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Merhaba from Istanbul, Turkey! I’m here for a couple days of sightseeing before I board a weeklong Aegean cruise on Seabourn’s newest ship, Odyssey. This is my first time visiting the city that straddles two continents and I had a lot of preconceived misconceptions and fears, all of which have now been relieved. If you want to see this fascinating place Johnny Jet-style (part luxury, part practical), then pack your bags and don’t forget to bring your open mind. Also this week, our newest writer Natasha Conklin James tours us around Governors Island in New York City and my brother Francis J. DiScala Jr. lends a helping hand by participating in a Tourism Cares event in Gettysburg.
Last week we left off after just touching down in Istanbul from Frankfurt. I didn’t have time to tell you that all of the gates were full so the pilot parked the 737 on the tarmac next to all the other homeless aircrafts. We then deplaned using the stairs like a colony of ants, on to a hot crowded bus that took us on a short ride to the terminal. The bus was a bit of a bummer because when you’re sitting up front, it defeats one of its main perks – getting a head start to immigration. At this airport, the tip is to be the last one on the bus so you’ll be the first one off.
The lines at passport control were almost as unwelcoming as the lines at most major U.S. airports and it took 25 minutes before I finally made it to the front. The agent flipped furiously through my passport until he reached the end. “Where is your visa,” he demanded. “Visa?” I quipped. My heart sank as I wondered if I could get a last-minute one or not.
Fortunately, I realized I wasn’t alone when he pointed to the visa line about 20 feet away. At first, I was so relieved but that quickly turned to disappointment. First of all, I should have known better, to always double check entry requirements so I was kicking myself for making such a rookie mistake. Secondly, I noticed this desk walking by the first time and there was no one in line; now (of course!) it was at least 40 people deep.
The good news is that the visa line moved faster than I would have guessed. The sole agent was highly efficient as he spent about five seconds per person, which entailed taking the cash (payment can be made in dollars, euros or Turkish lira) and slapping a postage-like stamp on one of your passport’s blank pages. Prices vary depending on which country you are from and when I saw that Canadians had to pay $60, I was certain I was about to get raked - but shockingly, the fee for US citizens was just $20. Here’s a great webpage with instructions and fees.
RETURNING TO PASSPORT CONTROL
Instead of waiting twice at passport control, I just went to the front and hopped the waist-high metal barrier and walked to the agent who I’d been dealing with earlier. A Russian man a few people behind me said really loudly, “Who is this guy? Where did he come from?” I could feel the evil eyeballs on my back. Before an out and out brawl began, I turned around and said with a frustrated/calm/stern/psycho smile, “Look – I was here earlier, but I forgot something.” That worked and they all let me pass, including the agent. After receiving my fresh Turkish entry stamp, I turned around once again and thanked my new friends.
GETTING A TAXI
When I emailed my hotel to enquire about airport pickup they wanted €120 + VAT for the one-way trip. After doing some research online, I learned that was an insane amount of money since a taxi should only cost around €25. Taking a taxi from the Istanbul Airport is just like getting one from one of New York’s airports. Just walk outside and go to the official taxi line. There were plenty and unlike NYC, I didn’t have to wait. If you want to go an even cheaper route, there’s a scheduled Havas bus for around $10.
AIRPORT TO HOTEL
My driver was very friendly and I think appreciative when I decided to pretend I was in Sydney and sit in the front seat. I like it up there much better since you can really get to know the driver and besides, it’s better for sightseeing and snapping pictures. FYI: Natalie arrived in Istanbul a few hours after me and she was apprehensive about taking a taxi alone. But after my experience and the advice I’d gotten from locals, I assured her that it was perfectly fine … and it was.
Boasting 15 million residents, Istanbul is notorious for traffic jams but I arrived midday so I avoided the madness of rush hour. The almost congestion-free ride took about 35 minutes and my driver offered to go the scenic route but I kindly declined to keep the time short and the rate low (make sure they use the meter). Exiting the airport, I was impressed with all the flowers planted on the road’s middle divider. It got even prettier when we drove along The Sea of Marmara, past the entrances of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, then the Golden Horn Harbor and the Bosporus River.
When we arrived at the hotel, the meter read 37 Turkish lira (TL) but since I forgot to hit the airport ATM, I asked how much in U.S. dollars (pretty much everyone here accepts dollars and euros as well). He said $25 so I gave him a twenty-dollar bill and a five-euro bank note and he was happy for the small tip. I was even happier that I hadn’t let my fear convince me to pay the hotel’s €120 ride.
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737 to IST
Turkish Visa & Stamp