Driving in Egypt can be a stressful and harrowing experience. Egyptian drivers usually ignore speed limits on open roads and drive vehicles that are dangerous from a structural and mechanical point of view. Out in the countryside, there are no pedestrian walkways, and the road shoulders are not well defined. You'll need to watch out for little children, goats, camels, and oxen—constant vigilance is required. At night these same animals can still be problems, but worse is the fact that few Egyptian drivers use their headlights after dark, so it's not always easy to see oncoming traffic.
In the city, you'll need to watch constantly for other traffic and for pedestrians who cross the street anywhere. They can and do appear from behind stationary vehicles, and they cross in the gaps between moving traffic.
Wherever you travel by road in Egypt, you meet police checkpoints. The authorities control all traffic but particularly vehicles carrying foreign tourists. If you are traveling along the Nile Valley in Upper Egypt by car, you should travel with a guarded traffic convoy. Visit the tourist office to find out where the convoy meets and at what time; if you don't join the convoy, you'll be stopped at the first checkpoint out of town and either turned back or told to wait for the next convoy or for a guard to be assigned to your vehicle. Waiting for a guard can take well over an hour and could ruin any carefully prepared itinerary.
Gas stations and rest areas are plentiful on major highways, and credit cards are widely accepted. In areas that see fewer travelers, such as the Western Desert, they are less so. Carrying cash is a good idea, and always be sure to take extra gas with you when traveling in the Western Desert. Most gas stations in Egypt are full-service, and it's customary to tip the attendant who fills up your car a pound or two. All gas is unleaded and is sold by the liter. Plain unleaded is called tamanin, or 80, denoting the level of purity. Higher-quality gasoline is available as tisa'in, or 90, and occasionally khamsa wa tisa'in, or 95.
Prices are reasonable by U.S. standards—£E1.50–£E1.80 per liter (the equivalent of $1.02–$1.22 per gallon) depending on the grade of gasoline. Most pumps show amounts in Roman numerals but you still may find some in Arabic. Watch as the attendant starts the pump to see that it reads 000. You should give the attendant a tip of a few Egyptian pounds.
Road conditions are generally good, especially in the Sinai and along the Red Sea Coast. There are very few maps available, and signposting—although in Arabic and English—is generally poor.
Make sure that your car-rental company provides you with the contact details or a 24-hour emergency number to call in case of any problems.
Any traffic accidents will be dealt with by police.
Always take extra water when traveling long distances, especially on the desert roads. If at all possible, carry a cell phone with you as well as the telephone numbers of police stations and hotels along your route. If you have car trouble on the highway, get your car off the road as soon as possible, then wait and flag down any passing vehicle. Daily buses serve even remote areas, and they will stop for you if they see you. More worrisome are accidents. Many Egyptian car owners don't carry insurance, and disputes tend to be resolved on the scene with more or less fanfare depending on the seriousness of the accident. Insist on getting a policeman who speaks English, and take down the license number of the other driver. For serious accidents in which people have been injured, get emergency help first and then immediately contact or drive to your embassy. In all situations, insist on having present a senior police officer who speaks English.
Rules of the Road
Speed limits are 60 kph in built-up areas and 90 kph on the open road (these should be posted at regular intervals at the side of the highway), but most local drivers ignore these and drive as fast as they can. Lane discipline is nonexistent, and drivers will try to pass even on bends and up hills when they cannot see if there's traffic coming in the other direction. There are restrictions against using cell phones while driving, and seat belts are compulsory. However, drivers regularly flout these laws. There are numerous traffic officers in the main towns, but enforcement is patchy. Fines of £E100 are the norm, but officers can confiscate your license if they feel you have been driving dangerously.
Drunk driving is a serious offense, and perpetrators can be arrested, fined (around £E500), and have their vehicles confiscated. The legal blood alcohol level above which it is an offense to drive is 0.05%. However, breath tests are not common because most Egyptians don't drink alcohol. There is no legislation relating to children. Car-rental companies do not supply car seats for infants; if you have small children, consider bringing a car seat from home.
Around Egypt, there are police checkpoints every 30 km or so along every highway, and also at all major intersections and river crossings. You should show your passport to the officers manning the barrier. Foreigners are sometimes stopped for no reason in an attempt by the officer to squeeze money from them. If you smile and insist you did not break the law, they will usually let you go.
Right turns are permitted on red at some intersections—indicated by a flashing light above or to the side of the traffic lane. But not all drivers waiting in this lane want to turn right.
You are not allowed to take cars rented in Egypt out of the country.
