The Adventures Of Doing A Direct Turn At Cairo Airport

While I’ve visited the city of Cairo a couple of times before, I’ve passed through Cairo Airport a countless number of times. This is because airlines publish consistently cheap first & business class fares out of Cairo, so originating there is a great way to score a deal on a premium ticket.

Yesterday I flew roundtrip from Abu Dhabi to Cairo to Abu Dhabi on Etihad. My flight from Abu Dhabi to Cairo was scheduled to arrive at 11:40AM, while my flight from Cairo to Abu Dhabi was scheduled to depart at 1:10PM. Believe it or not, this was actually my first time doing a direct turn on the same plane in Cairo. In the past I’ve always planned longer layovers to be on the safe side, so I was curious what the direct turn process would be like.

So I had 90 minutes to do a direct turn. As usual, it was an adventure. While not quite as exciting as the transit I had in Cairo in January, I figured it’s still worth reporting back on.

Etihad-A340

What you need to know about transiting Cairo Airport

Generally I’m extremely skeptical when I travel. In other words, I operate off the assumption that most people can’t be trusted, and to always keep an eye on your belongings. Oddly Cairo Airport is one of the few places where I take a different approach.

Transiting Cairo Airport is really an exercise in letting go of self control. If you’re a nervous traveler who likes to have full control of everything, don’t transit Cairo Airport. Meanwhile if you want an adventure, Cairo Airport can be fun. There are a few basic principles to understand, based on my experience:

  • Everyone is extremely friendly and helpful, but does things on their time
  • You’ll probably part ways with your passport at least once or twice for an extended period of time
  • You may think you’re going to miss your flight, but the ground crews always come through in the end
  • You may or may not be asked to bribe/tip

In other words, to quote Ms. Phaedra Parks (who I don’t like anymore after this past season of RHOA), you’ve gotta approach a Cairo transit something like this:

CAI-Turnaround

My transit experience in Cairo yesterday

Etihad uses the new Terminal 2 at Cairo Airport, which is beautiful compared to the other terminals. Unfortunately they don’t have a streamlined transit process in place, in the same way that other airports would. My flight was arriving late, and by the time I got off the plane, it was 12:15PM, meaning that I had just 55 minutes until departure.

So on arrival I followed the signage to transfers, which led me to a room with no other passengers. There was an immigration officer, and I handed him the boarding pass I printed online for my flight to Abu Dhabi.

Cairo-Airport-1

“Hi, I’m flying to Abu Dhabi in about an hour.”
“You also come from Abu Dhabi, yes?”

Hah! I love how that wasn’t even odd to him, and he even assumed I was doing a direct turn. No questions were asked.

“Please, have a seat, I will be back in five minutes.”

He held onto my passport and made a phone call, and then went on what I assume was a bathroom or smoking break. 15 minutes later a lovely lady appears who says “you’re going to Abu Dhabi?”

“Yes.”

The catch is that the immigration officer had my passport on his desk, and while I pointed to it, she said she needed his permission to retrieve it. She asked if I knew where the guy was.

“He said he’d be back in about five minutes, but it has been 15 minutes now.”

“Yes, in Egypt that’s what we call five minutes.”

Sure enough, a few minutes later the guy returned, and at this point it was less than 30 minutes until departure. The lady escorted me through a bunch of back doors, and by around 12:45PM she said “have a seat, I will be back in about 15 minutes.” I didn’t ask any questions, and had a seat. She walked off with my passport.

Cairo-Airport-2

See, at any other airport I’d be worried I’d miss my flight, but Cairo Airport has an unbelievable system of organized chaos that works, and you’ve just gotta have faith.

About 20 minutes later she returned with my printed boarding pass, and told me to proceed through security. Awesome — I didn’t even have to clear immigration or pay the visa on arrival fee!

I’ve never transited Cairo Airport without being asked for a tip at some stage in the process, and this lady was so lovely that I tried to tip her, but she firmly refused.

I arrived at the gate right at the departure time of 1:10PM, and much to my surprise, boarding hadn’t even started.

Funny enough the biggest surprise in my reappearance came from the crew. On the flight from Abu Dhabi to Cairo the cabin manager asked how long I was staying in Cairo. I told her I was flying right back with them. I think she thought I was kidding, because when I got back on the plane she had a look of horror on her face and said “wait, you weren’t kidding?”

Bottom line

I know this sounds crazy, but I find transiting Cairo Airport to almost be cathartic. I’m a pretty laid back traveler, but at the same time I’m not usually someone who is at ease when I have a quick turnaround with high stakes (I could be in trouble if I “miss” my flight), and where I’m separated twice from my passport for an extended period of time. However, in Cairo that side of my brain shuts off completely, and I just hope for the best. It works every time.

