Things to watch out for in Turkey

While Turkey has much to offer the international tourist, there are a few things the first time traveller should be aware of. In some cases this is just because Turkish people traditionally have a different way of doing things, but in others … Well …

It goes without saying that Turkey is currently not a very safe place to be. Whether that’s due to its geographic proximity to major trouble spots, its internal issues, or its current political policies is not a discussion for Teddy’s site. Southern Turkey, especially close to the southern border, is the most dangerous, for obvious reasons. However, both Istanbul and Ankara have had problems with terrorism attacks in recent years. Take your government’s travel advice before considering travelling to Turkey, and – once there – remain vigilant and aware.

Driving in Turkish cities is not for the faint hearted, or for those who expect everyone to follow the rules. Delivery vans will suddenly stop in narrow streets to drop off or pick up, motorcycles and scooters dart dangerously between cars or cruise down the footpath, pedestrian crossings are ignored, and lane markings, traffic lights and other signs are suggestions only. Turkish drivers seem to think that their horns possess some magical ability to make other cars in the same traffic jam move out of the way, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Pedestrians cross in front of moving traffic and against the lights with little regard. Either leave the driving to someone else, or make sure you take out full insurance with no excess.

Having said that, Teddy has heard some really bad tales about Turkish taxi drivers. You only need to look at the condition of some of their vehicles or watch them in action to get an idea of their driving skills, but they also have a reputation for ripping tourists off. If your travel agent can arrange transfers or a private driver, that is the preferred option.

Turkish shop keepers in tourist areas, especially market stalls, can be incredibly persistent – sometimes to the point of being rudely pushy. They do it with a smile, and are always friendly, but their dogged persistence to get you to buy gets tiring very quickly. Be prepared to say ‘no’ a lot – you need to be just as persistent (though still polite) as them. Most of their trinkets and souvenirs are ridiculously over-priced, and you should be prepared to negotiate strongly. Don’t be intimidated, don’t feel pressured, and be prepared to walk away. You will hear the same well used scripts over and over (“Where are you from?”, “I just want you to look”, “first business of the day”) and you need to be firm. Many store keepers will appear very friendly (even over friendly, or even over familiar), and they are generally always polite, but don’t be sucked in and feel obliged because of this.

This also applies to restaurants. Most food in Turkey is excellent, but those restaurants geared to the tourist market are always over-priced. You will always find the same, or better, food in non-tourist cafes and restaurants, but at almost half the price. Look to see where the locals are eating.

Turkish businesses seem to operate on a purely cash basis. In addition to Turkish Lira many will also take Euros, and some will take US dollars (and they will often be able to quote in all three currencies), but they will all complain if you try to pay by credit card or EFTPOS, or just plain refuse to accept them. Fortunately there are normally plenty of ATMs around.

Stay well clear of carpet sellers. Never buy a Turkish carpet in Turkey unless you know the dealer to be trustworthy. Teddy has heard too many tales of rip offs – including offers to ship the carpet to your country for you (it never arrives). It’s unfortunate that the unscrupulous and greedy traders have destroyed the entire industry’s reputation, but until the situation is fixed up and the dodgy operators removed, you’d be best to just stay clear. If you want to buy carpets, try some of the community co-op manufacturers. Not only are they more reputable, but you can see the carpets being made by hand.

Negotiating, or haggling, is expected in markets (or bazaars). Prices are rarely marked, especially in the markets, and the first price quoted is always more than twice what they’ll be happy to settle for. You’ll hear stories of woe and heart wrenching cries, but it’s all part of the game. The few items Teddy bought at markets were always bought at well less than half the first quoted price. Other retailers in tourist areas are also heavily inflated and you’d be well advised to look outside of the tourist precincts if shopping (and good eating) is what you want. There are no genuine bargains to be had in the tourist spots.

Street sellers can also be a bit confronting. Streets in large towns or near major tourist attractions are generally packed with people selling everything from children’s toys to jackets, luggage and larger items. They can be very pushy, but will normally leave you alone if you just say no and walk away. Again, don’t pay what they quote you at first – you will generally get it for much less. Better yet, just ignore them if you can.

Stray cats and dogs are everywhere. No, really – everywhere! They are not dangerous, and don’t appear to be disease ridden. The Turkish people just seem content to allow them to wander as they will, which they in turn are quite happy to do. Don’t feed them, just do your best to ignore them.

Turkish hotels tend to over-rate themselves and charge accordingly. Alway take at least half a star, often a full star, off any Turkish hotel rating. If a hotel advertises itself as four star, and charges as if it were, assume it is three star. Many hotels that look great on the websites are less than ideal in reality. Rooms are mostly smaller than international standards, furniture and fittings are often tired and worn, beds and pillows are not always comfortable. Nevertheless, they always seem to be very expensive, charging as if they were as good as they think they are. Teddy’s advice is to only look at hotels at least a star above what you would normally book and be prepared to pay through the nose for it. Or lower your expectations on what you will receive for your money. Or do your research thoroughly, reading third-party reviews, not the hotel websites themselves. Be wary also of what the hotels charge for simple things like drinks at the bar, as you will normally find yourself paying twice what you would pay back home. Head outside and buy your drink from a local vendor.

Turkish travel agents have a different definition of what constitutes a “ticket”. Because you only need a ticket number and a passport to board a plane, and not an actual ticket, agents will give you an itinerary and call it your tickets. This is fine, and there is no need to ask them for actual tickets.

Istanbul international airport (Ataturk) is broken. There is no simpler way to put it. All other airports in Turkey seem to operate smoothly and efficiently, but they also have to pay the price for Istanbul airport’s bad management and poor resources. Such a busy airport, with so many arrivals and departures, seems woefully short on infrastructure, facilities and good organisation. Constant delays, long queues of planes waiting to take off, poor weather or runway backlogs forcing arriving planes to circle for long periods … All of this has a domino effect on the rest of the country’s air traffic. Teddy waited on the Istanbul airport tarmac for about forty-five minutes waiting in line to take off. At Kayceri airport, Teddy’s plane left an hour late because it had been late arriving from Istanbul.

Turkish service or hospitality providers also have a tendency to either not pay full attention to your requests, or not pay attention to detail when providing your service. Teddy personally experienced all of the following:

  • Being transferred to the wrong hotel
  • Being given a different massage to the one ordered
  • Not receiving a dish that was ordered, and then being charged twice for it when asking where it was
  • Being charged twice for a prepaid hotel room (though Expedia had a hand in that mistake too)
  • Hotels failing to deliver messages or important documents they’ve received for you

Please don’t take all of this to mean Turkey is a lost cause for the tourist. The people are generally very friendly and Teddy found many examples where they were keen to help with no expectation of reward. Professional guides are well educated and knowledgable. The government is pushing and supporting local small businesses that create and promote genuine traditional Turkish crafts and products.

Turkey wants to promote itself as a major tourist attraction, and to be fair, the country has much to offer. But if Teddy’s experience is anything to go by, then there is some little way to go yet before the country can be said to be as open, accommodating and welcoming to foreign tourists as other tourism-dependent nations.