Turkey is a GREAT country to road trip in. The roads are great, sights are amazing, gas stations are plentiful, and with a car you suddenly find yourself within easy reach of Turkey’s thousands of off-the-beaten-track sights! If you’re like me and from a country and culture where driving 1000 kms is pretty normal, then you’ll find Turkey to be the perfect size to really explore all of the country’s diverse regions. Put all this together and you’ve got the perfect country for a road trip!
Where to drive from?
Anywhere. While you can totally start a road trip from Istanbul, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for a couple of reasons (though you do need to take a couple of days to see Istanbul’s highlights).
1. Istanbul is in the far northwest corner of the country so potentially quite far from where you’re headed, though you’ll want to take a look at the map to see if that’s the case.
2. Istanbul traffic has improved in the last few years with the opening of a couple bridges and tunnels in the region, but it still sucks. I’ve been caught in Istanbul traffic while still two provinces away! Also, if you’re going to have an accident it will inevitably be in Istanbul where the driving is way more intense than anywhere else in the country.
3. Flying in Turkey is dirt cheap and basically every airport will have car rental agencies there, often offering rentals at a slightly cheaper rate. So flying closer to your destination and renting from there is both easy and affordable.
My standard practice is fly from Istanbul and then rent a car from the airport at whichever city I fly to. These country airports are quite small so security, luggage, and picking up the car is super quick and easy.
Where should you go?
How many years do you have? Honestly the road network in Turkey is very good and there is so much to see.
Turkey is 783,000 square kilometres (smaller than my home province of B.C. in Canada, and 140,000 square kilometres larger than France), which is by no means small yet still a very manageable size if you want to explore the country from end to end. In other words, if you have the time, see it all!
Unfortunately, there are some places you as a foreigner shouldn’t go. These are exclusively in the South-Eastern region (more specifically the provinces of Kilis, Sirnak, southern Van, Bingöl, Hakkari, Bitlis, Diyarbakır, Muş, and Siirt). The issue in places like these is that your rental car will stand out and if you don’t know your way around things may not be safe.
That being said the country in general is very safe to explore and locals are extremely welcoming. Even much of the South-East is quite safe. For example, Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, and Van are popular tourist destinations.
Who should you rent from?
90% of the time I rent from the bigger international companies which I do for a couple of reasons:
1. I know (or hope really) that they’re not going to scam me (so far so good).
2. They have offices in the airport itself which saves time.
3. You’re guaranteed to have a new car in good condition.
As the international companies don’t rent vans I have rented bigger vehicles from other local companies but if you don’t speak Turkish it can be harder to arrange (though in places like Antalya and Cappadocia they may very well have someone who speaks English working there). While my rule is simply to go with whoever has the cheapest options, that tends to be Hertz 75% of the time.
What should you rent?
Honestly you can rent whatever you want. There’s usually a wide variety of cars available, but it is all cars. No trucks, no SUV’s (not real ones for going off-road anyways), and usually no vans. If you want a truck, SUV or a van you’ll want to go through a smaller local company, and the prices will be quite high.
My one piece of advice is this: if you’re planning on going outside of the normal touristic places, a brand-new Mercedes will attract a whole lot of attention that may make you uncomfortable. I felt awkward in a fancy Toyota when I drove into remote, half-abandoned villages, where people lived on pennies.
How should you rent?
You can try to rent once you show up at the airport but you won’t be able to guarantee availability. I always book online in advance both because you get a reservation, and because most companies offer an online booking discount of some sort.
But how will I communicate with the rental agency?
If you’re communicating with a rental agency before arrival then most offices will have someone who can speak (or at least write) a bit of English. If they don’t have someone who knows English they will usually be able to find someone. I have a friend that works at a car rental agency and when he has to send longer messages he’ll sometimes send them to me for proofing. People want to find a way to make it work.
If you prebook online then this wont be an issue as the staff usually has enough English to get you to sign papers and explain the insurance etc.
Fuel in Turkey
Gas stations are quite regular across the country. You’ll find that there are lots of abandoned gas stations but thankfully just as many new operational ones. Compared to local wages gas prices are very high, though if you’re converting prices into American Dollars or pounds it’s bad though not horrible. Most rental cars run on Euro Diesel though there’s often a couple gasoline cars available as well. Diesel is much more economical.
Gas stations are full serve (as in staff come to do the pumping). They’ll come to your window and ask what you want which referrers to how much fuel you want. You can say an amount of money (in lira), a number of litres, or simply say full (pronounced ‘fool’) to get the tank topped off.
Are there tolls?
Yes, but if you’re going far and need to make time they’re worth every penny!
There are tolls on the Istanbul bridges and tunnel but there’s no way around using them (other than a ferry that no one uses that also costs money).
There’s also a toll bridge from Istanbul’s eastern end to Bursa (the Osman Gazi Bridge). The cost has changed even in the one year it has been open (it’s about 71 TL at the moment) but it cuts down the length of the trip drastically.
While the bridges can cost a little bit more, the toll roads are quite cheap and if you need to make time then they’re by far your best option.
When entering a toll road you’ll need to choose between the HGS and the OGS payment gate. When you pick up the rental car make sure to check. If you forget there’s sometimes a sticker behind the rear-view mirror. If you’re still totally stumped, go through the joint HGS/OGS gate.
Turks park EVERYWHERE no matter how little sense it makes. Don’t be like that, it does cause problems and you might just get towed. The two best courses of action are to park as the locals are parking, only slightly more logically (so that if you’re also breaking some impossible-to-know rule they get towed first), or use a paid parking lot (otopark). The parking rates can be crazy cheap. I tried for a while to get a free spot only to give up eventually and head to the paid lot and find out it was a mere 5TL (1USD at the time) for the night.
