Warning: This will be a long and detailed post.
I usually only write about our holidays so that friends and family can keep up with what we are doing while living in Europe. I feel compelled to share more about this trip simply because I’ve had SO many people ask me: where we stayed, what we did, how much it cost. The main question I am asked? Was it safe? What they really want to know is, should I go? The answer is YES.
Who doesn’t want to see the last remaining ancient wonder of the world? It is probably something every single person on this planet wants to see. Now really is the time to go. Tourism is low right now. Beat the crowds because soon the tourist spots will be crowded once again.
I can only speak as a mother traveling with toddlers but this is not the type of trip where you book tickets and just wing it. If you have children you need to arrive with a plan. I did a lot of research going into this holiday. I read every blog under the sun, listened to podcasts, annoyed previous visitors with hundreds of questions. You need to be aware of what traveling Egypt will be like. Hopefully I can provide some information that will help you plan your trip of a lifetime!
Now to answer the question you all want to know. Yes, we felt very safe as tourists! (Tourists that go directly to all the sites every other tourist goes to. This is not a trip you want to go off the beaten path with your kids.) The people who say otherwise are the people who listen to the media in America and have never actually been themselves. Would I ever venture out into the cities without a tour guide? No. You will be traveling through very poor areas where everyone wants money from you. They will try to scam you into paying for a service or they will aggressively try to sell you items. They will not be up front about how much an item costs and they will haggle with you until you give in. These people do not want to hurt you, they just want money. In Egypt the average annual salary is $5,000. So just a dollar to them is a lot. This is where your tour guide comes in. They speak Arabic and they act as your advocate.
Be prepared to tip for everything. Even something like going to the toilet you will need to tip to get toilet paper. We are talking like 10 cent. Be prepared that nothing comes with a price tag on it. Everything is up for bargaining. When a someone quotes you a price you automatically need to make a counter offer of 70% LESS what they quoted. Then you can work from there. Do your research as to what the common scams are. For example, at the pyramids there will be men selling these white cloth hats that you can wear on your camel ride. You think about how cute your pictures will look as you ride around the desert. What you have now done is put a big white target on your head for all the others to know you are a sucker and an easy target.
Also, never accept a gift from anyone. It’s not really a gift and you will be expected to pay. Do not allow anyone to put a hat or other clothing on you. If you aren’t looking to buy anything, don’t make eye contact or just say no until they walk away. There are lots of taxi scams and ticketing scams but I won’t go into those since we went with a tour guide. If you go with a tour guide you probably won’t encounter any of these issues at all. We had zero problems because we came to Egypt educated on these matters, aware, and we let our guides help us.
With that said, people in Egypt are very friendly and they love children. We had people ask to take pictures with us. People wanted to give our children high fives or touch them. We were scolded on several different occasions when they felt we spoke to our children too harshly or we worried about how our kids behaved. I felt like they were constantly trying to put our minds at ease. I also felt like because we were Americans we were well taken care of. They want Americans to come to Egypt. We are the ones that spend the most money and tip the best. Every single person we came in contact with asked where we were from. After all, mostly Europeans visit and they can tell immediately we speak differently. We were always greeted with a smile and sometimes a handshake. We were told “you are welcome here”. Our hotel must have called us 5 times a day to ask if we are ok and if we were happy and what we needed. They went above and beyond to make our trip enjoyable. Egypt needs tourism. They wanted us to go back and tell everyone that Egypt is amazing and to bring their children.
The last thing I want to mention before I dive into our itinerary is how to dress in Egypt. Men should dress modestly, making sure armpits are covered and if wearing shorts they should be on the longer and looser side. We made sure that my husband never had a shirt off, even at the beach- because he has religious and military related tatoos. Closed toe shoes are very important because sand will get in your feet and you WILL encounter toilets where you are quite literally stepping in pools of urine. You could also step in camel poo like I did. I wanted to throw out my shoes after our day trip to Cairo. Women should dress modestly, covering legs and shoulders. Wearing less clothing is ok at a resort pool but if ever walking around you should be respectful. Egypt is a country where women’s rights are extremely poor. I wont go into this any further but do your research.
Still reading? Now to the details of our trip!
