How to Avoid Tourist Traps in Istanbul
Turkey is a beautiful, wondrous place, full of Old World values, goods, and customs, and wonderful modern amenities that make wandering around the Grand Bazaar something of a Pinterest picture favorite.
Between ruins as old as Marco Polo, to the beginning of the Silk Road that shared the goods of the East with consumers of the West and created the bustling mecca that is still a hotspot for travellers today, it’s hard not to see why people pack up their suitcases and their dreams for the chance to travel to the destination of a lifetime.
But between the lantern booths and the carpet merchants, there’s deals to be made, and certainly deals to be avoided, so avoid letting your trip from take a turn with the later and check out these tips for getting the upper hand.
Factory Outlet Stores
Like all factory outlet stores the world over, Turkey sports low-cost overstocks of famous brands, items, and supplies, but in the heart of the East meets West metropolis, it’s not only a sin to go shopping there, but it’s a waste of your time and money.
Many tour companies or people will recommend the handmade leather items, gold, or carpets in these big Western-style stores, but it’s a much better place to just take a look at the prices and move on so you have some understanding of how much you’re spending and then skip out on the overpriced, less than great merchandise.
Pro-tip: when it comes to buying any of the aforementioned items (leather, gold, and carpets) there are a couple of things to remember. With leather, it shouldn’t be too shiny. With gold, make sure the stamp says at least 18-carat; that’s when Turkish gold gets to be better quality. And when it comes to carpets, check the corners and overall design for any mistakes; in a normal situations mistakes would mean poor quality, but when it comes to Turkish carpets, only the machines can make them perfectly, and therefore mistakes mean you’ve nabbed an authentic one.
Haggling is still alive and well in Middle Eastern cultures and more than just being the money mode of the day, it’s also something of a treasured cultural milestone. If you get the chance, you should definitely try your hand at giving a merchant a run for his money, but there are a couple of tips along the way.
First, never show how much you want an item, even if you want it really bad; the key to getting the price down to something that you’d like to pay is being seen as able to walk away from the table—that’s when they’ll come back and hit you with a better offer.
Second, it’s best if you don’t dress too nicely while shopping, as this could be an indication that you are wealthy, and therefore you can afford to pay more for items. Dress conservatively, don’t show the merchant any bills that you have, and make sure to keep your money, even if you have a lot, hidden in different places on your person so pulling out your wallet to pay doesn’t alert anyone in the bazaar that you are packing.
Third, always settle on a price before the money comes out. No matter how much money you brought, or told the merchant you had, make sure you settle (really!) before closing the deal. Reiterate a few times if you think you’ve come to the selling price, just to be sure that there is no confusion because as soon as the money comes out, all bets are off.
When it comes to restaurant recommendations, it’s best to just forego the habit to say “what do you suggest” and order only what you want. Many places in Turkey, and especially in the tourist areas of Istanbul, will have expensive specials that include everything from the moon and back (and if that’s what you want then great) and they like to wow the tourist crowd with all of these great menu items.
But if you want only one dish, don’t be swindled into buying the package deal, make sure you only order that one dish. While the waitstaff may be a little ticked off at your frugality, there’s nothing wrong in getting things exactly how you like them, so don’t be afraid to be stern, hold your ground, and keep your one order of köfte from turning into a smorgasbord.
Checking out the sites from the water is no doubt a great way to see the city, but if you actually want to get up close and personal with any of the ruins, don’t let “I want to see the European Fortress” turn into a boat cruise that keeps you miles away from actually climbing into the fortress yourself.
Hotels will always suggest ways for you to see the city, and sometimes their recommendations are good, but if you want a fail safe way to get in everything off your Turkey Bucket List, don’t trust the hotel concierge (who probably has a hand in whichever option he’s promoting) but head for any of the outposts of the Turkish tourism offices. Not only are they government run, and surprisingly, a little more honest, but you can also grab a free map and discover new places that were never even on your sightseeing radar.
Tales of tourists being swindled out of their lira from taxi drivers are as long as the city has a history; maybe the taxis were camels in the past, but certainly the yellow auto version of this century have made such an impression it’s hard to imagine Istanbul without them.
So here’s a few things to keep in mind so you don’t become a victim of this notorious street gang: first, there is no night rate so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Second, always give them exact change because they will think what you hand them first is all for them and won’t give you anything back. Next, strap on your seatbelt, it’s going to be a crazy (but relatively safe) ride. And last, if you call them out on any infraction, they will be aggressive, scream, yell, or any number of scare tactics to get you to back down on you claim: be prepared for it and don’t back down. If there’s really a problem, there’s no mechanism to report it, so you are the last stand between that taxi and justice—don’t give up!
If you want to avoid the Turkish taxi drivers altogether, I suggest taking public transportation (it’s a better bet in many cases) and I wouldn’t blame you in the least. There are many bus stations for getting around the city, and many hotels will offer an airport shuttle to get you to and from your flight, so make sure you ask before arranging your own transport.
Get Your Change
The first time, it may seem like an accident, that you bid adieu to the charming shopkeeper only to realize you didn’t get your change. After the third, fourth, and twentieth time, you will no longer be starry-eyed at the beauty of the Grand Bazaar, but instead be totally exhausted by the attempts to swindle you out of your money.
So here’s a tip to the wise: Unless you expressly mean to leave a generous tip, don’t leave the shop unless you’ve gotten your change. Not only will the merchants not alert you to your mistake, but the likelihood that they will honor the mistake if you leave and then comeback gets thinner and thinner with each minute you’ve been gone from the initial transaction. When in doubt, just make sure you ask a couple of times before leaving: Did you give me my change?
Nothing is Free
When someone advertises that lunch is included on your boat trip, or that the sunbed you’ve got your eye on at the beach is gratis, give it a second look.
While the boat trips on the river do technically have free lunch that is included in the price of your admission ticket, the drinks will be highly overpriced to make up for it, and when it comes to the sun beds, the waiters for the hotels will spot a paying customer lounging in the sun as a perfect chance to increase their tip jar so don’t be surprised to find a menu being shoved in your face every time you close your eyes to chill. When you think about it, it’s just their way of getting the gullible and keeping the tourist trade in Turkey alive, but make sure you’re wise to their tricks and take absolutely nothing for granted.
Don’t be an American
This may seem slightly strange, but if you’re an American out in the Grand Bazaar trying to haggle for the best price, avoid saying you’re from the U.S.—there’s a little bit of a habit in Turkey for making the American citizens pay more than the usual customer. While I would never condone lying, saying you’re from Canada, Australia, Ireland, or any other English speaking country could save you a lot of money in the long-run...it’s just a personal hack to keep in mind!
As long as you keep these tips in mind—taxi drivers are tough, carpets are supposed to be a little imperfect, don’t show anyone the bills in your wallet—you can avoid the scenarios that keep people from going, or even going back, and have what many would consider, the greatest adventure available on Earth. So what are you waiting for? Get to packing and bon voyage!