I am asked quite often if there was any country that I did not like. A fair question when you consider I’ve been to 72 countries so far. Firstly, I state that I don’t ever dislike a country because I always find something that awes me. However, I found it really hard work while travelling in Egypt.
Don’t get me wrong. Seeing the iconic splendours of Egypt was magical. The Giza Pyramids, sailing down the Nile and looking up to Ra at Abu Simbel Temples were my highlights. I just found it tiring travelling through this country because I had to haggle for every single thing, several times, every single day. And I wasn’t haggling to buy something dirt cheap. I had to haggle just to be able to pay the normal price.
For me, overcharging and hassle became a daily part of travelling in Egypt. To explain, let me share some examples as I backpacked my way around this ancient, barren land. And then share the simplest way to haggle in this land.
Cairo – the beginning
No matter where you stay in Cairo, every person behind the reception desk has a brother or cousin that is a tour guide. Impossible to confirm if this is true or not. But they had a vested interest to promote these ‘tours’ as obviously they were going to earn a little commission.
So they sold me a day tour to Giza Pyramids plus Saqqara (Step pyramids) and Dahshur (for the Bent and Red pyramids). I told them my main aim at Giza was to go inside the huge pyramids. My Lonely Planet told me it only opens at 7.30am and 1.00pm daily for maximum of 150 visitors only. The friendly hotel reception said ‘no problem’.
The next morning the driver picked me up promptly at 7am and 30 minutes later I found myself at some noisy camel stables. I was a little confused when a camel owner started a well-articulated speech on his camel rides around the pyramid trek. Fifteen minutes passed. I said no thank you as my plan is to go inside the pyramid. They looked so disappointed. But I looked at my driver and reminded him of the promise made that I would go inside the pyramid as part of my tour.
Now 30 minutes passed as they had deep discussions in Arabic. I was getting anxious as I looked at my watch. Finally, they relented and directed a young boy to go and buy my entrance ticket. He returned 20 minutes later with bad news – all 150 tickets have already sold.
The silver lining
I was so angry and annoyed as that was the only goal I wanted to achieve that day. I looked at the camel owner and then my driver. Their delay tactic worked, they won. So I reluctantly went on a camel ride instead, after some haggling of course. Luckily I was pleasantly surprised. The disappointment turned into a gift. If it wasn’t for the following photos that my guide took, I wouldn’t have left a tip.
Aswan – The supermarket sting
To save some money, I decided to go to the local supermarket to stock up on breakfast and lunch items. I always like to look in local supermarkets to see what they have as I like trying different foods.
I went through the shelves and selected cereal, milk and snacks. Strangely enough, there were no prices on the products or the shelves. So while I was waiting in queue at the checkout, I watched what others were paying for their groceries.
Then it came to my turn. Once again, my total bill was about ten times the price. I looked at the cashier and told him ‘But I have half the amount of items that the previous people had, so why do I have to pay so much more?’ This was not right. He just shrugged his shoulders. I looked at the lady behind me for help but she had a blank look on her face.
So I shook my head in disbelief that even supermarkets want to rip off tourists. As I couldn’t argue with the guy when there were no prices anywhere in the shop, I promptly paid and left.
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Mut - the coffee table dance
I was sitting around a basic metal coffee table at Mut bus station with a group of fellow backpackers. Once we all read the one flimsy menu, we put our orders in. An interesting chat was had over our coffees.
Our bus wasn’t due to leave yet but the American suggested we get the bill now because it will be a process to pay. He too was being overcharged everywhere he went. But he developed the art of getting the normal price. “It will only take 30 minutes” he told me. And so the dance began.
- Upon receiving the bill, we told the waiter he overcharged us by showing him the menu prices.
- For 5 minutes the waiter explained how the menu prices were ‘wrong’.
- The American wouldn’t give in. So ten minutes later the waiter returned with an offer to cut the bill by half. The American still wasn’t happy.
- More chatter between the waiter and our group until the waiter walked away again.
- Then I couldn’t believe it. We got the final bill at normal price at exactly 30 minutes after receiving the first inflated bill.
Maybe the waiter saw an opportunity to extort money from us if we had to suddenly leave to catch our bus. Then we would have had no option but to pay. But I guess he gave up after a while when he realised we weren’t leaving in a hurry.
