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Trip Report, Best of Turkey, October 2019

I'm still semi-boycotting the "official" RS tour evaluations in favor of posting a more complete report using the old format on the forum (although this time I have a couple concrete suggestions I really want the front office to know about, so I'll actually submit those on the official eval).
C of "David and C"

Part 1

1) most impt factors in choosing tour - Many RS "buddies" we'd met in the past had said that the Turkey tour was their favorite and at the time we booked, the political situation, though uncertain, seemed relatively stable

2) favorite "wow" moment - Without a doubt, the balloon ride over Cappadocia (which almost every buddy in the tour took) was the wow moment, but it's not included in the tour. However, our guide worked very, very hard to make sure that it happened despite difficulties with weather and booking when so many other tourists also wanted to book rides. As far as events included in the tour, I'd have to say the meeting with the imam was a "wow moment" because it was so informative. For my third choice, I'd pick the Istanbul spice market tasting and demonstration - we learned a lot and the staff in the store were very helpful in matching us to delicious treats.

3) hotels/meals/experiences - any especially good/bad - The hotels were all fine as places to stay. All but one had electric hotpots. My favorites were the cave "suite" in Cappadocia and one of the hotels toward the end of the tour that our guide said was a "business" hotel - we appreciated the latter because the internet connection was the most reliable and the tabletop space generous.
Tour meals were generally good to very good except for two dinners: 1) dinner at Albura Kathisma on the first night in Istanbul. The meat was tough and flavors uninspired. The Lycos River hotel dinner buffet reminded me of a bad Las Vegas buffet. But we recognize the difficulty of coming up with restaurants that can provide a busload of buddies good meals at the right times. With one exception, TripAdvisor gave us great recommendations for off-tour meals. Other experiences I really enjoyed: H. Sophia (obviously), the lunch with Mrs. Fahriye, the carpet lecture and shopping for a buddy gift in Korkuteli.

4) pace? any way to make use of your time more efficient? - Pace was surprisingly good. The advertising indicating many hours on the bus belies the clever way in which those hours are broken up. In addition, our guide worked very hard to rearrange events as needed to make the best use of our time given changing circumstances. I would have liked to have spent more time in the Anatolian Civilizations Museum and the Topkapi Palace and less at the Aspendos theater, but I didn't see a practical way to do so. The Attaturk Monument can really only be appreciated if you know a lot about the history of the time - maybe spend less time there and let the visit serve as something that will make tour members want to know more about the history.

5) could front ofc have done anything better -
For countries in which smoking is allowed in hotels, RS front office and guides should ask if you are particularly sensitive to cigarette smoke - in the same way that they ask if you have food allergies - so that people very sensitive to cigarette smoke don't end up in a room that has just been used by a smoking guest.

I think it would also be helpful to have maps of the big ancient Greco-Roman sites that show walking distance and times, the restrooms and if known in advance, the meeting points (the maps wouldn't need to be detailed or even printed - they could be posted with the schedule and tour members could take pictures). A lot of times at the big sites we weren't sure how long we had before we needed to head back to the meeting point.

6) did our advertising mislead u in any way - Advertising was fine. Tour scrapbooks by previous travelers, especially the 2018 3rd place winner, were also very helpful.

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Part 2

7-8) rate ur guide: accessible, fair, engaged; clear orientation at ea stop; leadership; speaking and teaching; knowledge of history and art; grasp of contemporary issues. - Our guide was absolutely terrific - very knowledgeable, entertaining, organized and hard-working and willing to discuss just about anything, including potentially difficult contemporary issues

9) comment on local guides - we had only one local guide, at the Underground City - he spoke a bit too fast for me, but I still managed to catch all the content

10) comment on driver - as usual, RS drivers are the best - very skilled at driving, friendly and helpful in many behind-the-scenes ways that buddies don't always appreciate

11) more comments? would u recommend tour to others? - Definitely recommend. Of the seven RS tours we've been on, this was by far the most informative - which is actually a sad commentary on how poorly Americans are educated about Turkey. We went in 2019 a few days after Turkey invaded Syria. We were a little concerned that some group might commit random acts of violence against tourists in general in order to louse up Turkey's economy, but thankfully nothing bad happened. Despite knowing just a few phrases of Turkish (hello, thank you, very good and where's the bathroom), we managed OK in all the tourist areas and even OK in a few less touristy spots. In areas outside big cities, I felt safer than I usually do in Paris or dicey neighborhoods in San Francisco and even the big cities seemed safe for people taking common-sense precautions. We met many friendly locals and even warmed (after a fashion) to the amusing guys trying to sell carpets and other trinkets at every turn.

