Getting around Turkey: Transportation Tips
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Virtually the whole of Turkey is well covered by public transport, including long-distance buses, domestic flights, minibuses and ferries. The aged train network is being overhauled, with new high-speed lines linking the capital Ankara with İstanbul, Konya and Sivas. Late booking is the norm for public transport users in Turkey, but reserve well in advance for major public holidays – especially for flights and trains. Car rental rates are reasonable if you look around, and low-season rentals usually considerably cheaper than in high season.
For more (non-transport) information, read our round-up of fascinating facts about Turkey.
Turkey’s train network is run by Turkish State Railways (TCDD; w tcdd.gov.tr). Unfortunately, a major overhaul of the network means there is much current uncertainty as to which trains are operational. As an example, until work is completed on the new high-speed line between İstanbul and Ankara, scheduled for 2015, the only option for rail travellers is to take the bus to Eskişehir and then the high-speed train onto Ankara (and vice versa). The service between İstanbul and Konya has been cancelled, though it is still possible to reach İzmir by rail by taking the high-speed ferry from Yenikapı and the 6 Eylül Ekspres onto İzmir from Bandirma. A useful new high-speed service also links Ankara with Konya.
Until the situation becomes clearer, in general trains are probably best used to reach provincial centres such as Adana, Kayseri, Erzerum, Kars and Diyarbakır from Ankara. These trains are slow because the mountainous terrain has resulted in circuitous routes. As a result, journeys can sometimes take double the time by road. The advantages are the chance to stretch your legs, unwind and watch the scenery unfold at leisure. To get accurate schedule information, especially with the plethora of delays and re-schedulings caused by the network overhaul, go to the station in person, scan the placards and then confirm departures with staff. Several choices of seats are available on most routes, including first-class, reclining Pullman seats; first-class standard seats (usually in a six-seater compartment) and second-class seats (generally in an eight-seater compartment). For long distances, though, it’s advisable to get a sleeper. Cheapest are küşetli (couchettes), with either four or six bunks in a compartment depending on the route, and two-bedded yataklı (sleeping-cars) with a basin, soap, towel and air conditioning. All yataklı beds come with sheets, pillows and blankets provided, as do örtülü küşetli beds; for standard küşetli beds you’ll need to bring your own bedding. For maximum privacy, and for women travelling without male companions, it’s probably best to book a yataklı berth to avoid having to share. There are always (usually helpful but tip expected) porters on hand to make up beds. Note that all beds fold away in the day to convert the compartment into a seating area.
All long-distance services should have a licensed büfe wagon, offering simple meals at surprisingly reasonable prices, but it’s as well to check in advance (note that most wayside stations offer some sort of snacks). On major train routes it’s essential to reserve ahead, but unfortunately this cannot be done earlier than two weeks in advance – and it’s almost impossible to arrange sleeper facilities from a station that’s not your start point. It’s theoretically possible to book online, but the English version of TCDD’s website is so hard to use that you’d be brave to risk it (rail site w seat61.com has a step-by-step guide on this). Probably the best option for most travellers, especially for long-distance train travel, is to buy tickets from a reputable travel agency, though that incurs a small supplement.
Fares and passes
To give some idea of prices, a pullman seat for the lengthy 28hr, 1076km journey from Ankara to Kars (close to the Armenian border) costs TL35.5, while a bed in a two-berth yataklı compartment costs TL82.5. An economy seat on the Yüksek Hızlı Tren (High-Speed Train) for the 233km journey between İstanbul and Eskişehir costs TL25, and a pullman seat on the Bandirma to İzmir (334km) train is TL20. Buying a return ticket brings the fare down by twenty percent, while foreign students (with appropriate ID) and children also get twenty percent off. InterRail passes are valid, though a better bet for Turkey-only travel is the one-month TrenTur card (available at major stations) which costs TL175 a month for unlimited second-class travel, or TL550 for any class of sleeping car.
Long-distance buses are a key part of the Turkish travel experience and, despite keen competition from domestic flights and relatively high road accident rates, look set to remain so. Major otogars (bus stations) are veritable hives of activity, with dozens of separate companies vying for business and a plethora of places to eat, drink, souvenir shop or have your shoes shined.
