Selecting and Working With Egyptian Tour Operators
by Jimmy Dunn
This primer is really intended for those who have not visited Egypt, or who have a very limited experience in visiting Egypt, such as a day trip from a cruise boat or a layover in transit somewhere else. Specifically, it is meant to help in both the selection of a tour operator to Egypt, and to make sure as few miscommunications and misunderstandings as possible occur.
For most inexperienced Egyptian travelers, we highly recommend a guided tour, which is often less expensive and a more efficient use of time than trying to visit the country independently, often even for those with some experience traveling to Egypt. The only real exception to this might be for those who have really done their homework, studying the forums, reading about various types of tours and visiting forums where they may get to know more experienced travelers and even meet people who live in Egypt.
At any rate, we have a lot of information on Tour Egypt about various types of tours, and what needs to be known before planning a trip to Egypt. I might say that one need not put any thought at all into a guided tour of Egypt. Just throw lots of money at it and there will be nothing else to be concerned about, but even that is not entirely true. In the planning stage of a trip to Egypt, prior to making that deposit that most tour operators will require, one must consider a number of factors. Those who wish to maximize their experience at a reasonable price will need to do a little more homework. One should at least realize that Egypt has much more than a few pyramids. Indeed, the country has an overwhelming number of monuments spanning more than 5,000 years and many cultures and religions. One should familiarize oneself with what can be seen in order to analyze the thousands of tour itineraries available.
Also, for example, all the money in the world cannot make up for an inappropriate itinerary. One must place much more thought into an itinerary than just the sites one wishes to visit in Egypt. Will the tourist be traveling to Egypt from the US, Australia, Germany or Japan, and how well does he or she sleep and rest on an airline? Is the tourist young or old, fit or not, energetic or sedimentary? All of these factors should be taken into account when planning an itinerary for a tour of Egypt. For example, if one is coming from an origin relatively close to Egypt on a short flight, than certainly he or she may wish to begin a tour right away after arriving in the country. On the other hand, if one is coming from a great distance, is a somewhat older person and has trouble resting on flights, then he or she should really consider having a day or even two to catch their breath and get over the jet lag before starting out on a tour. At 55 years old, and with a few health problems, it normally takes me a considerable part of the day to get from Texas to New York, where I will connect with my final non-stop flight to Cairo. In my younger days, I would move directly on to the Cairo flight, but these days I've learned that I do much better to layover in New York. Even then, after arriving in Cairo after an eleven hour flight, I might be able to push myself, but in practical terms, I usually need a day to rest before starting to work. My point here is clearly that one must take into account not only the distance but the actual travel time that it will take them to get to Egypt, as well as their physical condition and their capacity to rest while in flight when considering how soon to begin a tour.
However, one must also consider one's physical condition and energy level when analyzing the intensity of the tour itinerary. Many times, tourists will be tempted to look at the various tours that are offered by different tour operators and make a comparison based on how many sites are packed into their itineraries. Once on the tour, the tourist can then be overwhelmed by the itinerary. If the tourist is not in ideal health, he or she should probably consider a bit more relaxed itinerary, with a little time allowed for rest along the way. Much of the time, a tourist might even skip a part of the itinerary if needed for rest, but this is not always practical in situations where the tour group has checked out of one hotel and is on tour prior to reaching another.
In our many years of experience in dealing with both tour operators and tourists, we have found that most complaints about tour operators and tours in general can be classified within a very limited number of categories. In fact, almost all of them result from miscommunications or misunderstandings of one kind or another. The vast majority of Egyptian tour operators are reputable and honest almost to a surprising degree, so when things go wrong, blame cannot easily be placed. Nevertheless, the reason that we created the AETBI was so that we could focus on specific tour operators, because there are many thousands of companies that offer tours to Egypt and it is impossible to gauge the reliability of them all.