Here are some suggestions for those going on this tour:

a) The tour gives you a Turkey Museum Pass which is good for single-use admissions to just about every attraction in the country under the culture ministry's jurisdiction. It's good for 15 days and for logistical reasons, the guide cannot give it to you before the official start of the tour. If your schedule permits, consider returning to Istanbul after the tour. The pass will still be good and there's not enough time to see several fine museums or to do the Hagia Sophia justice during the tour. However, if your schedule calls instead for spending extra days in Istanbul before the tour, it is worth paying the modest admission fee for the Turkish and Islamic Art and Archaeological Museums and paying to see H. Sophia on your own when the lighting is better and you can devote a long time to seeing it.

b) On tour in Istanbul, see the Mosaic Museum near the Arasta Bazaar - it won't take very long, is very interesting despite not being included in the RS book and is covered by the pass. Skip H. Irene (or pop in for a just a few minutes when you're at the Topkapi Palace on tour) - it's interesting to compare its structure with other Byzantine churches of the same era, but it's been used primarily as a storage facility for centuries, so not worth paying the admission fee. Although free, the Blue Mosque is being renovated and construction screens cover almost everything, so you only get hints of how magnificent the decorations must be.

c) From TripAdvisor we got recommendations for two excellent Ottoman cuisine restaurants in Istanbul (Matbah and Deraliye) - cuisine for the sultans is different than cuisine for ordinary folks - try both.

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Part 3

d) I wouldn't describe walking on this tour as "strenuous" (going up and down stairs in the Paris metro was more strenuous), but the ground is often uneven and poorly lit with many potential tripping hazards, such as loose stones and boards that are completely hidden. You can catch your toes on the forward edges of steps that jut out over the previous step - again something not obvious until you've almost tripped. It's not the tour's fault, but I sometimes felt that I spent more time with eyes on the ground than eyes on the wonderful sights around me. If you have any balance/orthopedic issues, a walking stick can make you much faster in certain places and I would carry a decent flashlight any time you might be out after dark, especially if you have any vision issues. Although the underground city was lit, it was often lit at floor level with light shining up into my eyes - so not helpful for seeing the uneven ground; a flashlight was a must. Even if you are able-bodied with good vision, be very careful.

e) Several buddies (including me) were a bit apprehensive about the Cappadocia balloon ride, but I checked the safety record of the balloon companies in general - training requirements are actually more stringent than in the US and their safety record is pretty good. The Civil Aviation authorities don't let balloons fly in bad weather. In addition, RS knows which companies give good service and our guide worked very hard fit a ride for us (us = almost every tour member) with one of those companies into our last day in Cappadocia. Bring layers, you will be launching before dawn and how warm you are during the flight depends on how close you are to the burner.

f) As much as I enjoyed seeing the springs at Pammukale, I didn't spend a long time in the water. The marble was ultra slick in some places and very rough in others.

g) We didn't "do" the Turkish baths on our day off in Antalya, but again, RS will book interested members with a good local company - everyone who did go seemed to enjoy the experience.

h) David and I were the only two buddies to visit the Ephesus Museum and Basilica of St. John in Selçuk on our return from Ephesus. Although the museum is on the small side, I thought it helped us better understand what we'd seen at Ephesus and it has two famous statues of Artemis that are worth seeing. A friendly local helped us find the basilica, which was a bit of an uphill slog from the museum. If you're interested in big ancient church ruins, this would be another place for you to appreciate the enormous size of such places. And David wanted to say he saw (what's left of) the Temple of Artemis (you can even touch the lonely column that remains). You have to take public transportation back from Selçuk to Kuşadaşi, which wasn't hard and was actually interesting because the little bus picks up passengers from very swank resorts on its way down the hill. Our guide gave us directions for catching a second bus from the terminus near the marina back to the hotel, but that distance to the hotel was short enough for us to walk.

i) I have given up asking the RS front office when we can do laundry in favor of writing each tour hotel. On this trip it made more sense to have three hotels do our laundry (in Istanbul, Cappadocia and Antalya) - it wasn't expensive and even if there had been self-service or outside drop-off services, it wouldn't have been easy fitting that sort of laundry into our schedule.

j) You will get a lot more out of the tour if you know something about the Ottoman Empire, particularly about its later years before and after the first WW. There's a good Great Courses series, "The Ottoman Empire," which you may be able to stream for free if your public library subscribes to Kanopy.com, which has a lot of Great Courses content. There is actually quite a lot of content relevant to Turkey on Kanopy.com, so start your research early.

