Stop! This layover travel hack could change your life

What’s better than an $85 flight to Africa for my cousin’s wedding in Mozambique? The answer is a FREE flight to Ethiopia, thanks to a new travel hack that I finally learned (& used).

My 5-day extended layover in Ethiopia was an afterthought, an accident. Truly, it was.

Today on my travel photography blog I’m sharing what happened, how I planned it, where I went, what I saw, and the amazing people I met in one of my new favorite countries: Ethiopia.

How I travel hacked my layover in Ethiopia

how to get a free flight to Africa with a stop over layover

Why visit Addis Ababa, Ethiopia?

Where to begin when talking about my amazing journey visiting Ethiopia?

I honestly didn’t know much about this land-locked country and it wasn’t on my “life-list” (bucket-list) for vacations, however my extended layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was a memorable experience that I’ll never forget.

Plus, I returned home with several new Ethiopian boyfriends 😉 

When planning my trip to Africa this time around, I knew that it was vital to break up those LONG flights from the USA to Africa.

My 5-week Southern Africa itinerary looked like this:
  • On the way there, I was heading to Harare, Zimbabwe from Toronto, Canada.
  • We drove to the beaches of Mozambique for my cousin’s wedding.
  • Afterwards, I flew from Harare to South Africa’s Garden Route.
  • and returned home via Cape Town.

The return flight itinerary had me going on three 8-9 hour flights to get home and I thought “NOPE“. That’s a heck of a lot of sitting. I need to use my body, move, walk, hike, something. So, I started checking out one layover city: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Quickly, I learned that a lot of their layovers are very long and the airport is horrible (not even an airport lounge!). Taxis and companies actually have special layover tours.

Well, this planted the seed in my mind, I bookmarked some websites, and kept planning my trip.

You see, this trip to Africa was a lot of moving parts and I had limited time for travel planning.

I had to get a reward flight around the holidays, which is not great timing (reward seats are limited). Also, I was photographing my cousin’s wedding once I got to Mozambique, and I was planning all of this during my busiest time of year for my photography business.

travel photographer visits Lalibela Ethiopia
long layover in Addis Ababa airport

An Easy Travel Hack No one Talks about

So here’s the deal… It turns out that airlines don’t really care how long your layover is. It really doesn’t matter to them. {well, most of them… just double check the one you plan to fly}.

I’d kinda-sorta learned and tried this trick on my last trip to Africa when I flew through Frankfurt, Germany and tried to sneak in 2-days to visit friends nearby.

Technically, that worked, however I picked up a stomach bug in Boston and spent a day in a hotel room in tons of pain. THANK GOODNESS I had that extra day in my travel plans because I called the airline, told them, and they just moved me back a day.

Had I not had that greedy little extra day in Frankfurt built in, I would have missed out on the start date of my photographer’s safari.

Anyway, this time around, I was determined to actually utilize the extended layover trick so I could see one more country. I’m so greedy, aren’t I?

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Asheten Mountain in the Lalibela region

A long layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Alright, so how did I get essentially a completely free flight to Ethiopia? All I did was CALL United Airlines (with whom I booked my travel) and asked them for a few extra days in Addis Ababa.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do too. 

–>> What would have been better though would have been for me to do this when I first booked the trip itinerary.

Unfortunately, I was super busy with work and was already missing dates available for reward travel (AKA: free flights).

So, after talking to my sister about it and lamenting paying a change fee to the airline (which was more than I paid for the fight!), I decided to just go for it! 

Actually, the reality was that I was being cheap. I told my sis that I pride myself on being able to get these free/cheap plane tickets and how would it look if I paid this $125 fee to change my flight?

She told me I was being ridiculous and then told me she would pay the change fee as my Christmas present so I could still say it was a free flight. Ha ha. Aren’t sisters the BEST???

visiting Ethiopia on a long layover through Addis Ababa

Therefore, this is how I ended up with a 5-day layover in Addis Ababa. The timing actually came down to reward seat availability. So, it could have been an extra day or two.

I’m glad it was closer to 5 days though because I was able to see more than just Addis Ababa, the capitol.

travel photography by travel blogger Heather McKay visits the rock hewn ancient churches in Ethiopia's Lalibela region on a long layover in Addis Ababa airport.

Planning My Extended Layover Itinerary

Alrighty, so what in the world did I actually do on this free flight to Ethiopia and my long layover in Addis Ababa??

Well, I got out of the city!

I had thought about just staying in Addis Ababa and working remotely from a hotel there, however, I knew I wouldn’t explore much and I also knew that I wanted to stretch my legs hard-core.

So, I went into one of the many travel related Facebook groups that I’m in and poked around for ideas. Several people recommended Go Addis Tours for a very locals-style tour of the area and they had multi-day itineraries.

Normally, I prefer to plan my own trips, but I really didn’t have the extra time because I was planning Cape Town, Mozambique, the Garden Route, and so many other things at the same time.

Being a solo female traveler, I did feel a bit better having a guide to a country I didn’t have time to research. Additionally, I emailed them and asked if they could do a solo itinerary AND for the amount of days that I would be able to travel.

