Your next international trip could include a free (or almost free) stopover in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines makes long layovers bearable by offering a free city tour OR a free hotel room. But you have to plan ahead when booking your flights to get the deal, especially now that you will be making your connection at the new Istanbul International airport terminal.
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.
How to Book Your Flight on Turkish Airlines
Here’s the deal: To get the free tour, your layover must between 6 and 24 hours. Both your international arrival and connecting flight must be on Turkish Airlines. Tours are offered at 8 AM, 8:30 AM, Noon and 4 PM, so make sure your layover is not too early or too late. You need to arrive, get through immigration and check in half an hour before the starting time, and they will only offer tours that return to the terminal 90 minutes before your scheduled departure. You have to go through normal security again on your way back.
The free hotel is a bit trickier: you must be leaving on the next available flight on Turkish Airlines to your final destination. Arriving in Istanbul from Los Angeles around 6 pm allowed me to claim the free hotel because the next Turkish flight to my final destination in Slovenia was the next morning. You’ll be turned away if you declined to take an earlier connecting flight or your connection is on a different airline. So don’t book an extra long layover on purpose!
Of course, the rules are constantly subject to change. To confirm or update the above information, visit the Touristanbul page on the Turkish Airlines website.
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 for tourism. 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 Free Hotel Desk
You can choose to do a free 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.
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 less popular 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.
Touristanbul instructs you to go through passport and customs control. In the new airport it’s less obvious where to go once you reach the international arrivals hall. Turn right and walk past the long line of stalls, where pushy salesmen may beckon you to buy their tours or hotels or claim they don’t know of any free offers. Pass them by and keep going all the way to the end of the terminal to reach the “hotel desk.”
What About Your Carryon Luggage?
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. There is a secure luggage check (for a small fee) next to the hotel desk if you’d rather leave your bag behind.
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 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 shortest option — from 8AM to 11:30am — is mostly a drive-around with a few stops for photo opportunities and some free time at the Dolmabahçe Palace. Later tours are longer and include a free breakfast, lunch or dinner. You’ll only see the exteriors of some must-see attractions like the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sofia. The late afternoon tour is listed as a “cultural walk.” All tours are conducted in English.
There is so much to see in Istanbul that you really need more than just a few hours to properly experience its top attractions. But if this is your only shot at seeing 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.
Free Evening Tour of Istanbul
My son and I took the free evening tour (4 pm to 9:30 pm) on a recent flight from Ljubljana to Tbilisi, Georgia. Our connecting flight left in the wee hours of the morning and we didn’t want to take a chance on our computer bags being locked up in the luggage check, so we lugged them along with us into the tour bus. This also meant we had to carry them on the walking tour. Be warned: it is a LOT of walking over uneven pavements, hills and steps.
Our guide expertly led us through a small outdoor market and then into Hippodrome Square, where we admired the Egyptian Obelisk, the German Fountain and the Serpentine Column. From there, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia were steps away. We stopped for outdoor photo-ops outside before continuing on to the Grand Bazaar for some shopping time.
We boarded the bus again to reach the restaurant that served a free three-course dinner to our group on its second floor. Vegetarian meals are an option if you ask. I am an adventurous traveler who likes to try everything, and I’ll confess that some of the new tastes didn’t agree with me. I paid the price later on when my stomach rebelled during my connecting flight to Tbilisi.
I also underestimated how exhausted I would be after hours of trudging along with my heavy computer bag. I let down my guard In the scramble to clear security on the way back and a pushy gentleman made off with my treasured winter hat — made of Austrian alpaca fur.
Qualifying for a Free Hotel in Istanbul
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. We stayed at our own expense at the Courtyard by Marriott Istanbul West, which offers a free shuttle to the new terminal.
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 email@example.com to find out if you qualify in advance. Confirmation email 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, 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. 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!
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.
Important Update: New Istanbul Airport
My son recently claimed the free hotel night on a connection through Istanbul’s new international terminal. It is so new and remote that there are not many nearby hotels and you’ll be taken to a hotel closer to the old Ataturk airport, which is now for cargo only. Be prepared to spend up to an hour on the bus EACH WAY. This also means that your pickup time will be three hours before your departing flight. As a result, my son enjoyed a free dinner in the hotel because his zero-dark-thirty pickup wouldn’t allow him to have the included breakfast — or even a full night’s sleep. He said the hotel seemed deserted except for Turkish Airlines passengers staying for free.
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 the Turkish Airlines Miles and Smiles Lounge, even if you are traveling on an economy ticket. There is a more luxurious lounge for business class ticket holders only. Don’t enjoy the amenities too much; no boarding announcements are made, so keep an eye on the big board and allow plenty of time to walk to your gate.
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.
Want more travel secrets and money-saving tips like this? Like @strangersinthelivingroom on Facebook, and sign up for the occasional email when there is a new post. Follow me on Trip Advisor @strangersblog. Pinning this post? Get more travel ideas from Strangers in the Living Room on Pinterest.