The good news for travelers is that the dollar is stronger than it’s been in a long time against most foreign currencies, including the Pound and Euro. The bad news is that in many popular destinations travel prices themselves have shot up, and rates for everything from hotels to plane tickets to meals to rental cars are high enough to give even the most experienced traveler sticker shock.
For instance, Venice has been one of the most popular destinations in the world for U.S. luxury travelers since the pandemic shutdown eased, so I just quickly scanned rates for a mid-October weekend on Hotels.com. The Hilton Molino Stucky? From $884 a night. The Metropole? From $1,1919. The Ca’ di Dio? From $1,372. Cipriani? $1,817. Bauer Palazzo? $2,038. Gritti Palace? $2,352. Baglioni Hotel Luna? $3,680. Those rates are per night – for the least expensive class of room available – a couple of months after peak summer season ended. At least in Europe you usually get breakfast.
A recent Bloomberg headline read “Americans Are Planning Fall Travel Despite Higher Costs Ahead.” Earlier this week Thrillist proclaimed “Flight prices surged 42% this year & are about to get more expensive.” Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian recently called what is happening in the travel industry a “countercyclical recovery” and due to pent up demand the airline sees no slowdown tied to declining economic outlook.
But while most people love a vacation, not everyone wants to – or can afford to – keep up with inflation and rising travel costs. Fortunately, those craving an affordable European (or Asian!) vacation with great food, culture, history, a very varied mix of big cities, incredible scenery and outdoor activities – all with affordable high-quality air access – can consider Turkey. Or more accurately Türkiye, since back in June the country decided to use its traditional Turkish name internationally, rather than the Anglicized version. This change is reflected on the country’s new official tourism site, GoTurkiye.com.
I love Venice, but I just got back from my second trip to Türkiye, where you could enjoy an entire luxury vacation, visiting multiple cities and major attractions, staying in the best hotels, with guides, domestic airfares and activities, all for less than a weekend on the Grand Canal.
To put this in stark perspective, there is regular scheduled ferry service between Bodrum, Turkey’s poshest beach resort, and the nearby Greek Isle of Kos, just 30 minutes apart by boat. Greece has one of the less expensive costs of living among popular European countries and Bodrum, with its Mandarin-Oriental, Kempinski, Luxury Collection and many other luxury hotels, is one of the priciest spots in Türkiye. But even so, a bottle of water that costs around 3€ in Kos runs just 25 cents in Bodrum. That’s a twelve-fold difference – and not atypical.
This helps explain why U.S. tourism to Turkey has skyrocketed in recent months as inflation has eroded our purchasing power. In 2022, Americans have flocked to Türkiye in unprecedented numbers, and as of the end of August, just under 640,000 American tourists visited – a 61% increase over the same period in 2019, the last “normal” year before the pandemic. 2023 is the 100th year of the country becoming a republic and is shaping up to be even bigger, likely a record tourism year.
As an example, there is an excellent luxury travel specialist in Türkiye called Travel Atelier, one of the best in the region (they also cover Greece) and this is the company that many of the top travel agents I know here use. They can put together any kinds of itineraries and set visitors up with transfers, drivers, guides, sailing charters (trips in the Aegean and Mediterranean on traditional Turkish gullet sailing yachts are a very popular and affordable form of luxury vacation) and so on and so forth. If you consider the value in some of their luxury packages and realize that these examples represent pretty much the entire spectrum of travel in the country, you might just start packing your bags.
Most of their itineraries are frameworks that can be further customized, but as an example, their best seller is a guided trip, but a private one, just for your party, called the Golden Triangle of Turkey. In 7 days, you hit the three biggest touristic destinations, Istanbul, famous for straddling two continents, Europe and Asia, and one of the world’s most fascinating cities; Cappadocia, a geologically crazy landscape of only here rock formations and cave dwellings and arguably the world’s premier spot for hot air balloon tours, so distinctively breathtaking it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site: and Ephesus, one of the most impressive ancient ruins on earth, which after 170 years of dedicated research is still being excavated. Among many other impressive sights, Ephesus is home to the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
This trip includes private guides to tour you around all the key sites in Istanbul, including the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Underground Cistern, St. Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the fabled Grand Bazaar, as well as guides in both Cappadocia and Ephesus. It includes domestic flights, private car transfers, stays in top tier luxury hotels – among the very best in each destination – including one of the most iconic cave hotels in Cappadocia, which is a must-experience. It includes a hot air balloon flight, most meals and several other unique experiences. In short, it is a complete, guided, turnkey deluxe vacation across Türkiye – and prices start at less than $1900 per person.
That’s just one example but it is a very representative one, reflecting both the amazing value proposition and diversity of experience. The value proposition in Türkiye can be enhanced even further by utilizing local luxury hotels rather than international brands, but if you want them, they are here – Istanbul alone has two Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Park Hyatt, Raffles, St. Regis, Shangri-la, and arguably the flagship of Kempinski, the famous Ciragan Palace. But local offerings include the Kaya Palazzo group, which has five over the top properties, including a golf resort, ski resort, hotel in the nation’s capital of Ankara, a hot springs resort, and one of the very best beach resorts in Bodrum, Kaya Palazzo Le Chic Bodrum, where I have stayed, with a mix of deluxe rooms and stunning villas.
