Tag Archives: Egypt

Brook and her family at the Sphinx statue with no other people around.

We’re Just Back: Brook’s Family Trip to Egypt

When you use our Trip Questionnaire to get a WOW trip, you start by articulating your trip goals and challenges. That’s what Brook did when planning her kid-friendly adventure in Egypt. You can find the right Trip Questionnaire for you via The WOW List’s CONTACT buttons.


My trip request:
Seeing the Pyramids had long been my son Zeke’s dream. Egypt has been marked with a special pushpin on the world map in his bedroom since he was seven. When Zeke turned 11, we decided it was time to make his dream come true. We needed a kid-friendly itinerary for Egypt that hit all the highlights while avoiding the post-pandemic tourist crowds that afflict those iconic spots.

Biggest trip goals:
I had two goals: to make three-dimensional the ancient history Zeke had been learning about from textbooks, and to show him a slice of the country’s contemporary life.

Biggest trip challenges:
People from all corners of the globe want to see the last remaining wonder of the ancient world, so Egypt’s sights are notoriously crowded. I needed an itinerary that would allow us to avoid the lines, crowds, and tour-bus gridlock, fill our days with enough physical activity to burn kid energy, and keep Zeke from missing too much school.

Getting there:
We were starting in San Francisco. We thought about connecting in New York (JFK) to the EgyptAir nonstop to Cairo, but decided against it because we were nervous about domestic flight delays possibly interfering with our connection to an international flight. Instead, we flew nonstop from San Francisco to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, spent a restful six hours at the YOTEL hotel on the airside of the airport (no need to pass through security), then connected for a short flight to Cairo.

The basic itinerary:
We contacted Egypt specialist Jim Berkeley via The WOW List. He timed our trip for Thanksgiving week, so that Zeke would miss only four days of school. Jim designed our 10-day itinerary thus: two nights in Cairo, one night in Luxor, a four-night Nile cruise on a small dahabiya, two nights in Aswan, and two nights in Giza.

Challenges solved:
Jim handpicked private, English-speaking, special-access guides for us who knew how to get around many of the crowds. At Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, for instance, our guide got us there as soon as the doors opened and made a beeline for the second-floor galleries containing King Tut’s treasures, while most other visitors started on the first floor. At the Pyramids, she took the opposite route that most tours take—letting us have the Sphinx completely to ourselves. To me, the best local guides are people I could imagine striking up a friendship with if we lived in the same town. I never found the boundaries of our guide Reham’s historical knowledge—indeed, she was studying for a master’s degree between our forays around Cairo—but even more memorable than her book learning were our shared commiserations over raising pre-teens while juggling careers in travel, and the apparently worldwide phenomenon of helicopter parents trying to solve their kids’ social quandaries.

Strolling El Moez Street in Old Cairo along locals and other visitors.

Brook and local guide Reham strolling El Moez Street in Old Cairo. Photo. Ryan Damm.

Jim also found ways to add physical activity that would be fun for the whole family: We sandboarded down dunes in Aswan one day. We rode bikes early one morning from Luxor to the Valley of the Kings. (For safety, we were led by a motorbike and followed by our van, with a spontaneous police escort waving us through one intersection—but next time I’ll remember to insist on helmets when planning to rent bikes abroad.)

Brook and her son biking on an empty road to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.

Biking to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. Photo: Ryan Damm.

Brook sandboarding new Aswan.

Sandboarding near Aswan. Photo: Ryan Damm.

Our food tour of Cairo involved not just eating, but also walking a few miles on bustling city streets to visit ten different stops, from a juice bar to a falafel stand to a homestyle joint where all the signage was in Arabic.

Different fruit nets on a food market in Cairo.

A stop on Brook’s food tour of Cairo. Photo: Ryan Damm.

The highlight:
Our 4-night Nile cruise on a dahabiya. A dahabiya is a crewed sailing vessel that had won over even my boat-averse colleague Billie last year. Unlike the larger, Western-style cruise ships on the Nile, our 12-passenger dahabiya was able to stop at smaller sites the larger ships couldn’t navigate. For instance, we pulled up beside an ancient sandstone quarry; it was fascinating to walk amongst the cliffs from which stones had been cut and then rafted downriver to build the very temples we’d visited earlier in the trip. We strolled around a village where Zeke shared photos and Frisbee throws with local kids. We even stopped at a sandy shoreline where we could swim in the Nile (our captain chose a spot where the water was moving briskly enough to keep it clean, and crocodiles are rare north of the High Dam in Aswan). As the only kid on board, Zeke was occasionally restless, and the cabins were a tad shabby—but the deeper experience of life on the river made it well worth it.

Dahabiya Zekrayaat. Photo: Ryan Damm.
Just another shoreline view from the dahabiya. Photo: Ryan Damm.
Making friends in a Nubian village. Photo: Ryan Damm.
Playing frisbee with local kids. Photo: Ryan Damm.
Swimming in the Nile. Photo: Ryan Damm.
Exploring a sandstone quarry. Photo: Ryan Damm.
A larger cruise ship passes Brook's dahabiya. Photo: Ryan Damm.

A dahabiya is by nature a communal experience (the cabins are small, so we spent most of our free time on the sun deck, and all meals are shared), and we were fortunate to join a fabulously interesting group of fellow travelers. The Thanksgiving-night talent show with the other passengers was a blast. Zeke told two jokes, and we watched new friends sing and dance; all I had to contribute was a handstand. Everyone’s willingness to let their guard down among people they’d met just three days earlier bespoke the camaraderie and intimacy of our short time together.

