Travelling in Egypt by public transport

Arriving in Cairo after having travelled in Southern and Eastern Africa for several months, it was a real shock to see huge highways, metros and functional trains. Egypt’s public transport is a little less of the disorganised but highly functional chaos that works so well further South in Africa and much more organised from a Global North perspective. One word of caution for women travelling in Egypt – especially on public transport – Egyptian society is very conservative and patriarchal. You will see a lot less women in public spaces than men. I was travelling with my boyfriend, which was often quite reassuring to me. Just be a little extra cautious and prepare yourself to be stared at, even when dressing conservatively. I would also advise you to make sure not to be the last person in a microbus, better get off with the other passengers, even if that means walking a little way. I was groped by one microbus driver when getting off as the last person at one occasion. In general, however, Egyptians are very welcoming and nice, so I don’t want to put you off from visiting. Just know it will rather male-dominated at times (it really depends on where you go!) and keep your wits about you.

Public transport in Cairo

Cairo features three metro lines. You have to buy the tickets in cash at one of the counters in the metro stations – preferably with the more or less exact amount. (The clerks might tell you they don’t have change.) Egyptians do not queue, so just go for it. Tell the clerk precisely where you want to go and they will give you a ticket to go to exactly that station. Don’t change your mind in the metro and go one station further or you’ll have to pay a fine of 50 Egyptian pounds (~1,5€) – believe me, this is tried and tested. A ride of about 20 minutes will cost around 5 Egyptian pounds (~0,15€). The middle carriage is for women only, the other carriages will be mostly full of men and maybe some families.

Besides the metro lines there are a lot of microbuses that go pretty much everywhere, but it is more difficult to understand how to get from one point to another if you do not speak Arabic. It might be difficult for more complex journeys, but just going to the metro station or some other known landmark is totally doable. The best way to take a microbus is to flag it down on a major street going the way you want to go. Just stretch out your arm and wave it when you see one approaching. Once the driver stops, tell them where you want to go and they will tell you to get in or not, depending on their route. You can ask other passengers about the fee, but usually the driver will tell you anyways. When they make a gesture for you to pay or tell you how much, hand the money towards the front and they will hand the change back to you. The microbuses are quite cheap, I paid about 5 Egyptian pounds for a ride of about 15 minutes. Learning some basic Arabic helps a lot. You can shout ‘Alagam’ when you want to get off.

In most cities and towns there are also tuk tuks. Be sure to haggle, because they will likely tell you a price triple of what the ride is actually worth at the beginning. The same goes for taxi drivers. The haggling takes a long time and you often have to start with a ridiculously low price to then agree on a correct one because they ask for so much at the beginning.

When you don’t feel like haggling, you can also get an Uber in the big cities Cairo and Alexandria. There are also two other apps called InDrive and DiDi where you can get better deals. However, Uber was never too expensive either and I used it quite a lot.

Public transport in Alexandria

There are several tram lines in Alexandria and you can pay your ticket on the tram. A conductor will pass through the carriages and you can pay them in cash. It’s very cheap. I paid 2 Egyptian pounds for a 15 minute ride. The front carriage is reserved for women only.

Otherwise, there are also the usual microbuses going everywhere in town. They are slightly more expensive than the tram, but only by a couple of pounds, and faster. In Alexandria a local explained to me that they had different hand signs for the different routes. So for example when you want to go to a specific place on route A, you need to stick out a finger and make a turning motion when flagging down the microbus, whereas you would need to make a different hand gesture when wanting to go to a place on route B. You can of course also just flag them down with a stretched out hand and open palm and then ask the driver if they go to your destination.

As mentioned before, there is also Uber, InDrive and DiDi in Alexandria. The Uber driver might not follow the map exactly and you might need to guide them a little or walk towards where they say they ‘have arrived’, but overall it works quite well.

