A milestone birthday in Egypt

I just received this very timely trip report from some clients who were in Egypt at the beginning of January, just before the current troubles broke out. These were three women celebrating their 30th birthdays with a “trip of a lifetime” that included Cairo, a Nile Cruise, Luxor, the Dead Sea and more. As you’ll see if you read this lengthy and thoughtful review, they returned from their trip with a real love for the country and its people:

I feel incredibly grateful to have experienced the country before the late January unrest began. It was a beautiful country – the people, the culture, the sites – and I hope that the current situation will be resolved soon. Most importantly, once it is resolved, I hope that it will not be too long before people are able to visit safely as tourists again. I felt very safe throughout my trip, and once the country can get back to that place, I think it will be a fascinating trip for Americans – particularly as positive change comes to the country. 

Fantastic isn’t even a strong enough word for this trip! We had an amazing experience! The tour offered a wonderful mix of the country; the people in Egypt (staff and public) were incredibly friendly and welcoming; the sites were amazing, interesting, and like nothing you can see anywhere else. The tourism industry infrastructure is remarkable and everyone works together very hard and very effectively to ensure that guests have a good experience. I would recommend this program in a heartbeat to anyone looking to discover a new part of the world and willing to open their mind to new cultures – they’ll love it!

 Ann, we greatly appreciated your help in making all the bookings and logistics so simple. Your services were thorough and easy to follow, and your advice was always very helpful – thanks!  The Sunny Land package offered a comprehensive Egypt experience at a good value – thank you for finding it! Thank you also for monitoring us through the weather situation and helping us to determine next steps. It was great to work with you on this trip – I’ve recommended you to several friends, and you’ve made me realize how valuable and helpful a good travel agent can be, even in the age of Internet travel options.

To be honest, we weren’t really sure what to expect once we arrived, as far as services went. I knew it would be a small group, but I didn’t really have an understanding as to whether there would be one group of 10-15 people who we were with the whole time, one guide, etc, or what. With the flight problems, we weren’t even entirely confident that someone would pick us up. That said… Sunny Land proved me wrong. The on-the-ground services of Sunny Land and Travel Ways were impeccable!!! There was always someone there when they said they would be, and our multiple guides went over and above to share the stories and culture of Egypt, and also to ensure our safety, comfort and ease of planning throughout the trip. I hadn’t realized we would have multiple guides, but I’m so glad we did. They all had different styles, but they were all incredibly knowledgeable, fun and effective. Spending so much time in a basically one-on-one environment with native Egyptians was actually one of my favorite parts of the trip. I think they really added to the experience.

The smoothness and effectiveness with which the entire tourism industry operates in Egypt had us completely in awe, and Egypt Air and Travel Ways played a huge role in that. During the entire trip, I can’t think of one driver, guide, or service person who wasn’t completely helpful, inviting and friendly. The culture is a bit different from what we would expect – everyone just sort of said “it will happen” about anything – guides picking us up, flight times, etc., but sometimes there wasn’t great detail on when/where/how, which gave us a little pause initially, purely because we are just so used to American style regimentation. However… no one ever disappointed. Once we got used to the fact that there were multiple guides and escorts and that they truly would handle everything… we just rolled with the punches and had a blast!

 The program was well organized, and I really appreciated that we got a good mix of the country – city, beach, history, local culture, etc. The featured attractions were fantastic and the Nile River cruise was a great experience. The guides were outstanding, and they really made the trip.

 I loved the small group experience and that we had our own transportation all the time. There were just 2 other guys on our trip, and it literally felt like a custom vacation for the five of us.

Egypt Air was fantastic! They went over and above in helping the passengers [they were stranded during the Christmas weekend snowstorm in NY]. Most other airlines’ passengers were left at the airport to wait it out, but Egypt Air bused us to a nearby hotel, covered the cost of the hotel, gave us food, and bussed back to the airport – all complimentary. The situation was unpredictable and chaotic and they did everything they could to take care of us during the storm and to make sure we got out to Egypt as soon as possible.

 The airline really took care of us. If I could fly Egypt Air to other destinations – I would!  Also, the planes and the staff on board were great. The planes were very modern – spacious, comfortable, and each seat had individual entertainment options – very nice!

Once we arrived, everything was handled through Travel Ways. As noted above, the guides and drivers were incredible – they were all very professional and helpful.

