Knowing a few things will make travel around the Sinai easier and less stressful, especially if it’s your first time in Egypt or the Middle East. The tips below aren’t a comprehensive list; they’re a skeletal one with the bare essentials you need before you go. You’ll pick up more knowledge as you travel, but these are a good place to start. They cover evrything from money to mobile phones to Egyptian numerals and you can find a lot more practical travel advice in SINAI: THE TREKKING GUIDE.
- MONEY – the unit of currency is the Egypt pound: written ‘LE’, and called the ‘ginay’. For the last few years the rough exchange rates have been GBP£1 = LE10, US$1 = LE7, EUR1 = LE8. ATMs are the best way to manage money; they’re common in bigger towns, but not in smaller ones. There’s only one ATM inland, at St Katherine. Egypt has a chronic lack of small change so hang onto all the small notes you get: they’re much more useful than bigger ones. Also check any change for damages and tears, as it often won’t be accepted.
- MOBILE PHONES Virtually everybody in the Sinai has a mobile phone these days. Across Egypt, ownership is said to be as high as 80%. Having a phone will be a big help: collect the numbers of useful people, then call them up as and when you need them. Get a local SIM: there are three firms – Vodafone, Mobinil and Etisalat and Vodafone has the overall best coverage for trekking. SIM cards should cost about LE15-20 but you might be quoted LE50 or more. You might have to show your passport but some vendors don’t care.
- NUMBERS – The numerals we have in the West – 1,2,3 etc – are often called Arabic numerals but you don’t actually see them much in the Middle East. Most stuff is marked with a different set of numerals which you should try to learn before you. A few quick tips: the numbers are written left to right – exactly like numbers in the West – and a comma is used to divide Egyptian pounds/ pence, NOT a decimal point.
- HAGGLING This is common in Egypt and prices are usually inflated in the expectation you’ll haggle – so make sure you do. Few bother haggling for everyday groceries; but most other stuff is open game. Haggling, and questioning prices, people etc. CAN feel awkward if you’re coming from the West. But it’s completely normal and – once you get used to it – you might even enjoy the liberation you get from the fixed price tags of home. It’s a whole art that involves acting, gamesmanship and reading people. Jump in and start practising!
- TAXIS – taxis can be brilliant for getting around the Sinai, especially when you have a good driver. But ALWAYS avoid getting taxi from the place you arrive: e.g. airport, ferry port, land border etc. Drivers know you’re probably not familiar with the Sinai and local prices; they also know you’ll want to end a long, tiring journey. All that means they can get higher rates out of people, sometimes by double or triple the going rates. Book a taxi BEFORE you get to Egypt: camps and hotels can arrange them, or you can call one recommended HERE.
- BAKSHEESH – Baksheesh is a tip, sweetener or incentive for getting something done. It’s common in Egypt and is generally expected, asked for, and given. There’s no obligation but if you have the means – and it’ll be assumed YOU DO – it’s the local way. Make it about 10-15% of the original price. This is a fair and standard cut. For porters and others who give a one off service, tip LE3-5 (more in expensive hotels). For people like toilet attendants, give about LE1 per visit. Leave a tip in restaurants even if ‘service’ is included in the bill.
- ON THE ROAD Checkpoints are regular features of the Sinai’s roads. Passport inspections are usual, so carry your passport at all times and make sure VISAS are up-to-date. Sometimes you might get questions too: where are you going, why? etc. All that’s normal, so go along with it as best as you can. There are regular bag checks when going through the Suez Canal tunnel too. There are also reports of alcohol being confiscated if you don’t have receipts here: alcohol IS legal in Egypt but – just to be safe – keep receipts.
- CULTURAL STUFF It’s always good to be aware of key cultural differences, trying to blend in. Dress is a good place to start. Men and women should both wear trousers; and, generally, the more conservative the clothes, the better. If you’re eating, do it with your right hand; not your left. Don’t point the soles of your feet at anybody when you’re sitting (it’s a sign of disrespect); sit cross legged or kneel. Shaking hands is a normal greeting between men, but between men and women a verbal greeting is fine.
- ARABIC – Arabic is the main language across the Sinai. English is widely spoken in big tourist areas; you might hear German, Italian and Russian too. In remote areas though Arabic is often the ONLY language spoken. You should try and learn some before you go. No matter how clumsy you think you sound, people will like and respect the fact you’re trying to talk their language. At the least, you should know the standard welcome greeting: SALEM ALAYKUM: to which the standard reply is WALAYKUM ES SALEM.