Egypt: Tips for Serious Travelers

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By:Srdja Trifkovic | January 21, 2019
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My "Letter from Egypt," with a comprehensive analysis of the country's political, economic and social situation is coming in a few days' time. For starters, let me present our readers with a few practical tips on how to make the most of this incredible country without spending many thousands of dollars/euros and without being herded around with thousands of others.

Preliminary remarks: You don't need to apply for a visa before traveling, they will issue one at the airport upon arrival for $25. Make sure to get an international driving license. Never pay the initial asking price for anything, and always assume that 50% or less is probably realistic. Carry enough cash at all times, as ATMs may be hard to find and are often out of service. Have plenty of small notes, 5 and 10 Egyptian Pounds (LE) for baksheesh -- one LE is around 6 cents, $1 is ca. 17 LE. One dollar bills are more than welcome for heftier tips (bar tenders, pool attendants). Drink only bottled water, which is available everywhere and cheap. Start taking probiotics a week before leaving, and don't stop until returning home. Get a prepaid SIM card from Orange EG when you arrive. Bring your own GPS with Egypt uploaded, better than Google Maps.

1. Make Hurgadha your holiday destination and base camp for a two-week, all-inclusive package tour in winter. It is on the Red Sea, away from the Nile Valley, but it It is the most economical and comfortable take-off point for ventures into central and southern Egypt, inc. Luxor, southern Nile Valley and Aswan. (For Cairo, Alexandria and their environs you'll need another trip, or to relocate to a northern base after a fortnight at Hurghada.) Plan to go between early January and late February, when the prices are low, the temperature ideal (74-78F during the day, dropping to well below 50 at night), sunshine pleasant but not oppressive, and last-minute all-inclusive prices ridiculously low. (From mid-March on you risk dust storms.) My two-week package from Belgrade was 500 euros ($600). It's truly All-Inclusive, inc. a three-hour return flight on Air Cairo's new Airbus 320, a spacious room (more like a mini-suite, really) in a well-tended complex, and unlimited food, wine, beer and cocktails, 24/7. The Long Beach Resort is comfortable, safe, and clean; it's pretty much the same with all other hotel complexes in Egypt's premium Red Sea resort. The food is not Cordon Bleu, but it is wholesome, fresh and honest. For all three main meals it comes in the form of multiple table spreads (which included roast duck last Thursday, pan-fried sole Friday, filet mignon last night). The substantial Smörgåsbord of European and Middle Eastern delicacies contains something for every taste. In the morning the spread includes fresh eggs on demand (any style) that taste free-range, freshly squeezed juices, and an array of fresh salads and fruit. To burn the calories, a well-equipped gym is open 24/7, while two of the five pools are heated and mostly deserted.

2. Once established in Hurgadha, relax for a couple of days by the poolside and then proceed to explore central Egypt. Don't buy any excursions which will be offered -- often aggressively -- by your tour operator's local representative, or by various freelance operatives. They will try to entice you with offers of e.g. $85 day-tours of Luxor (waste of money) and $35 boat trips to a nearby island. Hire a car and be your own boss. My first deal was 107 euros  ($130) for 3 days with EuropCar, ca. $43 a day for a comfy if somewhat underpowered Renault Megane with unlimited mileage. This was important, considering that I managed to clock 900 miles for the 3-day period. Gas is cheap, around $1.45 a gallon. Pan your outings at leisure, and don't worry about driving: main roads are very good four-lane trunk roads separated by a wide median. Mine included a two-day trip to Luxor, inc. one night at a centrally located 3-star hotel (a steal at $40 for a double room). Let me add that two days is the absolute minimum for Luxor, Egypt's premium location, including Karnak and the two Valleys (Kings and Queens) on the West Bank. It was followed by a somewhat hectic day trip to the two oldest monasteries in the whole of Christendom, St. Anthony's and St. Paul the Egyptian's, which are on the other side of the country, 200 miles due north from Hurgadha (here its advantageous location became obvious).

3. Don't trust your tour operator's local representatives. My tour operator is a reputable Serbian agency, Kon-Tiki, which I've used many times before (most recently traveling to Crete for 12 days in September). Local reps make a pretty penny selling excursions to the clients, and this is their chief concern. To wit, Kon-Tiki's welcoming agent at the Long Beach, Mirela, told me and my three fellow-travelers -- upon our arrival from Belgrade on January 13 -- that (1) foreigners who arrive in Egypt on package tours are not allowed to leave the town on their own; (2) that no foreigner is allowed to rent a car for travel outside Hurgadha; (3) that individual travel around the country is so unsafe that the authorities do not allow it at all; (4) that Egyptian police do not recognize foreign drivers' licenses, even including international ones; and (5) that if we try to venture outside Hurgadha in a rented car we'd be turned back at the very first police or army checkpoint, and may be in trouble for trying. All of the above claims were false: elaborate lies in order to make us purchase overpriced excursions sold by the agents themselves. The key offering was a day-trip marathon to Luxor at 70 euros apiece ($85), where you spend 8 hours on the bus and barely have the time to take a selfie at one of the temples. Another Kon-Tiki agent, Olya, oh-so-kindly offered to arrange a trip to St. Anthony's monastery (it was not offered as a standard tour) for 260 euros ($310) for 4 people. By using rented car I made the same trip (plus a visit to another ancient monastery en route, St. Paul's) for about one-sixth of that sum, $54 to be precise!

4. Don't be paranoid about safety. The incidence of violent crime, theft etc. in Egypt is truly negligible compared to America, and you are safe walking around, day and night, in most areas (Sinai excluded). In terms of the number of victims of jihadist terrorism compared to the country's overall population, Egypt is safer than France (where just two attacks, Nice in 2016 and Paris in 2015 killed over 200 people) or Germany (the Berlin Christmas market etc). Nobody asks you about safety concerns if you announce a forthcoming trip to Europe, however, and everyone is aghast about Egypt (including my otherwise reasonable friend Jim Jatras). President Sisi seems to know what he's doing: 2018 saw the lowest level of jihad terrorism in years, and the attack on a tourist bus which killed two Vietnamese tourists in Giza in December was an isolated incident. I've passed some two-dozen police and/or army checkpoints in the course of three days' tour by car. The security personnel seem to be eminently professional. On one occasion they evidently knew in advance we were coming, and escorted our car on a section of the road between Luxor and Qena. It later transpired that the road in question was not unsafe, but normally closed to foreigners because of Egypt's own security rules. In any event, common sense suggests that a passenger car is far less visible potential target than a tour bus: most terrorist attacks against foreign tourists in Egypt have involved tour buses, and none rental cars. On more than one occasion I've ventured into poor, working-class neighborhoods, having lost the GPS signal, and encountered nothing but friendly faces of playful kids and thobe-clad people who could not speak English but were willing to help with directions. They were not in the least unfriendly or hostile (but don't risk this in Pakistan or Libya, though).

So much for the basics. For the glory of Egypt's past and for the complexities of its present and future, watch this space in the days to come...

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