Best surprise:

Brook looking at the mural painting inside Nefertari's Tomb.

Inside Nefertari’s Tomb. Photo: Ryan Damm.

Queen Nefertari’s Tomb. Jim made sure we didn’t miss this gem. The millennia-old tombs in the Valley of the Kings—and even more so, in the less crowded Valley of the Queens—are exquisitely well preserved, with vibrant colors, visible brushstrokes, and everyday scenes that suggest they could have been painted just last week. But Queen Nefertari’s tomb takes the cake, with multiple chambers and intricate carvings done in sophisticated high relief.

Worst surprise:
Losing Zeke for five terrifying minutes among the throngs at Luxor Temple after sunset. Already disappointed by the crowds that made the temple’s innermost sanctuary feel more like Grand Central Station—it proved to be my least favorite site of the trip—we decided to cut our visit short and lost track of each other on the way out. Our guide kept his cool and found Zeke by the entrance; I greeted them both with teary hugs.

Most underrated:

Looking at the ceiling of the Temple of Khnum in Esna.

The Temple of Khnum, in Esna, Egypt. Photo: Ryan Damm.

The Temple of Khnum. Just before boarding our dahabiya in Esna, we visited the local temple. The ruins are below ground level but have been fully excavated; you take a tuk-tuk through the streets of this unassuming town 35 miles south of Luxor, walk down a flight of stairs, and enter one of the most impressive sites in all of Egypt—at least to my eyes. Restoration work is ongoing, and centuries of soot, grime, and bird droppings still obscure the stone in one half of the temple; in the other half, rows of columns with capitals ornately carved into flowers and palm fronds, and pastel-toned vulture-winged goddesses painted on ceiling frescos, leave you tempted to simply lie down on the gravel floor to take it all in.

Most overrated:
King Tut’s tomb. It’s modest by comparison to other tombs in the Valley of the Kings; at least the mummy still lies in state. Enter for the nostalgic connection to your childhood fascination with Egypt—not for the elaborate carvings you’ll find guiding other pharaohs’ paths to the afterlife, but not Tut’s.

Best places we stayed:

View of pyramids from the balcony at the Marriott Mena House.

View from a room at the Marriott Mena House.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the view from our room at the Marriott Mena House in Giza: There was the Great Pyramid, framed between palm trees by day, and lit up in colorful lights at night. The hotel’s prodigious buffets at breakfast and dinner ensured that everyone in our family could find something they were excited to eat.


View of Palace Cataract Suite at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan.

Palace Cataract Suite at the Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan.

The bar at the Old Cataract Hotel in Egypt.

The bar at the Old Cataract Hotel. Photo: Ryan Damm.

You need not be an Agatha Christie fan to be charmed by the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract in Aswan. Most rooms in both the original and newer wings have broad Nile views that take in the weathered curves of granite on Elephantine Island, the graceful lines of the feluccas sailing around it, and the hotel’s own highly manicured grounds. In our suite, the ornate chandeliers and richly toned wood cabinetry with mother-of-pearl inlays felt fit for royalty.

Worst place we stayed:
In Luxor, the Sofitel Winter Palace oozes history in ways both good and bad: You can imagine Howard Carter grandly announcing his discovery of King Tut’s tomb from the hotel in 1922, but you also wonder if the furnishings haven’t been reupholstered since then. The main restaurant is adults-only (not to mention jacket-required), and we found the alternative buffet to be overcooked and overpriced. Jim thinks the Winter Palace will get a much-needed refurbishment in the next year or two; until then, he tells me, the other options in town have their own idiosyncrasies.

Traveler beware:
In four decades of traveling, I’ve never been to a place as dominated by group tourism as Egypt is. A smart local fixer employs strategies to avoid the busiest times at the iconic spots—and turns your gaze to smaller, out-of-the-way details, like the careful carving of the toenails on a statue of Ramesses II—but you can’t escape the crowds entirely. A single group of 25 travelers all following the same flag-toting, mic’d-up guide is more difficult to navigate around than a dozen independent couples or families. That shouldn’t stop you from going to Egypt. Just be sure to book your trip through an Egypt specialist like Jim who has the proven ability to outsmart and outrun the big groups when possible.

Brook with her son exploring the Karnak Temple with their guide.

On a busy day at Karnak Temple, Brook’s guide still finds a quiet corner to explore. Photo: Ryan Damm.

Thank goodness I packed:
$100 in one-dollar bills. Thanks to Jim’s pre-trip intel, I had plenty of cash for baksheesh, which I most often handed out unsolicited. In the tombs at Luxor, though, the security guards were persistent in their offers to take your photo or let you behind the ropes—and then equally persistent in seeking out the tip they expected in return.

I’m glad I didn’t pack:
Binoculars. While our early-morning boat ride to the sandboarding spot outside Aswan was a birdwatcher’s dream, and we could have seen more than the most obvious herons, egrets, and kingfishers with a bit of magnification, Jim warned me that customs officials often take binoculars away from travelers upon their arrival, deeming them a security threat to the country’s military installations.

Lesson learned:
A few days before the trip, Jim rejiggered our plans in Cairo, which meant we wouldn’t see the pyramids until the end of our trip—and boy, am I happy he did. This was the highlight of the trip for Zeke, and it allowed us to end on a high note in a way that city sightseeing (while plenty of fun early in the trip) would not have matched. I knew it was a risk to save the most anticipated site for last, but we had to fly through Cairo to get home anyway, and we vowed to extend the trip to see the Pyramids if a Covid quarantine or some other malady forced us to change up our itinerary. (Luckily, all went according to plan.) From now on, I’ll always make sure there’s an extra-special finale at the end of every trip.

