Larger cities are also served by airlines, at reasonable prices, which beats the experience of travelling by bus, especially for long distances. Tickets can be easily purchased at the domestic terminal in Istanbul and at the local counters of Turkish Airlines, Onur Air, Pegasus Airlines and Atlasjet, among others. Many major cities have daily connections to the transport centres of Ankara and Istanbul, while others only have flights on certain days. On arrival at regional airports, there is often a Havaş bus service to the city centre, which is much, much cheaper than taking a taxi. They can wait half an hour, but are available after the main flights arrive. In some places, there is a whole fleet of minibuses waiting for a big flight, then heading for the towns in the region. For example, if you are going to Agri in the east, a connecting minibus will take you to Dogubeyazit in about twenty or thirty minutes, so you don’t have to go to Agri first and then wait for a bus from Dogubeyazit. Ask for such easy connections when you arrive!
Turkey has a very good long-distance bus network with air-conditioned buses, reserved seats and a generally good quality of service, at least with the major operators. There are now some companies offering luxury buses with first-class seats and service. Standard buses, however, have narrower seats than those in economy class on planes. Buses are often crowded, but smoking is strictly prohibited. The use of mobile phones is also restricted on many buses.
Five major bus companies with websites (but with little support in English) are:
Bus travel is convenient in Turkey. Go to the otogar (bus station) in any of the larger cities and you will find a bus to almost any destination within half an hour or a couple of hours at most. The buses are driven by drivers and a number of assistants. During the journey you will be offered free drinks and a nibble or two, and stops are made at busy roadside restaurants every two and a half hours or so. The further east you travel, the more irregular the buses, but even places as far away as Dogubeyazit or Van are served by regular services to many places hundreds of kilometres away. Only the smaller towns do not have a direct bus to Istanbul or Izmir at least once every two days.
To find the right bus quickly, you need some help and therefore some trust. There are scammers waiting for you and some help you buy a ticket for a bus that does not leave in the next two hours. Sometimes there is simply no other bus, but on other occasions you sit there while other buses with the same destination leave long before. If you have time to lose: Check the departure (and arrival) times of other companies, this can generally save you time. However, if you hint that you really want to leave NOW (use expressions like “hemen” or “şimdi”, or “acelem var” – I am in a hurry), people will notice that you are in a hurry and you will leave on the next bus going to your destination.
If you have a choice between several providers, ask about the number of seats on the buses you are comparing. Basically, more capacity means more comfort (all bus seats have roughly the same legroom, but larger buses with 48 seats are certainly more comfortable than a Dolmuş with 15 seats, which may be called a “bus” by the selling company). In addition, the bus company with the largest board is usually the one with the most buses and routes. If possible, ask other travellers you meet about their experiences with different operators: even large operators have different standards of service, and even with the same operator, standards can vary from region to region.
Don’t be surprised if, halfway to a strange and distant destination, you are asked to get off the bus (your luggage is often already next door) and get on another one. The other bus “buys” you and takes you to your destination. This can even happen with “direct” or “non-stop” tickets.
Sometimes long-distance bus lines leave you stranded on a ring road around a city instead of taking you to the centre. This can be annoying. Find out in advance (and hope they don’t lie to you). On the other hand, many companies have “aracı service vehicles” or service vehicles for the centre if Otogar is on the outskirts of a city, as is often the case today. In some cities, these service vehicles are shared by many companies and there is a whole fleet of them meant for different parts of the metropolis. The company may also choose to combine passengers from several buses, which means you may have to wait for one or two other buses before setting off. Prepare your ticket to prove that you were on a bus (although most of these services are offered in good faith). In some cities (including Ankara, except Istanbul), the municipality has banned the use of public buses because of their impact on traffic. In such cases, you may have to take a public bus or metro to get to your destination. The use of taxis is probably to be avoided (at least from Otogar) as they tend to abuse their monopoly position by refusing to go to closer destinations, being rude to the passenger, charging the night fare, etc. If you need to take a taxi, it is usually advisable to do so from outside the bus station.
