I went through the Istanbul Atatürk Airport twice this past August on my way to Rome, once with a 6-hour layover, and once with a 4-hour. Here’s a few tips to help make your stay more comfortable.
Let’s be real, we all want to know about this one first. You can get two hours of free internet, but you need to have a working phone (so I assume you need to get a Turkish SIM card or maybe European SIM cards work here). Having a United States SIM card, this wasn’t possible. In this case, go to the Starbucks in the main shopping area of the airport. Technically you do not have to buy a drink, but if you use the space, I’d buy something. At the corner of the shop is a scanner where you can scan your boarding pass, get a PIN, and get two free hours of internet. You’ll have to open a new browser window and enter your PIN. However, you should know that this internet is QUITE slow, and I found it worked better on a laptop instead of a mobile phone. Some people were streaming videos on the internet. Don’t be those people.
I believe there may be internet at some of the other restaurants/bars, but I did not explore this further.
The first layover, I made a dumb mistake of sleeping in the 300s gates. Why? I don’t know. I was tired and thought this was all there was to the airport. Don’t sleep there. The benches are hard, it’s very noisy, there are long lines to the bathrooms. Instead, go up to the 200s gates and shopping areas and find a gate that isn’t quite full yet. The seats are much more cushy and you can stretch out more comfortably on the benches or on the floor without there being too much noise.
I didn’t find any water fountains while I was here, but I also didn’t look very hard. I bought bottles of water from the Starbucks. I suggest drinking as much water as you can on the plane, filling your water bottle up there, and grabbing some of the mini water bottles (assuming you’re taking Turkish Airlines).
There are free Turkish delight samples at some of the stores! Definitely one in the 300s gates area, and more around the main shopping area.
Most of the food I saw was Italian pastries, coffee, and American (burgers, salads). I ate at a Cakes & Bakes, only because I wanted a nice seat and a view of the shops below. The drinks itself are weak and they don’t heat the sandwiches up all the way. There are some Turkish pastries at the Starbucks, and the food there is pretty much what you would expect. If you pay in Euro, you will get change back in Turkish lira.
Finally: I traveled shortly after the terrorist attack and the attempted coup, but I felt quite safe the whole time I was in the airport. Security felt heightened without being overbearing or scary, and I was in the heart of the airport where it would have been tough to get past. I didn’t leave the airport at all, and probably wouldn’t have if I had a longer layover. If you’re reading this, hopefully things in Turkey are safe and secure. Good luck on your travels!
I am incredibly excited to announce that I was accepted to the VONA/Voices playwriting workshop!! Come this June, I’ll be working in Florida with other playwrights of color (and led by Kim Euell!) for one glorious week of writing and creating! Cannot wait!!
Backstory: I’ve traveled to the Philippines several times since I was a child (I think my first trip was in the early 90s with Philippine Air), and I’ve always traveled through East Asia to get there. My most recent trips were through Korean Air and Cathay Pacific, both airlines I enjoyed tremendously. The airports were also great, particularly Seoul’s. The reason I went through the Middle East this time was because I was traveling in peak season (mid-December to mid-January) and a Kayak search of fares revealed the low, low price of $1400.
$1400. Before Christmas. In the Philippines.
At the time I noticed that there was a long layover in Riyadh (approximately 12-14 hours), but I figured my husband and I would be able to get a hotel near the airport and that would be that. Hey, maybe even a chance to explore a new city for a few hours! Why not.
Months after I purchased the ticket I started looking up reviews and found that it wasn’t as simple as I originally thought, namely because:
You cannot leave the airport unless you have a visa.
Visas are only issued if you have a stopover of 18+ hours.
Acquiring a visa requires a trip to your local embassy.
I also had cultural concerns that I needed to wear a head scarf or that I would have issues traveling as a woman (folks assured me that traveling with my husband also helped) – but this actually ended up not being a big deal at all. What ended up being a bigger deal was staying in a small airport for over 12 hours.
People online seem to think that Saudia Airlines is terrible, and I was bracing myself for outdated, cramped airplanes and crappy food, but I found quite the opposite—at least when traveling between Washington D.C. and Saudi. Let me emphasize that: traveling between the West and Saudi was very different than between the East and Saudi. Namely, you have a large entertainment selection and a newer system for the Western flights, and smaller/outdated systems for the Eastern flights. I suspect this is because more businessmen travel on the Western flights, and more laborers travel on the Eastern flights, but I suppose that hypothesis should be tested (not by me).
Anyway, the seats were clean and had enough space compared to your typical international flight, so nothing unusual there. The staff also provided us with little bags that had a sleeping mask, disposable toothbrush, mini toothpaste, and socks.
Probably the silliest realization I had about the flight was that there would be no alcohol served. Not that I go nuts while flying, but it’s nice to have a glass of wine on a flight halfway around the world, you know what I’m saying? That aside, drinks were pretty standard: coffee, tea, juice (including mango – yum!), soda, water, whatever. And I really enjoyed the food – lots of basmati rice and well-spiced food (chicken, lamb, fish…).
The entertainment selection was… interesting. There were lots of action movies with quite a lot of violence, but forget about chick flicks. Low necklines and skin above the knees (on women) were blurred out. Kissing scenes were cut entirely. Swear words were silenced. Most amusing to me, while watching a trailer for Now You See Me, a movie entirely about magicians, they bleeped out the word “magic.” WHY BOTHER SHOWING THE MOVIE!? Additionally, entertainment on the way to the Philippines was totally crappy, I would count on either sleeping or watching stuff on your own device.
Other things of note: there’s a prayer room in the back of the airplane, which I found nice and comforting. Staff were friendly and helpful – on the way back to the States, the hubby had a mild fever, and without asking, one of the flight attendants brought an ice-cold cloth for him to put on his forehead. Very hospitable.
However, something rather amusing/horrifying, depending on how you feel – when we were in Manila and in line for our flight to Jeddah, we had the following exchange:
Flight attendant: Sir, do you have jeans? Husband: Do I… have… jeans? Like, in my luggage…? Flight attendant: For the flight. Me: Oh, they want you to put on long pants. Flight attendant: Yes, you need to change. Me: Right here? Flight attendant: Yes. Me: You mean, literally he has to take his pants off in the airport, right now? Flight attendant: Yes.
And so the husband proceeded to take off his knee-length khakis and put on long pants. Awesome!
In short: Saudia Airlines is NOT terrible – quite the contrary, it’s a very good airline that I found on par with other international airlines I’ve experienced, but if you expect that certain comforts are necessities (alcohol, chick flicks, wearing shorts), you’ll be disappointed.
Here’s the short review of Riyadh:
Good luck sleeping – better bring a blanket
Food will come to you – if you’re in the right waiting area
Don’t be fussy about toilets
The duty-free area is actually pretty cool
Internet is available through one of the restaurant kiosks
There are two lounges available, one for which you can pay $50 for 4 hours
You can only stay amused for so long before you slowly go insane
So here’s what you need to know about Riyadh: they will assign you to a waiting area, and you will pretty much be stuck there for the next 14 hours. Well, you can move around – and there’s a handful of small restaurants with deli-type food and rice meals (and there’s even a Burger King and a Starbucks) and a few of them are open 24 hours – but your meals will come from this area. At certain designated hours, someone will arrive with a bunch of boxed meals, and you show your boarding pass and grab your meal. They even set up a drink station at one point, with boxed juice, hot coffee, tea, and water. It goes pretty fast.
There’s not much of a place to sleep – I set down a blanket on the floor and snoozed while my husband kept watch. And you might want to bring earplugs – every few hours there are calls to prayer and singing on the loudspeakers. Of course, you could always stay in one of the lounges for 50 USD, but then what will you do for the next 10 hours? You could always buy some internet! (Which we didn’t do, but someone gave us the password for one of the shops, and we used it for several hours before it gave out).
Oh yeah, something that some people might mind – the floors in the bathroom are always wet because the janitors are always hosing them down. Just cuff your pants. And there are seated toilets in addition to squatting toilets, so just make sure you get the one you want.
Here’s the short review of Jeddah:
Better luck sleeping – if you can nab the right seats
Smaller than Riyadh
Get your food at the right meal times or else they’ll skip you
Don’t be fussy about toilets
The duty-free area is also nice
We didn’t even check for internet on this trip
Didn’t check out the lounges either
For some reason everyone said that the Jeddah airport would be better than Riyadh – they seemed to think that cultural restrictions would not be so bad – but honestly, I think the Jeddah airport was smaller and had less selection as far as restaurants and things to look at go. Plus, no 24-hour open restaurants.
Getting food was quite different in Jeddah – we got meal tickets when we transferred our planes and before we went through security, and we opted to sleep before getting food. Around 3 AM we decided we were hungry enough to grab something, but instead of Saudia Airline distributing boxes of food, there was a restaurant that was supposed to distribute the food. Unfortunately, it was closed, and they informed me it wouldn’t reopen until around 6 AM. So we got our boxes of food around then. In retrospect, we would have gotten our boxes of food right away and kept them until we were hungry enough to eat them.
Sleeping in Jeddah was slightly better, but only because we found a stretch of seats that didn’t have arm rests. But there aren’t many places in the airport like that – I saw a lot of folks sleeping on the floor, either under seats or in the prayer areas. We didn’t even check for lounges or internet this time.
Overall summary – I wouldn’t do it again. One experience was enough, and it was certainly pleasant enough considering the restrictions, and it was nowhere near dirty or intolerable, but it wasn’t worth the 14-hour layover in an airport without sleeping areas or showers. I would much rather pay the extra money to go through East Asia. Of course, if you’re on a budget and don’t mind long layovers in airports, then Saudia Airlines and the Riyadh/Jeddah airports are perfectly fine. Just bring something to read, take care of your meals, and wear long sleeves and long pants.