Best trip memory:
Zeke still can’t stop talking about our exploits inside the cramped passageways of the Great Pyramid! Built long before the more elaborate tombs constructed during the dynasties of Egypt’s New Kingdom, most of the walls inside the pyramid are smooth but largely unadorned, and the King’s Chamber is a humble precursor of later pharaonic resting places. But nothing makes you feel more like Indiana Jones than clambering up the narrow wooden ramps that lead to that chamber, ever mindful of the tonnage of stone that has held fast above your head for 4,500 years…and counting?

Navigating the passageways inside the Great Pyramid.

Navigating the passageways inside the Great Pyramid.


Transparency disclosure: So that I could experience Egypt, WOW Lister Jim Berkeley arranged reduced rates for my family’s trip. Everything I did on my trip is accessible to every traveler who contacts Jim via Wendy’s WOW questionnaire. Thanks to Wendy’s WOW system, you’ll get marked as a VIP traveler.


Be a smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. Read real travelers’ reviews, then use the black CONTACT buttons on Wendy’s WOW List to reach out to the right local fixer for your trip.

family of travelers in Egypt at Hatshupset Temple

Egypt During Omicron: A Family Trip

Hi everyone, Billie here. As you know, I went to Egypt this past October. Omicron hadn’t arrived yet, nor had the peak winter tourist season, so when I saw that several families were venturing there over New Year’s, I wanted to check in to see what the experience is like now.

Christa Sullivan is one of those travelers. Based in Florida, her family of six (her husband, and four children ages 12, 19, 21, and 25) just returned from two weeks in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and on a Nile cruise. Some of their experiences were different than mine—for instance, she found some places crowded that were empty when I visited—but, like me, they felt safe and comfortable and loved sailing the Nile on a dahabiya!

Why she chose Egypt

“I looked at the list you put out of the places that were open to Americans and didn’t have a lot of restrictions. Egypt was on the list, and I already knew that Egypt was on my husband’s bucket list. I’ve always thought it was so dangerous so I wasn’t interested in going. But I asked my kids for their top three places in the world and Egypt was on their list too. Then I saw an article about traveling on the boat on the Nile and I thought, oh it’s not just some dusty pyramids, this could be a really cool trip.”

family of travelers at Egyptian temple at sunset

Pre-trip, her concerns (shared on the phone)

“I worry about safety as an American abroad more than I worry about the virus. When I called Jim [WOW List Egypt expert Jim Berkeley], I said I’m going with four kids—I don’t want to be left on our own. And he reassured me: ‘You’ll never be on your own. We’ll always be with you, we’ll take you everywhere.’ That took away the fear factor.”

Mid-trip, her impressions (shared by email)

“The trip is very different from what I expected. As you know, I wasn’t the one excited about going, but I have loved it. I was surprised at how warm, welcoming and kind most of the people have been. I have enjoyed the food and the culture a great deal, and having an Egyptologist with us every day has made all the difference in adding meaning to the temples, tombs and hieroglyphics we are seeing.”

Cairo was crowded, but she wouldn’t recommend skipping it

“Cairo was a bit overwhelming due to the number of people and the traffic.  You took your life into your hands when you crossed the streets.  Our guide Ahmed was amazing—he was very assertive and made us feel more comfortable maneuvering the city.  We did not like the number of vendors that have accosted us at each place as we walk through on our way to a monument.  They were too aggressive and made us very uncomfortable.  Ahmed was the best at keeping them away, and also keeping away the schoolchildren that wanted to take our picture.… “

They loved the dahabiya boat

“The Nile cruise has been a highlight!  It was a great break after the busy days in Cairo and Luxor to relax on the deck and watch the river and the scenery. Our kids have really, really enjoyed the boat (as have we).

Last night on the boat, we stopped at an island and our captain and Egyptologist took us to a little town back through the woods and we went inside one of the mud brick houses and met the owners and were served tea.  It was so neat to see what’s inside one of their houses.  We also had a bonfire on the banks and they brought a table out and we had our dinner on the shore.  After dinner they danced and sang us some traditional songs.”

family lounging on a boat on the Nile

Her advice to other travelers

“For anyone concerned about Covid, I would avoid going inside the Great Pyramid.  It was tight and hot with zero ventilation. I would also be wary of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor—they were very crowded with no ventilation.  The Valley of the Queens was not crowded…. Outside of Cairo, we haven’t had any safety concerns at all.”



We’re Here to Help

As a travel journalist and consumer advocate for the past 30 years—first as Condé Nast Traveler’s advice columnist, then as TripAdvisor’s Travel Advocate—I’m all too aware of the travel concerns that need to be addressed as a result of this pandemic. For many trips, you’d be wise to use an extremely well-connected, extremely knowledgeable, destination-specific, trip-planning specialist who can act as your local fixer. You’d be even wiser to find and contact that trip planner via The WOW List, which is the first step in my WOW approach to trip planning, created by popular demand from my longtime readers. It’s the approach used by the travelers who are submitting these trip reviews and getting benefits including priority status, VIP treatment, my advice from the start of your trip planning, and the chance to win a surprise, custom-designed WOW Moment on a third qualifying trip. It all starts when you tell us about the trip you want via the questionnaires on The WOW List. —Wendy


The Best Way to See Egypt. Especially If You Don’t Like Boats.

I am not a boat person.

