Editor’s Note: The intrepid Egyptologist and solo world traveler, Joanie Maro, has graciously offered to share her passion, travel tips, and experiences as a woman traveling in the Middle East. Over the next few months, on ArchaeoAdventures’ blog we will be featuring women travelers’ personal experiences traveling in the Middle East and North Africa. You can read these posts on our blog or on our monthly newsletter. If you have not yet subscribed for our free monthly travel newsletter, we invite you to sign up at the bottom of our homepage or on the sidebar of our blog.
Packing for any trip can be daunting to the unseasoned traveler; especially when you are a woman and
your destination is the Middle East. I am thrilled to be able to share that packing for this region is easier, cheaper and more comfortable than you can imagine.
Packing for the Middle East varies both regionally and seasonally. For example, Tel Aviv, Israel is much more liberal in their choice of attire than rural Saudi Arabia and going to Jordan in June is different than visiting Morocco in January. That being said, as a woman tourist, I find there are many universal truths to packing for a Middle Eastern trip and I have included those below. For the purpose of this article, I am using Egypt as an example destination.
The Power of Traveling Light
Firstly, the importance of packing light cannot be overemphasized. I travel with only one small suitcase and a backpack, and never check baggage at the airport. My luggage of choice is Owias Waterproof Travel Backpack and Briggs & Riley Explore 19” Upright suitcase. For me, the measure of a good traveler is how light you travel. I truly believe you can’t travel heavy, happy, and cheap. Pick two. These days, you save money by carrying all your bags on the plane. While it’s still free to check one bag on most overseas trips, you’ll likely pay a fee to check two and sometimes airlines charge you even to check one. When you carry on your own luggage, it’s less likely to get lost, broken, or stolen and quick, last-minute changes in flight plans become simpler. A small day bag also sits on your lap or under your seat on the bus, taxi, and airplane. Less, lighter luggage also enables you to hit the ground running when you arrive. It’s a good feeling. Especially when arriving in a place like Egypt. If it’s your first time experiencing a Middle Eastern country, it’s best to make yourself as comfortable and at ease as possible.
What’s in My Bag
For trips to Egypt, or anywhere for that matter, my backpack is where I store my most valuable items. These items are electronics, toiletries, and personal goods. While traveling in a destination the backpack can also be a purse and a day bag for sightseeing. My carry-on suitcase is where I store my clothing and shoes.
Below is a list of items I found, through extensive personal experience and research, to be essential for Egyptian travel. I recommend you pack these items with you in your backpack and suitcase. I have accompanied most of the listed items with explanations to clarify their necessity.
In The Backpack
Electronics and personal items:
Passport – The most important thing. Never forget this.
Digital camera – I like to use both my iPhone and my camera for snapping photos. Some people only
use their phone and this can definitely save more space in your backpack. However, smart phones have limited memory and are less reliable than the regular ‘ol digital camera, so I suggest having both.
Extra memory card – You may take over 10,000 pictures. No judgment here, I totally do. Better safe than sorry.
Plug adaptor – Egypt uses the same two pronged plug adaptor that is used in most of Europe. I bring two.
iPad or Tablet – If you have one, it serves as a good alternative to a laptop because it is lighter and more portable. I suggest downloading movies on your iPad or other devices while you are still stateside. You’ll be happy you have movies when you are in the airport, on the plane, or perhaps about to go to sleep. Services like Netflix and HBO GO have not arrived in Egypt yet. True Story. It totally takes adjusting to.
Smart phone/iPhone – Phones and other smart devices can be huge time-savers…or expensive distractions. More budget-conscious travelers can forego their carrier’s international plans altogether and do everything over Wi-Fi. This is what I suggest. Keep your phone on airplane mode for the duration of your trip to make sure you aren’t accruing expensive international data costs. Not only can you use Wi-Fi to get online and access maps and audio tours, but you can also make phone calls and send text messages at no charge, using apps such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype (to name a few). Sounds great — but you’ve got to find a hotspot first. It isn’t hard to find Wi-Fi in Egypt if you are staying near a big city or at a hotel. I always buy a cheap local phone upon arrival to call and check in with guides, drivers, or friends if I need to.
iPod or CD Player – If you don’t have music already on any of your smart devices.