Seating on buses is partly indicated by the “koltuk numarası” or seat number on your ticket, partly by the ritual line-up of women next to women, couples together, etc. So don’t get too upset if you have to give up your seat. Generally, as a foreigner, you will have the best seat most of the time.
A word of advice: it is often easier to sit in the back regardless of the number of koltuks and not be disturbed for a large part of the journey. This is especially true if you are travelling alone and want to keep it that way, even if the last row is reserved for the service driver who wants to sleep. And remember: many buses take short-term tickets on the route and park them in the last two or three rows. Also bear in mind that the back of the bus can be noisier than the front, as that is where the engine is.
If you have a bicycle, it will be transported free of charge. On most buses it fits in the luggage compartment of the bus – make sure you have the tools to fold your bike as small as possible (height is the most important factor).
Fez Bus. This is another alternative, hop on hop off travel network that connects Istanbul with the most popular tourist destinations in Western Turkey and some other destinations. The buses go from hostel to hostel and have an English-speaking tour guide on board. The ticket can be purchased for a few days or for the whole summer. Departures are every other day. More expensive than the local buses, but can be much less strenuous and offer a different experience. The main office in Istanbul is in Sultanahmet, next to Orient Youth Hostel, on Yeni Akbiyik cd. [www]
Long-distance trains in Turkey fall into three categories: (i) very fast and modern; (ii) slow and scenic; and (iii) discontinued for the long term due to reconstruction or other reasons. The train operator is TCDD, the Railways of the Republic of Turkey, visit their website for timetables, fares and reservations. In autumn 2016 they are creating a new customer portal, www.tcddtasimacilik.gov.tr, but this is a work in progress, as is the railway itself.
Most Turkish cities have some kind of rail connection, but not the Mediterranean and Aegean resorts, which have only sprung up in recent years and are located in the mountains (Kuşadası is the exception, as it is near Selçuk on the route between Izmir and Pamukkale). For some destinations, connecting buses join the trains, for example in Eskişehir for Bursa and in Konya for Antalya and Alanya. The main cities also have metro and suburban lines, which are described on their pages.
Very fast and modern trains are called YHT: yüksek hızlı tren. They serve Istanbul, Eskişehir, Konya and Ankara. They are clean, comfortable and modern; fares are low and reservation is mandatory (see below, it is the same reservation procedure as for slow trains). They travel on new reserved lanes at up to 300 km/h and can thus keep to the timetable. For example, from Istanbul Pendik to Ankara (six hours per day, standard one-way fare about 20 euros), and likewise 4½ hours to Konya (two per day). Its main drawback is the absence of the YHT or any other main train line into the centre of Istanbul – currently you have to take the metro to Pendik and then walk or take a taxi to the YHT station. See the Istanbul page for more information on this 90-minute transfer, but note that Pendik is convenient for Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW).
As the JHT routes are short, they only run during the day and only offer snacks. Train announcements in English prohibit “tobacco, alcohol, smelly food and peanuts”. Anti-smoking and anti-alcohol rules are enforced, it is not clear how zealous they are about peanuts. Between cities, the JHTs make a few stops. The only one likely to be of interest to visitors is Sincan, as a hub with Ankara’s suburban system.
The JHT network is being gradually expanded so that trains could reach the centre of Istanbul again by 2018. Other lines are under construction, from Ankara to Kars, from Konya to Adana and from Istanbul to Edirne. The long-term strategy is to create a high-speed, high-capacity line for passengers and freight from Edirne on the western border to Kars in the east.
However, where JHT traffic stops, line closures and interruptions immediately begin, as the Ottoman-era Turkish railways have been closed for the 21st century. The main closures and suspensions (until 2016) are as follows
- From Ankara to Irmak, 60 km east: bus connection for trains to Erzurum and Kars (Doğu Express), Elazig and Tatvan on Lake Van (Vangölü Express) and Diyarbakirund Kurtalan (Guney Kurtulan Express) ;
- From Konya to Karaman, 100 km further east: bus connection for the Toros Express to Adana ;
- From Van Est to Tabriz and Tehran in Iran (the former Trans-Asia Express) cancelled;
- East of Adana to Gaziantep cancelled;
- Between Izmir and Bandirma (for the ferry to Istanbul) cancelled;
- No long-distance trains in the centre of Istanbul as described above;
- The Ankara railway station, suburban railway and metro are partially closed, but the JHTs are not affected.
