Talk about leaving things to the last minute: literally, I landed in Egypt unsure if I was going to take a group tour or not. I had three nights booked at a lush apartment in Cairo, and after that I had a week in which I’d planned to either hop on a whirlwind group tour, or independently explore the highlights of ancient Egypt. Which to chose is probably a decision most travelers to Egypt will debate at some point, especially women who travel there solo, like me.
After a lengthy pro-and-con-weighing party, I ended up on a group tour — and I had an absolutely incredible time. Now, it wasn’t all rainbow pyramids and unicorn hieroglyphics — the bus rides were long, and the wake up calls were tragically early. Egypt is not perfect and it is not easy and solo travelers will make some sacrifices regardless of how they chose to explore it. But there is something magic in the air, and I left my tour totally intoxicated by it.
Why a Tour
As soon as I got to Cairo, I realized pretty quickly, I didn’t need to do a tour like I had originally suspected I might. That was a really freeing feeling, because I realized that I wasn’t trapped. I felt comfortable enough and confident enough navigating Cairo solo — surely Luxor and Aswan would be manageable as well. I’d be able to set my own schedule, get tons of work done, and have a relaxing week exploring Egypt’s ancient sites at my own pace.
But here’s why I hesitated to do so, and why I ended up jumping on a tour instead.
• Having a guide for all the sites: I love wandering around temples and ancient ruins, but often it’s more for the joy of being outside, the aesthetic beauty, and the creative photography potential rather than for the history. It’s strange for someone with as vivid an imagination I have — you cannot even fathom the daydreams that got me through high school science classes — but I sometimes have a hard time connecting the history of a place to what I’m seeing in front of me. For example, I adore the ruins of Angkor Wat and have been three times. But can I stand in front of them and picture them as the thriving empires they once were? No, and I really wish I could!
Egypt is the only nation in the world where the study of its history is its own degree — Egyptology — and I really wanted to try my hardest to connect the places I was planning to go to their fascinating pasts. Sure, technically I could have hired independent guides at each of the sites, of course, but… I think I know myself well enough to know that that would not have happened, ha.
• Meeting other travelers: Egypt doesn’t have a huge hostel scene and while I love my “me time” and traveling solo, I also love the backpacker scene and meeting other wanderlusters on the road. For whatever reason, I was just craving some of that socialization for this particular trip, and at this particular moment in time, Egypt doesn’t have the infrastructure for it — there’s no Khao San Road of Cairo. If you’re traveling solo to Egypt and really want to share your experience with other travelers, a tour is the way to go.
• Getting on a boat: Most importantly, I desperately wanted to do an overnight felucca ride down the Nile! I first really became passionate about visiting Egypt years ago when I read my friend Angie’s blog posts about her own trip here, and became captivated by the idea of sailing down the world’s most fascinating waterways using the same kind of boats and sails used by the ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids.
I did extensive research to try to find out if this was something that would be feasible to arrange independently, and I was not encouraged. Again this cycles back to the lack of a backpacker scene — Egypt isn’t a place where you can just rock into a hostel bar in Aswan and say, “hey y’all, I’ll buy shots for anyone who charters a felucca with me tomorrow!” — which is in fact a method I have employed to convince people to go on crazy adventures with me several times in the past. If you were traveling with a group of your own, you might be able to make the arrangements, though certainly not easily. As a solo traveler, it wasn’t even a pipe dream.
In the end, this is what tipped me over the edge — I realized that as much as I would have enjoyed a relaxing week of solitude, my time in Egypt would not have felt complete without the felucca experience. And you know what? I was right. It was the absolute highlight of the mainland Egypt for me — but more on that later.
Basically, even if you’re not normally a tour person, (which I’m not, considering I’ve really only done something comparable to this once in the past), you might find Egypt the perfect place to try one. Contrary to popular opinion, I think I would’ve felt perfectly safe and comfortable traveling Egypt on my own — yet I’m thrilled I chose a tour regardless, for the reasons above.
Why Travel Talk Tours
There are a lot of choices when it comes to picking a tour company offering a roughly eight day itinerary around the highlights of Luxor, Aswan and Cairo. I focused my research on the well-known international brands that I felt confident I could trust with my precious travel time and funds.
Since the felucca experience was my top priority, that drove a lot of my decisions. Intrepid Travel and G Adventures only did one night on the felucca, for which I ruled them out. Contiki did three nights on the felucca and took overnight trains instead of buses, which all sounded incredible to me, but they also stopped in Hurghada, which I couldn’t care less about, and they were the most expensive of all the tours I looked at by a significant percentage.
