When I was trying to organize our big trip to Ethiopia I found great resources in the online groups I mentioned previously, as well as with friends who had done similar trips before. Planning a trip like this can be overwhelming and I found even with the resources I had, there were still some big question marks that left me feeling anxious even as we arrived in Ethiopia. In this post I hope to go over the (sometimes boring) logistics for those of you interested in planning a family trip. I’m also going to go into money spent while in country because that was the hardest thing for me to budget. No one could give me a good idea on how much they spent for food, drinks or lodging but have no fear! I kept track of every dollar spent so that you have a better idea for your trip.
This trip we flew Qatar Airlines. For the two trips prior we flew Delta/KLM and both Zach and I agreed Qatar featured nicer planes and more comfortable seats. Around January of 2015 I made myself a Google Alert to notify me of any flash airline sales flying to Ethiopia. In March I was notified of Qatar offering a flight from Chicago to Ethiopia for just $700/person. Having spent roughly $1500/person for both previous trips I jumped at the chance to cut the ticket price in half. There’s my first piece of advice-get yourself some Google Alerts! We saved around $6,000 because we were flexible with our travel dates and we waited until there were flash sales.
Visas. My understanding is that you can get them before your trip and they last 2 years for $70/each or you can get them at the airport for $50/each and they last for just your current trip. We chose the latter and it worked just fine. If you’re doing the math that is $350 we spent in visas. They will take Ethiopian Birr or USD but there was no one at the window to exchange money so we ended up just paying in USD. Also important: make sure you have the address and phone number of where you will be staying in Addis handy as you will need that when going through the Visa process.
If you do fly Qatar know that they will usher you out of the Domestic side of the airport. We found out it was because most Ethiopians fly Qatar so they both load and unload all flights for that airline through the domestic instead of international. This is important information! We landed a little after 1am local time and could not find our driver anywhere. Dailah was crying, Zach and I were freaking out a little bit because there was not an english speaker to be seen. We finally found another english speaker with a phone and called our hotel to ask about the driver we had arranged for an airport pick up. The driver had been on the international side of the airport the whole time. So if you are flying Qatar and are arranging an airport pick up, make sure you tell them you will most likely be coming out of the domestic terminal.
Interestingly, the difference in the domestic and international is HUGE! Our return flight left at 2am so we got to the airport about 9pm just to allow our driver the chance to see his family and to ensure we had plenty of time to find where we were going. On our previous trips we enjoyed surprising luxury at the Addis Ababa airport but when leaving from the domestic side it’s a totally different story. The bathrooms are less international and more like what you will find throughout Ethiopia. They treated the Ethiopians rather terribly, making them squish into tiny spaces to make room for diplomats or forenji like us. Even when we were waiting at the terminal, the services were so far below what they were in past trips it was shocking. None of this is bad enough to avoid Qatar but if you were planning on waiting to buy trinkets at the airport you will be totally out of luck.
Our first night we stayed at Wellspring Guesthouse. It was a beautiful house with top of the line accommodations. We were able to stay in one large room that had a queen bed, 2 bunk beds and a cot. It also had a large bathroom and large closet space. It was by far the nicest place we’ve stayed while in Addis Ababa. We pulled into the guesthouse at around 2am but had to pay for that night as well as the next. For our large room it was $190/night. Considerably more than we had ever paid for a room in Ethiopia, actually in America as well. 😉 The breakfasts were delicious and the owners were friendly. There was also a decent amount of room to play soccer in the gated courtyard in the front of the guesthouse.
At checkout they did charge us for the airport pick up even though I had thought I arranged that with no additional fee. We were already going to be paying a driver for that day so had I known they were going to charge us $40 for an airport pick up I would’ve just arranged for our driver to pick us up instead. Next piece of advice: just get it all in writing. Make sure you understand what you are and aren’t paying for, this includes water set out in your room, etc. If you have all the money in the world to throw at the trip then you can avoid that little nugget of wisdom but if you don’t-it will save you so much stress and hassle.
After getting some sleep and eating breakfast, our driver Solomon (more on him later) picked us up for a day around Addis. I hadn’t done much planning of what I wanted to do I just knew that I wanted to have it be pretty laid back to ease us into the new time zone. I told Solomon the only thing for sure I wanted to do was go to the National Museum and he took charge from there. It was so great to have him plan the rest of the day.
He first took us to exchange some of our USD to Ethiopian Birr. There is a good chance your driver will know of a place to get a better exchange rate than the average bank so I would encourage you to ask for that! Solomon found us a place that exchanged at a rate of 1 to 23 instead of the 1 to 20 at banks. It may seem like a small difference but when talking about the amount of money you’ll spend on the trip it really helps!
