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Dealing with the Airport

It's really strange, but one of the most anxious moments for me in traveling is that first few minutes in the airport, trying to figure out where you are supposed to go, what you do, who to ask, etc. I don't get nervous out and about in a new city, but drop me in an airport with luggage and a reservation somewhere and I freak out. (Part of it is because I have a huge phobia about busses and trains).

At the airport your luggage will be x-rayed and possibly searched. Your carry-on will be scanned at least once, probably twice. There is a lot of frantic activity with searching individuals, but I don't think a lot of true security -- at least once when Mark kept setting off the scanner, they simply asked if he had a bomb, and when he said "no", let him pass.

Arriving in Cairo
Anyway, there are a few things to keep in mind when arriving:

  1. You will land out on the tarmac and get off the plane using one of those rolling staircases. There are no "gates" per se, like you might be used to in the States.
  2. There will be busses waiting for you at the bottom of the stairs. Don't worry about which one to get one, they all go to the same place in the terminal. (sometimes a short connection time means that certain people should get on the first bus...they will announce this clearly).
  3. You have to go through customs. Have your passport out and it should go quickly. Everyone we saw spoke English.
  4. We had a tour manager to take care of our visas, which are bought at the airport. There is a desk to handle this. You may need your return tickets to validate the length of your stay.
  5. No one except airport personnel and a few, specially-tagged tour companies are allowed in the airport. Follow the signs to luggage (which are also in English and have those international symbols) and wait for your luggage. It's worth hiring a cart. Things seem a bit disorganized (and, to be completely honest, I have never seen so much luggage in my life -- everyone going to Cairo seems to have five enormous bags and a few boxes held together with twine.)

And here's where I cease to be of any help to you at all. We had a private car waiting for us, and our tour company is one of the "special" ones that can meet us inside the terminal building, so we didn't have to run the gauntlet of hotel touts and taxi drivers. I have read that it is just that -- a gauntlet -- in order find a taxi and get tot he hotel that you want, but I have no first hand experience. I'd appreciate any notes, if someone has them!!

Departing (from any airport)
Leaving from any airport in Egypt (and we have four internal flights as well as our international flight) is a study in chaos. Everyone is very nice and friendly, but if you are used to American-style speed and brusqueness, or European efficiency, forget it. It's slow, tedious, and confusing, and can be very frustrating. There are often four or five people who are apparently doing the same job at a single ticket counter, with one person reading the ticket and another person tearing it. Three people check your luggage, two stamp your ticket..

We'd been adequately warned to expect that people do not wait in lines well (queuing up politely means you'll get left behind!), nor will we get anywhere with frustration or demands to move faster. Just be polite and insistent. and move forward with the crowd of people until you roll to the front. Don't butt in line, but don't worry if you approach the desk in a gaggle, either. Everyone gets helped.

We did, however, discover a few ways to make the process a bit easier. Since all luggage is scanned and searched, try the following plan -- it worked for us:

  1. One person handles the luggage, one person handles the tickets. Send the "ticket-only" person through security first.
  2. Have one person be in charge of the luggage and getting it through the X-ray machines. (Note that if you're boarding an international flight, they will search your bags. They are very fast, very efficient, and I'm pretty sure that the security person packed the stuff back into my bag better than I had packed it in the first place!!
  3. Have the other person go directly to the counter for boarding passes. I had no problem getting passes for both of us, even if Mark was still struggling with the luggage. Usually about the time I got to the front of the line, Mark had struggled up with the luggage. If not, I pointed, apologized, and in at least one case, they sent someone over to help him!
  4. The luggage persons follows and gets the luggage checked in
  5. The boards with arrival and departure information are NOT USED in most of the airports we visited. Ask security or airport personnel which gate and listen carefully for your flight number OR destination, which will be announced by someone standing near the gate. The status on the board is not to be trusted at all.
  6. You will be x-rayed and your luggage checked again when you go to the gate. (Not always, but in the larger airports).
  7. You will ride a bus to the plane, even if you can see it from the doorway and it's ten feet away. Ask again if you are on the right flight, as no one really seems to check tickets.
  8. All announcements will be in English, too. Don't worry. Probably FRench as well, in most places, and definitely in Italian at Sharm-el-Shiekh.

Nearly every domestic flight was late, in our experience, so don't panic if the flight time has passed by and you haven't heard anything. They usually began boarding us about 10 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave. One at least one occasion, after asking for the third time if our flight was boarding, the gate person sat us down next to someone who spoke Arabic, explained that we were obviously lost and stupid tourists, and instructed this perfect stranger to tell us when to get on the plane. We had some interesting conversations with people in the airports like this.

Despite the sense of general disorganization, everyone was calm, polite, nice, and more than willing to help.

Be prepared to tip luggage people. A cart will cost about 2 pounds, and may or may not come with a helpful (or not so helpful!) person attached to it. A 2-5 pound tip (about a buck) is generous.


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r. fingerson