Egypt may be my travel regret, but it’s not Kristen Elise’s. This aspiring author has traveled alone to the Land of the Pharaohs to do research for her novel, and in the process, learned much about how to get by in Egypt as a solo female traveler. Here, she offers a few practical tips to help take the worry out of your solo trip to Egypt.
Few destinations offer as many unique faces as Egypt: The only remaining wonder of the ancient world at Giza. The underground labyrinth of Valley of the Kings. World class diving at the Red Sea coast, juxtaposed incongruously against Biblical Sinai. The lush Nile Valley. The merciless Western Desert. In a country with more than ten thousand years of recorded history, the “New Kingdom” era began in 1500 BC, and one short lifetime is nowhere near long enough to see it all.
Yet, these days, the mention of Egypt conjures different imagery – that of young protestors clashing with police. The revolution only underscored the political unrest that has been seething in Egypt for decades. This unrest, sadly, makes us hesitant to visit one of the most fascinating lands on earth – especially solo. I say: Go anyway. The revolution has calmed considerably, Egypt is changing for the better, and now is a great time to experience this wonderful country unimpeded by hoards of other tourists.
When I decided to visit Egypt alone, my friends and family thought I was either nuts or on a suicide mission. Contradictory messages pulled from the Internet only left me confused. But in the end, I enjoyed a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime adventure. And yes, I was perfectly safe. May your solo experience be every bit as wonderful. Here I offer a few helpful tips.
Walk like an Egyptian
When it comes to Egyptian society, the key word is modest. Modest attire, modest behavior. Long pants, long sleeves, and women might find it helpful to cover their hair (I certainly did). Added bonuses of these tactics include keeping one’s head wet and cool without looking like a drowned rat in public, and coming home without a raging sunburn.
A few pieces of advice to women: a wedding ring (real or bogus), a quiet demeanor (real or bogus), and instantly mentioning your husband (real or bogus) in any conversation are the no-fail signals of respectability. Avoid eye contact and smiling at men (these are signals of interest), and never, never sit in the front seat of a taxi (this is a clear sexual invitation). Follow these few simple rules, and you will be treated like a sister by men and women alike.
Stay in a reputable hotel
I’m normally a huge fan of cheap and sometimes questionable lodgings, but a few extra bucks in Egypt will get you English-speaking staff, food that doesn’t make you sick, and day tours that don’t rip you off. ‘Nuff said?
Know when to take a day tour
I know what you’re thinking. I, too, shudder at the sound of the “T” word. That said, there is a huge difference between a full tour package and a day tour for a solo traveler. A full Egyptian tour package is a human cattle drive. A day or half-day tour in Egypt is frequently sans group. There is only you, a guide, and a driver.
I took such a tour to the pyramids and am very glad I did. Had I tried to navigate this adventure from Cairo on my own, I’d probably still be wandering the desert like Moses. And I don’t recommend trying to fit yourself, a camel and a pyramid into a self-shot photo taken at arm’s length. My vibrant young guide filled me in on many insider aspects of Egypt I would otherwise never have learned. She also hooked me up with a no-hassle, inexpensive camel ride and was an excellent photographer to boot.
Know your way around
Egyptian geography is a bit counter-intuitive. Upper Egypt is in the South, Lower Egypt is in the North, and Eastern Egypt lies on an entirely different continent. While well traveled by massive tour groups, Egypt is somewhat less user-friendly for the solo traveler. Many people speak English, but most of the names of things are in Arabic – a language so complicated that Arabs do not always understand other Arabs. You might think you are clearly pronouncing your destination, but the taxi driver still might have no idea what you are talking about. You might end up accidentally visiting some very cool sites that were not on the original agenda. Just roll with it.
It helps considerably if you have an idea of where you are headed and how you expect to get there. Cairo is very easily navigated by Metro, which features cars exclusively for women. Luxor is easily navigated by taxi – or horse-drawn carriage, for a fun change. The train system is surprisingly organized and even the overnight sleeper trains are both comfortable and safe (but the food on them is not, so don’t eat it).
A solo trip to Egypt requires a bit of prep work in advance. But it is all worth it when you exit an ancient site you enjoyed in total solitude, just as an enormous human herd is piling in. . .and when you hop into a boat the size of a bathtub and breeze past the poor suckers cramped into oversized cruise ships. . .and when you are in your room, gazing at the sun setting over the Nile. That’s when you remember why you came here alone.
What are your experiences traveling solo through Egypt?
- Cairo: Ramses Hilton
- Alexandria: Sofitel Cecil Alexandria
- Luxor: Old Winter Palace and Pavillion
- Aswan: Isis Corniche
Kristen Elise is a drug discovery biologist, travel buff and novelist. She lives in San Diego with her two canine children, where she hunts for drugs and the stories they tell. You can follow her at her personal website, KristenElisePhD.com, on Facebook (Kristen Elise) and Twitter (@kristenelisephd), and you can read about her personal adventures in Egypt at her blog, WhatWouldKatrinaDo (which I highly recommend, because there are some really funny observations in it).