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A Classical Egyptian Tour Primer, Part I: Background


Classical Egyptian Tours

 

The Nile River in Cairo

 


To a large extent, Egyptian tours are not so very complicated, but it can seem that way because of the seemingly thousands of companies offering them. With regards to Egypt, classical tours are basically antiquities tours that visit various site in Egypt that have often been popular with tourists since classical times. Typical, classical tours almost all hit the same major spots, with with minor tourist attractions making up their largest variations. Originating in Cairo due to the international airport there, one usually spends a few days either at the beginning, at the end or split between the beginning and end exploring Cairo's heritage. From Cairo they go south, usually to Luxor or Aswan, but one way or the other visiting both cities. Sometimes they include a Nile Cruise in this arrangement. They will frequently visit a few of the other temples above Luxor, between Luxor and Aswan, and just below Aswan. Add-ons might also extend the tour further south to Abu Simbel, or east for a short beach vacation at Hurghada, or across the Gulf of Suez to Sharm el-Sheikh, and perhaps some sightseeing at St. Catherine's Monastery and Mount Sinai. Recently, many classical tours are also purchased with an Alexandria add-ons. More exotic add-ons may carry tourists into the Western Desert, or the Eastern Desert, but all in all, the basic classical tour is not all that complicated. Yet, when looking from tour operator to tour operator, there often seems to be a whole maze of confusing options for many people.

 

 

The Nile River in Cairo

 

Lets take a look at what some of this really involves.

 

Full classical tours usually last from between four and fifteen days. One can, of course, find shorter tours, and longer tours. Shorter tours are common, but are generally very limited in scope. They may only visit the environs of Cairo, for example, and so they are not really full classical tours. They are, however, useful, mostly to people passing through Egypt on their way to someplace else, there on business or at a conference, or for people with limited time visiting from ocean cruise ships. Tours longer than fifteen days are less common, as people simply do not have that much time. They must also either wish to have a very comprehensive tour of Egypt, or a special interest in some aspects of ancient Egypt to justify a longer tour.

 

On these tours, one usually has one or more tour leaders. Some tours will travel throughout Egypt under the same leader, and frankly it is wise to choose such a tour. Others may shift the tour leader responsibilities off between various regions. For example, there might be one tour leader in Cairo, another in Luxor and/or Aswan, and a third if, for example, on a Sinai addition. Economically, this makes some since, as the tour company is not having to pay for the guides' travel, which would frequently be by air, and he may go home at night to his own home, rather than having to stay in a hotel with the group. Also, a tour leader who specializes in a specific region may be able to better deal with local hotels, restaurants, tourist authorities, etc.

 

On the other hand, not having one person on site and responsible for the tour throughout its stay in Egypt has at times caused some problems, though not all that frequently. The biggest complaint comes when a tour leader drops the ball, for example, being late to pick up the tourists at an airport as the group moves from one area of Egypt to another. This is, however, rare. It is perhaps more common, in fact, for larger tour operators to use multiple tour leaders. Smaller tour companies may in fact be led by the owner of the company, and this is particularly true for some foreign arranged tours, where the company selling the tour arranges for land services from a local Egyptian agency, but the tour is led by the company selling the tour from an outside country. It should also be noted that, in some instances, there may not be a visible tour leader at all. Sometimes, the guide will also be the on-sight tour leader, while behind the scene in the tour operator's offices, others monitor and control the tour. In fact, most of the time there will be employees of the tour company in the background monitoring and managing the tour.

 

All of this can seem, and is somewhat complicated, and even more so due to the guides. For smaller companies, the tour guide may in fact also be the owner, as well as the tour leader. Even in the larger companies, the guide may act as both, with others managing the tour from the company's home office. However, unless the company is very small, there will almost surely be more than one guide during a classical tour, though the guide will almost certainly be Egyptian. If the tour has been arranged from a foreign country, the leader may by foreign, but they must use local, licensed guides. And guides are frequently specialized, meaning that they are not really equipped to provide tours to every location in Egypt. There is one not so obvious reason for this.

 

Smaller tour companies, or even larger tour companies who arrange more fluid tours could have a single guide. But for large tours, there is a time table. Its not just that a guide must know most of the information about a single site, he or she must also be practiced in conducting the tour of a site in a very specific period of time. There is little margin of error. The guide will have practiced the speech to be given in every section of a specific site, and will have little time to deviate. They will have specific stopping points at each site, and a specific time at each.

 

In many respects, this is a good thing. One tourist complaint that we see is when sites on an itinerary are, for some reason, skipped, and if the guide cannot keep to a good schedule, this may very well mean missing the next stop on the tour. In a small, custom tour, where the traveler is somewhat more intimate with the guide, this may be no problem if the tourist wants to linger at a specific place, while informed that it may mean less time at the next, but in larger tours, that may have fifty or more people, such arrangements simply cannot be made.