More details on these routes can be found on the pages of the cities concerned and on the TCDD website.
The conventional trains are slow and picturesque, with the emphasis on slow: Most run at night, and trips from Ankara to eastern cities take 24 hours. They are infrequent, daily at best, sometimes only one or two a week. The typical train consists of a sleeper (yataklı vagon), a couchette (kuşetli) and three open sedans (single row – aisle – double row arrangement), as well as a buffet that may or may not include food, so bring your own. Their cleanliness and comfort depend on the crowd: In quiet times they are fine, but when they are crowded they get dirty quickly. They are difficult to use for people with reduced mobility, and the reconstruction of the station will make them even more difficult to reach. In principle, these trains are non-smoking, but there is often a smell of tobacco smoke on board. They are diesel-powered and run on one track: on straight stretches they can do 100 km/h, but in the mountains they climb steep slopes and take sharp turns. As a result, they usually start on time but get held up on the way.
You can book long-distance trains (”anahat”) on the TCDD website; international trains can be booked by other means (see below) but not through the website; and regional trains (”bolger”) are not bookable. Check the timetable first for up-to-date information on timetables and disruptions. Note, however, that the timetable and reservation system sometimes gives different service days for certain services without good reason. The timetable only shows the main stations where the train waits for about 10 minutes, and you may have just enough time to rush to the station kiosk to fill up. Trains also stop briefly at many small roadside stops where food vendors sometimes board.
To buy your ticket, you then go to the reservation system, but it is only open 15 to 30 days in advance – if you keep looking, you get the impression that there is no train. Select your preferred train connection and seat/sleeper. Then the system will show the price and give you the option to buy immediately or hold the option for a few days. Write down your confirmation number immediately and print your ticket at home whenever it suits you – no need to validate it at the station. It is unclear whether a flexible ticket on your phone is currently allowed without validation.
The Inter Rail Global Pass and the Balkan Flexipass are valid on all trains in Turkey and trains to and from Europe, but you may need to reserve a seat. TCDD also offers discounts for people under 26 (genç bilet, whether you are a student or not) and for people over 60 (yaşlı bilet). Check their website for other discount offers, but these are usually for commuters and people repeating multiple journeys.
Tickets can also be bought at train stations (either at ticket offices or self-service kiosks), travel agencies or PTT post offices. The main stations (including Sirkeci station, which has no train) accept credit cards and can book you a ticket for any train, but they are unlikely to accept non-Turkish cash. (And these days it can be difficult to find a money changer as they are being replaced by ATMs). It is strongly recommended to book in advance in summer, on Fridays and Sundays, and around public and religious holidays. Of course, you can get a reservation for immediate departure, and on trains other than JHT trains there are usually unreserved seats and a crowd on the platform to claim them. Don’t forget that in main stations there can be a security queue just to enter the station concourse, then another queue for tickets, then another queue for security and document control to get onto the platform. You can’t just swing and jump on it.
As in all neighbouring countries (except Cyprus off the south coast of Turkey), driving in Turkey is on the right-hand side of the road.
It is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving. The maximum allowed blood alcohol content for drivers was recently lowered to 0.01 grams per litre, which means that even a pint of beer drunk just before driving will be temporarily confiscated and you will have to pay a fine of over 800 TL (265 €/US$) if you are sober. Seatbelts must be worn in the front and back of the car, but although not wearing a seatbelt carries a fine, this is not always respected by local residents, including the drivers themselves.
