After two weeks in Egypt talking with plenty of locals and doing way more research than I should have about our trip… here is everything women (solo and otherwise) need to know — from clothing to customs to safety — for an unforgettable trip to the land of the Pharaohs.
Solo Female Travelers: What to Pack for Egypt
Egypt is more sand than streets, so you’ll want to pack for spending a week in the desert, even if you plan on being mostly in Cairo or any of the other cities. Deserts get insufferably hot during the day and surprisingly cold at night, meaning layering is key.
Pack lightweight items that are either moisture-wicking or 100% cotton or linen. (This goes double for your underwear!) I opted for linen pants and cotton shirts over cotton tank tops.
For the chilly nights, I wore jeans and cotton sweaters with open weaves for breathability. I went for versatility, packing items that I could hike in during the day and dress up for fancy dinners at night.
I’m the queen of flip-flops so it was hard to be without them, but it’s best to leave them at home for this trip. Everything in Egypt is dusty and open-toe shoes mean you’ll be left with filthy feet at the end of each day.
I used a pair of no-name, cushion walk slip-ons. They ended up being perfect — the rubber soles let me climb a desert mountain and comfortably walk through sand dunes. The cushion walk kept my feet comfy even on the longest of days, and the canvas top breathed easy, allowing my feet to stay cool, and more importantly dry, on the hottest days.
Best Accessories for Egypt
A scarf is the most important item you can bring, period. (OK, after your passport …) When visiting religious buildings, women are required to cover their hair. Scarves are also key for desert excursions, protecting your hair and mouth from the dust. Along with the scarf, be sure to pack plenty of bobby pins. They aren’t just great for keeping flyaways out of your face, they’ll help hold your scarf securely in place all day.
For days when you’ll be exploring the cities or ancient temples, you can opt for a sun hat instead of a scarf. Of course, you’ll lose the cooling, moisture-wicking effect by not wearing a scarf, so sun hats are better options for cooler days.
Sunglasses are the second most important accessory. Not only is Egypt a sunny country in general, but the glare of the sun bouncing off the sand dunes can be absolutely blinding.
SPF Lip Balm & Makeup
There are few things more miserable than dry, cracked lips from too much desert sun. Be sure to always have a conditioning lip balm that contains SPF and reapply often.
Along with the lip balm, try a loose powder foundation that contains SPF. I normally don’t wear makeup on days when I’ll be hiking, but the SPF powder makeup felt much cooler on my face (it was probably psychological, but I definitely preferred it over caking on sunscreen!).
The Perfect Purse
For me, one of the biggest issues when traveling is knowing which bag to bring. I always pack as light as possible and limit myself to either a backpack or a purse. Backpacks for adventurous excursions and purses for staying in cities. This trip was a little different though. It combined both city exploration and desert adventures.
One week before we left, I got my Hedgren Carina purse and it was a game-changer. It has a million compartments like my backpack but it is also a stylish cross-body that’s perfect for going out on the town. I fell in love and it’s officially the only bag I’ll ever travel with from now on.
My list of “always carry” items for female travelers tends to stay the same for every trip, but there were a few extras I made sure to have on hand for Egypt. Obviously, you should always keep your passport on you. Try to keep it in a spot that is not easily accessed by pickpockets, like an interior pocket.
After a traumatic road trip emergency years ago, I learned to always have toilet paper with me, no matter where I go. The majority of public restrooms do not stock TP. You’ll need to get it from a bathroom attendant so be sure to always have small Egyptian coins on hand for tipping. Actually, you’ll be doing a lot of tipping in Egypt, so it’s good to keep a supply of small bills on you as well.
But along with the emergency TP, I also carry a small bottle of Poo-Pouri spray. It’s not just for covering your own embarrassing odors, it works great at covering up existing odors in the questionable restrooms you’ll encounter. Egypt is one of the countries where you shouldn’t flush the toilet paper so odors definitely tend to linger. Poo-Pouri has saved my nose on more than one occasion.
And, of course, I always have hand sanitizer for cleaning up when I’m done. A few of the public restrooms didn’t have running water so my sanitizing gel was the only option.