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Part 4

k) Unfortunately our bus had limited wifi - just enough for intermittent email checking, no restrooms and no electricity for device charging. The bus had been outfitted with an aftermarket electrical system, but such systems had to be deactivated after a few buses caught fire. We had a data plan because a family situation at home required one and it was very helpful. Normally Google Maps works very well with location on, even without a data plan, but in Turkey a lot of the small streets (including the one our hotel was on in Antalya) didn't show without the data plan. There are only a few VPNs that work in Turkey. We used NordVPN successfully, but even in Istanbul we found internet and VPN to be shaky. Also be aware that a VPN can interfere with certain mobile apps.

l) Bring plenty of over-the-counter remedies for traveler's diarrhea and colds. There's a fair chance that you will come down with one or the other - traveler's diarrhea possibly more than once. Don't count on the local pharmacies to have the remedy you need. Also check the CDC website for pre-travel recommendations. Virtually everyone should be vaccinated against typhus and Hepatitis A (both of which are multi-part vaccines given over time); you will also want to make sure that your flu vaccine is up-to-date if you're traveling in flu season and that your tetanus vaccine is current. You can also ask your doctor for a prescription antibiotic for severe traveler's diarrhea that doesn't respond to lesser measures. Our guide said that he personally drinks tapwater in Cappadocia (with the usual caution that you do so at your own risk). Everywhere else he drinks bottled water because big hotels tend to store water in big tanks whose integrity he couldn't be certain of. I boiled the tapwater x 1 min in Cappadocia (which is what you'd do in the US after a disaster) and used it for rinsing glassware and toothbrushes, but otherwise I drank bottled water. I didn't skimp on fresh fruits and vegetables at restaurants and hotels. Despite eating almost the same things and taking pretty much the same precautions, David had a couple minor bouts of traveler's diarrhea and I had no problems. We had a connecting flight in Amsterdam and David made the smart move to fill several water bottles at the Amsterdam airport, which tided us over until we got to our hotel in Istanbul. With one exception, the hotels provided one or two complimentary bottles of water, which wasn't nearly enough, but our driver kept the bus well-stocked - or we purchased 5-liter bottles at local stores as needed. As an aside, we learned from our guide that Turkey does its own recycling of all those plastic bottles - they don't ship plastic to China.

m) Bring a headlamp (hotel rooms in Europe in general are poorly lit and a headlamp really helps when you're searching your purse or suitcase for a missing item), kleenex (hotels in Europe don't seem to be stocking kleenex anymore) and hand sanitizer (public transportation, handling money, touching handrails, etc., etc. - I carry in US too). You don't need to bring giant amounts of toilet paper from home, but you should carry a bit with you when you're out and about in case the restroom is lacking.

n) Turkey is earthquake country. Keep your shoes near your bed at night. The most common cause of injuries after a nightime earthquake is cut feet.

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208 posts

Part 5

o) I'm not sure what one can do about this, other than to double and triple check that you have your ride to your first night hotel from the Istanbul airport if you have asked the hotel to book a van for you. Our hotel had supposedly booked a van ride for us, but what they do is contract with some middleman outfit to secure the vans. The middlemen did not have our names on their list and their English was limited. The middlemen and representatives and the hotel kept saying, "The van's on the way, we're in touch with the driver," but we soon realized that the middlemen were telling everyone with any kind of glitch the same thing. After an hour of getting runarounds, we were within a hair's breath of sharing an Uber with another family going to a hotel near ours and walking to our hotel in the dark, when a couple of RS tour buddies who happened to be on the middleman's list magically appeared and we just happened to overhear that their destination was the same as ours. There turned out to be a ton of room on their van. Why the middlemen couldn't have figured out that there was plenty of space on a van headed to our hotel, even though delayed, is beyond us.

As a back-up, I would ask the front office for detailed instruction on using the shuttle that goes from the airport to Sultanahmet Square and from the shuttle drop off point to the hotel. The instructions we had or could find on the fly on short notice didn't really cut it given that we'd never been in Istanbul and that it was getting dark. We could probably have navigated across Sultanahmet Square, even in the dark with luggage, using Google Maps, if push came to shove, but as I said, we were using Google Maps with a data plan and Turkey's the first country I've been in where Google Maps without a data plan hasn't always been enough.