Comments

  1. Love hearing your stories about transiting through such interesting places. Hope to experience the magic of Cairo myself one day!

  2. This is ridiculous. I am well travelled, I have been to airports all over the world, and Cairo Airport is by far the worst experience I’ve ever had.
    This is no fun and I would not fly again through Cairo even if given first class tickets for free.

  3. I did a turn with Qatar in April. I feared I was going to have to deal with Terminal 1, which is a zoo. The new terminal (#2) is relatively easy to navigate and I was fortunate my passport never left my sight. The immigration officer and Qatar’s ground crew had the routine down. I did not have a boarding pass for my return flight, but I was let through security anyway and it was printed at the gate.

  4. @ FabinhoBP — Don’t necessarily disagree, though if you haven’t used Terminal 2 yet, it’s a MUCH more pleasant experience. So I’d give it another try if the price is right. 😉

  5. HAHAHAHA! Funny reading this, cause I’ve done about 2 turn arounds in Cairo and one in Alexandria on QR. My first time though I was sh***n bricks thinking I was gonna miss my flight. They took my passport and had me sit in a room with some other passengers. About 30 mins later someone from QR returned with my passport to pick me up, then we went to another point where I had to wait again for him to go get the boarding pass. I boarded the flight 5 mins before departure, and same as you the crew was shocked to see me back. One bit of advice I’d give is if you’re gonna do a turn around inform the transit desk in DOH, AUH, DXB etc and ask them to call ahead and have someone there to walk you through. That’s what I did on the second attempt and someone from QR was there at the boarding door waiting for me. Walked me right through the whole transit process, and had me back at through security and in the lounge within 20 mins.

  6. Wow. I’ve done 1 Cairo trip thus far – but I don’t think I would have ever tried to do a direct turn. You do realize that terminal 2 connections MCT is 120 minutes; right?

    I’d put you very much in the “Lucky” bucket for successfully pulling this off. I read your January report and decided the next time I start a ticket from there I’ll pay the visa fee and a nights hotel – given your report of passport separation for longish periods of time.

    I’m glad you’ve found “Zen” in transiting Cairo. I don’t think I’d have the intestinal fortitude to pull off a scheduled 90 minute transit given the ‘process’ you’ve described from this current experience. Good to know though that by being willing to give up control – it can all end well.

    Enjoy The Residence!

  7. This is hilarious. I transited CAI in Jan (whatever old terminal MS uses) and it was such a mess I was amazed they were able to get any flight away. The entire terminals transit passengers were funelled through a single metal detector machine at once from about 5 snaking lines from all directions, people screaming and shoving, kids crying etc. When I finally got to the machine staff told me not to take anything out of my pockets because the real security check would be at the gate. The machine beeped with every single passenger and no one was actually checked. Meanwhile airport staff sat around playing on their phones watching the chaos of the line and if anyone came up to tell them fearing they would miss their flight they would vaguely point to the back of the line and say ‘not my problem’.
    The star alliance ‘fast track’ lines were clearly signed but completely ignored by staff.
    WHAT A GREAT SYSTEM.

    It took me about 30 seconds of the hour I stood in line to identify both the problems with their transit experience, and the simple solutions (having staff and security procedures actually serving some purpose would be a good start).
    How many times do you think airport staff/management have to observe chaos in theit workplace before they actually think about the solutions to the problems? It took me 30 seconds.

    Do they not know there’s a problem, or do they just not care?!

  8. I don’t understand why would you even attempt to tip an airport employee for doing her job?

  9. Ben, thanks for the transit report!
    Peter, thanks for the advice about having Doha call Cairo. For clarification, did you have the transit desk, or the lounge make the call? I am doing a similar turnaround in August with Qatar Airways.

  10. @SullyofDoha – I asked the transit desk if they could do it. I initially went there to ask them to print my boarding pass coming back from CAI so I wouldn’t have to wait for it. They said they couldn’t for “security reasons”. So I asked them to call ahead and let them know I’ll be turning around and to be there to walk me through. My trip through Alexandria was a bit different, the agent at the transit desk in Doha was able to check me in and print my boarding pass from HBE to DOH, but that didn’t matter to transit security in Alexandria cause they made me wait for someone from QR anyway. Luckily it seems the agent in DOH called ahead anyway cause a QR rep came out within 5 mins with a new boarding pass printed anyway. Good luck on your transit in August. I’ll be doing it again in July.

  11. Thanks Peter. I have a 1hr40min turnaround in Aug and about a 3hr turnaround in Sept. From similar post in flyertalk, it seems the process logistics and any kinks have been smoothed over in T2. Best of luck in July 🙂

  12. With Etihad, I’ve done turnarounds in Muscat, Bahrain, Doha and Kuwait. All went very smoothly and I always had my passport in hand. Not once was I asked for it during the transit process. Of the four, I would say Bahrain is the quickest, but all the others are quick also.

