Variables to consider in determining your choice of a dahabiya in Egypt
Dahabiyas in Egypt come in many sizes, conditions, and designs. While most dahabiya experiences offer very comparable sets of inclusions and onboard amenities, the quality of these amenities and of the boats themselves can vary widely.
Some dahabiya can be very basic and equivalent to a one-star or two-star hotel on land, and others benefit from their owners’ fine attention to detail and have amenities that compete with five-star properties.
However, beware! Price is NOT always an indication of quality, nor of a premium product or experience. Some dahabiya companies are often very skilled at marketing their boats as “luxury,” “premium,” or “the best,” while in reality they fall short in some key ways. Others excel at garnering good publicity in the West, while others can be secret gems that don’t need publicity and, therefore, stay so booked up that you may not even have a chance to hear about them at all.
As you continue your overall planning and research for your upcoming Egypt trip, here is a very detailed exposition on the similarities and differences between dahabiyas and dahabiya companies in Egypt in terms of the most important variables to consider when choosing a dahabiya to book on and a dahabiya company to work with.
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Dahabiyas can have either a single open-air upper deck or a half-raised, double open-air upper deck, with the vast majority of boats having the former.
Single open-air upper decks generally span about four-fifths the length of the boat, or roughly the entire length above the indoor lower deck area of the vessel. Even on smaller dahabiyas, this expanse of the deck provides ample space for multiple groups of passengers to spread out and relax separated from others, if desired. It also allows a degree of privacy and peace between groups of passengers who may be conversing aloud and others who may prefer to nap or read with minimal disturbance.
The decks of dahabiyas generally have multiple sitting areas and lounging, with some combination of raised couches, floor-level cushions, lounge chairs, and sometimes even a hammock. There is also typically either one large dining table that can be easily broken up into multiple smaller dining tables if different groups of passengers prefer a more private or separated dining setup.
Decks also often feature some sort of bar and/or serving station where the deck attendant will often be positioned in order to provide service to guests on the upper deck throughout the day.
Those dahabiyas with a half-raised, double open-air upper deck design actually have an extra small indoor area on the same level as the primary deck, with the remaining portion of the deck raised above that extra indoor area, giving the appearance of two decks. While this can provide some extra privacy on the raised part of the deck, the actual area of open-air deck is virtually the same as the single open-air upper deck design.
The size, furnishing, and design of guest cabins are perhaps the biggest differences among the Nile’s fleet of dahabiyas. Many dahabiya owners and companies invest the bare minimum into outfitting cabins, giving these rooms the look and feel of a one-star or two-star motel, while other owners and companies spare no expense or detail in outfitting their rooms.
As with larger cruise ships both on river waterways and the open seas, most guest rooms are smaller than their terrestrial hotel counterparts because of a lack of overall space on the vessel. Narrower boats will naturally have smaller guest rooms, while newer or wider boats feature more spacious cabins.
The cabin size can also impact the size of the bed that’s used in the room. Narrower and smaller cabins tend to have twin beds for one person or, at most, full beds for two people, while larger cabins can fit queen-sized and even king-sized beds.
Typically, the only rooms that may feature a king-sized bed on a dahabiya are the suites at the end of the boat, most of which also feature a small private balcony. However, one major difference in dahabiyas as well is the size of the boat’s suite or suites. Because these rooms also have access to rare balcony space at the end of the vessel, most companies prefer to divide this end-of-boat space into two smaller rooms and just call them suites because they have a small half-balcony. These rooms may be ever-so-slightly larger than regular cabins, but they are not what you would usually think of when you think of a suite, meaning they’re not much larger – if at all – and they don’t have multiple rooms. However, splitting the end-of-boat space into two rooms allows them to charge more for these two “suites” with the only perk being that small half-balcony.
With that said, the most premium dahabiyas will use the entire end of the boat for one large true suite. This also gives the suite access to the entire balcony spanning the whole width of the end of the boat. This also enables the boat to accommodate a significantly larger bathroom for the suite as well, since space is not an issue with the entire width of the boat available for the suite’s design.
In addition to the vast expanse of the upper deck(s), dahabiyas also have an indoor common area that typically follows one of two designs. Both designs usually span the entire width of the boat and about the length of a standard cabin on each side. However, some dahabiyas use all of this interior common area for a large sitting area with couches on both sides of the room, while other dahabiyas will use half of the area as a couch-lined sitting area and the other half as an interior dining area.
The latter design for the indoor common area can be preferable in the winter months when it may be too cool or windy to dine on the upper deck, especially when the days are shorter and dinner often falls after the sun goes down and the temperature drops. While most dahabiya trips feature very pleasant – if sometimes breezy – outdoor dining for all meals on the upper deck, having the option of indoor or outdoor dining can be an added benefit of those dahabiyas with this setup.
Common areas will also often feature local art, tapestries, or artifact replicas displayed on walls, coffee tables, or side tables, adding local character and ambiance to the room’s feel.
In addition to cabin size and layout, the size and design of the bathrooms are another significant distinguishing factor among dahabiyas in Egypt. Most dahabiyas, even ones that advertise themselves as luxurious or premium ones, have bathrooms that would be considered small and “budget” at best – or inadequate at worst – by terrestrial hotel standards.
While their generally small size isn’t necessarily a surprise because of the space premium on narrower boats, the setup of the showers is what varies the most by company and by boat. Some cabin bathrooms only have a shower head that overhangs the whole bathroom and a drain on the floor for the water. This bathroom setup ensures that water gets all over everything in the bathroom, including the floor, toilet, sink, and walls when a guest takes a shower. This can make it difficult to then use the bathroom after showering because everything, including the floor, is wet until the housekeeper comes to clean the room and bathroom later in the morning.
A step up from this onboard bathroom design would be the bathrooms that have a designated basin for the shower. However, even these vary by boat and company as to whether they have a shower curtain or not.
Another step up from his would be the ones that have a half-glass enclosure for the dedicated shower area, also known as an “Italian shower.” While this shower design is often found in many European and Middle Eastern hotels (even nice ones), the downside of only having glass enclose half of the shower area is that water still usually splashes out onto the bathroom floor, although not nearly as much as the bathrooms without a separate shower space and basin at all.
The truly premium dahabiya bathrooms will feature fully enclosed showers with sliding glass doors, just like a normal upscale hotel room on land. However, the dahabiya boats that have the space and owner dedication to detail to have these installed are far and few between, so you have to either know which boats feature this style of bathroom, ask, or sift through lots of photos online to find out.
Dahabiya companies that have otherwise premium boats but lower quality bathrooms or shower facilities will often obscure this detail in online photos, so it is an important thing to keep in mind and specifically ask about if it’s important to you.
Kitchen and Crew Quarters
All dahabiyas also feature a few additional rooms for crew work and rest at the front of the boat. These areas are below the area of the upper deck(s) so that they are normally out of the view of guests, although may frequently pass this crew area when going up and down the stairs between upper outdoor and lower indoor decks.
On one side of the boat in this area is usually a comparatively spacious kitchen, which is home to the boat’s dedicated chef and which allows him ample space to store and prepare large generous meals for passengers throughout the day.
Another side of the crew area will usually feature a room with multiple bunk beds for the crew. As you might expect, since space is at a premium on these boats, the crew sleeping quarters are often quite small, but there is plenty of room for them to sleep in single bunk beds, which is very typical for temporary or seasonal workers in Egypt.
However, much of the year the crew will prefer to sleep on the small crew deck at the front of the boat or even on the main upper deck after all passengers have gone to bed, since they are always up before the passengers awake anyway. So don’t be surprised if you wander out of your cabin in the middle of the night and see a few people sleeping outside. It’s quite pleasant to do so for most of the year in Egypt, and they thoroughly enjoy it.
One exception to the staff sleeping arrangements is the accommodation for the professional tour guide on board. Many dahabiyas have a small private “guide cabin” at the front of the boat that may be smaller or more basic than guest cabins, but which is still larger anymore comfortable than the shared crew quarters. And when a boat is not full, the guide may take up residence in one of the empty guest cabins for an even more comfortable experience aboard.
The availability of electricity is another huge distinguishing feature among dahabiyas in Egypt. While nearly all dahabiyas have on-board generators to provide electricity, not all dahabiya companies will run their generators all the time. Most companies want to minimize the use of generator fuel, so they will only turn on their generators for the blocks of time when guests typically use electricity, i.e., in the morning, late afternoon, and early evening.
In the early afternoon, guests are typically off the boat and touring on land, so nearly all captains will shut off the generators to save fuel while no guests are on board. If someone is going to opt-out of touring on any given day and stay behind on the boat, they may need to ask the captain to leave the generator on if you’d like to have power during that time.
Most boats also turn the generator off overnight. Typically, that is about from 10pm or 10:30pm until about 7am or 8am. There are several good reasons for this, including not wasting fuel when the vast majority of people are sleeping and not needing electricity and also so that the generator noise at the front of the boat isn’t preventing the crew from sleeping through the night as well.
This is generally ok for much of the year. Despite the obvious need for air conditioning in the cabins during the day, the temperature drop is fairly significant at night in Egypt such that most guests don’t need to have the air on to stay cool at night during most months. The main thing you have to worry about and plan for is not having the ability to charge mobile phones overnight on boats that use this schedule.
However, the bigger issue comes during the hottest summer months. Companies that do not allow their boats to leave the generators on overnight hope that passengers will be ok with the cooler nighttime temperatures. While Egyptians may be used to sleeping without air conditioning even in the summer, this can still be quite uncomfortable for many guests.
The other important issue comes into play when someone has a medical device, such as a CPAP machine, that needs a constant source of power overnight. If you’re a person who requires overnight air conditioning or needs a source of electricity throughout the night, you’ll need to be sure to ask the dahabiya company about the generator and electricity supply schedule and plan accordingly.
On some of the premium dahabiya boats, you will actually find that the company has invested in an additional source of power that can provide the boat with 24-hour electricity – industrial batteries. Boats that have a dual-source power supply will run the generator during the day, which also charges the onboard batteries, and then switch over to battery power at night to provide 24-hour coverage.
Even still, the few boats that do have 24-hour electricity on board still may have the air conditioning units hooked up to the generator while normal electrical outlets in the room will be connected to the overnight boat batteries. So this may mean that while you may not have chilled a/c all night, you can still have fans plugged into the outlets, and, more importantly, you can charge and run your other devices all night too.
Just one last important note for anyone running a medical device off of the boat’s power supply – when the captain switches the boat from generator power to battery power at a certain hour of the evening or night, there is always a brief interruption to the continuous supply of electricity. Most devices plugged into outlets will simply stop charging or running when one source shuts off and resume charging or running when the other source turns on after a moment or two.
However, some medical devices, such as CPAP machines, may not switch back on automatically if their power source is interrupted, and they may have to be manually powered back on. If you use one of these machines for sleeping and this is the case with your machine, you will need to coordinate with the captain to make sure he knows that you’re using such a machine so that he can let you know when the changeover happens and you can make sure you’re awake to start or restart your device after that occurs to prevent the machine from staying off.
Sails vs. Tugboat
As a traditional Egyptian sailing vessel, all dahabiyas have a mast and a sail (usually two), and the draw for some to a dahabiya is not just the more private, exclusive, and upscale experience, but also the sailing aspect as well. While this is less a difference between boats or companies and more of a difference in routes, it is important to also keep this difference in mind as well when booking a dahabiya journey.
While the Nile is one of the few rivers in the world to flow from south to north, meaning the downriver current of the river flows northward from Aswan in the direction of Luxor, the wind along the Nile generally blows in the opposite direction of the current. This naturally occurring phenomenon means that while dahabiyas typically deploy their massive beautiful sails on up-river journeys (headed south) from Luxor to Aswan, the wind is counter-intuitively blowing against the boat as it sails in the downstream direction from Aswan to Luxor.
Therefore, all dahabiyas sail with a dedicated tugboat that’s available to pull the dahabiya along the Nile when the wind is going against it, which is usually for most of the downstream/northward journey from Aswan to Luxor. However, even when they are sailing in the direction that requires the tugboat, the captain will usually take some time on at least one day to reverse the direction of the dahabiya for a while so that the sails can be deployed and guests can see the sailboat in its full glory.
Even in the sailing direction on the Nile that typically has the wind blowing in the boat’s favor, sometimes the tugboat still needs to be used if the wind is particularly weak that day and the boat needs to get to the next site by a certain time, such as before a temple or other planned sightseeing area closes.
Despite the need for a tugboat sometimes, the rope used to pull the dahabiya is sufficiently long that can barely hear the other boat far out in front of the dahabiya, and from the cabins often not at all. But you don’t have to worry about this sound at night while you’re sleeping anyway, since dahabiyas only move during daylight hours.
Since most visitors aren’t doing a Nile cruise specifically for a wind-powered experience anyway, the source of propulsion on the boat is usually a non-issue for most people.
Amenities and Inclusions
Nearly all dahabiya bookings include three large meals per day and one or two daily snacks served on the upper deck or in the indoor common area. While bottled water is always also included, companies range on whether fresh juices, soda, and other drinks are included in the price or are charged separately. Beer and wine – and on some boats even cocktails – are almost always not included in the price of the booking and are charged separately. But most boats will simply keep a running tab for each cabin or passenger and allow you to settle the bill on the last night or last morning of the cruise.
With that said, however, different companies have different policies on whether they will allow you to bring your own beverages on board, especially alcoholic beverages. The sale of alcohol on board is usually an expected additional revenue stream for the dahabiya company, although some may allow you to bring liquor on board since most don’t serve liquor, and those that do typically do not serve Western brands of liquor because of the extremely high taxes on imported alcohol in Egypt.
Pro tip: Have everyone in your party purchase their one-bottle allowance of your favorite liquor in duty-free on arrival, if having access to Western spirits is important to you and your group. You only have 48 hours after arrival to do this. Super-pros will bring one bottle in checked luggage and purchase one more in duty-free on arrival.
Many dahabiyas will have a basic wi-fi network on board. However, this is often just a portable wi-fi router that is loaded with 3-5 gigabytes of data for the whole boat and the whole sail. This is often insufficient for even one person who is streaming online video once or twice a day, so be sure to purchase your own local SIM card with 5-10 gigs of data if you use it a lot. This will be sufficient for your own personal usage throughout your whole trip around Egypt, and you won’t have to connect to the boat’s wi-fi and worry about draining it for others. But if you just want to check email and messages once a day, the boat’s network will likely be sufficient.
Most dahabiya have standard touring itineraries scheduled throughout the trip, with a stop or two each day for sightseeing on land. Unlike on larger Nile cruise ships, dahabiya bookings usually include the land touring in the price of the booking. A local tour guide will either be on board the boat sailing with you and taking you off the boat for sightseeing at each stop, or alternatively, the guide may just meet you at each stop if there is not enough room on the boat for the guide. This is usually only the case when there is a need for more than one guide because the passengers speak more than one language and need separate guides. But most of the time, the guide will sail with you on board as a part of the crew.
While the cost of the guide (and site tickets too) is usually included in the price of the dahabiya booking, guests are expected to also tip the tour guide as well as the crew of the boat at the end of the sail. While different sources vary wildly on appropriate tipping amounts, if a dahabiya guide receives the equivalent of about 50-80 US dollars per day for each of the days they were guiding, they will be very happy.
Note that this is not per person, but the total for the boat. Guests are expected to organize the pooling of tipping amongst themselves and present it to the guide and crew themselves. It is common to put all guest tips into an envelope and give the crew tips to either the captain or head server on the boat, and separately put the guide’s tips into an envelope and give their portion to him or her directly.
Tipping the crew collectively between 50-80 US dollars per guest (not per crew member) for the entire sail with a full boat will result in a very generous tip for the crew and a very happy crew. If, however, the boat is only partially full, you should consider topping those amounts up a little so that the crew doesn’t get short-changed. After all, when the boat isn’t full, especially when it’s less than half full, the crew worked the same amount and the guests had a more private and personalized experience. So it’s ok to tip a little more with a less-full boat.
To give an example, let’s say a dahabiya has seven cabins and two guests in each cabin, for a full house of 14 passengers on a three-night sail, which would include three touring days with the guide. At the end of the trip, those 14 guests might collectively contribute about 80 US dollars each to the tip pool, for a total tip pool of 1,120 US dollars. You might then put $240 of that into an envelope and give it directly to the guide. Then you take the remaining $880 and put it into another envelope for the crew and give it to a senior crew representative.
The crew will take their pooled tips and divide it up fairly amongst themselves. Some companies have a pre-determined formula for dividing up crew tips based on role, experience, and/or workload. Other companies prefer to divide the pool up equally among the crew members regardless of roles. However, guests do not need to worry about deciding or tipping crew members individually, with the one exception of the guide.