The vehicles used by many companies are luxurious coaches, complete with air conditioning, though without on-board toilets. Journeys are sometimes accompanied by loud Turkish music or film soundtracks, though increasingly the better (and more expensive) companies use coaches with aeroplane-style screens set in the back of the seat in front, along with headsets. There’s a choice of TV channels and films, though very seldom in English. Several companies also have free wi-fi aboard, which is of far more use to the non-Turkish-speaking traveller. Traditional services remain, however, with attendants dishing out free drinking water and cologne for freshening up. In addition, most companies serve free coffee/tea/soft drinks and cakes on board. Every couple of hours or so there will be a fifteen-minute rest stop (mola) for tea, as well as less frequent half-hour pauses for meals at purpose-built roadside cafeterias.
Bus companies are private concerns and there’s no comprehensive national bus timetable, although individual companies often provide their own. Prices vary considerably between top- and bottom-drawer companies, though convenience of departure and on-board service are equally important criteria. If in doubt, inspect the vehicle out in the loading bay (peron in Turkish) and ask at the ticket office how long the trip will take.
Bear in mind that long-haul journeys (over 10hr) generally take place at night, and that because of rest stops buses never cover more than 60km per hour on average. As a broad example of fares, İstanbul–Antalya (a 450km trip) costs around TL45 with a standard bus company, TL60 with a premium company. The 1240km journey from İstanbul to Hopa, on the Black Sea near the Georgia border, costs TL85 with a premium company.
Most bus companies have ticket booths both at the otogars (bus terminals) and in the city centre. One of the big advantages of coach over plane travel is that, national holidays apart, you can usually just turn up at the bus station and find a seat. If you do this it’s worth checking out various companies to see which offers the best price and most convenient departure – touts that work for particular companies will not necessarily take you to the office of the company that has the cheapest or soonest departure.
Unacquainted women and men are not usually allowed to sit next to each other, and you may be asked to switch your assigned seat to accommodate this convention. If you buy your ticket at a sales office in the centre of town, ask about free servis (service) transfer buses to the otogar, especially if (as most now are) it’s located a few kilometres out. These buses will often also take passengers from otogars into town centres, but that system is more erratic. Of the country’s two premium coach companies, Ulusoy (w ulusoy.com.tr) and Varan (w www.ulusoy.com.tr), Ulusoy offer by far the most comprehensive network. Their seats are more comfortable than most and they don’t segregate single passengers by sex. Both have online booking systems in English. Kamil Koç (w kamilkoc.com.tr) and Pamukkale (w pamukkaleturizm.com.tr) are two of the best standard outfits, though neither has online systems in English.
A dolmuş (literally “stuffed”) refers to a car or small van (minibüs in Turkish) that runs along set routes, picking passengers up (give a normal taxi hand signal) and dropping them off along the way (just say inecek var or müsait bir yerde to be set down). Few cities have car-type dolmuşes left – these include Bursa and Trabzon. On busy urban routes it’s better to take the dolmuş from the start of its run, at a stand marked by a blue sign with a black-on-white-field “D”, sometimes with the destination indicated – though usually you’ll have to ask to learn the eventual destination, or look at the dolmuş’ windscreen placard. The fare is invariably a flat rate (usually TL2), making it very good value for cross-city journeys, not so great for a one-stop hop. In some cities (eg Antalya) dolmuşes have been banned because pulling in at random is both dangerous and slows traffic. Locals, confusingly, still refer to the midibuses that replaced them, and stop only at fixed points, as dolmuşes.
Inter-town and village services are always provided by twelve- or fifteen-seater minibuses, and in these instances the term “dolmuş” is seldom used. For the remotest villages there will only be two services a day: to the nearest large town in the morning and back to the village in mid-afternoon. Generally, though, minibuses run constantly between 7am or 8am and 7pm in summer, stopping at sunset in winter or extending until 10pm or 11pm (or even later) near popular resorts.
In larger towns, the main means of transport are city buses, which usually accept only pre-purchased tickets available from kiosks near the main terminals, newsagents, or from kerbside touts (at slightly inflated prices). This is certainly the case in İstanbul, where you have to use a pre-purchased token (jeton) or a smart travel card (İstanbul Kart). In some cities, such as Antalya, it’s still possible to pay on the bus.
