The temples. The tombs. The pyramids. Egypt has long held a special place in my imagination for its extraordinary millennia-old antiquities. From its golden treasures and dazzling jewelry to its eye-popping architecture and intriguing burial chambers, Egypt’s rich cultural heritage celebrates one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
But when it came time to finally plan a visit, I faced several challenges — even as an experienced traveler (I’ve visited 110 countries). First was the prospect of arranging an extremely complicated trip that included visiting multiple sites scattered around the country, requiring flights, ferries, road vehicles, and cruise ships to access. Second, I was concerned about the cultural barriers and safety of traveling alone as a Western woman in a fairly conservative Muslim country.
The solution? Signing up with an experienced tour company, such as 76-year-old Trafalgar Tours. So I chose their 9-day “Best of Egypt” itinerary that included an iconic Nile River cruise. (This was a complimentary individual media tour.) From the lush river valleys to the vast desert landscapes, the voyage included all the archaeological greatest hits: Giza, Sakkara, Memphis, Valley of the Kings, Karnak, Luxor, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Philae, and the magical Abu Simbel — two rock-hewn temples miraculously moved to higher ground to escape Nile flooding.
These are just some of the reasons why an organized tour is necessary for exploring Egypt on your own.
1. Trip Planning Made Easy
Planning a trip that encompassed Egypt’s antiquities — from the Pyramids of Giza in the north to Abu Simbel 700 miles away to the south — as well as Cairo’s cultural highlights was daunting. So I was happy to let the experts at Trafalgar arrange all transportation, accommodations, most meals, guides, entrance tickets, and other logistics. That allowed me to focus single-mindedly on enjoying the destination itself.
“I wouldn’t know where to start, being unfamiliar with the culture and not knowing who to trust,” said Rosalind Monaghan, a tour member from Albuquerque, at the prospect of designing her own trip.
Pro Tip: Choose a tour company that aligns with your travel style based on level of activity.
2. Safety And Security
With the Department of State warning U.S. citizens to “reconsider travel to Egypt due to terrorism,” traveling in our group of 31 offered the comfort of safety in numbers. Plus, whenever we were transported by coach in Cairo, the local government reassuringly provided security police to ride along. I never felt unsafe.
“Safety was a big issue for us,” said another tour member, Imelda Velayo from Orlando. “It was so comforting in a foreign country to know that the tour company was there for us.”
Pro Tip: Check the State Department travel advisory before planning a trip.
3. Cultural Enrichment
A knowledgeable local guide can bring a destination to life. We were fortunate that our tour leader, Hatem Abdel Aziz, was a trained Egyptologist and university lecturer — and it showed. Not only did he excel in his knowledge of Egypt’s glorious past, but he also shared revealing insights into Egyptian culture not typically found in a guidebook. His infectious passion enhanced our appreciation of this proud 5,000-year-old empire that achieved such remarkable engineering feats without the use of modern tools or technology.
We learned about fascinating tidbits of the ancient world: how the pyramids were built (with mud-brick spiral ramps to drag up the 2.5-ton limestone blocks) and by whom (skilled laborers and not slaves, as commonly thought); that tombs are always on the west side of the Nile (where the Sun sets) while temples are on the east; that temples were built from the bottom up and decorated from the top down; that no royal palaces remain because they were all made of impermanent adobe; and that hippos were considered evil and therefore exterminated from the Nile.
At each temple and tomb, Hatem explained the elaborate Egyptian cosmology, royal lineages, and mysterious hieroglyphs. He illuminated the exquisite wall paintings and carvings, pointing out startling scenes: men force-feeding geese for foie gras and a hippo biting a crocodile’s head at the Saqqara necropolis; surgical scalpels and forceps at Kom Ombo Temple; Christian figures on Luxor Temple, the remains of a one-time Christian church; a three-headed snake (the only one in Egypt) in Ramses IX’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings; and a grinning dwarf-deity playing a harp at Philae Temple.
We also learned about current customs: how Muslims bury their dead (no cremation, embalming, or coffins allowed), why Muslim women cover their hair (to conceal their beauty), why sexes are separated in mosques (to avoid distractions), the main occasions for gifting gold (weddings, births, and Mother’s Day), and the five pillars of Islam (confession, almsgiving, fasting, praying five times daily, and visiting Mecca).
“There’s a difference between just being a tour guide and loving your country,” observed Jeanne Hempen, a retiree from Honolulu. “Hatem really wants us to know the history.”
Pro Tip: Be sure to have U.S. dollars (used throughout the country) or local currency in small bills to tip your tour director and bus drivers. They’re also handy for bargaining with souvenir vendors at many historic sites.
4. Special Experiences
A tour often includes exclusive experiences that are hard to replicate on your own. Trafalgar, for example, features its signature “Be My Guest“ event on every tour, where locals welcome you into their homes to learn about their culture. In the Valley of the Kings, we visited the humble home of village bread bakers who served us mint tea and “sun bread” (so-called because it rises in the Sun) made from local wheat and baked in their earthen oven. Twice a week, each neighboring household bakes its own version with a remarkably distinct flavor from all the others. Wealth here is measured in land and being self-sufficient, the family told us.
At a papyrus shop, we watched the fascinating process of turning papyrus reeds (whose cross-sections reveal a pyramidal shape) into paper — an invention that predated Chinese paper by about 3,000 years. At an alabaster workshop in Aswan, we observed the initial carving of a pot. And at a Cairo perfumery, we sniffed intoxicating scents during an entertaining presentation accompanied by Turkish coffee and lemon mint tea.
Pro Tip: You can buy papyrus paintings (some even personalized), alabaster pots, or perfumes at these stops. Happily, there’s no hard sell.
5. Language Barrier
Although I speak a few European languages, Arabic is definitely not in my repertoire. Having the bilingual tour staff smooth the way was invaluable, despite the availability of translation apps. “I couldn’t have managed the language as a solo traveler,” agreed Amanda Chiavetta from Honolulu.
Pro Tip: Learning a few essential words in Egyptian Arabic, such as min fadlak (“please”) and shoukran (“thank you”), goes a long way.
6. Like-Minded Guests
A group tour offers a valuable bonus to a single traveler: ready-made companions with whom to share the experience. They tend to have similar interests and a love of travel, which facilitates socializing and sometimes even lasting friendships. Plus, they help you avoid the dreaded dinner alone — the bane of solo travelers, especially women.
“You can enjoy the company and meet people with different points of view,” said solo traveler Rosalind Monaghan.
Indeed, I’ll never forget overhearing what the retired Canadian judge in our group said while gazing at the Great Pyramid of Giza: “This is where you bring people who have no hope.”
That sentiment, so moving and profound, could easily have applied to my entire tour.