Wanting a trip that mixed fun and culture, we opted to book tickets with Thomas Cook direct to Hurghada from London. Hurghada is a beachy, touristy town on the Red Sea where all the Europeans vacation, especially the British and Germans. As soon as you get off the plane you will need to queue for your visa. I had read that Visa’s were $25 a person so we brought US dollars. However, we were told that even though we had American passports we needed to pay our Visa in British pounds since we came from the UK on a UK airline. 25 dollars and 25 pounds is not the same price… so we tried to argue our point, but were denied. Thankfully we had brought pounds as spending money for the plane. The next thing we did was get out Egyptian pounds since you will be needing a lot of bills for tipping. As I mentioned before, everyone will expect a tip from you for anything. Next, we stopped at the Vodaphone desk to get sim cards for our phones. I can’t recall the price but they were very cheap.
It’s a really good idea to make sure you have a private transfer booked ahead of time. Once you exit the arrivals area you will immediately have people trying to get you into their taxi. Taxi’s, like anything else in Egypt, are not a set price. They may haggle with you, quote you an unfair price or scam you. Never pay for a taxi before you have reached your destination. Always agree on the price and be specific about the currency in which you will pay. The locals know how to convert currencies in their head, they are experts at this. You will many times be quoted a price in currency other than Egyptian pounds. We booked our hotel transfers with Memphis tours and we had a driver waiting to take us directly to our car. Easy.
We stayed at the Steigenberger Aqua Magic Hurghada for 7 nights… a resort that will forever be compared to all future resorts on future holidays. We paid $800 for a two bedroom suite all-inclusive. Yes, it was that cheap. We booked on booking.com and found that booking our hotel, transfers and flights separately was significantly cheaper than a package from a travel site. It’s 5 stars (for Egyptian standards) and perfect for both couples and families. We stayed in block 2 which is a good central location to the kids pools and kids activities. Block 5 would probably be a good fit for older children as its closer to the taller water slides. There is a kids club, play area, shops, cheesy evening entertainment, and all you can eat food and snacks.
There are so many pools to choose from and many are heated for the winter months. That is really nice since it was warm during the day but it dropped down to the 50’s at night so the water would be very cold. Lots of sun beds and drink services with two pool bars. I think the boys ate their weight in ice cream by the pool.
The hotel was across the street from a private beach. It’s a 5-10 minute walk to get there but they provide golf carts to anyone not wanting to walk. The beach is small, clean, and the water is gorgeous. I never imagined I would get to swim in the Red Sea! Water sports are provided but we didn’t use them. There is a restaurant on the beach which is included in the all-inclusive package. They only serve lunch; pizza, wings, egg rolls, and ice cream. We ate here several times since the buffet food does start to get repetitive after a few days.
We only ventured out into the city one day. We scooped up a taxi outside the hotel and began the ordeal of haggling over our fare. After coming to an agreement our taxi driver asked us if he could take us to all the locations we wanted to go in Hurghada. He said “I need the business”. So he ended up waiting for us outside of each location! This worked out really well since we didn’t have to worry about hailing new cabs.
Our first stop was a small aquarium/zoo. We were the only people there which was really nice since we got individual attention from all of the animal caretakers. It is really expensive for the size but if you have children you know that it does not matter where in the world you go…if you take them to a zoo they will be happy happy.
Our next stop was the Senzo mall which has a small souk, tons of European stores and food, as well as a fabulous kids area with rides and games. Had we known about this place sooner we would have spent much more time here but arrived an hour before closing.
Our last stop was the Hard Rock Cafe. It was the only place we ate outside the hotel in Hurghada. The water in Egypt is very harsh on the bellies of the non locals so they advise you to not drink things with ice or things that have been rinsed with tap water. Thankfully, our hotel used only bottles water for everything (including the tea and coffee machines, I checked). No one wants to get ill on holiday so I was extremely careful about where we stayed and what we ate for this reason. I figured the Hard Rock was safe since the only people who eat here are tourists. Thankfully we never had any tummy troubles during our stay. Make sure you pack some anti diarrhea meds though just in case. Also make sure you hand sanitizer with you at all times since hand washing opportunities may be infrequent.
We had an amazing meal so do make a stop here if visiting. Being the total sucker I am I brought an extra hamburger out to feed all the cats and their babies. Your heart will break by the stray animals you see in Egypt. They are starving, one look at them and you see it. I saw pregnant dogs that looked like they were skin and bones. We saw a dead horse on the side of the road in Cairo. I spent a lot of time trying to feed animals.
This trip will go down in history as one of the best days of my life. I had anticipated a very long day with the kids, stress, and anxiety. Everything ended up going exceptionally smoothly. Not one thing went wrong and I have not one complaint. It was the most beautiful 72 and sunny with a breeze weather. The reason our day went so well? Memphis tours. There are plenty of highly recommend guide companies in Cairo- get one. It is worth every penny. We booked a trip with them through air because its a 5-6 hours drive to Cairo from Hurghada. They picked us up at the hotel at 4 am and took us to the airport. After a one hour flight we were greeted again at the airport and set out on a one hour drive to Giza.
