The Most Premium Yet Back-Alley Airport Transit Ever

I frequently write about cheap premium cabin fares, and for years one of the best markets in the world for these has been Cairo. You can fly just about anywhere in the world out of Cairo in first or business class for a fraction of what it could cost if traveling in the other direction.

It’s possible to do a same day turn in Cairo, where you arrive on one flight and turn right around on a separate ticket. That’s sort of what I was doing today, as I was arriving at Terminal 3 on EgyptAir, and then departing from Terminal 2 on Royal Jordanian. I figured I’d cover the basics of the experience, since it was simultaneously the most premium and sketchiest airport transfer I’ve ever made.

The moral of the story?

  • $10 goes a long way
  • An airport that serves tens of millions of people per year has the most back-alley system for getting passengers between terminals

What I was expecting

Going in, my assumption was that I’d be best off clearing immigration in Cairo, making my own way to Terminal 2, and then starting the check-in process again there.

In the past I’ve used the airport’s VIP service (which I’ve found to be well worth the money). When I asked if they could help with me with a Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 transfer, they said:

Kindly be informed that you may reserve two service for arrival and departure it`s charges 1000EGP for Egyptian and 200$ for non-Egyptian. And kindly noted that you will transfer from terminal three to terminal two by yourself may use free airport shuttle bus.

So I can pay twice and they still won’t actually help get me between terminals. That’s not helpful at all.

“Have a seat outside”

I was departing from Terminal 2, which is Cairo Airport’s new terminal, so I figured I’d ask at the transfer desk on arrival how I should get there.

“You don’t need to clear immigration, follow me.” He brought me to the chief immigration officer’s office and explained the situation, and the guy said “have a seat outside.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about transiting Cairo Airport it’s that the staff get things done, but they do so on their time.

So I sat down and worked on my laptop for 45 minutes, thanks to the functioning wifi. I had a three hour layover, so was in no rush. At that point I figured I’d check with the immigration officer again since I hadn’t heard anything, having realized he didn’t have my passport, didn’t know when my connecting flight was, etc.

cairo-airport-terminal-2-2

This time around there was a guy sitting in his office reading a newspaper. As it turns out, it was the guy who would be taking me between terminals. I wonder how long he had been sitting there.

What happened after that was simultaneously the sketchiest and most premium non-premium transit experience I’ve ever had.

“You tip me money, yes?”

If you combined the Lufthansa First Class Terminal with the shadiest ground experience in the world, you’d get what was about to happen.

The guy walked me through the terminal and then through about five sets of secret doors. Several times we’d have to stop, he’d greet security officials with kisses on both cheeks, they’d look at my passport, and then they’d motion with their eyes that we could continue.

cairo-airport-terminal-2-3

Eventually we found ourselves on the tarmac, as he drove me to Terminal 2. As we drove he said “you tip me money, yes?”

“Sure.” Tipping at Cairo Airport is pretty common (I remember a couple of years back being encouraged to tip to even enter the terminal), and I appreciated the service he was providing.

cairo-airport-terminal-2-5

At this point we were in Terminal 2, though there didn’t seem to be a system in place for us to enter the terminal. We walked up to a bolted door, so the the guy started knocking on it. Eventually someone opened it. A couple more kisses and glares at my passport later, we were allowed in.

We walked through several more back entrances, and eventually I was told to literally walk through a metal detector with my bags (rather than actually having to go through the security checkpoint). I had to ask him twice if that’s what he meant, because I was caught so off guard by that.

Eventually we were at Royal Jordanian check-in, where the guy escorted me to the very front of the line (though he had no clue whether I was in economy or business class, as I hadn’t shown him my ticket).

cairo-airport-terminal-2-8

Once I had my boarding pass, another guy escorted me back past the immigration checkpoint in the other direction, given that I didn’t have an Egyptian stamp in my passport.

cairo-airport-terminal-2-10

That whole experience took a bit over an hour, and boy was it amusing.

