John reviews some common pitfalls in Egypt trip planning and discusses what a realistic itinerary draft incorporating some of Egypt’s top sites and cities – and one that won’t drain you to the point of exhaustion – will look like.
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Episode 28 Transcript
How to Structure an Itinerary in Egypt
In a lot of ways, Egypt is still kind of like the Wild West when it comes to travel, itineraries, and logistical planning within the country. Things are definitely getting better every year, but many people don’t realize that even if you’ve traveled extensively all over the world, Egypt is in another category all on its own. Or almost on its own.
Clients we’ve had at Egypt Elite who have traveled extensively say that the only other places that compare to Egypt in terms of congestion and chaos are New Delhi, India and Beijing, China. And since Cairo continuously sits in the top 5 largest cities in the entire world, sometimes even making the top spot depending on the year and fluid demographic changes, this shouldn’t be surprising.
Some super experienced and well seasoned travelers who don’t mind dealing with their own inevitable developing world logistical hiccups can manage to navigate Egypt on their own. But for anyone who wants a smooth experience where the hiccups are handled before you’re even aware there was a hiccup, or for those who just don’t want to deal with the hassle of travel logistics in a chaotic place like this, that’s where experienced on-the-ground travel operators like us come in. But even if we – as in Egypt Elite or any company for that matter – are handling your trip around Egypt for you, I still think it’s important to have a realistic grasp on the options for how best to structure visits to and trips around Egypt.
Just this past week, for example, we got a submission on our website’s Trip Builder program where the gentleman said he only had 5 days in country, but then he went on to list off about two full weeks worth of itinerary elements. While that’s an extreme case, but still not uncommon, the most typical mistake people make when envisioning a draft itinerary in Egypt is that they fail to understand some basics about the country’s geography, the sites and monuments, and the effects of the different environments and terrains on your energy level.
So let’s start there with that last point. For those coming from North America, Australia, or basically anywhere that requires an overnight flight, Egypt is a long-haul destination. So the first thing you have to think about is jet lag when you arrive. Now that can easily be overcome sometimes with sheer adrenaline, and in fact most people just get a good night’s rest that first night and wake up the next day in Egypt ready to run out the door to explore the Pyramids first thing in the morning.
That’s understandable, given how excited you surely are to see Egypt’s bucket list sites. But if you’re the type of traveler who isn’t used to long-haul travel or if you don’t sleep well on planes or you just get drained by long flights and need extra time to rest, it’s not a bad idea to schedule your first full day in Egypt as a free day for you to relax, settle in, and get acclimated. Most people don’t actually need an acclimation day, but if you arrive super late at night on your arrival day or even overnight, it might be a good idea to consider scheduling in a free day for yourself right off the bat.
Since seeing the Pyramids is always at the very top of everyone’s to-do list when visiting Egypt, that’s almost always what they want to plan for their first touring day. I’d say about 98% of visitors start their itineraries off with a the most famous Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx on their first full day in country, with most of those also going south of Giza that same afternoon to see the older pyramids at Saqqara and Dashur.
But the important thing to point out here that’s relevant to these sites is the distances to and between the sites in and around Cairo, and throughout Egypt for that matter. If you’re staying in a downtown hotel, it can take between 45 minutes and one hour to get out to the Giza Plateau, depending on the side of the Nile you’re staying on and that traffic you find yourself in that day.
There are new roads opening across Giza that will cut this travel time down, but the point here is that, unlike other places where the major sites are co-located within a city, the Pyramids and Sphinx are far out on the western edge of Greater Cairo’s suburban sprawl at the start of the Sahara Desert. So don’t think you’re going to roll out of bed, jump in the van, and be there in 15 minutes. It takes time to get there and back. And it’s also about a half hour more to get to Saqqara and another half hour more to get down to Dashur from the Giza Pyramids, which makes the journey back downtown about an hour to an hour and a half.
Also keep in mind that most of the sites in Egypt close at 5pm, depending on the season, which means they start ushering people out of the site compounds about 4pm or 4:30pm, depending on the site. So what all this means is that you cannot do all of the pyramids way out on the edge fo the Sahara Desert and then expect to be able to make it back downtown in time to make it inside of any other sites or museums in that same day.
A moderately paced touring day will go from about 9am until about 4 or 5pm with an hour or so to break for a nice leisurely lunch in the middle of the day. This is also a standard working day for guides and drivers, so if you want to keep your car, driver, and/or guide for more than about 8 hours, expect to pay more for overtime. I wouldn’t advise this though because it not only wears them out, but it will wear you out as well.
We love to design what we call moderately paced itineraries for the benefit of you as well as our own staff, which are like family to us, although we certainly don’t mind the occasional long day when it’s required. An example of this is the day you go to visit Old Cairo and the Khan el Khalili market, and that’s because the Khan is best visited in the evening after the sun goes down, the lights start to come on, and all of the locals are out shopping and buzzing about in the market.
If you try to go to the Khan during the middle of the day, it’s dead and you don’t get the full authentic experience. So we like to tack that on to the end of one of your days in Cairo, which of course will be a long day because it’s an evening activity. But we plan for that and factor that in, so it’s certainly ok with our staff because we want you to see the Khan at it’s best and not just take you through there earlier in the afternoon when it’s dead just to check it off the list like many other companies will do.
Distance between sites and major areas is an issue in Luxor too. Luxor’s sites are divided into eastern bank and western bank sites, with the Nile River doing the dividing of course. But while the eastern bank sites are fairly close to one another and pretty much in the middle of the town of Luxor, the western bank sites are fairly far away and can take 45 minutes to an hour to get to by car from Luxor because you have to drive south to the main bridge to cross the Nile then all the way back up past where you were on the other side of the river and continue north and a little west to where the tombs and temples were built.
