After spending the better part of four months in Europe, it was finally time for my departure. From Athens, Greece I flew directly the Cairo, Egypt- anticipating visiting the Giza Pyramid Complex and the Great Sphinx. Initially, my intention was to visit a few professors at Alexandria University that are working on bioremediation of oil contaminated sites. Unfortunately, the professors in Egypt were either completely unresponsive or they cancelled at the last minute- partly because of the strict regulations forced upon them by the current regime in Egypt. Because of this, I was not able to visit any labs during my trip to Egypt. However, since I was not going to spend anytime visiting labs, I decided to enhance my itinerary in terms of pyramid sites and ancient relics. Rather than tell you a bunch of history about the historical sites, I am going to give you some tips to help you survive your trip to Egypt. For those interested in the history, I have included videos from refutable historical societies which have done a far better job explaining the history of Egypt than I can.
Cairo and Giza
The culture in Egypt is very much unlike the culture that I experienced in Europe and Far East Asia. Here, people are much more eager to approach tourists to try and sell them items and services using high stress tactics. In Egypt, I confronted several sales tactics which you should prepare yourself before if you plan to visit:
Foot-In-The-Door (McDonald’s supersize):
Egyptians will often attempt to sell you something that is very small or insignificant at first and then upsell all kinds of things. For example, my hostel in the heart of Cairo (10 minutes walking from the Cairo Museum) was only $8 USD per night. Once I checked in, they immediately asked if I was going to the Giza Pyramid Complex. Of course my answer was yes, so they offered me a driver to the complex for only $18 dollars. After investigation into prices online, I agreed and paid them $18. They then asked if I would like to visit Luxor as well. Since Luxor was ten hour away, they told me the whole trip would be $120. I told them no thanks because I definitely needed to investigate the prices online. About 15 minutes later, they entered my room and told me that the Giza Pyramid Complex was not actually $18, that is was $25 and I needed to pay them more or they would refund my money.
You see what’s happening here? They already had an $18 commitment and now they were looking for a $25 dollar commitment. After looking online $120 for a trip to the Giza Pyramid Complex, the Great Sphinx, the Saqqara Pyramid site, Karnak Temple, Colossi of Memnon Statue of Pharaoh Amenhotep, Luxor Temple, Temple of Hatshepsut, Valley of the Kings, round trip 2nd class AC train tickets, and a hotel room was actually very reasonable.
However, this did not account for all the subtle nuances, when I arrived at the Giza Pyramid Complex, they attempted to sell me $50 camel ride- which is outrageously expensive. Their method for doing this- they dropped me off next to a bunch of camels and escorted me into a single room with a wooden map of the Giza Pyramid Complex on the wall which had very poor scale. They told me that I did not have to buy anything, but essentially did not let me leave until I had purchased something. I managed to get the camel ride for $20, which is reasonable, but again, I overpaid.
Reciprocity (I scratch your back, you scratch mine):
Once in the room, the Egyptians insisted that I take a complimentary cup of tea or coffee. I told them that I was not interested and they pretty much forced the cup into my hand. The tea was alright, but I knew that it was no ‘free’ in the sense that my cup definitely was offered in anticipation of my reciprocity. After agreeing to ride the camel for $20, they came in and placed a piece of cloth and a wire head band on my head (Keffiyeh) and asked to take my photo. After taking the photos, they told me that the Keffiyeh was $3. I told them no. I told them no about five times before they took it away.
Liking (Drinking Sprite because Kobe does):
Everywhere that tourists go, you are going to find pictures of tourists on the wall. Nowhere in the room did I see pictures of Egyptians wearing a Keffiyeh or riding a camel. In every hotel, hostel, and in the camel shop- all of the pictures were of clearly ‘white’ westerners smiling and having a good time. The message here is to let me know that other people ‘like me’ have been here and had a great time. In Egypt, any European or Westerner participating in or looking to enjoy their services is used as a ‘celebrity endorsement.’
