For my brief trip to Egypt in between my time in Jordan and my flight to Hong Kong to meet my sister and some friends, I decided to join a group tour. You can read about my reasons for doing this and why I was a little nervous about it in Touring Egypt. This post details the good, the bad and the ugly of travelling on a group tour in Egypt.
No hard decisions
For a week, I had a break from making any of those difficult travel decisions that plague you daily while on the road – where am I going to sleep tonight, should I stay in this town one extra day or not, is two dollars a cheap price for this taxi or am I being ripped off?
Everything was taken care of – when we arrived at a train station, transportation to the hotel was ready and waiting, and on arrival at the hotel, we didn’t even need to check in – we could go straight to our rooms.
I made some great friends on the trip who I will no doubt keep in touch with. Although it was only two weeks ago that Alicia left the Middle East, it was nice to chat with other like-minded people.
In the space of seven days, I visited Cairo and the Egyptian Museum, the pyramids and sphinx of Giza, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, Karnak Temple, Aswan, spent a night on the Nile and made it back to Cairo.
I even rode a donkey and travelled in a horse-drawn carriage – activities I would never have bothered with had I been on my own. Every day was action-packed, and had I been travelling independently, there is no way I would have been able to pack that much into seven days. Trying to bargain for an overnight felucca (boat) ride alone could have taken more than a day!
The local guides
At most sites, we had local guides included. Considering that hiring a guide is usually way out of my budget, this was a very welcome change, and made visiting places like the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings much more worthwhile when you can learn the history behind them from an expert.
Okay, so the fact that I decided to visit Upper Egypt in the height of summer doesn’t really have much to do with being on a tour. And by the end of the seven days, sightseeing in temperatures pushing fifty degrees celsius was starting to feel normal – in fact, Jordan’s thirty-six degree days feel cool in comparison!
However, while most days had us up as early as four or five a.m to beat the heat, some days we were sightseeing after 2pm – basically, the hottest time of day! In Luxor, we visited Karnak Temple in the late afternoon. Sure, it was empty, but the stone temple became a stone oven.
Being treated like a cash machine
Travelling in a tour group singles you out from regular backpackers, especially in the eyes of touts and anyone else looking to make a buck (including the staff at the hotels and your tour leader). They see you coming from a mile off, and adjust their prices accordingly.
We were frequently asked to fork out extra money, or were told to visit restaurants that were ridiculously over-priced, no doubt because someone was receiving commission somewhere along the line. The entire tour, I found it difficult to stop thinking ‘this wouldn’t have happened if I’d organized it myself’, or ‘this would cost a fifth of the price if I’d bargained for it’.
On my last day in Cairo, both the tour leader and the hotel staff insisted there was no way I would be able to bargain a cheap taxi to the airport from the main street, and instead should pay 80 Egyptian pounds (16 AUD) for the hotel’s transfer. Considering my taxi from the airport had only cost me 50 EGP (10 AUD) with half-hearted bargaining, I waved aside these suggestions and found a taxi driver willing to use his meter – the ride came to 30 EGP (6 AUD).
What tour leader?
I am no stranger to group travel. I’ve done several group tours before (though never with this particular company), and each tour the group leader has always made a concerted effort to develop a rapport with and within the group, joining us for meals and activities and chatting with us about their country. On this tour, we were lucky to be able to find our tour leader, and when we did, he was evasive, indifferent and often downright rude or defensive.
He rarely suggested any activities or sights to see during free time, and when asked for food suggestions, he pretty much only ever pointed out the nearest McDonalds. Um, okay?!
Our leader also made no attempt to discuss responsible travel practices with us, and when we visited a local village, a couple of people in the group were handing out sweets and money to children, something I strongly disagree with and know that the company I was travelling with also frowns upon. The leader completely ignored that it was going on.
Like the heat, not the fault of the tour that Egypt is like one big run-down museum. The sights are incredible, and you can’t turn around without bumping into some ancient piece of antiquity, but virtually nothing is well maintained, including the Giza Plateau and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, two places that house some of the country’s greatest treasures.
It’s a tiring place to visit. The touts, particularly in Upper Egypt, are aggressive and inappropriate. It’s on par with hassle in India. Thankfully, though, I think it’s prepared me well for the rest of my travels!
So would I travel with a group again? Probably. Will I join another group tour on my RTW trip? I can’t see it happening. I am glad I joined a group trip in Egypt though, despite the bad and the ugly. Especially travelling as a solo female, I suspect that the hassle may have scared me off on arrival in Cairo, and without the tour, I might have been loath to even give Egypt a chance.
On my RTW trip during the summer of 2010, I met my friend Alicia in Istanbul and we spent the next 46 days travelling overland through Turkey, Syria and Jordan before I headed to Egypt solo to join up with a quick organised tour through upper Egypt.
Read more about this leg of my trip on my Middle East roundup page.