Our trip to the Museum was our best one yet. They’ve upgraded it since the last time we were there so it was far more educational for the kids. Solomon arranged for us to have a guide who was so great. For $5 he took us through the whole museum explaining things in really vivid detail. Other than Trysten who was pretty much sleeping while walking, the kids were captivated by the history of Ethiopia. In total it was just $10 for all of us to go to the museum and to have the guide-this is a must do in my opinion!
We then went to a local zoo. Though it cost just $3 for all 7 of us, this is something I wouldn’t recommend. We are clearly pretty big animal lovers so I’m not a huge fan of zoos anyway but this was the saddest zoo I have ever seen. There were maybe 10 animals total, all of them looking old and unhealthy. This was also a place the kids felt the most uncomfortable as there were a lot of locals that just stared at my kids instead of the animals. Because it was so crowded my kids were often petted and and touched in a way that wasn’t as common the rest of the trip. It did kill time for the day but in the end I would avoid it.
Solomon then took us to the Lucy Restaurant next to the museum. It was a nice restaurant with authentic Ethiopian food. It was almost exclusively foreigners who were dining there, a common theme for the places Solomon took us to eat. Because this was our first restaurant in the country we had no clue how much food to order so we each ordered an entree. We made that mistake a few more times before realizing the 7 of us needed only to order about 3 entrees. We are all really big eaters (when I’m making a meal at home that says it can feed 12 I double it and rarely have leftovers. We just really, really love food y’all) but injera has a way of expanding to fit the size of your stomach really quickly. There’s not really refrigeration readily available so there’s no point in leftovers and I have a thing about throwing away food so if you do too I would order less-knowing you’ll always be able to order more if you still have hungry kiddos. Helpful tip: order less than you would in an American restaurant and enjoy passing the food between the group!
We then went to the top of the Entoto Mountains. It was incredibly beautiful! This was another of Solomon’s ideas and I’m so glad we went with it. Make sure you have your driver take you. Great photo opps and fun climbing areas. There’s also ample opportunity to race up the mountain as long as you’re mentally prepared to watch as cars fly far too close to your babies during the race.
We had Solomon drop us for a little siesta after that. Within minutes all 5 kids were snoring loudly in their beds. I would recommend carving out a little time for a nap the first few days, especially if you have kids around the ages of mine (9-12) as they are too told to typically fall asleep in the car or on laps but sometimes have a harder time coping with jet lag because their bodies are so programmed to sleep at certain times, eat at certain times and the like.
For dinner I wanted to go to a traditional restaurant so the kids could see the dancing and traditional clothes and listen to traditional music. Solomon took us to 2000 Habesha. We had been to two different places the previous two trips and they all kind of run together in my mind. I think you really can’t go wrong with traditional restaurants so if I were to do it again I would ask Solomon to take us to one less expensive. I remember when we went 5 years ago (I know it was 5 years and there’s little things like inflation, but still) Zach and I paid for the two of us, a bottle of wine, a few beers and 4 of the drivers who all had meals and a few rounds of Cokes. Our total then was $35. This time for all 7 of us it ended up being $150! It was still worth it, the kids had a blast and the food/dancing/music was wonderful! I highly recommend doing the traditional restaurant thing for your kiddos but be prepared for that price at the 2000 Habesha.
The next morning we ate breakfast at Wellspring (free with your stay) and were off to Hosanna. Most drivers will charge you a flat rate for their driving and then have you pay for their gas as well. To fill up Solomon’s van that fit all of us and could off-road like you wouldn’t believe it cost around $45 to fill up the tank. We had him drive us from Sunday-Saturday, driving all over the South of Ethiopia which required just 2.5 tanks of gas. Totally worth the $115.
In Hosanna we stayed at the Lemma International Hotel. There is a new hotel in Hosanna called the Shembelala that I’ve heard good things about. The Lemma: there’s a reason there’s a hashtag created just for this hotel. #lemtastic is perhaps the most ironic hashtag that ever was. The rooms are tiny, requiring a family our size to rent 3. Zach and I were in one with a queen bed, Trysten and Binyam took one with 2 twin beds and the other 3 decided to squeeze on one queen bed as well. The price of room varies depending on where it’s at in the hotel as well as which kind of bedding configuration but we spent 3 nights total at the Lemma and paid $190 for all 3 nights (if you’re paying attention you’ll notice that was exactly what we paid for one night at Wellspring-there is no doubt the Lemma is a steal!) Unfortunately you get what you pay for with the Lemma. 2 of our toilets didn’t flush at all which required moving rooms a few times. They also never cleaned the rooms the 3 days we were there. Normally this wouldn’t be a huge problem but the Lemma is where I got really sick (and Trysten dealt with a small bout of sickness as well) so we could’ve used clean towels and bedding and flushing toilets. I did ask for them repeatedly but was never brought any.