 

Much of the time, the tour leader will be an employee of either the company selling the tour, or the Egyptian ground tour operator, though this is not always the case. Some may be independent contractors, but this is much more rarer than it is for guides. Many guides do not specifically work for the tour operator. For very small tour operators in Egypt, the owner may be the guide, or a family member who is licensed to be a guide. For larger companies, they may employee a few guides, but most usually, at least some of the guides they use will be independent. These independent guides may be hired by request, particularly if they are very, very good as both guides and in working with the tourists. Other guides basically bid on tours, and at times, they may even pay the tour company to lead a tour! Why would this be? It is mostly because they expect to make big commissions at the stores where they lead their tourists during the tour, and sometimes because they may expect to receive large tips. There is a reason the tours stop at the Khan el-Khalili, at "carpet schools" on the way to the pyramids, and at alabaster shops in Luxor. Certainly many tourists rather enjoy visiting these places, but the reason the tours stop is for the guide to earn a little (or a large) commission from the store owners. This is a practice of just about all the tour guides in Egypt, and they expect such commissions as a normal part of their earnings.

 

A sleeping birth on an overnight train between Cairo and Luxor/Aswan

 

Tour transportation should also be an issue considered by most people. There are only four basic forms of transportation, by land, either in tour busses or by train, by water, meaning specifically Nile Cruises, or by air. Of course, some small custom tour could only employ a car, but this will not be the case in any sizable tour. Short tours will almost always use air for most long distance transportation between sites such as Cairo and Luxor/Aswan, Luxor/Aswan and Abu Simbel, or between the Nile Valley and Sharm el-Sheikh, for obvious reasons. It is the fastest way to get from point a to point b. A second option between Cairo and Luxor/Aswan exists, which is not unreasonable. By using the overnight train, one really misses very little, and the cost of the transportation is made up by the elimination of a night's hotel stay. These leave late in the evening and arrive early in the morning. I have to think that the night train can be more fun for a group than for an individual, though, as you will spend a rather uneventful evening on board without otherwise enjoyable company. Another fine option, though missing for some years now, may soon be reemployed. Nile Cruisers have for some time only been allowed to cruise from Aswan to a few of the antiquity sites north of Luxor, but have not been allowed to go or come directly from Cairo. We understand that this may soon change, however, giving another means of transportation between northern and southern Egypt. The only other way to travel from Lower to Upper Egypt and back for larger groups is by bus, which must be considered the least favorite way to go. First of all, the Nile Valley roads are crowded, and thus dangerous for driving, and it is also a fairly long trip While this may be one of the least expensive ways to make the trip, it is also the slowest and most uncomfortable.

 

 

A modern, Well Equipped Tour Bus

 

But we must take a little closer look at busses anyway. One way or another, tour groups will travel at least locally, if not for longer distances, aboard busses. They are used for local transportation between sites, as well as often between regions such as Luxor and Hurghada, Luxor and Aswan, Aswan to Abu Simbel, and throughout the Sinai. In fact, there is really no other way to travel about the Sinai, or practical ways to reach other areas such as some of the Western Oasis, etc. For these we must consider the tour bus itself. First and foremost, make sure that the tour busses that will be used are well air conditioned! Not just one of them, but all of them. Be sure to ask about the age of the tour bus as well, but the second most important factor might be a clean, onboard restroom, particularly if the buss is used for long distance travel. In many parts of Egypt along the roads, there is simply no good facilities, and an onboard restroom may be much more important than many people realize. The best of the tour busses may even have onboard video and other high tech features to make the trip even more enjoyable. As a side note, many of the tour operators rent or lease busses and other transportation from specialized companies.

 

One of the Movenpick Nile Cruise Boats, ture floating Hotels

 

 

Now while trains are trains, and airliners are airliners, both having few options, the other form of transportation, Nile Cruisers, may vary considerably. However, it might be best at this point to make an observation. Typically, we call these Nile Cruisers, but Egyptians have another name for them. They are often referred to as "Floating Hotels", and this is an apt name. Nile Cruisers really do very little cruising, except to dash fairly short distances from one dock to another. They spend most of their time in dock, while tours are conducted at various temples and other archaeological sites.

 

This allows for a fairly comfortable tour. As opposed to packing and unpacking between hotels and not having much of a chance to settle in, which is an annoyance on many tours, a Nile Cruise boat is more simply a means of taking the hotel along for the tour.

