Egypt is an incredible country with countless sites and the world's longest running history. Even if you only have a few days to explore, you should be able to enjoy your time and pack quite a bit in. Here are my tips to making the most of your time in Egypt!
Get a tour guide
We had a tour guide with us throughout the entire trip. The company we used, Emo Tours, really tried hard to make us happy. Admittedly, there were a few mishaps and the guides didn't always provide us with accurate information or plan things the best, but every time the company was there to help smooth out the wrinkles. Despite the (very minor) issues, our guides were super helpful in arranging tickets, travel between cities, hotel rooms, and restaurant recommendations. But the most important reason to get a guide in Egypt is for the hieroglyphics. I don't know about you, but I don't speak ancient Egyptian. Our guides were always so great at deciphering the carvings and inscriptions, explaining the statues and temple layouts, and just generally helping us focus on what was significant about each site that we visited.
Don't forget your guidebook
In my experience, even the most well-meaning tour guide gets the occasional fact wrong. But guidebooks are checked over and over again and you can usually rely on them to have their facts straight. Plus, they're loaded with extra information and tips. And Egypt is place where there is so much information to know, you really don't want to miss a thing. We like to read the guidebook the night before we hit the sites so we don't confuse any of the information or forget it.
Learn (some of) the language
I don't care where you are traveling - everyone should learn some of the language basics of the country they're in. First up - "thank you". "Please", "excuse me", and "where is the bathroom" are a couple of others that always come in handy. Arabic is not easy to pick up and is gender-specific, so I recommend studying up a bit before you go.
Check your souvenirs
Finding a souvenir in Egypt could not be easier. Small shops and bazaar are literally outside almost every site we visited. But finding a quality souvenir may be a little harder. You don't want to go all the way to Egypt to get a souvenir made in China. But there are plenty of shops that sell true Egyptian cotton, gold, silver, genuine stone, and real papyrus artwork. Also, you can negotiate the prices most places in Egypt so make sure you're ready to haggle a bit.
Carve out some downtime
Our trip to Egypt was just that - a trip. It was not a vacation. Every day had a strict itinerary and a list of sites to see and things to do. This is fine for a few days, but we had 9 days in Egypt. It was crucial that we found some time every few days to relax and explore on our own.
Other things to know before you go
Tourism is really down in Egypt right now, but the sites are as wonderful as ever. Some places (Luxor especially) have been hit hard and you need to be on the watch for pickpockets and scams. We had some time one afternoon in Luxor and decided to walk down the corniche to a restaurant overlooking Luxor Temple. Unfortunately, as we walked out of the hotel the drivers of the horse drawn carriages began clamoring for us. When we declined, they then asked where we were going and sent us off in the wrong direction. We walked 20 minutes to a dead end, and were accompanied the entire way by carriage and taxi drivers. They would hand us off to one another, and worked together to keep us going the wrong way. After more wrong directions and another 30 minutes, we finally gave up and got in a taxi, only to be taken the exact opposite way that everyone had told us. We normally love to walk and explore a city, but they really made it impossible for us. My recommendation is to verify any directions with your tour guide or the front desk of your hotel.
Egypt is also infamously hot. We went in December, and it was still 70 with the hot desert sun bearing down on us. Make sure you have enough water (always bottled!), sunscreen, and lightweight clothing to endure a full day outside exploring the sites. And don't forget your sunglasses.
Everywhere you go in Egypt, you'll see the Muslim influence. With 80% of the population practicing the faith, most women wear headdresses and dress modestly. Both our guidebook and our tour guides suggested that we dress modestly in our travels. While we would not have been barred from entering anyplace (unless we wanted to visit a mosque), it is still a good idea to respect the culture of the country you're visiting. You can find more information about what women should wear here.
If Layne was not around, a lot of people would mistake me for being Egyptian. At least once a day I would shock someone by speaking English with my American accent, and they would laugh and exclaim that they had been trying to talk with me in Arabic. They all said I had an Egyptian face. And I guess I did sort of look like everyone else - dark hair, tan skin, big brown eyes. But at the tourist sites, nothing prepared us for the children. Our first day, we were standing on the pyramid and some girls came up to me with their camera and made the universal gesture for "will you take a picture of us?" I immediately agreed, but as I tried to take their camera they handed it off to a friend and came over to stand by my side with a smile on their face. I had no idea what was happening, but smiled gamely. This scene then repeated itself over and over again for the entire trip. Apparently, it is common in Egypt to take photos with tourists. The way our guide explained it, it's a way of showing their friends "look, I was really there. I saw a tourist." There were times I was swarmed by schoolchildren, all trying to take selfies with me. Layne and the tour guide would lose me, and I'd run to catch up after disengaging myself from the mass of arms and cell phones. Mostly young boys would ask Layne and girls would ask me, but Layne tended to say no. I didn't really agree with treating tourists like novelties and emphasizing our differences (it felt really dehumanizing, like I was a statue or a pyramid rather than a person), but then again it made the kids so happy that I almost always said yes unless I was about to lose Layne and our guide in the crowd.
I know that given the chance, you will love your visit to Egypt. The beauty has endured through the ages, and seeing some of these sites will stop you in your tracks. It is an incredible place to experience, for both its ancient and modern cultures.
And don't forget to check out my individual city guides to better plan your visit:
Alexandria - Embrace the Mediterranean
Cairo - Pay a bit extra to go inside the pyramids
Luxor - Don't miss the sunrise hot air balloon ride
Aswan - You must take a sunset feluca ride on the Nile