To fly or not to fly Ethiopian Airlines

by Jared

It was time to book flights to Europe, and so began the familiar process of scouring the online search engines for the best deal. Flying to Rome, I was surprised to see that Ethiopian Airlines keep popping up as the most affordable option. So began my little journey of investigating the airline and decided whether to ‘brave it or not’. I hadn’t realised that Ethiopian Airlines was the biggest airline on the continent – they fly more countries than any other African airline and since joining the Star Alliance a couple years ago they have increased their international offerings massively. I asked around and was interested at the responses that the airline garnered among friends: two had flown with the airline before and were very happy with the service, and two have never used them, and vowed to never fly with the airline – they simply didn’t trust it.

I decided to give it a go. Departing from Cape Town, we’d have a 3 hour overlay in Addis Ababa, and then fly directly to Rome. The cost of my return flight was R6200 compared to the next closest option – R8700 on Emirates. Not only was the flight over R2k cheaper, but the total journey time was also a couple of hours less than the Dubai route.

Time to board
Although someone warned me about the ‘local meals’ to be avoided on board, the food was perfect, and as one would hope, the coffee was of Ethiopian origin, and once brewed on board, filled the aisles with rich aromas. Seating space was more than sufficient, and the hosts were more among the friendliest and helpful I’d experienced. My only disappointment was that not all the aircrafts had individual entertainment screens – thankfully these seemed to be on the overnight flights where I had wanted to do was sleep.

Addis’ airport has undergone recent renovations and upgrades in keeping with the growing amount of traffic through the hub, and I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of duty-free shops, cafes and seating options for those in transit. My for the last leg of my return journey I had the pleasant surprise of being upgraded to business class (the first time in my over 100 flights I might add). Moving effortlessly from the classy business lounge with expansive buffets and drink offerings, I boarded the plane to discover a whole new world of champagne (yes, not just your generic bubbly), four course meals served on porcelain plates, and the ability to sleep almost horizontally.

Exploring Addis
Flying to Rome I had two options: a 3 hour layover and a 12 hour layover – both at pretty much the same price. For my outbound journey I decided to take advantage of being in the country, and chose the latter, giving me a day to explore the capital. When choosing this longer option, you’re given a complimentary access to a hotel for the day, transfers, meals and a transit visa! Having access to the hotel was a good base from which to explore the city.

Sitting at around 2300m above sea level, Addis is the fourth highest capital in the worldl! I had to remind myself that this was the same height as some of the minor peaks I’d climbed to in the Drakensberg. Traveling with a friend, we’d made the call to not use one of tour guides advertising on Tripadvisor and the likes. We had looked up some of the sites in the historically rich city, and were going to move around on our own. We landed up in conversation with someone at the university who began to point out some of the history to us, and showed us a local church. 3 hours later we found ourselves stranded in an isolated forest in the rain, with him demanding money from us. Shaken, wet, and having lost a good portion of my spending money, we found our way back to the city, and enjoyed some injera and coffee – the two local delicacies.  We discovered two important lessons: firstly that Addis is not tourist friendly – or rather fully ready for tourists to freely walk its streets, and secondly save the hassle and go with the (recommended) tour guide.

You can exchange money at the airport or your hotel – although with most of the tour operators you can get a fully inclusive package so you won’t need much. Try to see one of the three main museums, St George’s Catherdral and the Mercato if you have time – these are usually included in the Addis Day tours, which start at around USD50.

The verdict?
Its safe folks. I survived and look forward to my next journey with them – and yes I may have just a slight bit bias because of my flight upgrade, but after my earlier misfortune in Ethiopia, I saw it as a good way to settle the score, and leave on a good note.

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south african travel journalist