Somewhere west of Inebolu, on Turkey's Black Sea coast, last autumn
I cannot overstate how much we love road-tripping in Turkey. As far as we're concerned, if you've got the time and can swing it financially, driving yourself is the only way to travel in what could easily be one of the world's most road-trippable countries.
"Why would I want to self-drive in Turkey?" you ask. Well, for us it's mostly about food. We love Turkey's open roads, the people and places they've led us to and the food that they've set before us.
Yes, Turkey boasts a wide-ranging system of mostly comfortable, fairly inexpensive buses. But they don't go or stop everywhere. Too often, while traveling on a bus I've whizzed past a sight or a restaurant or a street stall or whatnot and wished I could jump off and investigate. In a car I can -- and we do, in Turkey, at our own pace and on our own schedule.
A full moon over the Black Sea. For this photo Dave ran along the highway to capture images of the boat in the light of the moon, while I drove behind to pick him up and drop him off when the boat got ahead of him. Not possible if you're on a bus!
One of my earliest food memories of Turkey, from our first road trip there in January 1998, is of a simple cafe on a lake somewhere between Kusadasi and Bodrum. Dave and I drove by, exchanged a "Should we?" look, then turned around, drove back and ate a delicious fish lunch at a table next to the wood stove. I couldn't tell you the name of the lake, let alone the name of the cafe, but we never would have eaten that lunch delicious enough to still be burned into my memory 15 years later if we'd been traveling by bus.
Not doable by bus: lunch at a roadside restaurant between towns
More reasons to self-drive: last autumn on Turkey's Black Sea coast we had one of our best meals of our trip at a restaurant we discovered while en route from one overnight stop to the next. A few months later we enjoyed several meals at an inland Black Sea restaurant serving rare regional dishes and tracked down and spent time at one of the area's last river-powered mills. Just last month we road-tripped the Aegean region, following an itinerary structured around weekly markets and great restaurants.
It's this sort of food-centric travel that draws us back to Turkey again and again, and it simply wouldn't be doable -- or doable to the extent to which we do it -- by bus.
"I am planning to go to Turkey. How can I travel and eat there as you do?" is something I'm occasionally asked in emails. My answer: Have a sense of adventure. And rent a car.
This is not only a How-To post, but a Please-Do post as well. If you're thinking of traveling to Turkey, Please Do consider spending at least part of your time there behind the wheel.
In the last three years we've undertaken eight extended Turkey road trips. Between these journeys, and the driving trips we did from 1998 and 2001, we figure we've clocked some 15,000 or so kilometers (and plenty of meals). If there is one thing we're positioned to offer advice on it's how to best propel yourself by motor vehicle along the country's highways and byways.
UPDATE July 2014: We passed the 20,000-kilometer mark (we think; our records are approximate) last month (June 2014) with a road trip along Turkey's eastern border and into the Black Sea highlands: Van and around Lake Van - Kars - Ardahan via an unfinished road (unfinished after we were already 2 hours in -- Oops!) - Savsat - Erzurum - Van.
I'm always surprised to read strong admonishments against driving in Turkey -- often from people who wouldn't think twice about getting behind the wheel in New York, Los Angeles or Boston. So I'll start by tackling the most Common Myths About Driving in Turkey.
Myth 1: Turks are terrible drivers. You'll get killed by a crazy Turkish driver as soon as you pull out of the rental car agency parking lot.
If you've driven in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Bali, Malaysia and especially Penang (in a nation of just generally awful drivers, Penang-ites are said by Malaysians to be the worst) OR Boston or Los Angeles or New York OR Italy or ..... you get my point. In short, if you've driven around and are living to read this post, then you've held your own against much worse drivers than Turks.
TRUTH: Turks are impatient drivers. Expect a honk from the guy behind you as soon as -- sometimes even before -- the light turns green. Don't be rattled, just ignore it and drive on.
TRUTH: Some Turks are risky drivers. Pass on an uphill curve? I've seen it done, and by truck drivers. If someone passes on your left on a two-lane curvy road? Apply the brakes, fall back, and let the risk-taker travel on.
That said, Turks are not bad drivers per se. In my experience Turkish people generally know how to drive. They usually use turn signals. They don't tailgate like Malaysians and many Americans do. They don't often cut across three lanes of traffic to make a turn and except for once way, way out east I've never seen a Turkish driver back up on a freeway because he missed an exit, or back down an exit ramp because he took one he hadn't meant to.
Myth 2: I don't read or speak Turkish, so I can't possibly drive there.
In 1998 we drove, over three weeks, south along the Aegean, east to Aphrodisias, Egirdir and Konya and then south to the Mediterranean. Neither of us spoke a word of Turkish, nor did we have a phrasebook. We did take along a Turkey Road Atlas from Lonely Planet. We were not particularly sophisticated travelers at the time. We lived in China (and drove there) but we spoke Chinese and by that point China was as familiar to us as the USA was.
In other words, we did not undertake our first Turkish road trip with any special prior knowledge or preparation. Our trip to Turkey was done on a whim and we knew pretty much zero about the place. Simply put, we were clueless when we got behind the wheel.
