Your next international trip could include a free (or almost free) stopover in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines makes long layovers bearable by offering a city tour OR a free hotel room. But you have to plan ahead when booking your flights to get the deal.
I’ve found that the Los Angeles to Istanbul non-stop flight on Turkish Airlines is often the fastest way for Californians to connect to the other side of the world — without making an additional stop in London, Frankfurt or somewhere on the East Coast of the US. No matter where your trip starts, it’s the time of your arrival in Istanbul and how you choose your connecting flight on Turkish Airlines to your final destination that matters. It could be the difference between sleeping in a deluxe hotel like the Pullman Istanbul Airport — or spending a rough night in an airport waiting area.
Do I Need a Visa and Local Currency?
It depends where you’re from. If your passport is from the USA, you will need to buy a visa online in advance, or purchase one at the airport for $30. This is required to pass through immigration and return through passport control to your connecting flight, even if you are just staying for a few hours, one day or one night! That’s why — depending on the country you’re from — the “free” offer isn’t entirely free. Here is the list of countries requiring visas. Save money by buying online in advance through the official government website.
I was traveling on my passport from Slovenia — one of the countries whose citizens do not require a visa to enter Turkey. You might also want to change a small amount of your currency into Turkish lire if you want to buy anything beyond the free services offered. For example, the hotel room is free but if you want to take a taxi to a local restaurant for dinner, you’ll need local money if they don’t take credit cards. And you’d hate to visit the Grand Bazaar without being able to haggle and buy something!
Getting to the Hotel Desk
You can choose to do a tour, or a free hotel night. It’s not possible to do both on the same itinerary. Both options require making your way to the “Hotel Desk,” which sounds misleading if you have chosen the tour instead of the hotel. The same “desk” handles both. Turkish Airlines instructs you to go through passport and customs control, and look for the counter “next to the Starbucks.”
Getting there can be a bit scary. For one thing, most of the people disembarking your international flight to Istanbul will be heading down the corridor marked “International Transfers.” You take the lonelier path to baggage claim, passport control and the domestic terminals. Don’t panic if you see a sign that offers the free stay to travelers from Pakistan. Transit passengers from any country with qualified connecting flights on Turkish Airlines are eligible.
What About Your Luggage?
Once you have presented your passport (and visa if necessary) at immigration, just keep walking and turn right at the duty-free toward the baggage claim area. Walk all the way through the baggage claim until you reach a small counter on your right marked “Hotel Desk” next to a Starbucks. Your checked bags have most likely been sent to your final destination. Make sure you have everything in your carry-on bag that you need for your tour or overnight in Istanbul. If you want to leave your carry-on bag behind, there is a secure luggage check for a small fee next to the Hotel Desk.
Wait in line to show your passport and connecting boarding pass to the hotel desk. They will determine if you are eligible for the free tour or hotel offer and then instruct you to wait in the Starbucks for the next departing bus, typically less than 15 minutes. Passengers’ names will be called, and the group will be led out to a waiting bus at the curb.
Touristanbul Day Tours
The daytime tours are pretty straightforward, as explained on this website. Any international Turkish Airlines transit passenger with a layover of more than 6 hours (but no more than 24 hours) is eligible to go on any of the scheduled tours. To apply, just show up at the Hotel Desk to check in one half hour before the start of any tour at 8:30am, 9am, noon or 4pm.
The shortest option — from 8:30 to 11am — is mostly a drive-around with a few stops for photo opportunities and some free time at the Dolmabahçe Palace. Longer tours include breakfast and/or lunch and some must-see attractions like the Blue Mosque or the Grand Bazaar. The late afternoon tour is listed as a “cultural walk.” You may only have time to admire the exterior of some sites, rather than going inside.
I’ve never done this daytime option, partly because I spent five days in Istanbul on an earlier trip. There is so much to see that you’ll want more than just a few hours. But if this is your only shot at experiencing one of the world’s great historic cities, or you’d like to revisit some memorable sites free of charge, go for it! It certainly beats trying to pass more than six hours waiting at the airport. When you sign up for the tour, airline representatives will note the time you need to be back at the airport for your connecting flight and get you there in time to clear security.
Qualifying for a Free Hotel Stay
The hotel option is not as well publicized as the tours for a reason: not everyone qualifies on every trip. For example, I passed through Istanbul on my trip to Egypt. But my family didn’t want to take a chance on a one-hour connection time for the flight to Cairo. So, we booked a connecting flight that left the next day. We were NOT eligible for a free overnight in a hotel because we had turned down the option of the flight that left on the same day.