The drinking water is questionable in Egypt. Only drink bottled water and only buy bottles that have the plastic seal on the cap. You should also make sure you have a supply of preventive Cipro from your doctor. I got horribly sick for a few days and had to rely on an antibiotic that is not approved in the United States. It all turned out fine for me but Egypt does not regulate antibiotics the way we do in the States, so it’s best to bring a reliable stash of medicine from home.
Egypt is a mostly Islamic country, but the guidelines for women aren’t nearly as strict as I imagined they would be. I did a lot of research prior to heading there. I wanted to be sure I was respecting their culture but nothing I found online seemed to tell me exactly what to expect.
After speaking extensively with men on their customs and how women are viewed: they are a strict society that is working to be much more open-minded. Women don’t have to walk behind their husbands, but some still do. They don’t have to cover their hair and faces, but some still do. They can go to school and work, but some still chose to stay home.
What does that mean for tourists? It means you won’t be harassed on the streets for walking next to your boyfriend or wearing a tank top. It means you don’t have to fear for your safety if you wear a skirt. I was told prior to going that I should always keep my shoulders and knees covered but once I arrived I saw that rule doesn’t seem to apply anymore.
Your best bet is to travel the country with a tour guide and they will let you know if you should cover up depending on how “touristy” each town is. In Cairo and Aswan, I covered up while in Hurghada I walked around the resort in my bathing suit.
As far as public displays of affection, I recommend keeping them to a minimum. While my partner and I held hands in public, we never kissed. I also never hugged my tour guides (… and I’m a hugger, folks — I hug everyone!). When posing for photos, my male tour guides always made sure to keep space between us and not get too close.
You’ll notice that men are very affectionate with each other in public, often walking arm in arm and kissing on the cheek. You’ll hear them call each other “habibi” (“my darling”). But men and women rarely have physical contact with one another in public. Of course, there’s no law saying you can’t smooch your sweetie at the pyramids, but the respectful thing to do is to save it for the privacy of your hotel room.
Safety in Egypt
Egypt is no different than any other foreign country you might visit. Be aware of the United States travel advisories and always be alert when you are in an unfamiliar area.
The Ministry of Tourism tracks the location and movement of many visiting tourists, often providing police escorts for day excursions to remote sites like Valley of the Whales and Abu Simbel. I never once felt “unsafe” while traveling the country and often the policemen who accompanied us would check on me to be sure I felt safe in crowded areas.
Do’s & Don’ts for Traveling to Egypt
And finally, some Do’s and Don’ts to keep in mind before you embark on your own trip to Egypt:
Do: Try the local cuisine
Now is the time to be adventurous and try *everything*. Each region of Egypt has its own unique specialty dishes. In Cairo we sampled traditional coffee and koshari; in Aswan, we feasted on an amazing Nubian lunch; and in the desert outside of Hurghada, we dined with the Bedouins.
Every meal featured new foods and I happily dug right in, devouring everything in sight! And without any guilt too! Egyptian food is super healthy, featuring mainly vegetables and lean meats.
Don’t: Go alone
Just like in any foreign country with crowded marketplaces, you should have a companion with you, even if it’s just your tour guide. In the tourist towns, there are touts that will harass and follow you trying to get you to buy from them. Most are polite and will leave you alone if you wave your hand with a dismissive “la shukran” (“No thank you.”).
However, there are pickpockets in some areas so you need to be alert. Traveling with a companion or a group makes you less likely to be a victim of harassment or petty crime.
Do: Use a tour company
Traveling from town to town in Egypt can be a logistical nightmare for solo travelers. The Ministry of Tourism must be kept informed of the movements of tourists traveling through the country. This means constant check-ins and often an armed police escort — something that even us well-traveled folks at Vagabondish just don’t want to have to deal with setting up on our own.
By using a tour company, all of the important details were taken care of for us and we were able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the trip.
Don’t: Kiss the baby goats
… no matter how cute they are! My stomach bug most likely was from drinking unfiltered water. But I also kissed a baby goat that day, sooo … we can’t actually be sure what got me sick. Just learn from my mistake and leave the livestock alone =)