Lucky for me, they were very accommodating and crafted the PERFECT 5-day itinerary for Ethiopia. Especially since I asked for a really hard hike on one of the days (and OMG, was it a hard hike!).

Explore Africa and Ethiopia on a long layover
travel photography by travel blogger Heather McKay
visiting Ethiopia on a long layover to Addis Ababa
visiting Ethiopia on a long layover to Addis Ababa

Your layover could be a free flight to a new bucket-list city. Just call the airline and ask for an extended layover or a stopover in the region. They don’t really care when you pick up the next leg of your itinerary.

What to see, do, and eat in Ethiopia

Alright, what was my itinerary? I flew Ethiopian Airlines from Cape Town to Addis Ababa, arriving around 11 PM local time.

The hotel had a shuttle for me, which was great.

It was a bit hard to find my driver, however, there are a million other taxi & shuttle drivers outside and ready for passengers and they were helpful in pointing me in the right direction. Usually in Africa you will want to be very wary of “helpful people” however, in Addis Ababa this was not an issue.

Once I made my way out to where all of the shuttle buses are, there was a guy who seemed to be in charge and he called my driver to find him.

Go Addis Tours organized the hotel for me, and so I felt safe (just tired).

The next morning, I had a traditional Ethiopian breakfast at the hotel and went back to the airport for a quick flight to Lalibela. 

ANOTHER HOT TIP: Ethiopian Airlines give you deals for inter-Ethiopia flights if you are on an International itinerary flying Ethiopian Airlines (which I was, thanks to their partnership with United Airlines).

FYI – applying for an e-Visa for Ethiopia using the online application worked. I definitely recommend you do that ahead of time, print it out, and place it in your passport when you go through customs upon landing. It costs $50 and you’ll need an extra passport photo.

long layover tour Addis Ababa

My Addis Ababa Layover Itinerary:

  1. Fly Into Addis Ababa, stay the night.
  2. Fly out of Addis Ababa in the morning and into Lalibela, check into hotel, afternoon hike around cluster of churches with a local guide.
  3. Morning hike with local guide to Mount Asheton Mayam, a 13th century rock-hewn monastery. I skipped the afternoon itinerary and just relaxed on the rooftop of my hotel with a bottle of wine. There, I made tons of new friends and even saw an Ethiopian wedding reception. In the evening, a beautiful and kind man that worked in the hotel took me to their local bar for traditional music and dance.
  4. Finish the last of the rock-hewn churches around Lalibela and then packed and headed back to the airport. Once back in Addis Ababa, I went on the famous local Go Addis walking Food Tour.
  5. Sunrise market tour (very adventurous!), coffee at the historic To.mo.ca, then toured Africa’s largest outdoor market: Merkato. Followed by a traditional breakfast, a craft collective, a quick nap, then I went to all of the major museums. At dusk, my driver took me up a mountain to a little cafe and we watched the sunset over Addis Ababa. 
  6. Flight out to Madrid (then home) was around midnight.

Touring Lalibela's Ancient Rock Churches

The ancient rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are a sight and mecca. I really wish that my sister and Aunt were here with me so I could watch them appreciate the history. When my guide asked me if I was religious, all I could say was “No. In America we do it all wrong.”

That being said, touring these churches and learning about the spiritual life of this country was very humbling.

visiting Ethiopia on a long layover to Addis Ababa
travel blog for solo female travelers
visiting Ethiopia on a long layover in Addis Ababa
travel blog for solo female travelers
travel blog for solo female travelers with travel hacks

Tour of Addis Ababa's Merkato

You absolutely must wake up early for the sunrise market tour. Just beware! These people are at WORK and you will get in their way if you are being a typical clueless tourist.

Everything you see here will be sold by sunrise – when the real, legal market opens!

5-days in Ethiopia with a free flight stop over and layover in Addis Ababa and Lalibela
5-days in Ethiopia with a free flight stop over and layover in Addis Ababa and Lalibela
5-days in Ethiopia with a free flight stop over and layover in Addis Ababa and Lalibela

Food and Drink in Addis Ababa

Ethiopian coffee is something that needs to be on your bucket-list. The country was colonized by the Italians. That’s all you need to know…

I brought 2 pounds of green coffee beans home with me form the market and have been roasting it myself in the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony way and it brings me back to my adventures in Ethiopia on this long layover.

what to drink in Addis Ababa on a layover
destination travel photographer blogger
what to eat on a long layover in Addis Ababa
travel blogger and rewards points for free or cheap flights to Africa
travel blog for solo female travelers
solo female travel to Ethiopia

Have you been to Africa yet??

If not, there is a phrase that the entire continent embraces: “TIA = This is Africa”

You will see the most beautiful faces, the most kind hearts, the most vibrant and excited children, the repurposing of EVERYTHING into something else, and all of your senses will be engaged.

I know a ton of people are not interested in visiting Africa, but all I have to say is that it is a HUGE continent and it would be a shame for you to miss out on this giant slice of heaven on Earth.

What’s the most surprising place you’ve ever been?

Share below in the comments…

recycling in Ethiopia Africa
These kids were being chased around my a few dogs and it was hilarious.
travel hacking tips for cheap flights by travel photographer Heather McKay

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