just a quick post since I had a really hard time collecting up information about Egypt before I went. I took a little less then three weeks and did the full tourist experience, starting in Cairo, and ending up at Dahab (which is a bit off the beaten track right now -- a lot of the folks posting here are stopping at Sharm.)
1. The people
Everyone is really friendly. There are some pretty interesting customs that were harder for me to adjust too (Europeans will be more comfortable then Americans). The hardest thing for me to adjust to:
- attitude towards women
Western women are all see as "loose." I don't know how to better describe this. The mean in Egypt are just outright rude when it comes to western women. I can't speak from experience (I'm a man and only observed this all) but it seems to me that you need to either travel with a friend or wear full covering attire. Such typical western outfits, even if they are ankle length but have long slits (hence flashing a bit of leg or some such) are just going to mean more catcalls and hassle. No matter what, I think if you are identified as western you have to be ready for the men over here to hassle you with obnoxious comments.
- "friends" shaking hands
What can I say - when somebody holds my hand for longer then the "shake" itself it seems odd to me. It's pretty typical over here if you get to know somebody and they like you.
It took me a long time to get the joke when everyone was asking me for a pen. Everyone wants a tip for everything, even if they are not even really helping you. Tourists are rich and they milk you for all it's worth, beyond anything reasonable. Heck, I guess reasonable is "what are you willing to give them."
What a pain. There are probably only a couple places in the world worse then Egypt (or I'm just biased right after experiencing it). Every few feet somebody is asking if you want a taxi, or to buy some shirt, or some other stuff that you have no need or desire for. When you go in the shop, there are no prices *anywhere* - even grocery stores. The price is "how rich does this person look." I went into a shop and paid 20 LE. No more then 30 seconds later, before I'd even left the shop, an Italian woman came in and bought the same shirt, in small, and short sleeve, for 10 Euros. You can go run the conversion, but the point is - prices are based on what you are willing to pay.
One bit of advice here - if you care about saving money, this really will add up (bargaining) over the course of a lengthy trip. I was able to negotiate food, meals, taxis, hotel, etc. On the average I saved 60% on everything, sometimes I saved a LOT more. I had people quote me US prices on things and then after the negotiation started we ended up at (reasonable) local tourist prices. I won't pretend I ever hit the actual price - I didn't. I just didn't pay 100 dollars when I could pay 100 LE. Don't laugh - the merchants will try it.
2. Self plan vs tour compnay
There are sooo many tour companies out here. Unless you are really hard core and can plan this out in advance and really work the system, you are going to get majorly taken if you don't go with a tour company. Put it this way - a hotel via walk in or self plan might cost 3x what the local tour company operator will get. Be really careful on this though ; I saw a lot of people do those silly steam boat trips up the Nile, and they were paying obscene amounts to see the sites. You are only going to feel stupid when you pay US$50 to go the the Pyramids, and your ticket stub says 20LE (that's less then 4 dollars). And btw - for most of the sites, you get nada in the form of "extra" by going with a tour company. Having an Egyptologist with you for the Pyramids of Giza is nice, but it's not like you get to really go in and explore, and even if you do go inside the Pyramids .... well you will see. :)
So shop the tour companies if you are a first timer, and be careful. Compare a few of them and think about what you get. Read Lonely Planet and compare vs the "best trip" they give you. These tour guides aren't great (they are 5 years out of date when they hit print roughly) but it gives you something to think about, and really they have done enough research to make them useful at a high level.
If you can self plan effectively, you can do Egypt for so cheap and have a tremendous time. I'd say that if you were from the US and managed to self plan well, you could stay in mid-range hotels and do the entire trip for < $20 per day, without any real challenge. The downside to small groups (self plan you and your SO or something) is that a lot of the side expeditions you might want to do will require a "minimum occupancy." For example, St. Catherines public bus might require 11 people in the bus to make the trip. You go with a tour you have pretty good shot at the min. occupancy.
3. When to go!
The summer months are HOT. Right now it's really hot. This is OK for Sharm or probably anything around Sinai / Red Sea (it's still *&^% hot) but if you go to Aswan or Luxor, you are going to suffer. The only reason I would say go in the summer - fewer people at the big sites, Even in Cairo, the off tourist season means you can go see the museum easier. There's no AC in the museum, and you'll be happy it's at 40% capacity instead of 100%. The place is a modern oven.
