Istanbul: Travel Basics

Foreigners at Istanbul Atatürk Airport wait in line to get a Turkish visa.Photo: Aziza Jamgerchinova (c) 2012
Foreigners at Istanbul Atatürk Airport wait in line to get a Turkish visa.
Photo: Aziza Jamgerchinova (c) 2013

By Aziza Jamgerchinova

For most students in the Global Immersion Program group, the first encounter with Turkey will be Istanbul Ataturk Airport. It is named for the founder of the modern Turkish republic, whose portrait you will see not only on the Turkish currency but also in many offices we will visit during the weeklong trip. The airport is a sleek modern facility with flights to all major destinations around the world. Americans need a visa to enter Turkey. The visa can be purchased at the airport, just prior to going through passport control. The current price of the visa is $20 and can be paid in cash. Once you get your visa and the passport stamped it’s a short walk to the baggage carousels. One annoyance is that the luggage carts are not free of charge as they are in many Western airports. Good luck getting Turkish lira coins at this point. Once you exit into the main airport concourse, you will find ATMs, local desks of Citibank and HSBC, and even a Starbucks in case you urgently need a caffeine fix.

Taxis are the easiest way to get to Grand Hyatt Istanbul where our group is staying. They run on meters, and taxi drivers know enough English to understand where you need to go. However, as a foreigner you might be somehow overcharged or taken on a longer route. A cab fare from Ataturk airport to Taksim takes about 20 minutes without traffic and costs around 50 New Turkish Lira (TRY), or roughly $28. During rush hour both the fare and the length of the trip expand. Taxi rates after midnight and before 6 a.m. are 1.5 times higher.

For those seeking an adventure or traveling on a budget, consider the subway that connects the airport to central Istanbul. Enter the subway station on the lower level of the airport by taking an escalator down to the basement of the main concourse. The subway fare is 1 TRY, or about 60 cents, and does not depend on the distance traveled. A subway ride to Taksim, a trendy neighborhood where we are staying, will take about 45 minutes. The trains are comfortable clean and safe. Expect curious passengers to be staring at you most of the time, and a few brave ones may even ask you some questions. While the subway service is excellent most foreigners prefer taking a taxi.

ATMs and currency exchanges are everywhere in Istanbul. In addition, most merchants – especially at gift shops – will gladly accept American dollars at a slightly lower exchange rate. Exchange offices are much more convenient than banks if you need to change money, and they stay open until at least 7 p.m. Banks close by 5:30 p.m. Keep in mind that some of the Turkish paper bills look alike so pay attention to what you give and what you receive in return. Traveler’s checks are too hard to cash in Turkey. But credit cards are widely accepted, especially at restaurants and bars frequented by Westerners.

Internet access can be spotty at Turkish hotels. Luckily central Istanbul is full of Internet cafes and restaurants with wireless. Several years ago, the municipal government installed free wireless in a few landmark locations. If you are walking along the Istiklal Caddesi the free connection will show up as an option on your device. An online registration will give you three hours of free access per day. If you think you will need a cell phone in Istanbul it’s worth buying a local SIM card. Roaming for American providers will be pricey.