Having traversed nearly 100 countries, many of them alone, I like to think I’m a pretty fearless traveller. But I won’t deny I was a little apprehensive about travelling to Egypt on my own – the ongoing threat of terrorism in the region combined with Egypt’s political instability and reputation for sexual harassment doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in a lone female traveller.
But, Egypt! With its awe-inspiring ancient relics and endless opportunities for adventure and cultural immersion, it’s the ultimate travel destination. And with visitor arrivals so low at the moment, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to explore the sights without the crowds. So off I went! Here’s my advice for other solo ladies considering a trip.
Come prepared…for Egypt to challenge your perceptions
I was blown away by how incredibly welcomed I felt in Egypt – indeed, the first word most locals learn in English is “welcome,” which you can expect to hear often. Travelling alone as a woman, however, is an unfathomable concept to most Egyptians, so you can expect to receive more attention than most women will be used to dealing with in their own country. While some of this attention will be unwelcome, most of it will be the opposite – as a lone female you’re more likely to be befriended by Egypt’s naturally hospitable locals, and you’ll miss out on some memorable moments if you’re too scared to speak to them or indulge requests for selfies.
Consider taking a tour
I’ve met plenty of women who have travelled to Egypt independently and had a good time, but I felt more comfortable signing up for a small group tour taking in Cairo, Aswan and Luxor for the first part of my trip, then staying on for a few days in Luxor, and then in Cairo, on my own. This allowed me to ease into the destination in the comfort of a group before tackling it on my own. I’d feel comfortable returning solo, but some women might find travelling here independently for the first time a little challenging, due to…
The hassle factor
Google ‘Egyptian men’, and you’ll find plenty of online stories from women about their negative experiences with local men. And while sexual harassment and catcalls (ranging from “hello, my future wife!” to more sleazy lines) are unfortunately common, as they are in many countries, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a far lower volume of unwanted attention than I expected.
The most daring line used in an effort to lure me into a Luxor souvenir shop was “show me your beautiful eyes” (I kept walking). As a tall, blonde, decidedly un-Egyptian-looking woman, I was bracing for more hassle in Cairo. To the contrary – aside from a few curious stares, I didn’t have any problems exploring the downtown area, where I stayed on my own. The streets buzzed with families into the wee hours, and I loved soaking up the atmosphere – and posing for a few family photos – as I strolled between kushari (the national dish) restaurants, museums and galleries.
I hired a driver in Luxor for an afternoon to explore the sights of the west bank that weren’t included in my tour (don’t miss Nefertari’s tomb!), which was well worth the E£250 (about US$20) to avoid the hassle of negotiating with taxi drivers at each stop, and I recommend this option to other solos who aren’t keen to fork out for expensive organised day trips. I also signed up for several excellent Urban Adventures in Cairo, and I don’t feel like I could have explored Egypt’s cosmopolitan capital in anywhere near as much depth, or as easily or comfortably, if I’d opted to go it alone.
As for travelling between tourist areas, solo women may find it more comfortable to fly, which costs about the same as first-class train tickets (the safest option).
Tips for solo women travellers to Egypt
- Dress appropriately. While baring your shoulders and knees doesn’t imply a woman is ‘asking’ for anything, it can be interpreted as such by some men. Covering up (a long skirt or pants and a t-shirt is fine, though a long-sleeved shirt is ideal) also conveys your respect for Egyptian culture. Keep a scarf handy for visiting mosques.
- Always sit in the back seat of taxis, and stay alert, as there have been reports of assaults. Arrange drivers and taxis through your hotel where possible, or use Uber, which many local women say is safer.
- Even friendly conversation can sometimes be interpreted as flirting; avoid engaging if you don’t feel comfortable, even if it feels impolite. Likewise, politely decline selfie requests if you’re not comfortable.
- Do not accept invitations from friendly strangers to show you around or take you for a meal unless you feel 100% safe. Most have good intentions, but some don’t.
- If you’re using Cairo’s metro, seek out the women’s carriages. I felt comfortable travelling in mixed carriages with a guide, but there have been reports of groping.
- Resist the ‘assistance’ of staff or unregistered guides at tourist sights. All will expect a tip, and some may try for more.
- Do not eat, drink (even water) or smoke in public during Ramadan, which is considered impolite (and sometimes an offence).
- Egypt has been brewing beer for 3000 years and drinking is not taboo (even for some Muslims), but you will attract attention if you go to a public bar on your own.
- Trust your instincts. If you enter a hotel, restaurant or cab and get a leery vibe, don’t brush it off. Get out of there.
- Wearing a wedding ring and/or inventing a husband (and children) may help you to avoid unwanted attention.
- Bring your own sanitary products; tampons can be expensive and difficult to find in Egypt.
All images c/o Sarah Reid.