$300 Ethiopian Adventure

Addis Ababa Travel Blog

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I recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia, courtesy of the $0+tax companion fare mistake. I went with a travel buddy of mine during spring break, we had scheduled 4 days on the ground. Our trip would take us from Austin to IAD on United where we would spend the night, connecting to Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines, all-in for $274 R/T each. I had wanted to visit Ethiopia for some time, so when this deal came up I jumped on it. We wanted to visit some other parts of the country, specifically the rock carved churches in Lalibela and monasteries of Lake Tana. I was able to book a circle trip on Ethiopian from Addis to Lalibela, Lalibela to Bahar Dar, and Bahar Dar back to Addis for $140 each.
Ethiopian Airlines (767) economy, IAD-ADD
After booking the original mistake fare, we wanted to change our tickets for a side trip to Somaliland or Djibouti, but no availability was showing for the return date. We planned to check on changing our return when we reached Addis. For the overnight stop in Washington, I was able to get the Crowne Plaza Dulles on priceline for $52 all-in. The hotel has a complimentary shuttle and was very close to the airport.

March 13, 2008
Flight: Austin (AUS) to Washington DC(IAD), United Airlines 7228, CR7, Economy
Hotel: Crowne Plaza Dulles, $53
I set off for the airport early today as it was the middle of SXSW (big Austin music festival) and Spring Break at the University of Texas and was concerned about the airport security lines.
Medhane Alem cathedral, 2nd largest in Africa
My fears were unfounded luckily as when I arrived the airport wasn't busy at all. I had already checked in online for my United flight and had printed the boarding passes the night before. Normally I try to carry on my backpack but since the flight was on a CR7 and we would be spending the night in Washington anyway I dropped off my bag at checkin. Security only took about 5 minutes at the western side of the terminal. After grabbing lunch at Mangia Pizza, I settled into the Admirals Club in Austin to wait out the next few hrs. My friend D was driving up from San Antonio, he arrived a few minutes later, I was able to guest him into the lounge as well. We finally walked down to gate 21, by this time the airport was much busier. When we arrived at the gate some confusion arose as an earlier United flight went mechanical during pullback.
They switched our gate to 23 quickly and were able to start boarding our flight only a few minutes late. I hadn't flown United in some time, and never on their CR7, so had never seen their First configuration before. Unfortunately I had to keep moving back to row 11 in cattle class. We ended up pushing back only 10 minutes late but then sat around for another 10 minutes before taking off. The 3hr flight was otherwise uneventful and we arrived into Dulles terminal D about 10 minutes late. We rode the moonbuggies to the main terminal, then had to go all the way down to belt 1 to pickup our bags. We were pretty hungry by this time, but there wasn't much open this late at night. We then caught the shuttle to the hotel and checked in. The Crowne Plaza is one of the closest hotels to Dulles, located on Centreville Rd just off the toll road.
Starbucks knockoff - even uses same font
We definitely got the priceline room, clear at the end of the hall. Apparently the hotel had just been renovated so the room was fine and no noise. We had noticed a few restaurants across the street and walked over to TGIFriday's for a late dinner. It was past 11 when we finished so we called it a night when we got back.