In Cairo many traffic lights at intersections do not work, and traffic officers who control traffic with hand movements man these areas. Authorities have recently installed cameras at intersections in parts of downtown Cairo to catch drivers who cross intersections.
If you are traveling in one direction on a main highway but want to turn around—or if you merge onto a highway but cannot initially travel in the direction you want, you need to look ahead for a midstream turning area on the left-hand side of the highway. You should see a sign on the overhead gantry, but these are not always well signposted. Be very careful as these feeder lanes lead you directly into the flow of the fastest traffic.
In Upper Egypt, tourist traffic is organized into guarded convoys that follow set routes at set times each day. Whether you self-drive, have a driver, book a day tour, or travel in an organized itinerary, you'll have to work within the convoy system and travel at prescribed times.
Egypt is one destination where renting a car is not generally recommended. There are several reasons for this. First, the level of driving skill in Egypt is generally erratic; there's little adherence to laws and safety guidelines, and driving at dangerous speeds for the conditions is the norm. Second, major towns and cities have poor signage, making navigation next to impossible; parking is almost nonexistent. Finally, for security reasons, the government organizes all tourist traffic along the Nile Valley into convoys, which run a certain fixed hours. Even if you self-drive, you must join a convoy, making it impossible to travel on your own timetable.
Because of all these difficulties, you'll find numerous tour operators on the ground, all of which provide inexpensive, reliable tours to all major sights, making the need to rent a car redundant. In addition, you may be able to book private tours and guides for little more than the cost of renting a car.
The one area where it may be sensible to rent a vehicle is in the Sinai or for trips along the Red Sea Coast from a base in Hurghada or El Gouna—roads here are less busy.
Since the late 1990s the number of international car-rental companies in Egypt has dropped dramatically. You cannot rent a car in Luxor or Aswan, for instance, though you can rent in Cairo or Alexandria, on the Red Sea Coast, and in the Sinai, though even those offices with an international brand name will be franchises.
Most companies have minimum age limits (normally 21 or 23). You'll also need an international driving license. Unlimited mileage is generally not offered in Egypt; most car-rental deals only offer 100 km per day in the basic rental price. The average rate for each kilometer (0.62 mi) after that is around $0.25. This can add greatly to your bill when you return the vehicle. Most car-rental agency agreements prohibit off-road driving, so avoid dirt roads in the Sinai or desert tracks away from the Nile Valley.
Make sure that the car you receive is in good condition; it is wise to specify that you want a new car. Many vehicles are at least two years old and most have dents and scrapes. Make sure you receive an emergency number you can call 24 hours a day in case of mechanical problems or accident.
With so little demand you should have no problem finding car rentals at any time of the year. If you decide to rent in a resort, visit the rental office a couple of days before you need the car. If you want to rent from the time of your arrival, book from home.
If you rent and intend to park at your hotel between journeys, you'll be asked to hand in the car registration document and your driving license at the security gate during your time in the hotel complex. The documents will be returned when you leave. Don't forget the registration card because if you don't return it with the car at the end of your rental period, there's a huge penalty of $300 to $500 to cover the time and cost for the rental company to get a replacement.
If you intend to return your rental car to Cairo airport during the day (except on Friday), add an extra 60 minutes to your travel time in case of traffic delays.
Avis. 800/331–1084; 02/265–2429; www.avis.com.
Budget. Cairo International Airport, Heliopolis, Cairo, Cairo. 02/265–2395; 800/472–3325; www.budget.com.
Europcar. 6m Misr Lel Taamir Bldgs., Masaken Sheraton Buildings, Heliopolis, Cairo, Cairo. 02/2267–2439; www.europcar.com.
Europcar. Cairo International Airport, Heliopolis, Cairo, Cairo. 02/2267–2439.
Hertz. Ramses Hilton, 1115 Corniche al-Nil, 800/654–3001; 02/347–2238; www.hertz.com.
Hertz. Cairo International Airport, Heliopolis, Cairo, Cairo. 02/265–2430.
Hertz. Le Méridien Pyramids Hotel, Giza, Cairo, Cairo. 02/3377–3388.
Smart Rental. Corniche al-Nil, Ma'adi, Cairo, Cairo. 02/524–3006; www.smartlimo.com.
Most rental companies in Egypt include full insurance in the quoted rental price, but do check the fine print to make sure you're getting on paper what was agreed to verbally. Insurance does not cover the loss of the car registration document; if you don't return this with the car, you'll be liable for at least $300 for a replacement (including loss of income as the vehicle stands idle while the rental agency waits for the replacement document).