In addition to shuttling passengers from place to place, many airlines around the world also assume the role (officially or unofficially) of a travel ambassador that promotes tourism within their home countries.
One of the most common ways for airlines to achieve this objective is to offer special perks and services to customers that are merely transiting through their hub airports, as a means to entice these customers to get out into the city, spend some of their tourist dollars, and hopefully continue flying with the airline in the future and perhaps even plan a return visit to their home country.
Turkish Airlines Layover Perks
You might be surprised to find out that Turkish Airlines operates flights to more destinations around the world than any other airline, but that’s indeed the case. Cities as far-flung as Buenos Aires, Mogadishu, Ulaanbaatar, Jakarta, and Yekaterinburg are all connected via the airline’s mega-hub in Istanbul, and the airline is constantly adding more destinations to its network.
With so many flights coming in and out, Turkish Airlines has much to gain by offering a comprehensive suite of services for transiting passengers during their Istanbul layover, and that’s exactly what they do.
The airline offers Istanbul city tours for all transiting passengers with a connection time of between six and 24 hours, as well as hotel accommodation services for economy class passengers with layovers of over 10 hours or business class passengers with layovers of over seven hours. Both services are complimentary.
I’ve flown with Turkish Airlines quite a few times recently, so I thought I’d share a detailed guide on how these services work and how you can take full advantage of them to make the most of your layover in Istanbul.
Free Istanbul City Tour by Turkish Airlines
Let’s begin with the complimentary Istanbul city tour, whose eligibility criteria are relatively straightforward. If you have a layover in Istanbul of between six and 24 hours, and if you’re flying with Turkish Airlines on both their inbound and outbound flights, then you’re eligible for the free city tour.
The program is also known as Touristanbul, and you can read all about it on the Turkish Airlines website. Six different tours are offered per day, and the exact sightseeing itinerary for each tour varies by the day of the week.
First, there’s a two-and-a-half-hour sightseeing tour that lasts from 8:30am to 11am in the mornings. This is the shortest tour by duration, and it’s my understanding that this tour doesn’t bring you inside any of the mosques, museums, or attractions, but rather mostly involves taking the tour bus from place to place and taking in the sights from the outside.
Then there’s three different six-hour guided tours, which are available from 9am to 3pm, 12pm to 6pm, or 2pm to 8pm. These tours will grant you access to a few of the attractions, and will also stop at certain sites for a little longer, allowing the tour guide to give you the backstory of many of Istanbul’s most important locales. These tours also come with a free meal, with the 9am–3pm tour providing both breakfast and lunch.
By far the most comprehensive option is the full-day tour, which lasts from 9am to 6pm. You get breakfast and lunch, entry to multiple important sites (like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, or Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts), and plenty of downtime to explore areas like the Grand Bazaar or the Spice Market.
Again, the exact tour schedule varies by day – for example, on Fridays, the full-day tour brings you on a Bosphorus Cruise, which is quite a unique and exciting thing to do when you’re in town.
Lastly, there’s the walking tour, which takes place from 4pm to 9pm. This tour involves taking the bus into the heart of Istanbul and walking around to all the major attractions in the area, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome, and Grand Bazaar, followed by a complimentary dinner.
This was the tour I embarked on during my recent long layover in Istanbul, and I enjoyed it very much – since the Blue Mosque closes at 5pm, you still get to go inside if the tour is on schedule, and the time spent walking around central Istanbul from place to place was a lovely way to get a taste of urban life in the city outside of the main tourist hotspots as well.
I’ll be sure to publish a detailed post about my free Istanbul city tour when the time comes to write the full series for my round-the-world trip.
There’s a few things to note about the free city tours. First off, Canadians require an e-visa to enter Turkey, so make sure to get that sorted out before your trip.
It’s a relatively simple application process on the Turkey e-visa website, and in my experience you don’t even need to show a printout of the visa or anything – it’s all registered in the system, so the immigration official can pull up your documents on their end.
Next, you can only choose one of the six tours to go on, so pick wisely if you have the choice. My layover in Istanbul began at 7am and lasted until midnight, so I could’ve chosen the full-day tour if I had the energy – but nope, I dozed off in the Turkish CIP Lounge until the early afternoon, so by that point I only had the 4pm walking tour left!
To sign up for a tour, you need to visit the Hotel Desk at the far right end of the terminal at Istanbul Atatürk Airport.
As you exit through Arrivals and make your way there, you might be confronted by private tour operators offering you paid tours instead (some of these guys will even use the Turkish Airlines logo, masquerading as the official tour guides to lure you in). Pay them no mind and head straight for the Hotel Desk – you’ll want to arrive at least 20 minutes in advance of the start time, so that you can get fully registered before the tour begins.
Everything on the tour is entirely complimentary, from the sightseeing entry fees, to your meals, to the services of the tour guide (feel free to tip, though there was no real expectation of doing so).
You can of course bring some cash with you to spend at the Grand Bazaar or the markets, but as a valued guest of Turkish Airlines, you’re very much allowed – and encouraged – to see many of Istanbul’s amazing sights without spending a dime!
