Ethiopian Airlines is often the most inexpensive way to get from the states to Lusaka and back (and vice versa). Tickets are usually in the $1700 range. Plus (from Michigan), the connections coming back (assuming your plane is on time) are currently the best.
There’s just one little itty-bitty catch with Ethiopian Airlines. In the low season (roughly late October to March), if the flights aren’t full they’ll cancel them and/or combine them with a later flight. In fact, Tuesday and Thursday flights appear to be designated flights for cancellation in the low season.
How do I know this? Because on a Tuesday in late January we arrived bright and cheery at Washington Dulles from Detroit at 9.25 am, ready to enjoy a breakfast before our 11.30 am flight from Dulles to Addis Ababa. Ethiopian Airlines does not have a counter in Detroit so you have to get your boarding passes in Dulles. After deplaning we headed over to the Ethiopian Airlines gate (it’s always the same one! wish I could remember it…) and were shocked to see the entire area completely vacant, void of passengers and EA employees. Normally, the area would be thronging with people so this state of affairs was strange.
Thinking we would have at least gotten a text message from one of our kids if the rapture had occurred or there was an alien invasion, we were at a loss as to what to do. No adjacent gates representing other airlines knew a thing. There was no information desk anywhere.
We decided to leave the security area and go out front where normal check-ins occurred in the hopes of seeing an EA employee. No such luck. This was really strange – clearly others were in the know as no one else was there but we didn’t know what to do. We had walked through baggage claim on our way out of security and I remembered seeing an Ethiopian Airlines baggage office that had a person in it, so we went back there. There were three employees in there, all shooting the breeze. They didn’t seem surprised or ruffled about the cancellation and just said, you’ve been put on tomorrow’s flight. They gave us a hotel and meal vouchers and off we went to the Embassy Suites, all in the space of ten minutes. Yes, they assured us, your luggage is safe and will be on tomorrow’s flight too.
Fortunately, neither of us had pressing engagements in Lusaka so it was no big deal if we got back a day late. It was just a real drag. I have to psych up into endurance/patience mode for the (sometimes grueling) trip back to Africa and now it was delayed a day. The Embassy Suites they put us up at was very nice, especially since it had two rooms where Thom could work in one and I could watch TV in the other (had to get that last reality TV fix).
The next morning we showed up early for our check-in and as normal, there were tons of people everywhere and probably 10-15 EA employees. During the night I had remembered that one of Thom’s colleagues had faced the same issue when he tried to return on a Tuesday late October. I asked the gate agent if these cancellations were normal. He said, yes, during low season, usually the Tuesday and Thursday flights were canceled. I said, that’s good to know, so if we travel on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday everything’s likely to go as scheduled? Yes, he said.
So, news alert(!), avoid Tuesday/Thursday travel from Dulles (IAD) to Addis (ADD) late fall until early spring! Thom’s brother and his significant other are coming on Saturday, catching the Friday Dulles-Addis flight, so hopefully their flights will go as planned.
[As an aside, Ethiopian Airlines are very strict about carry-on baggage for the Dulles to Addis flight (but not for the reverse Addis-Dulles). They weigh every bag (15 lbs max for economy) and about half the time only allow you to have one carry-on, unless you really do have a small purse or fanny pack. To add insult to injury, they often charge you for this extra “baggage” as well. We’ve learned to just bring one carry-on bag each that weighs less than 15 lbs to avoid any hassles.]
The other thing EA is notorious for doing is combining flights if they’re not full. During this January trip we were scheduled to be on a direct Addis-Lusaka flight, arriving 12.15 pm. On other days the Addis-Lusaka flight stops off in Harare, adding an extra two hours to your flight time. After traveling so far two hours can make the difference between arriving happy vs. cranky (especially since an hour of that additional time is sitting on the ground in Harare). About half an hour before we were scheduled to leave I noticed that our flight number was not written on the well-used write on/wipe off board, and instead the next flight listed was for Harare, an hour later. I went up to the gate agent and she said, oh, the flights have been combined, let me get you new boarding passes.
They didn’t even let people know that the direct flight had been canceled and everyone had been put on the later Harare flight. When they called for the Lusaka via Harare flight about half the people had to go stand in line and get new boarding passes! Not really a big deal but just something to be aware of when traveling this routing from the states to Lusaka.
On the plus side, we’ve had very good experiences with the Dulles-Addis (ET 501) and the Addis-Dulles (ET 500) flights – the planes are relatively new (777s with a 3-3-3 configuration in economy class) and because of this seem clean and fresh, the seats both slide forward and recline so it seems like you’re able to recline more (32″ pitch) without totally invading the person’s space behind you, everyone has their own personal video device with lots of choices, and the food has been surprisingly good. The Dulles-Addis flight time is just under 13 hours; the Addis-Dulles flight time (with stop for refueling in Rome) is ~16.5 hours.
The connection in Addis to the direct Lusaka flight can be tight sometimes, especially if your Dulles-Addis flight was delayed. Fortunately, Ethiopian Airlines has their act together in this respect and they wait at the end of the jet bridge with signs and direct you down another jet bridge immediately. (You don’t even go into the airport, which can be a bummer if [like me] you were eagerly anticipating using a real restroom instead of the airplane restroom.) Also, EA will often hold the Addis-Lusaka flight if your arriving flight isn’t too late, an increasingly rare event in the U.S.
One other caution with Ethiopian Airlines. When flying from Addis to anywhere, you have to go through their security screening after you take the escalator or stairs down to the holding area. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT bring plastic toy snakes. You will freak out the security screeners and they may arrest you.
How do I know this? Because one of Thom’s colleagues, Bill, was traveling with his family through Addis on the way to the U.S. and in their carry-on luggage was their 3-year-old son’s plastic toy snake (you can get one too from Target for $1.99).
As Bill tells it, “Travelling through Addis Ababa, this terrifying toy snake almost got us kicked off of our airplane. It took nearly an hour to get through security because we couldn’t give a ‘good’ reason for having it in our carry-on bag. ‘It’s a child’s toy,’ did not suffice. We were told it was ‘forbidden’ in the cabin, and it was confiscated by a security supervisor. After we finally arrived at our gate, the guy monitoring the x-ray machine found us to return it. I think he was afraid to keep it in the trash can at his desk.” The moral of the story -> Leave all toy animals used in traditional ceremonies at home.