Taking the train in Egypt

Trains are quite expensive for non-Egyptians. I paid 35 USD for the trip from Cairo to Aswan in a second class carriage. The rates depend on the train type. You can read more about it on Seat 61. In Cairo, you have to buy your ticket in advance at a separate counter on the first floor inside the central train station. (The ticket booth for Egyptians is outside of the train station.) You have to pay cash in a foreign currency. I paid in US dollars, but I think they probably also take euros. Make sure that you have rather spotless banknotes, because they were quite picky. On the day of your journey, you can ask at the information counter inside the train station at which platform the train to your destination is leaving and somebody will show you there. The train to Aswan left at 10.00 in the morning and we arrived slightly delayed at 23.45 in the evening in Aswan. There was strong A/C in the train, so bring a warm hoodie or blanket. The locals all had blankets and slept during the day, completely covered by their blankets. There is a little food cart going through the train selling snacks, but I’d say it’s best to bring your own snacks for a longer journey. People also try to sell you lots of stuff, from crisps to charging cables and belts. The vendors run through the train, dropping their goods on peoples’ laps and then come back later to either get money or their goods back. It’s quite an aggressive but also quite amusing selling method, so be prepared for lots of stuff being dropped onto your lap. While the highway runs through the Sahara, the train tracks follow the Nile, so you get some nice views.

Travelling longer distances in Egypt by bus

I would recommend Go Bus to travel longer distances. They have a website in English, you can book your seats online, they are quite reliable, make regular toilet/snack stops, have a toilet on board and do have A/C that works okay to okayish. It does not at all get too cold like in the train. Don’t book the front seats if you mind cigarette smoke because the bus drivers regularly smoke while driving. You can also ask them not to smoke, but this endeavor might or might not be successful. There will most likely be a guy who takes your luggage, puts a sticker on it and puts it into the booth of the bus for you. He will demand a tip for this. You can give about 5 Egyptian pounds.

You can also try to take a microbus, but they do not have A/C and it is quite difficult to get a fair rate on a local microbus for longer distances as a foreigner without speaking Arabic. I took a microbus from Kom Ombo to Luxor. It took quite some time and the translation skills of a tuk tuk driver for me to find a local microbus with other passengers. The others somehow all wanted to take me alone for very high prices. I paid 200 Egyptian pounds (~6€) for the journey, which I had a feeling was double the usual price. The highway between the two towns goes through the Sahara and in August it gets really hot, so make sure to have enough water with you before embarking on such a journey.

Taking a felucca from Aswan to Kom Ombo

You can take a small sailing boat from Aswan up to Luxor if you fancy some quiet time on the Nile. I had seen it as a great alternative to taking a bus, so I was all up for it. Just know that the locals do not see such a boat ride as a form of transport, but more as a tourist activity – a pleasure ride with many breaks for visiting temples and swimming in the Nile. You can either book this through your accommodation or some agency if you don’t mind spending a lot of money, or you just start talking to guys hanging out around the Corniche (Nile promenade) in Aswan. They will most likely approach you anyways, offering felucca trips. In conversations with several ‘captains’, we were told that you need six nights to get to Luxor or two nights to get to Kom Ombo. However, going to Kom Ombo can clearly be done in one day as we discovered during our trip. Retrospectively that is what we would have wanted and should have asked for. However, they all told us that two days were needed to get to Kom Ombo. A two night trip to Kom Ombo can cost between 2500 and 5000 Egyptian pounds including food and sometimes a toilet aboard, depending on your negotiating skills. Be sure to meet the actual captain of the boat and also check out their felucca before you go. Sometimes there are many middle men involved in this informal business. Your captain will need a copy or photo of your passport to get a police permit that they need to be allowed to ship around tourists. A two night trip seemed to have a clear schedule: departure in the late morning, sailing until a lunch break along the way, then a long afternoon stop for swimming and then stopping in the early evening close to Kom Ombo for the first night. On the second day, you can visit a camel market and the Kom Ombo temple and museum, then sail around near Kom Ombo, breaking for swimming, before stopping close to the first night’s stop for the second night. On the third day, they then deliver you to Kom Ombo from where you can take the train or a microbus further to Luxor. After a pretty sleepless first night because of eternally barking dogs at the spot our captain had chosen for the night’s stop, we decided to cut the trip short and get off in Kom Ombo in the morning of the second day. It was a very nice experience though, gliding over the Nile, watching the landscapes pass by and having a dip in the water. (Just be aware that bilharzia is present in the Nile, so you should take an appropriate dose of Praziquantel a few weeks later if you swim in the river.) If you decide to take a trip on a felucca make sure to communicate very well your expectations beforehand, and you’re sure to enjoy the experience.