I was lucky to spend over six weeks in Ethiopia. I learned a lot during this time. These 66 Ethiopia travel tips and Ethiopia Travel Advice are a must read for anyone going to or thinking about going to Ethiopia.
Before You Go
- The weather in most of Ethiopia is cooler than you might think due to high elevations. Your Ethiopia Packing list should include layers and fleece.
- Get in shape if you’re planning to hike Danakil’s volcano or in Simien National Park. Even the altitude in Addis Ababa may leave you breathless.
- If you’re short on time in Ethiopia, book all your tours, drivers, and guides but be aware you will pay top dollar when booking abroad.
- Map out your trip by narrowing down the places you want to visit.
Where to Visit
- Don’t miss Danakil Depression – one of the most incredible places I ever visited. Make sure you check out the volcano status (sometimes the lava isn’t flowing) and security situation before you go.
- Decide if Omo Valley is really for you – not everyone will appreciate this destination.
- Harar is still a bit off the tourist circuit and you can do something unique and feed the hyenas.
- The churches of Tigray are another spot you can get away from the crowds.
- If doing the Northern Circuit, don’t miss Simien National Park. Even a day trip is enough to get a good taste of this park and see the famous, interesting Gelada monkeys.
- Hawassa was a nice surprise and great place for relaxation. Sit by the lake, enjoy the views and the beers.
Easy(ish) Side Trips From Ethiopia
- Somaliland is a super interesting place that can be visited by land crossing or flight from Addis Ababa. Get your visa in Addis. Very view tourists make it here so you can have the place to yourself.
- Djibouti is great for a few days if you like unusual landscapes and snorkeling/diving. A train from Addis Ababa to Djibouti started in 2018, but you can also fly direct.
Food & Drink
- Try some food and drink that will take you out of your comfort zone – I tried raw lake fish and beef.
- Drink honey wine, called Tej. But beware – some of it is fake. It’s best to have your Ethiopian friends or guides but it to authenticate.
- Many local places don’t have menus. Learn the names of foods in Amharic so you don’t have to eat “Tibs” for every meal. Many of the names can be found in my guide to Ethiopian food & drink, with names as pronounced in Amharic.
- Vegetarians will have some choice, with Shiro and Tegamino (bean paste & injera) served everywhere. They are especially catered on Wednesdays & Fridays when you can order the “fasting food”…a platter of vegetarian dishes. Many places also serve vegetables and rice…but warning it may be very garlicky.
- Don’t miss getting coffee in the little road side spots. You can get a small cup for as little as 3 ETB (15 cents) and a great cultural experience. Go to the cafe and ask for “Und Buna” or “One Coffee”
- Try the different brands of beer and find one you like. I liked Harar, but St George is the oldest and most popular.
- Chew the khat – the tea like leaves that are a mild stimulant. It’s best to chew with a peanut and/or a little sugar.
- If you eat something that you think might upset your stomach, it’s best to drink some alcohol to kill the germs.
- Like most of Africa, the tap water is not potable. Drink bottled water.
- Or better yet, use a filter bottle and save the environment by avoiding disposable plastic. This is one of my favorite travel accessories:
- For the most part Ethiopia is safe. The main issue was pickpocketing, mostly in Addis Ababa. We were also followed in Dire Dawa. Read about pickpocketing avoidance here.
- Avoid small scams…don’t take or sign anything from a local who approaches you.
- There’s not a lot you can do about road safety but if you have hired a driver and are scared, ask him to slow down.
- Malaria and other diseases are present in Ethiopia. Talk to your travel doctor before traveling.
- You also need to have the Yellow Fever vaccination, especially if coming from a yellow fever zone, but likely you won’t be asked for verification.
- You don’t need reservations for the cheaper places (as long as it’s not a holiday, especially Timkat) I stayed in places as inexpensive as $6 a night (for a cement block room, squat toilet (not even a proper squat but just a cement hole in the ground, and water for the “shower” hauled from the river)
- You may need reservations at some of the more popular western hotels, especially at holidays. Expect to pay $30 to $50 a night for a large room with cable TV, wi-fi, bathroom with toiletries, and buffet breakfast.
- Booking.com is my favorite booking tool for Ethiopian guesthouses and hotels… a wide selection is available at many price points.
- Always bargain and ask multiple vendors for prices. I was shopping for a carved Omo Valley stool and got starting prices of 150 ETB to 500 ETB (About $6 to $20). I eventually bought a nice one for 100 ETB ($4)
- Learn a few words in Amharic – hello and thank you go a long way. You will hear “Ishee” – Yes, or OK, everywhere you go.