I’m not sure of the prices of the Shembelala compared to Lemma but if we were to do it again Zach and I both agreed we would probably book the Shembelala. We are outdoorsy, rarely wash our hands kind of hippies and yet we were all a little overwhelmed by the Lemma. If it’s possible to budget for a little more money spent at hotels I would say splurge a little on the Shembelala, if nothing else their bedding is certainly newer than at the Lemma and that little difference would’ve felt like luxury. *It does need to be said that I was feverish and ill all 3 days that we were there so I’m not sure I have the necessary perspective. I don’t want this to come across as whiny so take all of that with a delirious grain of salt.*
I chose the Lemma because I heard their food was really delicious. I wonder if maybe they weren’t just having an off week because even though I don’t have picky eaters, no one was impressed with the food. We tried almost everything on the menu and were only blown away by two of their traditional meals. I do want to point out that most of us are either vegan/vegetarian so we didn’t try all the meat dishes-I chalked up our lack of enthusiasm for the food to the Lemma staff’s focus on the meat dishes. 🙂 That said, you can’t beat the prices for their meals. On average a meal for all 7 of us ran us around $15.
It does need to be said the Lemma’s coffee and macchiatos are second to none. If you stay at the Shembelala make sure you make it over to the Lemma for coffee!
While in Hosanna we used the services of a friend of ours that has delivered correspondence from us to our special people for the last 7 years. If you’re looking for something similar leave a comment or shoot me an email and I can put you in touch with him. Zach and I both agreed his service was worth the fee and we can’t imagine ever going back to Ethiopia if he’s not able to be with us when we visit our special people. He has done such good work building trust with the locals so they will often tell him things they maybe didn’t mention during the adoption process or had previously not told for fear of stigma. A translator who can be trusted by both birth families and adoptive families alike is one area you don’t want to cut financial corners!
After our incredible time in Hosanna and surrounding communities we were off to Lake Hawassa and the Lewi Hotel & Resort. Many of my friends recommended finding a place at the end of our trip to unwind and process. I am so glad they did! There is another great resort along Lake Hawassa that was a little nicer (we went to compare) but cost a bit more as well and didn’t include unlimited pool access. The Lewi was just perfect for our needs. We got two rooms that were attached. Our room had a pretty rockin’ circle bed, a huge living room and nice bathroom. The adjoining room had a bathroom with a jaccuzi tub as well as 2 queen beds.
At the Lewi you can choose from a variety of options. Bed and breakfast, Bed, breakfast and unlimited pool access or all inclusive. They have a workout room, miniature golf, and ping pong tables as part of the all inclusive package. We chose to just do the bed, breakfast and unlimited pool access which ran us $145/night. The rooms at the Lewi were the nicest we stayed in and the service was terrific. I highly recommend the resort!
We ate the rest of our meals at the Lewi as well, each one averaged around $35 for all of us. The food was really, really good! Meals did take longer to prepare so make sure you go before you feel really hungry. We made that mistake the first night and after an hour of waiting for our food we begged the waiter for some bread to tide the kids over. It was no problem after that since we knew to account for extra time.
Solomon ended up taking us to the Hawassa fish market. We were skeptical at first due to the whole being vegan issue but Solomon had yet to disappoint us so we went anyway. It cost $7 for us to enter. We went later in the day so the frenzy of a typical fish market had died down but it ended up being a really fun trip. Solomon encouraged us to try a fish that was prepared before us with a spice blend that was common in the area. Delicious doesn’t begin to describe it. If you find yourself near the fish market please go! We also got to see Ethiopian volleyball, storks and the fishermen preparing their nets for the next day. Plus it was just gorgeous.
While at the Lewi we actually only ended up swimming twice. The weather was warm but not hot so it wasn’t as big of a draw as it would’ve normally been. All things considered, we were really glad we got that as part of the package because our kids are big swimmers and made the most out of it. We were also glad we didn’t do the whole all inclusive package. We tried asking how much it would cost to just play mini golf or just allow the kids to play a game of pool. The prices ran the gamut from $1 each kid to $5/minute depending on who you would ask. Other than mini golf we probably wouldn’t have used any of the rest of it so unless you’re planning on spending your entire days at the resort without venturing out into the city, I don’t see any reason you would need to buy the complete package.
Another reason I just don’t see the need to buy the full package is because of the monkeys! My kids spent more time feeding, playing with and obsessing over the monkeys than they did in the pool and rightfully so! They were incredibly adorable and could get playful or even downright nasty if you tried to withhold food.
But seriously, it was just unbelievably breathtaking. Zach and I ordered a bottle of wine and took it to our room to relax and talk about the trip. It was a perfect way to spend our last night in country.
