Expert Advice

Ask the Travel Expert: Help Me Plan My Trip to Egypt

by Rachel Kurlander
Cruise A Nile cruise boat docks along the banks of the Nile. Photo courtesy of Nour el Nil.

We here at Fathom love ambitious, far-ranging trips, but they can be difficult to plan and may require a liaison and fixer who really understands the lay of the land for foreign travelers. In our new series, Expert Advice, we ask travel advisors and agents the most frequently asked travel questions to help you plan that once-in-a-lifetime getaway.

It’s time to go back to Egypt! Political unrest is down, the number of visitors to the country is up, and infrastructure (particularly in the tourism industry) has improved over the last few years, revealing confidence in the major cultural and historical destination. Fathom’s favorite go-to for Egypt intel, Eric Monkaba of word-of-mouth consultancy Tripscaper, sheds some light on making the most of your trip to Egypt.

Egypt has been a major tourist destination since the 19th century, and even though there’s been a recent (peaceful) revolution, there’s always going to be a market for tourism, given how much Egyptian history — along with the fascination with pyramids, temples, and tombs — factor into our own cultural identities. If you needed any more proof, new hotel openings and relaunched Nile boat cruises demonstrate how much confidence people have in Egypt’s tourism industry and in Egypt as a perennial destination.

Now, any trip to Egypt will obviously include Cairo and the pyramids, so the real question becomes how to tackle the southern part of the country. A Nile experience is obviously one that everyone wants to have, but people don’t necessarily know how to go about doing it. The Nile is the longest river in the world, and one of only a few rivers that flows from south to north. Think of it as the mega-highway of Egypt, one that’s been in use for millennia. It’s a must-see, but travelers want to know: Should I see it by land or by sea?

Nour el Nil boat sails down the Nile
Sailing down the Nile River remains a popular way to explore Egypt. Photo courtesy of Nour el Nil.

Let's start with the basics.

Maybe the most critical point is that a cruise traverses an area in three to five days that you can drive in five hours, so a cruise is better suited for someone who enjoys taking it slow, while a land-based trip is for travelers who prefer the experience of staying in a hotel and moving at their own pace for a more customized, less regulated experience. Secondly, you should visit the same two major destinations, regardless of how you get there: Luxor and Aswan.

Medinet Habu temple in Luxor, Egypt
Medinet Habu, the temple of Ramesses III, in Luxor. Photo by Eric Monkaba.

Can you give a rundown of each?

Luxor is the powerhouse of Egypt when it comes to antiquities. There’s the Karnak Temple, the Valley of the Kings, and the tomb of Nefertari, which was only recently opened to the public by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. I especially love incorporating a bicycle ride along the western bank of the Nile through the villages and sugarcane farms whenever I visit.

Aswan, with its sand dunes and granite islands that dot the Nile, is one of the most beautiful cities in Egypt. Don’t miss the Philae Temple, often referred to as the Pearl of the Nile, that was rescued by UNESCO and moved to higher ground while the Aswan High Dam was built. At sunset, take out a Felucca and sail around the islands for a really special experience.

Philae Temple Aswan, Egypt
The Philae Temple in Aswan. Photo by Eric Monkaba.

So it's really about choosing the type of journey, rather than the destination?

Correct. Let’s start with a cruise: There are approximately 200 boats on the Nile, and each of them follow a different schedule, which means coordinating flights, transportation, time in Cairo, and other details around when the boat departs. (This can be tricky, which is why I highly recommend hiring an expert to plan this kind of trip.) The minimum length of a Nile cruise is three nights. You’ll still see all the sites, but you’ll travel at a more assertive pace. These vessels have between 30-75 rooms, and some host history and antiquities lectures on board. I recommend Sanctuary Retreats, which has three fantastic boats on the Nile, and Oberoi Hotels, which just renovated two of their ships with some of the largest cabins and the most unique itineraries on the Nile.

Sanctuary Nile cruise guest room interior
A guest room on one of Oberoi's Nile cruise vessels. Photo courtesy of Oberoi Hotels.
The pool deck on a Sanctuary Retreats cruise. Photo courtesy of Sanctuary Retreats.

Another option is to sail by dahabiya, the more traditional boats commonly used in the early 20th century by aristocrats and sophisticated travelers looking to cruise the Nile in leisurely style. My favorite dahabiyas are from Nour el Nil, whose beautiful fleet rivals any boutique hotel in the area. They range from six to ten cabins, last five nights, and are perfect for people who want to move at a slow pace and visit one site a day (as opposed to a cruise ship, where you’re visiting at least two sites a day). One caveat: Dahibayas have no heating (apart from hot water bottles), and it does get cold in Egypt in the winter, so plan accordingly.

All meals are included on cruises, and a shared guide will be provided, unless you opt to bring your own private guide at a surcharge.

Well-designed guest room on Nour el Nil ship
Nour el Nil is like a floating boutique hotel. Photo courtesy of Nour el Nil.
Nour el Nil boat furnished sundeck
An impeccably designed sundeck. Photo courtesy of Nour el Nil.

And by land?

Ideally, you should spend two nights in Luxor and two nights in Aswan. In Luxor, my favorite hotel is Hotel Al Moudira. It’s in the desert surrounded by sugarcane fields, not too far from the Medinet Habu Temple. It’s stylish, but not pretentious, with gardens connecting the suites and 19th-century design elements.

Exterior facade of Hotel al Moudira in Aswan
The stylish and secluded Hotel al Moudira in Aswan. Photo courtesy of Hotel al Moudira.

The drive from Luxor to Aswan takes about five hours, with two temples to visit along the way: The Temple of Edfu, a relatively recent discovery and one of the best-preserved temples in all of Egypt because its ceiling is still intact, and the Temple of Kom Ombo, which sits along the river.

In Aswan, stay at Sofitel Legend Old Cataract. The Victorian building dates back to 1899 and has hosted such famous guests as Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie. After three years of renovations, the property is looking fabulous. Take high tea on the terrace overlooking the Nile and step back in time.

It’s just as important to have a guide if you’re traveling by land, so be sure to hire one before you arrive.

Guest room suite at Sofitel Legend Old Cataract in Aswan
A posh guest room at the newly-renovated Sofitel Legend Old Cataract. Photo courtesy of Sofitel Legend Old Cataract.

Want to explore more of the African continent? Eric has plenty of ideas about safaris and treks, too.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.