Turkish panels are almost identical to those used in Europe, and the differences are often insignificant. Place names on a green background lead to motorways (on which you have to pay a toll unless it is a bypass around or within a city); on a blue background they indicate other motorways; on a white background they indicate country roads (or a road within a city for which the city authorities are responsible) ; and on a brown background, they indicate that the road leads to a historical site, an ancient city, a place of tourist interest or a city outside Turkey (these signs were on a yellow background until a few years ago, so there is still a possibility that there are yellow signs here and there that have not been replaced). Also note that these signs are not always standardised; for example, some of the blue signs may lead to country roads.
Today, most interurban roads avoid the city centres by bypassing them. If you want to enter the centre for shopping, eating or other activities, follow the signs to Şehir Merkezi, which are usually white and no longer accompanied by translations, although you can still spot some old signs that say “Centrum” in addition to Şehir Merkezi. City centres usually have two or more entrances/exits through the ring roads surrounding them.
As Turkey uses the metric system, all distances on signs are in kilometres unless otherwise stated (as are metres, but never miles).
Use of the motorways is free of charge, with the exception of the interurban motorways (otoyol). Although the quality and size of Turkish roads varies greatly, the toll motorways are three-lane and very smooth and fast. Motorways are explicitly signposted with separate green signs and road numbers preceded by the letter O. The motorway network currently consists of roads extending west, south and east of Istanbul (to Edirne, Bursa and Ankarares respectively), a network in the central Aegean stretching from Izmir, and another connecting the major city of Adana in the eastern Mediterranean with its neighbouring cities in all directions.
Most motorways no longer have toll booths (two glaring exceptions are the third bridge over the Bosphorus north of Istanbul and the bridge and motorway over the Gulf of İzmit towards Bursa, where you can still pay cash) and instead have lanes that automatically scan the windscreen for RFID stickers (HGS) or tags (OGS) as you enter and exit. HGS stickers are easier to use and allow you to install as many lira as you like. To buy an HGS sticker, look for the service buildings at the main toll stations. They are also available at post offices.
The KGS, a system with prepaid cards, was abolished.
In addition to the distance driven, the motorway toll also depends on the type of vehicle you have. For example, the Edirne-Istanbul motorway – about 225 km and the main access point to Istanbul from Europe – costs 8.50 TL for a car. Recent additions to the network, such as the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge and the Osman Gazi Bridge (which cross the Bosphorus and the Gulf from İzmit, respectively), tend to be much more expensive per kilometre.
Despite neighbouring countries with the richest oil reserves, fuel in Turkey is ridiculously expensive, in fact one of the most expensive in the world due to very high taxes. For example, a litre of unleaded petrol costs just under TRY 5 (€ 2.15 – almost USD 11 per US gallon!). Diesel and LPG are easier on your wallet (and the environment in the case of LPG), but not as drastically.
Petrol stations (benzin istasyonu) are often lined up along the motorways, most (if not all) are open 24 hours a day and accept credit cards (you have to get out of the car and enter the petrol station building to enter your PIN code if you use a credit card). At all these stations you can find unleaded petrol (kurşunsuz), diesel (dizel or motor) and LPG (liquid petroleum gas). In many (if not most) of them you can also find CNG (compressed natural gas, CNG). The exception, however, are the petrol stations in the villages away from the main roads, as they often only offer diesel, which is used to run agricultural machinery. It is advisable to keep your gas tank full when travelling off the main roads. Also, petrol stations on (toll) motorways are less frequent than on other roads, usually once every 40-50 km. Be sure to refuel at the first petrol station you pass (there are signs indicating that you will soon pass one) when the warning sign “Tank empty” is lit.
Biofuels are not common. The closest thing to a biofuel for the occasional driver is sold at some petrol stations affiliated to the national Petrol Ofisi chain under the name of bio-booze. But it is not a biofuel at all: it consists of some bioethanol (2% of the total volume) mixed with pure petrol, which makes up the rest (98%). Biodiesel is still at the experimental stage and is not available on the market.
