Ethiopian Airlines is reasonably priced and has fairly comprehensive domestic services. Flights are often overbooked, so it is essential to reconfirm your tickets at least a day in advance and show up at the airport on time. If you forget to reconfirm, they may assume you aren’t going to show up and give away your seats. Flights are frequently cancelled or rescheduled so allow extra time if transferring to an international flight.
Tip: Booking tickets for Ethiopian Airlines on-line works out very expensive when compared with booking at their office in Addis Ababa. For example, the route Addis -> Gondar -> Lalibela -> Addis was quoted on-line for USD450 whereas at their booking office (at the Hilton in Addis) the ticket cost only USD150. Even better: if you have booked your international trip to Ethiopia via Ethiopian Airlines’ webpages you will get a 60% discount on domestic flights. Even if you have arrived on an airline other than Ethiopian, you can still get the discounted prices (booked at offices in Ethiopia) by having proof of an international reservation with Ethiopian regardless of whether you have flown the flight or not. So you can get the discount by booking a refundable (eco flex) or cheap flight to a neighbouring country for the future and quoting the ticket number when booking domestic flights. Rumour has it proof of international flights is never checked, but they do ask for it occasionally especially if paying for it at the airport.
Chartered flights (both to serviced airfields and “bush flights”) are available from Abyssinia Flight Services, on TeleBole road, just down the street from the airport. Helicopter service is available from National Airways, Abyssinia Flight Services, and certain government-owned companies.
Parking at Bole airport costs 5 birr and is payable in cash only to the parking attendants on arrival.
Ethiopian buses fit into one of the following categories: the ubiquitous minibuses or matatus (typically Toyota Highace vans that room up to 14 people) that operate throughout the region; small to large sized passenger buses called “Higer bus” (named after the manufacturer) that often travel between regions (“1st level” to “3rd level” indicating the class); luxury buses (Korean modern standard buses) going between the main cities, and the large (often double-jointed) red Addis Ababa city buses.
There is a comprehensive network of cheap Higer buses along the major roads, although these are slow and basic. Buses travelling shorter distances generally leave whenever they have filled up with passengers (in practice, these means once an hour or so); nearly all long-distance buses leave at dawn (06:00 or twelve on the Ethiopian clock). Buses do not travel at night; they will stop before sundown in a town or village with accommodation for the passengers, or, between Dire Dawa and Djibouti, just in the plain countryside. Between some cities (e.g., Adama and Addis Ababa), minibuses will run after the larger buses have stopped for the night. Everyone on the bus must have a seat by law – this prevents overcrowding, but often makes it difficult to catch a bus from an intermediate point on a route. If planning to travel by bus, keep in mind that almost all the vehicles are old and very dusty and many secondary roads are bad. The main roads are now at very good standard most places. Ethiopians do not like opening the bus windows, so it gets hot and stuffy inside by afternoon. If you like fresh air, sit as close to the driver or one of the doors as possible, as the driver keeps his window open and the conductor and his assistant often have the door windows open. It can be risky riding the minibuses and Higer, as they are a leading contributor to Ethiopia’s position among the most dangerous places in the world to drive. The drivers often do not use mirrors and simply disregard the possibility of oncoming traffic when changing lanes.
The bus stations usually open around 05:00. If you are catching an early morning bus, you should get to the station at 05:00. They are very chaotic first thing in the morning, and many buses will sell out of seats before they leave with the dawn about 06:00. To make things easier and less stressful, you can often buy a ticket in advance. In Addis, find the correct window at the bus station the day before you wish to travel and buy your ticket there. (You will need help finding the window unless you can read Amharic, but there are usually people around who will help if you ask.) The ticket will be in Amharic, but there will be a legible bus number written on it somewhere. Simply find that bus the next morning at the bus station. In smaller cities, you can often buy your ticket from the conductor when the bus arrives from its previous trip the afternoon before you travel. Even if you already have a ticket, arrive early and claim a seat as soon as possible. If you don’t have a ticket, you will have to ask people to show you the correct bus (unless you can read Amharic). In this case, don’t waste time trying to buy a ticket from the window or from the bus conductor—push your way on board the bus and claim a seat! The conductor will sell you a ticket later. Medium-sized backpacks can usually be squeezed under the seats, but large packs and most luggage will have to go up on the roof. Claim your seat before you worry about your luggage. Luxury buses however have a really professional aproach with both numbered seating and dedicated luggage compartments under the bus. Anyone assisting you with your luggage, including the person passing it up to the conductor’s assistant on the roof, will expect a small tip (around 2-3 birr).
On several routes (Addis – Dire Dawa, Bahardar – Addis) you may also find informal traveller cars with no fixed departure; when looking around at a bus station you may be approached by somebody who offers you a faster connection by going with a private car; this is more expensive than the normal bus but also much faster. You’ll be handed a phone number to call for an appointment. These cars may leave before sundown or travel even at night.
A good way to tour Ethiopia is by car. You can take small aircraft to expedite your tour, but you will see more of the scenery if you travel by car. Reasonably priced touring companies include Galaxy Express Services, NTO , and Dinknesh, as well as Ethiopia Safaris and Journeys Abyssinia with Zawdu . They can take you off the beaten track so you can see the beauty and attractions of Ethiopia.
Nevertheless, hiring a car is quite expensive (starting from 600-900 birr depending on the condition and quality; 600 birr for a cheap car with driver). But if you want a car for at least 8 people it costs 1,000-3,000 birr per day. Prices will vary at this time due to inflationary pressures in the country. Drivers pass on their costs for spare parts and need to increase the price if fuel rises. A driver guide’s credentials should be checked such as tourism license, insurance, engine (external and internal). Before accepting a contract, it is also a good idea to quiz the driver-guide about tourism routes. When driving to the “deep south” of Ethiopia also check the licence plates, because the authorities in the south check in and log “3” plate tourism cars, take the names of the passengers and passport number. They need a letter from the tour company to show the agent is bona fide on some routes and parks. Petrol costs 21 birr a litre. Make sure to check the pump is zeroed before re-fuelling starts.
There are several highways in Ethiopia, some of these are in good condition:
Road 1: Addis Ababa-Asmara via Dessie and Mekelle
Road 3: Addis Ababa-Axum via Bahir Dar and Gonder
Road 4: Addis Ababa-Djibouti via Nazret (Adama), Awash and Dire Dawa
Road 5: Addis Ababa-Gambela via Alem Zena and Nekemte
Road 6: Addis Ababa-Jimma via Giyon
Road 48: Nekemte-Gambela National Park via Gambela
TAH 4 to the north: Cairo via Khartoum and Bahir Dar
TAH 4 to the south: Cape Town via Gaborone, Lusaka, Dodoma, Nairobi and Awasa
TAH 6 to the east: Djibouti via Dessie
TAH 6 to the west: Ndjamena via Darfur
Road conditions vary considerably around Ethiopia; some roads are smoothly sealed while others consist mostly of large stones. Accommodation is cheap and available in almost every village (although these “hotels” usually double as bars and brothels). Food and drink are also easily available. You will attract considerable attention (it is not uncommon for whole schools to empty out as the children run after you). Be prepared to have stones and sticks thrown at you, especially in the south.
The long unused railway system has been reinvigorated with a line from the capital to the port of Djibouti City. While this line is primarily intended for freight transport, it also enables both domestic and international passenger transport.