Visiting Cairo On A Stopover

We only had about a 10 hour window where our schedules overlapped, and Ben was gracious enough to agree to visit Cairo during our layover even though it meant he’d be touring on no sleep. Had he realized how much of an art and history geek I am he might have retracted the offer, but I think he still had a good time 😉

Some people love structured tours. I am typically not one of those people — I love nothing more than wandering a new city at my own not-German pace, but that’s not necessarily practical on a short layover, and wasn’t something either of us felt particularly comfortable with in this case. So I’m not an expert at choosing tour guides by any means, but this worked out well for us.

I’m also not an expert at Egypt — this is truly just a rundown of what we were able to put together last-minute, so hopefully other people will be able to chime in with more specific recommendations.

Booking a day tour in Cairo

We were specifically looking for a driver and guide combo, so after reading through the reviews on TripAdvisor, I decided to book through Ramses Day Tours. They run a supplemental site for Egypt Last Minute Travel, and as we’re often last-minute kind of people it seemed like a good match based on that alone 😉 They responded promptly, and were beyond patient with me as we hammered out the details of our tour.

We both had flight delays, and weren’t even sure we’d actually be able to make the tour until about midnight the evening prior, just to give you an idea of how flexible they were.

We were quoted a price of $60 a person for a day tour of Cairo, which included a driver and licensed Egyptologist, all the admissions to the various complexes, etc. That seemed reasonable enough, and I didn’t negotiate, even though we ultimately scaled back the agenda significantly.

Would you recommend your tour operator?

Absolutely. Beyond the initial communication, which was fantastic, the entire experience was just incredibly professional.

Our guide, Mina, was waiting in the lobby 15 minutes before our scheduled meeting time. He was sharp and courteous, and did an excellent job of explaining what we were seeing and why it was interesting. He was also very well prepared — he had maps of ancient Egypt to give us some background info as we drove, then had a ton of information loaded onto a tablet as well. So when we were looking at the Sphinx, for example, he had photos handy of what it looked like pre-excavation, along with artist renderings of how it likely looked in antiquity.

More importantly, he did an excellent job of balancing Ben and I, which is something even we struggle with. 😀 I love history and architecture, while Ben is generally more interested in current events and economics. Mina bounced between explaining how something was constructed in ancient times with answering Ben’s demographic questions. That might be standard practice for a tour guide (I generally don’t hire them, so don’t know), but I still thought it was impressive.

Egypt-Layover-2

How much time do you need to visit the pyramids?

Well, the disclaimer here is that when we don’t have other people with us, Ben and I tend to be extremely “efficient” tourists, and don’t typically have a lot of time to linger regardless, so our pace is maybe not a great indicator. Everywhere we went was also nearly devoid of other tourists, which certainly sped things along.

But as a general outline, we left the Le Meridien Cairo Airport at 8AM, and walked all around the Giza Plateau, including the pyramids, Sphinx, and the temples. We weren’t in a particular hurry (for us), and there were no queues (or really any other tourists at all).

Afterwards we spent about 45 minutes cruising the Nile on a traditional felucca.

Egypt-Layover-3 We finished up by driving through parts of old Islamic Cairo and some of the other interesting areas of the city, and were back at the hotel by about 12:30PM. We’d planned on spending more time, but we were both falling actively asleep at that point, so it seemed best to cut it short.

So even on a relatively short layover it should be possible to at least go to the pyramids and back, and your tour company can advise you as to what makes sense given traffic and your schedule.

Is Egypt safe for tourists?

It sure felt safe!

We (and especially our mothers) were concerned about safety as well, which is partly why we’d booked a guide to begin with. I might have have been a bit more apprehensive had Ben not been with me (I tend to think abundant wariness is the best approach for a solo female traveler), but at no time did I ever feel at all threatened. Not even when I schlepped from Terminal 1 of the Cairo airport to the hotel in the middle of the night, which was pretty sketchy.

Beyond that, everyone we interacted with was incredibly welcoming.