I have no interest in cruise ships, I’m not overly fond of short ferry rides either, and I’ve even gotten seasick on one of those supposedly too-big-to-rock, giant family-vacation ships…while it was moored for a special event. So when our WOW List Egypt expert Jim Berkeley tried to tell me that the Nile was so calm, and that my private six-cabin dahabiya sailboat would be so smooth that I wouldn’t even feel the movement, I dismissed him outright. People who don’t suffer from seasickness are not reliable sources.

But I wanted to go to Egypt, and I wanted to cruise the Nile, and they make drugs for this. So I packed a ton of anti-nausea medication and resigned myself to the expectation that I’d just be meclizine-dazed for four days. But I didn’t end up needing a single pill. What’s even crazier is that my time on the dahabiya turned out to be my favorite part of the whole trip. No one is more surprised than me.

I tell you all of this so that you’ll know that I am the last person who would steer you wrong about a boat vacation, and what I have to say on the topic is this: A dahabiya trip is the best way to experience Egypt.

Here are three reasons why.

It’s a breezy, outdoor experience.

Sailing on a dahabiya allows you to spend a good chunk of your day in the open air without overheating, despite the often-high temperatures in Egypt. My friends and I, along with the family of four from Belgium with whom we shared the boat, spent much of our time enjoying the views from the shaded top deck; that’s also where all of our meals were served. The cabins below deck were small, but none of us used them much except to sleep. Even so, they each had large windows (and two of the cabins had balconies) that allowed in plenty of fresh air. (You can see all my photos below.)

It feels very private and keeps you away from the crowds.

The boat’s small size allowed us to dock at sites where the mass-tourism Nile boats can’t. So we got to see several fascinating places completely alone. My favorite: the rock quarries of Gebel Silsileh, a valley that provided the stone for the famed ancient temples at Luxor, Karnak, and Kom Ombo, among others. We chose to hike to the quarry rather than ferry right to it from our boat (which is an option), and that turned out to be a really special morning. For two kilometers, we walked right along the stark border between the desert and the green fertile strip next to the river. I couldn’t take my eyes off that well defined natural line—except for when we were watching local farmers harvest dates and mangoes, and when an entire school of children poured out to their balconies to wave and shout hello to us.

Even when we visited the sights that all the boats go to, we usually were able to arrive before or after the rush—or on a different day entirely—since the big boats all follow a very rigid, fast-paced itinerary. (I recommend talking to your guide to find out what kind of flexibility you might have in your daily schedules; our guide sailed with us and that was a real perk.) For me, the trip felt like a relaxed meandering through off-the-beaten-path sites, rather than a to-do list of must-see temples.

It’s so relaxing and fun.

Our days quickly fell into a delicious rhythm: In the morning, we’d tour some fascinating sight, and then come back to the boat for lunch made fresh by our incredibly accommodating chef, Ali. Then we’d spend the rest of the day lounging around on the comfortably shaded open-air deck watching the green and yellow scenery go by. (As we got closer to Aswan, I saw more and more of the big ships, and very few of those had covered top decks—I couldn’t imagine how anyone could sit up there in Egypt’s strong sun.) At night, we’d feast again and then play games and talk until the generator went off around 10 or 11 and we all turned in for the night. In those four days, I laughed so much, and cemented friendships all across the boat.

Finally, one of the more subtle bonuses of the wind-powered dahabiya is how blissfully quiet it is. Every day I could hear the gentle splash of water against the hull, the ripple of the main sail in the breeze, and the afternoon call to prayer rising from villages on both sides of the river.

I’m not sure if all of this means I’m finally becoming a boat person. But I can say one thing for certain: I’m now definitely a dahabiya person.


We boarded the boat in a small village called Esna, just outside Luxor. At this point, I'm excited about the trip, but I'm also mentally preparing for motion sickness.
Cold hibiscus juice is a typical welcome drink in Egypt, and it's delicious—tart and refreshing. If you order it at a restaurant, ask them to go easy on the sugar; as our guide told us (and we soon learned for ourselves), Egyptians like their drinks to be very sweet.
Our home for the next four days. When we weren't touring on land or sleeping downstairs at night, we spent all of our time up here on the deck. We ate all our meals outside at the big dining table (except for one night when we had a picnic on land), and we read, lounged, talked, and played games in the various comfortable sitting areas. We had a wi-fi hot spot that went on with the generator (and lights and outlets) around 4pm each day and stayed on until sometime between 10pm and 11pm each night.
Egypt's iconic blue, green, and yellow view.
Me, not feeling the least bit seasick. I still can't believe it.
They even let me steer the boat.
But these guys did it much better.
A standard room. They're small (it is a boat, after all), but I was happy to see they all have such big breezy windows. I left them open during the day to air out the room, and then turned the air conditioner on for about an hour at night before the generator went off to cool down the room.
The two suites at the stern of the boat have balconies.
The balcony is great for lounging, reading, and napping, but consider yourself warned: If you happen to hang your laundry out here, sneaky crows might try to steal your socks. File under: Things I didn't know about boats. Or crows.
We sailed from Luxor to Aswan (the direction is south, but it's "up river"), and as we got closer to Aswan we saw more and more of these typical big white Nile cruise ships race by us.
What a dahabiya looks like next to one of those.
Our walk to the quarries of Gebel Silsileh. I took dozens of photos of the way the desert just ended and the narrow green jungle started. The green part wasn't that wide, and it ran all along the Nile like that.
Gebel Silsileh was one of my favorite stops. It was fascinating to see where giant blocks of sandstone had been carved out of the hills and imagine them being floated to Luxor to build the Karnak and Luxor temples we'd just seen days before. We were the only travelers at the site.
Our dahabiya docked at a site the big ships skip: Daraw market, where we stood in line behind a slew of locals to get our chance to sample handmade falafel.
The verdict: My friend said it was the best falafel he's ever eaten.
Of course I was more interested in the candy vendor across the way. Verdict: very sweet and very chewy.
Sails up, stresses gone. I'll miss this dahabiya lifestyle.