And lastly, given the vast international network that Turkish Airlines operates, these city tours can be a fantastic way to meet other travellers from all over the globe. You might be transiting Istanbul on your way from, say, Canada to the Middle East, while another traveller might be on their way from Africa to Southeast Asia, and yet another tour member might be headed from India to South America!
In a way that’s befitting of Istanbul’s historic stature as a cultural crossroads, the possibilities for serendipitous encounters with your fellow travellers – often the magic ingredient to a highly memorable trip – are very much boundless here on Turkish Airlines’s free city tours.
Free Transit Hotel by Turkish Airlines
The other option available to a certain subset of transiting passengers is the free transit hotel program, which you can also read about on its dedicated page on the Turkish Airlines website.
If you’re eligible for both, you can only choose one of the free city tour or the free transit hotel, so if you’d rather take your time to shower, nap, get refreshed, and then perhaps explore the city at your own pace, then the latter option might well be a better fit.
Given the cost of providing accommodation, the rules on who gets to receive a complimentary hotel stay are rather strict. Your inbound and outbound flights must both be on Turkish Airlines. Moreover, economy class passengers must have a layover time of 10 hours or longer to be eligible, while business class passengers must have a layover time of seven hours or longer.
Note that these layover times are calculated based on Turkish Airlines’s flight schedules, not based on the flights you’ve specifically chosen. Therefore, you’re only eligible for a free hotel Turkish Airlines’s scheduling has forced you into a layover time that meets the above criteria.
Any attempt, deliberate or not, to choose flights with a longer layover time, when you could’ve chosen different flights to get a shorter layover time, will not work.
An example should help illustrate. I was recently travelling from Paris to Hanoi via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Looking at the airline’s schedules, there’s five daily inbound flights from Paris CDG, and one outbound flight to Hanoi.
Paris (CDG) – ISTANBUL (IST)
ISTANBUL (IST) – HANOI (HAN)
On my trip, I had booked Turkish Airlines Flight 1822 coming into Istanbul, since that was the only flight with award availability on my chosen date. Flight 1822 arrives at 4:40pm, and the departing Flight 166 doesn’t leave until 2:55am, so I had a layover time of about ten hours. That’s above the business class threshold of seven hours, and so I thought I would be eligible for a free transit hotel.
But I was not eligible. See, in this scenario, Turkish Airlines will say that I could’ve taken any of the later flights from Paris CDG to Istanbul, and I would’ve had a layover time of under seven hours. For that reason, my nine-hour layover time was not dictated by the airline’s schedule, so I was not eligible for a free hotel.
The fact that there was no award availability on any of the other flights was entirely irrelevant. For all that Turkish Airlines cared, I could’ve paid for those flights if I really wanted to.
Now, contrast this scenario to my other recent trek through Istanbul, this time from Accra to Singapore. There’s only one flight to each of these destinations per day, and the scheduling meant that I’d arrive at 7:30am and leave at 1:55am.
Accra (ACC) – Istanbul (IST)
ISTANBUL (IST) – Singapore (SIN)
There were no alternative Turkish flights I could’ve taken to achieve a transit time of less than seven hours, and so I was indeed eligible for the free hotel (although I eventually opted to do the city tour instead).
Well, how can you verify if you’re eligible for a free hotel without going through all this trouble? The easiest way is to email the Turkish Airlines Hotel Desk team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Give them your booking reference and they’ll be able to inform you immediately whether you’re eligible.
Turkish Airlines doesn’t let its passengers know in advance which hotel they’ll be staying at; instead, they simply say that business class customers will get a higher standard of hotels than economy class customers.
Reading about other travellers’ experiences on the FlyerTalk thread, it seems that business class passengers are often put in the Renaissance Polat Istanbul or the Radisson Blu, while economy class passengers tend to get put up in the Courtyard, the DoubleTree, the Holiday Inn, etc.
To attain your free hotel stay, again you’ll have to exit through immigration (meaning an e-visa might be required, of course), and then turn right to find the Hotel Desk. The agents there will verify your eligibility and assign you to a hotel, and then you’ll be picked up by a complimentary shuttle and brought to your complimentary quarters for the duration of your layover.
Lastly, keep in mind that if you aren’t eligible for the free hotel stay service, you can still book a room at the TAV Istanbul Airport Hotel, which has rooms both airside and landside. And if you have lounge access, you can of course simply choose to pass the time in the enormous Turkish CIP Lounge as well.
No one will begrudge you for napping in the lounge’s public seating areas (as I did), but if you want to doze off in the sleeping rooms, you’ll need to be travelling in business class with a layover time of between four and seven hours – and again, this is strictly enforced according to Turkish Airlines’s flight schedules.
Capitalizing on their massive hub in Istanbul, an eminent tourist hotspot and a city of historic global significance, Turkish Airlines boasts some of the most valuable complimentary layover perks that you’ll find among any airline in the world.
Long layovers are often viewed as an unproductive and exhausting time-sink along the journey from origin to destination, but the airline addresses both of those concerns with their free city tour and layover hotel services. Make sure to take advantage on your next trip with Turkish Airlines!