’s tomb, but I felt it was worth the extra money. There isn’t a whole lot down there except Tutankhamun’s mummified remains, an empty sarcophagus, and paintings on the walls, so our guide warned us that some people see it and are disappointed. I still thought it was worth seeing and am glad we opted to go. Photography isn’t officially allowed inside Valley of the Kings, but you can pay an extra 300 Egyptian pounds (around $17) for a “photography pass” that allows you to take as many pictures as you want, with the exception of Tutankhamun’s tomb. There’s so much cool stuff here to take pictures of, so I’d recommend buying the photography pass.
The other places we visited this day were the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, an Alabaster shop (tourist trap #2), and Habou temple. Believe it or not, we saw all these places before lunchtime, which I guess is one of the advantages of waking up so early. This schedule also allowed us to avoid the mid-day heat that just beats down on you relentlessly. From lunch on, the rest of the day was spent cruising the Nile River to our next stop.
Day 4 – Edfu & Kom Ombo. I woke up this morning with a possible stomach bug, so I promptly took an antibiotic pill which fixed the problem. I always take antibiotics whenever I leave the United States. They can be acquired overseas too, but when you’ve got some Rumble In The Bronx going on inside your stomach, even waiting a few hours to get those pills can be most unpleasant. Of all the days I could have gotten sick, this day was by far the best one because we didn’t have to wake up early and there were only a few things on the schedule for the day.
At Edfu, our first temple of the day, one of our tour mates got heat exhaustion and passed out for a little while. He was one of the younger and sturdier looking guys in our group, so it can happen to anyone. Reminded all the rest of us to drink lots of water. For the next several hours after Edfu, we cruised up the Nile some more and reached Kom Ombo, our second and last temple of the day, in the late afternoon. This place was really interesting; a dual temple with one half for the crocodile god and the other half for the falcon god with cool hieroglyphics of each carved all over the temple walls. Part of the temple includes a museum at the end with a collection of mummified crocodiles.
Other than the best ones, I’m not gonna go into too much detail on what all of these temples are like because, to be honest, they all kinda look the same after a while. If you missed it, here are some photos that I took during the trip if you want a visual to go along with my brief descriptions.
So that was the first half of Trafalgar’s Best of Egypt. Next week in Part 2, I’ll go over what we did on the second half of the tour.