 

Almost any Nile Cruise boat of any size will have certain features and services. Normally, they will have, beyond guest cabins, at least one restaurant and a deck area. I've seen some pretty horrible looking contraptions floating down the Nile, but surely even those have these basic elements. Even on these ships, there is probably at least some form of entertainment that takes place on the deck or in the restaurant during the evening. But most of our readers with budgets beyond that of a backpacker are probably going to want much more. In fact, I doubt that the poorest of the Nile Cruisers are ever even offered to westerners. Typically, the more reasonable Nile Cruise boats will have a deck swimming pool, probably a hot tub, a bar that may be integrated into one of perhaps more than one restaurant, or even another area specifically set aside for entertainment. They will almost certainly have one or more onboard store, where one may purchase necessities or even a few souvenirs. They will usually also have televisions in the rooms with, for example, various video's available. These boats will almost certainly offer a little more sophisticated entertainment, dancing and other activities. Some of the best boats will also provide internet access, though it may be a bit expensive. These boats will have more extensive room video systems, from which one can often even watch the shore. By the way, the newer, better boats will also have an automatic fire suppression system, rather than a red bucket of water by each door.

 

The Swimming Pool on one of the Movenpick Nile Cruise Boats

 

What separates many of the best boats from the other five star boats is the level of service and the room size. Many nice boats even have very small cabins, not large enough to have even a table and sometimes not even an extra chair. But this is certainly not always the case. Some boats have very nice, roomy cabins, and when booking a Nile Cruise, one should ask about this, even though not much of one's time is expected to be spent in the cabin. Of course, appointments and appearance can also be important, but otherwise we must look at the service to distinguish some ships from others. Many Nile Cruisers will be all inclusive, some even including alcoholic beverages.

 

Fine Diningl on one of the Movenpick Nile Cruise Boats

 

As a last consideration, hotels can play an important part in any classical tour. We have already written about some of the peculiarities of the Egyptian hotels and their star rating system, which is worth reading, but there are two other aspects of hotels that need to be addressed. However, both aspects depend more on the tourist than the hotels, and both are somewhat related. One is the security of the hotel and the other is the location.

 

The Interior Grounds of the Sheraton Royal Gardens

 

For example, many of the Sheraton hotels in Egypt make it appear that their builders specifically sought out both tourist isolation and security. The Sheraton Gezirah is one fine example. Though it sits on Zamalek, a good location, it is in a district of the island that makes it difficult to access, and for that matter, walk away from. This makes it more secure, but at the same time, inconvenient if one wishes to browse about, for example, to shop. For many tourists who come to Egypt to see its heritage, but are not all that interested in local culture, this is probably a benefit. For others, and I am one, it is an inconvenience. This certainly does not make the Sheraton a bad hotel. All of them are in fact very comfortable and pleasant. Another of their hotels, the Sheraton Royal Gardens, appears to be almost a fortress in Cairo, though in reality if one wishes, it is easier to get away from and take a walk about. It's just not in a part of town I like that well. Nevertheless, I have to say that it had some of the most comfortable beds that I have ever slept in in Egypt, as well as being a very grand hotel. Even in Luxor, the Sheraton sits in a location that seems isolated from most of the rest of the city, though there it is easier to reach some of the shopping districts.

 

 

The Mina House, just by the Great Pyramids

 

Other hotels in Cairo will equally appeal or not appeal to various tourists. For example, many tourists who have never been to Egypt enjoy the Mena House, and other hotels within the view of the Great Pyramid, but at the same time, they are far removed from Cairo's downtown district and its many shops, restaurants and other sites.

 

Attention should also be paid to the location of hotels in Aswan and Luxor. I must admit that in Aswan, the Basma is certainly one of my favorites, but it is also a bit isolated, though not that bad. In general, hotels along the downtown sections of these cities adjacent to the Nile are most convenient, but not always the finest hotels (or the most secure).

 

So basically, travelers should consider two issues, how safe they need to feel and the location of the hotel. The two issues are not mutually exclusive, but not the same either. More isolated hotels do provide a safety factor, but at the same time, do not provide much else in the way of local culture. Considering that many travel organizations now consider Egypt one of the safest of all world destinations, being overly concerned for one's safety at the expense of shopping and enjoying the local flavor doesn't work for me, but then some people just can't get it safety out of their minds (actually until they are in Egypt and all the arrangements have already been made. Then they find out how safe they feel). All in all, I personally prefer the more open hotels on Zamalek, and those along the Nile in Downtown Cairo, including the Cairo Sheraton, but to each his own.

 

One final word about hotel and classical tours. One will almost certainly not be placed in any cozy small hotels, such as the Hotel Longchamps, one of my favorite located on Zamalek. The reason is that they are simply to small for tour operators to contract with for larger tours.

 

Now the reason for me writing this article, and its follow-up on specific sites on a classical tour, is really to allow our readers to ask the proper questions, so don't be shy when dealing with a tour company.

 

See Also Articles Relating Specifically to Classical Tours

 

Nile Cruises

 

Other Important Articles Related to Egyptian Tours

 

 

Other Basic Information

 

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