Airport review: Cairo International Airport, brace for delays at Africa's busiest airport

THE AIRPORT

Cairo International Airport (CAI)

THE FLIGHTS

V300 to Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), economy

THE ARRIVAL

Cairo's main airport used to be on the city's north-east fringe, but it's now well and truly engulfed by the suburbs. Set 22 kilometres from downtown Cairo, the bus is a down-at-heel experience and the metro to the airport isn't expected to be finished for a few years. Take a ride-sharing car like Uber or Careem, or organise transfers through your tour company. Avoid the street taxis unless you really know what you're doing. A Le Meridian hotel is located within the airport, with a swag of rivals including a Novotel and JR Marriott nearby.

THE LOOK

Once a shabby affair notable for its feared squat toilets and voracious taxi drivers, Cairo's newer Terminals 2 and 3 fall in with international expectations, though the indoor date palms and lavish use of grey marble are a giveaway you're not in Europe, Toto. I'm departing from Terminal 2, which enjoyed a much-needed, $500 million renovation in 2016.

SECURITY

Cairo has always had two queues at security – one for men and another for women and children, which is invariably a bunfight of prams and undeclared liquids. For the first time I can remember, we're all passing through the same gate together, and it's a scrum due to a lack of staff to pat people down. At one point, my passport is left sitting on top of the luggage screener while the enormously irate security guard yells for a female officer to check us female passengers. It takes 20 minutes to get through this short queue, and everyone's getting jumpy. There is another, much faster security clearance after check-in, which is a breeze.

CHECK-IN

After delays at the first security check, it's a mad dash to my check-in counter with Saudia airline… and into another enormous, meandering queue with no discernible movement. At least I'm here – the plane can't take off without 100 passengers, can it? It's another 20 minutes to get to the counter. If only Cairo's famed tea boys delivered to the queue.

FOOD AND DRINK

In all, it takes 70 minutes from entering the airport to get through security, check-in, more security, and then customs, and the reward is a small flat white from the Costa chain cafe – at $6.70, it's steep by local standards, but it's a decent cup on a nice sofa where I can charge my phone. The omnipresent McDonald's and a handful of cafes are scattered around the terminal, which is much quieter than in its halcyon pre-COVID years.

RETAIL THERAPY

The airport has some great souvenirs, including gift boxes of Egyptian sweets emblazoned with the Pyramids of Giza (because if you've got it, flaunt it, right?) and really good Egyptian cotton clothing at local brand Cottonil – men, stock up on their underwear. The King Tut tat is in full force, expect to pay at least five times the street price. I spy a new Wine of Egypt stand in the alcohol section, where you could pick up an Omar Khayyam red or maybe an Obelisk white for $US8. On my "gindex", Bombay Sapphire comes in at $US22 ($30) a bottle and is in a "buy 2, get 1 free" promotion, but I'm flying into Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is illegal, so I pass on the deal.

PASSING TIME

Allow plenty of time to get to your gate. Due to all the delays, I have little time to spare, which is just as well, as the WI-FI here is always an elusive beast. Sometimes it works for international mobiles, mostly it doesn't. Bring a book.

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THE VERDICT

The busiest airport in Africa, Cairo has always been a major hub for the region. Just allow time – and patience – for the many security checks, and always opt for charm or tears over anger at any disruptions.

OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE

★★★½

Belinda Jackson travelled as a guest of Alula, experiencealula.com