The traffic is chaotic here. Lots of blaring horns and weaving in and out of traffic. Our driver did a great job making us feel at ease on the road. The guide will answer all your questions, go over the plans for the day and discuss the things you see in passing. Most Cairo tours will include going into the city center, the Egyptian museum and souks. We opted to shorten our day and just go see the pyramids and sphinx. Had we not planned to go to Luxor then we would have done the full Cairo tour but we knew we would be going to Souks another time. We have always stuck to our guns when traveling with toddlers and that is to never push them to their limit. Never make the day too long, allow them to nap if they need to or take a break. This is part of what makes exploring the world with them so succesful.
Once we arrived at the pyramids our guide handled everything. I could tell that Shahinaz was a well-respected guide. If she told someone something, they listened. If she told them not to bother us, they listened. If we were quoted an unfair price she would literally yell at them for being unfair, and they listened. She was a huge part in why our day went so well. She was so sweet with our boys, giving them a gift upon meeting them, holding their hands and giving them direction if they needed it. I wrote her company and told them she deserved a raise as I can’t imagine having a better guide. She took hundreds of pictures for us.
Once you pass security and ticketing the great pyramid is right in front of you. It is huge. It is the first thing you see and overwhelmingly a pinch-me type moment. We spent the first ten minutes talking about the history and letting the boys run around and burn energy from the car ride. I love that the world is their playground and they can now add an ancient wonder of the world to that list.
There is an area of the great pyramid where you can walk along the bottom stones which I wasnt even expecting to get to do. You can also tour the inside of a pyramid but we opted not to do that with the boys as it’s essentially empty, tight, dark, walkways and we thought Carter might get scared.
There are camels all around the base of the pyramids but I had listened to a podcast detailing where the best camel operators are located. So I asked our guide to make sure we booked through them. They are located up a sandy road at an overlook. It has toilets (porto potty style), some people selling souvenirs, and a great view. Even if you don’t want to ride a camel you should still go up for the view. We must have taken hundreds of pictures. Our guide has us do all the typical cheesy poses.
By the way, make sure you have plenty of cash in Cairo! Not just for tips but everything you purchase will be in cash. Our camel ride for 30 minutes cost about $20 each for the adults and the boys were free. Our guide told us ahead of time that this was the fair and typical price.
Getting up on the camel was no joke and I am sure hilarious to anyone watching from afar. I must have accidentally kicked mine while trying to hop on and he stood up without warning as I dangled. So definitely make sure you get on before your child. Once you are up you feel like you are incredibly high off the ground. You don’t actually sit on the camels but rather some padding that sits atop its humps to create a flat space. As we went down the hilly sand dunes you are really rocking back and forth and it was a workout holding on while making sure Carter was secure. Once we reached even land I was able to relax more. The boys had a blast. This was the most surreal moment of my trip. The weather was perfect, my family was happy and it felt like we were the only people there.
It’s a good idea to have a hat that is secure or ties around the neck to avoid blowing off. We had to stop many times due to the boys hats flying off and eventually had to put them in our bag. Also, you will need both hands to hold on for most of the trek so dont expect to use a bulky camera. We have a gopro selfie stick that swivels with the press of a button and could be used one-handed.
We stopped halfway and took pictures at another overlook where you can see all 9 pyramids in one shot. Our camel guide took pictures of us and we let the boys run around and play in the sand, laughing as they saw camel poop- completely unaware that this was one of the greatest privileges they have ever experienced.
We made our way back down to the base of the pyramids where our driver and Shahinaz were waiting. I thought the 30 minute ride was perfect for the boys but you can opt for a one hour ride. Kellan of course fell in love with the camel and didn’t want to leave him behind.
Our next stop was to see the Great Sphinx. We walked by some ruins, a wishing well and spent maybe 20 minutes taking pictures and learning its history. History has not been as kind to the sphinx as it has the pyramids so we had to view from behind a gate and not allowed to walk right up to it. Shahinaz did a really great job explaining things to my son in a way that made him interested.
The last stop we made for the day was at the papyrus factory. Papyrus was used to make the first paper as early as 3000 BC. The factory is an air-conditioned building where you will sit, be offered beverages, be able to use a proper toilet, and watch a demonstration as to how the paper is made. There is artwork that you can purchase and we ended up buying 3 large pieces at $300. They are incredibly beautiful and something I will cherish the rest of my life. As with all things, there are no upfront prices here either. When we did start to bargain on price we were told things like “I’ll give you a good price, I’ll take care of you, I’ll make you happy’. Or tour guide takes a break during this time since we are in a building watching a demo. It was not until the very end when he was packaging the artwork we had picked up that we started to bargain. I’m still not sure if we paid a fair price so its worth researching the factory beforehand or asking your guide what fair prices are before entering.