For the same weekend I checked Venice prices, a 3-night Thursday-Sunday stay at this spot was $809 for two, or $270 a night and if you are used to travel on a budget this may be one of the nicest resorts you will have ever stayed at. I’ve paid that much for a night at the Hartford, CT airport. That’s another travel appeal of Türkiye – you can go really cheap, but you can also splurge and enjoy a true luxury trip without the usual price tag. In Cappadocia the top cave hotel is another distinctly Turkish property, Argos in Cappadocia, with its own winery, the largest wine cellar in the country, and suites carved out of ancient caves that have touches like their own indoor swimming pools – for a fraction of what top hotels in other key European destinations cost. One of the world’s top luxury travel agents told me this is where she sends clients visiting the region, and I’ve been, it is a radically different, unforgettable and thoroughly excellent hotel experience, with a great location, great rooms and great food – and for those same dates, from $356 a night (and even less as part of package trip with a company like Travel Atelier).
From a touristic point of view, the top destination in the country for Americans is İstanbul, which make sense as it is also the gateway, with so much to see you could spend a week here. The rooftops and iconic skyline of the city have also recently been featured in films from both the James Bond and Taken franchises.
But it’s a big country and beyond Istanbul, Türkiye is an extremely multi-faceted destination divided into seven key regions. Attractions range from amazing landscapes such as Cappadocia to beach resorts (while less known to Americans, Bodrum is one of the most popular in the entire Mediterranean basin, rivalling Greece, Spain and Italy for European travelers), a surprising number of high-quality golf courses and resorts, even ski resorts. There is exceptional gastronomy (Istanbul alone has 53 restaurants in the new Michelin Guide), shopping, archaeology, and arts and culture. In the top tier league of Machu Picchu, Pompeii and the Great Pyramids, Ephesus has long been a global pilgrimage site for fans of ruins, but more recently several more have been discovered, including even larger and more fascinating options. Ancient ruins abound in Türkiye and are rapidly becoming a big part of the future of tourism: full of obelsiks, Taş Tepeler in Şanlıurfa is an extraordinary find. Göbeklitepe, which was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2018, is already changing science’s understanding – and assumptions about – the Neolithic Age. The Şanlıurfa Neolithic Age Research Project is the largest and most comprehensive archaeology project ever undertaken in Türkiye and Göbeklitepe is expected to draw 700,000 visitors this year – it’s the ancient world’s next big thing.
The bottom line is that there is a lot to see and do, with many excellent hotels, exceptional Mediterranean cuisine, and surprisingly good (and cheap) wines (top ten in the world for wine grape viticulture). But the value proposition and vacation experience is greatly enhanced by the national carrier, Turkish Airlines, one of the world’s elite. Turkish literally flies to more destinations than any airline in the world, wins far more awards than most, and has non-stop service to its state-of-the-art Istanbul hub from 17 North American cities including Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Houston, Miami, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Newark, Dallas, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Mexico City, and Cancun. Two more, Detroit and Denver, are coming soon.
Turkish consistently wins Best European carrier from the most important rankings, Skytrax, and by any standards is one of the handful of best airlines in the world. In addition to Europe’s Best, they also win a Skytrax global award for World’s Best Business Class Catering, thanks in part to the unique “flying Chefs” program with the chef on flights of 8-plus hours. Their hub is the brand-new state of the art Istanbul airport, which has won Airport of the Year since it opened and the new Turkish Airlines lounge there is easily one of the world’s best. In addition to all the top tier features, private rest suites, showers and such, it has a wonderful “street food” style selection of stalls featuring fresh cooking, as well as an unrivalled selection of entertainment options, from slot car racing for kids to golf simulators to a virtual reality flying experience where you soar over Istanbul like a bird.
Internationally the business class product is first rate, with modern, comfortable, ergonomically designed units with lay flat beds, complete with duvets and mattress pads, made up by the friendly staff. Turkish has a great menu selection and among the best food in the air. Domestically, they serve shockingly elaborate three-course meals with printed menus on flights that are just an hour long – it’s overkill but in a way that it puts your concepts of domestic First class in the U.S. on any carrier to shame. Economy class is also superior to the competition, and both options almost always cost less than lesser airlines charge. I regularly fly to Europe and have recently flown Lufthansa, United, Swiss and other carriers and would put Turkish appreciably ahead of all of them – at typically lower prices. Turkish has been my choice even when I am not going to Turkey, for flights that make sense to change via Istanbul, destinations such as Bali, Greece, Nairobi and so on. In terms of awards only the very top tier of Middle Eastern and Pacific Rim carriers like Qatar and Cathay Pacific are in the same league.
But Turkish Airlines (part of the best and biggest consortium, Star Alliance) is also affordable, for both coach and business class, and if all that is not enough, they have one of the best “stopover” deals in the industry. If you have lengthy connection time (20 hours or more) Turkish Airlines will provide a free one-night stay in a 4-star hotel for economy class and a two-night stay in a 5-star hotel for business class passengers, allowing extra time to explore the many sites. If you don’t have a long connection and just want to add an Istanbul mini-vacation to your other travels, Turkish offers passengers the option of staying at partner hotels from just $49.
If you have a connecting international flight with a layover between 6 and 24 hours, they offer the complimentary Touristanbul service so you can visit İstanbul’s most notable historical sites and enjoy authentic Turkish cuisine. It’s free, and after landing at İstanbul Airport, you’ll be picked up by a vehicle and then driven back to the airport at the end of the tour. It’s a great way to start or end a trip when you are headed someplace else and don’t think you have time to visit Türkiye. But if you are craving an international vacation with all the culture, food, l local color and other elements of visiting another country without breaking the bank, you don’t have to go beyond Türkiye.