Travel Talk Tours did two nights on a felucca, and was the most budget friendly of the group, which I suspected would bring a fun young crowd — the type that under different circumstances might be backpacking solo, like me. The dates aligned (though I did leave Cairo a day early to get to my pre-arranged liveaboard from the Sinai Peninsula), and so when Travel Talk Tours invited me to join their Felucca Odyssey Tour, I hopped aboard with just two days to spare.
Our itinerary brought us from Cairo to Luxor and down to Aswan by bus, then back up to Luxor via felucca, and then back to Cairo via bus again. Have more than eight days? More than half our group of fifty-ish (we were split into two buses, so it felt about half that size) continued on to longer itineraries that included stopping at the Dead Sea in Dahab, or even longer still to continue on to Jordan after.
What I Loved
• The felucca ride: I’ll never forget the memories of this two day sail along one of the world’s most important waterways. After days of early wake up calls, long bus rides, and really intense sightseeing, this is the part of the trip that felt like a bliss-filled vacation. Travel Talk Tours has the whole thing down to a science: the Nubian crew they work with is fantastic, the food is great, and they really just take care of everything so you can unwind and focus on important tasks like drinking Egyptian wine before noon and letting your fingers drag in the water alongside the boat.
• The food: No one is more surprised than me to have this in the “what I loved” category on a budget tour. Travel Talk Tours includes breakfast every morning at the hotels, which was particularly memorable and Egyptian influenced in Luxor — think falafel and beans and fresh chopped veggie salads for breakfast! Then while it isn’t included in the tour, they also bring you to a local restaurant every day for lunch that generally costs about 150EGP… think more falafel and beans and fresh chopped veggie salads, plus various grilled meats. I loved the lunches — they brought us to hole-in-the-wall restaurants I never would have found on my own and ordered dishes I probably wouldn’t have tried on my own, and I developed a real love for Egyptian food in the process.
Twice, dinner was often a part of optional add-on excursions, both of which I skipped in favor of ordering room service at the hotel and winding down after long days of touring, twice it was included as part of the felucca ride, twice it was snacks along the very long bus rides to and from Cairo, and once, in Luxor, it was breaking off and going to a nice dinner independently with a few friends.
• Our guides: Our local Egyptian guide Sam was brilliant. He had a youthful vibe and really connected well with the group, knowing when we were mentally ready for a long history lecture and when we were spent. He colored in so much of the history and culture of the places we were seeing — but he also had our backs if anything ever got heated, like when someone in the group accidentally forgot that one of the Valley of King’s tombs was off-limits for photos (it was a very confusing situation, in his defense, and there were no reminder signs) and got their phone taken away by a guard, or when vendors got a little too enthusiastic trying to sell us stuff. He told us exactly what we should be paying for everything, from bathroom admission to t-shirts to cans of soda, which was incredibly helpful in the land of no price tags. What I enjoyed most though were our little side chats about random aspects of modern life in Egypt — he gave me so much local perspective I wonder if I ever could have gleaned otherwise.
Without a guide, how would I have found the world’s first wifi signal?! Ha!
• The crew: Travel Talk Tours is aimed at travelers age 18-35, though they do make exceptions, like they did for the cute Canadian mother daughter pair in our group. Most travelers came from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, with a few North Americans and even one or two Europeans thrown in for good measure. While it was a shorter and busier tour than the one I did through the Greek Isles, I had that same surprising enjoyment of being part of a big group and getting to know everyone, and walked away with a few amazing friends that I’m still in touch with, plan to travel again in the future with, and am so grateful for having gotten to know!
• Letting go: So, I’m going to confess I basically did no research for the mainland Egypt part of this trip. When I thought I might do it independently, I was like, okay well I got the guidebook so I’ll just wing it! The Red Sea portion of the trip had taken way more time and energy to plan than I expected, and so I flew to Egypt knowing essentially nothing about how I’d spend my first ten days. After expending so many mental resources planning my diving adventures, it was kind of a treat to show up every day to a tour and just be like, hm, wonder what Sam has in store for us today!
What I Liked
• The hotels: We didn’t spend much time in them, but the hotels we stayed in were lovely, with Luxor’s Steigenberger Hotel definitely being the most impressive of the bunch. And luckily, it was one that we got an afternoon to enjoy! The Nile-side pool was a stunner, the rooms were lovely, and the poolside eats were delicious — oh, and did I mention the breakfast?! In addition, The Oasis Hotel Pyramids in Cairo was a nice calm respite from a hectic city, and the Helnan Hotel in Aswan also had a rocking river-side pool setup.
