Booked: A Journey Through the Old World
|Visiting the Pyramids on a Cairo Layover|
|View all: Reviews • Travel Talk|
During the planning process for my Middle East trip, the most practical way to get from Greece to Jordan turned out to be an Aeroplan redemption on Aegean Airlines and EgyptAir, via Cairo, for 20,000 Aeroplan miles per person.
Since you’re allowed to have layovers of up to 24 hours with Aeroplan, I decided to take this opportunity to schedule a 16-hour stop in Cairo and check the Great Pyramids of Giza off my bucket list.
EgyptAir is generally pretty good about making lots of award space available on their flights, so I’m sure many of you will also have be finding it convenient to pass through Cairo for less than a day on your way to other destinations. Hopefully you’ll find my experience helpful as you think about scheduling your own Pyramids getaway.
Le Méridien Cairo Airport
Since our inbound flight arrived in Cairo was arriving at around 1am, we definitely wanted to stay at the most closest hotel to the airport that we could find. Thankfully, the Le Méridien Cairo Airport is connected directly to the airport terminal, and as a Category 2 property, is also bookable at the very low rate of 12,500 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.
In my mind, if you’re arriving late in Cairo for an overnight layover, this is definitely the place you should stay. You can check into your room immediately after getting off the plane, spend some time in the city the next day, and then come back and pick up your bags (especially if you have 4pm late checkout as a Platinum Elite member or above) before catching your next flight.
(If you’re arriving into Cairo a little earlier, then it might be worthwhile to book one of the hotels by the Pyramids themselves so that you can begin your visit in the morning nice and early.)
After presenting our Egypt e-visas to pass through immigration, Jessy and I exited into the arrivals area at Cairo Airport, only to be confronted by about a dozen taxi drivers shouting “TAXI!” In our faces.
I simply muttered “we’re going to the Le Méridien” under my breath, and one of the drivers was happy to point me in the right direction of the enclosed walkway leading to the hotel.
Since we had arrived so late, I didn’t end up taking any pictures of our room, although we received a very generous suite upgrade – one that I thought was far too generous for an airport hotel!
Half-Day Pyramids Adventure with Urban Adventures
To explore the Pyramids during our short time in Cairo, I had booked the Half-Day Pyramids Adventure Tour with Urban Adventures. For full disclosure, my ticket was comped by Urban Adventures in exchange for writing about the experience, while I paid the $60 fee for Jessy’s ticket.
You can probably also visit the Pyramids without booking a tour, but I had never booked with Urban Adventures before and was pretty interested in seeing what their tour would offer. Furthermore, the tour includes the price of admission to the Pyramids site, which would otherwise be 250 EGP ($20) per person, so I thought we were getting pretty good value.
The tour specified that we should meet at the King Hotel in the city centre by 7:30am, so Jessy and I called an Uber to bring us there for about 110 Egyptian Pounds ($9). Anyone who’s been to Cairo can tell you that the city has notoriously bad traffic, although the highway was still relatively quiet this early in the morning, and we arrived at the King Hotel within the prescribed time.
The tour consisted of ourselves and another French-speaking couple, whom I assumed were from France, but later learned were actually from French Guiana. That made for a bit of interesting conversation on our respective backgrounds. Accompanying us on the tour was our enthusiastic guide, Khaled, and our driver.
After some brief introductions, we got into the van and drove off for the Pyramids. The idea behind getting started early in the morning is to beat most of the crowds, as the site of the ancient wonder really starts to fill up by 9am.
Khaled gave us some background information on the Pyramids: its original purpose as a tomb for Egyptian pharaoh Khufu, its construction out of over two million blocks, and the staggering fact that it was constructed around the year 2,500 BC – more than 4,000 years ago.
The Pyramids are in fact located by the city of Giza, which is right across the Nile River from Cairo. As we made our way there, it felt a little surreal that I’d finally be casting my gaze upon this ancient place that I had only ever learned about in textbooks and classrooms all those years ago.
Perhaps that’s why I was somewhat surprised by the rather unceremonious fashion in which the Pyramids emerged into my view. We were simply driving along the busy streets of Giza before we turned a corner and… lo and behold, there they were.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu sat there, in all its glory, flanked by the lesser pyramids for Khafre and Menkaure, in an almost casual manner, as if paying no mind to the busy city streets that had sprung up right on its doorstep over the millennia.
One of the benefits of having a guide with you for your visit to the Pyramids is they can help fend off all the hawkers who’ll try to sell you stuff, ranging from bottled water to Arab headdresses to “discounted tickets” to the Pyramids (even though we already paid as part of the tour). Thankfully, Khaled told all of these people to buzz off on our behalf.