We did fine.
Turkish is a romanized language. Turkish roads are well-marked and turn-offs are signed. Get yourself a road map (only the larger international rental agencies give them out as a matter of course). If all else fails Turks are friendly and approachable and will usually go out of their way to help you. If you find yourself lost or unsure of a turn pull over at a shop or a gas station, state your destination as a question, point left and right and you'll get sent off in the right direction.
Myth 3: Renting a car in Turkey, plus the petrol, makes self-driving there prohibitively expensive
Yes, renting a car in Turkey costs more than taking the bus. But it is not always as outrageously expensive as you might think. Take into account the money you might spend on taxis getting to out-of-the-way sights (Sumela monastery from Trabzon, for instance, or the medievel Armenian city of Ani from Kars), and the cost per person if you are a number of people traveling together.
You won't necessariy save money renting a car in Turkey (though you could, with a number of people sharing a vehicle). But it won't necessarily put you in the poor house either.
While on the Aegean we drove approximately 400-425 kilometers and spent a total of about 300-325 US dollars over 7 days on our rental (including insurance purchased from the renter and gas). We drove a diesel vehicle (always preferred, especially if you plan to cover a lot of kilometers) rented through Argus Car Hire that would have comfortably held 4 passengers. (Major international rental agencies charge much higher rates.)
So much for the myths. Now, 10 Tips for Self-Driving in Turkey.
Tip 1: Go off season
This is advice to embrace no matter how you plan to get around in Turkey, but especially if you plan to drive. Crowded roads make for frazzled nerves. The Aegean is probably one of Turkey's most-visited, and most-driven, regions. In mid-April it was just right for driving (and staying) -- often empty roads during the week and minimal traffic on the weekends -- and will probably remain so until the end of May. You wouldn't catch me dead driving Turkey's west coast in the summer, but I would be happy to return, after September 1.
Unless you're way way way off the beaten track, major roads are passable even in the depths of winter, as we found when we road-tripped in 2012 during one of Turkey's coldest, and snowiest, winters on record.. On that trip we cut a path south to north straight through central-ish Anatolia. For most of our trip everything was blanketed in a beautiful white carapace (extra thrilling for us residents of tropical Penang), but driving never felt scary because major highways and larger roads were kept clear during and after snowfalls.
And, because we'd built extra time into our trip (see Tip 4), even if we had been unexpectedly waylaid for a night or two we could have made do.
Tip 2: Avoid the major cities
This is probably self-evident. Why would you drive in Istanbul, or Ankara? But if you're at all nervous about getting behind the wheel in Turkey, attempting to navigate behind the wheel in major cities is the worst mistake you can make. Just. Don't. Do it. We usually fly in and pick up our car at the airport. A pickup at city rental offices sometimes means slightly cheaper rates. It can also mean time wasted in snarled traffic and a world of pain endured while attempting to navigate an unfamiliar urban landscape.
Tip 3: Head east
The further east you go in Turkey, the fewer cars on the road. One of the greateast pleasures of driving in Turkey is its wide-open and varied landscapes. A five-hour drive can take you, as it did us a year ago this past winter, from snow to shirtsleeve weather. Cappadocia is an obvious choice for those looking to venture beyond the Aegean and Mediterranean, but consider too the southeast (Gaziantep-Urfa-Mardin-Midyat), the Black Sea coast and the northeast, say Erzurum-Kars-Van.
Leave time for unplanned stops like this, at a Black Sea market
Tip 4: Give yourself enough time
Be realistic when you plan your itinerary. For us, five hours in the car on any given day is tiring and numbing; we try to limit long days on a two- or three-week trip to 2, or 3 maximum. Three or four hours broken by a stop for tea or a picnic is ideal.
Keep in mind that road construction can, and will, happen, and will seriously slow you up (a 3-hour drive from Unye to Sinop, on the Black Sea coast, became 5.5 hours last autumn, thanks to construction in Samsun).
Most of all, remember one of the reasons you rented the car in the first place: to allow for serendipity. Sometimes serendipity requires time.
Don't plan to change lodgings and locations every day, and leave some padding in your schedule for towns that grow on you and invite lingering, for personal encounters that could become friendships if you could stay for dinner the next day, for a picnic or for unbidden discoveries -- sites, food, etc. -- that pop up en route from one place to the next.
Tip 5: Stay off the road at night
Unless you're driving from one spot to another in the same town, avoid night driving. It's particularly stressful to arrive to a new town or city and try to find your way around in the dark. Days in Turkey are incredibly short in the winter (not light till after 8, dark by 4), something to keep in mind if you're travelling way off-season and have some long driving days on your itinerary.
Tip 6: Break for tea
In our How to Get the Most Out of Istanbul post we recommended learning to love tea. The same applies on the road.
Every small town and most villages have a tea house. Many gas stations have attached restaurants where it is perfectly acceptable to decline food and order a glass of tea instead. We've never not been heartily welcomed anywhere on the road that we've stopped for tea; we've often been fed too, and had our money waved away. Tea breaks are a fine way to parse your journey, and you may meet some interesting folks too.
