Trip Report: Turkish Airlines long-haul and short-haul via Istanbul
Turkish Airlines has been lauded with accolades for its on-board service across all cabins. It is also known for offering relatively inexpensive flights over its Istanbul hub to points all across the globe, which, in theory, is good news for budget-conscious travelers and/or Star Alliance elites seeking to earn Premier Qualifying Points at discounted rates.
This fall, I was traveling to Madrid for leisure, originating from Chicago. ITA Software, a metasearch engine which I pretty much ALWAYS use to find the lowest-priced airfares on the web, was showing Turkish as the cheapest routing via Istanbul over other conventional stoppover points in the US and/or Europe. My work travel has been somewhat slow this year, so I figured I should take the plunge and opt for a longer, more circular itinerary in order to hit my desired elite status this year. So, I went ahead and purchased on TK.
My itinerary was as follows:
The outbound would allow me to depart ORD at a leisurely late hour and arrive into Madrid right before midnight with a ~2 hour layover in IST. Not bad at all. The return, however, was a bit more challenging with an 8-hour layover in IST, on top of a red-eye departure from MAD. However, as Star Alliance Gold, I would have access to the CIP Lounge in Istanbul, so I didn’t sweat this too much.
Booking and Reservations
Now, one thing that all United and Star Alliance elites must beware of is that not all of Turkish Airlines Y-Class fares are eligible for United Premier Qualification. It’s always important, when booking flights on a partner-operated airline, to double check the fare class and insure that the flight earns 100% premier-qualifying miles for MileagePlus; else, you’re essentially squandering your dollars on worthless flights that add zero value to your loyalty program.
For example, a travel shopper may come across this bargain fare from Chicago to Delhi on Turkish. Noticeably, ITA is displaying TK as the cheapest option from ORD to DEL on a 10-day itinerary in mid-January at $933 round-trip, all-in, with convenient connection times. However, a glance at the fare classes show that while the traveler would earn 100% of the EQMs on the way out in L class, they wouldn’t earn anything on the return in W class.
Fortunately, this can be avoided by booking directly on Turkish Airlines’ website and opting for the higher fare mix. Inputting the same search criteria into the bars, THY.com actually generates an even LOWER round-trip airfare of $833 for those dates (with alternative date options as low as $733!!!) to choose from. With two free checked bags, too!
[Side note: either winter is just that slow for travel demand from Chicago to India, or their Chicago routes are simply THAT low-yielding…]
Anywho, moving through the booking flow, one arrives at the Flight Details page where Turkish displays the full itinerary and the ‘Cabin/Fare/Class’ information – and, as one can see, the passenger has booked into ‘P’ and ‘W’ classes for the outbound and inbound sectors. Essentially, these are worthless from a mileage accrual perspective.
So, the alternative option is to choose the higher fare bucket. Yes, it hurts to pay a bit more, but the difference, at least for me, was fairly marginal. For my flights to MAD, I only had to pay about $150 more to move from ‘P’ class to ‘M’ and ‘E’ class, essentially guaranteeing me full EQM accrual. Here, in the case of this Chicago to Delhi flight, the difference is a bit more, but not outrageous. (For the record – I also called Turkish Airlines’ Global Reservations Centre to get some more information on this. They weren’t necessarily “polite,” but they were at least knowledgeable and helpful).
Now, the Flight Details display the NEW fare classes, which indeed confirm that for the $1,400 fare, the customer is booking into E class. I still believe that $1400 is a really good fare to India.
Another thing to note (and this is a major improvement for Turkish Airlines’ website) is that passengers can now make seat selections online! This was something that WASN’T available to me when I booked my flights back in August, so congrats to TK for FINALLY implementing this change! The prior method involved the laborious process of consulting Seatguru.com, calling Turkish Airlines directly and having an agent reserve the seats. This is MUCH more user friendly and a very welcomed change.
Now, onto the flights!
Airport check-in at ORD was fairly standard. The Star Gold line uses the same lane as Business Class, so I was pretty much done within 5 minutes. I did inquire about upgrade options, which were hefty (roughly $2,000 each way). However, one major limiting factor is that Turkish deploys the Airbus A330-200 series aircraft to Chicago, which doesn’t offer Economy Comfort class, which I’ve heard is worth its last-minute offer going rate of a few hundred extra.
Per Turkish Airlines’ website:
Comfort Cabin service is offered for BEIJING, BANGKOK, HONG KONG, HOUSTON, LOS ANGELES, NEW YORK, SHANGHAI, TOKYO, TORONTO departures/arrivals.