Yellow city taxis are everywhere, with ranks at appropriate places. Hailing one in the street is the best way to get a cab, but in suburban areas you can call them from useful street-corner telephones; sometimes you just press a buzzer and wait for a cab to turn up. City cabs all have working, digital-display meters and fares are reasonable. Each town sets its own rates, which includes the minimum charge and a unit charge for the distance covered. The main problem with using a cab is that few drivers – even in tourist areas – speak much English, so you may have to write down your destination on a piece of paper. Overcharging of foreigners in İstanbul and major resorts is, unfortunately, not uncommon – make sure that the driver turns his meter on and (trickier) that he doesn’t take you all around the houses to reach your destination.
While the excellent intercity bus network makes travel between major centres easy, having a car allows you to visit off-the-beaten-track sites. But be warned – the standard of driving in Turkey is often both poor and aggressive and the enforcement of traffic rules arbitrary, all factors that have led to the high road accident rate with over four thousand fatalities per year. Driving during public holidays, especially the religious Şeker and Kurban bayrams, and an hour or so prior to the iftar (fast-breaking meal) during Ramadan, is especially dangerous.
Rules of the road
You drive on the right, and yield to those approaching from the right. Speed limits are 50km/h within towns (40km/h if towing a trailer or caravan); open road limits are 90km/h for cars, 80km/h for vans (70km/h if towing something); motorways (otoyol in Turkish), 120km/h for cars, 100km/h for vans and small trucks. Drink-driving laws are in line with those of the European Union – 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood – and drink-driving carries a fine of TL590. Even so, drink-driving is a major problem; in 2010, almost 140,000 Turkish drivers had their licences seized for the offence. Front seat belts are mandatory and it’s a fineable (TL66) offence not to buckle up – though few drivers do.
Traffic control points at the approaches to major cities are common. You’ll probably be waved through simply upon showing your foreign ID, especially if it’s a rental car. Make sure the rental company provides the insurance certificate, the pollution compliance certificate (eksoz muayene tasdiknamesi), and the vehicle registration, or certified copies thereof.
Speeding fines, levied on a sliding scale according to how far above the limit you were, are heavy, with penalties of up to TL300 (though there’s a considerable “discount” if the fine is paid within ten days). Usually you’ll be given a ticket, which you take to a designated bank to pay. Jumping a red light carries a fine of TL140.
If you have an accident serious enough to immobilize you and/or cause major damage to other people’s property, the traffic police will appear and administer alcohol tests to all drivers, results of which must also be submitted along with an official accident report (kaza raporu) in order to claim insurance cover. It used to be an offence to move a vehicle involved in a car crash before the police showed up, but if there is only minor damage it is now OK to do so providing you have exchanged details with the other driver.
Heed the signposted no-parking zones, especially in resorts, as towing is common and although the fines are not too heavy the hassle of finding the pound and negotiating language barriers is considerable. Generally, it’s wisest to patronize the covered (katlı) or open otoparks. In open car parks you may well be required to leave your keys so the attendant can move your car. If you leave your car in the street in some towns and cities, you may return to find a chit on your windscreen (typically TL5), to be paid to the roving attendant.
Road conditions have improved enormously over the last few years, with better surfaces and more and more dual carriageways. On both single and dual carriageways there’s usually a hard-shoulder area to the right of the driving lane, and often slower-moving vehicles pull into this to allow impatient drivers to overtake. Be very wary of doing this, especially at night, as you might find yourself ploughing into pedestrians or parked/broken-down vehicles. With continual road improvements being made countrywide, roadworks are often a (sometimes dangerous) nuisance – especially in the southeast. Sizeable archeological sites are usually marked by large white-on-brown-field signs, but side roads to minor sites or villages are often poorly signposted.
Typical hazards include drivers overtaking right, left and centre, failure to signal and huge trucks. Small-town driving hazards include suicidal pedestrians, horse-carts, speeding scooters and motorcycles (often with the entire family astride one vehicle) and tractors.
Toll highways, marked with white-on-green signs, are well worth the modest fees but to use them you’ll need to buy a KGS (Kartlı Geçis Systemi) smart card, as many toll booths will not accept cash. They are available from some rental outlets, several banks including Halkbank, İşbankası, Garanti Bankası and Ziraat Bankası, and some toll booths, and can be topped up at “KGS dolum noktası” machines at many motorway service stations.