The only really challenge that we had was that each guide was really only in the loop on their area. This was only an issue for us because no one seemed to know that we had extended our trip. Everyone we asked said “Yes, Cairo will handle it.” But it was not reassuring – it seemed like they all just thought we were referring to our original plans and didn’t understand that we wanted confirmation because we had extended. Naturally, it all worked out – it always does there – but we weren’t totally reassured until the night before Cairo, and even then, we weren’t totally sure.

Also, there was some significant miscommunication as to what would happen when we landed in Cairo… we had a 3 am departure from Hurghada, and so we had specifically asked whether we’d be going to the hotel in Cairo to freshen up when we landed, and we were told that we would be brought there. In reality, we were picked up and started the 10 hour or so tour right away. Our guide kindly brought us to another hotel to use the restroom, freshen up first, but only because we really asked for it. Again, I think this goes back to the fact that the people in Hurghada weren’t really in the loop on Cairo – so when we asked in advance about going to the hotel first, they sort of just said yes to keep us happy. Even at that time, I had a strong feeling that we’d go directly to the tour, but since they told us otherwise, we went into it with that assumption (and the hotel had forgotten our wakeup call, so we got up and got out of the hotel in about 10 mins at 3 am… which is really why the hotel stop in Cairo would have been helpful.)

 In the end, it all worked out just fine and we had an incredible day in Cairo, but it’s just an example of where we had some challenges – communication between cities and having a time schedule of what would happen when. Not a big deal – we loved Cairo and the day – but it could be an area to improve.

 The Crocodilo [Nile cruise] was a nice boat – our room was spacious and the boat was fine. Housekeeping did a great job everyday – and to be honest, we hadn’t expected that service at all. The food was far better than any of us expected and there were always plenty of options. Great cappuccinos in the bar too!

The boat staff were incredible – from front desk to housekeeping. Everyone was very friendly and very helpful.  The only real draw back on the boat was that the Internet connection was very unreliable. To be honest, I hadn’t even expected that there would be one, and really didn’t anticipate much need for it. That said, due to the travel delays at the start of the trip, we did need Internet access to rearrange travel plans for when we returned to the States, etc., and it was pretty unreliable on the boat. I wouldn’t have even thought twice about this, except that it did work very well on other boats, so it seems like it would be feasible to fix. We actually went onto other nearby cruise boats and paid to use their Internet, which worked great.

 The boat put on a New Year’s Eve party for guests, which was very nice of them, and a lot of fun!

 The tour guides were truly phenomenal – I can’t say enough good things about Sayed (Nile cruise), Hussein (Hurghada), and Emad (Cairo). They were all highly knowledgeable, accommodating, and fun!  They were very effective in communicating all the history, stories and culture of Egypt and they always had an eye out for us to make sure we were safe – whether just talking to people, or buying things or whatever it might be. They went over and above to make sure we had a great experience, and I am so grateful for this!

The Oasis Hotel in Cairo was great! Rooms were very clean and spacious and staff was very friendly. It had a charming layout and restaurants and shops on-site and I really enjoyed this hotel.

Sunny Days El Palacio hotel in Hurghada was lovely. The rooms were quite nice, spacious and clean. The pool and beach area was beautiful. The food was not very good, but it was fine.

 It’s so hard to pick out a favorite part of the trip:

I really enjoyed talking with the Egyptian people and getting to know their culture a bit. The guides gave us a great opportunity to do this, and really, anyone we encountered on the street was enjoyable to talk to. The Egyptian people were incredibly welcoming. They loved Americans and were very happy to see us there! They are very proud of their culture and it was really interesting to learn from them.

I also really enjoyed Luxor – it was a beautiful city that was a mix of historic sites and nice shops and restaurants. The city was very clean and felt very safe. Actually, I would have loved to have had some free time to just walk around and relax in Luxor. The schedule was really jam-packed – it was amazing, but I would have loved even another half day of just free time there.

My favorite site was the Mosque of Ali Pasha in Cairo. It was a beautiful, intriguing site. Our guide was Muslim and he took the time to sit down with us and discuss the history and primary tenets of the Islam religion. I’m not sure if this is standard, or just something that he did, but it was fascinating and really added to the trip. If there was a way to arrange it so that everyone had a Muslim guide who was willing to speak fairly openly about his religion, I would highly recommend this!

