Egypt – general hints, tips and safety advice

The Sphinx

The Sphinx

Do I need immunisations for Egypt?

Egypt has a very limited risk of malaria and vaccinations are not necessary although using insect repellent is advised. You may read advice that suggests you get vaccinated against Typhoid and Hepatitis A, I have never had these myself but if you feel you must then go along to your doctor and discuss it. As with all holiday destinations it’s a good idea to make sure all your normal vaccinations are up to date, such as polio and tetanus.

What language do they speak in Egypt?

The official language is Arabic. In tourist areas English and French is widely spoken. I had no trouble making myself understood in English and most people seem to have a surprisingly good vocabulary, especially in the cities. As my Arabic is limited to a dozen or so words I often ended up feeling quite ashamed of my lack of knowledge.

Should I be worried about terrorism in Egypt?

In my opinion terrorism is not a problem in most of Egypt. There were suicide of bombings in Khan al-Khalili and Sharm El Sheikh in 2005 killing approximately 90 people some of which were tourists and a shooting in Cairo killing 2 tourists. In 2008 11 tourisit and 8 Egyptians were kidknapped in the Egyptian desert but all hostages were released unharmed. In February 2009 a bomb killed a French teenager in Cairo. Given the world situation right now I believe you are as safe in Egypt as you are anywhere in the world and I hope you won’t let fear stop you from visiting this beautiful country. Take the same precautions as you would in the UK, for example don’t leave bags unattended, keep away from any suspicious packages and report them to an authority figure.

There is a very evident police and military presence in all tourist areas with armed guards everywhere. If anything this made me feel safer. There are also bomb barriers in major cities to protect certain areas against car bombs in much the same way as they have been erected outside the houses of parliament in London. Although Egypt is an Islamic country and there are conflicts nearby between Palestine and Israel I saw no evidence of anti western feeling. The people of Egypt were very warm and welcoming to me during my time there. If you have Israeli stamps in your passport you may be closely questioned when entering the country however.

How do I get through immigration in Egypt and do I need a visa?

You must have at least six months validity on your passport throughout your stay so check this before you book as you could be turned away at the airport. Non Egyptians do need a visa to enter the country but you can get this on arrival at a cost of about £15 and you can pay in Sterling if you wish. Of all the visas in my passport the Egyptian visa is by far the most decorative and well worth the money for that alone. If you are not a British passport holder check with your travel agent or the embassy before you book as for some nationalities it may be necessary to get your visa before you travel. These visas can take up to six weeks to arrive so apply in good time.

You have to complete a landing card (usually green) before you go through passport control. These are normally handed out on the flight just before landing so make sure you take a pen in your hand luggage. Landing cards can be confusing. Hopefully this example (it is actually a Moroccan landing card but they are all very similar) will give you a few pointers and ensure you have all the information you need to hand.


The queues at passport control are legendary. Don’t be impatient, this is a fact of life and everyone has to wait. When you go through passport control you will get a dated stamp on your passport. You will get another stamp when you leave. You will not be charged an entry fee.

When you leave you will have to fill in another similar card (usually white). These can be found in the departure lounge or may be given to you in your hotel. Make sure you fill this out before you get to passport control or you will have to go back and queue all over again.

What money do they use in Egypt?

The Egyptian currency is the Egyptian Pound usually written as L.E and is divided into 100 piasters. Mainly you will see paper money as the lowest paper note is 5 piasters. There are about 10 Egyptian pounds to one English pound so the coins, usually copper or silver are hardly used. The paper money has one face in Arabic and one in English and is very attractive decorated with pictures of historic mosques. On one side there are pictures; usually of the pyramids or the Egyptian official seal, and on the other is the value. They range from 5 to 25 piasters.

You are only allowed to take 5000 LE in or out of the country. Sterling and dollars are accepted in some places especially when tipping. Egyptian pounds can be bought from your travel agent in the UK. You can also buy travellers cheques but these can work out expensive and be hard to change when you get to Egypt. You can also use your debit card at the ATMs that can be found in most towns. To avoid any nasty surprises when you come home it’s worth checking with your bank what charges will be made for using ATMs, what the exchange rate will be and the maximum you can withdraw. There are ATM machines at the major airports banks and in some hotels too. Credit cards are also widely accepted although you will need some cash for souks, tips, taxis etc.