Transparency disclosure: So that I could experience Egypt, WOW Lister Jim Berkeley arranged reduced rates for my trip. Everything I did on my trip is accessible to every traveler who contacts Jim via Wendy’s WOW questionnaire. Thanks to Wendy’s WOW system, you’ll get marked as a VIP traveler.

Be a smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. Read real travelers’ reviews, then use the black CONTACT buttons on Wendy’s WOW List to reach out to the right local fixer for your trip.

Why You Should Go to Egypt Now

Egypt is on most people’s bucket list, and with good reason: 5,000 year-old feats of engineering genius, fascinating historical drama, rich traditions and culture. While the pyramids and temples will still be around if you wait a few years to go, right now you can experience them in a rare and special way. I traveled in Egypt for two weeks at the end of October (you can see more of my photos here and here) and am so glad I did. Here’s why it felt comfortable to me during Covid:

Almost all the sights are open air.

Nearly every place you’ll visit in Egypt is outdoors. So whether I was at the Great Pyramid of Giza or the soaring mountain temple of Hatshepsut (the only female pharaoh), the grounds were so sprawling that they rarely felt crowded. I remember when we arrived at the temple of Kom Ombo on the Nile, there were maybe half a dozen large cruise boats clustered right outside (which was still fewer than the 20 or so you could expect in pre-pandemic times), and I expected to find all of those tourists clogging my path. But once we passed through the entrance arch, I was surprised. Everyone had dispersed throughout the grounds.

Obligatory shot of me at the pyramids at Giza—and it really was this empty. We saw some crowds at the entrance to the tomb inside the Great Pyramid, but we skipped that because (a) Covid and (b) we were going to see some much more impressive tombs later in our trip. And we did.
Not only was the Sphinx area free of the usual crowds, we had an additional VIP perk: We got to walk right up to its paws rather than view the famed man-lion from the elevated distant viewing platforms (you can see a group there across the way).
I even got to sit right between its paws, and walk all the way around the perimeter, see its tail (I didn’t even know it had a tail!) and shine a flashlight into a hole at the base where archaeologists had dug to see if there was anything under the statue. (Spoiler: There wasn't.)
tour guide teaching traveler to read hieroglyphs in Setau's tomb in El Kab Egypt
I learned to read a few hieroglyphs!
When we landed in Luxor city, we went straight to Karnak Temple, and it was the most crowded place we visited. But our guide had an idea to save the rest of the day: Continue right on to the air-conditioned Luxor Museum and the Luxor Temple (pictured), because while all the other tourists would be eating lunch and checking into their hotels, we would have those two places to ourselves.
view of Abu Simbel mountain temples in Egypt
Abu Simbel’s grounds are sprawling, so even though we flew there with a full plane of maybe 100 travelers, it didn’t feel like that many people once we were on the ground. Plus, since we were a small private trio rather than a big bus group, we were quicker out of the airport and got to the temples before them so we had the place to ourselves for a short while.

Most places aren’t crowded.

The fact is that almost everyone who goes to Egypt follows the same route. Unless you’re going to the beach resorts on the Sinai Peninsula, you’re on the well-trodden track between Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan, probably with part of the trip spent on a boat. And yet, I rarely felt like I was one of those masses being led along a conveyer belt.

Thanks to the pandemic, the world’s most popular places are not as busy as they’ve been in the past because tourism isn’t back up to its usual numbers. Egypt is no exception, and this holiday season is likely to be one of the most enjoyable as a result. The Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx are two of the most visited tourist sights in the world, but when I was there in mid-October, they had less than 50% of their usual number of visitors. The temple of Abu Simbel had less than 25%.

The few crowded places can be made uncrowded by the right local fixer.

At the Giza Plateau, my savvy local guide assigned by WOW List Egypt specialist Jim Berkeley arranged special access to the Sphinx’s paws. Regular visitors have to view the famous lion-pharaoh from an elevated distant road, but we were able to saunter right up to its feet, stand under its imposing noseless face, and even stroll around the entire perimeter of its body (have you ever seen the Sphinx’s tail? I hadn’t!). After that, he led us along unconventional routes through the park so that we rarely saw other travelers until we headed back to the main entrance. Then, on the day we flew to Luxor, he suggested we hit Luxor Temple over the lunch hour, when all the other tourists would be eating and checking into their hotels. And he was right.

Even before our trip began, Jim had orchestrated the timing of our itinerary right from the get-go so that it could alternate with the timing of the mass-group trips where possible. For example, while the big Nile boats all race to pre-set stops and unload at the same time on the same days, our nimble, private dahabiya boat could mosey up to those same stops after the big groups had all gone, or on a different day entirely.

“Indoor” sights are Covid-manageable.

While most temples I visited were completely open to the elements (except for a small few where the roofs were still amazingly intact), the tombs were enclosed, meaning you’ll descend staircases into underground rooms (as at Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens) or duck into nooks carved into the side of mountains (as at the ancient necropolis of El-Kab).

Even so, I found every tomb manageable in terms of my own comfort with Covid. If there was a group inside, I could always wait to enter until they came out. Keep in mind that some tombs are manned by a local “caretaker” who will enthusiastically point out artwork details and side rooms you may not have noticed, offer to take your photo, and expect a few Egyptian pounds in return. He will also, most likely, not be wearing a mask. But since I was double-masked and vaccinated, and in most tombs for only a few minutes, I didn’t mind. In fact, I really enjoyed those interactions: It’s always fun to meet locals and try to have piecemeal conversations. What’s more, tourism has been thin during the pandemic and these guys have been out of work—and they were clearly happy to have us back.