Main toll roads include İstanbul–Ankara, İstanbul–Edirne; Adana–Gaziantep; Adana–Pozanti through the Cilician Gates; İzmir–Çeşme; and İzmir–Denizli.
Night driving is best not attempted by beginners – be prepared for unlit vehicles, glare from undipped lights, speeding intercity coaches and trucks and, in rural areas, flocks of sheep and goats and unlit tractors. Warning triangles are obligatory; make sure you put it on the road behind your vehicle following a flat, breakdown or accident, and ensure your rental car has one.
Fuel and repairs
Filling stations are commonplace and open long hours, so it’s difficult to run out of fuel. Fuel costs are very high owing to high taxes, and even diesel (mazot or dizel) is TL4.1 per litre. Petrol (benzin), available in four-star (süper) and lead-free (kurşunsuz) grades, goes for around TL4.6 per litre. Rental cars generally use unleaded, but in some remote eastern areas it may be difficult to find.
In western Turkey, roadside rest-stop culture conforming to Italian or French notions is the norm. You can eat, pray, patch a tyre, phone home, shop at mini-marts and, sometimes, even sleep at what amount to small hamlets (essentially the descendants of the medieval kervansarays) in the middle of nowhere. In the east you’ll find more basic amenities.
Credit and debit cards (Visa Electron, Visa and MasterCard but also American Express) are widely honoured for fuel purchases in much of Turkey (chip-and-PIN protocol is the norm), but carry cash in more remote rural areas and the east.
Car repair workshops are located in industrial zones called sanayis at town outskirts. To repair a punctured tyre (a common event in Turkey) head to a lastıkçı (tyre workshop); new tyres for small cars start from TL95. Always check that the spare and toolkit are sound and complete before leaving the rental agency.
To rent a car you need to be at least 21 with a driving licence held for at least one year. Your home country licence should be enough, but it is very helpful, especially at traffic-control points, to be able to show an international driver’s permit (IDP). A compact car rented from a major chain on the Aegean and Mediterranean coast will cost around €75 per day or €395 per week in high season (April–Oct), less in low season. Rent a car from a local firm in low season and you may be able to find something for around €30 a day, €40 in high season. Diesel-fuelled rental cars are becoming more widely available at a premium but are well worth considering if you intend doing a lot of kilometres. If you pick up a car at one of İstanbul’s two airports (and think carefully before you do so, the city traffic is horrendous, parking and route-finding difficult and accidents commonplace), you will be required to buy a KGS card for TL35, otherwise you won’t be able to leave the motorway at the exit booth – most do not accept cash!
Some rental companies allow rental in one town and drop-off in another – at a premium. The international players like Hertz have outlets at many of Turkey’s airports as well as downtown/resort offices; local outfits (some of which also offer advance, online booking services) may not have an office in the airport but with advance booking will bring the car to the airport and have someone meet you outside arrivals. Be warned: tanks are sometimes near empty so you need to fill up right away.
When checking any car out, agency staff should make a thorough note of any blemishes on the vehicle – go around the vehicle with them when they do this as you may be liable for scratches and dents not noted at the time of rental. Basic insurance is usually included, but CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) is not, and given typical driving conditions taking this out is virtually mandatory. Along with KDV (Value Added Tax), all these extras can push up the final total considerably. Rental insurance never covers smashed windscreens or ripped tyres.
Touring Turkey by bicycle is perfectly possible for experienced cyclists, so long as you avoid the hottest months, the busiest roads and don’t expect any kind of deference from motorists. Be prepared to do your own repairs as local mechanics experienced in working on state-of-the-art bikes are thin on the ground and confined to big cities such as Ankara, Antalya, İstanbul and İzmir. There is a well-developed home-grown mountain bike industry, and spares by such as Shimano are readily found in the big cities. Indeed, unless you’re passing through Turkey or are a real bicycle freak, it’s worth considering buying a home-grown model here, as that way the spares and repairs will be less problematic. Reasonable bikes start from TL350, though imported models are likely to be far more expensive than you could buy at home. In cities, lock your bike; in rural areas theft is not likely to be a problem, even if the curious stares of incredulous locals could be. Bikes-rental facilities are few and far between in Turkey; a notable exception is Cappadocia, particularly Göreme, and there are outlets in bigger resorts such as Antalya.
