Getting Around Turkey, Istanbul, and More
Chances are, if you made it to Turkey then you’re no stranger to airports. Airports in Turkey are not a whole lot different from those in the Western world, except that everyone has to go through security just to get inside the building. That means that you will want to sort out all your sharps and liquids before arriving at the airport whenever possible.
Like many airports, the food and gifts in Turkish airports are marked way up. Prices are often double or triple what you would normally pay elsewhere, so it’s best to eat before you get there.
As far as traveling to or from the airport, you’ve got a bunch of options. Most airports, even in smaller cities, have express buses to major locations in the city. Barring that, taxis are a great option. Of course, many hotels also offer airport service, though in our experience express buses and sometimes even taxis are cheaper.
There are a couple Turkish airlines to choose from. Turkish Airlines currently flies to more destinations than any other airline on earth, and their service is fantastic. The food is great and the flight attendants all speak English well. But keep in mind that you’re going to pay a bit more for that mixture of excellence and convenience.
If you want to fly cheap and feel willing to slum it with the rest of us, there is always Pegasus Airlines. Ah, our frenemy in the skies. We usually fly Pegasus if our destination is domestic, but not because of the great service. We have found flights as cheap as $12 USD! But beware. Flying a budget airline means that they don’t even serve water for free on the flight. While you’re booking your ticket, the website will offer several “perks” to you for a little extra. The cost of food and drink is exorbitant, and the baggage allowance is low on some flights.
When searching for flights, try using obilet.com which searches all the airlines so you don’t have to jump from website to website comparing prices. Word to the wise: search in a private window because Pegasus will offer cheap flights the first time you search, then immediately up the price the next time once they know that flight is in demand.
I don’t know about where you’re from, but in my hometown taxis were expensive and not that convenient. In Turkey, the situation is exactly the opposite: quick, cheap, and reliable. But we do urge you to use official taxis (yellow with a light on top and a working fare meter inside). DO NOT use unofficial services though they do sound exciting with a name like korsan (pirate) taxi!
Some drivers will know a little English, but many won’t know any at all. If you want to be sure to avoid confusion, have the full Turkish address of the place you want to get to written down or ready on your phone, and your driver will get you there. Just make sure when you get in that the meter is running. It’s very, very rare to be ripped off, but it does occasionally happen.
In smaller centres, enterprising taxi drivers may offer you flat rates to drive you out to sites or chauffeur you for the day. That’s probably not dangerous, but we can’t guarantee that the flat rate he offers will be worth it and we’ve had it be a blatant scam. If you’d rather have the fare settled before then agree at your own risk.
There is also a great app called BiTaksi available for download. It’s a taxi service app usable in major cities in Turkey. We haven’t heard a single complaint about it, and highly recommend it if you’ll be using taxis while you’re here.
City Buses, Metrobüs, and Metro (Istanbul)
We can’t rave about Istanbul city transit enough. Between 16-20 million people live in this massive super city, and yet somehow we all manage to get where we’re going. If you’re looking for cheap transportation and are willing to embark on the adventure of traveling like a local, this is the way to get around for you.
Step one is to buy and fill an Istanbul Kart. You’ll also see the word “akbil” used to advertise the sale of these cards (that’s just an old fashioned way to say the same thing). The Istanbul Kart is a cheap, refillable card that opens up access to buses, metrobüs, metro, trams, some public washrooms, and ferries all across the city. Lira only, so don’t plan to use any other currency.
It is far cheaper to buy the card than to purchase the tokens that are sold at some transit locations. If you transfer within a short period of time (about 30 minutes), even between two different modes of transit, you will automatically receive a discount on every ride after the first one.
Stops are generally well signed both in their physical location and on a screen or map inside the vehicle, though sometimes the audio announcement or the screen isn’t working on a particular bus.
Remember how we said this is a super-city? That means that rush hour can get pretty hairy. If at all possible, avoid traveling long distances on buses between 8:30-10am and 4-8pm. If you are moving around at that time, metro, metrobüs, and ferries are all more reliable because they can’t get stuck in congested traffic (but you also miss out on Turkish road rage, which is its own unique pleasure). At those hours, prepare to stand and get cozy next to commuters.
Not sure how to get from one place to another? Try buradanoraya.com, which literally means “from here to there.” It’s a website that will show you how to get from one place to another in the major cities using mixed forms of transit. 75% of the time it will show you a pretty good route, but nothing beats advice from a knowledgeable local.
We are addicted to ferries. After a long day, if we have the choice to get home slower with a ferry or quicker by metro, we will almost always choose a ferry. Why? They’re cheap, offer great views, and are comfortable. To board them, you need to use your Istanbul Kart. There are terminals at all the major piers. There are different lines with different schedules, but they all dock side by side. The most common two are Şehir Hatları and Mavi Marmara. Their schedules change a bit season to season, so be sure to keep the timing of your travel in mind when you are planning to use the ferry. Pretty much all the boats will sell tea and drinks, and many of them will have a full confectionery. But if your food is heading out rather than in, watch out: only the big ones have bathrooms.
Bus and Metro (outside Istanbul)
Once you leave the big city public transport starts to change. In major centres, the situation isn’t too different, though it will be a little less smooth than Istanbul. Some cities have started to use refillable transit cards alongside traditional cash fares, while others are strictly cash. From city to city the clarity of where routes begin and end, what the name of the stop is, and where your bus currently is will range from good to utterly baffling. The good news is that locals love to help, even if their English is sub par. Ask wherever you’re staying about convenient transit to your destinations, and they will likely help out too. And don’t forget, you might still be able to use buradanoraya.com.
Bus service between cities in Turkey is quite good. Because airfare is so cheap, the bus companies have to compete with airlines. That means that most major lines will offer USB charging stations at your seat, comfy chairs, cup holders, a TV screen and complimentary entertainment (almost 100% Turkish language – sorry!), as well as free refreshments along the way.