  13. To clarify the above post, I should have said that during the transit process, not once was my passport taken away from me and out of my sight.

  14. @Dennis, in some cultures, particularly in the Middle East, a tip even to a professioral is common. It’s an expression of respect for a job well done. It’s not ideal from a western perspective, but it is what it is. (The darker side is that some come to expect the tips, making them more akin to bribes.)

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baksheesh

  15. Are all of these turnarounds in the comment only to take advantage of J/F tickets priced more cheaply for a further onward journey? I know Lucky’s Residence is for that reason, but are other commenters doing the same? I assume the cost to CAI, etc. is outweighed by savings on the cheaper fare.

  16. I am like Ben.

    I have not transited trough cairo airport.
    But I have used it several times, and that was ten years ago.

    Things are not clearly let say “explained”.
    However you can always talk to someone (whatever is his fonction at the airport) and get what you need or expect to be done or happen.
    And this does not violate any security rule.

    I will love sometimes that the western world to be like this instead of “the procedure is/ end of the discussion/ respect me I am the dominant here type of customer relationship”.

  17. @FunTraveller – That’s exactly what my turnarounds are for in addition to getting around AAs EQD requirement for EXP. 2 RT J tickets from CAI-JFK on QR and one RT PE ticket from JNB-JFK on CX (hoping for an op-up)is enough to get me the EQDs and EQMs for EXP with only $3700 spend on those particular flights. Those flights are to get me to further trips I already planned on taking, and since I’m originating in CAI for those too, It’s already cheap. QR is getting me to BKK and CX is getting me to HKG and CAN. Initially positioning in CAI was the outside cost but also beneficial for me too because I used that opportunity to status match to Turkish and meet the requirement to extend Star Gold for the year. The fact that I can spend what I would on Y tickets and fly J and F in addition to meeting AAs EQD requirement for a fraction, is worth the hassle of transiting for me.

  18. If I had the means i’d do the same thing – but do you ever worry about raising suspicion? Egypt has certainly had some issues with terrorism lately and i’d have to imagine you run the risk of setting off an alarm for questionable behavior.

    Obviously what you are doing is totally legal, but i could certainly see this being perceived as suspect by certain people.

    Glad that wasnt the case here and hopefully you’ll never run into that issue. Looking forward to hearing about the rest of your trip.

  19. @Lucky When you have been “asked” to tip in Cairo or voluntarily tipped, how much have you given and did it seem acceptable to the recipients?

  20. @FunTraveller, what Peter said! 😉
    @Kevin, read Ben’s/Lucky’s earlier posts on transiting CAI, he covers his tipping there! 😉

  21. One of the joys of reading this blog is posts like these. Your respect for and enjoyment of Egyptian culture and the people of Egypt comes across here. They do things differently there. Rather than be annoyed that they haven’t adopted Western ways, you go with the flow and try to find enjoyment in it.

  22. Does anybody know how the transit from T3 to T2 in CAI works if you have checked luggage? Do I have to pick it up myself, hence pay the visa fee or will it be magically picked up for me 😉

  23. @Dennis You could say the same for waiters in the USA or taxi drivers in London. Different cultures have different tipping habits and expectations.

  24. @lucky I hate to be that guy but…
    …” it was less that 3o Minutes until departure.” I think you meant 30?

  25. Hi from the netherlands,
    I am Platinum QR and to retain this status I bought some tickets end of 2016 and during the travel festival 2017.
    I bought a €125 incl tax y-class positioning ticket from ams via munich to cairo.
    Fake return (i will only use the outbound portion ie cheaper than one way ticket).
    One night Novotel Airport usd60 incl tax.

    From cairo to bangkok €570 return incl tax business class.
    Bkk-doh-bkk a380 with upgrade to first class with qcredits.
    Bangkok to Siem Reap (for angkor wat) €60 incl tax economy class (air asia app promo).

    Than arrival back in cai 1640hr and turnaround 1920hr…easy 😉
    (This 1920hr cai-doha departure is a separate business class ticket cai-doha-brussels/-ams-doh-cai €807 incl tax. This ticket booked in D-class could have been cheaper if max validity 3months but I wanted 1year validity. As a bonus i earn even more qmiles! I will use the ams-doh-cairo portion before june 2018 to arrange a trip to kathmandu (cai-doh-ktm vv still need to buy this one or use qmiles/qcredits).
    The great thing is that 65kilo can be taken on this ticket plus extra cabin baggage (2x15kilo) and as a platinum member an extra 20kilo or 1xpiece of check-in baggage.
    Great to take 100+kilo of stuff to ktm which they can use at the school I support.

