A good network of long-distance buses connects most major towns of Ethiopia.
Recently a new breed of bus has taken to the roads of Ethiopia and these ones actually are pretty plush (air-con, reclining seats, on-board toilets, TVs and even free snacks). The biggest and best companies are Selam Bus and Sky Bus. We strongly recommend that you pay extra to travel on one of these newer private bus operators. Apart from being much more comfortable, they rarely travel at night and are generally safer.
Otherwise, you'll find yourself at the mercy of the government buses and similar private services. A few things to remember:
- One government bus association and around a dozen private ones operate, though you’ll rarely be able to tell the difference between any of them. The biggest differentiating trait between government and private buses is the predeparture rituals.
- Government buses sell seat-specific tickets in advance and passengers must wait in line while the bus is loaded. After that’s completed, the queue is paraded around the bus before tickets are checked and the boarding barrage occurs. Private buses simply open the doors and start selling tickets to the flood of passengers as they cram in. Needless to say, private buses are usually the first to leave. They also tend to be slightly more comfortable than government ones.
- Unlike most African countries, standing in the aisles of long-distance buses is illegal in Ethiopia, making them more comfortable (note that we’ve said ‘more comfortable’, which is a far cry from saying comfortable) and safer. On the longer journeys, there are usually scheduled 20-minute stops for meals.
- In many cases when you arrive at the bus station there’ll only be one bus heading in your direction, so any thoughts about it being private or government become irrelevant. If you haven't booked in advance through one of the new private companies, your choices will be limited to whichever bus is leaving next.
- Once on the road, you’ll realise that all buses are slow. On sealed roads you can expect to cover around 50km/h, but on dirt roads 30km/h or less. In the rainy season, journeys can be severely disrupted. Thankfully, new roads are spreading rapidly across the land and turning many troublesome dirt sections into slick sections of sealed road. Unfortunately this has seen an increase in road accidents due to speed.
- Remember when asking about departure times that the Ethiopian clock is used locally (add six hours to get the Western time).
- In remote areas long waits for buses to fill is normal – some may not leave at all. In general, the earlier you get to the bus station, the better chance you have of catching the first bus out of town.
- The major drawback with bus travel is the size of the country. For the Historical Circuit alone, you’ll spend a total of at least 10 days sitting on a bus to cover the 2500km.
- On most journeys with durations that last longer than one day, there are overnight stops en route (Ethiopian law stipulates that all long-distances buses must be off the road by 6pm, although in practice this is often ignored). In many cases you won’t be allowed to remove luggage from the roof, so you should pack toiletries and other overnight items to take with you in a small bag on the bus.
- Smaller and more remote towns are usually served by minibuses or Isuzu trucks. They're usually faster and sometimes cheaper, but you take your life in your hands if you decide to travel in one.
Buses are very cheap in Ethiopia. Both government-run and private buses work out at around US$1.50 to US$1.75 per 100km. You will pay double or triple this for one of the newer private companies, but we think it's always worth it.