Given Turkey’s road conditions, only confident, experienced motorcyclists should consider driving here. Plenty of visitors risk a day or two on a scooter in resort areas. In larger resorts and big cities there will be at least one motorbike rental agency, or a car-rental company that also rents out motor-scooters and mopeds (mobilet). You’ll need an appropriate driving licence, and most companies insist that it has been held for at least a year. As with cars, always check the bike for scratches and dents before renting it. Helmets are mandatory, despite the endless numbers of helmet-less riders you’ll see.
Turkey’s domestic ferry network is confined to İstanbul and the Sea of Marmara. Şehir Hatları (w sehirhatlari.com) operates ferries along the Bosphorus, between the European and Asian sides of the same strait, and to the Princess Islands. Longer runs across the Sea of Marmara to Yalova (for Termal & İznik), Mudanya (for Bursa) and Bandırma (for the Aegean coast) are the preserve of İstanbul Deniz Ötobüsleri (w ido.com.tr) sea-buses. Any of the trans-Marmara car-ferry links save time compared to the dreary, circuitous road journey, but are relatively expensive with a vehicle.
Private companies offer services from the Mediterranean town of Taşucu to Girne in Northern Cyprus year-round, and catamarans run from the resort of Alanya in the summer months.
Travel by air is becoming the norm in what is a very big country, and makes sense for those on a tight schedule or who wish to visit far-flung places like Van or Erzurum. Turkish Airways (Türk Hava Yolları or THY; t 0212 225 0566, w thy.com) offers the most comprehensive domestic flight network, though most flights from the west of the country are routed through either İstanbul or Ankara. THY faces stiff competition from private airlines, and has set up its own budget wing, Anadolujet (t 444 2538, w anadolujet.com.tr), which covers many of the same domestic routes as its parent, with Ankara as the hub.
Sunexpress (t 444 0797, w www.sunexpress.com), which has direct flights from the Mediterranean gateway resort of Antalya to Adana, Ankara, Bodrum, Dalaman, Diyarbakir, Erzerum, Gaziantep, Hatay (Antakya), İstanbul, İzmir, Kars, Kayseri, Malatya, Mardin, Samsun, Trabzon and Van, was set up jointly by THY and Lufthansa.
Of the private airlines, Onur Air (t 0212 663 2300, w onurair.com.tr) offers direct flights from İstanbul to the following destinations: Adana, Antalya, Diyarbakır, Erzerum, Gaziantep, İzmir, Kayseri, Kars, Malatya, Samsun and Trabzon.
Atlasjet (t 444 0387, w atlasjet.com) covers the same destinations plus Nevşehir, Sivas and Van, while Pegasus (t 444 0737, w flypgs.com) covers Adana, Ankara, Antalya, Bodrum, Gaziantep, İzmir, Kayseri, Trabzon and Van.
Fares with THY are reasonable – for example, promotional one-way fares from İstanbul to Antalya (tax inclusive) are TL94, though more usual prices are from TL124. THY also offers variable student, youth and family discounts. Fares with Atlas, Onur, Pegasus and Sunexpress also start from as low as TL59 one way (occasionally less if there’s a special offer), and are very good value.
The key to finding cheap economy fares is early booking – generally six weeks to a month prior to departure, except at peak holiday periods when earlier booking is advised. These fares are often comparable to, if not cheaper than, inter-city bus fares, though getting to and from some airports by cab adds to the cost considerably.
Beware, last-minute cancellations (by text message in Turkish) are not unknown, particularly with Sunexpress. You’re told to appear at the airport 1hr 30min before your departure, but an hour is usually adequate leeway for completing security procedures. Baggage allowances vary between companies – usually it’s either 15 or 20kg, but make sure you check to avoid unwanted extra baggage charges.
Be sure to remember that İstanbul has two airports, one on the Asian and one on the European side. Some carriers use both airports, Sunexpress only Sabiha Gökçen on the Asian side of the city.
When buying tickets, ask to see the seating plan so that you can choose window or aisle, a front seat (better views) or avoid certain less comfortable seats, such as those above the wheels and immediately behind the central door, which have less legroom. Even more important, if you’re making a daytime trip in the heat of summer, work out the general direction of travel and try to get a seat on the shady side of the bus – a powerful sun beating down on the windows of even an air-conditioned bus makes quite a difference.