Many countries could learn a thing or two from Turkey about how to run an effective and affordable transport system. Turkey’s intercity bus system is as good as any you’ll find, with modern coaches crossing the country at all hours and with very reasonable prices. The railway network is useful on a few major routes, and becoming an increasingly popular choice as improvements are made. And finally, flying is an excellent option for such a large country, and fierce competition between the many domestic airlines keeps tickets affordable.
İstanbul Fast Ferries (İstanbul Deniz Otobüsleri, İDO; 0212-444 4436; www.ido.com.tr) operates high-speed car ferry services crossing the Sea of Marmara. There are services from İstanbul (Yenikapı terminal) to Yalova (for Bursa), Bandırma (for İzmir), and a third, to Mudanya (for Bursa).
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a potentially serious risk.
If you must otostop (hitch), you should probably offer to pay something towards the petrol, although most drivers pick up foreign hitchers for their curiosity value. Private cars are not as plentiful as in Europe, so you could be in for a long wait on some routes.
As the country is large and vehicles relatively scarce, short hitches are quite normal. If you need to get from the highway to an archaeological site, you hitch a ride with whatever comes along, be it a tractor, lorry or private car.
Instead of sticking out your thumb for a lift you should face the traffic, hold your arm out towards the road, and wave it up and down as if bouncing a basketball.
Buses form Turkey’s most widespread and popular means of transport. Virtually every first-time traveller to the country comments on the excellence of the bus system compared with that in their home country. The buses are well kept and comfortable too, and you’ll be treated to snacks and tea along the journey, plus liberal sprinklings of the Turks’ beloved kolonya (lemon cologne).
Most Turkish cities and towns have a central bus station generally called the otogar, garaj or terminal. Besides intercity buses, the otogar often handles dolmuşes (minibuses that follow prescribed routes) to outlying districts or villages. Most bus stations have an emanetçi (left luggage) room, which you can use for a nominal fee.
These are some of the best companies, with extensive route networks.
Kamil Koç (444 0562; www.kamilkoc.com.tr in Turkish)
Ulusoy (444 1888; www.ulusoy.com.tr)
Varan (444 8999, 0212-551 5000; www.varan.com.tr)
Bus fares are subject to fierce competition between companies, and sometimes you can bargain them down by claiming poverty, student status etc. However, this doesn’t always work. Prices also reflect what the market will bear, so that the fare from Rich City X to Poor Village Y may not always be the same as from Poor Village Y to Rich City X.
We give sample fares from all Turkey’s main bus stations under Getting There & Away in the individual place entries. Typically, a bus ticket from İstanbul to Çanakkale costs €9, from İstanbul to Ankara around €22, and from İstanbul to Göreme (Cappadocia) €17 to €22.
While it obviously makes sense from a town-planning point of view to move the otogars out of the town centres, what this tends to mean is that real journey times are becoming a bit how-long-is-a-piece-of-stringish. The timings we give are from otogar to otogar, but you may need to add up to an hour in either direction for getting to and from the otogars. This is especially true if you’re using a servis (shuttle minibus) to get there. As otogars move further out of town, so most bus companies provide a servis bus to take passengers to and from the city centre. When buying a ticket ask whether there’s a servis and when it leaves for the otogar. On arrival, say ‘Servis var mı?’ to find out whether there’s a servis into town. Rare cities where there are no servises include Bursa, Konya and Safranbolu.
Servis drivers like to allow plenty of time for getting to the otogar, which means that in Göreme, for example, you must usually be at the pick-up point for transfer to Nevşehir a good 45 minutes before the bus is scheduled to leave even though it’s just a 15-minute drive.
While these services are free, they do have some snags. You may find yourself waiting around interminably for another busload of passengers to arrive or for your driver to be dragged away from the TV to run his servis. Even when he shows up, the journey can still be protracted as he drops each and every passenger off at their doorstep (well, perhaps not literally). If time is more important than money, then forget it and jump into a taxi.
Also, beware pension owners who lead you to believe that the private minibus to their pension is the bus company servis. This certainly happens at Nevşehir otogar and probably at other places too.
For most city buses you must buy your bilet (ticket) in advance at a special ticket kiosk, either at a major bus terminal or at a transfer point. Some shops near bus stops also sell local bus tickets, which normally cost around €0.65.
In some cities, notably İstanbul, private buses operate on the same routes as municipal buses. The private buses are usually older, accept either cash or tickets, and follow the same routes as municipal buses.
Several cities also have overground tramvays (trams), which are a quick and efficient way of getting around; normally you pay around €0.65 to use a tram.
Driving around Turkey gives you unparalleled freedom to enjoy the marvellous countryside and coastline. You can stop at the teeny roadside stalls selling local specialities, explore back roads leading to hidden villages, and picnic at every opportunity, just like locals. Road surfaces and signage is generally good along main roads at least – the most popular route with travellers, along the Aegean and Mediterranean coast, offers excellent driving conditions. Hiring a scooter to explore the rugged Hisarönü Peninsula of the Western Mediterranean is a day out you’ll cherish long after you’ve recovered from the knuckle-whitening corners.
The bad news is that Turkey has one of the world’s highest motor-vehicle accident rates. Turkish drivers are not particularly discourteous, but they are impatient and incautious. They like to drive at high speed and have an irrepressible urge to overtake. To survive on Turkey’s highways, drive cautiously and very defensively, and never let emotions affect what you do. Avoid driving at night, when you won’t be able to see potholes, animals on the road, or even vehicles driving with their lights off!
When you’re planning your trip, be mindful that Turkey is a huge country and spending time in the car travelling huge distances will eat up your travel time. Consider planes, trains or buses to cover long distances and hiring a car for localised travel.
You need to be at least 21 years old, with a year’s driving experience, to be able to hire a car. If you don’t pay with a major credit card you will have to leave around €500 cash deposit. Most hire cars have standard (manual) transmission; you’ll pay more for automatic transmission. Note that most of the big-name companies charge a €100 to €140 drop-off fee (eg pick up in Antalya, and drop-off in Dalaman).
You can hire a car from the big international companies (Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz and National) in all main cities, towns and most airport. Avis (www.avis.com.tr/english) has the most extensive network of agencies, but Europcar (www.europcar.com) is often the best value for money and doesn’t charge a drop-off fee. Recommended local companies include Decar (www.decar.com.tr), with no drop-off fee, Car Rental İstanbul (0533-467 0724; www.carrentalturkey.info) and Green Car (www.greenautorent.com), the largest operator in the Aegean region. Turkey Car Hire Express (turkey.carhireexpress.co.uk) is also a good place to start your search for a hire car.
If your car incurs any accident damage, or if you cause any, do not move the car before finding a police officer and asking for a kaza raporu (accident report). The officer may ask you to take a breath-alcohol test. Contact your car-hire company within 48 hours. Your insurance may be void if it can be shown that you were operating under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, were speeding, or if you did not submit the required accident report within 48 hours.
The total cost of a standard hire vehicle arranged during the summer months (for a week with unlimited kilometres, including tax and insurance) ranges from €400 to €500. Daily hire is from €40 to €70, depending on the size and type of car and the hire location. Hiring on the spot tends to be cheaper than booking ahead, but you run the risk of there not being any cars available. Baby-seat hire is usually available for around €5.50 per day.
You must have third-party insurance, valid for the entire country (not just for Thrace or European Turkey), or a Turkish policy purchased at the border.
If you hire a car there will be two types of mandatory insurance included in the fee, the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), which covers damage to the hire car or another, and the Theft Protection (TP) insurance. Personal accident insurance is usually optional; you may not need it if your travel insurance from home covers the costs of an accident.