Sunglass case – I use a sunglasses case to store all my cords and chargers for my various devices and then I clip them together. This keeps them orderly and free from tangles.
Journal – Even if you are not a writer, I suggest bringing a travel journal to record the transformative journey you are bound to have. A personal documentation of your feelings and impressions makes the best and most sincere souvenir.
Kindle – If you are a travel junkie like myself, I seriously suggest investing in a Kindle. Not only are they lighter than a book, but Kindle prices for books and guidebooks are 25-50% cheaper than the real physical thing. They are also portable libraries. Bring as many books/guidebooks on the plane as you want without taking up precious space in your backpack.
Credit and debit card – Although they are not widely accepted as payment methods in Egypt, most “upper-class” establishments and hotels do accept credit cards. Debit cards should only be used to withdraw funds from an ATM. Make sure you get a card that has no foreign transaction fees. Call your bank before you leave home and let them know you will be traveling, so that you don’t get declined when you try to make a purchase. However, nothing beats cold, hard cash in this part of the world.
Money – I suggest bringing the equivalent of 75 USD, or more, or less, depending on your budget, in small bills (1’s and 5’s). You can tip Egyptians with them. American dollars are just as good there as their own EGP (Egyptian Pound). As far as bringing EGP from home, I have never once found a bank stateside that you can exchange USD for EGP. So I wait until I am in Egypt and withdraw the maximum amount at an airport ATM, usually 2000 EGP. ATMs at the airport are the most reliable. You can also bring larger bills and exchange them at money exchange stores in Egypt (they are everywhere) if you do not want to deal with an ATM. I have done this before and they don’t even charge an exchange fee, it’s really a good deal, as long as you don’t mind carrying large bills on you.
Egyptian Arabic phrase book – Although I suggest learning some Arabic before you come into the country, this is always a smart thing to have because not everyone in your destination speaks English, Although the majority of people do have some working knowledge of the language.
Student I.D. or international student card– You get at least a 50% discount at all sites if you can present one of these at the ticket counter.
Electronics not to pack:
Laptop – You don’t need it. It’s too heavy. It’s too valuable. Of course, if this is a work trip and it is absolutely necessary than by all means; if not, leave it at home.
A lot of travel websites say that the key to packing light is to NOT bring your toiletries. This doesn’t work for me for three very important reasons. First, it is hard, near impossible, to find the type of toiletries western women want or desire in Egypt. Second, I utilize my toiletries on the airplane, especially for a 10-16 hour flight. Third, I am fairly particular about the types of toiletries I use, so I prefer to bring my own. That all being said, if none of those reasons ring true to you personally, most hotels and stores do stock some type of toiletry (shampoo, soap), so you should be fine. It is important to note that if you are a budget traveler in Egypt, it is a risky move to be confident that the hotel you choose or the area you are staying in will certainly have the type of toiletries you are looking for. In my opinion, it is best to just save yourself the stress and bring what you can from home. You may already be dealing with jet lag and culture shock, and you wouldn’t believe how amazing and comforting it is to be able to wash your face and hair using your own supplies.
Here is what I bring, all in plastic containers compliant with airline measurement rules and regulations, and all sealed in plastic bags for added protection:
Shampoo and conditioner – This is a big one for me because I have super curly hair.
Deodorant – You will sweat. A lot.
Sunscreen – You will be completely exposed to the sun in Egypt, this goes without saying, do not forget this!
Facial moisturizer with SPF
Toothbrush and Toothpaste
Lots of hair ties/hair clips
Tylenol/Aspirin – Its tough to find the equivalent oversees in general, but especially in Egypt. You’ll be sore after the hours you spend exploring tombs and trekking through the desert and will be happy you have it.
There are also some less common items I stow in my backpack that I find make all the difference in the world on both the flight and while in destination.
Less common/miscellaneous items:
A small spray bottle of water mixed with Doterra Onguard Oil (orange, cloves, cinnamon, eucalyptus extract) – Not only is this absolutely refreshing and invigorating but it also supports healthy immune function, which is ideal for being stuck in an airplane and while you are abroad.
Visine – Your eyes get dry on the airplane and this will help you feel awake and refreshed. Egypt is also a dry country and a little extra moisture never hurts.