Pharoah Seti’s tomb (ca. 1279 BC) is one of the deepest tombs in the Valley of the Kings and it has incredibly vibrant paint colors and detailed artwork. My guide took me to the Valley really early one morning (we were there by 7:30am), and there was only one other group in the entire area. I had Seti’s multi-room resting place to myself, except for the caretaker and a trio of academics who were 3-D scanning the tomb for the Factum Foundation and showed me how it worked. So cool!

In all of my trip, there was no place where I felt stuck in a Covid situation I couldn’t easily remedy. And that includes the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which was the only place that really felt unsafe to me, due to its lack of air conditioning, hot rooms with no air flow, and swarms of large international tour groups who didn’t wear masks. But even there, I wasn’t trapped—I could just leave. And I did. Although my private guide did his best to navigate around the masses inside the Museum, and offered to bring us back at the end of the day when it might be less crowded, I opted to leave and wait outside, happily resting in the shade and reading my book about the history of the Nile. In contrast, my two friends felt comfortable enough to remain inside—so, again, it’s a personal decision. (And one that will be a moot point once the enormous Grand Egyptian Museum opens, sometime in 2022.)

You can use private guides and drivers who are vaccinated.

Each of our guides and drivers was vaccinated and wore a mask religiously. Even if the three of us travelers in the back took ours off, they kept theirs on. Hotel staff wore masks too (as well as gloves at some of the hotel restaurants). But other than that, very few people in Egypt—both Egyptians and international tourists—wore masks. (Although I could always spot an American group, because they all wore their masks.) But like I said above, the lack of masks rarely affected me because we were outside so much and, when I went indoors, I put mine on.

You can stick to hotel rooms that have balconies or windows that open.

Now that I’m traveling again during the Covid era, I prefer to stay in hotels that are well ventilated. A great view doesn’t hurt either. During my two weeks in Egypt, I stayed in four hotels, and each room had a balcony or window that opened.

At the Four Seasons Cairo, my balcony overlooked the Nile. In Luxor, Jim smartly put us in a hotel on the west bank of the river (the charming, courtyard-dotted Al Moudira)—which meant we were only a 20-minute drive from the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, rather than 45 if we’d stayed on the east bank like all the big tour groups. In Aswan, we stayed at the gorgeous and storied Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile, and enjoyed large balconies with views of Aswan’s tropical section of the Nile and the uniquely shaped rocks of Elephantine Island across the way. Even our airport-adjacent hotel on our last night in Cairo, the InterContinental City Stars Hotel, had two “Juliet”-style terraces with sliding-glass doors I could open for airflow.

A word of caution: In Cairo, most restaurants are indoors only. And people smoke. However, I’ve already been eating indoors in New York for months, and I felt that the restaurants we ate at in Cairo were less crowded than at home.

The view from my balcony at The Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. That's Elephantine Island across the river, where you can walk through the remnants of an ancient village.
My room at The Old Cataract.
The charming, green-filled courtyard of Al Moudira in Luxor where we ate all our meals.
I loved the design of Al Moudira—a mix of ochres and bright gemstone colors, plus patios and outdoor sitting nooks all over the place. This indoor lounge shows the decor really well but whether due to Covid or the warm nights, all the guests preferred to hang out in the courtyard.
My balcony view at the Four Seasons Cairo Nile Plaza. It was fascinating to chart how different the river looked as we traveled south.
We spent our last night close to the airport at the InterContinental Cairo City Stars. We hung out by the pool and ate dinner at an open-air Egyptian restaurant that looked onto the pool deck. The hotel is also attached to an enormous, modern indoor mall and we explored that too.


There’s availability aboard private dahabiya boats that keep you from the crowds and get you to special sights.

We spent morning exploring ancient sights, and afternoons lounging on our own private boat.

Jim recommended I sail up the Nile on a dahabiya—a shallow-bottomed boat powered by two sails—and now I know why it is the best way to experience the Nile. For one thing, these smaller vessels can maneuver into ports that the big boats can’t access, which meant I got to visit more off-the-conveyer-belt sights. It also meant that when we did hit the big-ticket spots, we usually arrived before or after the rigidly scheduled times that the larger Nile boats have to follow. For another, I felt very Covid-comfortable onboard our floating home. My small group of three shared this boat with only one other party (a family of four from Belgium, who had told us they were vaccinated by the time we had our first afternoon tea) and the small crew (also vaccinated, as required by the government). After mornings of touring, we spent almost all our time outdoors on the covered, open-air deck, whether we were eating meals cooked fresh by our very accommodating private chef, relaxing in the many chaises longues, or talking and playing games with our new friends long into the night.

Egypt is simply amazing.

As I walked, dazed, through all the temples and tombs on our trip, I said “amazing” so many times that it became a running joke with our guide—each of us trying to outdo the other with better synonyms. Spectacular. Astounding. Incredible. Awesome. No matter what words we came up with, the experience of getting so close to Egypt’s ancient manmade marvels, and seeing the enduring details (and unexpectedly bright paint) of their artwork, is truly special. And to be able to do all that without battling crowds or jockeying for views between the heads of a hundred other visitors…well, that truly was amazing.




