I actually had a pretty hard time getting this piece together. On the one hand, it’s important info to know—Cairo is pretty well-known for tourist scams, and falling for one can ruin your day (or worse, your trip). But while our experiences as tourists in Cairo were certainly aggressive, we found the rest of the country to be lovely and relaxed. So before we get into the worst-case scenarios that might lurk at the corners of your Egypt holiday, just remember: for every un-decent person trying to scam you, there are ten more upstanding, warm-hearted Egyptians. You can give the metaphorical finger to those who want to scam you, but keep yourself open to the rest of the population.
So, how can you avoid scams in Cairo? Research and street smarts will definitely help, but at the end of the day, a confident, firm voice is going to be your strongest line of defense.
Common Cairo Scams and How to Avoid Them
First off, when we say “tourist scams”, what exactly are we talking about? There’s a number of common scams in Cairo, some which are played out in other countries as well. Some can cost you a lot of money, and some are more an inconvenience. Though this is by no means all of them, here are the ones I was warned about and/or experienced myself:
Each of Egypt’s legendary sites has a host of would-be guides waiting to tell you the history. Whether that’s real history or made up history depends on their credentials. It’s insanely hectic at the sites, and many of the “guides” will provide only basic information (if that). If you want to hire a guide, I recommend researching and arranging from a trusted source in advance—TripAdvisor, for example, has a ton of recommendations and reviews for guides. Be cautious even of the hotel-offered guides—make sure you check for credentials before you put any money down.
Once you’ve bought your ticket and crossed through the security into whatever site you’re visiting, be careful of anyone who asks to see your ticket again—unless you’re entering a new area, like the interior of a pyramid. Another common scam is impersonating a tourist official, taking your ticket to “check” it, and then refusing to give it back unless you pay money.
Vendors loved offering us “welcome gifts”—scarves, paintings, and bracelets as just a little “Welcome to my country” for entering their shop or stall. Be aware that anything anyone gives you can (and likely will) be demanded payment for. At first, you’ll feel really shitty for rejecting someone’s gift—especially because they love to puppy-dog eyes you when you decline—but after the third or fourth time, you’ll feel sorriest for yourself.
Camel and donkey handlers
The pyramid complex is quite vast, and you’ll probably want to consider hiring a camel for both transport and the experience. I really recommend it—but it also means negotiating with the camel handlers, who have quite a number of devious tricks up their sleeves, including:
- Purposeful ambiguity on the currency the ride was being quoted in (the currency of Egypt is “pounds”, but we saw another couple arguing with a tout who was trying to say they’d agreed to GBP)
- Negotiating the price after the ride—a definite no-no, because now you’ve got no leverage
- “Mandatory tipping” policies. While Egypt does have a big tip culture, you’re by no means obliged to tip, especially not extravagantly.
- “Forgetting” to include the other half of your ride. Camel handlers can threaten to leave you stranded at the lookout points if you haven’t made it clear that your price is for round-trip—so make sure you clarify beforehand that you want your ride to include the way back
The way we got a peaceful and memorable-for-the-right-reasons camel ride was to negotiate firmly up front, and then pay before we got on the camels, so that we couldn’t be extorted at the end of our ride. We paid the agreed-upon price with the promise of a good tip if the ride was as good as the handler was promising. Worked like a charm.
You’ll be asked often if you want your photo taken, and oftentimes this small kindness will come with expectations of compensation. You’ll also be encouraged to follow random “guides” to the best picture spot in the area. Use your best judgment. We did, at times, take people up on that, because it led to some cool photos and only cost a few Egyptian pounds. Definitely do not follow anyone where you feel uncomfortable, and if you change your mind, remember that you can and should abruptly stop and leave.
The Kindness of Strangers
At the risk of sounding like a bitter cynic, I have to say this was the most common scam attempt we encountered in Cairo. “Helpful” strangers suddenly appear to guide us bewildered tourists off to the places we need to go, with a stop at whatever commissioned store they were partnering with. The easiest way to get out of this one, sad to say, is to be firm to the point—or even past the point—of rudeness. It sucks.
Hotels and taxis
Hotel employees and taxi drivers are supposed to be people you can trust, but that isn’t always the case. As they work so directly with tourists, it’s easy for them to redirect you into commissions for themselves, most often by recommending (or taking you directly to) shops they are partnered with. Be mindful of anyone who offers to take you to shops—if you do want to go shopping in Cairo, your best bet is to try to arrange transport to one of the licensed, fixed-price shops, or get a local you trust to recommend a good place that you can then take an Uber to.
General Tips for Dealing with Scams in Cairo
- Use a strong, firm voice.
- Always be on the lookout—even the front desk at our hotel (a 3-star establishment) tried the “Welcome gift” trick on us.
- Pay up front for services when you can.
- Know what you want and how much you’re willing to pay beforehand.
- Clarify the form of currency and the terms of your agreements in advance of payment.
- If there’s more than one of you, stick in it together. You’ll both get played to, so stay strong, even if you’re uncomfortable or embarrassed.
- Don’t be afraid to walk away.
- Don’t let anyone write your name on anything.
- Get the authorities. At the pyramids and around the museums, there were always plenty of tourist police circling around. If you need them, call out.
I thought I was pretty well-prepared going into our trip to Cairo, but sad to say, we fell prey to one smooth operator pretty early. Luckily we managed to reverse the hustle and came out better than the shop owners, but it definitely put us in a grump.
The trick? A nice old man who first tried to tell us where it was easiest to hail an Uber. “I’m going that way, let me help you.” “Ah, here’s my shop, why don’t you wait inside?” “Now that you’re here, you must have a welcome drink of hibiscus tea, I insist.” “What are your names?” Before we knew it, our names had been scrawled onto papyrus drawings that we were suddenly expected to pay for. I’d been on the lookout for such scams, but this man’s approach was so subtle and disarming that it made me all the madder for having fallen for it.
So here’s my final tip: Reverse the hustle. If you’re in such a situation, at the very least chose items you actually like, rather than items out of politeness. That way if you do wind up getting hustled, you can at least walk away from the encounter with something you deem worth having. At the end of our scam encounter, the vendor cried out, “What do you expect me to do with these? They have your names written on them!” Indeed they did. Now the ball was in our court—we offered to pay a fair price for the one painting we did like, and they could choose: either throw away the other two, or bundle them in.
We walked out with three paintings for the price of one.
Don’t let bad experiences from part of your trip shade the rest of your time. We were very sensitive to being scammed after our experience in Cairo, but outside of the capital, we found things a lot easier. Yes, there are still scams, but because the rest of the country depends so heavily on tourism, it’s in their best interests to make sure you’re happy. Pay attention and use your street smarts, but don’t be afraid to interact with the locals and to try things. You’ll be glad you got out of your comfort zone.