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Usually, I write about the history, the mystery, and the grandeur of a place like the pyramids. For over 4,000 years the pyramids have been one of the best-known structures on Earth. We’ve probably all seen TV shows, read books, or perhaps wrote a fourth-grade report on them, so there is nothing I can really add that you can’t get somewhere else. If you’re keen on the backstory of the Egyptian pyramids, this book provides an exquisitely written history.
Instead, let’s talk about the physical act of visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza. Off all the wonders in the world, visiting this site takes some explaining to do it right. Although my experience to the pyramids may not be representative of the experience others have had, it’s how it went down for me—and many others, I suspect. I visited the Great Pyramids by myself and on a day there were surprisingly few other tourists. If you’re on a cruise or one of the many great day tours, it’s an entirely different experience. Had I been with a group or on a day with more people, it actually would have been better. The pyramids are one of the few attractions in the world where I can say that it’s better to visit when it’s crowded. My tips below are written from my first-hand experience, and from talking to dozens of other tourists in Egypt who had experiences similar to mine.
What’s It Like Visiting the Pyramids as a Tourist?
From a straight tourist visitation perspective, my trip to the pyramids was the worst I’ve had. The management of the Giza Pyramids site is horrible and little to no investment has been put into even basic things like garbage cans or signs. Other locations in Egypt under the oversight of The Supreme Council of Antiquities are not in this poor of shape or run this poorly. Abu Simbel, one of Egypt’s best World Heritage Sites, was a great example of how an attraction like this should be administered. In fact, every other temple I visited in Egypt wasn’t really that bad. A mere $1,000 investment (which is probably less than one day of admissions to the pyramids) could pay for garbage bins and a crew of people to walk around the grounds picking up litter.
Getting to the Pyramids: Taxi Versus Public Transportation
My nightmare visiting the pyramids began with the taxi ride. Every taxi in Egypt is going to try and put the screws to you on the amount they charge to take you there. The pyramids are tourist attraction #1 and they know it. The advantage to being on a group tour is that you never have to deal with taxis.
Tips for Taking Taxi to the Pyramids
If you need to take a taxi, you must set the price before you go. The cab driver will try to just get you to get into the car without setting a price. There are tons of taxis and they all want your money. Pass and take another if your driver won’t commit to a price. You shouldn’t pay more than 20-30LE (Egyptian Pounds) for a ride. Also, make sure they take you directly to the entrance gate, with no stops in between.
How to Take Public Transportation to the Pyramids (Your Best Option)
Had I done it better, I would have used public transportation to get there. There is a Giza stop in the Cairo subway system—although this doesn’t take you directly to the pyramids, you can take a minibus from the station that will take you right there. This minibus is a much cheaper option (about 1LE for the subway fare) and you don’t have to worry about everything I listed above. The subway is what I should have done.
Taking a Day Tour to the Pyramids
If you’re staying across the street from the pyramids, a day tour is a good option because a great guide will not only get you there and navigate the transportation in Cairo for you, but they provide a bit of a buffer for what’s to come next, once you’re inside. Our favorite options include:
- Full-Day Tour from Cairo: Giza Pyramids, Sphinx, Memphis, and Saqqara
- Day Tour Giza Pyramids by Camel In Egypt
- Guided Tour to Giza Pyramids With Quad Bike
- 12-day Egypt Upgraded G Adventures Tour
Arriving at the Pyramids: The Camel Ride Hustle
You’ll notice as you approach the pyramids that it’s not like what you’ve seen in pictures all your life. While one side of the pyramids are up against the desert, the other side is right up against a residential neighborhood. In fact, right across the street from the main gate to the pyramids is a Pizza Hut. That that is literally what the Sphinx has been looking at all day for decades.
When my taxi was still a kilometer away from the entrance, I had my first run-in with the most aggressive and annoying touts I’ve seen at any tourist location in the world: the camel riders. There is a huge business built around giving tourists rides on camels, and they are very aggressive about getting business. When my taxi was still driving down the street, when we had to slow at a speed bump, one of the camel guys jumped into my taxi and tried to sell me on a camel ride.
The fact that this guy was willing to jump into a moving vehicle should give you an idea of just how aggressive they are. The taxi drivers get a cut of whatever the camel rider earns from you, so they have no incentive to protect you from these touts. In fact, such big business are these camel rides that they will do anything and everything up to—but not quite—theft. They will lie to you, they will scam you, they will try to con you. You need to know that before you get there because, in a typical con man fashion, they have developed a friendly routine for the tourists.
How to Handle the Camel Ride Hustlers
The first question they will always ask you is where you’re from. This is not because they are interested in learning about your culture. They encounter thousands of tourists every month—they’ve seen it all before. They ask the question so they can a) set a price for how much to charge you, and b) use it as a hook to start a conversation that makes you think they’re your friend. They are not your friend. If you say you’re American, they will say “Obama!” If you say you are Canadian, they will say “Canada Dry!” No matter where you say you’re from, they will say “Good people from xxx!” They’re surprisingly adept at negotiating prices and engaging in small talk in a wide number of languages.
