City Guide to Istanbul, Turkey: Part 2 | Airport Tips & Mattress Running
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This is part two of a multiple part series in our City Guide to Istanbul. Don’t miss the first post where we discuss what you should know before visiting, like visa information, water safety, common scams, and other tips.
We did our research before arriving in Istanbul, however, what we think we know is often a bit different than what we experience once we arrive. We were excited to venture into a city that was very different than any place we’d visited in Europe so far. Not to mention, it’s one city on two continents!
Arriving in Istanbul
We flew on a late night flight from London Heathrow Airport (LHR) to Istanbul Ataturk Airport (IST). Luckily for us, the flight was only a third or so full and we were able to sit in our own row and get a bit of sleep during the flight. We were prepared to spend a bit more time in passport control and customs; however, the process was as simple in Istanbul as it was in most other places we’ve been to.
Because we were arriving so late (midnight), we’d done a bit of research ahead of time and decided to pre-book a taxi from the airport to our hotel. In hindsight, we realized this wasn’t necessary. We’d envisioned arriving to a small empty airport terminal where everything would be closed because of the late hour. We figured we’d walk outside and have trouble finding a taxi or an Uber available (use our link and get your first ride free!). However, this was far from what it was actually like. Despite it being the middle of the night, shops were open and the terminal, while not crowded, had a significant number of people in it. We were able to get cash out of an ATM and then get the large bills changed to smaller ones from a small, nondescript desk across from the ATMs and the Duty Free shop. When we walked outside the secured area, we were greeted by crowds of people, including many taxi drivers and men who were setting up taxi rides. At this point we could have used our phones to secure an Uber ride, or approached one of the men to negotiate a taxi price. We use an app, Taxi Finder, that works around the world and estimates what a taxi ride from point A to point B should cost. It’s a fantastic tool for being informed on what the ride should cost, so that you’re less likely to get scammed into paying a higher price for being a tourist.
Since we’d already set up a taxi ahead of time, we had a pre-negotiated rate, just under 100 Turkish Lira (TL or ₺) to get us from the airport to our hotel in downtown Istanbul, near the Dolmabahçe Palace. We looked for the signage with our name on it and approached the man behind the sign who proceeded to take us to our taxi. The driver motioned that he'd take our bags and put them in back of the van, however we kindly refused. We prefer to hold on to our backpacks for a couple of reasons. One, it’s hard to lose them or have them stolen if we’re holding on to them. Two, it’s common for someone to handle your bag as a courtesy, but then expect or even demand a tip for the service. In the end, it’s easier to hold on to them, especially since they aren’t that big.
When getting into the taxi, it became apparent that we didn’t get any special treatment for having booked our ride in advance with the company. The driver wasn’t aware of the negotiated rate, so we had to settle it with him before getting in the van. The side door to the back seats in the van wasn’t working, so we both had to sit on the front bench seat with the driver. Three of us in front, with both of our bags was a bit crowded, but do-able. The ride, thankfully, was uneventful. It was dark, so we only got glimpses of the sights as we crossed town. We were pleasantly surprised, that what we expected to see, underdeveloped infrastructure, wasn’t the case. The roads, the signage, and the city were in well maintained conditions. We even saw plenty of sidewalk around the airport and the city, something that not all major cities have. As two people who walk everywhere, we’re always on the lookout for designated walking areas, and it sure was a nice sight to see.
There are many options when looking for lodging accommodations in Istanbul. We have several tools in our ‘tool box’, check out Cheap Alternatives to Hotels: Save Money on Lodging for tips. As it's in most cities, the further from city center you stay, the less expensive accommodation can be. For Istanbul, keep in mind the airport is located quite a distance from city center. So, unless you’re arriving late, or need to catch an early morning flight, it may not make sense to stay near the airport. To take full advantage of sightseeing, stay near the old city, around the Haggia Sophia and Blue Mosque. However, taxis (Taksi in Turkish), Uber, and public transportation are inexpensive, so it’s not necessary to pay top-dollar to stay right in the middle of everything. We recommend something in the middle, not as far as the airport, but on the outskirts of the expensive city center. You’ll spend less on the hotel and just a few bucks on taxis or public transportation, and in the end come out ahead.
Mattress run? What the heck is that!?
Allow us to explain... The basic concept of a mattress run is booking a hotel room that triggers a promotion in which you earn points or elite status with the hotel's rewards program. Depending on who you ask the execution can vary greatly. On one side of the spectrum, you have people who book a hotel room with no intention of actually sleeping the room. On the other side, you have people who take full advantage of the room and stay for the duration of the booking (e.g. stay-cation, vacation abroad). In our case, it worked out great because we were traveling and needed to book lodging accommodation anyway. Therefore, we worked the mattress run into our itinerary as we traveled.
Our Istanbul Mattress Run
Our mattress run began in Brussels, where we started a challenge with SPG to obtain Gold Status and then Platinum Status. The challenge was simple, stay nine nights to get Gold Status, and an additional nine nights for Platinum Status, all within a three month period. We, of course, didn't want to spend an exorbitant amount of money on the rooms, so we did the math. The idea was to stay at SPG property hotels that were relatively inexpensive and in locations we were already traveling to. Therefore the amount we were spending on lodging was similar or only slightly higher than if we'd chosen a standard hotel room, Airbnb, etc.