I don’t think I was willing to do 30 minutes of negotiating at every payment. It would be so exhausting. But the American was happy to continue playing their game.
What about bus tickets?
I must add however, that the bus station ticket counter seems to be the only place tourists didn’t get ripped off. What you saw on the board was exactly what you paid for your ticket.
Luxor – the explanation
I finally arrived at the magical city of Luxor. It’s busy with old and some modern buildings but I still like its charm.
I checked into the Oasis Hotel. The friendly owner started asking where I’d been and how am I enjoying Egypt so far. I laughed and said it hasn’t been all that relaxing. ‘I have to continually argue to avoid being overcharged all the time.’ Then he explained to me their current state of affairs.
They are all angry with their politicians. You see, their government collects millions of dollars in fees from ships passing through the Suez Canal but doesn’t give one cent back to its people. There’s no welfare system, unemployment benefits, free education, retirement pensions, medical care etc. Everything we take for granted in the western world.
So the only place where Egyptians can see to make enough money to cover the basic needs is from tourists. Hence the reason why they over charge tourists whenever they can.
The next day it was time for my friends to leave. The hotel owner advised us that it costs 50 qirsh (small change) to use the local microbuses. But the reality was different. All the bus drivers wanted to charge us tourists 10 Egyptian Pounds instead. A 1700% increase! It was cheaper to take a taxi and so they did to avoid another long drawn out haggling session.
When 15 months later Egypt joined the Arab Spring uprisings, I wasn’t surprised. I realised with hindsight that I could see the discontent in all the Egyptians I met on my holiday. It was a matter of time that they would demand fairer treatment from their government.
Sharm el-sheikh – the highway heist
I was staying at a coastal resort in the touristy town of Sharm El-Sheikh. It was my last stop before heading back to Cairo to catch my flight home. The hotel didn’t provide a shuttle bus from Shark Bay to the central hub of Naama Bay. But the hotel reception told me I can catch the local bus on the main road and it only costs 1 Egyptian Pound.
So later in the afternoon, when the sun wasn’t as hot, I walked thirty minutes to the main highway. It was still quite warm but a nice walk. Within minutes the little minivan stopped to pick me up. I boarded and the driver asks for 10 pounds. I told him its only 1 pound. He shakes his head. “But I can get a taxi for 10 pounds, why would I pay the same for a bus”. He shrugs again.
It was nearing the end of my holiday and I had no more patience left. So I said “I’ll pay you double. Here’s 2 pounds and I’m not paying any more than that”. And I promptly sat in a seat. To my surprise the bus driver didn’t stop me. I guess he felt tired too, after a long day driving up and down the same highway.
Cairo – the taxi trick
I eventually returned back to Cairo bus station after a 7 hour journey from Sharm El-Sheikh. An array of taxi drivers were waiting, like vultures ready to pounce on their prey.
A very tall and brash taxi driver quickly grabbed my ruck sack and started heading for his taxi. Before I had time to object or at least negotiate price, my bags were already in the boot (trunk).
‘Where you going?’ asked the driver. After I replied with the name of the hostel, he says with a big smile ‘100 pounds’. I gasped. Here we go again. I told him that it was way too expensive. He proceeds to tell me that the hostel is very far away, which I knew it wasn’t true. As he just lied to me, I decided he doesn’t deserve my business.
By now, there was an audience of taxi drivers gawking at us. So I looked at the crowd and addressed them. “I know for a fact that the hostel is only a ten minute drive away. I also know that a local pays 10 pounds. So I will double it and pay 20 pounds. Who want the business?” A small thin man quickly put his hand.
So I grabbed my own bags out of the expensive cab and headed to the cheaper one. I finally learnt how to negotiate in 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes.
Would I consider travelling in Egypt again?
I must admit, when I sat on the plane for my flight home, I felt a wonderful relief of no more haggling. But when I looked at my photos, I was reminded of the amazing scenery and fascinating history. I did meet good and friendly locals along the way.
I missed out going inside the Giza pyramids. Also I ran out of time to visit the North West region, to places like Alexandria and Siwa Oasis.
So yes, I would travel to Egypt again. But my haggling skills are now refined so it should be a less mentally tiring adventure.
Would you go travelling to Egypt?