Turkey is dynamic, exciting, and has with a few thousand years of history on display. It’s filled with terrific food and interesting people.
The days of bargain prices are long gone, however.
When I was a young strapping lad out circling the globe for the first time, my girlfriend and I planned to teach English in Greece when funds got low, but ended up in Istanbul instead. This was a quick pivot based on what we found within 24 hours in Istanbul after coming from Athens: it was easier to get a job in Turkey and we could enjoy a more interesting life on the cheap. Our salaries were low, but so were the costs. Inflation was terrible—so terrible that if I remember right we got three raises in five months—but it remained affordable when we went shopping in the street market in our neighborhood and we were having fun, so all was well.
This was back in the mid-1990s, when you were an instant millionaire as soon as you changed money into Turkish lira: there was actually a million lira banknote and it wasn’t worth very much. We would get a whole stack of them on payday. But hey, for a dollar you could get a large doner kebab sandwich, or four simits, a couple beers in a store, or a round-trip train ride into the center from our suburb town.
Alas, a lot can change in 17 years when it comes to a country’s economic health. Just look at Peru, Thailand, Cambodia, or Brazil on the upside. Spain and Ireland on the downside. Argentina down then up then down.
Turkey is a lot wealthier and healthier these days than when my now-wife and I spent months there around 17 years ago. They chopped zeros off the currency, reformed or sold many state-run enterprises, tamed inflation, and put exports into hyperdrive. On the surface this translates in a lot of ways: more cars, newer cars, better roads, city metros, high-speed rail, a great airline people actually enjoy flying, new bridges.
It also means higher wages and higher costs for nearly everything.
In general, many prices are similar now to what you would see in the U.S., with only a few things being significantly less. The cheaper items can generally be grouped under food and labor: agricultural products, simple restaurant meals, basic services like a haircut or shoeshine. Gasoline costs what it does in Western Europe, however, which translates into high costs for anything transportation related. For a traveler in Turkey, that’s a bummer. So is the price of beer and wine: the Islamist party in power has turned the tax screws on anything alcoholic. (On the plus side, cigarettes too, so the country is not the giant ashtray it once was and buses aren’t filled with second-hand smoke.)
As I said in the new edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, Turkey is still a decent value for mid-range travelers. You can find reasonably priced 3-star hotels, affordable meals, good prices on interesting souvenirs if you bargain, and admission prices that will sting but are still lower than many other European capitals. And it’s fair to say that there’s more worth seeing and experiencing in Istanbul than almost any other city in the world.
I’m glad to be back and I highly recommend coming here and then exploring other areas of the country. Just don’t expect to do it on a shoestring budget, even if you’re couchsurfing. In the book The Next 100 Years, the author predicted Turkey is going to be a major power on the world stage within the next 50 years, one of the top four or five players within a century. True or not, it’s definitely a place on the way up, not heading down or sideways. A rising sea may not really lift all boats, but it’s lifting a lot of them and you’re going to pay more to tread their turf.
Remember how much and how fast things can change in a destination when some friend or virtual friend gives you advice based on their experience in the destination. The first question should probably be, “When were you there?”