Ethiopia Travel Tips: What to Know Before You Go

Rock hewn Church of St. George in Ethiopia
Jon Bratt/ Moment/ Getty Images

Ethiopia is an incredibly rewarding travel destination with plenty to see and do, from the cosmopolitan restaurants and art galleries of Addis Ababa to the medieval rock-cut churches of Lalibela. Before you can experience its wonders, however, you need to acquaint yourself with the practical side of Ethiopian travel – for example, whether or not you require a visa, if you need to arrange vaccinations and the easiest way to get around once you're there.

This article covers all those essentials and more so that you can get on with planning the fun parts of your trip to this amazing country in the Horn of Africa. 

Use the following links to find out about Ethiopia's demographics and key attractions, weather and best time to visit

Visas

Visitors from all countries except Kenya and Djibouti need a visa to enter Ethiopia. Many nationalities (including those from the United States, Canada, the UK and most European or commonwealth countries) are eligible to apply for a tourist visa upon arrival at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (ADD). These visas are valid for 90 days. You will need to provide a recent passport-sized photo and a passport that is valid for at least six months from your intended date of entry.

Alternatively (or if you are not eligible for a visa on arrival), you may apply for an e-visa online. E-visas are also valid for 90 days and may only be used for entry via Addis Ababa airport.

E-visa applications usually take three days to process and are valid from your date of intended entry, not the date of issue. If you intend to enter via any other port of entry or if you require a different type of visa, you will need to apply in advance at your nearest Ethiopian embassy. 

Health and Vaccinations

Vaccinations

The CDC recommends that all travelers to Ethiopia are up-to-date with their routine vaccinations, including measles. In addition, typhoid and hepatitis A vaccinations are recommend for everyone while other vaccinations may be required depending on which region of Ethiopia you intend to visit, when you are going, how long you will be there and what activities you will take part in. These include cholera, hepatitis B, meningitis, polio, rabies and yellow fever, and can be discussed with your doctor. 

If you are traveling to Ethiopia from a country with yellow fever, you will need to provide proof of vaccination before being allowed to enter. Similarly, because yellow fever is a risk in certain parts of Ethiopia, you will need to provide proof of vaccination if you intend on traveling onwards to another African country. Visitors from the United States should be aware that the yellow fever vaccination is currently in short supply. To ensure you are able to get yours, book well in advance. 

Malaria

Malaria is a risk in all areas of Ethiopia that are below 8,200 feet/2,500 meters, with the exception of Addis Ababa. All four types of malaria are present, including the most dangerous kind which is caused by the P. falciparum parasite.

When discussing prophylactics with your doctor, make sure to specify that you are traveling to Ethiopia. This is important because malaria parasites in Ethiopia have developed a resistance to chloroquine, rendering this type of anti-malaria medication useless. 

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness may affect visitors to Addis Ababa and the Ethiopian Highlands. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue, and headaches. If you are affected, give yourself time to acclimatize before traveling to a higher elevation. Drink plenty of water, avoid alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes, and try to limit exercise as much as possible. You can also medicate the symptoms with painkillers and anti-nausea pills – which should all be part of your travel first aid kit

Safety

The US Department of State ranks Ethiopia as a Level 2 destination, meaning that visitors should exercise increased levels of caution – in this case, due to the potential for civil unrest and communications disruptions.

In addition, border areas are best avoided due to ongoing political instability in neighboring countries. However, most visitors enjoy an incident-free vacation and as long as you take the same precautions that you would in any country with a high level of poverty, you should be perfectly safe. 

These include: 

  • Making a copy of your passport and keeping it in your luggage.
  • Avoiding walking alone at night in Addis Ababa and other major tourist towns.
  • Watching out for pickpockets in crowded areas.
  • Not flashing expensive jewelry or cameras. 
  • Carrying small amounts of cash in a concealed money belt. 
  • Not traveling at night due to poorly maintained, unlit and unfenced roads.

Money Matters

The currency in Ethiopia is the Ethiopian birr. Unlike some other African countries, foreign currency is rarely accepted, so you will need to exchange money either before you travel or upon arrival in order to pay for hotels, tours, food and more. These days, traveler's cheques are largely redundant. The best currency to bring with you for exchanging purposes is the US dollar, which should be accepted at any bank or foreign exchange bureau. For accurate exchange rates, use this online converter.

ATMs can be found with relative ease in larger cities and airlines/bigger hotels will have facilities for you to pay by card. However, connectivity is a problem in Ethiopia and both ATMs and credit card machines are unreliable. While Mastercard and Visa cards should work in theory, anecdotal evidence on travel forums suggests that you may have to try several different banks before you can successfully withdraw money. Therefore, it's best to bring ample amounts of cash with you to Ethiopia.

Getting There

Most foreign visitors arrive in Ethiopia by air, touching down at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. A major African air travel hub, the airport is located a 20-minute drive from the city center and is the home of the country's respected national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines. The airline flies to over 120 domestic and international destinations, including a direct service to Washington DC. Unrest on the borders means that entering Ethiopia by land is not recommended except via the new Ethiopia-Djibouti railway line – see below. 

Getting Around 

By Plane

Ethiopia's roads are not always in the best condition and the distances between destinations can be long. If you have a limited amount of time in the country, use domestic flights to travel between cities safely and quickly. Ethiopian Airlines flies to eight in-country destinations, including Mekale, Lalibela, Jimma, Gambella, Bahirdar, Axum and Gondar. You can book flights in person at the airport or online via the airline's easy-to-use, English-language website. 

By Bus

Most of Ethiopia's major towns are connected by a comprehensive long-distance bus network. Although journeys can be long, bus fares are cheap and reputable private operators like Selam Bus offer comfortable vehicles complete with air-conditioning, reclining seats, toilets and TVs. It's a good idea to bring food and water with you, although longer journeys will usually include scheduled refreshment stops. Remember that standing in the aisle is illegal on Ethiopian buses. 

By Minibus or Taxi

Minibuses and taxis operate in Ethiopia's larger towns. Taxis are not metered and although fares are usually reasonable, you can expect to be charged more as a foreigner. Ask at your hotel reception for an idea of what you should pay before you agree to the fare. Minibuses can be caught at designated stations, where conductors will shout out the final destination. If you know where you're going, you can also flag one down en route. Minibuses are easy to identify by their blue and white paintwork. 

By Train

In 2016, Ethiopia announced the opening of a cross-border railway line between Addis Ababa and the capital of neighboring Djibouti, Djibouti City. Although it has taken several years for passengers to be able to make use of the service (run in conjunction with the Chinese), it is now possible to travel in style between the two countries. The train also stops in Ethiopia's second-largest city, Dire Dawa. Read this detailed account from the South China Morning Post for an idea of what the journey is like. 

By Car

Touring Ethiopia by car is quicker and more comfortable than traveling by bus. It also gives you the opportunity to choose your own itinerary and stop wherever you want to admire the scenery along the way. However, be aware that most car rental companies provide an experienced local driver rather than allowing you to drive yourself. In addition, the state of the roads in Ethiopia's rural areas means that you will need to rent a 4x4 vehicle if you plan on long-distance journeys. 

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