4. The places I went
Let me prelude all this by saying that you should get over worrying about total perfection etc. These are all cities in a developing country, and a lot of the infrastructure (I took for granted at least) isn't there. For example - Dahab - no fresh water anywhere.
Cairo is a huge city, but really the only things I saw worth my time were a few of the Mosque's and the Museum. I hiked all around the city though, went through the Christian portion, visited Islamic Cairo, etc. You can read the major points of interest anywhere. The market that is so recommended wasn't all that fun for me, but I'm not a big shopper, and I got pissed off by the hassle every 2 feet, with people grabbing me. "La Shokran" only worked so well, I finally gave up and starting pushing people away when they got to close. One thing to mention here - Arab culture is really quite loud. I don't know how to describe this. Yelling works, and it works well, and for some reason, nobody is upset! When I'm yelling it means I'm ready to start fighting usually, so go figure. They liked it when I yelled because they knew I was serious.
The museum as I mentioned is an oven. You've got to dress conservatively in Cairo, and that really stinks in the museum. No photos at all in the museum because they are worried about flashes etc. The rule is generic so you can't say "I won't use my flash." Nobody in Cairo really spoke English either ; I was able to struggle around but it wasn't like there was a common set of phrases.
Oh, about "pens." If somebody asks you for a pen, they will more then happily take a pen from you (and sell it for baksheesh). What they really want is money though. A few of the merchants will just tell you they want your money :).
This city really isn't any fun at all. Heck, if I had the extra cash I'd fly in to Abu Simble and leave that same day. Go for the sites, it's worth it, but leave as soon as you can. There's nothing to do here beyond the few sites.
- The Nile
I swam in the Nile away from cities. Be really careful though. It's used as a waste dumping ground near Luxor (they send the fecal material straight in). I think you are probably pretty safe swimming near Aswan or basically in the southern stretches of the River. Don't even think about it near Cairo!
Speaking of the river, Felucca's are a good laugh, but if you are an active sort, a 2-3 day trip is going to be long for you. Think about 1 day, maybe 2. I think 2 is about perfect. There are lots of tips about the food etc on felucca's, but I'd say just gamble and plan on getting a bit sick. The food is usually grease with some extra component (like eggs, rice, etc) for texture. I'm not really kidding :) sorry.
Luxor is fantastic! I could ramble forever on this one alone. The tombs are really fun, amazing sites, well preserved. Karnak Temple is immense (although it's a let down because it's in such poor condition). Luxor Temple is also pretty impressive. This was a great site and I stayed at a pretty good mid-range Hotel. (the hotel in aswan as pathetic btw ... my entire experience in aswan as about on par with the hotel ... the sites all made up for the aswan city experience though, abu simble and philae are very nice).
Don't even both with Tut's tomb. Go with the more exciting ones. If you are willing, ignore Queens and go with Works. There are two Queens tombs ; I don't have to tell you much about them, there just isn't much to say. Workers was pretty awesome though - maybe more so then Kings.
Everyone raves about this on trip advisor. My take - if you want "luxury" and you have the cash, sure. Heck you can go anywhere for this experience though. It's got all the standard things you'd see at a major resort spot, and frankly, beyond being a good spot to party and all, it was pretty lame. Go to Israel for partying if you dare :) TA is a non-stop party spot if that's all you care about.
A ton of neat stuff here, and I came so I could hike Sinai, see the monastery, etc. There are also a bunch of neat day trips you can do. The downside is that this area isn't as resort'ized yet. I assume it's going that way.
A tip on St Catherines. After you hike Sinai and see sunrise, hussle down the steps (what a view, and it's really kick-butt as far as the experience goes, although it's a lot harder then the camel path). Go to the monastery which won't be "open to tourists" yet, and go have breakfast!! It's way better then any breakfast you are going to get outside the resort cities. In fact, I'd say it was some of the best food I had in Egypt. And the price was good. Relax and enjoy and go see the monastery when it opens.
ok that's all for now, hope anyone looking for tips and all on Egypt gets something out of this post. If you need some other info post and let me know.