As such, I would be relegated to YCL.
It’s important to inquire about lounge access, as it seemed to vary across my check-in experiences. At ORD, I was given a pass to the SWISSPORT lounge at T5 at O’Hare (but was also eligible to use the SAS Business Lounge as a Star Gold). In Istanbul, one is allowed to use the CIP Lounge as a Star Gold (separate review forthcoming). However, when I checked-in at Madrid, I had to ask about lounge access (since there is no Star-branded lounge in Terminal 1 at Barajas) and TK agents presented me with the SALA VIP Cibeles pass. I wonder if this wouldn’t have happened had I not inquired. The Star Alliance website had not any information on the CIBELES lounge, either.
Beyond that, check-in was fairly standard and smooth.
One thing I particularly liked about Turkish was that they offered printed newspapers on a rack outside the jetway. This is a small gesture, but goes a long way and is reminiscent of the pre-9/11 era of travel.
The Economy Class cabin of the Airbus A330 is showing its age. While not tired by any means, one can tell that this is slowly becoming Turkish Airlines’ workhorse. The light blue color scheme on the cushions were a major contrast to its all-leather plush seating on the Next Generation 737s that Turkish flies short-haul (more on that later).
I was hoping I would be proven wrong, but the impression/stereotype that Turkish Airlines employs surly flight attendants is, unfortunately, rather true. This is one of the first noticeable attributes of Turkish immediately recognized when one steps on-board. It’s not that they’re outright rude, they’re just not friendly nor approachable. On virtually every leg of my flight, they all seemed like they were frowning, although they performed the expected functions of their jobs, so to speak.
Thankfully, Turkish offers personal TV-in-flight entertainment screens at every seat in YCL. These are Audio – Video – On – Demand (AVOD) which is also a good plus. However, the selection on the Airbus A330 is far more limited than on the 737s and Airbus A321 short-haul narrowbody flights, as I was soon to discover. On the longer legs between Chicago and Istanbul, I grew bored of the options fairly quickly. In contrast, on the Istanbul – Madrid – Istanbul legs, I felt that the selections were much broader. As such, the Airbus A330s are aircrafts one might want to avoid if possible. The moving map display was more up-to-date, however.
I will say, the Audio selections are pretty stellar. One can browse a plethora of selections ranging from Modern Western hits to T-Pop to Bollywood, and everything in between. There are some good hour long podcasts featuring club mixes, electronica, classical Arabic & Bellydance and even some channels from the Far East, Africa and Latin America.
Even the short TV programming is pretty good. I watched a few Music Video channels (to brush up on my bollywood knowledge) and I was stunned by how many cartoon channels were available. I grew up on Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry, and each of these genres alone had hours worth of episodes. Score. I also liked a few documentaries, and watched one on what would happen if the Great Lakes of America were drained. Fascinating.
For what Turkish lacks in depth, it does make-up in breadth. I honestly felt that the only area that was truly lacking was the number of full-length film selections, and it was only disappointing that this was the case on the long-haul legs.
This was something I was really looking forward to, as Turkish caters its meals from Do&Co out of Istanbul. One of the first things all passengers will note is that there is a cook (or actually several, as it appeared?) on each flight, including the short-haul segments. The Cook(s) function just like on-board chefs: they are dressed in white garments with a hat on. I initially thought the Cooks were only for the premium cabins, but I think that the role of the Cook has grown beyond this to essentially facilitate the catering service across all cabins. It was a little ambiguous – the cooks would walk up and down the aisles frequently, and in some cases, even serve the YCL passengers. I’m curious to know as to what the real procedure is…
At any rate, on the long-haul flights, YCL passengers are presented with menus shortly after take-off with the choices available for the day. On the longer-haul segments, the first round of meal services came with a post take-off beverage service, followed by two choices of entrees. In between services, the back of the plane was stocked with sandwiches and cakes, as well as juices and water, in a self-service location within the galley. Final meal service only contained of one selection.
Beverage-wise, beyond the standard soft drink selection, there was bottled beer and wine, as well as whisky, gin, vodka and Raki, which is an unsweetened, anise-flavored hard alcohol drink popular in Turkey and the Balkans as an aperitif. It’s generally either consumed straight, or with chilled water and/or ice cubes, and is similar to Ouzo. I tried this a few times and enjoyed it.
After menu cards were distributed, F/As came about with a tray of Turkish delights. I used to hate these as a kid, but my goodness – the ones from Turkey are simply unreal. I could eat these endlessly.