Cairo’s new Terminal 2 is gorgeous!

Cairo Airport is a dump… at least it was in the past when I visited. However, the new Terminal 2 is a legitimately nice terminal, and it even has a nice lounge (unlike the crappy lounge I’ve had to use in the past). I’ll have more about the terminal in a future post, but well done, Cairo Airport!

cairo-airport-terminal-2-12

Bottom line

This was probably the most amusing transfer experience in my life. It’s amazing the system they have in place for changing terminals at an airport that serves tens of millions of people involves a dozen back doors and being privately escorted and driven across the tarmac.

At the same time I appreciate how helpful they were, since they could have just as easily told me to clear immigration and walk there by myself.

Transiting Cairo Airport is always an adventure!

Comments

  1. So this cost you a $10 tip? Seems very cheap. Was there any discussion of how much the tip should be before/during the transfer?

  2. Hi Lucky, Thanks for posting this as I really need some advice badly!! 😛

    I have similar upcoming trips and would like any input from folks who have done it. Please note that I will be doing TWOV – I am holding an Indonesian passport, so visa on arrival is not an option for me.

    I will be flying IST-CAI on MS, and continuing on a separate onward ticket CAI-DOH-CGK on QR. I have 3 hours 50 mins in CAI to transfer and not check any luggage. Note that I may NOT have my BP printed at time of arrival in CAI (as many thread suggested that I can do OLCI, but not print the BP if the itinerary is ex-CAI). I heard the transfer desk at T3 is staffed by MS personnel and you don’t need the BP to proceed the transfer, instead you can just hand in your passport and print out Itinerary (e-ticket) – and of course the $10 tip ;-), and they will transfer you by bus/van to T1. When you arrive at T1, the security/police will call QR staff to deliver the BP, does that sound right?

    My biggest concern now is NOT having QR boarding pass in hand, but based on your experience, it should be okay even though the entire process is not seamless.

    Based on your experience, how did he even escort you to landside? How did you proceed back to the airside passing the immigration without a visa stamp?

    Any suggestion will be appreciated.

  3. Lucky, I’m curious why you decided on $10 for the tip, and I would imagine it was in USD. For an hour process I would have probably done $20 to $40, but I wasn’t there so that amount is only a guess. Don’t take me wrong, I would have gone higher being concerned in offending him on too low of a tip amount while transferring in Egypt. In any case great post.

  4. This sounds so awesome and yet so sketch. I’d be so scared i was being led into a trap of some sort and then arrested on some trumped up charges. Egypt (or the middle east in general) isn’t exactly friendly to westerners these days.

  5. @ Tony — For what it’s worth, I’ve had nothing but honest/pleasant dealings with Egyptians, and have found them to be very welcoming. Not saying that’s going to be the case for everyone, but that has always been my experience. 🙂

  6. @ Jimmy — Well I only tipped him maybe 15 minutes into the process, and then after the fact it didn’t occur to me to tip more. I had opened my wallet and saw that I had two $5s and a $20. $20 seemed too high, so I just gave him $10, there wasn’t much more logic to it on my part. Given that this is apparently the legitimate transit service condoned by the government (or something), I didn’t think it was unreasonable, though perhaps if I had tipped in the end I would have just given $20.

  7. @ John W — Correct, that matches my experience, and you should be fine. Not having the boarding passes won’t be an issue. He escorted me through immigration in both ways by explaining the situation to the immigration officers, and my passport wasn’t stamped.

  8. Thanks @Lucky for the clarification!! It makes me slightly better 🙂

    It’s still surprising for me that there are many different stories out there from people who experienced the transfer at CAI. Some said the officer will take your itinerary and passport and call QR agent to pick them up while we are waiting airside (downstairs/arrival). Once they check us in, the agent will come back airside and hand us back our passport with a transit stamp on it and a boarding pass (also with a some sort of stamp). Then we need to show our stamped boarding pass and passport to the officer who unlocks the “secret door”, and we can just proceed to the departure lounge.