What I Loathed
• The bus: Honestly, everything else on this list just pales in comparison to the deep, passionate loathing I felt for the Travel Talk Tours bus. I was kind of vaguely expecting one of those South American VIP buses that are comparable to first class airline seats. I mean, one thing I really cannot overemphasize about this tour is how much time you will spend on the bus. Egypt is enormous!
One of the main issues with the bus was that the seats were varying distances apart — in some rows, I could sit comfortably and had enough space to read or put my bag on the ground under my feet. In others, even teeny 5’1″ me had their knees knocking against the seat in front of me! I spent one short ride in a row so tight I boarded the bus hilariously early the rest of the trip out of sheer claustrophobic panic that I’d end up back there. The bus was completely full too, so two people were ending up in those seats no matter what.
The other thing to keep in mind is the bus bathroom. Apologies for getting really real here, but we were told on at the welcome briefing that the bathroom is for #1 only, which immediately raised a red flag for me. Egypt is a country known for bringing up some light gastro-intestinal distress in even the most hardy travelers, and we had ten hours on that thing at times?! Color me concerned.
Finally, I had major issues with the rest stop we twice stopped at between Cairo and Luxor. Imagine sixty people getting off a six hour bus ride with limited bathroom access… and using two bathroom stalls. We were there for well over an hour each time, just waiting in line in a smoke-filled gas station. I couldn’t help but think of Thailand, where the tour companies like Lomprayah invest in building rest stop bathrooms with like, a bazillion stalls to keep their buses running smoothly — what an incredible investment it would be for Travel Talk and the other tour companies that I’m sure use this route to pitch in and build like, ten more bathroom stalls (or just upgrade their buses so it could be a quick snack stop instead of a ninety minute wait-in-the-bathroom-line stop.)
Overall, it is hard to express in words how uncomfortable the bus was, or how much time you will spend on it, other than to say that one of the other girls and I looked up flights to skip the final ride back to Cairo and had seats been available I would have booked it in a heartbeat.
• Shopping stops: Our itinerary included stops at government licensed shopping centers for Egyptian perfume, papyrus, and sculptures. While I found the papyrus demonstration actually quite interesting and I did buy a small souvenir at the sculpture studio, overall I could have done without these stops and had more free time instead. However, for those that plan to do a lot of shopping they are a safe way to know what you’re buying is genuine, and I assume the commissions are part of what makes Travel Talk so affordable.
• Running ragged: This is not a tour for low energy individuals. Some nights we checked into our hotel at 2am and checked out the next morning at 8am. Some nights, the optional add-on excursion got in at 10pm and the alarm went off at 4am. Sleep was in short measure, for sure, and with the bus situation being what it was, it was not easy to make it up via naps. As a fairly slow and traveler myself, this was a big shock to the system. I kept sane and smiling by upgrading to a single supplement and choosing to skip a lot of the extra excursions in favor of some brief “me time” at the hotels.
And while I certainly would not consider this a “party tour,” because Egypt is just not a party destination, there was a fair amount of drinking on the felucca and a few of us had a night out in Luxor as well. Blend that in with the chaotic itinerary, lack of sleep, and large amount of time spent in close quarters, and it’s no wonder that half the bus got sick with cold-like symptoms. Many of us had also been on Contiki tours in the past so we joked about what our current version of the Contiki Cough could be called — Travel Talk Tuberculosis? Travel Talk Typhoid? Whatever it was, I had it bad!
• The waste: One of the things both I and my fellow Travel Talkers were astounded by throughout Egypt was the amount of garbage everywhere — on the streets, in the waterways, everywhere. I’m a fairly well-traveled chick who has seen some serious trash mountains, but Egypt was on another level, and it made my heart ache. I’m certainly not blaming local communities who may not have the education, resources, or energy to care about the perils of poisoning the planet with disposable plastics, but as privileged travelers who understand the repercussions, I do think we have a responsibility to do more than just sigh out the bus window about how much trash we see and then turning around and contributing to it.
So, I felt particularly uncomfortable when our two day felucca ride involved being served every meal on styrofoam plates with plastic forks and teeny tiny plastic cups. The serving plates and utensils were steel, as were the crew’s personal cups, so clearly there was some sort of washing up system in place. As Travel Talk seems to be using the same feluccas and crew every week, why not invest in more real plates, forks, and cups to eliminate all that waste, which will likely eventually up in that beautiful Nile we were there to see? I realize there could be some tricky cultural issues as essentially you’d be asking the crew to do more work every meal, but I have to feel in the long run it is worth it to stop the constant flow of polystyrene into the local environment.