Those who arrange tours to Egypt come in a variety of flavors. The basic ones these days are the local Egyptian tour operators who offer a variety of pharaonic and other group tours. They may, in general, also offer private guided tours. These business are, or should be, licensed by the Egyptian government, and tourists should ask about this as it is one of the most basic guarantees. The government license offers the tourist recourse should some problem arise. The Egyptian government takes tourism vary seriously and the government will work on behalf of the tourists if something were to go wrong. For example, it is typical for Egyptian tour operators to ask for a cash deposit of as much as 25 to 50 percent of the tour cost, but we have never seen one instance in which a tour operator failed to supply the overall tour after receiving the deposit. This is because they would be severely punished by the Egyptian government in such an event. One should also note that most of these purely Egyptian companies cannot supply international airfare at this time.
However, dealing with a local Egyptian tour operator is probably the least expensive means of buying a tour of Egypt in many cases, because anyone who arranges tours to Egypt must almost certainly rely on them for ground services once inside Egypt. Some of the larger Egyptian tour operators will also have offices in some foreign countries, which can also supply international airfare, but many other companies who arrange tours to Egypt must, in the end, contract with a local tour operator for the actual tour. For example, museums, schools and generalized tour specialists that offer tours to many different countries still must use a local tour operator in Egypt for the ground part of the Egyptian tour, though some very large international companies have now purchased their own local Egyptian tour operations (usually through partnership with local Egyptians). This is all because Egypt requires a tour to be operated by an Egyptian licensed tour operator using Egyptian licensed guides. No one is legally able to guide a tour, irregardless of how much experience with Egypt he or she might have, unless they are a licensed guide. Even an internationally recognized Egyptologist cannot legally guide a tour without a license issued by the Egyptian government.
Even though local Egyptian tour operators may offer some of the best prices directly to foreign tourists, there are reasons why one might wish to deal with a company that arranges tours in their home country. Sometimes, for example, they can arrange a package including airfare, because they receive discounted rates on airfare which are passed on to the client, that make the package as a whole rival the price of local Egyptian tour operators. Indeed, this is especially true of European charter operators. It is also easier to have legal recourse against a company located in one's home country. These companies may also be able to supply services that are not available to local Egyptian tour operators, such as travel insurance, and their payment terms and guarantees are likely to be more favorable.
In the end, however, we see very few complaints regarding any companies offering tours to Egypt, whether they be local Egyptian tour operators or foreign companies that arrange tours. What can and does go wrong though? Examining complaints over the past ten years provides some very specific glues.
Perhaps the number one complaint is due to accommodations, which cannot always be blamed on the tour operator. We applaud the government of Egypt's recent introduction of a new hotel ranking system that will bring Egyptian hotel ratings in alignment with those of Europe. Newly built hotels will be classified by a five star system followed by the letter "N", indicating that they fall under the new, international hotel rating system. Nevertheless, older hotels may retain their old, Egyptian variety star rating, though they may opt to be re-rated under the new system. Regrettably, this old system has been responsible for many misunderstandings and more than a few complaints.
The problem is that the old hotel ranking system, which also affects Nile Cruise ships, mostly took into account a hotel's resources, without regard to the quality of those resources, While the new system addresses these issues, in fact using third party, foreign evaluators, in the old system, a five star hotel could be rather drab and uninviting, with poor service, so long as it had all the physical resources needed to be a five star hotel. Some four and three star hotels could be downright depressing. This is not to say that such is the case with all hotels. Indeed, many hotels in Egypt in each of these ratings could also be outstanding in every respect. But clearly the old star rating was not a good indicator of the hotel's true quality.
Hence, even though the most reputable tour operators might plead for a tourist to choose a different hotel, sometimes tourists might, for budgetary reasons, demand a particular three star hotel, or more likely any three star hotel in a city that simply had no good three star hotels. The tourist would think that a three star hotel in Egypt would meet certain quality standards as they do elsewhere in the world. Admittedly, other tour operators could, and still can offer, very legally, what might appear to be good accommodations in four or five star hotels but are not.