One thing many visitors to Turkey miss out on when using the bus is the free service shuttles that offer transport from most bus lines’ offices (where you probably bought your ticket) to the city bus terminal. Ask if that’s available for you when you buy your ticket, it could save you lots of headache.
Bus lines tend to seat like genders together and seating is assigned, so treat it like airplane seats. When you’re buying your tickets, you usually need to have a passport on hand. Some offices will ask for the passports of everyone in your party, so don’t plan to send Johnny off to the bus depot without your passport. You’ll get rest stops along the way at mini-malls that are popping up all over the country for this purpose.
Some of the biggest companies are KamilKoç, Metro, and Pamukkale (at the time we wrote this article there were no English versions of these websites – sorry!) though there are many other smaller companies that will focus on specific regions. Better to use obilet.com though, as it searches all the companies and shows you the best deals.
Not all bus tickets are created equal. Spending some time going from ticket counter to ticket counter to ask a few extra questions could save you hours on a trip or lots of money per ticket.
Inner-city Minibüs or Dolmuş
This is where we get into the real nitty gritty. A minibus is a hop on hop off form of quick and convenient transport. It’s cash only, usually between 1.65 – 2.50TL per ride.
In Istanbul, there is a slight difference between a minibus and dolmuş, though the terms are occasionally used interchangeably. When you flag down and board a minibus here, you have to tell the driver where you want to get off, and then he’ll charge you based on that distance plus how many people are in your party. He does this all while drinking tea, talking on the phone, and angrily weaving through traffic. Then, when you want to get off you have to tell him to pull over or that you’re ready to disembark. Sound tough without knowing Turkish? Yeah, kinda. In Ankara it’s a bit easier because they all carry a flat rate so you just get on, pay and ask to get off when you’re ready.
Dolmuş literally means “has been filled,” so the idea here is that this yellow van waits at a spot to fill up then drives to its destination, though there are a number of routes where they leave empty and fill up as they go. These guys are typically faster than their non-taxi-like counterparts, but are otherwise quite similar. You can get on or off at any point on a dolmuş’s route, but unlike a regular minibus the driver will only allow as many passengers to get on as there are seats. In other words they are much more comfortable!
We don’t recommend using these with too much baggage. That annoys drivers and other passengers, and because of how stuffed they can get, lugging big bags can be tough on you (though we once saw a woman carrying a tree she was transplanting into her garden). Also, they fill up wall to wall on some routes during rush hour, so only ride at that time if you want an adventure.
Inter-city Minibüs or Dolmuş
These work pretty much the same as the inner-city version. This is how real, rural Turkey travels on a day-to-day basis. It’s extremely cheap and adventurous, but a little intimidating without knowing Turkish. If you’re up for it, you can probably make it work with a phrasebook and/or a little advice from the people who work wherever you’re lodging in the area.
Have you ever read Murder on the Orient Express? Taking a train in Turkey is just like Agatha Christie described it… except no murder or intrigue, the train moves way faster, and there’s not quite as many rich European aristocrats up to no good.
The route between Istanbul and Ankara boasts a high-speed train (Yüksek Hızlı Tren or YHT in Turkish) that can cover the distance between those cities in about 4.5 hours. The only issue is that the use of “High Speed Train” isn’t exactly honest. From what we’ve been able to find online the minimum speed required to called a high speed train is about 250 km/h. Turkey’s High speed train never really goes above 260 and spends much of the time doing around 80 because of the winding tracks and city. There’s plans to expand it so keep your eye on the news for updates. There’s also a regular speed train that services other destinations around the country. The YHT isn’t particularly cheap (sometimes you can get plane tickets for less than the train) but the regular train is very affordable if you’re not in a hurry. Both trains are a great low-stress, romantic way to see the country. If you’re going a very long distance, look into a sleeper cabin. You can book tickets online here, but sometimes there are restrictions for how far in advance you can reserve a seat.
One additional advantage to traveling by rail compared to flying is that train stations will often be in the city itself whereas airports can be a long ways away and have long lineups and security.
Check out our full guide to renting, driving, and road tripping in Turkey!
Vehicle rentals are cheap and easy in Turkey. If you want to see multiple places off the beaten track then we highly recommend renting a vehicle. While Turkey is a diverse country it isn’t huge and so renting a vehicle can allow you to visit sites all over the country without being limited to bus routes and schedules. There are many amazing places in Turkey that can only be reached by a rented vehicle.
It works just like it does in the rest of the world. You’ll need your driver’s license from your country of origin and your passport for all the official papers. You do not need an international drivers license. Large (or even international) rental chains are better than companies which only exist in one particular city or town. DO NOT rent people’s private vehicles – yes, locals will occasionally try to rent you a vehicle under the table. The risk doesn’t match the reward. Take normal precautions when you get in, like photos of any damage you notice, etc. Finding a good price is easier away from airports, but the convenience is worth the few extra lira you’re going to spend if you don’t know the area.
Although we’ve never had a problem with it, some of our friends advise buying all the road-side assistance and insurance you can get. In the end, it’s up to you; Turkish traffic isn’t known for being particularly calm and orderly. In my thankfully limited collisions-in-Turkey experience, even a small amount of insurance helps a lot and has been honoured.
While I wouldn’t recommend hitchhiking in Turkey it can be done. Known as oto-stop in Turkish it’s fairly popular in the more remote areas where public transit is either rare or non-existent. In places like this you are just as likely to find yourself riding in a tractor as in a car. I’ve picked up a number of hitchhikers and no one has ever mentioned money and when I’ve hitchhiked no one has asked for money. That being said it would certainly be polite to offer some money.