A word of warning. Take the same care when using your credit card or debit card as you would in the UK. Never give your pin to anyone. Always cover your pin when getting cash from an ATM or in a shop. Always check ATMs for skimming devices and cameras, as you would in the UK. ATM and credit card fraud is a worldwide fact of life.

Who should I tip and how much in Egypt?

Tipping, or backsheesh as it is called in Egypt, is part of the culture , much more so than in the UK, not just in restaurants but for any service you receive no matter how small.

On a Nile cruise you will usually be asked to pay a sum to cover all staff for the whole of your trip, usually about £3 sterling per person per day. Thus is divided amongst all staff so they all get a fair share. If you do not feel you got good service do not tip as much. Often your guide will also ask for a sum of about £1 sterling per day from which he will tip museum staff etc during the tours.

On day boats in Red Sea destinations there will be a box for tips with the money divided amongst all staff. A fair amount is 10-20 LE.  Non Egyptian staff such as dive-masters, snorkel instructors etc do not expect tips.

DO not tip children around sites unless they are doing a proper job, then 5 LE is fine.

Between five and ten LE will normally suffice for waiters, museum staff, boats/fellucca trips (such as Philae), camel handlers, caleche drivers. Always be discreet when you tip, just slip the note into the hand without making a big thing of it or it could be considered insulting. I usually keep a few low denomination notes in my pocket just for tipping, that way I don’t have to open my purse and show how much money I’m carrying and I can be much more discreet about it.

As a guide

  • Driver to and from the airport 10-30 LE
  • Driver taking you sight seeing 25-50 LE depending on length of trip (50 LE for full day)
  • Guide taking you sightseeing 20-100 LE depending on length of tour (100 LE for full day)
  • Housekeeping 5 LE per night
  • Porter 3-5 LE per bag
  • Taxi driver 1-5 LE
  • Restaurant waiter 10%
  • Toilet attendant 50PT – 1LE
  • Guards at sites 1-2 LE

Remember the average wage is less than £2000 sterling per year and the minimum income is £1800 sterling per year! A tip of 10 LE (10p) may not seem much to you but it is an awful lot of money for someone who only earns £4 a day! When you feel annoyed by the seemingly constant requests for backsheesh think how you would cope on just £4 a day and perhaps you will understand.

Are beggars a problem in Egypt?

To be quite honest I saw less begging in Egypt that I did in Morocco, although I am sure it happens. Perhaps the authorities discourage them from the tourist areas or perhaps the welfare system in Egypt is better than Morocco. What ever the reason, although there was obviously a great deal of poverty the beggars were much less visible.

Can I take photographs on the streets in Egypt?

There are no restrictions on taking photos on the streets in Egypt, although if you are taking a photo of an Egyptian (not just in the background but as the main focus of your photo) it would be polite to ask first and it is possible they will ask you to tip them for the privilege. In museums and temples you will be charged a photography fee of between 5 and 10 LE (per temple or museum not per photo!). This is quite a small amount to get some wonderful photos and the money goes towards the upkeep of the monument or museum in the same way that the entrance fee does. You will not be allowed to take photos inside the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. This is because the flashes from cameras are thought to cause damage to the beautifully painted friezes.

Should I go to Egypt during Ramadan?

The month of Ramadan is a time of fasting in all Muslim countries. Egyptians fast from sunrise to sunset, with no food, drink, cigarettes or sex during daylight hours. Ramadan falls on different dates each year so check before you book. My Nile cruise was during Ramadan and it didn’t really cause any problems although I was acutely aware of how difficult it must have been to go without water in what was the hottest part of the year. At sundown everything comes to a stop so that the Egyptians can get home for Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast. Shops and souks will be open later than normal to make up for this. Iftar is more of a feast than a meal and often people actually gain weight during Ramadan.

Tourists aren’t expected to fast and food is still served in restaurants and cafes, although out of politeness you shouldn’t eat, drink or smoke on the street. When Ramadan falls during the hottest part of the year Egyptian tempers may be a little shorter than usual.