Maybe I’m living in a fantasy land with this one, but wouldn’t it be nice if the guides gently encouraged their groups not to take plastic bags for the one or two snacks they buy when we stop the bus at a rest stop?
On a personal note, I often struggle with how to share eco-travel ideas without those around me, and on this trip I was really proud of myself for pushing myself out of my comfort zone to share some of these thoughts with my fellow Travel Talkers. Many noticed me forgoing the plastic forks in favor of my travel fork and spoon set, and many saw me filling my Lifestraw bottle right from the tap, both of which sparked a lot of conversation! For those who were really interested, I also shared other products I travel with like steel staws, solid shampoo, and bamboo toothbrushes. At dinner one night on the felucca, I brought up my concerns about the rampant polystyrene and plastic use on the boats, and when I noted everyone was really open to the conversation, I suggested that if we all shared these ideas on our Travel Talk feedback forms, it could spark real change.
What It Cost
Guys, the Travel Talk Tours of Egypt are just crazy cheap. If you read this post and thought, “that all sounds great, but no way I’m getting on that bus!,” then the price tag may have you reconsidering — and practicing creative new ways to origami your own legs.
Prices vary throughout the year, but for the month of June, the tour I took is on sale for $623USD. Kind of crazy, right? Travel Talk breaks down their payments into a booking payment, in this case of $409USD, and a “local payment” you make upon arrival, which in this case works out the $214USD.
This includes transportation (including to and from the airport), accommodation, your guide, and eight breakfasts, two lunches, and three dinners. It does not include tips, other meals, or entrance fees to any temples. Notably, it also does not include a visit to Abu Simbel, which is sold as an add-on excursion, so if you’re comparing with other tour companies that do include it, you’ll need to factor that cost in to make it an even side-by-side comparison. Personally, I found it a little silly that it wasn’t included — we took our own bus to get there, so it was hard to see how it could really be considered an “add on”, and all but four people on our tour did it (those who didn’t only did so out of extreme budgetary concerns).
Here’s one example of what to budget for the week:
• Temple Admissions: 3280EGP or $184USD (960 for itinerary temple admissions, collected ahead by guide, 90for Giza Boat Museum, 300 for Valley of Kings photo ticket, 200 for King Tut Tomb ticket, 1430 to Abu Simbel optional extra and 300 for Abu Simbel photo ticket — technically I was a guest of Travel Talk for the Abu Simbel option extra but I have included it here regardless for accuracy)
• Food: 1705EGP or $96USD (extra lunches, dinners, and snacks)
• Alcohol: 1720EGP or $96USD (750 ona bottle of wine and a bottle of vodka for the felucca, 300 on a night out in Luxor, and 665 on three poolside cocktails at our hotels — hotel alcohol is super overpriced!)
• Gratuities: 1380EGP or $77USD (150 for the felucca crew, 800 for our guide, 80 for the airport transfer and porter tips, and 350 for the driver and hotel staff, collected at the beginning of the tour)
• Visa: 445 EGP or $25USD
• SIM Card: 380EGP or $20USD (I bought enough data for a full three weeks in Egypt — if you’re just here for the tour, you’ll need far less, but don’t even think about depending on hotel wifi! It was awful in all cases and could only be used in the lobby and did not extend to the rooms.)
TOTAL: 8910EGP or $498USD
Clearly, you could spend far less than I if you forwent some of the photo tickets, bought a smaller SIM card, and avoided hotel alcohol or didn’t drink at all. You could also spend more if you piled on more optional extras, like the hot air balloon ride over Luxor (which I skipped out of protest since you aren’t allowed to take photos, ha) or the evening meals (which I skipped out of desperation for some down time.)
I also skipped Philae Temple in Aswan out of exhaustion and left a day early, missing the final day of touring in Cairo (which was fine as I’d seen the sights on my own) so my admission fees were slightly lower than others’ would be. Finally, you can use a student ID to significantly reduce admission fees, but good luck — mine was accepted with scorn in some locations before being outright rejected at Valley of Kings. Then I stopped trying. Others who had valid student IDs (mine is technically not, obviously, though my school didn’t date them!) also were given a hard time. Regardless, I’d plan about $500 in spending money.
Overall, I had an incredible time exploring mainland Egypt. While I would love to see Travel Talk Tours upgrade their bus fleet, adopt some more environmentally friendly business practices, and include Abu Simbel in their itinerary, I do appreciate their accessible pricing, the experiences they created, their great guides and team, and the wonderful crew of travelers they attract!
Next up: where we went and what we did!
What do you think? Would you join a group tour in Egypt or do it solo — or a mixture, like me?