Ethiopia Travel Tips -- What to Know Before You Go

Visas, Health, Safety, When to Go, Money Matters

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The Ethiopia travel tips below will help you plan your trip to Ethiopia. This page has information about visas, health, safety, when to go and money matters.

Visas

Every national (except Kenyans) need a visa to enter Ethiopia. Single-entry 1 -3 month tourist visas can be issued upon arrival at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa for most European, US, Australian and Canadian nationals. There is confusing information about whether you pay for visas with US Dollars (you need to prove you have at least $100) or Ethiopian currency (which you can get at the bureau de change at the airport).

Either way, you'll also need 2 passport size photographs. To get the most current visa information; for business visas and multiple-entry tourist visas, contact your local Ethiopian Embassy.

Proof of an onward or return ticket is frequently asked for upon arrival in Ethiopia. If you are planning to enter Ethiopia by land, you should obtain a tourist visa in advance from your local Ethiopian Embassy. Visas issued by embassies are valid from their date of issue so take this into consideration.

Health and Immunizations

Immunizations

A Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is no longer mandatory in order to enter Ethiopia, but if you've recently traveled to a country where it is present you will need proof of immunization. For US yellow fever vaccination clinics.

Several vaccinations are highly recommended when traveling to Ethiopia, they include:

  • Yellow Fever
  • Typhoid
  • Hepatitis A
  • Diphtheria
  • Meningococcal

    It is also recommended that you are up to date with your polio and tetanus vaccinations.

    Make sure you start getting your vaccinations at least 8 weeks before you travel. Click here for a list of travel clinics near you. More information about vaccinations ...

    Malaria

    There's a risk of catching malaria in many parts of Ethiopia especially in areas that lie below 2000 meters (6500 feet).

    So while the Highlands and Addis Ababa are considered low-risk areas for malaria, you still have to be careful and take precautions. Ethiopia is home to the chloroquine-resistant strain of malaria as well as the dangerous falciparum strain. Make sure your doctor or travel clinic knows you are traveling to Ethiopia (don't just say Africa) so s/he can prescribe the right anti-malarial medication. Tips on how to avoid malaria will also help.

    High Altitude

    Addis Ababa and Ethiopia's highlands (which you'll be visiting if you're planning on doing the historical circuit) are at high elevations. High altitude can affect healthy individuals in a number of ways including dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue, and headaches.

    Safety

    For the most part, traveling in Ethiopia is safe, but you should take the same precautions as you would traveling in any poor country (see below). It is also wise to avoid all border areas (with Somalia, Eritrea, Kenya, and Sudan) since there's still pockets of political unrest, and kidnapping of tourists in these areas have occurred in the past.

    Basic safety rules for travelers to Ethiopia

    • Make a copy of your passport and keep it in your luggage.
    • Don't walk on your own at night in Addis Ababa and other major tourist towns.
    • Watch out for pickpockets at the Mercato in Addis Ababa
    • Don't wear jewelry.
    • Don't carry too much cash with you.
    • Wear a money belt that fits under your clothes.
    • Don't carry a lot of camera equipment especially in the major cities.
    • Avoid travel at night because roads are perilously filled with potholes, livestock, and broken down vehicles.

    When to Go to Ethiopia

    The best time to go to Ethiopia depends on what you're planning to do when you get there. The tourist board markets Ethiopia as "the land of 13 months of sunshine" which is a little optimistic since there is a rainy season from June to September. In fact the weather varies tremendously throughout the country, see " Ethiopia's Weather and Climate" for information about average temperatures and rainfall. Also, depending on your interest, there are many good months to visit Ethiopia:

    • The Historical Circuit (Lalibela, Gondar, Bahir Dar) -- October to March.
    • Trekking -- October to March
    • Omo River tribes -- June to September and November to March
    • Ethiopia's major festivals -- Timkat (19 January) and Meskel (end of September or early October.)