Ramadan ends with the festival of Eid al-Fitr or just Eid. The celebration lasts for three days, families get together and the man of each household is expected to buy and slaughter a goat or sheep for the feast. Some people may find this upsetting as often these sacrifices happen in the street.

What is the food like in Egypt?

You will spot influences from the Mediterranean, Syria, Turkey, France, Italy and of course the UK in Egyptian food but the wonderful variety of breads and salads I tasted in Egypt is what really sticks in my mind. Although meat and fish play a part, vegetables, beans, lentils and breads are the mainstay of the Egyptian diet so vegetarians will have no problems. Islam, of course, forbids pork and beef and mutton are the most common meats.

It is difficult to say exactly what the national dish is. Some Egyptians would say Kushari (a mixture of rice, lentils and macaroni), others Ful Medames (mashed brown fava beans, cooked slowly and served with parsley, onion, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil), or Mulukhiyya (a kind of stew of mallow leaves with garlic and coriander).

The Egyptian idea of fast food is Shawerma, a kind of bread wrap with shaved meat and tahina sauce, salad or falafel (fried balls of spiced fava beans). Stuffed vine leaves are popular as are kebabs (usually lamb), stuffed pigeon, grilled aubergines with onions, peppers and jalapenos with a spicy tomato sauce. Garlic and onion are used a great deal.

Deserts are usually very, very sweet. Pastries with dried fruits and honey or syrup, Umm Ali (a hot raisin cake soaked in milk), diamond shaped Basbousa (semolina in sugar syrup with an almond topping), Kunafah (shredded pastry with nuts) or Luqmat al-Qadi (little round doughnuts with a syrupy inside. One of my favourites was a kind of sorbet of  hibiscus or hibiscus jelly.

Western food is available everywhere so if you are not very adventurous you will easily find pizzas, chips, steaks burgers and the like. It would be a shame not to try at least one traditional Egyptian meal though.

Can I drink alcohol in Egypt?

Muslims are not allowed to drink alcohol but non-Muslims can buy and drink alcohol in hotels, bars and some restaurants. It is expensive though and being drunk in public is definitely frowned upon not to mention the dehydrating affect in such a hot climate. The legal age for drinking alcohol is 21.

It is easy to find alternatives. It is a little known fact that coffee originated in an area called Kaffa in Egypt. At first it was used as a kind of ancient energy drink but today it is a very important part of Egyptian life. Another drink that seems to be offered everywhere and was one of my favourites is hibiscus, an infusion of hibiscus leaves served cold like a cordial, it is a dark crimson colour and very sweet and tasty. Mint tea is popular, served very sweet and there are lots of varieties of fruit juices to choose from. Bottled water is a MUST. It is cheap and freely available everywhere. Carry a bottle with you at all times and sip frequently.

Are drugs a problem in Egypt?

It is illegal to possess even small quantities of recreational drugs in Egypt. The penalty is deportation, a LONG prison sentence or even death. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES CARRY OR BUY DRUGS.

How should I dress in Egypt?

Egyptians wear both modern and traditional clothes and although some women wear the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, others don’t and dress, especially amongst women has become increasingly western in the last decade. Even so modesty is key and young Egyptian women who have taken to wearing more revealing clothes are frowned upon. There is no need to cover your head arms or legs but women will find that too much exposed flesh, acres of cleavage or too short a skirt will attract unwanted attention.

Bear in mind that a hat, or some kind of head covering may be a good idea to protect against the sun, especially if you are travelling in the hotter part of the year and a light shirt to cover bare arms and shoulders can prevent a nasty case of sunburn that could otherwise ruin your holiday. Good, comfortable shoes are also a must if you will be visiting temples, pyramids or The Valley of The Kings as you will be doing a lot of walking on dusty and uneven ground.

What about health and safety in Egypt?

Crime, especially violent crime, is almost nonexistent in Egypt thanks to the efforts of the tourist police. You will see them everywhere some uniformed some not but you can tell them from the AK47’s they carry. No wonder there is so little trouble. They are determined that tourists will remain safe and, although you may find weapons of this kind in open view disconcerting you soon get used to them.

There are some pickpockets and petty thieves in the tourist areas but to be honest, this is probably more of a problem in cities like London than it is in cities like Cairo, Luxor or Aswan. Look after your possessions in the same way you would at home. Don’t take risks by walking in unlit areas alone after dark or by leaving your bags unattended, your valuables on display, your wallet in your back pocket your handbag open any more than you would at home.

You are more likely to be ripped off than you are to be mugged or robbed so don’t be naïve. If someone offers to show you around just politely decline. They won’t hurt you but they will lead you to their ‘cousins’ shops where they get a commission on every purchase you make and you are overcharged. To add insult to injury they may then ask you for payment for their ‘services’. Book an official guide through your hotel or a reputable company.

Be VERY careful when crossing roads, especially in Cairo, even on pedestrian crossings. Cars, mopeds and Caleches may not stop for you. The style of driving seems to be to travel at speed on any available inch of road, preferably honking horns as much as possible. Beware of mopeds and handcarts in the souks and the medinas too. The mopeds zoom in and out of traffic and pedestrians alike and although I’ve never seen anyone run over I’m sure people must be.

As with all African countries be very careful what you eat or drink to avoid Egyptian Tummy. Tummy upsets seem to be a fact of life for some people while others, with stronger constitutions are fine. Usually those that get sick just have a mild stomach upset that is soon over. It isn’t worth spoiling a good holiday by feeling ill so it’s wise to take care what you eat and drink, especially if you are prone to stomach upsets. I always take Imodium with me when I travel just in case.

Egyptian tap water is not poisonous, just treated differently and with different bugs to our own. Therefore it can cause stomach upsets. Bottled water is cheap. I never drink the water in any country outside of the UK and I always use bottled water to brush my teeth too. Better safe than sorry. In Egypt use ONLY bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth and check that the seal on the bottle is intact. Avoid ice in your drinks (these may be made with tap water) and don’t eat salads outside of good hotels and restaurants as these may have been washed in tap water. I would also be very careful of food from street vendors, however tempting it may be.

Another reason people get ill is too much sun and dehydration. This can cause stomach bug like symptoms and very bad headaches. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty, by then you will probably already be dehydrated sip steadily throughout the day and night. Wear high protection sun cream at all times, try to stay in the shade during the hottest part of the day and if you travel during the hottest part of the year cover your head and shoulders if you start to feel too hot. It’s true what they say that mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Although it is hot during the day the temperature can drop dramatically at night, especially in desert areas. Be aware of this and if you are going to be out after dark take something warm to cover up with.

Public hospitals are open to tourists in Egypt. The standard of care is good in big cities like Cairo and Alexandria but varies in other parts of the country. In remote rural areas health care provision and standards of hygiene are poor, particularly in the Western Desert oases. Health insurance is STRONGLY advised remember your E111 form will be no good to you outside of Europe.

Public toilets are not always clean, even in cities although those in most restaurants and hotels are fine. In more out of the way places you will find Turkish style toilets, basically a hole in the ground (albeit a ceramic one) that you have to crouch over. This is not a particularly Egyptian thing, you will find the same thing all over North Africa and in France in many public toilets. There may not be toilet paper either or hand washing facilities. I usually carry a small handbag sized pack of baby wipes and some hand cleaning gel just in case.

The practice of Christianity is allowed, 10% to 20%  of the population are practicing Christians, but encouraging conversion to the Christian faith is illegal.

Public displays of affection such as kissing are frowned upon although hand holding is fine. What may be acceptable in the tourist resort areas may be frowned upon in other areas. This is especially true of same sex couples. Although homosexuality is not in itself illegal under Egyptian law, homosexual acts in public are illegal and homosexuals have been convicted for breaching laws on public decency. Be discreet and you will have no problems.

Visitors and residents should carry photographic ID at all times. Your passport must contain a valid visa.

Drinking in the street and anywhere other than a licensed restaurant or bar is not allowed and can lead to arrest.


2 thoughts on “Egypt – general hints, tips and safety advice

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