In all cities there are repair shops, usually grouped in complexes dedicated to self-repair (in Turkish usually somewhat incorrectly called sanayi sitesi or oto sanayi sitesi, meaning “industrial zone” or “self-industrial zone”), located on the outskirts of the cities. And in all cities there are large factories (sales, service, spare parts) that are larger than the sanayi sitesi, called oto plaza.
Rent a car
You can rent a car to travel around Turkey from an international or local car rental company. If you are arriving by plane, you will find car rental counters in the arrival terminals of all airports, such as Istanbul IST Atatürk Airport.
The minibus (or minibuses, as they are called in Istanbul) is a small bus (sometimes a car) that travels on almost fixed routes. The journey can be from the outskirts of a big city to the centre or within a city, but it can also take three to four hours from one city to another if the journey is not commercial for big buses. Sometimes they make a diversion to take elderly people home or to pick up heavy luggage. They are found in cities as well as in intercity transport. All along the route, people get on and off (shout “Inecek var” – “someone to get off” – so it stops when you are inside). The driver is usually called “kaptan” (captain) and some people behave accordingly. The fare is collected throughout the journey. In some cases a specially named passenger gets a discount, in others a steward who may get off halfway to pick up a Dolmuş from the same company on the return journey, and in most cases the driver himself. If the driver takes the money himself, it is passed from the last rows to the first and the change is collected the same way. On some routes, tickets are sold in advance, and things can get complicated if some passengers have bought a ticket and others have sat inside waiting – perhaps for half an hour – but had no ticket.
The concept of the Dolmuş in Istanbul is somehow different from the rest of Turkey. The vehicles are different, they take the maximum. They don’t tend to pick up passengers along the way, they leave immediately when they are full, and many of them operate 24 hours a day. Their name comes from the verb “dolmak”, meaning “to fill”, as they did not start the journey without a decent number of passengers. They usually leave when they are full, but sometimes start at fixed times, regardless of the number of passengers.
Fast ferries (hızlı feribot) are fast (50-60km/hour) catamaran-like ferries that connect e.g. Istanbul with the other side of the Sea of Marmara. They reduce the journey time considerably. From the Yenikapı pier in Istanbul (southwest of the Blue Mosque), for example, you can get to Bursa-Otogar in two hours, with less than an hour for the boat trip to Yalova. Similar services operate to connect different parts of Istanbul with the Asian part, or to places further away from the Bosphorus. And this type of fast ferry is increasingly used throughout the country, wherever there is enough water.
There are also ferry connections between Istanbul and Izmir and between Istanbul and Trabzon in the eastern Black Sea region, with the ships of the latter line also stopping in all major cities along Turkey’s Black Sea coast. Unfortunately, however, these two routes are only served during the summer months.
On all inhabited Turkish islands, there is at least one daily boat trip in summer to the nearest town or village on the mainland. However, as winter conditions on the seas can be harsh, the frequency of travel decreases considerably due to bad weather.
Perhaps one of the best cruising grounds in the world, Turkey offers thousands of years of history, culture and civilisation in a stunning mountainous setting. The coastline is a mix of wide gulfs, quiet bays, shady beaches, uninhabited islands, small villages and bustling towns. Many of these places are still only accessible by boat. Rare in the Mediterranean, you can still find some solitude on a private charter in Turkey. In fact, Turkey offers more coastline than any other Mediterranean country. The best way to see Turkey is from your own private yacht, on your own schedule. Turkey is home to some of the most beautiful yachts in the world, known as schooners.
To put it simply, long-distance cycling is not very easy in Turkey, mainly for two reasons: Most of the country is hilly, and dedicated cycle paths are almost non-existent, especially along interurban roads. That said, most coastal towns now have cycle lanes of various shapes and lengths along the coast (though built for leisure rather than serious traffic), and most motorways built in the last decade or so have fairly wide and well-paved verges that can be used as cycle lanes.
