Long layovers suck (she writes as she is sitting through a 14 hour layover with someone doing construction work overhead at 3am…another story for another day). If only there were a way to easily leave the airport and explore. 

Here’s the deal—Istanbul has a brand spanking new airport and it is beautiful to look at. However, it is lacking some of the amenities that would make me want to putz around the airport for more than one hour. Key missing factors include:

  • There are no Priority Pass lounges at this airport: if you don’t know what this is, ask me. Also set aside at least 45 minutes for said discussion.
  • There are no stations to fill a water bottle: I hope this changes!
  • There is free wifi for only 1 hour: you have to scan your passport at a kiosk to get a code (feels super sketchy to me, but I knew my mom would worry if I didn’t let her know I landed slash did anyone watch my Instagram story?) You cannot scan your passport again for a second hour; it remembers you! There is also a mobile sign in option but I don’t have international data! Let me know if anyone knows a workaround for this.

Normally I would just read a book, but I had come off a nine hour flight that departed at midnight. I had the middle seat in the last row of the plane, and my seat neighbor may have been related to one of those ‘wacky, waving, inflatable, arm-flailing tube men’ from outside of car dealerships. At one point, my seat neighbor on the other side actually tapped me because “wacky arms” was lying on the ground in the aisle. What!?

If I opted to communicate my fatigue directly, I could have just said I was tired. Needless to say, I couldn’t stay in the airport for my nine hour layover, but Turkish Airlines swooped in and saved the day. Not really, I planned this in advance, I actually chose this route in order to get a free tour of Istanbul.

At this time, Turkish airlines is offering tours at six different departure times. They are all some combination of a city tour with the final departure of the day being a cruise of the Bosphorus (which appears only to be available until October 31). You can check their schedule here.

Eligibility for Free City Tour

To be eligible, you must be an international transfer passenger with a layover of 6-24 hours and Turkish Airlines must operate or codeshare both legs of the flight. Easy enough!

You do not need to sign up for the tour in advance, though if you plan to do this, I recommend getting your Turkish e-visa if you are from an eligible country as they have stopped issuing visas on arrival.

How to Book the Tour

To book the tour you need to visit the Turkish Airline Hotel Desk. When you land, you must exit the gate area, go through passport control and customs, exit baggage claim, take a right past all of the tour operator windows until you reach the hotel desk at the end. You will use the kiosk to claim a number like a deli counter and will simply provide your boarding pass to the agent on duty. They will give you a sticker to wear on your shirt and instruct you to be in the waiting area (the seats by the elevators and ATMs) for ten minutes prior to departure. This all seems easy, but when I was in the airport I felt like I was in an escape room.

What is Provided?

I will speak to my Bosphorus Cruise experience, but you shouldn’t have to pay anything during any of the offerings as you are a guest of Turkish Airlines (though there may be extras available for purchase, like snacks and drinks)

  • Bus transfer to and from the airport
  • English speaking tour guide
  • Boat cruise
  • Dinner

The Bosphorus tour left the airport at 6pm. With the traffic it took about 1.5 hours to reach the city center. The boat departed at 8pm and we were served a kebab, dessert, and yogurt drink in a brown bag. The cruise itself lasts two hours (bring a jacket!) It was so beautiful seeing everything lit up at night. My favorite part was cruising down the strait during the call to prayer. There were so many mosques so you could hear all the variations as you sailed along. I could tell, just from this trip, this is a city I will love. The return to the airport was much quicker and I was through security by 11pm. 

So it is not a gourmet meal by any means, but I would 100% go back just for the honey-soaked desserts.

It was an amazing taste of Istanbul. I didn’t end up spending a dime (erm, lira..?) but I haven’t stopped thinking about going back. Mission accomplished Turkish Airlines; I’ll be back soon, hopefully before I need another e-visa.

I couldn’t get enough of the seagulls…actually have never had this sentiment before
How to make the most of your long layover in Istanbul for free. This is the perfect way to explore the city while on a budget, courtesy of Turkish Airlines

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