After the factory we headed back to the airport and was back in time for dinner. What a day! Be aware that driving through Giza you will see some things that will tug at your heartstrings. It is very dirty and you’ll see things like women and children rummaging through huge piles of trash. My boys were oblivious to what they saw but you may want to talk about this with older children before visiting.
There aren’t any direct flights from Hurghada so we had to drive to Luxor which takes 4 hours one way. We also booked this trip with Memphis tours and they picked us up at 5 am from our hotel, who packed us breakfast in a bag. Our guide, Mohammed, briefly went over the plans for the day and then everyone went back to sleep aside from me (since I’ve never been able to fall asleep anywhere but face down on a bed). The first portion of the trip is desert and mountain driving where we made one stop at a small shack-like store with proper toilets and coffee.
The second half of the road trip is through farmlands which was the most fascinating part of the journey. Until that point we had mostly seen the resort town, city, and tourist spots. Now I got to see the real heart of Egypt. The poor, rural farming communities with small children that should be in school working sugar cane fields. Donkeys being used for labor. Every women dressed in black where only their eyes show. Men sitting on street corners casually holding guns like it was a cup of coffee . I just sat in the back of the van and took it all in. At least until Carter woke up panicking and decided he needed to poop right then and there in the middle of the village on the side of the street. If ever a moment I was afraid on this trip it was that one. Simply because we were not in a tourist spot and I was terrified the people (who are clearly very modest) were looking at us like it was an indecent or disrespectful act. None of the onlookers said anything though and the driver and guide simply chuckled as Carter went about his business; me repeating “Im so soooo sorry” as they laughed “we are all men here!’
The first stop was the Karnak temples, an ancient compound of temples and buildings which is the second most visited historical site in Egypt. When you arrive there are toilets and shopping you can do before you enter. Please do not ride the horses here as you will be offered a carriage ride. Those poor horses look sick and malnourished. Just don’t. Also, don’t be surprised if children approach you to sell items like bookmarks as their fathers watch from afar. What they are asking for is literally pocket change. Kellan wanted to give one boy a sucker but the boy pulled back his lips to reveal why he couldn’t take it- his teeth were rotted.
Inside the temples our guide spoke with us in-depth on what each structure meant and in which time period it was built. Its simply breathtaking to be standing in the center of this place. The massive columns and the hieroglyphics. We walked around, talked history and let the boys run in the area where tourists were scarce. I have an appreciation for the passion these guides have for the history in Egypt. Even though he has been doing this same tour for 4 days a week going on 15 years; it still felt like he was invested in the stories he told. Proud of the nation’s history.
Our next stop was to the souks in the city for some shopping. We quickly realized that Mohammed was not like our guide in Cairo. He was going to let us become fully immersed in the culture by doing every bit of haggling on our own. At first I was a bit annoyed by this since Shahinaz really took charge of our shopping experience at the pyramids. Then I realized that this was going to be an adventure and experience we would remember. I can look back now and laugh but that trip to the souk was a major fail. We ended up in the second story of a dusty shop where there were carpets piled floor to ceiling. Literally. We expressed interest in the beautiful silk carpets and I naively thought that being in Egypt we could get those for cheap. After the owner charmed our entire family and avoided any questions regarding price for thirty minutes, I finally narrowed down my choices to 3 silk rugs. When we finally got hit with an offer of thousands of dollars for one small carpet we started panicking because we did not have that kind of money and were only willing to spend about $300. We went back and forth forever before realizing we just couldn’t afford this product and we wanted to leave. I felt bad for wasting this mans time. He ended up letting us walk and we had now wasted our entire allocated hour in that one shop and left with nothing! I really wish our guide had stepped in earlier but I honestly think he took us there thinking we would be willing to pay those prices.
For lunch we were taken to a nice hotel overlooking the Nile river. Lunch was included in our tour cost. We were served pizza, soup, and a dish of fish and veggies. Mohammed also ate there but sat at a different table- probably to get away from the hundreds of questions my 4-year-old was asking. Kellan really gets into the history of these places, I tell ya. He had more questions than Ben and I combined. 99% of them being about King Tut.