    One more question, is it true that we can’t print out our boarding pass if the itinerary is ex-CAI? I would definitely love to have it on hand if possible. Anybody can chip in your experience? I need more information so that I can have a contingency plan for next week. I promise I will report back my experience as I snatched a couple of those great business class deals out of Cairo.

    Many thanks!

  9. As current foreign expat/resident in Cairo (East Asian lady), I do love CAI, especially Terminal 1 (Personally I prefer T1 to T3, even for the Lounge). I know, it’s chaotic and messy in most of time, but things feel very “human” in a way, and as you said, things (or to observe things) are simply amusing and feel like a petite adventure sometimes ! In Terminal 1, I often see that some Gulf ladies in black abaya tip an (sort of) airport staff and cut the line in immigration. Anyway compared to dodgy CAI security situation, in my memory, leaving TLV (Tel Aviv) was pain-in-ass most of time, and their tight security and “treatment” always puts me into a bad mood before departure. Ah, I am so pleased to get out of that Tel Aviv.

    I would say, with current devalued exchange rate, $10/EGP180 (especially dollar note) def. holds decent value when one considers (Airport) Uber driver earns EGP 100 (fixed, including tolls) from Airport to Nile River Downtown with 1h-1h30min long driving in traffic.

    Btw, I noticed that it looks like EY stopped to operate A346 (CAI-AUH) which offers the only real F class between CAI and the Gulf (although I am very fond of QR B777 F between CAI-DOH), so only EY A320 or A332 available. What a pity…. do you think this is a temporary replacement (A346 -> A332)?

  10. I´ve done that too. I arrived on T3 (the newer one at the time) on Turkish and had to transit to T1 to fly Qatar. I was travelling just with a carry-on and once out of the airplane I went to the transfer desk and handed them my passport and a copy of my ticket. I had a 4 hours layover and waited at T3 for about 2,5 hours before being transferred with another passenger in a lame van to T1. Once I arrived in T1 I re-cleared security, waited for a Qatar representative and 15 minutes later I got my boarding pass. Tipping wasn´t requested, but sometimes it felt like they simply forgot about me.
    @ John W – I think that even if you have your boarding pass, your process should be the same, the only difference is once you arrive at T1 you won´t need to wait for a Qatar representative. My Brazilian passport wasn´t stamped too.

  11. From the pics, it looks like the same guy I had last two times I transited. He even remembered me the second time! Always asks for a tip. First time I gave him $5. Next time was a few Qatari riyal (all I had) and he didn’t seem to care.

    First experience was very similar to yours — lotsa waiting and importuning. Then the labyrinthine trek across the airport grounds in his van and walking to the counter and gates. The lounge looked newly opened and didn’t have much to offer: lots of empty seating and a cold case with some snacks/bevs.

    Best tip — be polite, patient and smile. It may seem third-worldly, but it works. And the transit guy is pretty nice (tho limited English).

  12. If you have long layover that might work. Still i hate the feeling that people don’t seem to care there. Hopefully QR etc soon move to T2. Can you tell me @lucky if one can walk from T3 to T1. Until now with my german passport I just paid the visa, went straight out, gave the first taxidriver 5euro and he drove me to the terminal. for me it’s the easiest process but I will try your approach next time “hehe”

  13. Thanks @Carlos and @Potreroflyr !!

    It certainly makes me more confident. I actually have a single entry visa on my passport now, but I don’t wanna use it – I’m planning to use it for my next trip (2 weeks later after this trip) and plus I am taking my mother on this trip and she does not have a visa at the moment. I could easily clear immigration, check-in, and come back, but I will NOT leave my mother by herself stranded airside. So no matter what, I will do the transfer with her.

    Cheers!

