I prefer to travel alone because I can take my time and see what I want to see. I rarely do guided tours with a travel company unless they can do it cheaper and easier than I can on my own. After a good report from some friends who had taken an Egypt tour with Expat Explore, I decided to book one for myself. It was only the third time I had taken a tour like this. I chose the Best of Egypt tour (no longer available as of January 2017).
I set off from Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. It was a short flight, just over 90 minutes, and I sat next to a very nice Egyptian lady heading home to visit family. Her name was Najda and she was married to a Turkish man and lived in Ankara. I was proud of myself because I had an hour long conversation in Turkish with her (not her first language, either). She showed me lots of pictures of her family and invited me to meet them if I am ever in Ankara.
We touched down and I walked to the customs area where I had to buy my Egyptian visa. I attached it to a page in my passport and went through passport control. Then I went to retrieve my luggage. I waited, and waited, and waited some more. It was a good 30 minutes before my bag showed up on the belt, but I was mesmerized by the machine and the sensor. Sadly, it was entertaining enough to keep me from getting bored.
Once I got my bag, I met the customer representative from Expat Explore outside the exit. We hopped into a van and headed to the hotel. It took at least 45 minutes and it felt like we were going in circles – everything looked the same! I wanted to sleep but instead I had the rep organize some tours for me for the next couple days. One tour would take me to Dahshur and Memphis, the other to Alexandria.
We arrived at the Oasis Hotel and I was taken to my room. The hotel was amazing. It was easily the nicest hotel on the tour. I wasn’t expecting anything so nice on such a cheap tour. The room was big and comfortable, the grounds were pristinely kept, and the staff was helpful. I also enjoyed the pool and was able to watch part of an Egyptian wedding.
The negatives about the hotel start with the food, which is overpriced and not very good. A bottle of water was also five times more expensive than it is outside the hotel. The location isn’t that great, either, if you want to explore Cairo. It’s only 15 minutes away from the Pyramids, but a good 30 minutes to central Cairo and you need a taxi. For safety reasons, I was told not to wander off the hotel grounds.
The day the tour officially began I was returning from my day trip to Alexandria. I had a couple hours to kill before our tour meeting in one of the banquet rooms of the hotel. I went to my room, took a nap, freshened up, and went to the meeting.
When I arrived at the meeting, I had a seat at the table and was shocked to see about 30 others sitting in the room. A couple of friends the year before went on the exact same tour and had only four total travelers on their tour. I was also told that the maximum number of travelers for the tour would be 15. It wasn’t a problem, I was just a bit surprised. One thing I look for when I book a tour is the number of travelers – the more people on the tour, the more chaotic and cliquish things become, and it also seems more time is spent gathering people than seeing sights or doing anything relevant (that’s why I formed my own travel company in Colombia).
At the meeting is where I met our guide, Sem Sem. He’s a Coptic Christian, and both of us being Orthodox, we immediately bonded. Sem Sem explained the details and rules of the tour, where we would visit, how we would get to each place, and then a brief history and demographic breakdown of Egypt. I can tell you that I have never met a more honest and hard-working guide than Sem Sem. He is a down-to-earth guy, very honest and funny, and he knew everything about everything. He answered all questions with lots of useful information.
As a Coptic Orthodox Christian, Sem Sem was also able to give a minority religion point of view on modern Egypt and dispel lots of rumors about religious intolerance and sectarian violence in the country. I became good friends with Sem Sem on this tour and will continue to keep in touch with him. He invited me to come back to Egypt any time and enthusiastically said he would take me anywhere in the country, just for his love of Egypt, and not as a guide.
I was very happy with the amount of things packed into this tour. It was nonstop and I was exhausted by the time we got to Hurghada. With the exception of Aswan, the West Bank of Luxor, and Cairo, I saw just about everything I would like to have seen in the places we went.
As far as logistics, the trip wasn’t without it’s problems, but I can say that Sem Sem more than made up for the shortcomings. He did everything he possibly could to make everyone in the group happy, and when there was a problem or glitch in the schedule, he went above and beyond to make sure the tour didn’t miss a beat. With 30 people on the tour, he also had to put out a lot of fires and deal with a lot of interesting personalities.
I have to say the best part of this tour wasn’t the temples or the sun or most definitely not the food. It was the people I met and the fun times we experienced together on the tour. Others on the tour were from Colombia, Belgium, Poland, and the USA, but mostly from Australia.
Since Egypt is a big country full of history, I would like to return to Cairo and Alexandria because there is so much to explore in each of those cities. I would also like to spend a week in the Western Desert and visit the oases, and a few other lesser-known ancient temples and Coptic monasteries.