After lunch it takes 30 minutes to drive over to the west bank where the Valley of the Kings is. This was the highlight of our trip. No words can describe the feeling of being here. The overwhelming history and ancient culture. For those that don’t know, Egyptians cut out tombs into the mountains to place their pharaohs for the afterlife. I can’t even really begin to go into detail all the information about this place but just trust me- its a must see. For 500 years they used this site for their royalty. There are about 64 tombs which would require a long time to view. Being we were on a day tour with limited time our guide took us to some of the more famous pharaohs. It would really need a full day to take everything in. Mohammed didn’t go inside the tombs with us. He would give us the history of the pharaoh and then wait outside while we looked around. Each tomb has a 1-2 people inside to answer any questions. They are also there to check you have purchased a photography ticket which is not included in the price of entrance. It is fascinating how much work and detail go into these tombs. You will want to buy the photo pass.
Everyone has heard of King Tutankhamun. What is surprising about him is that he wasnt even that famous when he was alive as he died as a teen. In fact, his tomb was the smallest we entered. What makes him famous is the discovery of his tomb in 1922. It is the most intact tomb ever to be found and his mummy the best preserved. His mummy lays under glass inside the tomb but pictures are not allowed. His artifacts were then the most displayed in museums helping make him the most well-known and recognizable throughout the world. Even Kellan knew who he was and declares this his favorite moment.
Our next stop was to see the temple of Hatshepsut, a Queen who had a lot of family drama in her day. Our boys were in need of a break at this point so we elected to take pictures from afar and not walk the temple itself.
The last temples we saw in Luxor were of Amenhotep. This was a quick 5 minute stop to take pictures. An ancient earthquake damaged these statues so they have been restored. They had broken into 200 large chunks and eroded by water so they’ve literally been glued back together.
The last adventure of the day came at the alabaster factory which was similar to that of the papyrus excursion. Our guide took a break and we watched a demonstration as to how they make things using alabaster before being ushered into the shop to purchase. We chose a large pyramid for the house and two small ones for the boys. At this point we had become knowledgable on how to haggle prices on our own and instantly cut their quote by 70%, which they accepted. I enjoy buying products that are materials from the region and were made by hand in country. Alabaster has been used in Egypt since ancient times for all sorts of uses.
Our trip back to the hotel was 4.5 hours long because we were coming from the west bank of the Nile. It was a long day but surprisingly smooth and it was nice being able to sit back and relax in the van when we normally are the ones having to drive and navigate on our trips.
I want to touch back on the safety of our trip. We felt safe at all times with our guides and I would take my children back tomorrow if we could. My 4-year-old said it was his favorite trip ever and asks me daily when we can go back. Other cultures just simply aren’t used to the way Egypt desperately seeks tourism dollars. Sure, we had uncomfortable moments in regards to purchasing things but we never felt in fear of our safety. You really just need to be informed as to what to expect which is why I discussed that aspect so much.
To end this blog I will tell the story of us leaving. We arrived to the airport and my husband realized he had left our artwork on the bed of the hotel. There was no way I was leaving that behind so we decided to check into our flight and have Ben go back to the hotel while we waited inside. In egypt there are two security lines. The first security line is when you enter the airport and the second is when you leave the checkout counters to enter the terminal. When Ben tried to exit the airport again the airport police commander would not allow him to leave. He hailed Ben a taxi and instructed the driver as to which hotel to pick up the art from. He then took Ben to a holding room where he asked Ben to sit, talk, and smoke a cigar with him.
When the taxi driver arrived with our goods, Ben tried to give him 200 Egyptian pounds. This is about $11. One would think $11 is not too much to reward someone for driving on good faith alone to your hotel and bringing back expensive artwork. However, it made the police commander very angry that the driver accepted the money because (as he explained to Ben) that was A LOT of money in their country and he does not want his people taking advantage of Americans since they want Americans to come back to Egypt. He said ” this will make us look bad”.
Ben was a bit confused since it wasnt as if the driver demanded that fare. Ben offered it. Alas, the commander got into an argument with the driver and forced him to return half of the payment! He then explained to Ben what we should have been tipping all along was a fraction of what we had been. It kind of puts you between a rock and a hard place because a couple of dollars to us means so much more to them. In America we are used to tipping well for good service. We had good service…. so we tipped well! But to the commander that just reestablished the stereotype that Americans are the ones that should be scammed or hounded the most because we are the tipping culture. Food for thought.
I hope reading this insanely long post gave you insight as to whether making a trip to Egypt is right for you. I personally think everyone should visit once in their lifetime. We grow as people each time we enrich our lives with others cultures. It truly was the experience of a lifetime.