March 14, 2008
Flight: Washington DC (IAD) to Addis Ababa (ADD), Ethiopian Airlines 503, 767, Economy
An early wakeup call this morning at 7 AM, we planned to catch an early shuttle at 8AM to the airport to get through checkin early. Our flight was supposed to depart at 10:30, but from past performance always ran late. There were quite a few other people waiting on the shuttle, including the TACA airlines crew.
Amharic stop sign
They had to bring a bigger bus! When we arrived at 8:10 there was already a line at the Ethiopian counter, only about 15 people ahead of us but the line was moving very slowly. We finally reached the counter about 8:50, the line behind us was much longer at this point! The line was a mix of Ethiopians and gringos, we were surprised to see so many backpacker types. Ethiopians are quite striking looking, a distinctive look different from other Africans. Checkin went smoothly and they didn't mention anything about the fare we paid. I handed the agent my Lufthansa card for mileage credit, but the agent didn't seem to know what to do with it; Ethiopian is a fairly recent addition to Miles-and-More, but you'd think they would know about it! We received our boarding passes and headed to security, only to arrive immediately after a large group of schoolgirls.
St. George beer
Luckily the TSA soon opened an extra line just for them. I hadn't flown much since they started the loupes+lights thing, and hadn't noticed them doing this yet in Austin, but the agent here did the routine with my DL, then asked me if I was a Cowboys fan since I'm from Texas. I said no which shut him up.  So finally we were through security, an hour after arriving at the airport! The Ethiopian flight departs from Terminal D, near the Admirals club, so we had to board the moonbuggies again for the short ride over to the terminal. The flight screens were showing an hour delay on the Addis flight, which meant we now had two hours to kill. We grabbed breakfast and spent awhile in the Admirals club; I had wanted to check email but both computers were in use by kids the whole time we were there.
Amharic Pepsi
We walked around the terminal awhile and I picked up a book for the trip and took some photos of the Ethiopian 767 from the gate. Finally we started boarding around 11:15, 45 minutes after we were supposed to depart. We had seats in the middle of row 17. Economy was laid out in a 2-3-2 configuration, seats are blue/green/yellow cloth with seatback video (mine wasn't working). The cabin was very clean. The pitch was pretty tight, made worse by the video box under the seat which only gave about 4" clearance underneath, this meant I wasn't really able to stretch out my legs (I'm 6'). The best seats seemed to be in exit-row (30?) which had a good 4-5' in front of them. We received an amenity kit containing yellow eyemask and socks, and toothbrush/toothpaste. We took off just after noon, so about 90 minutes late. The Ethiopian flights from IAD make a fuel stop in Rome in the middle of the night in both directions; all in flying time is around 15 hrs, 8 hrs from DC to Rome, an hour stop, then an additional 6 to Addis. Passengers weren't allowed off the flight in Rome, it's a technical stop for refueling and crew change only. Three good meals were served enroute.

March 15, 2008
Flight: Addis Ababa (ADD) to Lalibela (LLI), Ethiopian Airlines 126, F50, Economy
Hotel: Jerusalem Guesthouse, $45
We arrived this morning into Addis, coming in for approach we could see how mountainous Ethiopia really is. The Blue Nile river cuts a huge gash through the northern part of the country. Addis sits at over 7500', which gives it a pleasant climate despite being so close to the equator, temperatures are pretty constant year-round. Our flight landed at 9:30 and disembarked via jetbridge. We were one of the first econ pax to get to immigration. Ethiopia requires a visa for US citizens but this can be obtained upon arrival, there is a little office just before immigration where you pay $20 and get a visa (full page) in a few minutes. The airport is pretty nice and new. Immigration was a breeze as the agent welcomed us to Ethiopia, and we didn't have to wait for our bags as we had carried them on with us. We planned to fly straight to Lalibela that day, originally our flight was scheduled @ 1PM, but I had checked our itin before we left and noticed the Lalibela flight departure had changed to 3PM. We were able to checkin for our flight and got rid of our bags, although our boarding passes and departure board still had the original 1PM departure time. We had some time to kill and wanted to see about changing our return flight to give us an extra 3-4 days, but amazingly there isn't an Ethiopian airlines office at the airport. After checking the Lonely Planet arranged a taxi to take us to the closest office then return us to the airport. Stepping out of the airport things were amazingly calm, no line of people hassling you for taxis, hotels, etc. Weather was gorgeous, sunny and 70 degrees. Most of the taxis were old LADA (Ethiopia had a communist government in the 1970s) or Fiat cars. We drove to the office on Bole Road, past billboards touting the Ethiopian Dreamliner (787). Most signs were in English only, or English and Amharic. Ethiopia has their own alphabet, language, calendar and clock. Ethiopia is the only country still on the Julian calendar; their New Year's day is September 11 and they are 7 years behind, so this is still their year 2000. Their clock is also offset by 6 hrs (most shops have both times displayed). The office turned out to be very close, within walking distance really. No luck changing our tickets though, there wasn't O-class available returning to DC on Saturday and the agent didn't seem interested in putting us on the waitlist. We went back to the airport, by now the departure board was showing the later departure time of 3PM. It was only 11 AM so we still had 4 hrs to kill so we decided to walk into town and see a big church we had seen from the road. The huge Medhane Alem cathedral is the largest in Ethiopia (2nd largest in Africa) and was only completed in 2005. The cathedral was closed so we could not see inside.

