Ethiopia is a vast country and its road infrastructure, though greatly improved in recent years, is still rudimentary by most standards. Because of this, the most efficient way to get around is by plane, though some sites are accessible only by road, so many visitors prefer to travel on bespoke tour with an agency that provides a 4x4 and driver/guide. Terrestrial public transport leaves much to be desired and is recommended only to adventurous travellers who are prepared to explore Ethiopia at its own erratic pace.
For those with time restrictions, the best way to hop between the main sites along the northern circuit is by air. The national carrier Ethiopian Airlines runs a reliable network of daily flights connecting Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Gondar, Lalibela and Aksum. This would allow you to cover the northern highlights over five very rushed days, or around eight days at a more relaxed pace. There are also flights (usually daily) between Addis Ababa and several other towns, of which the most important to tourists are Dire Dawa (for Harar), Mekele, Arba Minch and Goba (for Bale Mountains National Park). In this guide we list direct flight services between towns – to get between unlisted combinations of towns, you will usually need to route through Addis Ababa, which may entail an overnight stay there.
Full-fare domestic flights are quite expensive, for instance around 3150 birr from Addis Ababa to Lalibela. At the time of writing, however, Ethiopian Airlines was offering a discount of around 40 percent to passengers who flew or will fly into Ethiopia with them. This discount makes internal flights extremely affordable, though this type of offer is subject to regular revision, so do check the situation before you book anything.
One negative about domestic flights is the tedious bureaucracy at check-in. Passengers are required to be at the airport at least two hours in advance, and should expect to spend much of that time queuing. You’ll usually go through at least two X-ray machines, and be asked to produce your passport three or four times.
The main form of intercity public transport in Ethiopia is buses. These can be broken up into three broad categories: luxury buses, ordinary buses and minibuses. All are very affordable, with ordinary bus fares typically working out to around US$1 per 25–50km, though this does depend a bit on road conditions and the quality of the vehicle. Luxury buses, where they exist, tend to cost around 50–75 percent more. As a rule, foreigners are not overcharged, but it can happen. You will soon get a feel for fares, and where in doubt you can ask at your hotel before heading to the bus station. On some routes it is customary to pay extra for any luggage that doesn’t fit on your lap. Ethiopian bus drivers tend to be reckless even at the best of times, and travelling at night is not recommended.
There are two main luxury bus operators: Selam Bus (selambus.com) and Sky Bus (skybusethiopia). In truth, their buses wouldn’t really qualify as luxurious outside Ethiopia, but they do at least meet international standards, with comfortable seating, air conditioning, experienced drivers and a fair safety record. Using Addis Ababa as a hub, both companies cover a limited network that includes Bahir Dar, Gondar, Dessie, Harar, Dire Dawa and Hawassa, almost invariably leaving between 5am and 6am, depending on the route. Unlike most other buses, seats can be booked the day before you travel. Typical fares from Addis Ababa are around 340 birr to Bahir Dar or 310 birr to Harar.
Ordinary buses are a lot less comfortable and tend to operate to a more haphazard schedule. On routes where there are only one or two buses daily, there is usually a more or less fixed departure time, but early or late departures are to be expected. On busier routes, buses usually leave when full, so you might wait anything from a few minutes to a couple of hours to get rolling, depending on how busy the route is and how full the bus is when you arrive. This guide includes travel times for most routes, but these are very approximate and journeys are subject to any number of delays. As a rule, buses leave most regularly in the morning, before 8am, and the last bus on any given route will depart in time to make the destination before nightfall (say, 6pm). This means, for instance, that you can expect departures to dry up after noon on a six-hour route. On some routes, three classes of buses are available, numbered one to three. Go for the best bus where you can: the cost difference is nominal and the gulf in quality can be immense. Typical fares from Addis Ababa are 185 birr to Bahir Dar and 175 birr to Harar.
As a rule, minibuses operate only on shorter hauls, covering distances of up to 100km, sometimes a bit further. On all but the most obscure routes, they tend to run throughout the day and to leave when full. On busy routes such as Harar to Dire Dawa, or Gondar to Bahir Dar, you’re unlikely to wait more than fifteen minutes to leave. On quiet routes, you could wait a couple of hours. As for fares, a minibus from Gondar to Bahir Dar costs 20 birr; from Harar to Dire Dawa is 75 birr.
The only railway line in Ethiopia, connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti via Awash and Dire Dawa, ceased operations in 2008, though in 2013 services resumed (erratically) on the Dire Dawa–Djibouti leg. Reconstruction of the entire line is underway, but unlikely to be complete before 2016 at the earliest. Also under construction is a light rail system in Addis Ababa, which is likely to open in 2015/16 and then expanded further afield over subsequent years.
By private vehicle
Self-drive car rental is not a viable option in Ethiopia. Very few operators will even contemplate renting out a vehicle on that basis, and even if they would, driving conditions take a lot of getting used to, with cars, buses, horse-drawn carts, unpredictable livestock and oblivious pedestrians jostling for road space at their different paces. A far more normal arrangement is to set up an organized tour with a local or international agency, who will supply a 4x4 and experienced driver. Any of the Addis Ababa operators can do this. Vehicle rental is expensive – on the ground, expect to pay at least $120 per day for an older 4x4 or minibus, up to around $160 per day for an up-to-date Land Cruiser. Prices should include fuel, driver allowance (to cover accommodation and food), insurance and taxes, though you should check this in advance; tips of course should be extra. We would not recommend hiring a vehicle and driver privately, as it is a recipe for misunderstandings (genuine or fabricated) and stressful travel.
By local minibus, taxi and bajaj
The best way to get around larger towns is with whatever combination of minibus, taxi and bajaj (the local name for the blue, Indian-made three-wheelers that are ubiquitous in most towns) runs along its trunk roads picking up and dropping passengers along the way. These cost next to nothing (no more than 5 birr per journey) and foreigners will generally pay the same as locals so long as the driver regards them to be using the vehicle as public transport – they will charge a lot more if he perceives it to be a charter. This is an ambiguous area, but if you know where you are going and just hop into a vehicle with other passengers on board, then almost invariably you’ll pay the local fare. Ask for somewhere specific, or get into a vehicle without other passengers, and the driver will most likely treat it as a charter, in which case the fare is best negotiated upfront. It is not worth getting too het up about any of this, since even charter fares are very low by international standards – in Addis Ababa typically around 100 birr for a ride within the city centre, and 50 birr in other towns and cities. Chartering a taxi or bajaj is often the best way to visit sites within a 20km radius of any given town. Fares are negotiable but seldom prohibitive, with bajaj drivers usually asking a far lower fare than taxis.
The concept of Western-style street addresses is unfamiliar to Ethiopians. Indeed, few towns outside Addis Ababa have proper street names, and even in the capital, the signposted “new” names for most roads usually means less to locals than the older or in some cases colloquial names. A good example of this is the main thoroughfare from Meskel Square to Bole Airport, which is almost universally known as Bole Road, occasionally referred to by its old name of OAU Road but is actually officially called Africa Road. When giving directions, both in Addis Ababa and elsewhere, you’ll find that locals tend to refer to specific landmarks (the bus station, or the name of an iconic church or well-established hotel, for instance) or vaguely defined areas (such as Piazza in Addis Ababa or Gondar) rather than roads.