If you have already made up your mind and want to try cycling on your trip to Turkey, always stay on the right-hand side of the road as much as possible; avoid riding at night outside towns or lit roads, don’t be surprised by drivers honking their horns and don’t ride on motorways, it’s forbidden. You may prefer country roads with much less traffic, but there is also the problem of free-roaming sheepdogs, which can sometimes be very dangerous. Country roads also have far fewer road signs than motorways, making them a maze where it is easy to get lost even if you are not Turkish and don’t have a detailed map.
Air can be pumped into tyres for free at any petrol station. Bicycle repair shops are rare in cities and often in hard-to-reach places; motorbike repair shops can be tried as an alternative (but they are very reluctant to repair a bicycle if they are busy with customers who have motorbikes).
On the Prince Islands of Istanbul, renting a bicycle is a fun, cheaper and obviously more pet-friendly alternative to renting a horse-drawn carriage. On these islands, the well-paved roads are only used by horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and public service vehicles (such as ambulances, police cars, school buses, rubbish trucks, etc.).
Almost all drivers have an idea of what the universal hitchhiker sign (“thumb”) means. Do not use any other sign that could be equivalent to a danger signal. In addition to the thumb, it is certainly useful to have a sign with the name of the destination. The waiting time for a lift is usually no more than half an hour, although this varies greatly depending on traffic density (as elsewhere) and region. For example, it usually takes much longer to pull up a trip to Mediterranean Turkey than to the Marmara region. The best places to hitchhike are intersections with traffic lights where the ring roads and the road coming from the city centre cross. Don’t move too far away from the traffic lights so that drivers are slow enough to see you and stop; but stay far enough away from the traffic lights so that you are safely on the side of the road. Do not try to hitchhike on the highways, no one will be slow enough to stop, it is also illegal to enter the highways as a pedestrian. Don’t start hitchhiking before you have left a city, as cars may be going to other parts of the city and not to your destination. Unless you are in a hurry, try to avoid hitchhiking after dark, especially if you are travelling alone.
Even if the drivers only take you along to say a word or two during their long solo ride, you should always be alert and not asleep.
Sometimes you may not find anyone driving directly to your destination. So don’t refuse someone who has stopped to give you a lift – refusing someone who has stopped to give you a lift is rude – unless they drive a few kilometres further and take a road that doesn’t reach your destination at an upcoming turn-off. You may have to change several cars even on a 100-km journey, driving from town to town. However, due to the large number of trucks transporting goods for foreign markets, there may be unexpected long-distance journeys, for example from a town in western Turkey to Ukraine or southern Germany.
Few but some drivers – especially pickup drivers – may ask you for money (“fresh”). Refuse and tell them that if you had money to waste, you would be on a bus and not on the side of the road.
Drivers who remain in this area may point downwards (towards the lane) or in the direction of travel, or flash their lights as they pass to indicate that they would not make a good long-distance drive. Smile and/or wave your hand to show courtesy.
There are two marked long-distance hiking trails in Turkey, one of them is the famous Lycian Way, between Fethiye and Antalya, the other is the Way of Saint Paul, between Antalya and Yalvaç in the north, in the Turkish Lake District. Both are about 500 km long and signposted with painted stones and signs. As the Lycian Way is much older, it offers more opportunities for shopping and staying overnight in the villages along or near its route.
The eastern Black Sea region includes some beautiful and quite long trekking routes among the greenest of the green plateaus, even far above the clouds, and some travel agencies in Turkey’s main cities offer guided trekking tours – including transport – in this region.
Within cities, the main roads and avenues that normally give priority to pedestrians have pedestrian crossings painted white or, less commonly, yellow (zebra crossings). However, for many motorists these are just decorative designs on the pavements, so it is best to cross roads where the traffic lights are. Nevertheless, make sure that all vehicles have stopped, as it is not uncommon for drivers not to stop within the first few seconds of the traffic lights turning red for vehicles. On wide roads, pedestrian overpasses and pedestrian subways are preferable. On narrow main roads, you can cross the road anytime and anywhere during rush hour as cars are in stop-go-stop-go mode due to heavy traffic. Even on narrow streets within residential areas, you do not have to stay on the pavement, but can walk in the middle of the road and then move aside when a car is coming.