You know those irritating vendors that swarm tourist sites all over the world trying to sell you things you don’t want? There were several handfuls of those around the pyramids, and each time we responded with a “No, thank you” we received a “No problem. Welcome to Egypt” or a “Thank you for visiting my country” in reply.

There are also lots of protections in place for tourists. There are special tourism police everywhere, and apparently “normal” police can’t even pull a registered tour driver over. Both the hotel and the guards at Giza logged the plate number of the van and our intended destination upon departure. We were also told that the military has actually gone so far as to provide an escort for Americans who want to go to the pyramids and other sites. If you don’t want that (and I certainly didn’t) your tour guide will happily tell the guards you’re from somewhere else.

So while I think you could still be scammed by a camel owner, or potentially pickpocketed in a crowd, I don’t know that there’s a real threat to physical safety if you’re on the “tourist track.” I wouldn’t necessarily get drunk and wander around alleyways, but I wouldn’t do that in the US either.

Would you go back to Egypt?

Absolutely and unequivocally. In fact I’m going tomorrow. 😉

Truly though, I would stay longer, explore the old parts of Cairo, visit more of the country, and even bring my nieces. I’d spend as much time and money as I reasonably could.

Ben generally does a good job of keeping his blog politics-free, so I won’t get into it further, but Egypt was heavily dependent upon tourist dollars prior to 2011. And the effects of losing that revenue are visible and pervasive.

Egypt-Layover-1 It’s pretty cool to have a wonder of the ancient world all to yourself, but when you see the thinned out herds of camels, or the rows of vacant merchant stalls…

If you’ve been hoping to visit Egypt, just go. Now is a great time.

Has anyone else visited Egypt recently, be it on a stopover or otherwise? Any tips or suggestions?

Comments

  1. Interesting. My experience with Cairo was very different — it was one of the most scammy places I’ve ever been, far worse than anywhere else I’ve been in the Middle East or Asia. Every other person was trying to rip me off, some quite aggressively. This was before the overthrow of Mubarak, so perhaps things have cleaned up since then as tourist numbers have fallen, but … it seems unlikely. Your experience with people trying to scam you but then backing down politely sounds more like my experience in Jordan, which I found bearable, but in Egypt the scam artists were thick on the ground and relentless.

    The pyramids were cool to see but other than that I spent my brief trip there mostly in the hotel.

  2. Both of you got a great rate for a driver, tour guide (licensed Egyptologist), entrance to the pyramids, etc. for the ENTIRE day — only for $60!
    I’ve been to Cairo four time in my life (pre and post Mubarak) and have definitely noticed a big difference. I was just there this past March and there were only a handful of tourists visiting Giza.
    Most of the political protests occur in Tahrir Square which is right in front of the Egyptian Museum. As long as you avoid that area, you should be fine.
    Great to read both of you at least caught a glimpse of Cairo. Enjoy Egypt! I plan to go back sometime in 2015.

  3. I love the efficiency! Can you remind us what airlines have Cairo stopover options? Wondering what I could attach to a one-day-in-Cairo trip?

  4. “The pyramids were cool to see but other than that I spent my brief trip there mostly in the hotel.”

    Sounds like a waste of a trip. That’s like spending a weekend in New York, visiting the Empire State Building, and then just chilling at the hotel. Even if the hotel in Egypt was a resort hotel, still seems like a waste.

    But hey, at least Lucky did more than just spend the 10 hours he was there just chilling at a local Starbucks 😉

  5. One very important factor to keep in mind is the weather. You really have to be careful about what time of the year you are visiting and of course winter is the best. I have been to Cairo before Mubarak era and then things were very nasty. Cairo was virtually clogged with tourists and it was almost impossible to even breathe. The way things are, I think now is the best time to visit Cairo

  6. @ Bgriff — Well, we weren’t trying to buy anything…maybe that made a difference?

    @ Joey — Oh good, glad to hear that sounds like the right price! There is pretty much zero chance of my getting Ben within 100 yards of that museum, so no worries there!