    J

  14. I have done that transfer numerous times too and i fully agree that it is an experience one should not miss.
    However one must be aware that it requires being comfortable that the passport is usually kept away from the moment you hand it over to guys working the arrival terminal transfer desk until you are ready to clear security in the departure terminal. That process could be hours. While the terminal transfer itself is initiated quite fast usually it may take a long time until you receive your boarding pass in the departure terminal. No boarding pass means no security means no access to the departure area. One is simply stuck in a rather boring waiting area with a few chairs in T1 or the arrival area of T3 (much better than at T1).
    While it is certainly interesting to do it airside i rather pay the visa-on-arrival-fee and do the T1T3 transfer by Monorail being my own “Master of time” nowadays. Especially if i am flying out of T1.

  15. I mean this is nothing new, But the total lack of airport security is what gets me, you could have done anything when it was just the two of you alone.

    Just goes to show airport security is a joke

  16. @Florian
    I had a different experience in T1 in April last year connecting From AZ to QR and then from QR to AZ:
    Gave the guys My passport and then I was able to walk freely with My luggage inside T1 airside.
    One hour before My departure time I went back to the Transit room gave My luggage to the airline representative and received the boarding pass and My passport.
    Very smooth experience

  17. Usually fly through Cairo Airport 3/4 times by year and really most strange transit situations, coming from Rome with Az at T1 to connect same terminal with QR first class, well just landed arriving at T1 just turning on left to transit room consist in alley with one metal detector where never asking me to pass my bags, an military officer security stand up to check yr passport, QR ticket and Az baggage tag, after long checking all dox he provides call someone from AZ to pick up my baggage tag and going to research for my tagged bag, then after collecting my bag, officer provides call another QR representative who take my bag and going by himself to provide check in on my behalf, then coming back with my boarding pass and dox to proceed to QR lounge o elsewhere in airport.
    Altough at first can seems a very good service, in short is really awful, so long process involving so many people just for simple transit on same terminal, even depending of circumstances or employers can take from 1 to even 2 hours and half, so always better consider long time between flights.
    Usually officers really nice and never asking for any tip, strangely some just permit to stay in awful and dirty transit lounge just using toilet, one of weirdest ever meet, and other even permitting to wandering in T1 without any restrictions and worth coming to 2nd floor close Starbuck to use free wifi.
    Just a small pain to fly with QR in premium class at crazy prices:)

  18. It’s an interesting story, but of course raises very serious questions about security. I will continue avoiding. That airline and that airport.

  19. @ Lucky Do you happen to know if Emirates departs from the new terminal 2? My ticket (bought a while back) says terminal 1, but I was hoping they might switch …

    Thanks

  20. So for $10 any terrorist could do this and pass through security in the same manner as Ben. i.e. bypassing an X-Ray of their carry-on luggage. And by the way, if $10 gets you this, what does $100 or more get you while you’re traversing these ‘back office’ areas. The Ministry of Civil Aviation of Egypt should be urgently investigating this before CAI goes boom. >:-(

  21. How many planes blown up by terrorists in the past years coming outbof Egypt or going to Egypt? Two i beleive? For two kisses on the cheeks and $10 , its not hard to kill a few hundreds i guess.

  22. This has to be illegal, if only under US federal law as it’s unlawful for Americans to pay a bribe to a corrupt foreign official. Regardless, I was forced to pay $20 three years ago to even enter the terminal and check to the Air France check-in desk. When I paid the $20, they walked me AROUND security. Neither myself nor my bags ever went through security en route to Paris from Cairo. No wonder Egypt has planes blowing up.

  23. If you missed the flight on the separate ticket, are there any credit cards that would cover all or part of the cost of a replacement flight? (serious question)

  24. Did the same thing earlier this week T1 to T3. It makes me legitimately scared for the security of the flights though.

  25. Also, Kelly…you may want to read the FCPA a bit more closely…grease payments are allowed. What Ben did was a grease payment.

