By Vladimir Jelov
Some things change, some things – never do.
The sun-dried deserts, the lush palms, the mesmerizing Red Sea reefs full of fish… Egypt is like a good old movie, which reminds you of the good old times. Something you want to revisit and experience all over again once in a while. But is Egypt worth it today in 2023?
Disclaimer: Yes, all of the aforementioned items, as well as the Pyramids, temples, etc are very much still there with minimal changes. So, I will not be touching those. There are plenty of reviews of Egyptian attractions new and old (mostly old). Rather, I will take a look at the logistics and the general vibe. The trip I took was to the Hurghada region, whilst staying at a 5-star resort in the Sahl Hasheesh area (30 km South of Hurgada). While one can argue that Sharm el-Sheikh and other areas may be different in certain details, the overall experience will be quite similar.
Getting in, out, and around Egypt
COVID19 has been hard on Egypt, as well as other vacation destinations in many aspects, but now is a good time to come and visit because of the generally lower trip and hotel prices. After doing some homework and maths, I have opted for:
- Booking the flight directly through a charter company (100 euro return from Europe)
- Booking the hotel through Booking.com (80 euro/night)
- Using Uber for transportation, including transfers
Flying in, at least as of January 2022 is quite easy: plenty of options, both direct and indirect. The only potential problem can be the ever-changing travel restrictions and COVID19 vaccination requirements. For me, it meant doing a PCR test 72 hours before arrival and taking one on returning home. Both are negative, thank you for asking.
Note: Make sure to follow your home country and Egypt travel board guidelines for necessary documents.
With that being said, once you arrive, no one cares about your vaccination. Locals are required to wear facemasks (some even do) but tourists are free to do as they choose. Departing was just as easy. The only time I was asked to wear a mask was in Senzo Mall’s supermarket.
For reservations, depending on the resort, the cost matrix is:
Booking directly is cheaper than travel agencies and the same or cheaper than Booking.com.
The reason I picked the Booking.com option has been the advertised “Free transfer”. Which failed spectacularly, as, to book your free taxi to the hotel, the airport you arrive from must be “on the list” of airports eligible for this promotion. Which is not explicitly explained. After wrestling for a couple of hours on the phone with Booking.com support, I got a 25 USD credit to my account, which mostly covered the Uber costs for the transfer. I’m fairly certain, that the same issue can arise in other destinations as well, so do be careful with that Booking.com promo.
Last, but not least, Uber is finally available in major Egyptian destinations and IT IS AWESOME!! Gone are the days of haggling with annoying taxi drivers, who overcharge you and then ask for more money, once you arrive. Just order your ride on Uber and within 5-15 minutes, you are picked up and dropped off where you want to be at very reasonable rates. One 60km ride set me back 15USD for instance.
Note: Some hotel areas in Egypt are treated with a perimeter. E.g. you can get in on Uber, but you cannot order an Uber to your location inside. For example, the gate to El Gouna, one such entry point, is located 6km from its center. So, theoretically, to get back from there, you have to find a way to reach the gate and then order the Uber. An easy solution: all Uber drivers I hired were happy to pick me up later. We agreed on the time, exchanged phone numbers and the problem was solved. I had to throw in a little extra their way for the trouble, compared to the original trip’s cost, but that seemed fair.
On the logistics topic, the Internet should be mentioned. Your hotel WiFi is likely going to be crappy. So, getting a local SIM card on arrival is the way to go. 50GB of data should cost about 20 euros and cover most of your needs. If you don’t have a phone with 2 SIM slots, bring a spare old one to function as a hotspot.
Verdict: Technology made things better and COVID made positive adjustments in terms of costs and logistics. Definitely an improvement.
Your little all-inclusive oasis of hedonism
One of the biggest tragedies of Egypt, in my mind, is the big bet on the all-inclusive resorts. This strategy has effectively promoted a certain class of tourists to be dominant (loud, drunk, Eastern-European), but also – hurt businesses outside and inside resorts. COVID made matters worse, unfortunately.
When comparing Egypt to say Turkey, another all-inclusive destination, there have always been quality issues. And 20 years later, Egypt is still in a sorry state. Even at an above-average 5-star hotel, the long lines of dishes piled in front of you in the all-you-can-eat restaurant are just meh. COVID reduced the number of patrons, meaning that the mass-production of food had to find ways of cutting costs by, you guessed it, opting for cheaper ingredients. So, while you can certainly get your stomach full, the main restaurant is likely going to be repetitive and just not very good.
With that being said, a good hotel restaurant will surprise you at times. I have tried grilled Hawawshi for the first time and had it almost daily during my stay. It’s amazing. But regardless the winning meal combo, which is also quite healthy is probably:
Breakfast: Eggs made in front of you, some yogurt, fruits, veggies, and a fresh orange juice
Lunch: Whatever the grill produces and fresh vegetables
Dinner: Repeat lunch or go a la carte (or outside your hotel)
The grilled chicken or beef, goat cheese, fresh veggies, and fruit are still the stars of the AI program. I did my best to sample something else each meal, but it was mostly a miss rather than a hit.
