Thursday, September 27, 2012

Airport Craziness

Disclaimer: My most recent trip to Ethiopia was a little over a year ago, so perhaps some of this information is outdated. I'll let you know when I get back in December from my next trip if things are running differently or feel free to comment if you've had a more recent experience that was a little different!

I've been privileged to do my fair share of domestic and international travel. I really, really love to travel, see new places and experience new cultures. I even love airplane travel (yes, even when we have to go through that scan machine). What I do have to say, however, is that airplane travel to a developing country poses some unique challenges.

Ethiopian Airlines began it's nonstop service from DC to Addis Ababa I believe last year, which was a fantastic change. On my first trip over in 2009, I flew North Carolina to Boston to London to Amman, Jordan to Ethiopia. Something like 36 hours of travel time was over the top exhausting, not to mention to the 10 hour time change. Now, a nonstop to DC, overnight layover, and nonstop to Addis seriously cuts this time down. Know what it also means? You're less likely to have lost luggage. I am not even kidding you when I tell you more luggage was lost than not back in the day. In fact, someone I know had a bag that was lost for over six months. Here comes my first suggestion: pack enough in your carry-on luggage to survive initially in country if your checked bags never make it. 

We were pretty excited to take advantage of this nonstop flight. We arrived at the DC airport about two hours in advance to check in for our flight. The Ethiopian Airline employees informed us of how late we were checking in, as noted by the fact that they had already given our previously assigned seats away. Since when is two hour check-in too late? I suppose the good news for us what that we still got seats on the plane. The bad news was that they were the second to last row. This is bad for a few reasons. First, when you're the last to get off the plane, you're also the last in line for visas and customs. It's also bad when the turbulence happens to be so bad that the only thing keeping you in your seat is your seat beat and the rest of the passengers are yelling and making the sign of the cross. (On a side note, our friends in the middle of the plane said, "What turbulence?") Next piece of advice: check in early. EARLY, people. And book advance seats, knowing the last rows are not super desirable and the first row is where the babies are with the bassinets.

When you arrive in the airport in Addis Ababa, you'll get off the plane on the runway and board a bus that takes you to the terminal. You'll corral towards the visa and customs lines. Currently,  you can still get a visa for Ethiopia in the airport. I've been hearing this will change, but as of now, it holds true. If you are traveling to volunteer with an organization, you can also apply for a business visa beforehand. This costs $70 and you have to send in an application with a letter from the business to the Ethiopian Embassy, along with your passport, prior to your departure. This allows you to skip the visa line and it is good for two years.

You'll likely want to exchange money at the airport once you are through customs. The best plan of action is to have one person in your party go to the baggage claim carousel while the other goes to exchange money. There is a sign at the money exchange booth that says something along the lines of YOU MUST GET A RECEIPT FOR YOUR MONEY EXCHANGE, NO EXCEPTIONS. Except that they don't seem to ever have receipts when I'm there. So maybe it's not that big of a deal? Don't take my word on that one, though, because I'd hate for you to be stopped without a receipt and get in trouble. Try and get a receipt if you can. (I've also been there when they wouldn't exchange all the money I wanted because they said they didn't have money left. That poses a problem).

wow, i had definitely been traveling for more than 24 hours at this point
The worst, worst part of getting out of the airport in Ethiopia is having to send all your baggage through the x-ray machine on a conveyer belt before you exit. Although it doesn't seem like a big deal, this is your first introduction into Ethiopian "organization." So here's the deal: if you're not assertive, you will never get out of the airport. If you actually get in the legit line, there will be a continuous flow of people cutting in front of you. This means you have to be putting your luggage on the conveyor belt and push it forward as it should go. I think if I didn't stand out so much, people would think I work at the airport. Be nice, but get your bags through. You will have been off the plane for likely more than an hour at this point, so you'll be ready to go.

Once you're "free," you may be poking your head around for the person that is supposed to meet you there. Sometimes, the airport doesn't let non-travelers inside the building. If you don't see who you're looking for, you may want to check outside. Beware, though, once you leave the building, they may not let you back in, either. Make sure you're ready to leave because once you go, you might be gone.

As frantic as the airport fuss may be, in reality it's only a few hours of your trip. Don't let it frustrate you or ruin your first impression. Ethiopia is a beautiful country with rich history, delicious coffee and the most welcoming, friendly people I've ever met. I hope you enjoy life outside the terminal as much as I do.

1 comment:

  1. Very good advice and painted a great picture of what it could be like traveling there. I am beginning my Ethiopian adoption so things might change by the time I travel but it was still something to keep in the back of my mind.