    Currency and Money Matters

    Foreign currency is rarely used in Ethiopia, instead, you'll be paying for most hotels, tours, and food with Ethiopian currency -- Birr. 1 Birr is divided into 100 cents. There are 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 Birr notes. The Birr is very stable and there is no significant difference between the official rate and black market rate.

    Cash, Credit Cards and ATM's

    The US Dollar is the best foreign currency to bring with you to Ethiopia and it can be exchanged at banks and foreign exchange bureaus. US Dollars should be carried in cash (they do not accept travelers' checks).

    Major credit cards can be used to pay for flights with Ethiopian Airlines and maybe 2 of the big hotels in Addis Ababa - but that's about the extent of their usefulness. It's best to bring cash and good old-fashioned traveler cheques.

    ATM machines in Ethiopia do not recognize foreign debit or credit cards.

    Getting to Ethiopia

    Most people will arrive in Ethiopia by air at the Bole International Airport. Taxis are available as well as regular minibusses and coaches to and from the city center. The airport lies 5 miles (8 km) southeast of the city center ( Addis Ababa).

    By Air:
    Ethiopian Airlines is one of Africa's best airlines with many destinations both regionally and overseas. Ethiopian has a direct flight to and from the US (Dulles International Airport in Washington DC). There's a brief stop in Rome for a change of crew, but passengers don't disembark. If you catch the new Boeing Dreamliner it's a non-stop flight.

    Ethiopian Airlines also flies direct to London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Rome, Paris, Dubai, Beirut, Bombay, Bangkok, Cairo, Nairobi, Accra, Lusaka, and Johannesburg. The cheapest flights from Europe to Addis Ababa tend to be via Rome. Other European airlines that fly to Ethiopia include  LufthansaKLM, and British Mediterranean Airlines.

    Emirates flies to Addis Ababa and you can connect via Dubai from all over the world, often for very reasonable prices.

    If you are planning to fly within Ethiopia, there are discounts offered by Ethiopian Airlines if you use the national carrier on your long-haul flight as well. Call the airline directly with your itinerary to find out how much you can save.

    By Road

    Given the security situation along much of Ethiopia's borders, it is advisable to check with your Embassy and find out which borders can be safely crossed.

    The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is still closed. If you wish to travel to Eritrea from Ethiopia (or vice versa) you will have to go through Djibouti, by land or air (see below).

    You have to get a visa before you enter Ethiopia by land -- border officials do not issue visas.

    From Kenya
    The official border post between Ethiopia and Kenya is at Moyale. Getting from the border to Addis Ababa is no problem, since buses travel the route quite frequently. Getting to this border post in Kenya can be quite harrowing.

    From Djibouti
    Dewele is the official border post between Djibouti and Ethiopia. Daily buses link Djibouti City to Dire Dawa (Ethiopia) and the journey usually takes about 12 hours. You change buses at the border. It is advisable to get a ticket a day in advance.

    From Sudan
    Sudan has border controls to Ethiopia at Humera and Metema. The crossing through Metema (Ethiopia) is the most popular and from there you can catch a bus to Gonder. In Sudan, travel to Gedaref and get an early morning start to the border town of Gallabat.

    From Somaliland
    The route between Ethiopia and Somaliland is becoming more popular as food aid and khat trucks ply the roads. The border town of Wajaale in Somaliland has several buses running to Jijiga in Ethiopia. From Jijiga you can get transport to Harar. Check the news before you go, as attacks on this border have been known to occur.

    By Rail

    Officially there's a regular passenger train from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa and on to Djibouti. However, the line between Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa is occasionally out of commission (things may improve in the next few years).

    The train between Dire Dawa and Djibouti City takes around 14 hours. The journey is slow, often delayed and usually leaves every 2-3 days. The Lonely Planet Guide recommends you buy a first class ticket (and they don't often do that). Read an account of the train journey here.

    Getting Around Ethiopia

    In general, the roads in Ethiopia aren't great and bus journeys are bumpy and long. If you don't have a lot of time on your hands, a few domestic flights can really make a difference. If you have less than 2 weeks, certainly take some flights, or you'll be spending the entire time on the road in a bus.