Another thing, which COVID has done is force a lot of smaller restaurants outside hotels out of business. This means that the quality and availability of food outside your hotel might also be not what it used to be. Surviving restaurants, catering to locals, are still quite good though. Okra, dolma, baba ghanoush and other dishes shoot way above in taste of the stuff you get at your hotel.
This brings us to the BOOZE.
Egyptian alcohol was poor then and it has gotten worse. The only way to drink strong stuff is in a cocktail, while wine is mostly terrible too. This leaves beer as the only go-to option for standard decent quality. With that being said, here are some positive notes:
- Both back then and now ouzo is surprisingly o.k. If you like the taste of anise in general, a simple and “almost dietary” cocktail is ice, ouzo, soda water. Refreshing and should keep your head intact in the morning.
- The technology (yet again) comes to our help: there are several small alcohol shops, which can be visited, have websites, and do delivery to hotels. There you can find local beer, wine, and stronger spirits at fairly reasonable prices, as opposed to the overinflated prices your hotel might ask.
- There is still a tax-free shop in the airport on your arrival, where you might want to pick up a supply of quality alcohol for your stay, as well as, potentially one downtown where you can shop within 24 hours (bring your passport).
Note: Alcohol delivery shops may incur a minimum of 300-500 LE orders and/or a bigger delivery fee if you are outside their immediate area. It makes sense, as no one will drive 100 km to bring you a 6-pack. Also, your hotel may not be a huge fan of you getting booze from outside, so try to meet the courier outside the gate of the hotel and pay him in cash.
Unfortunately, booze is not the only thing, which is overpriced at your hotel. The smaller shops and, especially, pharmacies, charge 3-10x for items, which you might want. So, unless there is a shopping area close to your hotel, either plan a shopping trip on day 1 or bring what you need along.
There is however one serious upside, which COVID created: a shortage of demand (guests). This means that smart hotels go the extra mile to give the best service possible. One bad review on TripAdvisor is seriously bad for their struggling business. So, the level of service (at the right hotel) you get is simply through the roof. You get asked about your experience all the time. Also, the staff is much more proactive now and looking for ways to make things better. The level of English has been improved as well.
What has suffered though is the scale and variety of animation programs and events. With fewer visitors, hotels seem to have scaled down and try to deliver the entertainment through in-house animation teams most of the time. With that being said – the outside shows seem to have upped their quality, costumes, and choreography.
Note: If you travel with kids, pay extra care to pick the hotel which is designated as child and family-friendly. It will ensure that there are enough kids on-site, which will in return guarantee you more dedicated animation for kids.
And a notion for golf fans: the El Gouna course is in good shape, while the Makadi one is not. Both seem to have suffered from the lack of visitor cash, so the equipment etc has not received any love. Both attached hotels seemed empty when I visited as well. Prices for playing have remained roughly the same: 18 holes with rented clubs, trolley, and some practice will set you back about 100 euros. Stay elsewhere and take Uber to the course if you plan to play.
Verdict: For better or worse, your hotel is still your base of operations and the center of sustenance. Pick, which one caters to your plans/needs or risk a disappointment.
The wonderful shopping opportunities
Whether they have become smarter or because they have given up, shopkeepers are not as obnoxious as they used to be. So, walking down the street is mostly possible without someone shouting at you every 10 steps (mostly).
Another slight improvement is the rise in the number of shops putting prices on goods. Yes, some haggling is fun, but it can get quite ridiculous. You have to know price estimates for most things you intend to buy, as you never know whether the initial price offered is 3x or 10x the actual possible price.
And this is where the improvements end. Egyptian stores are effectively stuck where they were 20 years ago. Same cotton knock-off t-shirts. Same souvenirs and papyrus. Same statuettes. By the look of some items, they might’ve been standing on the same shelf for the past decade or two. Mix in some pharmacies, groceries and that is it. Yes, some shops are selling authentic Egyptian brands in tourist areas, but those are few and mostly overpriced.
So, what I suggest:
- Make a list of souvenirs you need to get
- Make a list of halva/sweets you absolutely must bring home
- List coffee and spices, which you use and buy those in bulk
- Consider making an amazon.eg account, putting your hotel as an address before arrival (check that hotel doesn’t object) to pick up some of the above
Verdict: No serious progress. Factor in 4-8 hours of your trip to get the “must buy” things and avoid shopping.
Shopping and money
One thing which hasn’t changed much is the currency of Egypt, being the Egyptian pound (EGP), also abbreviated as LE. It is the currency fundamental to most of the calculations and, also, an endless source of speculations and cheating, as your credit cards, euros and dollars are being converted to it.
The main rule: Try to bring enough Egyptian pounds to cover your shopping/restaurant bills from your home country and a small surplus of pounds and EUR/USD.