 Here are my tips for someone considering a similar trip:

 First… do it!! It was an incredible experience and I would recommend it to anyone who is comfortable with long days, jam-packed but really fun schedules, and walking around a lot. For us, it was perfect. I knew very little about that part of the world before the trip, and I feel like it was really a valuable education and an incredible, fun experience. Given the current state of affairs, I’m incredibly grateful to have experienced Egypt and I hope to have the chance to go back and see what positive changes come in the future for the country.

 A couple of small details for travelers. Note – depending on the outcome of the current unrest, some of this advice may be obsolete. If so, I hope it is only because positive change has happened.

 –          Bring small bills, and if you are comfortable, American dollars. If I did it again, I would bring about $600 in $1 bills, $400 or so in $10s, $20s and an ATM card for back up. American currency is accepted everywhere – for tips, in restaurants, at hotels, in shops. Tipping is a huge part of the culture there, but strangely, it is incredibly hard to get change anywhere. Egyptian money from the ATM works just fine as well, but it causes the same problem – it dispenses big bills and it is difficult to get change. Funny enough though, most people you are tipping will be willing to make change – even just guys taking a photo for you.

 –          If you are feeling friendly and wanting to interact with the locals, bring small pieces of candy, chewing gum and pens. All of these items were like gold, and we distributed them regularly to kids, drivers, guides, etc. In some instances, they worked just as well as a cash tip. Pens are apparently in short supply and the kids love them for school.

 –          The Desert Safari, which was an additional excursion in Hurghada, was a lot of fun, and I’d totally recommend it. It includes ATV-ing in the desert, a trip to a Bedouin village, and an Egyptian cookout with belly dancers, folk dancers and music, etc. – so much fun!

 –          At the Egyptian Museum, it was about $18 extra to visit the mummy room. Personally, I have to say it was worth it, and I’d recommend it. It’s a little higher than most things cost there, but having heard so much about their tombs and processes, it was cool (although a bit creepy) to see the actual thing!

 –          When booking excursions – especially in Hurghada – ask the guide about timing options, so that you can plan your day to your preference.

 (A disclaimer – I wrote all this part before the current situation. Without knowing what the future brings, I’m not sure how much will make sense or still apply when you are booking future trips, but this was my experience.)

 –          In my opinion, the most important advice I could give is pretty applicable to traveling to all parts of the world, but I feel it was really important here – have an open mind, be respectful of their culture, and don’t be impatient or rude when encountering situations that might be deemed pushy in other parts of the world.

  • It’s impossible to walk down a street without being bombarded by people trying to sell you things you don’t need. Sure, this might get a little annoying, but it is the way things work there, so just accept it and maybe have some fun with it. Some of the best conversations I had were with random street vendors or tour guides or drivers.
  • Similarly, tipping is a huge part of their culture, and this means everywhere… in advance of using the bathroom, for someone to take a photo with you, to take a photo near someone’s donkey… whatever it might be. Again, it’s different, it’s annoying, but it is how they operate and thrive. While it might be annoying to have to pay to use a restroom, the cost is about 20 cents, so just fork it over (if you have the change!) and move on. It will only put a damper on your day if you complain about it and give tourists a bad rep.
  • Also, while the Egyptians speak English very well, sometimes they do confuse their words and something might come out sounding pushy or rude, when it wasn’t intended that way. Just pause and try to think through the point they are trying to make before snapping at them.

I’ll add a disclaimer that of course not every Egyptian in the situations above is perfect and friendly. I’m pretty sure I got slightly ripped off at least twice. But, I still feel confident in saying that I felt like the majority of the people were harmless, interesting, interested in us, and just trying to make a living in a poor country, so it’s important that Americans keep in mind that it is a different culture, things operate differently and you are there to enjoy it… so do just that! In no way I am advocating that tourists be too trusting, or not aware of their surroundings, or allow themselves to get taken advantage of, but I do think an open mind goes a long way here. I was truly amazed by how much the Egyptians loved Americans (granted, they likely see us a source of income). As we all know, there are plenty of parts of the world that are not big fans of us right now, and if we have a place that is, I think a little kindness and fun can only help maintain that friendly relationship!

You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)