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How to pull off a $2,400 pyramid scheme

By Carol Sottili
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Take two young American sisters on a trip to Tel Aviv who are determined to do a full-throttle side trip to Egypt, and create one recipe for adventure mixed with satisfied exhaustion. We put the challenge to our friend and expert in Cairo, Anjana Das, a travel writer and consultant. And she came up with a game plan that covers it all, but doesn't leave much time for sleeping.

"What most people come to see are pyramids; museums; the Khan el-Khalili bazaar; a Nile cruise to Luxor for the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Hatshepsut Temple, Karnak and Luxor temples; Aswan, including the Philae Temple; Esna; felucca sailing on the Nile; the Red Sea for diving; and Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada for snorkeling," Das wrote in an e-mail.

We can't promise to fit all that into your five days, but we'll hit it hard.

First, the difficult part: getting there. Traveling between Tel Aviv and Cairo is not like catching a shuttle to New York. You're going to have to either tweak your days of travel, as there is no direct, easy transportation from Cairo to Tel Aviv on Tuesdays, or take connecting flights. Royal Jordanian (http://www.rj.com) offers daily connecting flights through Amman for $420 round trip (layovers are long). El Al (http://www.elal.com) offers nonstop evening flights on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays: fare is about $400 round trip. Air Sinai, a subsidiary of Egypt Air, offers nonstop morning flights on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays for about $400 round trip; flights are bookable only via phone at 212-581-5600. Mazada Tours (http://www.mazada.co.il) offers bus transport between the two cities, departing in the morning on Sundays and Thursdays (about $165 round trip), but the trip takes 12 hours each way.

(An aside for travelers who want to get to Cairo from Washington: Cost is usually about $850 round trip, and Lufthansa offers easy connections.)

Another key decision: Go it alone or book tours? Independent travel is cheap, but it can be frustrating when you're on a tight schedule, especially in a large, confusing city: Even with our guidance, you might waste time catching the right train or buying the correct admission ticket. Best bet might be doing a day or so on your own and combining that with a few preset independent itineraries.

Well-regarded companies that offer adventure tours in Egypt include:

-- Intrepid Travel (http://www.intrepidtravel.com), a 20-year-old firm headquartered in Australia that specializes in "real life experiences." The day-long Cairo Highlights tour ($145 per person) includes a camel ride, the pyramids at Giza, the Sphinx and the Egyptian Museum with its King Tut galleries. The Cairo City Break-Saqqara tour ($180 per person double including two nights' lodging) travels by private car to several less-touristed but fascinating sites, including the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid.

-- GAP Adventures (http://www.gapadventures.com), a 19-year-old Canadian company that specializes in "cultural interaction, wildlife encounters and active travel." The company offers independent tours starting at $509 per person double, which includes airport transfers and three nights' hotel with breakfast and allows you to choose two of 10 available tours, which range from the obvious, such as the pyramids at Giza, to the less traveled, such as a day trip to the Saqqara area; longer trips with additional tours are also available.

-- Viator (http://www.viator.com), which offers mostly short tours in 400 destinations and has dozens of day tours in Cairo and Luxor. In Luxor, you can cover many of the sites, including Karnak and the Valley of the Kings, by booking two of its half-day tours back-to-back; the price for both is $96 per person.

After reviewing the tour company offerings, take the Chinese menu approach. You can get from the airport to the city on your own: A taxi costs about $7 per person. Once there, take the metro within the city when possible (it costs less than 20 cents a ride).

Spend one day wandering around Cairo. Das recommends doing your own walking tour of Old Cairo, also known as Coptic Cairo. Head south along Corniche El-Nile and turn east once you pass the Mosque of Abdin Bey. You can also take Cairo's metro system, getting off at the Mar Girgis station. Sights in Old Cairo include the Coptic Museum, which holds a large collection of Coptic art; the Church of St. Sergius, on the spot where Joseph, Mary and Jesus are said to have stayed while fleeing Herod; Ben Ezra, Egypt's oldest synagogue; and the Church of St. Barbara, which houses an extensive collection of ancient icons. Then take a taxi to the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, an open-air market in the Islamic quarter. If you're there on a Wednesday or Saturday evening, Das recommends visiting the Wekalet el Ghouri Arts Center for a free performance of Sufi dancers. If you have more time, take a cab to the Zamalek area. "It's a very old neighborhood with grand villas, chic cafes, open-air bistros, some good pubs and a well-heeled populace," Das writes. "Cairo doesn't sleep until 4 a.m., so you could go for a long night." For more choices, go to http://www.egypt.travel or http://www.touregypt.net.

While in Cairo, you could add Intrepid's Cairo City Break-Saqqara tour, which covers hotels for two nights, and then go with Viator for a long day trip that covers Giza, including the pyramids and the Sphinx, and the Egyptian Museum (price is $96 per person).

Use one of your overnights to travel by train (http://www.sleepingtrains.com) to Luxor. The last sleeper train leaves Cairo at about 11 p.m., arriving at about 6 a.m., and costs $60 per person double including two meals. In Luxor, maximize your time by taking organized tours to Karnak and other sites. Das said this is also your chance to negotiate with a felucca owner for a night aboard a boat, but don't pay more than a few dollars. If that doesn't work out, try sleeping on the roof at the Sherief Hotel (http://www.sheriefhotel.com) for about $3 per person, including breakfast; the hotel also has indoor accommodations starting at about $4 per person.

Egyptair has frequent flights to Cairo for about $120 one way. If you have time before you need to catch the return flight to Tel Aviv, head back into Cairo and pick up any sights you missed on your arrival day.

Total Cost: About $2,000, leaving $400 for incidentals and meals. (Das says you must try the falafel, shawarma and grilled meat available in local restaurants. But stick to bottled water.)

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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