Planning tips to get the most out an Egyptian Nile Cruise experience
A Nile River cruise is the perfect way to explore Upper Egypt from the city of Luxor down to Aswan in the south in comfortable surrounds with amazing river views.
All aboard as we take you through everything there is to know about Nile cruising! In this post you will find:
- What to expect from a Nile Cruise
- Services on board a Nile cruise boat, including
- How families are accommodated
- Meal times
- Swimming and relaxation
- Wifi and connectivity
- How tipping works
- Health and safety
- Disembarking and docking
- Other services and facilities onboard
- How shore excursions work
- Practicalities – How to book a Nile cruise
- Which direction you should be heading
- Best operators to book with
This is part of our Discover the Middle East series – click here to learn more about our personal experiences in Egypt adventures.
What to expect from a Nile cruise boat
So what exactly is a Nile cruise boat? To be clear, I am talking about the large cruise ships – often described as floating apartments – that operate between Luxor and Aswan and vice versa. We are not talking about a much smaller felucca or dahabiya – a large sale boat that may accommodate which may accommodate 20-30 passengers.
Nile cruise ships have around 70 cabins, accommodating c100 – 150 people with passengers each getting their own small cabin and with ensuite bathroom, like a small hotel room. There are apparently close to 300 of these ships that cruise up and down the Nile every day.
We recently undertook an 8-day Egyptian adventure with our kids which included a 5-day/4 night Nile cruise. We knew little about the actual boat we would be getting other than it’s description of “5 Star Deluxe”.
We travelled as a group of 5 (2 adults, 2 kids, 1 infant) on the Crown Jewel, operated by Travcotels. As we booked via a Luxor-based travel agency we really had no upfront expectation on what we were going to get (we set expectations low for this whole trip!) – so everything about our Nile cruise and the outing that went with it was a really pleasant surprise.
Having not experienced a large cruise ship before, it’s difficult to provide a comparative but what I will say is set your expectations on what “5 star” and “deluxe” actually mean. We are used to glossy brand spanking new UAE luxury resorts described as 5 star. This is 5 star in Egyptian terms meaning it is clean, has amenities and looks a little dated. Service though met the standard you could expect (ie, better than most of the rest of Egypt!)
Most of this will review will focus on our most recent experience on the Crown Jewel in December 2018, but I also took a Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor back in my swinging single days in 2005 to base the cruise experience on.
What does the boat itself look like and what facilities are on board?
The larger cruise boats consist of 5 levels;
- You walk in at a reception on level 2 that may also include cabins and a shopping/lounge area.
- The restaurant and staff cabins are at level 1 in line with the water.
- Level 3/4 for cabins and possibly a lounge area.
- Rooftop may include a bar or pool, exercise area or massage. Some had their dining on the rooftop too.
Within our room we had
- Private ensuite bathroom with bath/shower (and good water pressure!)
- 2 beds – can be twin or made into double
- Wardrobe with 2 life jackets, safe for valuables and extra blankets
- TV – limited English channels
- Mini bar fridge
- 2 chairs and a small table
- Juliet-style balcony
- Air conditioning/heating (very important if you’re visiting in seasonal extremes)
Getting on/off and off the boat and getting around inside
- Boats are boarded from a fairly narrow and precarious gangway attached to the “port” – they’re not going to win any health and safety awards on this one so utmost care with your toddlers.
- Boats are docked about 4/5 deep so you may need to walk through the foyer of several other boats to get to yours.
- Porters will help you with your suitcases from street level.
- Every time you leave your boat you will be given a boarding card by security to get back on your boat.
- To get up and down the boat you will have an internal staircase. Forget strollers of wheelchairs (seriously, very little need for a stroller in Egypt, you are better carrying small children).
Family groups on board a Nile Cruise boat
We booked as a group for 2 adults and 2 kids. The kids being under 12 we got at 50% discount – not all agents will offer this so shop around. We only had to pay 25% for our youngest because internal flights were involved getting from Cairo to Luxor.
If you do book for infants and toddlers this way, here’s a few pointers to look for:
- This meant we had to sacrifice on having four beds between five of us. We are lucky the kids are small and still agreeable to this, but if you have an uneven number this is something to really bare in mind. 2 adults plus an infant is the absolute max you’ll squeeze into a cabin, even two small kids you’ll want two cabins.
- We did request interconnecting rooms but were told they are not available, and from our research, we believe this to be correct on all boats. So if you are travelling with young children with their own beds, expect that you will need to split adults between rooms.
- We had 2 twin rooms initially but asked them to make one into a double bed so we could more comfortably fit one adult and 2 children under 6. For once we did get our daily allocation of 5 towels though without having to plead with housekeeping (families of 5+ will know, the struggle is real!)
- It’s set tables every day in the restaurant for designated meal times. We were initially booked as a group of 4, but once they saw we were actually a group of 5 they immediately changed us to a larger table for the duration of the cruise. Had the boat been completely full this could have been an issue so just check on this if there are infants in your group they are actually accounted for in your headcount!
Demographics and languages spoken on board a Nile Cruise
Arabic is the primary language in Egypt. In main customer service roles as well as at the restaurant and bar, however, all staff spoke an adequate level of English we could easily communicate.
Many staff were also fluent in French and could speak a handful of words in other languages; we were incredibly impressed with how adaptable and polite the staff were! Smaller groups of Asian tourists had their guides with them the whole time interpreting via English.
The main boat timetable was communicated in the foyer in English, some smaller groups also had their itineraries published in their own languages.
In terms of the other passengers on board, it couldn’t have been more mixed. There were several other families with small children like us, through to retiree age. It certainly wasn’t your stereotypical boat full of oldies and it was a real United Nations of countries represented.
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Food on Board a Nile Cruise
There are 4 scheduled meal times every day – breakfast, lunch, an afternoon tea and dinner. In our experience, all boats offer full-board with a buffet.
The actual meal times varied day by day according to location and onshore activities. Some days breakfast was served very earlier to accommodate early starting shore excursions, other days dinner was served very late. This was an issue for us with small children, they missed a few of the evening meals as they had fallen asleep before service time. I know for most a 7.30pm mealtime isn’t an issue, children sleeping early I think is quite a Western/British thing from our experience!
All credit to the staff for trying on this one – but unfortunately when you are trying to appeal to a very large crowd what you end up with is a very elicit mix of foods at every meal. Lunches and dinners normally involved some sort of roast carving station and vegetable, with a noddle or potato dish – but bland. Most days a pasta station was on hand, as well as a salad bar, breads and a dessert bar. I was happy enough with the selection but fussy kids (OK and fussy husband – he’ll deny it!!) weren’t so pleased.
The service was unfaltering though. My already fussy Master 6 was not well when we were in Egypt bringing his food fussiness to a whole new level. He decided the only thing he liked on the buffet was honeydew melon, which regularly appeared for 2 days then disappeared from the buffet. The head waiter obligingly at every meal went and sort out a plate of melon for him – thank you!
Note that while all meals are included in full-board, absolutely no drinks at lunch and dinner. Water isn’t even provided in the cabin despite not being able to use the water for teeth cleaning. So at meals, you order and sign for every drink ordered and your bills are added up at the end and settled on departure. Keep the little slips you are given throughout so there are no nasty surprises!
Swimming pool and relaxation time
With shore excursions (more on that below) there wasn’t actually that much downtime but the rooftop deck we found to be lovely. Being winter for our cruise though, I can confirm it was pretty chilly! we only once stripped down as far as shorts, most of the time we were rugged up very warm or had the provided pool towels wrapped around us. The pool did look lovely and tempting – and utterly freezing. I’m sure on a summer cruise it would be a very welcome retreat after a day of exploring.
Just for the kids?
Don’t hold your breath for anything like a kids club, it’s just not that sort of cruise. I’m pretty sure after all their day excursions they will be entertained enough. We did pack some playing cards and colouring for those few moments of downtime and had the weather been warmer, I am sure they would have gotten in some quality pool time too.
Wifi and connectivity on the Nile
For those that simply cannot go without, there is connectivity; for a princely sum. Our boat was charging 180LE per 24 hours for the password, other boats we saw advertising at 150LE.
Unless updating your Instagram and Facebook is an absolute priority, enjoy the relaxing few days switched off. [Only due to the terrorist bombing in Cairo we used by husbands international roaming briefly to let everyone know we were OK – yes alright I used the opportunity to update Instagram too, let’s not talk about that.]
Top Tip: Whilst I remembered to turn the data off on my phone, I stupidly left my international call roaming on; let’s not talk about the nasty looking phone bill I’ve just had to pay either. Turn your phone off completely or use plane mode!!!
Tipping on a Nile Cruise
Coming from a non-tipping culture, we still find the Baksheesh aspect of travel in Egypt slightly awkward. (coming soon – you can read over on our Middle East travel site how we tackled the issue of tipping in general in Egypt).
The concept is, you should tip for ALL STAFF at the END of your cruise. This is done in fairness that there are many staff members you will never see so they want to make sure all staff are compensated fairly (how fair, one cannot possibly determine what happens behind the scenes).
So at the end of your trip, you fill in an envelope and leave you cabin number along with any personal message. We were recommended $5USD per person per day – yes this adds up for a family. Please let us know if you think differently! Do factor this in when working out your total budget for Egypt.
The theory is to also stop the need to pay over masses of small tips at each stage of the process. That said after small tasks were performed everyone from housekeeping to porters would still stand and wait with the smiles of expectation. After very clearly being told tip at the end we found this to be a little overbearing and embarrassing. But knowing this may come might help you in the same situation – maybe we’re just tight!
Health and safety on board
If there was one big health and safety issue that let the whole cruise down, it was the lack of life jackets for children. In each room, you are issued with 2 life jackets. The instructions specifically say not suitable for under 32kgs, however when we asked reception about the children’s life jackets we were told they didn’t have any, nor was any effort made to procure any. I really hope this was just our boat on the day and that in general, cruise boats are issued with children’s life jackets.
You are also advised not to drink the tap water. Usually, when this is the case at a hotel you would be issued a small amount of drinking water for hygiene, but we received no complimentary water. We were able to buy some large bottles onshore and keep this in a small mini bar fridge in our room.
Those who suffer from motion sickness, I get severe car sickness and often suffer from vertigo but I did not feel any adverse side effects during our cruise. In fact, it was very infrequently I even really noticed we were moving. At the time of our visit, the waters were calm, we only felt a jot a few times at night when we were obviously docking against other boats.
We are told there is also an on-call doctor available when you are at each port.
All boats are fitted throughout with safety equipment such as life-saving rings, 2 lifeboats and fire extinguishers in the rooms. They obviously have issues with electrics as there is a big warning sign in the room not to use small electrical appliances. Charging phones is fine but no portable irons etc are permitted.
How do day excursions work from the cruise?
Our boat had a lot of smaller mixed groups. There was one larger Chinese group with their own guide/translator, otherwise, everyone else on board was either a couple of small group of less than 10 like us. Even if you are part of a larger tour group, you are likely to have several groups all sharing one cruise boat.
Each group will have its own itinerary of day trips (albeit pretty similar), but these will be worked around the cruises timetable too. So your tour guide will know what time you are due to sail and will arrange your rendezvous time in the foyer of the boat to fit around this. You’ll arrange with them directly how long you want to stop at each site, shopping stops and free time if needed.
It’s likely that your tour guide will join the boat for the duration of the trip. They have their own accommodation on the boat and will either join you for meals, or there seemed to be a tour guides table -they all knew each other at least! This will be highly variable depending on what you have booked. (More on how we booked ours below – keep reading!). Don’t forget separate to the boat staff, your tour guide will need a tip too. We also based this on $5 per person, per day.
We will cover what we did at each of the main stops in a separate post.
Docking and downtime
I think this is an important thing for newbies to Nile cruising to know. You’re not actually sailing for a lot of the time.
You are docked while day excursions occur and whilst docked, in most likelihood your boat is wedged between other boats so you will have a cosy view of someone else’s cabin. We were lucky we had a cabin on both sides of the boat, and even luckier that on 2 nights we were the outter most boat in our row so got a sunset view from the west side. If you are on the east side of the boat, forget it.
Other services on board the Nile cruise
There are a few extras that are worth mentioning although we did not use all of these on this occasion:
- Most will have some sort of shop/boutique where you can shop hassle-free for your souvenirs, jewellery postcards. No doubt more expensive than on the street but I’ll take that for the lack of hassle!
- Rooftop bar – will serve alcohol as well as tea and coffee at pretty reasonable prices.
- Massage services – many boats have a tented area on the roof for this. After a less than savoury experience on my last cruise boat having a massage I did not contemplate this but that could have been luck of the draw….
- Evening night club or show. We have little children and no baby sitter, ‘nuf said.
- Exercise area. I was surprised to see a rowing machine and a couple of exercise bikes on the roof. Whilst calling it a gym would be a little far-fetched, but if you want to keep up your fitness while cruising along it’s a pretty sweet setting for it.
Nile Cruise with Kids – Exactly how we did it
- We booked our cruise as part of an 8-day/7-night package with Imperial Egypt which encompassed 4 days on a cruise boat, the remaining days/nights were in Cairo
- They made all the necessary bookings and internal transfers to and from the airports at either end for us.
- We did not request a specific boat but a specific date to sail and they match our category request to the sailing schedule using several different companies.
- The Crown Jewel is operated by Travcotels, part of the Jaz Hotels Resorts & Cruise Group.
Our actual cruise itinerary Luxor to Aswan 5-day / 4-night
Day 1 – arrive Luxor, morning site seeing Karnak Temple and Luxor temple, afternoon check-in and relax on the boat, overnight docked at Luxor
Day 2 – morning sightseeing Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut Temple. Lunch on board then set sail, sailing via overnight to Edfu
Day 3 – early morning Edfu sightseeing, set sail, lunch on board, late afternoon dock at Kosombo, evening sail, arrive overnight Aswan
Day 4 – Aswan sightseeing or optional Abu Simbel early morning departure. Lunch on board, optional Aswan sightseeing, overnight Aswan
Day 5 – departure – most train/fly back to Cairo
Luxor to Aswan or Aswan to Luxor?
We went Luxor to Aswan on this occasion and I have previously sailed Aswan to Luxor. I did not see any notable difference between the two directions, the same port stops were included.
The only difference I would note is that the west side of the boat (in our case sailing south it was even-numbered rooms) generally speaking had the superior views and a much better chance you will be parked without staring at another boat. (The docks in Luxor and Aswan are on the east bank). If possible to request this at time of booking I would do so. Vice-versa if you are heading north it would be the odd-numbered rooms.
3 or 4 Nights?
As you can see from our itinerary there were actually 2 nights on either end we were docked. It would make little difference to your overall itinerary to join the cruise a day earlier or later. Personally, the convenience of being in one spot is why we went with 4 nights on board. Our flight connections were all very early morning which meant some waiting around Day 1, but that was our own fault for booking so late – only about 6 weeks out in peak season. If you book in advance you should get more convenient transfer times to Cairo.
No cruise from Cairo?
Due to the width and depth of the Nile, large boat cruising is only possible from Luxor onwards and terminates at Aswan due to the High Dam.
Any drawbacks to a Nile cruise?
This can really depend on your personal travel style.
What you do get with a Nile cruise is a little bit of inflexibility as you are fixed to their schedule. That said, we felt we saw enough of the important sites we wanted to see as an introductory taster tour and we weren’t overly rushed. Although there’s a fair number of people on each boat, the fact our excursions were still in a small, personal group we did not mind. I find fixed schedule dining a bit Groundhog Day, but it certainly saves any need to think about meals.
If you are more intrepid explorers, you may find the flexibility of a smaller felucca more to your liking where you can stop at any smaller ports you want, but you are at the whims of the wind and very much more exposed to the elements.
We were also advised when looking at this option that under 6’s were not permitted to sleep on the vessel overnight. Go figure.
How to Book for a family Nile Cruise
If you just want to book the 4-day Nile Cruise it can be booked via Get Your Guide with Imperial Egypt here.
We had Hady who is mentioned in several of these reviews as our guide in Luxor and can totally agree what an awesome guide he was!!!
Below are some other tour operators for Nile Cruises via GYG, a reliable tour booking platform. We cannot personally vouch for all the service from all operators but honestly, from what we saw every cruise was much of a muchness on what you got. Your organiser will confirm after booking the exact vessel you will get.
The kids are still ardent that the Sphinx and the Pyramids were their favourite part of Egypt, but for me seeing the sunset over the Nile as the call to prayer reverberated across the Nile was undoubtedly my Egyptian holiday highlight and for all the country’s misgivings, a fond memory we will always keep.
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Over to you; Have you ever done a Nile cruise – how did your experience stack up? Are their recommendations or tips you would add for a comfortable family experience?
© Our Globetrotters