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1920 posts

Thanks for your thorough trip report. I went on this tour in October 2018...my friend made the scrapbook that won 3rd place in the contest. I agree the bus time seems daunting but the tour is cleverly planned with activities and sights woven around the hours getting from point A to point B. To traverse the country, it must be done.
We loved the Turkish people and visiting the markets brought us into contact with them. Some of my photos of the Turkish people are my favorites!
Thanks again for sharing.

Posted by
6699 posts

Great report, love the (obviously superior) format! I went on a Village Turkey tour many years ago, which covered the southwest coast and is sadly no longer offered. I loved it.

What did you think of the new airport in Istanbul? Is it fully constructed already? It's projected to be the largest in the world in terms of through passenger traffic. Can you give newbies some comfort that they can find an airport ATM and don't need to order Lira ahead of time? I always got currency at the old airport ATMs, no issues. By the way, there is an inexpensive HAVAIST bus shuttle option from the new airport to Sultanahmet (it's costs a negligible amount).

Posted by
4572 posts

C, thanks for the great report. I had forgotten how vastly superior the old evaluation form was. Maybe we can start a grassroots movement to get it back? I find the new form inadequate on several levels.

Posted by
1759 posts

Thank you for taking time to post this report, some very good information here, so I am bookmarking! Turkey is on the list!

Posted by
2732 posts

C, thanks so much for your excellent report. I much prefer reading a complete report on the Forum. We are meeting up with friends soon who were recently on this amazing tour. I will be bookmarking this for future reference. Very helpful information!

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208 posts

Agnes, regarding the new airport - three things

1) no problems finding plenty of machines to get lira at, just past baggage claim (and no problems finding ATMs during the trip if you need more - the guide can tell you in which towns finding an ATM might be a problem, but there was really only one town in which ATMs weren't plentiful).

2) The new airport is enormous. We had two hours to make the connection from Ismir to our flight to Paris in Istanbul. A policeman in the airport in Ismir told us there'd be no passport control or new security in Istanbul - we just had to get to a new building - he was wrong. There was both passport control and a new security inspection. And if, as we were, you are so unfortunate as to have your new gate be a half mile away (I kid you not, I think it really was at least that far), you cannot dally while making a connection. David forgot when our boarding time was, took his time getting "dressed" again after security and as a result, we ended up almost jogging to the new gate. To make a connection between Ismir and Istanbul, I would allow three rather than two hours if you can - although two hours will work if everything goes perfectly.

3) Turkish Air, if that's what you're flying, has different luggage restrictions - both in terms of what you can bring and in terms of weight - than other big international airlines. Their website mentions prohibitions against virtually anything sharp, including sewing kit scissors and nail clippers, and alcohol such as in perfumes (flammability concern), but it wasn't clear as to whether you could pack things containing alcohol in your checked bag or whether you could bring alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your hand baggage. We decided (rightly) that they probably weren't looking for alcohol-based gel hand sanitizer, so no problems bringing it in hand baggage. However, especially if you have a tight connection, put everything that could possibly look sharp on an x-ray machine in your checked luggage. Although my hand luggage passed security muster in Ismir, in Istanbul - during our tight connection - security pulled out for inspection my wooden cuticle stick, my drawing stump (rolled paper with a pointy end), and pointy tweezers.

One thing we learned on the tour is that the tourism industry in Turkey took a huge hit after the political turmoil in 2016 and is just now starting to recover, which is probably why RS has had to scale back on their Turkey offerings. I too loved the small towns on the tour and if RS ever offers a Village Turkey tour, I'd certainly take a look. One possibility would be to see what his partner agency in Turkey, SRM Travel, can arrange. SRM's owner introduced herself to us on tour to do a little guiding and to explain her agency's philosophy - her philosophy is very similar to that of RS and her agency supplies guides and drivers for RS.

Jane, when RS switched evaluation formats many people on the forum protested loudly and at length. The old format was so much more helpful in providing future travelers with good information. The new format seems to be aimed primarily at marketing. But since RS did not respond to the many protests at the time of the switch, I don't think there's a prayer of bringing the old form back.