Is my drivers license accepted in Turkey?
There are some stipulations regarding this though most of these have more to do with the rental company than Turkish law.
To rent a car you will need to have a valid driver’s licence, to have had a licence for at least one year, be at least 21 years old, and have a credit card. Your foreign drivers’ license will (usually) only be valid in the country for three months after entering the country. For more details concerning licensing contact a trusted car rental company.
Police checks are quite common in Turkey. When approaching a police check be prepared to stop, but if the police don’t wave you to the side then you’re free to continue.
If you are stopped roll down your window and have your passport, licence, and registration (pasaport, ehliyet, ruhsat) ready to hand over.
Paying bribes (rüşvet) isn’t a thing I have ever encountered or even heard of here so don’t worry about that.
What if I get into an accident?
If there’s a serious injury your priority needs to be ambulance which is reached by dialing 112, also call the traffic police at 155 where you be able to request English. Then call your rental agency.
If no one is injured and the accident is minor, take lots of detail and general pictures of the accident BEFORE moving the vehicles to a safe spot out of traffic.
Then call your car rental agency for further instructions. They may ask that you fill out an accident report, in which case you should be able to find the form in the glove compartment. The language on it isn’t hard but you will want some sort of translation app or book to help fill in the blanks properly.
What to bring
-Your drivers’ license, passport, and credit card
-Music of course! I like Turkish music, but radio reception is terrible outside of the cities so bring your own music if you don’t want to listen to static. I keep an auxiliary cable with me for when the Bluetooth isn’t working.
-Some sort of GPS. Your cell phone is usually fine, though Google Maps has been known to behave like a drunk once you get away from the cities and has led me down some pretty tiny backroads when the main road would have worked just fine. Once it actually led me in a full circle for no reason whatsoever. If you’re in a more remote area keep in mind that internet will be poor or non-existent (one reason why Google Maps starts to fail) so make sure you download your necessary maps ahead of time.
-Do you have WhatsApp? It’s the biggest communication app in Turkey and is used for all sorts of things; anything from sending in pictures of an accident to making arrangements with a van rental agency.
Things you need to know + Helpful Tips
-Right of way in a roundabout is backwards. Cars in the roundabout stop for cars coming in. This of course takes a normally efficient intersection and turns it into a set of 8 stop signs. It doesn’t work well but you need to know that this is the system.
-Many roundabouts aren’t even roundabouts. They’re just countryside intersections with big awkward circles in the middle. If you’re on the main road just keep going (unless there’s a light of course).
-Driving styles are very different from major cities like Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, and Diyarbakır, to any of the smaller cities or rural areas. If you drive like an Istanbulite in Çorum people are going to get upset with you so take it slower, give more room, and stop for pedestrians when you’re outside of the major cities.
-Cows hang out on the road. If you’re in rural Turkey there’s a good chance that livestock will be sharing the street with you at some point. I’ve stopped for cows and goats many times. You definitely don’t want to hit one so stay attentive.
-Minibus drivers are the craziest. They get into fights with each other fairly often and drive VERY aggressively. Give them room because they’re going to merge whether you like it or not.
-Stop lights are right above you when you stop so you often won’t be able to see them much of the time. People will honk to let you know when it changes.
-Scooter drivers do what they want and will come out of nowhere.
-When a faster car wants you to get out of the way at night they’ll flash their lights to let you know they’re coming. Just give them room to pass and carry on.
-Everyone is on their phone while driving here so keep in mind that they may not keep their lane position when going around a bend. Be quick to honk if this happens to you. Also, just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean it’s legal so keep off your phone while driving.
-People don’t often wear seat belts but you are required to so buckle up.
-If you’re looking to book a van make sure there isn’t an election first. All the political parties book up all the vans to cover in banners and mount loudspeakers on the roof. Once we showed up in a city only to find that the van we had booked was given to someone else with more clout than us. Again, this is something that one of the major chains wouldn’t do.
-Most important is that you can’t get good drive-thru coffee and there’s only a handful of good roadside coffee places in the country. This is probably the biggest drawback to road tripping in Turkey.
Turkish Driving Words
Benzin – Gas/Petrol
Dizel – Diesel
Benzin istasyon – Gas station
Ful – Full, used only for a full gas tank.
Kavşak – Intersection
Yol (Ankara Yolu) – road (Ankara road, the ending changes when part of a name)
Cadde (Istiklal Caddesi) – Street (Istiklal Street, the ending changes when in a name)
Ehliyet – Licence
Ruhsat – Vehicle registration
Askeri Bölgesi – Military Zone
Otopark – Parking lot
Ücretli – Paid (as in not free)
Yavaş – slow (or often used to mean be careful)
Çıkış – Exit
Dur – Stop
Kapalı – Closed
Tek Yön – One way
Yasak – Illegal
Girilmez – No entrance
Şehir Merkezi – City Centre
Dikkat – Be Careful or Attention
Trafik kazası – Traffic Accident
Kaza Raporu – Accident Report
Tır – Semi/Lorry
Yol Çalışma – Roadworks
One last tip…
Be flexible! Leave room in your schedule for discovery! The best part about road tripping in Turkey is that the whole country is open before you and there are new places just waiting to be found.
For more details or if you have questions check out Turing, the official, semi-governmental organization overseeing tourism and traffic.
For more information about other modes of transportation in Turkey check out Getting Around in Turkey for all you need to know about buses, taxis, trains, and more.