A Guided Cruise Down the Nile Just Might Be the Best Way to Travel Solo in Egypt
Why springing for a tour operator can be totally worth it.
I had always wanted to visit Egypt, and I knew this year was an exceptional time to do it. Tourism to the country is back in a big way — Egypt saw the world's largest year-over-year increase in international visitors in 2018, and work is well underway on landmark projects like the new Grand Egyptian Museum.
Still, many travelers remain concerned about traveling to Egypt due to misinformation, State Department advisories, and the continued reverberations of the 2011 revolution. When I announced to my friends and family that this would be my next destination as a female solo traveler, I was not all that surprised by the less-than-enthusiastic response.
I felt prepared — I followed the news, and I didn't mind that there would be cultural adjustments involved, like bringing a modest wardrobe — but I was a bit daunted by the prospect of visiting on my own. I was also overwhelmed and confused as to where to begin with my itinerary — so much so that it stalled me in planning a trip.
It was a no-brainer, then, that when the opportunity came to hop on a Nile cruise hosted by Exodus Travels, I jumped at it. This was my-ever first private, fully guided trip — and it was the perfect way to experience Egypt for the first time as a solo traveler. Here's why I recommend it.
Help with planning your itinerary is key.
There's so much to do in Egypt that it can feel impossible to tackle alone. Even though I didn't know where to start, I was able to work with a travel advisor (part of Exodus' "Tailormade" offerings) to articulate what I was looking for — basically, I wanted to weave in the things I remembered from my high school history lessons, while also gaining a deeper understanding of some of Egypt’s more recent historical events. If I had a special request — for example, I had heard fascinating stories about the detailed illustrations at Dendera Temple, not included on the cruise schedule — the team happily obliged.
It's worth noting that Egypt has a notable lack of modern infrastructure in certain areas — some sites are nearly 6,000 years old, after all — but a tour operator ensures that you're booking at a standard you’re comfortable with. They will take care of everything, including flights, transfers, and hotels.
Tour operators know the best travel products on the ground.
Exodus has been running tours in Egypt for over 30 years, and they knew exactly what kind of experience I was looking for. They set up a trip down the Nile aboard the M/S Sonesta, explaining the benefits of a river cruise for someone on a shorter trip. I had limited time on the ground before the cruise departed, but wanted to see the highlights in and around Cairo, so Exodus worked with me to fit everything into two days. Before I flew to Luxor to catch the boat, I saw the Giza pyramid complex, Great Sphinx, Khan el-Khalili bazaar, and Museum of Egyptian Antiquities — all while staying at Marriott Mena House, the oldest hotel in the city, which is situated in the shadows of the pyramids.
During the cruise, I explored ancient ruins by day and returned to the comforts of the ship by night — seeing dozens of monuments and temples over the course of the trip, something that wouldn't be possible traversing Egypt in a different way. I sipped Egyptian white wine on the deck in the late-evening heat, and woke up with the sun, beginning my temple tours before the hottest hours of the day (and before the tour buses rolled in from out of town).
From Luxor, we went on to Edfu and the Temple of Horus, then Kom Ombo, past the Aswan High Dam, on to the Temples of Kalabsha and Philae, and finally, to Aswan, our final port. Here, I was able to sleep on the boat for another night, enabling me to take a day-long tour of the ten-story statues at Abu Simbel.
Having a guide deepens the experience.
Tour guides are almost a necessity at certain sites. After a slump, tourism has climbed back up to 10 million visitors per year (from 14.7 million visitors prior to the Arab Spring), which means the crowds are back, too. Many guides, including those employed by Exodus, are actually certified Egyptologists — required to pass rigorous study in ancient Egyptian history before heading out into the field. This makes them a crucial asset not just for safety and comfort in the crowds, but also for deepening your connection with the history you're seeing. Ancient culture can be difficult to fathom and absorb, but having an expert guide makes the sites easier to navigate and comprehend.
My guide, Mahmoud, joined me for the entire trip; he met me at the airport, walked me around every temple, and came with me on the riverboat, where he told me about the legacy of Nile cruise tourism that dates back centuries. We spent nearly 50 hours together, and even when we were running late (for example, arriving at the Temple of Sobek, the ancient crocodile deity, after dark) he was just as detailed as ever. His knowledge was invaluable; he translated hieroglyphics for me, showed me the Greek influences in certain illustrations, and explain the region's religious history, from the ancient Egyptian gods to the shift to Christianity and Islam.
It was Mahmoud who convinced me that visiting Abu Simbel — which I had some doubts about, since it involved seven hours of driving round trip — was totally worth it. He was right.
It's actually really cost effective.
It is very possible to find guided trips like this at a reasonable price point. The average price for a bespoke Exodus trip similar to the one I did is around $300 per person per day. (Considering the cultural enrichment, convenience, and piece of mind this provides, it's more than a steal.) Most operators also offer small group experiences (with Exodus, this brings the the average cost closer to $150 per day) which are less customized, but still semi-private and fully guided.
As the country continues to rebound, I can confirm that now is the time to visit Egypt — and you want to make sure to do it right. I'd say that solo travelers (as well as those traveling with a partner or a group) should consider a guided itinerary like this one to make the most of their trip.
To book: exodustravels.com, 9-day cruises from $1,290
Exodus Travels provided support for the reporting of this story.