A Look at Independent Travel to Egypt
by Jimmy Dunn
We have previously written about independent travel verses packaged tours to Egypt, but here we would like to concentrate a bit more on independent, or what is sometimes called self-catering, travel to Egypt.Most of the people who visit Egypt are almost certainly doing so on some sort of arranged plan. For the classical tourists, that is, those who come to Egypt to visit the ancient sites, this generally takes the form of an arranged tour. Most arranged tours are groups of people who are taken care of by a tour operator from the moment they land until the moment they leave Egypt. In fact, if the tour is arranged by a company outside of Egypt, they may be under the control of a tour manager upon departure from their home airport. Such tours will often provide for some independent time, but overall they are tightly scripted.
Others will find their way to Egypt through a chartered flight into one of the beach resorts, notably Sharm el-Sheikh or Hurghada, or to Luxor, which is a very traditional winter playground for Europeans. These are usually package deals from Europe. Once at the beach resort (or in Luxor), these tourists are usually on their own to do as they please, though the tour company may sometimes arrange various activities for them while on vacation.
Packaged tours and vacations to Egypt have their place. Certainly a packaged vacation to a beach resort on a direct, chartered flight is one of the least expensive means of visiting an Egyptian beach resort. These packages are often all inclusive, including the flight, hotel and even food and liquor while at the resort, and there is not much of a better way to visit one, given cost effectiveness. And frankly, a packaged classical tour is certainly one of the best, least expensive ways to visit as many antiquities sites as possible over a specific period of time. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that if your vacation to Egypt will involve travel throughout the country to various antiquity sites, a packaged tour might usually be best, while a more stationary visit to any single destination might lend itself well to independent travel.
We cannot point to any great advantage of independent travel to the beach resorts provided that a charter vacation is available. Certainly people do travel independently to places such as
Sharm and Hurghada and Luxor, but the vacation packages offered by European travel companies are so affordable that they are hard to beat. However, one can also get a very reasonably priced airline ticket from Europe on a charter flight without a package deal. In many cases, a packaged tour is also more cost effective than independently touring the country of Egypt. Not only do the tour operators receive deep discounts on hotels and other facilities, making their offers frequently much less expensive than what one can arrange independently, but there is also the time issue. When taking a packaged tour, everything is set up and coordinated so they can visit many antiquity sites in a prescribed period of time. On the other hand, an independent traveler usually makes such arrangements after entering the country, which takes up time that could otherwise be used for touring.
All of that said, there are some great reasons for independent travel to Egypt, and under some circumstances, independent travel can even be less expensive than packaged tours. Obviously, independent travel allows one to tour at their own pace and to make some snap decisions about what to visit. If one is too tired, or perhaps gets sick, independent tours can be rearranged, where packaged tours usually cannot. Independent travel is even more desirable where one will not be touring throughout the country, but remaining rather fixed in a specific location. Usually, this sort of vacation may involve either very casual visits to some antiquity sites mixed in with considerable leisure time, or it may include very intense visits to antiquity sites in a specific place, such as Luxor.
How well independent travel works out depends on a number of factors. For example, independent travel is probably more suitable for Europeans than Americans, because it is much more expensive for an American to visit Egypt than for most Europeans. Hence, while Egypt may be a once in a lifetime trip for an American, many Europeans may visit Egypt many times. Therefore, an American may wish to jam as many antiquity sites into a specific period of time as possible, while Europeans may return any number of times However, irregardless of their origin, tourists who wish to visit Egypt independently must be aware of various aspects of Egyptian tourism. They must also have a certain mentality, or a few friends in Egypt. Unless one is a seasoned traveler, one should not simply jump on an airplane and head to Egypt for the first time as an independent traveler. Otherwise, one is likely to end up at the hotel of a taxi driver's uncle, with the taxi driver as tour guide. Specifically, one will be inundated with all sorts of tour and accommodation offers that will probably not work out for the good. Also, everyone will want a tip, even when no services have been rendered, and everyone will want you to visit their brother's jewelry/perfume bottle/carpet factory, and they will be very insistent on this.
Of course, this sort of thing happens to those on packaged tours as well, at least to a certain degree. Everyone visiting Egypt will typically be asked for more tips than they wish to give, and frequently a taxi ride will result in tour and other offers, but nowhere near the extent of those traveling independently. The internet is a great friend to independent travelers to most any destination. It allows one to make arrangements and to make friends that would have been impossible only a few years ago. So the first trick to traveling to Egypt independently is to take full advantage of this medium. Do not go unprepared, because almost all the complaints reported to us usually involve independent travelers who have descended on Egypt with almost a complete lack of preparation and information.
With this in mind, we present a short checklist for independent travelers:
Get a friend or two. This is a very easy thing to do today with the internet, though be careful and be aware. Get on a message system such as ours on Tour Egypt and get to know the people. Avoid starting out asking specific travel questions. Just get to know the people. This may take a little time, but will be well worth the effort. Keep an eye on all the messages, not just those you have posted. There may naturally be tour guides and travel operators that frequent the various message systems devoted to Egypt, but this way you will find out who you really want to meet, and who is simply trying to drum up business.
Make plans for accommodations prior to leaving, but put some real effort into checking them out. Use the friends you have made on the message centers to ask about hotels, and then dig a little deeper. Check the internet search engines for reviews. We have hotel reviews on Tour Egypt, but another good source is Trip Advisor, where readers have reviewed a number of Egyptian hotels. Don't step into an arrangement just because it is cheap, or you may wind up with more than you bargained for, literally. Some of the less reputable hotels will have an excellent room rate, but then will go about making up the cheap room rate with expensive phone and other services.
Become informed enough to know what you wish to do while in Egypt, and make as many of these arrangements as possible prior to arrival. Most independent travelers will still, in many cases, need the services of a tour guide, or the convenience of a day tour for at least transportation. Certainly many sites can be visited by taxi, which is not all that expensive to do, but take in consideration the return trip to the hotel. At some sites, taxis may not be readily available for the return trip. Other sites will simply be too far or remote to be visited by taxi. A number of the companies in our AETBI organization provide day tours which could be arranged piecemeal. In particular, Misr Travel, the government travel agency of Egypt, has many day tours. Admittedly, if one has made a good selection for accommodations, these facilities will also offer frequently good, inexpensive day tours as well.
Have a stiff upper lip, as the English would say. People who travel to Egypt with little investigation beforehand are frequently overwhelmed by those wanting tips, selling various products or arranging tours. Knowing this beforehand and being able to deal with it can make all the difference in an Egyptian vacation. Learn to say "no" (in Egypt, "la") in no uncertain terms. Particularly in the bazaars, the vendors can be very persistent, so simply learn to say no and walk away. A common trick will be for a vendor to infer that you are being impolite in not engaging him, but this is an invitation to bargain and if you are not interested, then don't reply. It is true that many of these people are simply trying to earn a living, but you are on vacation. It is not unusual for a vendor to give you a trinket, a taxi driver to offer up some needed information, or a tour guide to ingratiate him or herself to a tourist, but this does not mean that you have an obligation to them. Also, keep in mind that one should tip, but not too much and not for services that have not been rendered.
In the final analysis, independent travel to Egypt can be fun and rewarding, but frankly, not if one goes unprepared. Jane Akshar, who helps operate a number of Flats in Luxor thinks independent travel is easy, and it is for her customers, but one must know enough to be one of her customers first. Its all about finding out who to trust and what to expect in the end, and that is work best done before ever arriving in Egypt.