The actual meal services consisted of a starter, a salad, a main and a dessert. It’s fare beyond what one will receive on Economy class on a US or European carrier. However, in all honesty, the meals didn’t knock my socks off. I’ve had tastier meals on Air France and KLM in Economy Class. I thought that these were yummy enough, but perhaps a reason for that could be that they were also very healthy 🙂
TK YCL meal, dinner service, ORD to IST
TK YCL meal, breakfast service, ORD to IST
TK YCL meal, breakfast service, ORD to IST
TK YCL meal, short-haul, Istanbul to Madrid (dinner)
TK YCL meal, short-haul, MAD to IST (dinner). Notice how TK uses the boxes on short-haul sectors
TK YCL meal, long-haul, IST to ORD (pre-arrival snack dinner service)
For instance, the first meal consists of a dicken dish with ratatouille and buttered rice. The green beens tasted nice and citrus-y and the salad and raspberry cake were yummy. The chicken dish, however, was bland. It could have used something more innovative as a sauce. On my breakfast dish, I did think TK scored a few points for the hot sandwich toast! The scrambled eggs, however, were a bit runny. Desserts are pretty consistently tasty and creative. Rolls are always served hot, which is a great extra touch.
Amid the other items, Turkish provides a few “extras” such as dried apricots, chestnuts, cheese sandwiches (in between meals) and a fully-stocked, self-service juice bar at the back of the cabin. In particular, I loved the sour cherry juice, and helped myself to several rounds of it on the reg.
I have to give Turkish credit where it is due here for providing YCL passengers the “extras” that other airlines have largely done away with, namely in the form of printed meal menus and amenity kits. Every flight, short-haul or long-haul, receives the standard, “Mutfakta Kim Var?” (What’s in the Kitchen today?) print-out with the F&B options for the day.
On the outbound sector from ORD, we received a lot of goodies: slippers (which proved to be VERY handy when I was sleeping and wanted to walk around the cabin to stretch my legs, socks, a toothbrush/toothpaste kit, earplugs, eyeshade and lip balm. Basically, the same stuff United offers in BusinessFirst!
On the return flight, the offerings were similar, but this time in a cool tin-souvenior box. Similar to what SWISS offers in Business as well.
Transfer at Istanbul
Most likely, if you are flying on Turkish Airlines, your itinerary will involve an international transit/connection in Istanbul. There are some important things to note.
I can’t find the MCT (Minimum Connection Time) for Ataturk airport, but I would personally allow yourselves 2 hours (bare) during your transit. Several reasons for this: one, there is a strong likelihood that your flight will require a bus transfer from a remote parking stand to the terminal. That always adds delays and extra time to de-board and wait for the bus to load, drive, park, unload, etc.
Second, the security and immigration re-check procedure at IST is one of the largest, most disorganized clusters I have EVER seen in my life. This was probably the biggest royal shock I experienced flying TK, and worse yet, it happened at 4 AM and 4 PM. Regardless of the hour, it’s going to be a push-and-shove affair. If you have difficulty walking or need assistance, it is imperative to make a Special Service Request (SSR).
Put simply, there is ONE location where international to international connections are processed. Imagine flights coming in from all corners of the earth, with a multitude of passengers speaking various languages and hailing from a variety of countries with different customary approaches to forming lines and queues. In other words, it is complete anarchy. There is a single person manning the “check” station with a mere glance at the passport, followed by a sorting process into the security checkpoints. People are thronging, pushing their way to the front, cutting the line, elbowing each other, and nobody seems to do anything about it.
On the inbound journey, I joined the tail end of the line and tried to be the good sumaritan by avoiding any cheating tactics and noticed that the line was barely budging, although people were moving through security fairly quickly. I realized that after 20 minutes of pointless standing around, the honor system strategy had to be tossed out the window because literally huge crowds of people (mostly tour groups and religious travelers) were forging their way into the head of the line and so that was the norm. I remembered to do this on the return trip. The actual process of going through the detectors is pretty seamless.
I did not spend too much time in the sterile part of the terminal, but I did browse around and its a pretty pleasurable place to inhabit. Beware on duty free purchases: there are minimum cutoff times of an hour prior to departure for US-bound flights, which I learned the hard way. Note to self: whenever tempted to buy Duty Free, do so when you can, not when you THINK you can 🙂
This feature is really cool- it essentially is a free tour of Istanbul provided by Turkish Airlines for passengers with a 6 hour layover or longer. The tour includes transportation to historical places and resataurants and then drops one back at Ataturk airport on the return. The website where you can find more info, called “Istanbul in Hours” was promoted in THY’s magazine. Unfortunately, my layover hours did not fit within the window, so I didn’t have a chance to explore this service. Had I known before, I would have considered possibly booking with a layover time that permitted this option.
