Money and Costs
Bargaining is expected in tourist markets and many souvenir shops. Although some such places do have fixed prices, it's always worth asking if a 'discount' is possible. The same applies to many midrange and even some top-end hotels, especially when things are quiet and discounted rates are sometimes offered.
ATMs in major towns. Credit cards accepted in some top-end hotels (especially in Addis), but in very few restaurants or even midrange hotels. Bring US dollars in cash.
Many banks in major towns now have ATMs that accept international Visa cards and MasterCard; some hotels have ATMs in reception. Note that foreign Solo, Cirrus or Plus cards do not work in any ATM.
Unlike 10 to 15 years ago when almost all currency exchanges were conducted on a fairly open black market that gave significantly higher rates than the banks, things have now tightened up drastically. The black market still exists (when we were in Ethiopia, US$1 was changing for around Birr22.25 in banks and around Birr24.50 on the black market, less outside Addis); ask your guide or driver for advice. Remember, however, that the black market is illegal and penalties range from hefty fines to imprisonment.
Ethiopia’s currency is the birr and there are one, five, 10, 50 and 100 birr notes. The Birr1 note is slowly being replaced by the Birr1 coin. The birr is divided into 100 cents and there are 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent coins.
As with many African countries the US dollar is the preferred foreign currency in Ethiopia although the euro is also very easy to exchange. You’ll have no trouble exchanging US cash wherever there are Forex facilities, but try to bring US dollar notes (especially US$100) from 2006 or more recent; earlier notes may not be accepted at banks.
Most hotels will exchange US$ cash or euros for you, but the rates are sometimes (but not always) worse than those offered by the banks.
According to National Bank of Ethiopia regulations, all bills in Ethiopia must be paid in birr. But this isn’t enforced and Ethiopian Airlines, most major hotels and most travel agencies accept (and sometimes demand) US currency.
One regulation that’s strictly enforced is the conversion of birr to US dollars or euros; this transaction can only be done for people holding onward air tickets from Ethiopia. This means people leaving overland must budget accordingly. There are black-market traders around the borders, but rates are poor and it can be risky.
Don't come to Ethiopia and expect to rely on your credit card. Credit cards (Visa and MasterCard) are increasingly useful in Addis Ababa but are rarely accepted outside it, with the exception of some Ethiopian Airlines offices and top-class hotels. The travel agencies, airline offices and major hotels that do accept cards typically ding you 2% to 3% extra for the privilege.
Cash advances (Visa and MasterCard) are possible at branches of the Dashen Bank in the capital and elsewhere.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
Tips (gursha in Amharic) are considered a part of everyday life in Ethiopia, and help supplement often very low wages. The maxim ‘little but often’ is a good one, and even very small tips are greatly appreciated.
If a professional person helps you, it’s probably better to show your appreciation in other ways: shaking hands, exchanging names or an invitation to have a coffee and pastry are all local ways of expressing gratitude.
Furnishing yourself with a good wad of small notes – Birr1 and Birr5 – is a very good idea. You’ll need these for tips, taking photographs etc.
Tips For Tipping
Tipping can be a constant source of worry, hassle or stress for travellers. This guide has been compiled with the help of Ethiopians.
- In the smaller restaurants in towns, service is included, and Ethiopians don’t tip unless the service has been exceptional (up to 10%).
- In bars and cafes, sometimes loose coins are left. However, in the larger restaurants accustomed to tourists, 10% will be expected.
- In Addis Ababa’s midrange and top-end hotels, staff will expect a minimum Birr20 per service.
- Outside Addis Ababa, midrange and top-end hotels’ luggage handlers will expect a tip of around Birr2 to Birr5 per bag, and people acting as impromptu guides around Birr10.
- At traditional music and dance shows in bars, restaurants and hotels, an audience shows its appreciation by placing money (around Birr10) on the dancers’ foreheads or in their belts.
- Car ‘guards’ (often self-appointed) expect Birr5.
- If the service has been good at the end of the trek, a rule of thumb for tipping guides/scouts/mule handlers might be an extra day’s pay for every three days’ work.
- A good tip for professional English-/German-/Italian-speaking guides and drivers hired from Addis Ababa travel agencies for multiday 4WD tours is around US$10 per day from each person if you’re a group of two or three. Less per person per day for a larger group.
Like in many countries travellers cheques are increasingly hard to cash – often impossible. You’re much better off relying on plastic and a bit of cash. If you do choose to use cheques then bring US-dollar ones and ask at larger Commercial Bank of Ethiopia branches. Note that most banks ask to see your passport and the cheque’s proof-of-purchase receipt (which most travellers-cheque companies advise you to leave at home!). Some banks also charge an additional service fee for changing travellers cheques.
Budget less than US$50
- Basic double with private facilities: US$15–25
- Travel between cities by bus: US$8–17
- Local-style meals are tasty and cheap: from US$6–10
- Double room in a comfortable hotel: US$25–75
- Occasional internal flight: US$115–250
- Dinner with alcohol at a midrange restaurant: around US$10
Top End more than US$100
- Accommodation in a full-board resort or an upmarket hotel room: from US$75
- Private 4WD with driver: US$180
- Fine dining at an upmarket restaurant: US$15 and up
Ethiopian Birr (ETB)