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TPG Contributor Vikram Birring traveled to Istanbul earlier this year and had a wonderful time. Here’s why he says you should plan a trip to this fabulous city this fall, when shoulder season prices are king and the crowds are few.
Istanbul, the only city in the world that spans both Europe and Asia, is an ancient wonderland of history and culture. Unfortunately, due to recent bombings, many travelers have cancelled their plans and tourism has plummeted. After a trip earlier this year where I had a wonderful experience, I want to encourage you to visit this vibrant capital during the fall, since prices, weather and crowd levels will be better than during the high season and the US dollar is still strong. Here are five reasons to visit Istanbul this fall.
1. Flights are Super Affordable
Flights to Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport (IST) used to cost anywhere from $1,000-$1,500. Nowadays, prices are shockingly low thanks to the rapid expansion of Turkish Airlines, a Star Alliance member that seems to be content in charging extraordinarily low fares with the long-term strategy of winning market share. Keep an eye out for deals on Pegasus Airlines, Turkey’s low-cost carrier, too.
A quick search on Google Flights shows round-trip economy tickets from the US can be had for as low as $517 in September (Air Canada). You might luck out, too, as flights this time of year tend to not be as crowded, giving economy passengers the rare opportunity to experience a poor man’s business-class (aka when there’s a full row free to lay out and catch some sleep).
If you’re in the mood for flying in business class, Turkish Airlines sells unadvertised one-way upgrades at check-in from $999 (from IAH, JFK, ORD or IAD into Istanbul; from $1,299 from the west coast, based on availability. I was also offered a $300 business-class upgrade from Delhi to Istanbul). The carrier has a spectacular business-class product, and this is worth exploring at least once simply for the experience.
Domestic flights within Turkey are also priced at absurdly low prices, currently as low as $35 for a round-trip flight between Istanbul (IST) and Cappadocia (ASR) in late-September on Pegasus Airlines. For a full list of flight options to Istanbul and how to book using points and miles, check out this post.
2. Hotel Prices Are a Bargain
Hotels in the fall are usually pretty reasonable, too, a likely result of it being the shoulder season mixed with the recent decline in Turkish tourism in general. When I was there this spring, I stayed at the trendy boutique hotel, Karaköy. Rooms only cost 100 euros (~ $111) per night when I stayed there — they start at 135 euros (~$153 per night in September) and include breakfast, a bargain for this level of accommodation.
There are also a number of points hotels in Istanbul. TPG enjoyed a stay at the Soho House Istanbul during a trip to the city last year (contact the hotel for member and non-member pricing), and also recommends the Park Hyatt Istanbul–Macka Palas (rates from $335 or 20,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points in October) and the St. Regis Istanbul (rates from $388 or 25,000 Starpoints in September).
3. The US Dollar is STRONG
On my previous trip in early 2013, the US dollar was worth roughly 1.9 Turkish Lira. Now, one US dollar is worth 2.90 Turkish Lira! This means the buying power of USD is stronger than ever, making shopping and dining in Turkey affordable on any budget. For those who are traveling on a shoestring, try a doner sandwich (basically, meat is cut off a rotating spit and made into a sandwich), which usually costs about 5 Turkish Lira (~$1.71). Prices for fine dining are astoundingly low as well. Dinner at the globally acclaimed Ciya Sofrasi restaurant, for instance, would probably run you about 30 Turkish Lira (~$10). The bargains extend to shopping as well. Turkey is home to a number of shopping malls that feature domestic and international brands, as well as a litany of bazaars and other small shops — my best purchase was a 100% Turkish wool sweater for roughly $15!
4. You Can Take an Easy Day Trip to Asia
Visiting the Asian side of the city, a journey which until very recently was at least a 20-minute ferry ride — which I’d highly recommend, by the way! — can now be done in about two minutes thanks to the Marmaray metro line, one of the latest advancements in Istanbul’s rapidly expanding Metro system.
The Asian side is the true Istanbul, where one sees only locals engaging in day-to-day life — English is rarely spoken here and tourists are few and far between. Prices at shops and restaurants are significantly cheaper than what you’ll find on the European side and the sights vary wildly from conservative Uskudar to trendy Baghdad Avenue. Kadiköy Market in particular is the newest hotspot, lined with restaurants and shops with a buzz that Manhattan could only wish for, an atmosphere truly bustling at all hours. The standout here is the aforementioned Ciya Sofrasi restaurant, which is receiving global acclaim for its rotating array of Anatolian dishes.
5. There Are Hardly Any Lines at Tourist Attractions
While the summer usually brings hordes of tourists and long lines at popular attractions, during the off-peak and shoulder seasons, lines are minimal. My longest wait for any attraction was five minutes at the Basilica Cistern — there were virtually no lines at the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia or Topkapi Palace when I went to see them. City tours can also be booked as late as the day of instead of weeks and months in advance. Fewer crowds mean that you can appreciate the sights and the city in general in relative peace without masses of fellow tourists and their ever-so-annoying selfie sticks.
Despite the fearful scenes you may have seen on TV, any true travel connoisseur knows that when prices are down, this is the best time to travel, particularly to a spectacular city like Istanbul. And as always, make sure to use a credit card that has no foreign transaction fees, and preferably one with a chip as chip cards are the international standard now. My recommendation is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which has all these perks and offers 2x the points for travel and dining expenses, making this the perfect card to take with you on vacation.
Have you been to Istanbul yet? What are your favorite things to do there?
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