Door in the Face (the reason you see a $16,000USD bottle of Remy Martin’s Louis XIII when you walk into Total Wine):
After arriving in Luxor, before I had even checked in to my hotel room, I was asked if I would like to go on a hot air balloon ride over the city the following morning. The price I was told was $60. You may be thinking that this is a great offer, and for most of the world it is, but for Egypt this is outrageously expensive. I quickly replied no and immediately received an offer for $40. I said no again. Then…
Scarcity (Special edition, limited press- only 1,000 individually numbered copies made!)
Then he hit me with scarcity. “Well, we only have limited seats and they’re selling out fast.” Nonsense.
Bandwagon (I’m a social drinker, ie: I drink when my peers do):
“Everyone else that comes through Luxor does it. I don’t want you to miss out so let me know.”
I traveled around Luxor all day and met some nice people from Iraq. They started showing me pictures of the balloon ride they had ridden the prior morning and I asked them how much they paid- around $22 dollars each. That night, after my tour of Luxor, my travel guide was sure to ask, one last time, if I was interested in the balloon ride the next morning; now only eight hours away. I said yes, but for no more than $20- we eventually settled on $23. They 'size you up' by where you are staying too. My friend Lam from Singapore, whom I met on the balloon in Luxor was staying at a nicer hotel than mine. The result- they told him the price was $100. Lastly, the people in Egypt have a very large network and everyone selling you something known the next guy that is going to sell you the next thing. My hostel knew the cab driver that knew the hosel owner, that knew tha balloon company. All the companies are the same- regardless of who you book with- you are going to be randomly thrown in a giant basket on a balloon. They are all the same company.
These tactics happened over and over again. I highly suggest any tourist travelling to Egypt make themselves aware of these tactics before visiting so they are prepared to deal with them. Here, I am going to highlight some very valuable points that will help you save time, money, and hassle.
Knowledge is your best friend. People are going to approach you instantly and immediately to try to make a deal with you. They do not want you to travel far because once you are away from them someone else is going to approach you with a better offer. The more knowledge you have the better price you are going to receive. It starts online- all of the prices online are outrageously expensive. I’m talking 20 x or more than you should pay. Do not take the first offer you are given.
My camel ride cost me $20- I was offered a camel ride for less than $2 when I was walking around the Giza Pyramid Complex after my camel ride. This is why my tour guide put me in a room and did not let me leave until I had purchased a camel ride. He knew that once I left I would discover that $20 completely unrealistic.
Never pay the first price. People always start ridiculously high and often expect tourists to take the first offer knowing that westerners like to avoid confrontation. However, every Egyptian haggles over price; therefore, they will not be offended when you offer them less.
Do not seem eager. Do you want to ride a horse or camel drawn carriage through Luxor? That’s great! Luxor has many people sitting around waiting for tourists to give rides in their carriages. When someone approaches you to ask if you want a ride, say no and keep walking. Since I was truly not interested in a carriage ride, I always said no and kept walking. They will follow you- many times, the price would drop from over $10 to less than $1. And all I had to do was say no ten times.
There is a great scarcity of tourists in Egypt. Any attempt people make to convince you that it’s “tourist season” or that something is “selling out” or “limited” is all nonsense. The truth is, since the Egyptian revolution in 2011, tourists are afraid to visit the country. This means that the once thriving tourism industry is now literally in shambles. Everyone is desperate for your business. I literally had a guy try to give me a cap ride to a building that was next door to the one I was at- he wanted to drive me 1 meter! You will literally be shocked to discover that nowhere has a line- I was able to see the mummy of King Tut in the Valley of the Kings and the Maks of King Tut in the Cairo Museum essentially by myself with no wait.