There are apparently three tours one can take between the hours of 9:00 and 15:00, 12:00 and 18:00, or 9:00 to 18:00 (so basically two six hour versions or one nine hour option). It’s just absolutely fascinating and I’d really consider doing it, especially because it is free! The airline even picks up the tab for museum entrance fees, which is just absolutely unbeatable value.
One doesn’t have to create a booking or a listing, they simply just need to arrive at the Hotel Desk in the International Arrivals Hall at IST half an hour before the start of the tour. The FAQ section is very good and answers most general questions to help guide passengers through this process. Guests do have to adhere to Turkish visa requirements, but I believe these can be purchased on arrival for certain individuals. All of the guided tours are provided in English-only, and even if there is only one person signed up for the tour that day, it still goes, rain or shine.
I’d like to know if anyone has used this option in the feeback section!
Turkish Airlines certainly provides great value at a good price. It’s definitely a notch above the rest of the EU and US Star Alliance brands (United, Lufthansa Group) and perhaps just a hair ahead of Air Canada and just behind All Nippon and Thai. I think it would have probably been better if I had not flown on one of their older-generation Airbus A330-200s for the longer stages of the flight, because the product felt very worn. The experience on the shorter-haul legs was much nicer given that the hard product was newer.
In general, I would recommend flying Turkish, but I may have been a bit ambitious about choosing the itinerary that I flew. While not taxing by any means, it wasn’t for the faint at heart, and by far, the Istanbul to Chicago segment felt very debilitating by hour six of twelve. In hindsight, a drammamine may have been in order 🙂
I hope to some day try out Turkish Airlines’ business class and get a feel for their premium product, or even their Economy Comfort product as well. As Turkish continues to expand into the US, hopefully, one of those opportunities will arise.
My other Trip Reports and Lounge Reviews:
- United Airlines, BusinessFirst, Vancouver to Washington Dulles (8/13)
- United Airlines, BusinessFirst (787 DreamLiner Domestic), Houston to Chicago O’Hare (6/13)
- Virgin America, First Class, Chicago to Los Angeles (4/13)
- United Airlines, BusinessFirst, Tokyo Narita to Seattle Tacoma (10/12)
- All Nippon Airways, Economy, Manila to Tokyo Narita (10/12)
- All Nippon Airways, Business, Tokyo Narita to Manila (10/12)
- All Nippon Airways, Economy (787 Dreamliner), Seattle Tacoma to Tokyo Narita (10/12)
- SWISS, Business + Economy, Delhi to Zurich + Zurich to Chicago (8/12)
- Thai + Bangkok Airways, Economy, Delhi to Bangkok + Bangkok to Samui & return (8/12)
- United Airlines, Economy, Chicago O’Hare to New Delhi (via Newark) (8/12)
- Delta Air Lines, Economy, Detroit to Sao Paulo & Sao Paulo to Atlanta (1/12)
- KLM, Economy, London Heathrow to Chicago O’Hare (via Amsterdam Schiphol) (8/11)
- Air France, Economy, Chicago O’Hare to Stockholm Arlanda (via Paris CDG) (8/11)
- Continental Airlines, Economy, Delhi to Dallas/Ft. Worth (via Newark) (7/10)
- Lufthansa, Economy, Frankfurt Main to Delhi (7/10)
- Lufthansa, Economy, Dallas/Ft. Worth to Frankfurt Main (6/10)
- Continental, Economy, San Jose (CR) to Dallas/Ft. Worth (via Houston IAH) (12/09)
- American Airlines, Business (Domestic 777), Dallas/Ft. Worth to Chicago O’Hare (7/09)
- GOL Airlines, Economy, Santiago de Chile to Buenos Aires (+ return) (10/08)
- Air Canada, Economy, Dallas/Ft. Worth to Santiago de Chile (via Toronto Pearson) (7/08)
- Air India, First, Business and Economy, Chicago to Delhi (via London) + return, (12/06-1/07)
- Northwest Airlines, Economy, Burlington, VT to Dallas/Ft. Worth (via Minneapolis) (8/05)
Scandinavian Air System
All Nippon Airways