Egypt is not super tourist friendly, despite tourism being one of the leading sources of income in the country. Everything is spread out, there’s very little posted information at the sights (and even less is in English) and tourist pricing can be a real scam. Traveling on your own is possible (we did it a bit), but it is stressful. We decided the easiest way to visit southern Egypt was to take a Nile cruise that included a private guide. In this post, we’ll share our experience taking a 5-day Nile Cruise from Luxor to Aswan.
Booking a Nile Cruise from Luxor to Aswan
Let’s start by explaining the cruise/tour relationship.
There are two main components of the Nile Cruise: time on the boat and time off the boat. These two sides of the experience are completely separately owned and operated. We booked our cruise through an agency, who then booked us (and our guide) passage on a cruise ship.
Think of the ship as a hotel that just happens to float down the Nile. Everyone staying on the ship has their own tour and their own schedule. The only thing all cruise passengers have in common is meal times on the ship and, of course, sailing times and locations.
Why we Chose to Book our Nile Cruise with Emo Tours
We booked our Nile Cruise with Emo Tours, the #2 tour provider in Cairo on TripAdvisor. (The #1 provider didn’t have a website listed, so that was easy for us to cross off.) Emo Tours had good reviews, an informative website, and it was easy to book online.
We also used Emo Tours for our day trip to the Giza Pyramids and again for our car service back to the Cairo airport. Emo Tours was good to us, so we decided to stick with them throughout our time in Egypt.
Choosing Your Nile Cruise Itinerary
The most popular route for Nile Cruises is between the towns of Aswan and Luxor. Luxor is located 650km south of Cairo, and Aswan is another 200km south of Luxor. Most tour providers will offer the cruise in both directions.
Realistically, you’re probably traveling to and from Cairo on both ends of the cruise, so it doesn’t really matter which direction you travel. You can either fly or take the overnight train back to Cairo from both locations. So when selecting your cruise, you’ll want to check which days the cruise departs from which location and how long the cruise is.
Emo Tours offers Luxor to Aswan as a 5-day/4-night Nile cruise departing on Saturday/Sunday/Monday/Thursday and Aswan to Luxor as a 4-day/3-night Nile cruise departing on Wednesday/Thursday/Friday. Both itineraries include the same sights, just at a different pace.
How much does it cost
We booked our 5-day/4-night Nile Cruise with Emo Tours from Luxor to Aswan for $400 (per person for two people). When we booked it, the price seemed reasonable and on par with the competition. Looking back, it feels like a bit much considering how cheap everything else in Egypt is.
For reference, a large bottle of water is 10 EGP ($0.56 USD), a full meal at a local restaurant costs about 50 EGP ($2.50 USD) and an average Egyptian makes 285 EGP ($16 USD) per day. So $400 is really expensive in Egypt.
I wouldn’t mind the high price tag if the money was going to provide good wages to the workers in a struggling economy. However, our tour guide told us that’s not the case. He said the people on the boat make very little and rely largely on tips. Speaking of tips …
How much does it actually cost?
In Egypt, you have to tip everyone. Whether you asked for their service or not, whether they did a good job or not, everyone always has their hand out for a tip. Sometimes we had no problem with it, other times it was a bit frustrating. Other than tipping, we also had to pay for all beverages aboard, additional excursions and souvenirs.
Here’s a rundown of our additional expenses:
- Driver tips: 50 EGP for a half day of driving and 100 EGP for a full day — about 350 EGP over five days
- Check-in guide tip: 50 EGP
- Tour guide tip: 1000 EGP at the end of the five day trip
- Horse carriage driver tip in Edfu: 20 EGP
- Boat ride tip at Philae Temple: 20 EGP
- Boat ride tip to Nubian Village: 50 EGP
- Cruise staff tip: 400 EGP
- Beverages on board: about 400 EGP
- Souvenirs: $20 USD (silver necklace with my name in hieroglyphics)
- Additional Excursions: $85×2 for Abu Simbel, $55×2 for Nubian Village, $7×2 for King Tutankhamen Tomb
Additional costs for two people: 2290 EGP ($128 USD) + $314 USD = $441 USD
It adds up fast, right?
Setting Sail on our Nile Cruise
Pickup & Check-In
The tour included pickup from our hotel in Luxor and an escort to the cruise ship. Upon booking, we scheduled our pickup time for 8 AM, and our ride arrived right on time. There was a driver and a check-in guide from Emo Tours (different than our actual tour guide for the rest of the trip). The funny thing about this “included” escort was that we ended up tipping the driver and guide more than it would have cost us to just take a taxi. That’s Egypt for ya.
Check-in was a little confusing and awkward. Our guide helped with our check-in forms and then showed us to the lounge and deck where we waited for about an hour. Once our room was ready, our check-in guide told us to meet our actual guide in the lobby at 2:30. He then left without actually giving us any information. We had to figure out our lunch time by reading the handwritten schedule from a different tour group that was posted in the lobby.
Onboard the MS Semiramis II
We would cruise down the Nile on the MS Semiramis II. The ship was clearly dated, but you could definitely see how stunning she must have been in her prime. The four-story cruise ship housed a restaurant, bar/lounge, a few small gift shops and top deck with bar and pool.
The lounge on the fourth floor had plenty of seating, but despite the no smoking signs still smelt of stale smoke. (What good bar doesn’t, though?) It’s red and black vibe felt a little more bowling alley than it did modern luxury, but it didn’t keep us from spending a little bit of time there.
The pool on the top deck was one of the nicer features we saw on any of the Nile cruise ships. It was divided into three sections with varying depths but all the same temperature. Though the pool didn’t really appeal to us, plenty of other people seemed to enjoy it as a cool break from the desert heat.
If we were on the ship and not in our stateroom, you could probably find us on the top deck. There was always plenty of chairs and the views were hard to beat, especially those sunsets over the Nile! We also always came up for tea time, which was offered daily and included a cup of coffee or tea and light snack for free.
Our stateroom was fine, though nothing to write home about. Our room had two twin beds (a common arrangement in Egypt), a TV that worked and a functional bathroom. The shower looked iffy, but to be honest, neither of us actually showered on board (#backpackerlife). The best thing about the room was the large windows, where we spent most of our downtime watching the beautiful Nile riverbank pass us by. The window also fully opened, which was great for snapping pictures.
Food & Drinks on Board
All of our meals were included and provided on the ship. The food was basic but definitely edible for three meals a day for five days. Every meal included a bread station, cold salad bar and rotating warm entree bar. Lunch & dinner service also included soup, pasta or stir fry station, and dessert bar. Breakfast also included hot and cold cereals, fruit and yogurt bar, and an omelet station.
As vegetarians, there was certainly enough for us to eat, although the veggie options were very heavy on carbs. The closest thing we got to anything green were cucumbers, and our main source of protein was usually dairy. Our best source of protein was actually breakfast, which had multiple egg dishes and the Middle Eastern staple, foul, which is made of fava beans.
The dessert station was our favorite part of every meal, even though it wasn’t anything special. They had this thin but fluffy poundcake topped with chocolate that I couldn’t get enough of. I ate at least three pieces after every meal. There was also a rotating selection of Arabic sweets, fresh fruit and other classic desserts like Jell-O and rice pudding.
Drinks were not included, but were available for purchase during meals or at the bar anytime. The drinks were pretty reasonably priced (beers for 50 EGP, sodas for 20 EGP and large bottles of water for 30 EGP), but you could usually find them a little cheaper off the boat.
The standard tour includes the most popular/important sights along the Nile in Luxor, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan. You can read more about the included sights on the Emo Tours Nile Cruise itinerary, but I wanted to add my personal notes and feedback.
- Temple of Karnak: This was our first and favorite of the temples on our tour. Everyone in Egypt claims this is the largest religious building ever constructed, but most outside Egypt will tell you it’s second to Angkor Wat. Regardless, it’s very impressive.
- Temple of Luxor: Visible from most of riverfront Luxor, including our favorite coffee shop (Aboudi Coffee Break), you’re likely to walk past this temple if you spend any time in town before your tour. It does tell an interesting story of multiple religions sharing one historical sight, so that is pretty cool.
- Valley of the Kings: Here you will find some of the most colorful and best preserved tombs (but you can’t take pictures without purchasing a photo ticket for 300EGP/$17 USD, which is so not worth it). Access to three of the tombs is included in the tour, but excludes the famous tombs of King Tut and Ramesses VI & VII, which cost an extra $7 USD each.
- Colossi of Memnon: I don’t even know why this is even listed on the itinerary. It’s just two statues on the side of the road. We stopped here for about two minutes, and I’m pretty sure just so our guide and driver could have a smoke.
- Temple of Queen Hatshepsut: Carved into the side of a mountain, this large temple is one of the most beautiful. After explaining the temple’s features and importance, our guide let us explore on our own for about 30 minutes. You might not want to look this up, but this was also the site of the Luxor Massacre in 1997.
Edfu & Kom Ombo Sights
- Temple of Horus (Edfu): From the ship, you will take a horse carriage to this temple. Be aware that someone will definitely snap a photo of you in the carriage and then try to sell it to you when you get back. The temple itself was very nice.
- Sobek & Haroeris Temple (Kom Ombo): We didn’t dock in Kom Ombo until after sunset and a full two hours after our scheduled arrival, so we had to rush a bit through this temple. Egyptologists will tell you the amazing thing about this temple is the illustrations of surgical tools, the only reference to medical equipment ever found from ancient Egyptians. However, they’re wrong, and the most amazing thing is definitely the Crocodile Museum where there is a whole bunch of giant mummified crocodiles.
- High Dam: Egyptians are very proud of the High Dam in Aswan and they should be. It was built in 1970 to prevent the epic and annual Nile floods. In creating the damn, Lake Nassar was formed, which is one of the world’s largest man-made lakes. (They will tell you it’s the largest, but it actually appears to be #6.) Fun fact: this damn is the reason there’s no more crocodiles in the Nile in Egypt.
- Granite Quarries: This sounds lame, but it was actually pretty cool. The granite from Aswan was cut into giant structures, and then floated down the Nile for use all over Egypt. Any granite you see at any ancient Egyptian sights, like the Great Pyramid in Giza, originated from the granite quarry in Aswan.
- Temple of Philae: My two favorite things about Philae were the boat ride to the island on which it’s located and learning that the temple itself was moved by UNESCO from a nearby island which was flooded after the High Damn was built. This is a little less impressive after learning about Abu Simble later, but it was still fascinating. The temple was also pretty.
- Felucca Ride: A felucca is the traditional and popular sail boat on the Nile. You can’t walk 10 feet down the riverbank without being asked 10 times if you want a felucca ride for “cheap price”. Included with the tour is a short ride around Kitchener’s Island and AghaKhan Mausoleum. We ended up skipping this because we were already taking a lengthy boat ride to a Nubian Village, which we added for an additional cost.
Additional Tour Options
If you aren’t constantly asked to spend more money, are you really in Egypt? Of course the Nile Cruise has options for you to upgrade your experience!
Add-On Options Formally Offered by Emo Tours:
You can purchase any of these add-ons online when you book or anytime during the tour from your guide.
- Hot Air Balloon Ride in Luxor, $80 USD
- King Tutankhamen Tomb at Valley of the Kings, $7 USD
- Abu Simbel Day Tour from Aswan, $85 USD
- Sound and Light show at Karnak Temple, $35 USD
We purchased a ticket for King Tut, but ended up going to Ramesses VI & VII. This was based on our guide’s recommendation that it was bigger and more impressive. (I can’t decide if I regret this or not.) I don’t think you necessarily need to go into another tomb after going in the included three, but for only $7 to see King Tut, it’s a fine option.
We also tacked on the Abu Simbel day trip.
Day Trip to Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel is often considered a “must-do” in Egypt. It’s a temple favorite and many people like Abu Simbel more than the Great Pyramid. I can see that. Abu Simbel is much more isolated and serine, located along the banks of Lake Nassar, and it really is quite stunning. The downside is that it’s located 3.5 hours south of Aswan near the Sudan border and requires you leave Aswan at 3:30 AM.
Abu Simbel is unique in that it’s the only temple fully carved into a mountain. It’s also unique in that UNESCO literally moved the temple from inside a real mountain to inside a man-made mountain to prevent it from flooding after the Aswan Damn was built. The move cost UNESCO over 40 million dollars.
If you’re torn on Abu Simbel, I’d recommend tacking it on. It is quite impressive, even though it’s been relocated. It has a completely different and quieter vibe than any of the other Egyptian sights. The drive is long, but we felt like it was worth it.
Add-On Options Offered by our Tour Guide:
On our third day, we sat down with our Guide to discuss a few additional add-on items. This included:
- Boat trip to Nubian Village
- Botanical Gardens
- Nubian Museum
- Cartouche Necklace
- … some others that I can’t remember.
After showing us a slide show of photos, we decided to add on the trip to the Nubian Village for $55 USD, each. This included a motorboat ride, tour of the village, and visit to the Nubian school. He decided to upgrade us to a larger boat and tacked on the botanical gardens for “free”. We were also provided complimentary tea, water, and cokes during the boat ride.
Even though it was totally overpriced, it was one of my favorite nights during the cruise. The boat ride was about an hour in each direction and the sunset was gorgeous. We also loved learning Nubian and Arabic from the local school.
It eventually became clear to us that our tour guide was charging us cash and not reporting these extra purchases back to Emo Tours. He specifically asked me to not mention this in my TripAdvisor review because he’d be charged for it. He certainly made bank off this purchase, but whatever. If you’re offered this on your trip, I’d honestly still recommend it. It was a lovely evening.
I also decided to purchase the Cartouche Necklace which is silver and includes my name in hieroglyphics. The silver necklace was $20 USD and there were gold options for $40 and up.
There was a lot more down time during our five day cruise than we expected, which we were totally cool with. I’ve said it a bunch of times in my Egypt commentary, but travel in Egypt is kind of exhausting. Between the heat, which is easily +100°F everyday, and the constant barrage of solicitors, visits to the sights will wear you out fast.
The schedule on the cruise accounted for this. We usually had a few hours of tours in the morning and afternoon, with lots of free time in between.
When the ship was sailing, we loved the view from our stateroom best. The river passes through beautiful green farms, small town mosques and local children swimming in the Nile. Every night though, we made our way to the top deck to watch the most beautiful sunsets. We also spent a good amount of time working on our laptops. The boat had wifi for purchase, but we used our phone’s to hotspot (data in Egypt was cheap).
About our Guide
I thoroughly loved our guide provided by Emo Tours (though I won’t mention his name here for reasons made clear in the add-on section). He was really relaxed and didn’t make us feel that we needed to be talking non-stop the entire five days. He did a great job of explaining the sights but also gave us plenty of time and space to explore on our own. Unlike our tour guide at the Giza Pyramids, he didn’t make us take photos of every single thing and we appreciated that greatly.
For the most part, he was very knowledgeable and shared a ton of great information everywhere we went. He didn’t just explain the dates and names, but he really got into the why. He taught us about what certain symbols, characters and hieroglyphics meant, and he built on those concepts throughout the five days of tours. I learned so much that I can now apply and call to when I look at any Egyptian sights or images.
As I mentioned in the booking section, there were two distinct parts of the tour. Our time on the ship and our time off the ship. Emo Tours, who were responsible for all of our off-ship activities, were incredible. Our guide and this itinerary was all great and made it so simple for us to visit southern Egypt in one easy tour. We were a little less impressed by our on-ship experience and didn’t find the staff or amenities to be very good.
All things considered though, we had an amazing five-day Nile Cruise from Luxor to Aswan. If you’re looking for a way to visit southern Egypt or add to your time in Cairo, taking a Nile Cruise is an excellent option. The views are stunning, the sights are fascinating and it’s such a relaxing five days.