Always deal in Egyptian dollars. In an attempt to combat corruption, Egypt just floated its currency. What this means is that in November, Egyptian pounds are worth less than half of what they were worth for the previous five years! And the value of the Egyptian pound is still dropping. However, Egyptians are used to dealing with US currency and thus have a good grasp on how much Americans and Westerners are willing to spend in USD. Nevertheless, since the value of the Egyptian pound is ‘all over the place’ it is easier to get a better deal after exchanging your USD for Egyptian pounds. I was there starting November 11, and many places still expected the same USD and Egyptian pound prices that they had been expecting for the previous year. This means that exchanging USD and then purchasing in Egyptian pounds could save you over 50%!
(The tombs at Valley of the Kings are absolutely stunning. No pictures are allowed in there so I do not have any to show. Every time a pharaoh took the throne, construction began on his or her tomb. The tomb would be constructed into the mountainside until the death of the pharaoh. This means that if a pharaoh were to live for many years, their tomb would be very large. For example, since King Tut took the throne at age nine and died ten years later- his tomb is very small and one of the least amazing tombs in the place. Each tomb is unique to the pharaoh buried within and thus walking into each tomb is like walking into a different art piece.)
(Alexandria was the most European city that I visited in Egypt. Here, I was very seldom hassled and thus was free to walk around the street and enjoy myself. People here are used to offering fair prices and many times I did not need to haggle since I knew the asking price was the correct price. TheLibrary of Alexandria was amazing and not very expensive. There was a fascinating exhibit at the Library of Alexandria hosted by the International School of Information Science (ISIS- really, that’s the acronym) called the Internet (Web) Archive. This archive contains every website developed since 1996 and consists of over 3.7 petabytes of data on over 6500 hard drives!)
Try not to go alone- especially if you are a woman. If you do go alone, be prepared to argue and hassle at literally every street corner outside of Alexandria. For example, when I went into the Pyramid of Unas Tomb (video in this blog), a gentleman insisted that he worked for the government and that I was required to be escorted into the tomb. I knew this was nonsense since he could not provide proper identification. Proper tour guides in Egypt need to go through arigorous educational program that is essentially the same as receiving a masters in history. Nevertheless, he went right on in ahead of me and then started telling me things in the tomb. After explaining, when I tried to leave the tomb, he grabbed my hand and said that I needed to give him a tip because he took me down there. I starred him straight in the face, told him no, and whipped my hand away. I then proceeded to leave.
Everyone expects a tip for everything. Do not give them a tip unless they deserve it. If you go to a nice restaurant, ask if there is a service charge. If there is not, then leave a tip. Ten percent is more than expected and appropriate in most cases. I did not, however, tip the guy that was waiting for me outside the bathroom in the Valley of the Kings of the guy who pressed the hand dryer button after using the toilet in the museum at Luxor Temple. These are literally people off the street that are desperate for money and looking to intimidate tourists through guilt or force to pay them.
Practice extreme awareness on the streets since traffic laws are treated as mere suggestions. As a pedestrian, most people are not going to wait for you even if the light is red. If you are thinking of renting a car, I suggest not to- especially if you plan to drive around the city. My friends from India may be able to drive in Egyptian traffic, but everyone else will be totally lost and likely afraid. If you expect to cross a street, you need to ‘step out of your comfort zone.’ Quite literally, the expectations for when a person should walk into the street are very different from the USA, Europe, Japan, andKorea. Sometimes you will think people are walking right into traffic when they are actually crossing the street as Egyptians do. To get anywhere, you are going to have to ‘walk like an Egyptian.’
Get out of Cairo! Take the train- second class AC train tickets are amazingly cheap! A ten our train ticket from Cairo to Luxor was about $8! Luxor was very touristy, but not nearly as hectic as Cairo. Get out of the main city and enjoy the architectural sites. The sites in Egypt are some of the largest and best preserved sites I have ever been too. Pretty much every monument here dwarfs anything you can see in Italy or Greece. There are literally so many highly preserved archaeological sites that you will not be able to see them all- and that’s ok.