Last month, my family and I took a long-awaited and highly-anticipated journey to Ethiopia, visiting Addis Ababa, Harar, and Negash. While we were riding high on the hype of an enriching historical journey, we had to come to terms with the poverty we would face in a developing country. The tourism industry is booming in Ethiopia and there is a conscientious effort to move beyond the image of a starving, famine-stricken country, towards a prosperous and worldly society. As with progress in most developing countries, change comes with a cost and you more than likely will feel it in your own pocket. In spite of the rising cost of living and travel, these are five invaluable allies that helped us move through the country “with the people”.
1. Useful Information
While knowing the population of a city or historical facts are useful, save some time for researching what’s going to count in your day-to-day travels. Admission fees, taxi fares, and tipping customs can be extremely variable in some parts of the world. If you’re not careful, you can be paying double, triple, or quadruple of what’s appropriate. Be prepared to talk down prices that are negotiable and refer to the great bartering tips shared by others. If you can talk numbers in the local language, peppered with the lingo and mannerisms of seasoned locals, then you have yet another advantage in securing a reasonable price for whatever you’re pursuing.
2. Loose Change
Keeping small bills in your wallet is useful for making donations to charities or individuals, as well as hand-to-hand business transactions in your travels. We lost a few bucks here and there after giving a large currency note to pay a tour guide or a guesthouse and not receiving any change. Save the big bills for large establishments and fixed fare transportation, where you’re more likely to have your change returned. Keep the small bills handy for everything else.
Depending on how much cash you feel comfortable carrying, try to avoid using your debit or credit card internationally. More than likely you’ll be paying transaction fees on both ends, so travel with large currency bills (dollars, euros, etc.) and exchange them after exiting the airport. Airports are notorious for pitiful exchange rates, so consider using a bank or other exchange services.
Side Note: Don’t forget to inform your home bank about your travels so they don’t assume your account is being used fraudulently!
3. Local Connections
Use your common interests to connect with others. Tap into clubs, groups, and societies, where you can make authentic connections on topics other than tourism and make plans to connect while you’re in town. When researching vegan travel tips, we came across the Ethiopian Vegan Association
and connected with Ethiopians who had a common interest and were keen to answer our inquiries and give us travel advice, without a fee. One member became more than just our unofficial guide in Addis Ababa but has become a true friend. He weaved us through the capital on a shoestring budget, with the added benefit of seeing how others live, work, and move through the bustling city. We also found great places for delicious local food that were way off the beaten path and even further from the pages of a guidebook.
4. Good Health
After touring a good bit of Addis Ababa carrying my toddler daughter in a sling, I was grateful for being in good shape. Long walks and cramped minibuses were bearable and we spent about a tenth of what it would cost to ride taxis all through town. Similarly, we took an entertaining long distance bus which was also about a tenth of the domestic flight cost. Being able to carry your own bags, walk comfortably, and withstand a long bus or train ride can save you the expense of private transport, tipping bellboys, and door-to-door service for your entire journey. A habit of daily walking and exercise is not only great preparation for travel but great for healthy living in general.
5. Good Attitude
Last-minute delays, cancellations, and changes to your itinerary can be frustrating. If you can breathe through the irritation, you’ll more than likely find a helpful hand, a kind word, or a brilliant back-up plan to keep your itinerary moving smoothly, in spite of the detour. The angry, belligerent tourist may not be able to move beyond their disappointment, making rash decisions that spoil a good trip for everyone. However, the patient, flexible tourist can “go with the flow”, embrace their circumstances, and ride the waves of whatever travel brings their way. Instead of being fixated on what you “missed” and trying to buy it back at all costs, you may find a Plan B that is equally (if not, more) satisfying at a lower cost. We had our hearts set on visiting a town that sounded great online but, to Ethiopians, was not as spectacular as we thought. We saved some time and money by changing our plans and it was the best decision we could’ve made. Be open to the possibilities and travel safely!