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Turkey is one of the countries that announced the return of tourism in June. However, travelers don’t need to quarantine or provide any test results to enter or exit the country, no matter where they live.
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While some countries impose strict lockdown measures and hesitate to open their borders, the world has begun to open up to visitors with certain requirements in place, such as proof of a negative COVID-19 test before arrival or having to quarantine upon entry.
Turkey is one of the countries that announced the return of tourism in June. However, travelers don’t need to quarantine or provide any test results to enter or exit the country, no matter where they live. Learning this was enough for me to book my trip. So, I thought I’d share my experience traveling to Turkey during a pandemic.
Making Pre-Trip Arrangements
Ironically, the idea to travel to Turkey was born while I was researching award space for one of our 10xTravel team articles, in which we discuss how we’d redeem specific points and miles for travel. I called up a couple of friends to see if they wanted to visit Turkey in a week or two, and surprisingly both said, “Yes.”
Award availability to Istanbul on a mix of United Airlines and Turkish Airlines looked wide open in all classes of service, even on short notice. Eventually, I opted to redeem fewer miles and fly in economy both ways to save miles.
Although Turkish limits in-flight food and beverage service to cold, prepackaged items, I chose to fly the Istanbul-based carrier for the option to make fewer connections. My outbound flight from Salt Lake City to Istanbul included just one layover in Houston. My return was from Bodrum via Istanbul and San Francisco.
Because of the HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filtration systems in place, airplanes seem safer than airports to me, and I wanted to minimize the risk of potential exposure to the virus by making as few stops as possible.
A few days before departure, I applied for an eVisa, which is required for U.S. nationals. My application was approved a few minutes later, and I had all the documents necessary to enter Turkey.
Not All Airports are Ghost Towns
It was my first flight since March, and I don’t have a large enough sample pool to know whether the airports really are empty during a pandemic. Contrary to what I thought, airports were buzzing with activity.
Perhaps it seemed busy because we flew out on the Friday before Labor Day. Perhaps people are starting to get more comfortable with air travel. Whatever the reason was, neither Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) nor George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) seemed apocalyptic in any way.
However, you can’t say the same about Istanbul Airport. On our final day in Turkey, Istanbul Airport’s International Terminal looked like a scene from “The Walking Dead” with somewhat empty hallways and closed duty-free shops.
I’d like to add that most planes we took to and within Turkey were either full or close to full. My friend and I lucked out with a couple of empty middle seats between us, but not every time. As a precaution, I wore an N95 mask on every flight.
Most Airport Lounges Are Closed
Now that I’ve experienced lounge life thanks to The Platinum Card from American Express, I can never go back to waiting for a plane in a terminal. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for most of the trip.
The Centurion Lounge at IAH was closed. Both Priority Pass lounges were closed. Four of the five United Clubs as well as the Polaris Lounge were closed. The only United Club that was open is located in Terminal E, but I didn’t have any United Club passes to visit, so my friend and I grabbed a bite at Ruby’s Diner.
In fact, the only lounge I managed to visit on the whole trip was the IGA Lounge at Istanbul Airport on the return back to the United States. All the food was either individually wrapped or had to be served by a person behind plexiglass.
COVID Costs: Some Went Up, Some Went Down
Again, contrary to what I thought, not every travel component dropped in price because of the pandemic.
Let’s start with the eVisa. In the past, the electronic document allowing U.S. citizens to enter Turkey cost $20. The price of the standard, six-month multiple-entry visa recently went up to $50—that’s a 150% increase.
Lodging costs, on the other hand, have become more affordable. My friend and I shared accommodation at hotels and paid less than $50 per person per night on average. Our itinerary included four nights at a beach resort on Bodrum Peninsula, where prices are generally higher. Without going to Bodrum, our lodging would’ve been less than $35 per person per night.
Attraction tickets also increased in price. For example, the entrance to the Dark Church inside the Goreme Open Air Museum in Cappadocia went from 10 Turkish liras ($1.30) to 25 liras ($3.25). Entry to the Ephesus Archaeological Museum used to be 30 Turkish liras ($3.90); it’s now 100 liras ($13).
What did become less expensive, thanks to smaller crowds and low demand, are hot air balloon rides in Cappadocia. The flights regularly sold for €250 to €300 B.C. (before corona). We booked a one-hour flight in a 20-person basket for $120 per person and ended up flying with 16 passengers, a pilot and his assistant.
Speaking of hot air balloon rides, it’s difficult to social distance inside a confined wicker basket, but every passenger was required to wear a mask and keep it on for the duration of the flight.
On our first attempt, our ride was canceled last minute because of strong winds, but luckily, we were able to fly the next morning. If you plan on visiting Cappadocia, and a hot air balloon flight is on your list, I suggest staying multiple nights in the region to increase your chances.
What We Did to Minimize Risk of Contracting Corona
Unfortunately, because there isn’t a vaccine for COVID-19, a certain level of risk is still present, and traveling isn’t 100% safe. To minimize risk, my friends and I took some precautions.
For starters, I mostly stayed home and intentionally avoided public places for about 10 days leading up to my flight to Turkey. I didn’t want to catch anything before the trip and inadvertently bring it to my destination and its people.
With the exception of going inside Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, we chose to do outdoor activities, such as a walking tour of the city and a ferry to the Asian shore of Istanbul with the option to sit on the top deck. The majority of attractions in Cappadocia are outdoors, including Goreme Open Air Museum, Zelve Monastery, Love Valley and a hot air balloon ride.
We visited Pamukkale’s thermal waters and travertine terraces and the Ephesus Archaeological Museum on day trips from Izmir. And while in Bodrum, we hung out on the beach and took a boat trip to Orak Island. The boat had few passengers and plenty of room to social distance safely.
Instead of dealing with public buses or organized tours, we rented a car for the second portion of our trip (after Cappadocia) and used it for a week.
For lunch and dinner, we chose places with outdoor patios, and almost every restaurant measured our temperature and provided hand sanitizer.
Speaking of, I had packed more sanitizing wipes in my luggage than I could use, and I wore a fresh mask for every day of the trip, thanks in part to Turkish Airlines that put them in amenity kits on all flights in all classes of service.
International travel is a touchy topic these days. Deaths, unemployment and politics have put many of us on edge, and the idea of travel has prompted polarizing responses. However, now that we know more about the virus and understand how it spreads, safe, responsible travel is looking more and more possible for many people (based on a personal comfort level).
If you choose to travel, be a gracious guest and follow the destination’s protocols. So few countries are open to U.S. passport holders, and it’s only polite to be respectful to your host.