    @ Mark Freeman — For paid or award tickets? EgyptAir is the only one I know of that allows complimentary stopovers on revenue tickets (not my area of expertise), but there are several potential options for award tickets.

    @ caveman — Good point. The temperature was fine, but the air quality definitely wasn’t amazing.

  7. Worth noting:

    1) The Pyramids CLOSE at 3:30 pm.

    2) The Pyramids are two hours from the airport.

    3) The only place open until 5 p.m. is the Egyptian Museum

    4) The Egyptian Museum is 80 minutes drive from the airport.

    5) There is a (really cool) sound & light show at the Pyramids for an hour from 7 pm until 8 pm.

    Lastly:

    6) Egypt is a scammy place, and not a destination where I’d be elbowing my way to the ‘cheapest option available’ — a lot of places I’m OK with that method, i.e. lAsia and South America. Egypt is another story. It’s not a safety issue I’m describing – but it’s certainly not a place I want to sit in a cab bargaining with someone who speaks little to no English.

    FWIW, a QUALITY tour with a REPUTABLE agency (think the ‘local version’ of an Abercrombie & Kent, a company called Egyptian Express) will run about $295 for two people – and that’s for a full day of activities, not just Pyramids and the Sphinx.

    I’m sure I’ll get two dozen “you overpaid” remarks, but that’s reasonable in my book (for two people) – especially considering there’s no bargaining involved.

  8. Interesting to know that you landed in Cairo. I had lived & I have been living in Cairo (may sound oddly enough, living full-time in several 4-5 star hotels), which I am totally OK with. Love your blog but don’t feel this particular posting doesn’t seem to have much substance. Btw just flied back to my Home (ICN) using Qatar airways after a stopover in Doha, a Ghost City, I would say. Terribly miss the City of Cairo and its vibrance. Like you, am going to use Ethihad (ICN-AUH-DOH), but biz class. Any report available on Ethihad biz class for this routing?

  9. @ Ben — Not sure if you’re driving during the peak of rush hour, but it took us less than an hour from the airport to the pyramids.

  10. @ Ben — I’m an Egyptian living in Cairo and I can safely say that your trip durations are exactly doubled. I’d rate a CAI-Pyramids drive at 1hr, and a CAI-Tahrir (Museum) drive at 25-30 mins max.

    @ lucky — I’d be glad to host you for whatever duration you wish in my family’s villa in Cairo (it’s really cool 😉 ) and tour you through to local and tourist hotspots. The invitation is open for whatever dates you choose, forever.

  11. I enjoyed Cairo and Egypt very much when we visited. The normal tips apply …be patient…be aware of your surroundings, and don’t make an ass out of yourself (wearing shorts to the mosques, being loud and obnoxious, getting drunk, talking bout politics, which you have NO control over, etc etc etc)

    If you can avoid all that, you will experience a part of North Africa that will give you stories to tell for many family dinners to come 🙂

  12. Kudos for visiting a great nation! I am not in tune with all the recent political developments but have always admired and been fascinated by the history and culture of Eygpt. The joy of collecting miles is that it is so much within our reach to enjoy it’s offerings.

  13. Funny, we were just in Cairo and flew through Doha back to the US. I always wonder if I will see you in an airport and looks like we were only few days apart. The Qatar business lounge was amazing.

    We thought Cairo was great. Our tour guide kept telling us how crowded everything used to be before the revolution so it was nice to be empty. We went to some of the lesser known places (Memphis and Sakkara) and they were great. Hardly any people at all. Our tour guide protected us from anyone who tried to hassle us at the Pyramids too).

    We usually don’t get tour guides, but we highly recommend our tour guide to anyone interested. Mahmoud Ahmed— hoka_wisefirm@yahoo.com. Recommend going straight through the tour guide instead of the companies because they get really shortchanged on their pay through the companies.

  14. I was recently in Istanbul and had a tour guide take me everywhere I wanted to go and felt safe and secure and I highly recommend it for Americans.