For the tourist seeking a good tour package, this is no easy matter to sort out, but a few rules of thumb might help out. First, many tour operators state in their packages that hotels will be five star, but do not specify the actual hotels. Others provide several selections without saying exactly which one, and may also add the language, "or equivalent". My advise is not to accept this. Nail them down to specific hotels and then check out each one, even if the hotel is a member of an international chain. Some of the very acceptable five star hotels in Cairo, for example, include the Cairo Marriott (and the other Marriotts), all of the Four Seasons, Grand Hyatts, the Meridiens and the Intercontinentals. The Sheratons are also mostly very good, though the Sheraton Gezirah is a bit isolated from shopping areas and I believe that the Conrad International hotels are very nice, as are most of the Sonestas. Of course in the three star category, we have always loved the Hotel Longchamps, which defies its current three star rating. One may also visit our hotel review page for a few other suggestions, but admittedly one of the best sources to find out about Egyptian hotels is Tripadvisor, where hotels are reviewed by those who have visited them. One may also visit, for example, our forum system, and seek the advise of locals and experienced Egypt travelers who might know about a hotel. In any event, if one cannot find some solid reviews of a hotel offered by a tour operator, decline the offer. Unfortunately, information on cruise boats is hard to come by. We at Tour Egypt will attempt to rectify that situation in the near future.
Another area of concern can be transport. Certainly make sure that the tour operator will use busses or vehicles with air conditioning. Busses with restrooms are a very nice bonus, since such facilities are not always available throughout Egypt, but even the very best tour operators in Egypt will not offer such busses for smaller tours.
Otherwise, most complaints about tour operators involve late transfers (where a vehicle is late picking up guests), tour guides arriving late, or perhaps not speaking a language as well as they should, and missed itinerary stops. These are usually minor problems that can sometimes happen with almost any tour operator, though some are certainly better than others. Frankly, the more premium tours will usually work just a bit harder to make sure such mishaps do not occur, so this can be one of those situation where money talks. However, missed itinerary stops are more often than not the result of the tourists demanding more time at one location and therefore not having time for another stop in the itinerary. To help eliminate small irritations such as this, one should carry contact information for the head office of the tour operator and the individual who arranged the tour. If problems arise, call them first, and in the most drastic of situations, keep in mind that a special branch of the police, called the Tourist Police, are their to be of specific assistance to tourists.
Most tours will make shopping stops, and many tourists want to do so. Almost every tour includes a visit to the famous Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo. However, lets make no secret of the fact that, though it may seem a bit underhanded, almost all tour guides receive commissions from the store owners when tourists make purchases at these shops, and this is such a common practice that it is an accepted part of Egyptian tourism. In fact, some tour guides will actually pay the tour operator for a tour, particularly when Americans are the tourists, because the commissions can be so lucrative. What is important when arranging a tour with a tour operator is that the shopping not be over done. Certainly people want to take home a few souvenirs, but the tour should not stop at every carpet factory, perfume factory and alabaster work shop along the way. Though a few stops might be fine, make sure that the tour operator knows that you will not be happy with excessive stops for shopping.
Another somewhat deceiving practice, though completely ordinary and expected, is tipping. Typically, a group tour of any size will include at least three people, consisting of a tour leader, a tour guide and a driver. The tour guide and the driver will expect a tip at the end of their service, and the tour leader will inform you of such. This may happen a number of times during the tour, because the driver may change and the tour guides may be specialized to a specific area. Also, cruise boats expect a tip that will cover their personnel. Keep this in mind, as it may result in a material increase in the cost of the tour. A few, though very few tours are offered where the tips are arranged in price of the tour. If so, the tour will state such, and when making price comparisons, this should be taken into account. Initially, prior to confirming a tour, go ahead and ask the tour operator representative what will be expected in the way of tips to these people, and then follow this advise, even though someone asks for more later on.
Finally, get it in writing (or at least in email or by fax). Make sure that the tour operators spells out what will be provided, including hotels, transport and itinerary items. Many tourists will develop a very trustful feeling for the person they are dealing with to arrange a tour, and indeed the tour operator representative may be very trustworthy. Nevertheless, if something seems unclear or their is something that the prospective tourists does not understand about the tour, don't leave it to trust, because their can be simple miscommunications. Clear up the matter to the point where their is no doubt, and get it in writing. None of this is to say that arranging a tour to Egypt must be a huge hassle, but for many, visiting Egypt is a trip of a lifetime, and getting it right is worthwhile.
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