I spent most of my winter break traveling around Egypt, and these are some of the most important lessons I learned. If you plan on visiting Egypt, this will help; I wish I’d known all this before I went!
1. It’s all about Bakshish.
Bakshish means ‘tip’. In Egypt, everyone dealing with tourists wants to be tipped, even if they’re doing something as simple as giving you directions. Do not feel inclined to tip unless you are happy with the service.
Bakshish can be your friend. Cops and workers may let you into places that are normally closed if you give them bakshish, such as the rooftop of a mosque after it closes, an ancient tomb or the storage room of a museum. Expect to pay bakshish if you take photos somewhere you aren’t allowed to take photos and expect to be treated badly if you do not pay bakshish after receiving a special service. You will learn the rules of bakshish (and be very sick of the word bakshish after visiting Egypt).
2. Speak the language.
Learning basic greetings and numbers is essential to solo-travel in any country to avoid sticky situations/getting ripped off. It is respectful to speak the local language and you will notice a difference in the way you’re treated. See the list of basic Arabic and Egyptian dialect at the bottom of this list.
3. Always bargain.
Everything is cheaper than the listed/given price. Even your hotel, a guided tour, or a plane ticket. Cut prices in half, or even in a third of what they are, depending on the situation. Walk away and act like you don’t want it. Keep walking away. Do not pay until you are satisfied with the price. If you are not satisfied, keep walking. If they don’t lower the price, it’s ok, just keep walking. Chances are you’ll be able to find the exact same product somewhere else for a more reasonable price.
At the same time, don’t over-bargain. If the difference is only a few dollars, it’s not worth the hassle. Egypt’s tourist economy is not doing as well as it has in the past and the industry is suffering. Be respectful, especially if buying handmade goods. Settle the price before any service, not after.
4. Bring your Student ID.
Most sites are half-price for Students. Make sure that your student ID clearly says your birthday and “Student”, otherwise, it may not be accepted. If in doubt, get an international student card from STA, which is globally accepted.
(My NYU ID, for example, was not accepted at many museums and sights in China, because it does not clearly say ‘student’, or have my birthday on it, even though NYU has an entire campus in Shanghai. My NYU ID was also occasionally rejected in Egypt and I had to give them my STA student card as well.)
International Student Card (ISIC): http://www.statravel.com/student-discount-card.htm
5. Be friendly, but stern.
People are going to hassle you and ask you to ride their camel, horse, or sailboat, buy their trinkets. If you’re not interested say no and make sure that they understand. If they don’t understand, say Leh, Shukran (No, thank you) and walk quickly. If they continue to pester you or call things after you, ignore them.
Do not, however, ignore people right off the bat, they may honestly be trying to help you and may be offended if you storm on by. Also, it is easy to be frustrated by hasslers, but do not take your frustration out on other people. Everyone’s got to hustle, and it’s not their fault that the five other people down the street made you upset.
If you want to avoid the hustlers, take a taxi to wherever you are going. Taxis are very inexpensive in Egypt. Car services such as Uber and Careem are also available in Cairo.
Don’t let hustlers ruin your experience. They are particularly annoying at the Pyramids, and along the Nile in Luxor and Aswan.
The same goes for catcalling. People are going to make ‘pssst’ and kissy noises at you to try to get your attention. Don’t look. If people try to talk to you or ask you bluntly for sex, sternly but respectfully decline. Do not be rude, as people (and this goes for any country) can be unpredictable if offended or insulted.
6. Greetings and Directions.
Introduce yourself and ask people how they are doing (preferably in Arabic) before asking any other question. Otherwise, you will have to pay bakshish, and possibly will get false information, or ignored. It is rude to abruptly ask random people where things are before saying hello.
7. Have change/small bills, and count your change.
ATMs and currency exchanges will give you 50’s, 100’s, or even 200 LE bills. Make sure to break these into smaller bills and coins. Many people either don’t have change or “don’t have change”. Also, it is rude to pull out a large sum of money, especially after bargaining. Shared taxis, the metro, toilets, drinks, snacks and other small goods and services may only cost 1 Egyptian pound. If you only have a 50, you may not be able to buy it or be forced to buy many other things you don’t want. If you only have a 50, and the taxi was 35, the driver may just keep it.
People may also not expect you to wait for your change, or know that you need change. Count your change before walking away, and patiently ask for your change if it is not correct. If bakshish is already taken out of the change, you have to right to ask for it back. Don’t let people take their own tips.
8. Hire a guide.
Unless you read hieroglyphics, you might not understand what you’re looking at. At least once, hire a guide. You’ll learn valuable information that you will be able to apply or recognize in other situations. Temples often have similar motifs, so learning the names and faces of the many ancient gods is worthwhile. Also, if you’re traveling alone, they can take pictures for you!
9. Don’t trust websites.
Opening/closing hours, menus, and prices are all subject to change. Assume nothing is final until it’s paid for, and nothing is open unless you’re inside. This goes for transportation schedules on this as well. Make sure to get several opinions before buying something expensive, or traveling to a new place.
10. Start early.
As mentioned in the previous bullet, museum/site hours are subject to change. Exhibits within museums often have different hours. If there’s something you want to do, do it first thing in the morning to avoid it being closed when you arrive. For example, the massive Egypt Museum is open 9am – 5pm, and then from 6pm -9pm. NOT from 9am to 7pm, as listed on the website. And no, your ticket from 9-5 is not valid from 6-9, you will need to buy a new ticket. The mummies exhibit closes at 4:15 sharp. You will be very disappointed if you go around 4pm expecting to have 3 hours in the museum. Go in the morning.
11. Taxes, service charges, and commission.
Many restaurants have a 12% service charge and 14% sales tax, as well as other fees for using cards, charging something to your hotel room, or simply being foreign. Sometimes they are already included in the price. Be sure to know what is or isn’t included before you buy something or tip additionally. Otherwise, things may be surprisingly more expensive when you receive your bill!
12. Photo Etiquette.
People generally do not like to be photographed in Egypt, even if they are not the subject of the photo. Be respectful and ask for permission before taking someone’s photo, or a photo of someone’s shop/goods/home. If they say no, do not take a photograph. If someone says yes and then asks for bakshish, you should probably pay it, especially if you plan on posting the photos somewhere. Do not photograph women unless you have permission, as this can be seen as very invasive and can spark anger.
Photography is forbidden inside many museums and temples. Respect this rule, pay for a photo ticket, or pay bakshish to a guard. Sneaking photos can lead to your expulsion or a hefty fine.
People are going to want to take selfies with you because you’re foreign. You can say no. Or you can say yes, and possibly make a new friend. It’s up to you. Be aware also that if you say yes to one person, you may have to say yes to ten others. Throw them a curveball and ask for bakshish, jokingly.
14. Be respectful of the Islamic culture.
Egypt is generally, comparatively, pretty liberal in regards to the extent to which Islam is integrated into state law. Alcohol can be found in restaurants, women are not required to be veiled, there are casinos, etc. However, some parts of Egypt are more conservative. Dress modestly, especially when visiting mosques, churches, or other religious sites. Do not be offended if you are denied entry. Some sites are Muslim or men only. If you are allowed entry, be sure to take off your shoes and be quiet. Do not to take pictures if pictures are not allowed, You will be offered Islamic pamphlets, but do not feel obliged to take them.
Islamic sites are beautiful, so don’t avoid them or view this as an inconvenience. Cairo’s old town, full of stunning Fatmid-era mosques is the best thing to see other than the pyramids. Sharm el-Sheikh’s grand mosque is also worth visiting.
I’m normally a bus-only kind of person, but Egypt is a huge country and after a couple of weeks, overnight buses get old. Many of Egypt’s treasures are reachable only by long bus rides, however, domestic flights are frequent and inexpensive. Opt to fly when possible, and safe travel days. Bus schedules are subject to change; bus routes may just entirely not exist or may not show up. Egypt is also famous for its wild traffic so bus trips that are only supposed to be 7 hours may end up being 12. You can fly from Cairo to anywhere in Egypt in an hour or less, for less than $100. Take advantage of this.
If you still want to take the train, pay bakshish for an Egyptian to buy your ticket. Tourists are only allowed to buy overnight train tickets, however, they are not forbidden to ride in the second or third class trains, which are much faster. (Aswan to Luxor in 3 hours, rather than 8, etc.)
If you want to take the bus, double-check the routes and schedules at the station because websites are not always up to date. Expect to pay bakshish for your luggage, entrance to rest-stop bathrooms, etc.
Basic Arabic and Egyptian Dialect:
Hello (Peace): Salam
Good Morning: Sabbah el-khreer
Good Evening: Messeh el-khreer
How are you?: Kayf ha-lek?
How are you? (Egyptian dialect): Izzay-ek? or Ahmel-eh?
I’m well (Thank God): Hamdu lilleh
What’s new?: El Akbar?
What’s your name? (Egyptian dialect): Ismek eh?
My name is: Ismi..
Nice to meet you
Where is the…?: Fayn el…
I want (Egyptian dialect): Eyez
What is this? (Egyptian dialect): Deh eh?
How much? (Egyptian dialect): Kam deh?
Yes (Egyptian Dialect): aye-wa
Please/Excuse me: lao samaht
Thank you: shukran
Straight: (Egyptian dialect) ala tool
(Dialect tip: For teens: number + 10 (ithnosh =12 , hamztosh =15, etc.) For 20-90, add the suffix -een)
20 ashreen (two tens)
These are just a few of the things I learned while traveling in Egypt, I hope this helps. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or need help planning your trip! (And no, I don’t charge bakshish)
For more on Egypt, check out:
For more photos, follow me on Instagram at Tristan’s Expeditions.(@tristans_expeditions) Thanks for reading!