Transparency disclosure: So that I could experience Egypt, WOW Lister Jim Berkeley arranged reduced rates for my trip. Everything I did on my trip is accessible to every traveler who contacts Jim via Wendy’s WOW questionnaire. Thanks to Wendy’s WOW system, you’ll get marked as a VIP traveler.


Be a smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. Read real travelers’ reviews, then use the black CONTACT buttons on Wendy’s WOW List to reach out to the right local fixer for your trip.

Abbot BinaxNow antigen home test for Covid, laid out on a laptop computer

My Covid Test Experience Flying Home from Egypt

We get a lot of questions from travelers about how to manage the Covid testing needed to return to the U.S. after an international trip. When I was coming back from Egypt, it was on my mind too.

I’d originally packed a few self-administered, video-monitored eMed rapid antigen tests because I knew that they are CDC-approved, and I liked the idea of being able to get immediate results at the time of my own choosing, which turned out to be midnight. The whole process—from logging on with an eMed official to receiving the results—took me about 25 minutes (35 if you count the time it took me to call the hotel concierge and get my result printed and delivered to my room).

But since I also knew from my previous international pandemic-era trips (and from Wendy’s and Brook’s too) that the real gatekeepers of who gets to board a plane are the airline staff at check-in, I decided to test out these “at-home” tests vs. a standard PCR.

So I did some research. First, I emailed Egypt Air’s customer service center and received a response saying that they would accept antigen, NAAT, RT-LAMP, RT-PCR or TMA tests. Great!

But that response was in contrast to what I was hearing from some people on the ground in Egypt, who were saying that EgyptAir would only accept a PCR test.


Hedging on the side of caution, the WOW List Trusted Travel Expert for Egypt who planned my trip, Jim Berkeley, has all his travelers take PCRs. And he makes it super easy: A doctor comes right to your hotel, emails you the results, and then you get the printed-out results on your way to the airport.

To test out what would really happen at the airport, I took both tests. At airport check-in, I handed the first gatekeeper my eMed antigen results. I had the PCR results in my bag too, just in case I needed it, but it turned out that I didn’t. He waved me through. Then, when I approached the desk, I handed that agent my eMed antigen results too. She didn’t even blink an eye, even though the two friends I was traveling with handed her PCR documentation.

The moral? You have options for testing, and they’re all easy and don’t take much time or energy. I recommend you talk to your WOW List trip planner to find out if they know any additional local information, but don’t stress about it. Getting tested to come home is simple and should not keep you from getting back out there when you’re ready.

Abbot BinaxNow antigen home test for Covid, laid out on a laptop computer
The kit comes in the box on the left. When it's time, you log into the eMed website, and a representative guides you throgh the process. I held the test's QR code up to the camera, and then had to tilt my laptop screen so he could see the test as I prepared it. Next I tilted the screen up so he could monitor me as I swabbed my nose.
negative result of a rapid antigen covid test from self-adminisered eMed Abbot Binax covid testing kit
After 10 minutes, a guide came back on the call, had me position the card so they could see it through my laptop camera and confirmed that it was indeed negative. A few minutes later, I had the results in my inbox.
traveler's feet on balcony of Old Cataract Hotel room in Aswan Egypt Overlooking the Nile and elephantine island
It was nearly midnight when I took my test—but if I'd done it earlier in the day, this would have been my view while taking it.


My additional thoughts

eMed test

Pros: They’re easy and fast. They’re also economical if you are traveling with family or a group, because they’re sold as a pack of six for $150. You can also re-test yourself immediately if you get an invalid result or positive result you suspect is false. The video process is smooth and uncomplicated, and I didn’t have to wait at all before being connected to my “test guide,” even though I called in at midnight.

Cons: The test boxes are bulky and, per eMed instructions, they must be packed in your carry-on. So depending how many you take with you, that could be annoying. Once you get the emailed results, you’ll have to ask your TTE team or your hotel to print them out for you. Also, while this isn’t really a con, note that you must have access to strong enough wifi to support a 25-minute video call (you can use your phone or laptop).

PCR test

Pros: They’re easy and require no thought on your part. Most WOW Listers can arrange to have a medical worker come to your hotel and administer the test at a time that won’t interrupt your day and then have the results sent to you by email and printed out for you.

Cons: You may have to wait a day or two to get your results. In Egypt, I had them the next morning; but in Greece, it took two days (partly because the doctor had misspelled my name and I had to have that corrected). Also, the cost can add up. My Greece test cost 100 euros (about $115). In Egypt, it cost me $73. In both cases, I had to pay in cash.


Be a safer, smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. And read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip.

two tourists Riding camels to the pyramids in Egypt

WOW Moment: A Private Visit to Nefertari’s Tomb

two tourists Riding camels to the pyramids in Egypt
Riding camels to the pyramids. Photo: Stephen Behnen
Queen Hatshepsut's mortuary temple in Luxor as seen from our hot air balloon just after dawn Egypt
Queen Hatshepsut's mortuary temple in Luxor as seen from our hot air balloon just after dawn
inside tomb KV14 in the Valley of the Kings Egypt
Julia and Mary inside tomb KV14 in the Valley of the Kings
Inside one of the Tombs of the Artisans outside Luxor Egypt
Inside one of the Tombs of the Artisans outside Luxor
tourists taking a carriage to the Temple of Horus at Edfu Egypt
Steve, Mary and Julia taking a carriage to the Temple of Horus at Edfu
tourists in front of the 108-foot-high facade of Abu Simbel Egypt
Mary, Julia and Steve in front of the 108-foot-high facade of Abu Simbel
Whirling dervishes performance in Cairo Egypt
Whirling dervishes performance in Cairo
tourists in Wadi Rum desert Jordan
Mary and Julia at Wadi Rum in Jordan
tourist in the North Theater of Jerash Jordan
Julia in the North Theater of Jerash Jordan


When Stephen Behnen and his wife, Mary Hornsby, of Seattle were unable to find a small-group tour that covered everything they wanted to do in Egypt and Jordan, they turned to Wendy’s WOW List. Despite complex logistics—five interior flights, desert treks, a Nile cruise, tickets to roughly 20 historic sites—the trip that Jim Berkeley, Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Egypt, arranged for the Behnens was, according to Stephen’s post-trip review, “flawless.” Among its highlights were the Temple of Philae (“one of the single nicest temples we saw in Egypt”) and a stay in a Bedouin Camp at Wadi Rum (“the best scenery of our trip”), neither of which was on the Behnens’ original wish list. Jim not only suggested additions and alterations based on the Behnens’ particular interests but also managed to secure upgrades at choice hotels and top-deck suites on the Sonesta Star Goddess cruise ship. Because this was the Behnens’ third qualifying WOW List trip, Wendy added a surprise WOW Moment—an exclusive insider experience based on the travelers’ particular interests. The surprise that Wendy and Jim put together for the Behnens was a visit to the tomb of Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II. After they returned, we called Stephen to find out how it played out.

Q: I’m hoping you can educate those of us who are not Egyptologists. What’s so great about Nefertari’s tomb?

A: Nefertari is a very special tomb. It’s considered to be the best-preserved tomb in all of Egypt. It has what looks like a vault door, for climate control. They’re trying to minimize the risk that visitors will cause the tomb to deteriorate. For many years you had to get permission from the Ministry of Antiquities to be admitted. That went away a few years ago, but then it was like a thousand dollars a pop. The price has since dropped and it has become much more accessible, but I didn’t know that, and it was not on our itinerary. We had seen half a dozen tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens when the guide said, “We’re going into Nefertari’s tomb,” and I said, “Oh my goodness, this will be fabulous.”

Q: Where exactly were you?

A: The Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens are gorges in the hilly desert outside Luxor. There’s no vegetation of any kind. From the ground, you see nothing except the entrances to the little tunnels that allow visitors to access the tomb areas. There are 62 tombs in the Valley of the Kings and a bunch more in the Valley of the Queens. Most of them are over three thousand years old, so the fact that you can find anything at all is remarkable.

Every tomb experience is roughly similar in the sense that you duck down into the ground through a narrow opening—because they never made big openings—and usually steep stairs. You can just imagine people digging tunnels into the rock and smoothing everything out so they had a nice clean surface to work on. Limestone doesn’t smooth easily. You have to chip away at it. But they had the patience to make it just as smooth as it could be. They didn’t have power tools. They had wooden wedges that they soaked and allowed to expand and crack the rock. I’m guessing they used granite sledges to chip away a lot of that stuff, and they used some granite-like tools and harder rocks to smooth the surface down. Then they sent their artisans in to do relief carvings into the face of the wall and then paint the carvings, creating pictures of the gods and goddesses that were going to be important to them in the afterlife. All this was done in dim candlelight by people working underground for years, just so their pharoah and sometimes the queens and kids could have a resting place that would serve them as they made the transition from the current world to the afterworld.  And it’s just . . . you have to see it to appreciate it.

Q: What was Nefertari’s tomb like?

A: My wife, my daughter, and I were the only people in the tomb besides the two security guards, which was wonderful for a variety of reasons. When you’re all by yourselves, you don’t have other people chattering around you and you’re not stumbling over everybody. You’re in a place that’s as quiet as can be—a place where somebody was buried, for crying out loud, and this is where they were going to spend their afterlife.

Because we had already visited half a dozen tombs, I knew how the chambers were oriented, what the burial chamber would look like, what the access would feel like, the kinds of gods we would see on the wall, where Osiris and Horus would be and what they’d be doing and the kind of offerings they’d be getting. We had a good feel for what we would see, but we didn’t know how artistic the works would be and how impressive in terms of their beauty. The colors are absolutely startlingly vivid. They just jump out at you.

There are signs everywhere reminding you that the maximum time is ten minutes, but because our guide was careful to arrange for us to arrive when nobody else was there, the guards were more lenient. They didn’t speak English, but they were motioning you might want to come over here and take a look at this. They didn’t try to shoo us out at ten minutes, and we didn’t volunteer to leave. We just drank it in.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to get to a lot of places, but Nefertari’s tomb was one of the nicest. It was the perfect way to end our visit to the tombs, and all of us loved it—not just me.

Q: Anything else you think other travelers should know about visiting this tomb?

A: The entire experience lasted 15 minutes. My only regret is that they’re particular about cameras, so it’s purely a memory situation, but that’s enough. You know going in that you’re not going to have any photographs, so better take in as much as you can and appreciate it while you have the opportunity.

In fact, there are pictures all over the Internet—but pictures only tell half the story. One of the benefits of travel is that it involves all your senses, including your sense of wonder: I’m actually here. I’m not leafing through a book or looking at a photo on the Internet. I’m actually here. Otherwise why would anybody ever travel?


Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

On every third qualifying trip, Wendy will add to your itinerary a surprise WOW Moment. A WOW Moment is an exclusive insider experience that helps make a trip extraordinary. Each WOW Moment is totally different. They vary depending on a huge range of factors, including the country you’re headed to, the timing of your trip, logistics, availability, and more. You can read a sampling of the more over-the-top WOW Moments (those most conducive to editorial coverage) here. Learn which trips qualify, and how the process works, here: Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!