Turkish State Railways (Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Devlet Demiryolları, TCDD; 0216-337 8724; www.tcdd.gov.tr) runs services across the country. Lines laid out during the late Ottoman era rarely follow the shortest route, though a few newer, more direct lines have since been laid, shortening travel times on the best express trains. However, with three nasty train crashes in the space of a few weeks in 2004, including one on the newly inaugurated high-speed İstanbul–Ankara run, some contest that the network needs a complete overhaul. Certainly the government is throwing money at the system, hoping to build a fast-rail network throughout the country. Fast-rail links between İstanbul and Ankara (a new line), Ankara and Konya, Sivas and Kars, and Edirne and Kars have started or are on the drawing board.
The train network covers central and eastern Turkey fairly well, but doesn’t go along the coastlines at all, apart from a short stretch between İzmir and Selçuk. For the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts you could go by train to either İzmir or Konya, and take the bus from there.
In terms of what to expect, train travel through Turkey has a growing number of fans embracing the no-rush travel experience: stunning scenery rolling by picture windows, the rhythmic clickity-clacks through a comfy slumber and the immersion with friendly locals. The occasional unannounced hold-up and public toilets gone feral by the end of the long journey are all part of the adventure. And if you’re on a budget, an overnight train journey is a great way to save accommodation costs.
The key to enjoying train travel in Turkey is to plan stops en route for long-haul trips and to know what to expect in terms of how long a journey will take. For example, the Vangölü Ekspresi from İstanbul to Lake Van (Tatvan), a 1900km trip, takes over 40 hours – and that’s an express! The bus takes less than 24 hours, the plane less than two hours. Popular train trips include İstanbul to Ankara, and the overnight trains between İstanbul and Konya, İstanbul and Tehran (Iran), and İstanbul and Aleppo (Syria). Make sure you double-check all train departure times.
Note that train schedules usually indicate stations rather than cities. So most schedules refer to Haydarpaşa and Sirkeci rather than İstanbul. For İzmir, you will probably see Basmane and Alsancak, the names of the two main stations.
Turkish trains have several seating and sleeping options. Most of the trains have comfortable reclining Pullman seat carriages. Some also have European-style compartments with six seats, usually divided into 1st- and 2nd-class coaches. Sometimes seats can be booked in these compartments, sometimes they’re ‘first come, best seated’.
There are three types of sleeper. A küşetli (couchette) wagon has shared four- or sometimes six-person compartments with seats that fold down into shelf-like beds. Bedding is not provided for these wagons unless it’s an örtülü küşetli or ‘covered’ couchette. A yataklı wagon has private European-style sleeping compartments, with wash basin and all bedding provided, capable of sleeping one to three people – these are the best option for women travelling on their own on overnight trips.
There is usually a mix of these options on the same service. The Doğu Express from İstanbul to Kars, for example, has two pullman carriages, two covered couchettes, two unreserved seating compartments and a sleeper.
Train tickets are usually about half the price of bus tickets. Children, students, seniors, the disabled and return tickets get a 20% discount.
Inter-Rail, Balkan Flexipass and Eurodomino passes are valid on the Turkish railway network; Eurail passes are not.
Although you can usually walk into an otogar and buy a ticket for the next bus, it’s wise to plan ahead for public holidays, at weekends and during the school-holiday period from mid-June to early September. You can reserve seats over the web on most of the bus companies listed.
When you enter an otogar prepare for an onslaught of touts, all offering buses to the destination of your choice. How do you choose which company to go with? It’s usually a good idea to stick to the reputable big-name companies. You may pay a bit more, but at least you can be more confident the bus has been well maintained, will run on time, and that there will be a back-up driver on really long hauls. For shorter trips, you’ll find other bus companies have big localised city networks; for example Truva serves the area around Çanakkale, and Uludağ covers destinations around Bursa.
After buying a ticket, getting a refund can be difficult; exchanging it for another ticket with the same company is easier.
All seats are reservable, and your ticket will bear a specific seat number. The ticket agent will have a chart of the seats with those already sold crossed off. Look at the chart and indicate your seating preference, avoiding those right at the back of the bus (which can get stuffy) or immediately over the wheels (which can get bumpy!). On night buses you may also want to avoid the front row of seats behind the driver, which have little legroom (you may have to inhale the driver’s cigarette smoke and listen to him chatting to his conductor into the early hours). The seats immediately in front of and behind the middle door are also a bad choice; those in front don’t recline, and those behind have no legroom.