Peppermint oil – This isn’t completely necessary but I find it positively essential. If you over indulged on beer the night before it works as a great hangover cure (just rub a little on your forehead and neck), but, more than that, it keeps away bugs and flies (which you do have to deal with in Egypt and they can be quite annoying, especially when they bite you) and it helps with headaches if you are dehydrated.
Arnica – This is a type of gel you can buy over the counter. You rub it on bruises or sore muscles and it miraculously takes all the pain away.
Probiotics – These come in pill form and can be bought from your local health care store. Some people’s stomachs are more sensitive than others and these work as a way to safeguard against potential food poisoning.
Vaseline – For your feet; great for potential blisters.
Baby powder – Many uses, including dry shampoo for hair. Sometimes water isn’t the most reliable in Egypt, especially in budget friendly hotels. It is always good to have a back up.
Towelettes– Nothing feels better than having a wet and sterile towelette with you when you need to use the bathroom in Egypt (toilet paper, pretty much across the board is not available in bathrooms). These are also great to refresh yourself on the plane, after getting blasted in the face by a sandstorm, or if the water in your hotel stops running (as I mentioned above, it does happen).
A Ziploc bag full of instant coffee – This is only if you are a coffee addict like myself. Nescafé is widely available in Egypt, don’t get me wrong, but some hotels only give you one packet at breakfast…And one packet is SO not enough for me so I always pack more.
Cereal bars/Nuts – I always pack cereal bars, nuts, and other healthy type snacks that are easily storable and do not perish. The last thing you want to do is try and find food when you first land off the airplane and it’s comforting to have something from home. It’s also nice to have something packed in your day bag/backpack for those long days out sightseeing, you may be spending 10 hours out there having a blast and if you are on a budget it is awesome to have healthy snacks stored away. Easy healthy munchies like nuts and cereal bars are not readily available in Egypt. Sometimes it is an adventure in itself just to track down a store, so this is an essential convenience to have. The food items you can buy at convenience stores in Egypt are usually perishable items or sugary sweets and candies (not ideal for sustaining energy and health). Also, what I have noticed, is that the guides/drivers do not pack their own lunches and sometimes go all day without eating so I always pack extra cereal bars for them and they are eternally grateful for that.
Neck pillow – For the airplane or hotel. They are very cozy.
Water cleansing tablets – I find this absolutely unnecessary, I drink the water in Egypt from the street and the faucet and nothing has ever happened to me. That being said, it is technically safest to not do this and most travel websites and books will advise you to not drink the water, while again I do not find this an issue, I can understand why this may make people feel more at ease. (Editor’s Note: For the record, we think Joanie has an iron stomach and kidneys and wish we had stomachs, kidneys and immune systems as strong as hers! ArchaeoAdventures cannot advise drinking the tap water in Egypt due to questions and issues around water cleanliness and water standards in Egypt. Purification tablets, water filters and steripens are a great way to make sure the water is safe to drink if you want to drink tap water.)
Empty water bottle – This cuts down on costs in ways you usually don’t predict. In Egypt, bottled water can run upwards of 10EGP (about 1.30USD). Although this doesn’t seem like a lot of money, the ATM fees are steep (about 12USD each time you withdraw) so it’ll save you money in the long run to be able to fill up your water bottle anywhere, including on the airplane. And the environment will thank you not throwing all those plastic water bottles in the landfills, countryside, Nile River, and oceans.
In The Carry-on Suitcase
As mentioned above, my carry-on suitcase is where I pack my clothing and shoes. When I pack my clothing, I adhere to what I call the “roll-up” rule. Rolling clothing for packing is both a great way to prevent wrinkles and save a ton of space in your suitcase at the same time.
All Middle Eastern travel sites and guidebooks will instruct you to adhere to the following rules in regards to clothing: No bright colors. Long-sleeved shirts. Long pants. Nothing flashy. Whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, the region in general dresses very conservatively. This goes for men as well as women and covering up for modesties sake is the norm. I find this situation and the associated rules to be pretty easy to abide by. Although I have spoken to many western women who view covering yourself as a form of oppression, I really must impress upon you that it is not. Plus, covering up not only keeps you cooler in the hot and arid climate, but it’ll make you more comfortable and less likely to stand out.
