Before You Go
Planning a trip to another country, particularly one so exotic, can be frustrating, intimidating, or exciting, depending upon your preparation. The first few things you need to take care of are your Passport, your Visa, and your source of money while in-country. Before you go you might check the best hotel prices here.
Passports: If you don’t already have one, you should plan getting one at LEAST 6 months ahead of your planned departure date. Delays or problems can occur either with you or with the U.S. State Department and airlines, usually, will not issue a refund because of passport problems. In the United States, passports can be applied for via most U.S. Postal Offices. Visit http://www.usps.com/passport/ for more information – as a general rule, you should only bring checks, money orders, or cash to get your passport. If you have a passport, but haven’t used it in a while, you should see if it needs to be renewed. Usually, if you’ve gotten it within the past 15 years, and were over the age of 16 when you got it, you can renew fairly easily by mail. Either way, check out www.travel.state.gov for more information.
Visas are the permission you get from Egypt to enter their country. You can go about this two ways: first, you can apply for a visa before leaving the U.S. by contacting the appropriate regional consulate. Egypt has consulates in New York, Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco which handle the visas. Some tour companies will handle the visas for you, others will not so you should check before you go. The second way to obtain a visa is through the Travel Documents ministry at Cairo international Airport and other major points of entry. This will not save you any money, and may result in standing in several lines; one for the visa, and one (or more) to actually enter the country. If you are planning on studying, working, or living in Egypt for longer than a few weeks, then you should NOT depart without a visa before hand.
Money Bring some cash with you (U.S. Dollars or Euros) and some Egyptian Pounds, if your airport has exchange services for Egyptian Pounds, before you leave. Be sure that your bank’s ATM or credit card will work abroad – most will, but occasionally some will not – and leave most of your money at home. I urge this in lieu of traveler’s checks because the checks can be cumbersome, are prone to be stolen, and Cairo has lots of ATMs, with instructions in multiple languages including English, strewn throughout the city particularly downtown where most of the hotels are. The majority of banks will charge a nominal conversion fee and no ATM fees for using an out-of-network ATM, so leaving your money in the bank is the best option.
Having made your reservations and gotten your paperwork in order, before you leave for Egypt it is advisable to pack certain toiletries and other items before you depart. Feminine hygiene products are available, but are limited in selection and quantity and birth control is even more limited. I’d also suggest taking a small bottle of aspirin or ibuprofin along with toothpaste, mouthwash, band-aid bandages, and a good sunscreen. Though these products are also available in Egypt, the prices are relatively expensive and/or they are bothersome to get ahold of, particularly aspirin as only pharmacies sell them and locating a good pharmacy can be time-consuming. That being said, most hotels will stock some of these items – particularly Western-owned ones – but one never knows when a headache or scraped knee will occur and it is best to have at least something on hand. Batteries and AC adapters for your rechargeable devices are highly recommended as good batteries are hard to find and expensive to buy. Egyptian current is 220v like Europe’s, so be sure that your AC adapter will accept both 110v and 220v current – if not, a quick visit to Radio Shack will solve the problem as there are adapters and converters available. Sturdy, but comfortable walking shoes are in order as much of Cairo and its environs (especially the Pyramids) are best seen on foot. Clothing should be conservative, particularly for women, and a nice hat to protect you from the desert sun is a must. I would strongly caution against shorts (men and women), tank-tops, tube-tops, short skirts, low-riding jeans (men and women), and shirts with suggestive writing on them. All of these are considered inappropriate dress in your host country and may open you up to harassment, cat calls, or scorn – both from men and women – and may impact your enjoyment of the trip.
If you are staying for longer than a week or so, say to study or work, then finding a support network of foreigners such as yourself is a must. Cairo Scholars is a yahoo user group which exchanges information about everything from places to eat to rooms for rent to yoga classes and jazz clubs in the city. It might not be a bad idea to join the group even if you are visiting for a short time – one never knows when you might have a free night and feel like attending an art gallery opening. Also, if you are going to Egypt for a long-term visit, arranging for living space before hand is highly recommended; though there are agents (they’re called simsar) who will search for apartments for you, they expect a finders fee ranging from a few hundred Egyptian Pounds to a whole month’s rent. Also, by arranging for lodging ahead of time, you have a safety net (in the form of a phone number and address of a friend once you land in Cairo) and built-in guide to the city – again, Cairo Scholars comes in handy for this. Long-term visitors can easily find linens and other bedding, clothing, and standard toiletries not mentioned above easily at the many neighborhood grocery stores and larger supermarkets found throughout the city, so if you forget shampoo or soap, don’t worry.