    Also took advantage of the ‘error business class fare’ to auckland last february from pisa, and was on the longest flight with cnn’s richard quest and qr’s ceo mr akbar al baker. That was a great trip and the flight was still not long enough!

    I do like an adventure and i am looking forward to cairo!

    Lucky…thanks for all your tips over the years! Keep up the good work.
    Much appreciated by many followers.

  26. > (The darker side is that some come to expect the tips, making them more akin to bribes.)

    Sounds like blackmail — if you don’t “tip”, something bad may happen to you.

  27. @Ben I did the same type of turn when I went to Helena in March. I got off and waited to board the same plane, I had the same response you got from the crew when I got back on the plane and they were looking at me like I was weird. It always is interesting having that type of adventure

  28. I don’t quite get the point of this story to be frank. I’m in an out of CAI 11 times in the next 4 months so thanks for the heads up, I think.

  29. Within the last month, I had to do 2 transits in CAI, one of which was turnaround and another in HBE which was turnaround
    HBE is easier than CAI even though it took similar times
    Agent at the gate at DOH informed HBE about turnaround, also the Cabin attendant told the HBE ground staff that I am doing a turnaround.
    CAI is chaotic and passport is gone, everybody assures you but you get the feeling that something is going to go wrong but it does not.
    at both places, this is a surrealistic experience
    In Cairo, the security agent wont let me in through the gates because the Immigration Officer upstairs had to accompany me up to the gate. Lots of shouting back and forth and fortunately the man upstairs came down and i was allowed to go through security
    in HBE staff superfriendly and assigned a person to take me through immigration (but the passport was not stamped) and then instead of taking me through the immigration to depart, he just pointed out the officer who insisted that I was not in Egypt since I had no stamp to prove that I had arrived. Taken to a room where a greying man in a “naval” uniform (the standard outfit of Immigration and customs officers) questioned me on irrelevant things such as Where is Brussels? The HBE QR agent had to come up and argue and then I was allowed to board, in both turnarounds, you barely make it to the flight.
    QR cabin crew were very friendly and helpful.
    It is a little nerve-wracking but learn to do meditation while waiting!
    in CAI you arrive in terminal 2 and depart from the same if you are flying QR. but the transit is longer and even ore adventuresome if you arrive in terminal 1 (the old terminal and the arrival for Egyptair among others), this involves back doors and drive along the runway but no landside transactions. In HBE you are actually landside and you are being escorted ahead and cutting queues and you see the sad state of the HBE airport and believe it or not, there is a lounge but QR people say, better to stay in the departure lounge and enjoy the complimentary coffee..
    When you can fly CAI DOH MIA for about 1700 usd round trip on QR, gather oodles of miles and status on both QR and AA, the hassles seem worth it.
    QR has to be the best airline in the world .( this month I am dong 10 long hauls and few DOH to Egypt fights. The offer of free hotel from Qatar Tourism is a nice touch. They have put me up at Movenpick (okay), Rotaana (nice) and I look forward to Shangri La next week ! (everything free including limousine transfer except the next one where I plan to take Uber to shangrila from Doha airport)
    The immigration and Customs through F/J arrival lounge is a breeze. Since DOH EGYPT flights are First Class even if it is the same kind of aircraft on medium hauls, you are allowed to use Al Safwa First Class Lounge which is nothing short of superb! Allow time in DOH airport to enjoy the pre and post flight experiences, and in Egypt hope the time passes quickly until you get the boarding passes printed at the gate is given to you and you clear the security in time to catch your flight.

  30. If it was a quick turn-around, with the same airlines, why did you have to leave the plane? Normally, they don’t ask us to remove ourselves from the flight unless you booked 2 separate PNRs

  31. Couldn’t agree more. The key to getting through CAI is to just lean back and go with it. Overall, Egyptians are a very friendly people. That’s not to say that there aren’t some scam artists (especially in tourist spots), but around the airport, everyone is fine. Make a decision about who to tip. If you get help, be generous.

    Pro Tip: If you have a late arrival (e.g. Aegean from Athens) and an early departure (e.g. Alitalia to Rome Turkish to Istanbul or even BA to Heathrow), and you don’t want to pay for a hotel night but do have a visa (or don’t mind the fee), then clear customs and walk across to the Le Meridian. The sports bar is open until 2-3am. If you’re on the 4am-ish AZ flight, you’ll need to be heading back through customs around 2-3am anyway. The Le Meridian bar is friendly, has beer and a lovely outside terrace to enjoy a cigar.

    As Lucky says, embrace the chaos.

    Even with ~100 euros from Central Europe to Cairo on Aegean (my favored arrival, getting in around 1am), RT business to your actual destination can be had for not much more than coach on a more direct routing. On my last arrival I had the same customs guy again, and he asked “just connecting again?”. Yep.

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