Istanbul Ataturk Airport is the largest airport in Turkey, and the global hub for flagship carrier Turkish Airlines. But in IST’s case, largest is nowhere near large enough. The overcrowded airport is loud, uncomfortable, and going to be replaced with a new one, scheduled to open in 2017.
Until that happens, here’s what to expect if you transit through IST.
1. Free Wifi
Nein. Not provided by the airport anyway. Even Starbucks, the company you can count on to provide burnt coffee and free internet anywhere, doesn’t deliver! The Greenport, a bar-restaurant in the main concourse, advertises free wifi for guests, but it was broken the evening I tried to use it. Password-protected networks do pop up outside of the airline lounges so if you’re VIP, you’re golden.
Power outlets are like unicorns too. I scoured the airport and finally found one in my boarding lounge but it was already occupied, keeping a well-worn vending machine on life support.
2. Train Connection To Somewhere Worth Seeing On A Four-Hour Layover
Yes. A combined metro-tram trip will take you from IST to Sultanahmet, the heart of historic Istanbul, in an hour. You’ll need a Turkish visa to leave the airport but it’s worth it to see the beautiful Blue Mosque or have tea at Topkapi Palace.
If you choose to spend your layover in the terminal, your options are eating, drinking, shopping and smoking.
3. Duty Free Costs
MIxed. I compared Turkish duty free prices against the same products in Spain and Greece. In general, liquor is more expensive in Turkey and perfume is cheaper.
1L Bombay Sapphire gin = 25 Euros (CAD$33)
Coco Mademoiselle eau de parfum 50ml = 75 Euros (CAD$101)
4. Security Screening
Unpleasant. Transit passengers go through security screening on their way into the airport. On each of my four visits this spring, the queues were long and shuffled along like a pen of extras on The Walking Dead. Turkish security staff barked directions like ‘move faster’ and modelled their best prison guard attitudes. I did get through screening each time in about 15 minutes but it felt like 100.
5. Ease of Orientation
Simple layout. The international terminal is a big rectangular box with retail on the upper level and departure gates below. Signage isn’t great but the layout makes it difficult to get lost.
6. Pre-Flight Food
Great. The airport has many shortcomings, but quality of food is not one of them. The food court is many steps above the norm, with colourful Turkish dishes and fresh baking artfully presented in glass cases. Seating can be hard to find though. I always head to Kitchenette, a resto-bar at the top of the elevator running from the food court to the second floor. The décor is French bistro and there’s a good vibe if you sit away from the smoking balcony.
7. Architecture/Interior Design
Congested. The airport’s most noticeable design feature is that it is way undersized for current passenger volumes. Just making your way to your gate can involve full court press like summer sales week on a London high street. Maybe the locals don’t notice, living as they do in the back to back apartment tower sprawl that covers the hills around the airport. But for those of us used to underpopulated countries and Canadian personal space, it’s pretty full on.
The congestion extends to the runway as well. The last time I flew out of IST, we pushed off from the gate and were slowly taxing to the runway when the pilot announced that there were 21 planes in line ahead of us for the same runway and we would be wheels up in a about 45 minutes. Almost half of my flight time to Greece was spent on the tarmac in Istanbul.
Fortunately, the new airport under construction will be the biggest in the world. So elbows out for navigation, and hang on a bit longer.
8. Most Exotic Destinations on the Departures Board
Bishkek, Ashgabat, Tashkent and Mogadishu. All lovely, foreign-sounding words to roll around in your mouth.
Overall Rating for IST: 59%