They will absolutely charge higher prices if you are from the U.K., U.S., Germany, or the Netherlands. If you can somehow pass yourself off as being from a less developed country, do it. The pyramids were the only time on my trip where I resorted to lying about my nationality. I went from America to Canada to Slovenia, and finally to the fictional country of Karkozia. I’d speak some gibberish sounding Eastern European language and pretend not to know English.
The hustle really doesn’t end though. They’ll persist with other tactics. If they tell you they’re with the government, or that it is illegal to walk around the pyramids, they’re lying.
If you want to do the camel thing, I recommend doing it early in your visit. That way you aren’t just buying a camel ride, you’re also paying protection money so the other camel guys don’t harass you. I should make clear that the camel guys are not just outside the entrance, they’re walking all over the pyramid grounds, as well.
Exploring Inside the Pyramids: The Hustles Continue
At every tourist attraction in Egypt, they have metal detectors. The pyramids were the only place where they even bothered to use them. I had a Leatherman in my camera bag and the guy working the x-ray machine tried to steal it. I put up a fuss and he relented.
Lesson: Even the officials working for the government can’t be trusted.
While I was walking along the Great Pyramid, there was a small rope barrier. One of the tourist police said it was OK to go over the rope and climb up one flight of the blocks. The moment I got back down he demanded 20LE.
Lesson: No one does anything out of the goodness of their heart. They want a tip no matter how inconsequential the advice they give (“Stand here to take a picture … 5LE please!”)
On top of all that, you’ll have people trying to sell you cheap crap on the pyramid grounds. I didn’t find them nearly as annoying, just because they are stuck in one place because of their inventory. You should just know that all the trinkets they sell are made in China and can be purchased at countless other shops in Cairo.
How to Survive Scams Inside the Pyramids
Despite the fact it’s hot and it’s in a desert, there was a surprising shortage of people selling beverages. There was one lady (and there are very few women you meet as a tourist in Egypt) who said to me, “Sir, would you like to buy a Pepsi-Cola?” I was so shocked at her honest and direct approach of not trying to con me that I bought a drink from her.
My other tip is to bring small bills. If you expect to get change from any of these vendors, they will come up with excuses about not having enough money to make change. One fellow traveler told me that he pulled out a 100LE bill and the camel guy just ripped it out of his hand. He almost got into a fight with the guy. Most tourists are not that assertive and end up getting taken advantage of as a result. You have to be very aggressive and if need be, come across as a total asshole.
Another scam I encountered, but never went along with to figure out how it worked, was the guy who gives you a free t-shirt. They will “give” it to you as a gift and shove it in your hands. I always just let it fall to the ground. I assumed they had a partner up the road who would accuse you of stealing or something. If anyone has information on how the scam works, let me know.
In summary, for one of the greatest wonders of the world, the pyramids are a horrible place to visit. I put the blame for the squarely on the shoulders of The Supreme Council of Antiquities, which runs the pyramids. I suspect there is some political reason why they let lunatics run the asylum. They really should be ashamed. They clearly know how to run these properties, as I saw in almost every other attraction in Egypt. After a few hours, even though I had long dreamed of photographing this amazing site, I was willing to forgo some photos I was hoping to get just because I wanted to leave … which meant getting another taxi.
Most of the independent travelers I met in Egypt had an experience similar to mine. If you do get a chance to visit someday, I hope you can learn something from my visit to make it more enjoyable—below are some additional tips to make for a smoother Cairo visit than mine!
Insider Travel Tips: Visiting the Pyramids of Giza
How to Avoid Scams
In addition to our advice above, check reviews on the Pyramids’ TripAdvisor listing—this is where you’ll find the most up-to-date tips on scams and shake-downs happening right now. Other travelers will often leave some gems of tips in the reviews there.
I recommend Nile Meridien Hotel for a great mid-range option, Kempinski Nile Hotel, Cairo if you’re keen to splurge on something quite nice and in a safe area (and with a fabulous breakfast buffet), and Ambiance Cairo Hotel for those on a budget but still wanting great amenities. (If you’re just doing an in-and-out and want to stay right next to the pyramids, then nab a night at Giza Pyramids Inn and then head on your way.)
Egypt Travel Guide
Our free guide to traveling Egypt covers the essentials, and you should also have a print guidebook like the Egypt Lonely Planet, which offers great transportation and navigation tips once you’re on the ground. You’ll also really get more out of the visit if you’re up on the Egypt’s fascinating history, so we recommend sending A History of Ancient Egypt to your Kindle, or buying a print copy for the plane.
Join a Tour
Sure, you could visit the pyramids solo—I did it and survived—but you’d have a much better experience joining a tour. This is a really great day tour if you’re solo traveling the rest of Egypt, or they even have adventure versions on quad bikes and such. Or I highly recommend taking the 12-day Egypt Upgraded G Adventures tour (the eight-day version is also terrific if you’re pressed for time). I’ve taken dozens of G Adventures tours over the years and stand by them as the best small-group tour company for travelers.
Book Travel Insurance
Seriously, you need travel insurance if you’re heading to Egypt, but particularly if you’re visiting the touristy spots like the pyramids. Great travel insurance protects you if lose your gear, if you need medical help, or just need trip protection—we recommend contracting World Nomads coverage for the duration of your Egyptian trip.
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