On a recent visit to Istanbul, I waited at the hotel desk behind a Spanish-speaking man who was being turned away. He was denied a free hotel stay because his itinerary did not include the first possible transfer flight to his destination and a heated argument ensued when he didn’t really understand the explanation in English.
To avoid getting a nasty surprise at the Hotel Desk, it is possible to email your itinerary to firstname.lastname@example.org to find out if you qualify in advance, but replies can be slow or never. I got a better response by messaging Turkish Airlines on Facebook. Confirmation in hand, I approached the Hotel Desk with confidence and the guy at the counter reconfirmed that my itinerary was qualified. After a short wait in the Starbucks, our group was rounded up and taken to the bus — including a French family of nine, all staying the night for free.
Luxury and Adventure
I’ve done the free hotel offer twice. The first time was a trip from Maldives in 2013, with a connecting flight to Rome the next day. I was taken to the modest Akgun Istanbul Hotel, located midway between the airport and the city center but a long taxi ride away from the famous sights of Sultanahmet. Having already done the grand tour of Istanbul, I enjoyed an authentic neighborhood experience. I changed about $20 dollars at the hotel front desk and asked for their restaurant recommendation to enjoy dinner at a Turkish pide (pizza) place called Kul Sofrasi few blocks away. It was packed with friendly locals. An English-speaking staff member helped me choose vegetarian dishes.
Stranger Danger: People inside the restaurant took great care of a solo woman traveler, but I drew some catcalls in the neighborhood, despite being modestly dressed in slacks and long sleeves, and I wouldn’t recommend being out alone after dark in a non-touristy neighborhood. Women are not required to cover their heads in Turkey unless visiting a mosque, but light hair is an attention getter.
More recently, my hotel experience was a lot more posh. I arrived from Los Angeles at about 6 pm local time and the first available connecting flight to Ljubljana wasn’t until 6:55 am the next day. The bus pulled up to a fancy Pullman airport hotel, part of the same luxury chain I had enjoyed in Bangkok. Upon check-in I was informed that “your pickup time is 4am.” The front desk provided brochures of nearby restaurants, some offering a free pickup from the hotel. I didn’t change any money on this trip because I decided to relax instead of going out, since I was more tired from the long flight than hungry.
My room was elegantly appointed with high-end toiletries, a coffee maker and complimentary water, and a window between the shower and bedroom that would have been a lot more interesting if I wasn’t alone. The 2nd floor room didn’t have much of a view through the grimy window, but it was on the same floor as the massive spa and fitness center. Guests can use the facilities free of charge, but I hadn’t packed a bathing suit or workout wear in my carry-on. Wearing only the Turkish towel they provided, I enjoyed the women-only section of the sauna and Turkish bath. That night, I drifted off to sleep — warm, happy and clean in my free hotel room!
Return to the Airport
As promised, the Turkish Airlines bus was at the front door of the Pullman to collect me promptly at 4 am. Your assigned pickup time is not negotiable. But there’s always one joker in the group who delays everyone’s return to the airport by not being ready. Please don’t be that person. The bus might have to stop at more than one hotel along the route back to the terminal.
It was too early to enjoy the hotel’s breakfast that often is included in the deal. However, as a Star Alliance Gold member, I was able to feast in the splendid Turkish Airlines lounge after I cleared security at the airport.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Booking your flight: Your arriving and connecting flights through Istanbul must BOTH be on Turkish Airlines to qualify for free stuff. If you’re interested in the overnight stay, do some research to make absolutely sure you are on the next available flight on Turkish Airlines to your final destination. If you overlook another earlier choice, you’ll be turned away at the hotel desk. In other words, don’t book an extra long layover in hopes of qualifying. It won’t work.
Access to Turkish Airlines lounge: This is why it pays to earn Gold Status on a Star Alliance airline; you have access to business class lounges, even if you are traveling on an economy ticket. It sucks if you don’t have status. Aside from the endless duty free shops there aren’t many amenities in parts of the sprawling international terminal, apart from paying for a room in a terminal hotel. Restrooms can be few and far between, and you’ll see lots of unhappy people camping out on the concourse floor.
If your layover is less than six hours, it is possible to reserve a “nap room” in the lounge. You can even get a massage! Don’t enjoy the lounge too much. No boarding announcements are made, so keep an eye on the big board. I needed a full 15 minutes for a brisk walk to gate 707.
Other free tours: I’ve also enjoyed free tours from Incheon Airport in Seoul, South Korea and from Changi Airport in Singapore. If you have a few hours to wait in Tokyo’s Narita airport, you can easily take a local train to visit the impressive shrine town of Narita on your own.