But here’s the thing about Luxor’s sites… some of the eastern bank sites are open late, and they’re among the few in Egypt with evening hours. Both Luxor Temple, which is smack dab in the middle of the town, and Luxor Museum, which is very close by and walkable, are open into the evening. So it’s possible, but not advisable, to do all major Luxor sites all in one day for those who are in a time crunch. But we always advise those who can afford it time-wise to split touring in Luxor into two days and do the western bank sites together on one day, which will still take up the majority of a full touring day, and then do the eastern bank sites leisurely on another day.
Now even though Luxor Temple and Luxor Museum on the eastern bank open later, Karnak Temple, which is also on the eastern bank and is a must see site – way more than Luxor Temple – is not open late. Karnak closes at 5pm just like the other major sites across Egypt, with entrance to the site not even permitted after 4pm, so you have to make it there by then regardless if you’re packing things into one day.
However, if you’re splitting Luxor into two days, you have no problem at all going at a moderate pace on both sites of the river, not feeling rushed, not having to make the driver drive like a bat out of hell to get you back across the river in time, and not missing anything important, with plenty of time to stop for lunch and a rest during the middle of the touring day, which can be important.
Touring around Egypt isn’t like touring around London or Paris or New York or almost anywhere else. When you visit the Pyramids, you’re walking over sand and uneven stone, and it’s the same at the Valley of the Kings. Most of the year in Egypt it’s also hot, with the summer months nearly unbearable for some. It’s also a very dry heat, which means that your body is losing water very fast without you even realizing it.
This faster-than-realized dehydration, even when you’re drinking lots of water, combined with the exhaustion from the heat and walking over stones and stairs and sand (oh my!), can really wear you out. So you may think you can realistically hit up five or six sites in one day, but even experienced or fit travelers often find themselves in need of a major rest after five or six hours of touring around Egypt’s sites and monuments.
All this is to say that you should trust our recommendations if you’ve told us where you want to go and what you want to see and we’ve structured, spaced, and placed it out in a certain way for you in a recommended itinerary to help you both tolerate and maximize the experience.
This should go without saying to those who have looked at a map of Egypt, but still some people may not realize that the Pyramids and Sphinx are located outside of Cairo in the north of Egypt, and the tombs and temples of the pharaohs are located in the far south of Egypt, which requires an hour flight and roughly a half day of traveling time when you factor in going to the airport, waiting for the flight, taking the flight, then getting picked up and transiting to your next hotel to check in.
Other places such as the Red Sea, Alexandria, and Abu Simbel are also long drives (sometimes even short flights) away and not just a quick thing to get to. The Red Sea, for example, is about a three-hour drive from Luxor, but that’s usually a one way journey because people go to the Red Sea to stay a few days then they usually fly back to Cairo from there. No one in their right mind does the Red Sea as a day trip.
Alexandria is a also 3three-hour journey from Cairo by road, but most people do still do it as a day trip. The good thing about most of Alexandria’s major sites, which are from the Greco-Roman period that we call the Ptolemaic era, is that they are co-located in the center of the city. So the driving distance between most of Alexandria’s sites is fairly short, but traffic in the center of the city, which is the second largest in Egypt, can still be quite chaotic. Therefore, it still takes a full day there to see the major sites in the city center, plus the three-hour journey back to Cairo that evening.
While most people do Alexandria as a day trip, you can definitely stay overnight there to take it slower and see even more sites if you’d like to. I think Alexandria is a very unique city and very different from anywhere else in Egypt, so I like spending a day or few there personally. But if you only have time for a day trip, you can see the major sites there in that same day and not have to change hotels again because you’ll be back in Cairo by dinner time.
Like Alexandria, Abu Simbel is also a three-hour journey by road, but from Aswan. In fact, that’s why most people go to Aswan to begin with. Aswan’s cute and all, but not many people go there just to see that little village and its few sites. They usually go there because it’s the launching point to visit Abu Simbel, and they also schedule an extra day to see Aswan’s sites like the Temple of Isis at Philae and the Nubian Museum while they’re there.
Almost everyone does Abu Simbel as a day trip too, and since you have to be through the last government checkpoint on the way back to Aswan by 4pm at the absolute latest, most go early in the morning – as in 7am or 8am-ish at the latest – so that they can get back before then. In the hotter months, people go even earlier so that they can get down there and visit the two temples of Ramses II and Nefertari before it gets too hot.
If you look at a map and pull up Abu Simbel, you’ll see just how far south this site is. It’s literally almost down at the Sudanese border in the middle of nowhere, and it sits in one of the hottest inhabited places in all of Egypt, hence the super early departure times during summer to beat the heat. But it’s obviously impressive enough that people endure the heat and the three-hour road journey each way to make it there. But at least you’re riding in nice modern air-conditioned vehicles (and private vehicles if you’re going with us), so you have it way better than travelers did a hundred years or so ago when they had to make that journey by less comfy means if they wanted to see it.
You can also fly to Abu Simbel, but it’s really a personal cost-benefit analysis as to whether it’s worth it for you to shell out the 400 bucks for the two 45-minute hops and avoid the six hours on the road in one day, or just suck up the roundtrip road journey that day and save the cash for other things.
Ok, so those are the major things to know when you’re thinking about travel around Egypt. The takeaways here are that a site or monument being located in the same general area as another doesn’t necessarily mean it’s close by. You may be driving an hour between sites, and when you factor in those distances along with closing times, heat, rest, lunch, etc., you need to be open to our suggestion to moderately pace your itinerary and give yourself enough time to enjoy the sites and the journey.
Ok, I wanted to keep this a short episode, so I’ll wrap it up here and we’ll continue the insider advice on more topics related to travel to and around Egypt in later episodes.
Ma’ salaama everyone!