    By Air

    Ethiopian Airlines has a comprehensive domestic service and if you fly Ethiopian into the country, you can get some excellent discounts on your domestic flights.

    Scheduled flights include all destinations on the historical route -- Axum, Bahr Dar, Gondar, and Lalibela. You can fly in between these destinations rather than heading back to Addis Ababa for a connection. {p] Most other domestic flights originate from Addis Ababa and include the following destinations: Arba Minch, Gambela, Dire Dawa, Jijiga, Mekele, and Debre Markos. For more information, destinations and to book flights see the Ethiopian Airlines website.

    By Bus

    There are many bus companies in Ethiopia and between them, they cover all the major towns. There is one Government bus service where you can actually book your seat (rather than first come first serve) but they tend to leave a little later than the private buses (which take off when full).

    It is illegal for passengers to stand in the aisles of the long-distance buses in Ethiopia, which makes for a relatively civilized bus experience. Buses also do not run at night which makes travel safer.

    All the long-distance buses will leave early in the morning. Plan to get to the bus station by 6am. You can book your tickets in advance on most of the longer journeys. Otherwise, you can get your tickets on the day of departure, but beware of touts selling at inflated prices. Bus tickets will usually cost around $150 per 60 miles (100 km)

    The Lonely Planet Guide to Ethiopia suggests getting a seat behind the driver if you like fresh air. Ethiopians are notorious for keeping their windows shut when traveling.

    Minibusses, Taxis, and Garis

    Minibusses and taxis basically cover your transport within the bigger cities and towns, or for short distances between towns.

    Taxis are not metered and you'll have to bargain for the right fare. Ask your hotel manager what a reasonable fare should be before you set off.

    Minibusses between towns can usually be caught at the bus station, but they can also be flagged down. They are a little more expensive than buses but should get you to your destination quicker. The conductor (woyola) will shout out the final destination. You can recognize minibus taxis by their blue and white coloring scheme. Because minibusses ply a fixed route, the fare should be set.

    Garis are horse-drawn carriages which are a great way to travel in the bigger towns and cities. The ride is cheap, but you'll have to master the local language to get to where you want to go. A Gari typically holds two passengers.

    By Train

    There is one railway line in Ethiopia connecting Addis Ababa with Dire Dawa (and then on to Djibouti City). There are differing reports as to whether this train is still functioning. However, things may improve in the next few years.

    If the train is running, it departs every 2-3 days and the journey can take up to 16 hours depending on conditions of the track etc. The trip itself is quite beautiful through desert landscapes. Get a 1st class seat; there are no couchettes or berths on the train. Click here for a recent trip report.

    By Car

    Touring Ethiopia by car eliminates the lengthy bus journeys somewhat and allows you to see the beautiful scenery which you miss when you fly. Currently, you cannot hire a car without a driver in Ethiopia. You also have to rent a 4 wheel-drive vehicle to really get by on the roads.

    Most Tour Operators in Ethiopia can arrange car-hire for you including:

    Taking a Tour

    I don't often advocate tours over independent travel, but Ethiopia is perfect for a tour or two while you're there. The Omo River Region has to be explored, and the only way to get there is to take a tour. The historical tour will mean so much less if you don't go with a guide to explain the significance and history behind what you're seeing. Trekking, birding, and white-water rafting are all excellent pursuits in Ethiopia and have to be planned with a tour company.

    The distances alone in Ethiopia make a tour worthwhile if you are short on time.

    Tours will usually include transport, lodging, and some meals. Most tours will include a domestic flight if they are less than 14 days. The rest of the time you'll be traveling in 4 wheel-drive vehicles.

    Good Tour Companies in Ethiopia include:

    You can also check info hub or the Africa Guide for a good list of tours from a variety of tour operators.

    Sources
    Lonely Planet Guide to Ethiopia and Eritrea
    Ethiopian Embassy in the US and the UK
    Ethiopian Airlines
    Ethiopia Travel Blogs -- travelblog.org and travelpod.com