    Great blog post by the way

  15. @Jessie

    Ive flown Etihad ICN to AUD a couple of times in business. They usually use a345 on this route (Although lately I have seen this change to a a346). Bottom line they have the older business class seats, which is nearly identical to the newer seats just less storage and slower IFE system. Also the honeymoon seats dont have a divider like the newer seats do, so you want to stay away from them if traveling alone.

    You can get some great deals traveling Etihad out of Seoul. In June I bought a business class ticket Incheon to Munich via Abu Dhabi for exactly $2,005 including all fees and taxes. And then you can always snag a paid upgrade at checkin for around $600 (ICN to AUD) which is bargain for a 10 hour flight

  16. @ Tiffany – thank you for the write-up. I guess Egypt tourism industry isn’t doing too well (all-inclusive resorts excepted) so perhaps prices are quite a bit lower than they used to be. Also, have you done any write-ups about Japan? I really enjoy your writing and would be great to read your perspective since I think our sightseeing preferences may be similar.

  17. @ Debbie — Hah, indeed! And thanks 🙂

    @ Ivan Y — You’re far too kind! I haven’t done anything on Japan, though I’m actually headed there at the end of the month. The trip reports are really Ben’s thing though, so not sure it makes sense for me to write about trips we’re not on together…

  18. Tiffany, I stayed at the Le Meridien Cairo Airport last week as well (on Friday) and with a 2am arrival into Terminal 1. Having done the Terminal 3 to Terminal 1 midnight sketchy bus ride 2 weeks prior for a 5 hour connection, this wasn’t an experience I wished to repeat as I was (and still am) as jetlagged as Ben is currently.

    So, upon emailing the hotel to inquire about a meet & greet service I was informed that this was complimentary (despite the fact that they do not publish it on their site).

  19. Hello — Thank you for this very useful information!
    We currently have a 7 hour layover in Cairo. Arriving in Terminal 3 and also departing fro Terminal 3. Do you think it would be realistic to be able to do a day trip?

    -B

  20. @Bob
    Allow me to take the liberty of responding to you. I actually find 7 hours to be the perfect length for a nice tour around Cairo, it does depend on the timing, though. I’d say every hour is rush hour in Cairo, so timing it right would result in 1.5-3 hours less in duration. Between 6-8am, 12:30-2pm and 9:30pm onward it’s fairly empty.
    I’d suggest you briefly visit the Pyramids as it’s not the most interesting thing in the world, and then focus more on Old Cairo, especially Al Hussein and Khan El Khalili.
    If you happen to have to navigate through the rush hour, avoid big roads.

  21. @ Bob — I’d agree with what Abdel Rahim Abdallah says above. Seven hours should be perfect, but I’d check with your tour company about the exact timing. Have fun!

  22. I am arriving Cairo at 1235 and departing at 10:00 am. I would like to use this opportunity to visit Cairo. What would you recommend?

    Even though I have traveled in many countries, but it is my first visit to Egypt. Your advice would be deeply appreciated.

  23. @ Bobby — Nice that you have an overnight! I’d check with a tour company, but it sounds like you’d have time to do some sightseeing in the afternoon/evening on your first day. Maybe see the pyramids and then explore the older parts of Cairo?

  24. Tiffany, thank you so much for your response. I would be happy to hear your further recommendations regarding the places that I could visit. Regards. Bobby

  25. Hello! Thanks so much. Your blog has been really helpful. I am debating about taking a fight home from Israel to Canada in a few weeks with a 13 hr stopover in Cairo. I’ll be there 12pm to 1am. Sounds like a good window of time to potentially get out and see some things….However, I am a young female on her own…any extra tips to give?? I am used to travelling on my own, was just in India for a few months before Israel. But I know I may need to take extra precautions…Thanks so much!!

  26. @ Keri — I’d highly recommend requesting the tour guide I had. He was awesome, and I’m sure he could plan a tailored itinerary for your afternoon/evening. He was also very good about safety. Enjoy your transit!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *