Sunday, January 9, 2011

Taba / Eilat Border Crossing and Eilat / Aqaba Border Crossing

This email is for fellow travelers who will be crossing these borders and want more information.  (For family members and friends reading my blog regularly, you might want to skip this post since it's mainly logistical information.)

Many thanks to the travelers before me who wrote what they knew about these border crossings in their blogs and Lonely Planet online write-ups which were very useful to me.

Getting from Cairo to Taba border:
The bus is the cheapest way to go:  70 Egyptian pounds (about $15) per person (including kids).  I didn't go this route on the way to the border so don't know the schedule for when buses leave.

Hiring a taxi:  
We called a couple taxi drivers and got very different rates.  The rate to hire a taxi for the day to go around sites in the Cairo area if you bargain is about 150 Egyptian pounds (about $28).   However this is a drive of at least 5 hours each way so the prices are much higher.  The first price quote we got was for 1500 Egyptian pounds (about $280).  The second quote we got from a different driver (after much bargaining) was for 700 Egyptian pounds.   (We thought we had negotiated an even better rate from this driver by including the trip to pick us up as well, both for 1100, but the driver later said he had not agreed to that rate, so 700 may be the best one can do.)

Crossing the border into Israel:  
The Israeli border guards are no-nonsense so it's best to be serious.  There are at least 3-4 different checks (passport, luggage, stamping) so allow a while to get through.  You will be questioned about the purpose of your visit, where you're going and for how long.   I was asked what I was studying in Egypt, with the follow-up of whether I was also studying Arabic.  They only questioned me for a couple minutes, though I've heard of others getting questioned for longer.

You will want to request the Israel stamp on separate insert for your passport rather than in your passport since if it's in your passport, numerous Arab countries will not let you in (such as Lebanon and Syria).  Americans don't need visas but I don't know about other countries.  The person stamping my passport was fine about stamping the insert instead.

Getting from the Eilat border to downtown Eilat and the bus station:
There are taxis at the Eilat border eager to take people to the downtown.  We had taxis offering a rate of 30 shekels (there are about 3.5 shekels to the $1).  But you can also wait for a 15 or 16 bus that will take you to the downtown for about 6 shekels and some change (I think 6.20 or something like that) per person.  I think the bus comes at least once an hour during the day (not sure about early morning or night).  The bus driver can make change.  You can change money to get shekels at the money change place at the border, though it seemed to me the rate was poor or the commission was high or something like that.  You might want to only change a little there.  The bus ride from the border to downtown is about 20-30 minutes depending where in the downtown you're going.  I believe both the 15 and 16 buses end at the bus station which is right in the downtown.

Lodging in Eilat:
If you're looking for a moderately priced but nice hotel within a 5 minute walk of the bus station, try the C Hotel.  The rooms for us (a couple with a child) were between $112-$130 (depending on how close to the holiday season it was).  The rooms are clean, nice, and the buffet breakfast (included in the cost) is terrific.  (With prices for food and everything else in Israel being high, having a free breakfast that can double for lunch as well was really helpful.)

Visit the Aquarium in Eilat:
If you're staying in Eilat for a day, or even have an afternoon to spare, the underwater aquarium there is amazing, the best aquarium I've ever been to.  It's not cheap (-- about $25-$30 per person), but it's worth it.  My son and I spent the whole day there.  Here's a link to my blog entry about that:
To get there, take the 15 bus from the downtown bus station (the same one that goes to the Taba border).  For my son and me, it was cheaper to buy an all-day bus pass (I think only about 14.40 shekels total) rather than a one way ticket to the aquarium.  You can pay the bus fare to the driver right on the bus.  I think the 15 bus leaves from the bus station every hour on the hour during the day (not sure about early morning or night).

You'll get off about 10 minutes outside of town (about 5 minutes or so before the bus reaches the boarder).  I remember seeing lockers at the aquarium so if you're coming with luggage, you could store things there, though I don't know that any of the lockers were big enough to hold a backpack.  I'll do another posting on my blog about the aquarium so you can read more details there.

Crossing the Eilat / Aqaba border:
Taking a taxi from downtown Eilat (the area of the bus station) to the Aqaba border is between 25-30 shekels (about $7-$9), though it should be cheaper since the distance is not that long.  The taxi drivers started at 40 shekels or more but I got the second driver down to 30.  (Though I learned from another traveler that she got a driver down to 25 shekels).

In order to leave Israel, you'll need to pay an exit fee of 96 shekels plus 5 shekels commission per person.  (I asked the person at the counter why it was 101 shekels when the paper listing all the fees says it's 96 shekels and was informed that if one pays the exit fee at the post office before coming to the border, then it's only 96, but if you pay it at the border, it's 101.   By the way, if you stay at the C Hotel and have time to plan a little, there's a post office between the C Hotel and the bus station in a tall building set back from the road on the same side of the road.  There are little benches on the paved walking area leading to that building.)

For Americans, you can get a visa for Jordan right at the border for no charge.  (I'm not sure about other nationalities.)  If you get stuck behind one of the big tours, it can take a while to get the visa since there may be 30 passports ahead of yours.  I recommend getting to the border somewhat early.  We were there by 8am or so and a couple tours were coming right after us.

There is a money change place at the Jordan border along with a little souvenir shop and bathrooms that are not clean.  (Bring your own toilet paper and a little container of Purell.)

Getting to Petra from the Aqaba border.
Petra is only about 1.5-2 hours away from the border, but taxis will try to charge high rates to take you there. We were quoted some rates of 60-70 Jordanian dinars and ultimately bargained down to 50.  We learned in Petra that the going rate from Petra to the border is 40 dinars (about $60).  We kept our costs low by finding another couple to share the taxi ride with us to Petra (though the taxis tried to get more money for more people).
The other option is to take a taxi to downtown Aqaba (a fixed rate of 6 dinars per car, not per person).  This is about $1.50.  I heard the bus ride to Petra from Aqaba is only 3 dinars ($2) so you can use this to bargain the taxis down.  I found the taxis at the border very frustrating and sometimes obnoxious.  It appears to be a state-enforced monopoly for a group of white taxis.  The drivers of the white taxis will follow you around whenever you try to talk to any other color taxi or van driver who pulls in the parking area.  Drivers of green taxis or other cars look apprehensively around if you try to negotiate with them and point out that there is a 'tourist police' right so they can't deal with you.   We ended up getting the rate of 50 dinars to Petra despite there being two couples and my six year old on my lap by saying we would just take two cars to the bus station and catch a bus from there.  We had tried to have one cab take all five of us to the bus station for 6 dinars and the drivers insisted we would have to take two taxis since it wouldn't be safe to have five people in one taxi.  However ultimately they took all five of us in one car to Petra with no mention of how it wouldn't be safe to have five passengers.

Visiting Petra:
Wadi Musa is the town at the top of the hill with Petra at the bottom.  I think it's about 1 kilometer to walk from some of the hotels (like ours, the Valley Stars Inn) to Petra, but it's steep and the sidewalk is a bit uneven in parts and not well-lit so we were glad for a ride from the hotel.  Twice a week there is a Petra by Night display which costs 12 shekels ($8) per person (but small kids are free).  I know Tuesday is one of the nights and think Thursday might be the other night.  It starts at 8:30pm and goes until about 10pm.  For more details about this, here's a link to my blog entry that discusses Petra by Night.

The rates for Petra are:
50 ($75) dinars per adult for one day
55 dinars per adult for two days
(the 12 dinar fee for Petra by Night is not included)

Petra closes at sunset.  I'm not sure what time it opens, but we got there before 8am and that was a good time to arrive since the big tours come a couple hours later.
If you like to hike but have limited time, I would recommend you do the hike to the monastery walk early in the morning as soon as you get there.  It was very nice to be walking up the 1,000 plus steps to the monastery with almost no one coming down and to have the view at the top with just a few other people.   The hike from the entrance gate to the top of the monastery took us about 2.5-3 hours (with some stops for photos).  (There's a viewing point called "the best view in Petra" that is the perfect place for a picnic if you've brought one.)  Coming down is faster and so much less tiring.  There are lots of people trying to sell you a donkey ride, but I found we could walk as fast as the donkeys.  When I asked a woman coming down the steps on a donkey how it was, she said, "a little scary!"   (The donkeys seem pretty sure footed and I didn't see any fall, but that made me even more glad we decided to walk ourselves.)

Our hotel (Valley Stars Inn) offered a ride to Petra by Night for 2.5 dinars total for the three of us each way (5 dinar total), leaving at 8:10pm, picking us up at 10:30pm.  Our hotel offered free shuttles to and from Petra at designated times (e.g., 7am and 8:30am in the morning and return at 3pm and some other time).  Our hotel said they would also arrange a driver for us to the border for 40 dinars (though we ended up getting a deal for 30 dinars since it turned out the hotel had a car going to the border anyway to pick up some guests crossing the border that evening.)

If you want a reasonably priced ok restaurant in Wadi Musa, try the Al Arabi (halfway down the hill on the right).  We loved their hummus and our son loved their fries.

Note:  Don't drink water from the tap in Petra (or in Jordan for that matter).  Bottled water is available and the safe bet.

Crossing from Aqaba to Israel:
There is an 8 dinar exit fee per person to leave Jordan.  I'm told this fee can be paid in dollars or dinars (-- we paid in dinars).  Once you cross the border, you stop at the office where you pay the exit fee, then you stop at the window where they check your passport and to see if you have the receipt for paying the exit fee.

Getting into Israel was a little easier than coming in the first time from Egypt.  I guess they are used to the frequent trips to Petra so we were nothing new.  As before, you can ask to have the Israel stamp on an insert instead of in your passport.

The distance from the Jordan border to the Israel border is only about 100 meters.  There are some trolleys there for luggage.

From downtown Aqaba to the Aqaba border, we paid a taxi fare of 10 dinars.  (One would think it should be only 6 dinars since that's the price from the border, but the hotel desk person said it was 10 dinars and that's what the cab driver said so we took it without bargaining, though in hindsight, it's probably worth asking for 6 dinars since that's the cost in the reverse direction.

From Eilat border to downtown Eilat:
We paid more to leave the border, 32 shekels (and that was with bargaining).  We again found a couple at the border to share the ride with us so it was cheaper that way.  The taxis can wait inside the final Israeli gate so you may be able to board there.

Downtown Eilat to Eilat / Taba border:
Six shekels and some change to go by bus (bus # 15 from the bus station, leaves every hour on the hour).
30-40 shekels for a taxi to the border.
See above section about needing 101 shekels per person to leave Israel.

We had a multiple entry visa for Egypt so didn't have to worry about visas at the border, but one thing to be aware of is that even if you have a visa already, when you're going outside of Taba, a guy will get on the bus and ask for your passports and will demand a $15 fee per person.  Only foreigners who have come from Israel will be asked for this fee.  You can pay it in dollars or Egyptian pounds (75 pounds per person).  The man will take your passports off the bus with the money and will come back to give you back your passport and any change you need from the fee.  He'll give you a receipt.   The man collecting our passports and fees didn't speak much English so when I asked what it was for, he said because you don't have a stamp.  I never heard of an entry fee to a country (once you have a visa in hand), but that seems to be what this is.

There are trolleys for luggage at both borders.  We didn't use one on the Israel side but were about to use one on the Egyptian side then found out you have to pay a fee to use them.  (Not sure how much).  The bus station about 1-1.5 kilometers from the Taba border (... long enough to make it challenging with a lot of luggage).  There are minibuses that can give you a ride.  The minibus asked us for 5 pounds to the bus station (after we had already walked halfway there) and agreed to two pounds for all three of us with luggage.

Buses from Taba to Cairo take 6 hours and cost 70 pounds per ticket.  
They leave at 10:30am and 4:30pm.  (I'm not sure if there's a latter or earlier one.)  There's a little snack shop there with reasonably priced snacks.  Count your change with the guy selling tickets.  By the time he'd written out my three tickets, I had gotten distracted and didn't ask for my change.  I later realized he'd kept the 90 pounds changed he owed me and went back for it.  He readily gave me back the 100 pound note saying he didn't have the 10 pounds in change (which I then got from a friend).

There are bathrooms at the bus stop (functional but not clean--- bring your own toilet paper).

When you arrive in Cairo, you may be able to choose between a couple different bus stops which may be closer to your home than the last stop.  We got off at the first stop (which, in our bus's case, ended up being the only stop) which was then just a 20 pound taxi ride (after serious bargaining) to our flat in Maadi.

Deciding between taking a bus and hiring a car:
We hired a car to take us from Cairo to Taba because we'd heard there was a pretty high accident rate for vehicles travelling on this road.  We've talked to people who've taken the bus many times and have no problem with it.  Our ride back from Taba to Cairo by bus was ok.  The seats were comfortable enough and there was air conditioning as well as windows that could be cracked for fresh air.  (Note:  If you have a lot of luggage, get to one of the underneath bins early since they fill up with the extra bags being piled on top of each other next to the second door in the bus.)  I was concerned though about how fast the bus was going, once having to break noticeably to make a curve in the road.  I have heard stories about fatalities (including expats on vacation) in bus accidents.   Sorry to put a damper on things but it's good to know all the facts.

Good luck with your trip!

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