The reason is quite simple: everyone will try to screw you with conversions, including the banks. At the time of writing, the EUR to EGP rate is roughly 17.5 Egyptian pounds for 1 euro. The ATM in the hotel is offering me:
A rate of 16.5 pounds AND will take a 7% commission. So, for 100 euros instead of getting 1750 pounds, I would be getting around 1550.
Traders do the same thing. E.g. they are happy to take your euros but will convert those at anywhere between 15 and 17 pounds per euro.
Rule of thumb: pay cash to avoid hidden fees, be it euros, if the price is listed in EUR, or Egyptian pounds.
With the currency settled, let’s have a look at the prices in general.
The common price level structure from best to worst is the following. By variety and price, I mean the options across the same category of goods:
- Downtown: Best variety and potential for cheap prices. The highest risk of poor quality.
- Large independent malls: Medium variety, a combination of low and medium prices.
- Malls outside hotels: Medium variety, medium to high prices
- Malls inside hotels: Low variety, highest prices
- Airport departure: Low variety, absurd prices
Here are some indications to get you started with budgeting. The prices listed are from downtown/independent malls. Other options will ask 3x-5x.
One of the best articles for shopping thousands of years since the discovery of the international trade is spices. Whether for your own culinary adventures or as a gift, Egypt is the place to get some great quality spices. Sumac, curry, all varieties of peppers – you name it! The challenge is to get the best quality at the best price, of course.
The streets are full of spice vendors, but if you want to get the good stuff, stick to the well-lit and air-conditioned places with fixed prices. Here you can get the best price and quality, which may seem counter-intuitive but is true.
Most of the common spices go for 10-15 LE per 100 grams.
Tip: You don’t need to get a single 500g bag, might just as well go for 5x 100 grams. Alternatively, go for the bigger bag and pack it into neat glass jars once you are home to give away.
The lifeblood of the Arab World, coffee is a tradition and a cult here. Coffee shops and stores are plentiful. The better ones will pack 10-30 varieties and let you sample the different beans and grinds. Take your time to sample and don’t forget that you are free to mix and match.
Coffee goes for 20-40 LEs per 100 grams.
Tip: Want to create your own perfect blend? No problem! Ask the merchant to create that 60% Columbian medium mixed with 40% light Arabica with a hint of cinnamon and you got it!
This used to be a go-to souvenir to bring home from Egypt but, realistically, most cities have their merchants cooking or re-selling the sweet honey-sugary delights. Bringing one from Egypt may not be as novel as before, but if you find a shop, which makes something really good – why not grab a kilo or two to share with your close ones or colleagues?
Egyptian delights go for 10-30 LEs per 100 grams.
Most of the stuff sold by the street vendors will be knock-offs of big brands. The prices will vary greatly and whether to get that stuff or not is entirely up to you. I suggest figuring out what you want and then haggling away until you get a feel for the base price. Due to a shortage of buyers, most vendors are open to dropping the price significantly.
Step 1: Pretend that you are browsing and find an item “which you kind of like”
Step 2: Haggle the price down 50% from the initial offer
Step 3: Get the right design/size. If it’s not there, walk away and look for the correct item in the next shop with price knowledge and start haggling from new low.
As previously mentioned, the vendors are desperate to sell. As long as you know the base price and find the right item, you should be able to get the price you want. They sell the same stock anyway. You are not obliged to buy anything. You can always fix the price and come back the next day if you can’t find a better offer.
So, is Egypt worth it?
The short answer is it depends on your last memory. If you loved it and want to do it all over again – by all means. If not, well, you might get even more resentful.
Despite the many former and new problems, the great things, which you enjoyed about Egypt back then are still there. Swallowing mouthfuls of dust during buggy rides in the desert, diving to poke at Nemo, seeing how many beers you can drink in one day, rubbing your nose against the Sphynx, Luxor temples… all that is there exactly the way it used to be.
Maybe that is the problem though. We have evolved but your Egyptian vacation has mostly stayed the same. And it, honestly, didn’t have to. There is so much more this wonderful country can give if it only finds the strength to re-invent itself. Let’s hope the COVID will make it stronger and, if I will write another review in 5 years, after “rewatching this movie” again, there is something to show for it.
Would I visit again? Thanks for asking. I probably will in 5 years’ish. I’m in love with the underwater world of the Red Sea, but with the limited vacation time I got, it is not enough to compensate for the lack of other delights. Also, I’ve heard that diving in Hainan is just as good or even better.
Post Scriptum: The bulk of the article was written during my last few days in Egypt. The last day, however, brought back another hopeless experience: airport departure. The inefficient and clearly proforma security checks, guard stealing confiscated swiss knives, toilet janitor asking for money, 5 euro water and 9 euro beer in the “tax free” area, which is effectively the downtown bazaar with 3-10x prices. Not going to miss that at all.
Tip: Prepare some sandwiches and fruit at the hotel for your trip back home. They won’t mind.