We were near the Somaliland liason office and wanted to check on getting a visa; we walked some more along the streets past Kaldi's Coffee (Starbucks clone, they even use the same font), then down a side street in the embassy district. Lots of nice houses in this area, with big fences and razor wire. The Somaliland office was down another side street near the South African ambassador's residence, but it being a Saturday the visa section was closed. We planned to come back again when we returned to Addis on Tuesday. Next we headed to an Indian place nearby for lunch, where we had our first Ethiopian beer, St. George. Pretty good but low alcohol content. The bill came out to like $8 for both of us. We liked Ethiopia already! We then caught a cab back to the airport. All taxis & minibuses here are painted blue with a white roof. Prices weren't so cheap, the cab ride back to the airport was $4.50 for maybe a mile and a half. We still had some time to wait for our flight, which showed yet another delay. We were a bit confused as the gates are past immigration, but there wasn't anyone at the desks so we just walked through. There were several shops once past security, but most weren't open yet. Finally our flight starts boarding at 3:45. We go downstairs to get on the bus, only to have the bus break down after moving 10 feet and it took 20 minutes to get another bus! Our flight was on a Fokker 50 turboprop which was parked in front of the old terminal building. All internal flights are open seating, despite what your boarding pass says. We didn't get to keep our boarding passes anyway, they collect one section at the gate then the stub when you get on the plane.

The flight to Lalibela was about two hrs, with a stop in Bahar Dar along the way. Drinks and a piece of poundcake were served on all our internal flights. Most of the passengers got off in Bahar Dar. We finally arrive at the airport in Lalibela around 5PM; it was gorgeous late afternoon sunlight. The terrain was very mountainous and dry, similar to western parts of the USA. We had pre-arranged a hotel and transfer, but there were several desks at the airport for local hotels, so it would have been OK to arrive without a hotel reservation. The airport is some 15 miles from Lalibela town itself, which is higher up on the mountain ridge. The road was in good condition as we passed amazing scenery of mud and stick huts, herds of goats, and locals walking along the road. Much poorer here than in Addis. We checked into our hotel, the Jerusalem Guesthouse. It was very basic given the price ($45/night), transfer from the airport was $9. The room had two single beds and a shower (they did have hot water) but with a gorgeous view out over the valley. One of the hotel guides asked us if we wanted a tour for the next day. It was just about sunset so he took us for a walk over to a viewpoint but by then the sun had gone behind a cloud. We then walked back up into town (we could feel the altitude, Lalibela is 2700m!) and to a local tej bar. Tej is the local honey wine, which comes in nonalcoholic, mild, or knock your socks off. We tried the mild kind, it was OK enough. The bar had local tapestries and art around the walls, and a place for serving coffee. Ethiopia being the birthplace of coffee, it is a serious business here, with a whole ritual. The coffee is brewed over charcoal brazier, then served in small cups with lots of sugar. Popcorn is served with the coffee. After the tej bar, we headed back to our hotel for dinner. This was our first Ethiopian meal; we ordered injera with tibs. Injera is the Ethiopian spongy bread made from fermented dough. You use the bread to pickup food, no forks allowed, and you use your right hand only! The tibs was grilled lamb with garlic. Yummy and good. It had been a long eventful day and tomorrow promised to be just as busy. We planned to visit the 11 rock carved churches of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Ethiopian Airlines (767) economy, …
Ethiopian Airlines (767) economy,…
Medhane Alem cathedral, 2nd larges…
Medhane Alem cathedral, 2nd large…
Starbucks knockoff - even uses sam…
Starbucks knockoff - even uses sa…
Amharic stop sign
Amharic stop sign
St. George beer
St. George beer
Amharic Pepsi
Amharic Pepsi
Addis Ababa
photo by: Aopaq