Cairo is the only city in Egypt with a metro system.
These clever scooters-with-seats, ubiquitous in Thailand and India, have arrived in Egypt. Locals call them tok-tok (turns out the onomatopoeia of their tiny engines works in Arabic too), and they’re especially popular in small towns. They’re typically the same price or cheaper than taxis (E£10, say, for a 15-minute ride), with a pounding shaabi (music of the working class) soundtrack for free. (Tuk-tuks are popular with young – sometimes too young! – drivers who like to customise their wheels with mega-speakers and other bling.) It’s a good idea to negotiate a price before getting in.
These 14-seat minivans run informally alongside city bus systems, or sometimes in lieu of them. For the average traveller they can be difficult to use, as they are unmarked. They’re easiest to get at their starting point – usually a major midan (square) or intersection in a city, where the drivers will be shouting their end destination. You can ask to be let off at any point on the route.
Nabbing a microbus as it’s going by is more difficult – sometimes there’s a small boy hanging out the doorway yelling the destination, but just as often it’s up to you to shout out your destination. If there’s room in a van going your way, it will stop.
Typically you pay the driver as you’re getting out.
In Cairo, you might have occasion to use a microbus to get to the Pyramids, while in Alexandria they shuttle the length of Tariq al-Horreyya and the Corniche to Montazah. In Sharm el-Sheikh they carry passengers between Old Sharm, Na’ama Bay and Shark’s Bay.
Even the smallest cities in Cairo have taxis. They’re inexpensive and efficient, even if in some cities the cars themselves have seen better days.
Fares In Cairo metered taxis are taking over, but everywhere else, locals know the accepted price and pay it without (much) negotiation. Check with locals for taxi rates, as fares change as petrol prices rise.
Hailing Just step to the roadside, raise your hand and one will likely come screeching to a halt. Tell the driver where you’re headed before getting in – he may decline the fare if there’s bad traffic or it’s too far.
Negotiating For short fares, setting a price beforehand backfires, as it reveals you don’t know the system. But for long distances – from the airport to the city centre, for instance – you should agree on a price before getting in. And confirm it, as some drivers tend to try to change the deal on arrival.
Paying In unmetered taxis, avoid getting trapped in an argument by getting out first, then handing money through the window. If a driver suspects you don’t know the correct fare, you’ll get an aghast ‘How could you possibly pay me so little?’ look, if not a full-on argument. Don’t be drawn in if you’re sure of your position, but do remember that E£5 makes a far greater difference to your driver than it does to you. And from his perspective, if you can afford to come to Egypt, you can also afford to pay a little above the going rate.
Sharing You may be welcomed into a cab with a passenger, or your cab may stop to pick others up. If you don’t mind sharing, sit in the front seat and leave the back free for others (for men only; it’s considered a bit forward for women to sit in the front seat).
Egyptian taxis are a blessing and a curse. They’re remarkably convenient and affordable, but outside of Cairo, where meters have yet to be introduced, they can be a frequent source of unpleasantness when it comes to paying the fare. Passengers frequently feel that they’ve been taken advantage of (which they often have), while drivers may be genuinely (as opposed to just theatrically) aggrieved by what they see as underpayment.
Bear in mind, driving a cab is far from lucrative. Average earnings after fuel has been paid are rarely more than E£10 per hour. Many drivers don’t own their car and have to hand over part of their earnings as ‘rent’.
Which isn’t to say that the next time you flag a taxi for a 10-block hop and the driver declares ‘10 pounds’ that you should smile and say ‘OK’. But it might make it easier to see that it was probably worth his while trying. After all, from his point of view, if you can afford to make it all the way to Egypt, you can probably afford to pay a bit more than the going rate.
Toyota and Chevrolet pickup trucks cover some routes between smaller towns and villages off the main roads, especially where passengers might have cargo. A dozen or so people squeeze into the rear of the truck (covered or uncovered), often with goods squeezed in on the floor.
Covered pickup trucks are also sometimes used within towns, similar to microbuses. This is especially so in some of the oases, on Luxor’s west bank and in smaller places along the Nile. There are a couple of ways you can indicate to the driver that you want to get out: if you are lucky enough to have a seat, pound on the floor with your foot; alternatively, ask one of the front passengers to hammer on the window behind the driver; or, last, use the buzzer that you’ll occasionally find rigged up.
Several of the biggest Egyptian cities have bus systems. Practically speaking, you might use them only in Cairo and Alexandria. They’re not particularly visitor-friendly, as numbers are displayed only in Arabic numerals, the routes are unpublished and the buses themselves are often overcrowded to the point of record-breaking.
There’s no orderly queue to board – in fact, quite the opposite – and the bus rarely rolls to a complete stop, whether you’re getting on or off. If you do make it on, at some point a conductor will manage to squeeze his way through to sell you your ticket.
Cairo and Alexandria are the only two cities in the country with tram systems. While Alexandria still has a fairly extensive network, Cairo now only has a handful of lines.
Even if you haven’t planned ahead with a full package tour, you can still leave the planning and transport to others for a few days of your trip. The most typical organised tour is a Nile cruise or felucca trip or a Western Desert safari. In addition to specialists recommended there, these local operators can arrange short or long outings.
Microbuses run on no set schedule – they just wait until they’re full, then take off. If you’re in a hurry or just want more room to yourself, you can buy an extra seat. The two prime seats are next to the driver; savvy solo travellers recommend buying both.
Microbuses can be quite cramped, so you typically don’t want to ride one for more than three hours or so. But their flexibility is a huge asset, as you can usually find one headed where you want to go, no matter the time of day.
Microbuses usually congregate outside bus and train stations, or at major highway intersections on the edges of cities. Increasingly, though, they operate from an established depot – ask for the maw’if meekrobas (as opposed to the mahattat bas, or bus station).
Microbus parking areas are usually a mob scene of drivers all shouting their destinations and trying to cajole you into their vehicles. Just shout your destination back, and eventually you’ll wind up in the right zone.
You pay the microbus driver once you’re underway. This usually involves passing your money up hand-to-hand through the rows; your change will be scrupulously returned the same way.
Your trip through Egypt will go a lot more smoothly if you learn the Arabic numerals, which are used on all buses, trains, time-tables and other crucial transport details. It helps to write down the critical numbers so it’s easier to compare with signs.
The servees (service taxi) is the predecessor to the microbus (minivan) and runs on the same principle: buy a seat, wait for the car to fill and you’re off. These big Peugeot 504 station wagons, with seats for seven passengers, are now less common than the vans, except in north Sinai and along the Suez Canal and the Red Sea coast. As with microbuses, you’ll find them near bus and train stations, and you’re welcome to buy extra seats for more space or just to speed along the departure.