On our way back to Addis we stopped at a different Hailie resort in Ziway for lunch. It was beautiful there as well. The food was good and it was a nice little stop to break up the 5 hour trek from Hawassa.
Having bought most of the traditional Ethiopian items our last two trips we didn’t have anything we really wanted to get on a shopping trip other than coffee. The Tomoca bags are now about $7/each and worth every penny. There is simply no better coffee than Ethiopian coffee and they make such great gifts!
If you are in need of specific shopping items, there are Ethiopians who will get them for you. For $100 you hand them a list and they go get them. If we needed anything at all, I would’ve definitely bought this service. I hate haggling with a hot, hot hatred but I also hate knowing I’m paying more for something than I should be. This shopping service is a great way to sidestep those things! You can still go shopping for a few little things if you want to have your kids experience it but for the bigger items I would certainly recommend the shopping service.
Solomon. He is so good at what he does. My friend Meghan had told me that he is superb with kids but I think she might not have even done him justice in that description. A few of my kids who aren’t real trusting of strangers or are a little quieter with them spent no time opening up to him. Tariku and Tomas specifically bonded with him in a way they don’t normally which made me so happy to see. Those two would often ride up front with him and learn Amharic words for the things they were seeing. It’s true he was incredibly kind and sweet with them but he also didn’t let them get away with anything-which is such a blessing for a mama like me. It’s no secret Solomon hates electronic devices so he didn’t hold back in telling the boys to put them down and enjoy the scenery. *For the record, our kids did play their iPods on the trip. You do what you feel is right for your family. The iPods ended up being a great way to come down from their emotional highs and to take some of the edge off. Plus, they all took their own pictures with their iPods so seeing the trip through their eyes is fun as well!
We were with Solomon for around 12 hours a day for 7 days straight, often in close proximity in his van. He ended up feeling more like a fun uncle than a driver by just the second day. That said, he never ate meals with us or stayed in the hotels with us. Solomon told us it was a “Driver’s Code” and there always had to be that small separation between the family and the driver. So in terms of budgeting, plan on budgeting for the driver (the ones I researched were always somewhere between the $80-100/day) and the gas but you will not pay for their food or lodging.
I can’t stress enough that the driver should be the number one place to splurge. Solomon was fantastic with our special people, was attentive to all of my kids (Trysten had a rumbling belly at the fish market so Solomon dashed off to get him a lime. He taught him to bite it and suck out the juice, hailing it as the cure all for any upset tummy. Trysten said it worked so suddenly the other 4 had upset stomachs. Off Solomon went to get 4 more limes. 😉 ) I have no doubt Solomon isn’t the only truly wonderful driver in Ethiopia but make sure you get recommendations before booking with one-you’ll spend far too much time with this person to not get along with him or her. *Notice Dailah crying in the picture below-she was so sad to be leaving Ethiopia and Solomon in particular.
I know it’s a little uncouth to talk about money so openly but I don’t want any unknowns to deter you from planning a trip like this. The unknowns of the financial cost is what took us so long to bite the bullet and I know had I had a better idea of the cost we would’ve went so much sooner.
We spent approximately $500 for our 7 days in country on food for the 7 of us.
We spent approximately $800 in hotels for our 7 nights in country.
We spent around $100 just buying a few things at the Post Office Shopping center and Tomoca coffee shop.
We spent nearly $100 on trips to museums, zoos, markets, etc.
The cost of translators and drivers vary but those will need to be worked into your budget as well. I can give you a better idea what we spent if you leave a comment or send an email as those two will be your biggest financial cost by far.
Be aware that most hotels will not accept reservations ahead of time. Even the guesthouses in Ethiopia wouldn’t let me book rooms until about 2 weeks before our trip so try really hard not to freak out about that (I failed miserably at staying relaxed on that account). The Lemma didn’t take reservations and I could never get the Lewi to confirm my reservations via their website or email ahead of time. No worries, there was plenty of open rooms at both places. Even if worst case scenario happens and all the rooms are booked, there are now multiple hotels in both areas so you’ll always have a back up.
If planning a trip like this makes you nervous there are plenty of travel agencies who will plan it for you. The cost is steep but it’s totally understandable if you don’t want to put up with the hassle. Zach and I have far too much German blood to spend on such luxuries so instead I just bombarded my friends with questions for 6 months straight. I think most of them still love me. 🙂
I hope after this post you’re feeling empowered and ready to plan a trip for your family. Obviously I can’t answer whether or not your kids are emotionally or mentally ready for a trip like this but if you’re dragging your feet let that be the reason rather than the overwhelming nature of the logistics.
If you have any more specific questions please feel free to reach out. I think it’s become pretty obvious that I’m a bit of an open book so get in touch-your kids will thank you for it!