Tip 7: Looking for lodging? Head for the Sehir Merkezi
We almost never book accomodation ahead when we road-trip in Turkey, mostly because we don't want to be boxed into arrival dates. And with very few exceptions (Mardin on weekends in the summer) we've found that you don't have to.
So how do you find a hotel?
Well, you could consult your trusty guidebook. Which could be out of date. Many smaller Turkish towns and cities have new hotels coming up all the time and especially if you prefer to stay at the less expensive (but not hostel) end of the hotel scale, as we do, newer is generally better. So, before you arrive to an unfamiliar town google Hotels Town X. Often a booking site comes up, it may be in Turkish or it may not be. Have a look at the rooms pictured on the site and write down the names of the hotels that appeal. You might also note addresses.
As you begin to approach a new city or town, keep an eye out for the sign directing you to the Sehir Merkezi, or town center. Most if not all Turkish cities locate most of their hotels in the center of town (big showy higher-end business hotels tend to be on the outskirts, where you don't want to be anyway). When you hit the Sehir Merkezi -- often identified by a roundabout or town square, Ataturk statue, or some such -- the hotel you seek will often be sitting right there in plain sight.
If it's not, don't be flustered. Drive up and down the main street. Pull over and show someone the name of the hotel you're looking for and ask for directions. Hail a taxi and do the same -- the taxi driver may even lead you there.
Once you've found your hotel park your car in front, even if illegally (but not blocking traffic), pop into the hotel and ask to see a room. If you end up staying the hotel will park your car for you, or direct you to a lot nearby.
UPDATE, July 2014:
Since starting serious research for our Turkish cookbook our road trips in Turkey usually involve longer stays. And we have, sometimes, found a majority of hotels in some cities to sometimes be full (Erzurum last month, for instance). So we've started booking our first night in any town or city online before we arrive, and then use that half a day to decide whether or not to stay put or move to another, better, less expensive hotel. We've had great luck with booking.com and hotels.com; photos of rooms are generally accurate. And we cross-check reviews on TripAdvisor.com, which have been generally reliable for Turkey. In many instances hotels take your reservation but don't charge till you arrive, and sometimes you can negotiate the rate down for a multiple night stay.
One thing remains constant: in most cities: the prices charged by "boutique" hotels (ie. refurbished old buildings) are rarely commensurate with quality of lodging. And sadly, many refurbishments are simply poorly done, essentially business hotel-type rooms with no special atmosphere that just happen to be in a historic structure. We generally go for newer 3-stars. Always ask for a quiet room and never be shy of asking to see other rooms if you don't like the one you're put in.
Tip 8: For a clean loo, keep an eye out for Opet
"You look wonderful today. How about us?"
These words, in Turkish, are stenciled on mirrors in the women's bathrooms at Opet gas stations. (I don't know about the men's rooms.) The company that owns the Opet chain is headed by a woman, and Opet toilets are usually spotless. When you're on the road and in need of a bathroom break a clean toilet is a fabulous thing, not to be taken for granted. Also, Opet markets have the most well-stocked beverage cases -- useful for Diet Coke addicts like us. (Don't criticize, now -- everyone has their vices.)
Tip 9: Pick up and drop off from the same location
This is a massive money-saver. All but the most out-there airports have rental cars bookable online, and cars from major airports tend to be cheaper. Distances in Turkey are not as great, it feels, as those in the USA. So if you were looking to road-trip in, say, Cappadocia then picking up a car at the airport in major cities like Ankara or Kayseri should not be seen as out of the question.
Tip 10: Save money with Turkish rentals
Renting from a Turkish agency will be much cheaper than if you rent from one of the large international agencies like Avis, Hertz, EuroCar, etc. We've now used Argus Car Hire on 3 occasions, and have been sent to Turkish agencies in every case. In each instance we had good, reliable cars that varied in cleanliness from not very clean (but not awful, just very dusty) to spic and span, and we've dealt with rental agency staff whose English ability varied from none to fluent. In the case of the former, the rental staff brought an English-language speaking friend along to help facilitate the rental; the friend gave us his number in case of an emergency. We will use Argus Car Hire again.
Another option is to arrive at your location and book on the spot, at the airport, from a Turkish rental agency. We might try this on one of our upcoming trips. I see Turks do it all the time, and at airports on the Aegean and Mediterranean, in Ankara, even in Kayseri staff do speak some English. If you plan to do this it would be a good idea to get a general idea of charges by browsing a bit on the web in advance. Do NOT do this on a weekend in high season or over a holiday -- you may end up with no car at all.
UPDATE July 2014: Since I wrote this post in May 2013 we have continued to use Argus Car Hire on four additional road trips in Turkey. Prices are consistently lower than through other sites and our experience with hires have been consistently good. Do note the phone number of the rental agency on your Argus booking agreement ... we have occasionally arrived to airports unable to find our agent (who are usually waiting outside with the car, unless there is a desk inside the airport). But this has always been sortable within 5 minutes of a phone call.
Have you had experience road-tripping via rented vehicle in Turkey? Any tips we haven't covered here? Leave a comment and we'll include your tip, with credit of course, in an update to this post. Thanks for reading!