- This is a tough one – kids and adults are constantly asking for things. If you must give, a pen or small bar of soap is better than candy. It’s sad to see so many young children with rotten teeth.
- If you want to donate school supplies, it’s better to go to a school and donate directly to a teacher.
Overpaying – Hotels & Restaurants
- You are a “Farangi”, or foreigner. Some of the local restaurants and hotels will try to overcharge you.
- At restaurants, if they don’t provide a menu, ask the price. If they do have a menu, you might notice the prices in the English menu are clearly higher than those in the Amharic menu.
- If a hotel charges you a rate that is much higher than stated in your guidebook or higher than fair, walk away.
- Try to spend down all your ETB before you leave Ethiopia. The exchange rate to change them back to any hard currency is very poor.
- Tours and some hotels will give you the best rate if you use USD. Some will even insist you pay in USD or EUR if you are a foreigner.
- Use ATMs to get cash. There are many ATMs in Ethiopia – all except two of them worked on my first try. All major tourist cities now have them – including Lalibela. Some of the smaller towns in Omo Valley do not have ATMs.
- Don’t rely on your credit card. Nearly every western hotel and some restaurants have credit card machines but only one of them worked during our trip
- The internet in Ethiopia is quite bad. While wifi is available at even some of the budget hotels, I don’t recommend this as a place for “digital nomads”. The internet was so bad that I was unable to connect remotely to my work computer.
- The airports seem to have the best internet connection – but it too can be busy, especially in the international hall at Addis Ababa.
- If you only need to make a few calls, you may be able to borrow the phone of your hotel or guide. Credits are very cheap. (I bought $4 of credit and had over half of it left when I departed)
- If you’re going to make many calls, it would be worth getting a Ethiotel SIM card.
- Some hotels/guides may claim they can buy a card for you but it’s best to go to the Ethiotel office. You are supposed to register your SIM with your passport and mine was not set up right so it took a trip and a favor to get it fixed.
- Learn to say “no thank you”
- Have a sense of humor about it. You won’t have a fun trip if you let the constant barrage bother you. Funny story – we visited one of the Tigray churches and there were dozens of young boys and men chasing us yelling “local guide. You want local guide?” We kept on climbing towards the church, managing to lose all of them except 5 or 6. We went through a gate and my friend closed it behind, leaving the “guides” on the other side. They started threatening that they were going to call the police!
- If you absolutely hate touts, and you can afford it, you might consider getting a guide for your entire trip. The touts mostly stay away when they see you have a local guide.
Public Bus Stations
- Some of the worst touts are at the public bus stations…they will see a tourist arriving from miles away. It’s wise to ask the price for a bus ride before you arrive at the bus station to make sure you aren’t paying the Farangi price – 2 or 3 times the locals price
- Better yet, have your guesthouse book your trip and they will pick you up at the hotel. If you go this route, you may have to drive around town or wait for the van to fill up, and this could take an hour or more.
- Be prepared for anything. At restaurants and bars be prepared for a hole in the floor or ground in an outhouse. There was one toilet at the lakeside bars in Hawassa I fondly refer to as the “river of poo”.
- Don’t flush toilet paper in the toilet. Put toilet paper in the bin. Plumbing in most of Africa may clog with TP.
- Go to a Cultural House or two. These are not merely venues for cheesy tourist shows. Many are full of locals having a fun time and enjoying the entertainment.
- If you can, visit the Cultural House with a local so they can interpret. The singers like to satire the audience.
- Tip the musicians in the Cultural house. It’s common to tip the female singers in the top of their blouse/cleavage.
- Go to a nightclub. You’ll hear the best of the popular Ethiopian rock/dance songs along with a few international hits.
- Get to a concert if you can. Tickets are not unreasonable to see the top music stars.
- Go to a football (soccer) match. They are a great way to see the football culture and tickets are often less than $2. Games are on Sundays and the season starts in October. Pick a side, sit with their fans, and scream to your heart’s content.
- Ethiopia is a big country. Many of the main tourist destinations are 1-2 days apart by bus. Save your time and take one of the many Ethiopian Air flights.
- Don’t forget to get your discount if you arrive in Ethiopia on an Ethiopian Air flight (either booked direct or by partner code share). You can save more than 50% on your internal flights.
- We had been told that it’s possible to purchase your flight tickets only a couple days in advance, but we found we got a better price if we purchased well in advance. I tried to book one flight only a day ahead and the normally $60 ticket was $250 as economy class was sold out.
- For long distance buses, use Selam Bus.
- Get your long distance bus tickets a day or two in advance. They often sell out.
- Consider hiring a driver for some legs of your trip. I found having a vehicle is especially useful in Omo Valley and Tigray region, as the best sites are not easy to get to by public transportation.