Important points to remember when picking out clothes are their ability to cover your shoulders, clavicles, and knees. The recommended material is cotton, as it breathable and dries quickly.
When I pack, I focus on a neutral color pallet. Black is fine, but keep in mind it attracts heat. I always wear my hair up, mainly because of the warm climate and the fact that it gets in the way and not because long hair on tourists attracts attention from locals. People assume that all Egyptians must cover their hair. This simply is not the case. There is a large population of Egyptians, Christians, tourists and ex-pats in Egypt who do not wear the hijab. And many Egyptian women do not believe in covering their hair. This same mind-set goes for clothing as well. I have seen tourists wear crop tops and short shorts at the more popular “tourist sites” (think the Great Pyramids at Giza.) If you choose to wear more revealing clothes outside your hotel, I highly doubt you will be reprimanded. However, you will get sunburned, you will be stared at, and it is disrespectful to Egyptians.
Also, you’ll usually get filthy if you’re having fun and taking advantage of crawling around in the Sahara, I suggest buying/packing clothes you don’t mind ruining. Before going on a trip to Egypt I shop at Goodwill and other thrift stores purchasing as much cotton, long-sleeved shirts and long baggy pants as possible. Usually, I keep my clothing budget around 30USD using this tactic.
Here are the clothing items that end up in my suitcase:
Compression hose – These are used specifically for the airplane. They prevent blood clots and leg swelling, which a lot of people experience on long flights.
Baggy clothes – Remember, if you want to be as culturally respectful as possible, cover your clavicles, shoulders, and knees.
Long dress for a night out – Especially if you want to take advantage of one of Cairo’s amazing belly dancing night cruises.
5 pairs of long pants
2 pair of capris
3 short sleeved shirts (shoulders covered)
4 long sleeved shirts
2 sets of pajamas – I learned this the hard way and trust me after sleeping in the same thing for two weeks, you realize the importance of having an alternative pair.
Sunglasses – Two pairs. Mine always break. Buy cheap ones too; I say this because mine always get scratched when I am crawling through tombs or in pyramid shafts.
A headband or buff – I purchase my headbands/buffs cheap from Forever 21. They look a bit like a bandana and cover the whole top of your head, so only your bun or ponytail shows (my western version of a hijab).
Two scarves – I say two because they get dusty fast, and if you’re staying in Egypt for longer than a week, it always feels nicer to have variety, especially when you look back on photos and you aren’t wearing the exact same thing everyday for two or more weeks (although there is absolutely nothing wrong with that and I totally have done it more than once). Scarves also protect you from the wind, the cold (it happens sometimes), and the guys looking at you, but mostly they are great to cover yourself up if your shirt is a little too low or if you are entering a Mosque where it is absolutely mandatory for women to cover their hair.
One lightweight sweater – Egypt is a desert; it does cool down significantly at night.
One pair of tennis shoes/hiking shoes – I wear New Balance and I have friends who wear Wolverine Sentinel. Just make sure whatever you bring is lightweight and has good traction.
Sandals – For an evening out in the city or for walking around your hotel.
Flats – I use Toms, because I like having an in-between alternative to sandals and rugged hiking shoes. This isn’t completely necessary, but I always enjoy the choice.
Hat – Make sure it has a long brim that covers both your neck and forehead. The sun is relentless. You’ll be grateful for it.
Lots of socks and underwear – Silk, lace, or micro-fiber dries quickest.
A poncho/umbrella –I’ve been rained on in Egypt once, but it doesn’t happen often. If you feel safer bringing an umbrella than by all means, but if you feel okay risking it, I’d recommend that.
Things not to pack (in general):
Jewelry or other valuables (except for your wedding ring, that’s fine I am sure) – I’ve been told it isn’t wise to flaunt your “wealth” because it makes you a target for pickpockets and other sketchy types, while this may be true I just simply never pack valuable jewelry with me when I travel because I am too paranoid I will loose it.
Some final tips
If you’re worried about laundry, my suggestion is to do your laundry in the hotel sink. You’re in Egypt. Don’t be pretentious. It works. Always leave room in your carry-on bags for all the wonderful souvenirs you are bound to buy.
Lastly, Have fun and enjoy every minute! Adventure is out there, ladies! Go get it!