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208 posts

And speaking of lira, I've got one more story. On our last day in Kuşadaşi we had just over forty lira (about $7) to get rid of. David decided to try finding a cheap souvenir Turkey t-shirt in the bazaar near the hotel, which wasn't easy because the bazaar primarily - and proudly - sells knock-offs of luxury clothing items and they're aiming at the hordes of Middle Eastern and Russian tourists who pass through. We finally located a store selling a basic cotton t-shirt with a Turkey logo (think $3 Michael's t-shirt plus a vinyl logo), asking price 120 TL. After a couple back-and-forths, Dave finally said he didn't want to pay more than 40 TL and the vendor asked "Why not?" "Because this is our last night in Turkey and that's all the money we have left." "Sold." I could tell by how quickly the vendor traded the t-shirt for 40 TL and by clothing sale prices outside the bazaar that we ended up passing later that we could have gotten a better deal. But David got his t-shirt and an amusing interaction and the vendor got a generous price, so I guess that's a fair trade.

Posted by
5011 posts

Thank you for this excellent trip report. I'm currently planning a trip to Turkey in March 2020 (not on a tour) and many details here will be helpful. Well done, and thank you again.

Posted by
8203 posts

Thank you "C" of David & C! Very comprehensive and interesting TR! I appreciate your taking the time to post.

Posted by
2520 posts

I enjoyed reading your trip report. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by
1825 posts

Enjoyed your format and how you described the tour through your eyes instead of just listing your itinerary day by day. One question, for a place like Turkey, would you recommend an RS tour instead of trying to navigate the country yourself?

Posted by
113 posts

WoW! What a great review. Thank you so much. We are planning this tour in 2021 visiting Portugal in 2020. I was wondering what airline you flew? I see you went via AMS, which I use as my go to transfer airport in Europe.

Thanks

Posted by
208 posts

In response to the questions:
1. We thought that the tour was fantastic. Given the nature of the country, distances involved, and logistics of getting hotel, tour sites, driving, rental car, etc., there is no way we would do it ourselves. It was so much more relaxing to have all the details done by someone else. Plus, since they do it all the time, things are so smooth, no surprises. Finally, great guides who can teach you something about the country and people. That being said, if you are the type who is up for the challenge, go for it. We done enough "travel challenges" in our lifetime, that doing a RS tour is our way to go.
2. We flew KLM from SFO to AMS, and AMS to Istanbul. By the way, we flew Turkish Airlines from Izmir to Paris, via Istanbul. The Turkish Airlines landing in Paris was one of the "interesting" landings, involving a rough double hop landing.

Posted by
2708 posts

This is a great review. However, am I the only one who would want your limited review on the RS Review forms as well? I read those when looking at particular tours. Most people are not aware of this forum for reviews.

Posted by
208 posts

@Wray - the "new" RS evaluation form severely limit the size of the report and solicits comments that are aimed at generating marketing fluff, which is why I don't fill them out. I could never put the above report in the current form. It's a shame, because the old forms used to allow for extensive reports and they were all published unedited in the trip evaluation section - I found the old reports very helpful.

Posted by
4572 posts

And the old form allowed for extended comments. The new forms have a very limited number of characters. It's hard to evaluate the hotels on a three week tour in 500 characters. Or all the local guides...

Posted by
1928 posts

David & C (and Wally!). Wally because I would have written those same words-best trip report I've read and certainly much better information than we can get just from looking at the RS tour reviews. Most comprehensive and you provide so much useful and helpful information to anyone thinking of taking this tour. The format should be what Rick's company uses. Agnes: I took the Villages of Turkey tour and it was all you say-wonderful! Thank you for posting this engaging report for us.

Posted by
13 posts

David & C, I've gone back and forth as to whether I should take this tour. It seems to me that just about everyone (including yourselves) that reviews this tour says the balloon ride is the WOW moment. Also from my reading it seems that Spring is the windy season and you are more likely to MISS the balloon ride due to that. Would I go home feeling I'd missed the highlight of the entire trip?

I appreciate your comment about hotel rooms and cigarette smoke - so that if I do take this trip I can mention that to our guide at the start of the trip.

Thanks for any advice you have.

Posted by
860 posts

Thank you for this wonderful trip report. I took this tour September, 2019 and concur with most of your opinions.
The balloon ride over Cappodocia is certainly beautiful and thrilling, but I would easily give it up before I gave up the rest of the tour. It was a wonderful experience that I treasure but takes second seat to meeting Turks, seeing the landscape (from the ground) and experiencing all of the history and culture.