  26. @Kelly
    Had a similar experience while I was in Cairo. When I landed in Cairo, I had to clear immigration and custom. The officer repeatedly said “Egyptian money” and I basically started yelling “I don’t understand and what do you want?”. He eventually had to let me go… After touring Cairo and seeing the pyramids, on my way out, it wasn’t so easy… Every time I clear securities, officers would ask me for money and I would basically tell them to “F*** off” in a polite manner. Finally before boarding, there was the last security check at the gate. Since I had allergy and had to carry my medicine at all time, they screened my bag and said my medicine pose a threat to the flight… In the end, I had to pay $10 to get it back. I remembered my tour guide told me they had a new gov. so the corruption is gone… I am like you obviously haven’t been to the damn airport then… I have traveled to 43 countries now and Egypt remains my least favorite simply because how f**king corrupted the country is…

  27. Went through Transit in CAI Terminal 2 last week and it was a total shitshow. Arrived on Alitalia (positioning flight), departing on QR on a separate reservation. Worst flying experience of my life.

    I’ll save the full write-up, but key takeaways:
    1. Almost no one knows anything in this airport. They will either make up an answer or say they don’t know. If you follow signs, you will likely be redirected somewhere else.
    2. Employees at CAI generally don’t do much. Even in a rush or when you’ve asked them for something, they will stop and have a 5 minute chat with every person they see. Don’t put blind faith in airport employees, they certainly don’t deserve it.
    3. If you have time, don’t even try to transit, just get a visa, leave through immigration, and make your way to the check-in counter on the outside of the airport. It at least lets you take control of the process.
    4. Pay for the Ahlan transfer service. It’s $50 per person, which I balked at initially, but cannot understate the value. You will save yourself hours or waiting and panic attacks. I watched as a dozen people were successfully and confidently escorted from the arrival gate to the transit area and through to their new terminal (apparently they can take you between terminals?). I will be doing that next time I transit CAI next month.
    5. Even if you’re not religious, pray that you make your next flight.

  28. So I just did the T1-T2 shuffle this Monday. Thought I’d share my experience of this “interesting” transit. QR now fly from Terminal 2 at Cairo and I positioned in on Austrian into T1.

    I arrived and went to the transfer desk, asked a guy if I had to clear immigration and he said ‘No sir, take a seat and I get police officer to take you to T2’. I sat down opposite the banks and around 30 minutes later he comes back with another guy. ‘He take you to Terminal 2’, and sure enough the guy took me back through the secret doors, each door manned by a security guard who checked his paperwork and let us through. We went out to the van and I was taken airside across to T2, where he let me out. No mention of tipping was done at all although I did tip the driver 5 Euro for taking me. He let me into the terminal and sent me upstairs in the elevator.

    This is where things got interesting. There was a guy behind a desk who glanced at my passport before handing it back and telling me to sit down. He went and sat down to watch some Arabic music videos and smoked a cigarette, I was waiting for around 40 minutes. Then he came back and made a phone call before getting out a notebook and writing down all the details of my transfer. Where I’d come from, passport number, where I was going, etc, before telling me to sit down. Another 30 minutes later a QR rep came and mentioned that he would go to get my boarding pass. This was the only time I was without my passport – he took it with my itinerary and returned after another 30 minutes with my passport, fresh

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  29. My PC freaked out halfway through so here’s the second part:

    This was the only time I was without my passport – he took it with my itinerary and returned after another 30 minutes with my boarding pass and passport, freshly stamped with an Egyptian stamp. We then went through another security checkpoint and emerged at the security point to go through to departures, where I went through as normal and was able to enjoy the QR lounge for an hour before my flight.

    Overall a very interesting experience but it does work, you just have to have patience! Make sure you leave at least 3 hours between flights to be comfortable, I saw another guy come in who was running late and was panicking that he would miss his short connection and CAI is not the place to be in a hurry!

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