Most seats and all sleepers on the best trains must be reserved. As the yataklı (sleeping-car) wagons are very popular, you should make your reservation as far in advance as possible, especially if a religious or public holiday is looming. Weekend trains tend to be busiest.
You can book and pay for tickets online at www.tcdd. gov.tr.
Every year we receive complaints from travellers who feel that they have been fleeced by local travel agents, especially some of those operating in the Sultanahmet area of İstanbul. However, there are plenty of very good agents operating alongside the sharks, so try not to get too paranoid. Figure out a ball-park figure for doing the same trip yourself and shop around before committing.
The following are some Turkish tour operators we believe offer a reliable service.
Dolmuşes are minibuses that operate on set routes within a city. They’re usually faster, more comfortable and only slightly more expensive than the bus. These days only a few cities still have old-fashioned, shared-taxi dolmuşes (Bursa, Trabzon and İzmir are examples).
Once you’ve got to grips with a few local routes, you’ll feel confident about picking up a dolmuş at the kerb. In the larger cities, stopping places are marked by signs with a black ‘D’ on a blue-and-white background reading ‘Dolmuş İndirme Bindirme Yeri’ (Dolmuş Boarding and Alighting Place). They’re usually conveniently located near major squares, terminals or intersections, but you may need to ask the driver: ‘[your destination] dolmuş var mı?’
Several cities now have underground or partially underground metros, including İstanbul, İzmir, Bursa and Ankara. These are usually quick and simple to use, although you may have to go right through the ticket barriers before you find a route map. Most metros require you to buy a jeton (transport token) for around €0.65 and insert it into the ticket barrier.
Domestic airlines fly to some 30 cities throughout the country. Many flights, for instance from Dalaman to Van, go via the hubs of İstanbul or Ankara. Atlasjet is one of the few airlines offering direct flights between west coast and central and eastern destinations.
You can book flights on most airlines’ websites. You’ll get cheaper seats and more convenient departure times if you book a couple of months ahead.
Domestic flights are available with the following airlines.
Onur Air (0212-662 9797; www.onurair.com.tr) Good network and fares from €40 to €80.
Sun Express Airlines (www.sunexpress.com.tr) A Turkish Airlines subsidiary.
Turkish Airlines (Türk Hava Yolları, THY; 0212-444 0849; www.thy.com) State-owned Turkish Airlines provides the main domestic network, and you can book and pay for tickets online. One-way fares from €38.
Like bike touring anywhere, riding in Turkey is a wonderful adventure, full of surprises, challenges and a whole lotta grunt. Highlights are the spectacular scenery, the easy access to archaeological sites, which you might have all to yourself, and the curiosity and hospitality of locals, especially out east. Take the road-hog drivers, rotten road edges and, out east, stone-throwing children, wolves and ferocious Kangal sheep dogs in your stride. To give yourself the best chance of an enjoyable and safe trip, plan to avoid main roads wherever possible.
You’ll be able to find excellent-quality spare parts in İstanbul and Ankara, but bring whatever you think you might need elsewhere. The best bike brand in Turkey is Bisan, with decent models starting at around €150, but you can find leading international brands in bike shops in İstanbul such as Pedal Sportif (0212-511 0654; www.pedalbisiklet.com in Turkish; Mimar Kemalettin Caddesi 29, Sirkeci), or in Ankara at Delta Bisiklet (0212-259 2279; www.deltabisiklet.com; Bosna Hersek Caddesi 21, Emek). Both these shops have English-speaking staff and come highly recommended by tourers. They service bikes and can send parts throughout the country.
The best map for touring by bike is the Köy Köy Türkiye Yol Atlasi (€19) available in bookshops in İstanbul. You can usually transport your bike by air, bus, train or ferry free of charge, although mini- and midibuses will charge for the space it takes up. You can hire bikes for short rides in tourist towns along the coast and Cappadocia.