Landing in Cairo International Airport is similar to any other airport in any other country; you’ll have to wait in line for customs to inspect your luggage and you’ll have to present your passport for inspection. As a visitor, you are allowed to bring up to two liters of alcohol, a carton of cigarettes, small amounts of perfume/cologne, and some small gifts (if you have friends you are meeting) with you without causing any problems. Additionally, once past customs, you can visit the duty-free shop and purchase these items (in similar quantities) if you wish, again, without any trouble. It should be obvious that any illicit substances as well as weapons are not allowed and should remain home. If you have over about US$100 in cash on you when you arrive in Cairo, you will have to declare it, which may slow down your entry into the country.
Once able to claim your baggage, or even before then, you will no doubt be deluged with offers of cab rides to various points in the city. If you are part of a tour group, this is nothing to worry about as your tour company will be very good about picking you up. Similarly, if you are studying in Cairo, the universities offer shuttle services if you made appropriate arrangements when you registered with them. For those of us who do not fall into the latter categories, a trip from the airport to downtown Cairo should not cost more than 60 Egyptian Pounds (LE), with a tip (baksheesh) being optional. This, of course, depends on the type of ride you wish to have. The local black-and-white taxis are the least expensive and should be well withing the 60LE range (though they will ask for more), but newer, well-appointed “luxury” taxis (mostly European-made cars) are available and are much more expensive. Still, the only difference between the local and luxury cab is, usually, air conditioning. Finally, the majority of taxi drivers are at least familiar with English and French and have no problem communicating with you if you do not know Arabic so do not be shy about asking around – trust me, they already know you’re a foreigner and you won’t be making a fool of yourself.
Egyptians pride themselves on their etiquette and manners, particularly to foreigners, and so it is important that you return the respect, even if it seems odd to you. First of all, never sit in such a way that the soles of your feet are showing to your host – this is a rare occurrence, usually when sitting down to bargain over a trinket or when visiting a “traditional” or in a “Moroccan” restaurant but can occur when crossing your legs – as it is a grave insult. I would also recommend learning at least “please” (low-samaht to men low-samaht-ee to women), “thank you” (shukran), and “you’re welcome” (afwan), as well as a few other phrases. Egyptians are very well educated, particularly if they work in hotels, and will speak in English, French, Russian, or a multitude of other languages, but they certainly appreciate it when someone attempts to use their country’s official language.
When visiting a mosque (a Muslim church), it is expected that women will cover their heads and both men and women must leave their shoes in a cubby outside. The shoes will be safe as there are usually unofficial “guards” watching over the shoes in return for a tip. Mosques may be closed to men or women at certain times, depending on events going on inside, and no amount of complaining will help the case.
When purchasing something, with the exception of western-owned stores like Radio Shack, bargaining is considered a sign of a good customer. Though your host will not really be insulted if you accept his opening asking price, it makes the shopping experience much more fun if you dicker about the price a bit. While haggling, your host will usually offer coffee or tea – one of which you should accept and sip throughout, even if the weather is hot – as it is considered good manners of a host to offer refreshments to his/her guests. Similarly, if you are having an Egyptian over to your house, apartment, or hotel room, you should offer a drink to them as well.
Harassment does occur in Egypt, particularly by groups of men at coffee shops or unemployed men standing around in parks. Though the majority of it will be in Arabic, and thus unintelligible to you, the tone and accompanying non-verbal clues may make female members of your group uncomfortable. Sometimes, Egyptian women will step in and rebuke the men, but usually not. Tour groups do a good job of preventing this kind of occurrence, but there will be times when it may happen. Do not get into an altercation or shout back at the men as it would only make the situation worse. Groups of women, especially if accompanied by men or older women, usually avoid this problem and in any situation, physical harassment is rare and dealt with severely when it does occur.
Tipping (Baksheesh) is a way of life in Egypt, and is expected for exceptional (or even average) service. The amount given usually depends on the complexity of the service with a 1 or 2LE tip for taxi drivers all the way up to a 10-15% tip for waiters in high-end restaurants. Doormen, delivery boys, and others in the service industry get somewhere between that, but others may ask for baksheesh just because you are a foreigner, especially children when you visit tea shops or coffee houses. Though tipping is optional, it is considered rude not to tip those who deserve it and should be avoided to those who do not (lest word get out that you’re giving away money).
The best rule of thumb for enjoying your trip – whether vacation or long-term – is to employ common sense and a little bit of planning in everything you do. Make sure to be prepared for minor delays or frustrations – for instance requests for a hard-to-get item may be met with the reply Bukhra (“tomorrow”) but which really means “I don’t have it/I can’t do it” – most of the problems will be tied up in the Egyptians’ sense of hospitality (it’s rude to tell a guest “no”). Understand that there are economic, cultural, and historical differences between your world and theirs. Be patient, courteous, and prepared.