He explained to our group that we were free to wander around the Pyramids for the next 30 minutes or so, and that we could also enter the interior chamber of the Great Pyramid of Khufu if we wanted.
However, the tickets to enter the inside of the Pyramids are a further 200 EGP ($16), and apparently there’s not much to look at either, since the Great Pyramid had been ruthlessly ransacked by tomb raiders over the years. You’re basically paying $16 to wander around a series of cramped rooms and hallways, so none of us felt it was worthwhile.
Instead, Jessy and I wandered around the three Pyramids, mostly spending our time taking fun pictures with the magnificent ancient structures. Khaled was also a great sport about helping us take photos, especially the “funny” type of photos, in which we’d pretend to be holding the Pyramids by the top or stuff like that.
(I tried climbing onto the first few levels of the stonework, if only to gain an appreciation for the sheer manpower that would’ve gone into building the Pyramids all those lifetimes ago, but was quickly reprimanded by the security guards who were patrolling the site on horseback.)
After around 20 minutes spent in front of the Pyramids themselves, our tour continued with a short drive over to the elevated vantage point deeper in the desert. The road leading here is a popular spot to take photos, since you get some pretty unobstructed views of the open road with the Pyramids off in the distance.
Khaled once again offered to take some “funny” photos for us. He was definitely a natural at his job, charming us with his energetic and cheerful presence throughout the tour.
The couple from French Guiana wanted to go on one of the camel tours, so Khaled helped them negotiate the price down to 60 EGP ($5) per person, and off they went. Jessy and I simply passed the time by taking more pictures, although the tourist crowds were starting to flood in by this point, making our photography session a little more challenging.
After our fellow tour members returned, our final stop was to visit the Great Sphinx of Giza, which is located on the same site about a few hundred metres away from the Pyramids.
The Sphinx has a much more structured visitor trail than the Pyramids, with dedicated pathways leading tourists in and out of the viewing site. Unfortunately, the place was well and truly overrun by tourists by 10am, so we really had to crane our neck to get any unobstructed views of the monolith.
As we entered the Sphinx’s viewing platform, Khaled took the time to point out the area in front of the structure, where the ancient Egyptians had built a series of canals and waterways from the Nile River to deliver the massive amounts of stone necessary to construct the Pyramids and the Sphinx. I was impressed with Khaled’s knowledge over the course of the tour, and he definitely added some colour to the experience that we would’ve missed out on had we chosen to do it ourselves.
A few more funny photos later (“Kiss the Sphinx! Now feed it some water! Now pretend to put your sunglasses on it!”), the tour came to an end, and we got back in the car and headed back to the King Hotel in Cairo.
The Half Day Pyramids Adventure is advertised as having a local lunch included, but since it was the holy month of Ramadan when we visited, Khaled wasn’t able to arrange a local restaurant for us to eat. Instead, he simply stopped by a convenience store to get us all a few cans of pop, apologizing profusely for the lack of food options.
Despite that, Khaled was a lot of fun to be around during the tour, and he took care of us well, not only keeping us supplied with water bottles and fending off all the hawkers, but even volunteering to share his hotspot with me when I needed internet to call the Uber back. We gave him a nice US$10 tip, and then hopped into our ride back to Cairo Airport.
I fell asleep along the way, and so I was shocked to wake up an hour into the journey only to realize that we were still on the highway! Cairo’s notorious traffic problems had reared their ugly head, and it would yet another half an hour until we finally arrived at the hotel.
If you’re scheduling a day trip to the Pyramids, make sure to build in lots of buffer time so that the traffic doesn’t cause you to miss your flight!
Back at the Le Méridien, the hotel continued to surprise me with the fact that it featured a very well-appointed Executive Lounge. Jessy and I grabbed a quick lunch there, before making full use of our late checkout to take a quick nap for the afternoon, and eventually heading back into the airport terminal for our 5pm flight to Amman.
I was immensely proud to finally check the Great Pyramids of Giza off my bucket list, but at the same time, I can’t really say that the Pyramids blew me away in the way I imagined that they would. In my mind, I had held fanciful notions of embarking on a daring windswept desert adventure of some sort to reach the Pyramids, so it was slightly incongruent to see them just… there, merely a few steps away from the chaos of the city streets.
I had a good experience with Urban Adventures, though, and I’d gladly make time to go on another one of their tours around the world in the future. Our tour guide, Khaled, played a big part in making the tour enjoyable, and one thing I learned from him is that there’s so much more to explore in Egypt beyond Cairo and the Pyramids, such as the ancient treasures of Luxor in the south of the country. And with EgyptAir flights so accessible using Aeroplan miles, I’m sure it won’t be long until I come back in the future to do exactly that.