In Brussels, we not only completed six nights of the SPG Status Challenge, but we took advantage of a promotion for staying four nights and getting two free. Our mattress run continued in Istanbul where it took us first to the W Istanbul for three nights. After completing these three hotel nights, we'd have the first part of the challenge complete and achieve SPG Gold Status with Starwood! It was our first time staying at a W property, and definitely a new experience for us. From the outside, the building was nondescript and didn’t stand out. Three men dressed in black, who looked like bouncers, greeted us when we arrived. We walked into a dark doorway, through a metal detector that was smartly disguised by the decor, and then turned the corner into a hallway that was done in all mirrors. Between the dark entry, the mirrors, and the pink neon lighting, we felt like we were walking into a nightclub. Even though it was after 1 am, we were greeted by the hotel warmly and had a personal escort to our room. The entire hotel was done in a funky, modern, urban style. The lobby, bar, and hallways were styled in modern, slick furniture. Even the elevator was unique, with mirrors, low lighting and a faint smell of incense burning. We walked into our room and no surprise, it was unlike any hotel room we’d been in. It was decorated with unique geometric shapes, pink neon lighting around the base of the bed and the headboard, and the television was behind black glass. We appreciated the double sinks, large shower, and full set of bath amenities (shampoo, conditioner, lotion, body wash, etc). The mini-bar was like nothing we’d seen before, with an umbrella, painkillers, condoms, a drink mixer and variety of alcoholic drinks, snacks, and candy. You can tell that a lot of thought went into making the rooms feel modern. There’s a Bose music system and device dock for your music player or smartphone, plenty of outlet adapters for foreign travelers (we travel with a Kikkerland Universal Travel Adapter), and a cell phone with data available for use during your stay, at no additional cost. For business travelers, there’s a large desk with plenty of work space. The hotel was located near many restaurants and nightlife. It was close to a tram station and an easy journey to most sightseeing destinations. Overwhelmingly, we enjoyed the hotel and the staff was very friendly.
The W Istanbul hotel was more expensive than other SPG properties further out of city center, so we used our three days there to take full advantage of sightseeing in city center. Even though we'd reached SPG Gold Status, our mattress run wasn't complete. We still needed nine additional nights to earn SPG Platinum Status. We decided, that to save money, we'd move to an SPG hotel closer to the airport, the Four Points by Sheraton Istanbul Batisehir. By leaving the W Istanbul, we gave up being closer to city center and said goodbye to the hip atmosphere, but that was okay since we were saving over 50% on the nightly cost of the room.
In hindsight, we'd have been just fine spending our entire time at the Four Points by Sheraton Istanbul Batisehir to save a bit more on lodging expenses. The hotel was about a 20-25 minute walk, or a couple of bucks on a taxi or Uber ride to get to the metro station. It was about 30 minutes to get into city center once on the metro. So, essentially an hour of commute to get into city center to sight see. It's something to take into consideration if you want to stay further out. Alternatively, you can pay the extra cost to stay in downtown and be close to everything.
The benefits of the Four Points by Sheraton were that it was just a short taxi ride to the airport and there was a grocery store on the same block that was perfect for purchasing our meals at. Plus, the hotel staff was helpful and attentive, and the rooms were clean and well stocked. One thing that stood out to us, not only at this hotel but also at most at businesses in Istanbul, is that most of the employees are male. In the case of our hotel, from the front desk and restaurant, to housekeeping, it was very rare to see a woman on staff. It took us a bit to acclimate, since it's so much different than the culture we were raised in. We certainly enjoyed our time at the Four Points by Sheraton and we were five nights closer to SPG Platinum Status. Our mattress run would continue in Cairo, Egypt, where we'd complete our status challenge and get SPG Platinum Status.
Tips for Staying at an SPG Property
- Start earning points and sign up for their loyalty program. It’s free to do so.
- When you’re part of their Loyalty Program you’ll get free bottled water in the room. We always kindly ask for a couple of extra bottles, so we can pour it in our collapsible water bottles for taking it with us sightseeing.
- Before booking your room, check the hotel’s ‘Special Offers’ section/link on their web site to see if they have any current offers that will discount your stay or give you extra points. Here’s an example from the W Istanbul.
- Always book and pay for rooms with your SPG credit card to earn extra points.
- Opt-in to the “Make a Green Choice” program and earn an extra 250-500 SPG points per day. This means your room won’t be cleaned everyday, however, if you need something re-stocked, just ask. You can make this choice for every day of your stay, except for the day you check-in and out, and every third day of your reservation, as they will clean your room on those days no matter what.
Stay Tuned for More Sightseeing Adventures and Itineraries
This is only part two of our City Guide to Istanbul. Stay tuned for out next post where we’ll provide information on public transportation in Istanbul. Soon to come is our sightseeing itinerary and adventures for seeing the city. Catch up on part one: