With the bottom falling out of the Turkish currency market, is it time to jump on an opportunity and travel there?
I once lived in Turkey as a young English teacher, at a time when hardly any Americans seemed to visit and there was an actual secular democracy in place. Back then, when inflation had led to a million-lira note that was worth $14, it was a screaming bargain for travelers who could keep track of the zeros.
The second time I traveled to Turkey, in 2013, the Turkish lira exchange rate was 1.7 to the dollar under a revamped currency. I was there to research magazine articles in Istanbul and Ankara. After touring around for a while I declared that the now-popular tourist destination was no longer a great deal. Istanbul was still a decent value for a European capital, but price was no longer a compelling reason for picking it. The place had just gotten too popular with short-term tourists.
Then I returned in 2016 to speak at a tourism conference with an apt acronym of “WTF.” The country was having a mini foreign exchange crisis then as dictator-to-be Erdogan clamped down on power and made moves to crown himself ruler for life. Here’s what I wrote on the Perceptive Travel blog then in a food tour story about Istanbul.
We haven’t quite come full circle, but I’m here to say that if you were waiting for a chance for Turkey to become cheap again, it’s at least in the “reasonable” category now. In many ways it’s back to being a much better value than Western Europe.
In three years, the exchange rate had gone from 1.7 to the dollar to 3, which made a huge difference for people coming in with dollars or euros.
Double Your Money in Istanbul or Ephesus
At the beginning of 2018, the rate was 3.5 to the dollar. This past week though, the bottom dropped out. Financial analysts have both been saying for a while that Turkey was headed for an implosion. When the angry orange one in the White House announced he was going to punish yet another strong political ally with high trade war tariffs, the remaining investors fled for the exits. Here’s the exchange rate chart for the past month:
If it stabilizes here, you’re getting almost twice as much for your money as you could a year ago. A friend sent me a photo of the view from his room in Istanbul the other day—a room (not a hostel bed) that was only $7. Here are some current prices for nice places in good walking locations, in dollars.
If this is how much the hotel industry is discounting already, imagine what a panic the Airbnb owners are feeling now. (If you’ve never booked with them, get $40 free the first time with this link.)
But what if it gets worse? That’s good news for your wallet, but maybe not great news for your safety. There’s already been one coup attempt in Turkey since I was last there and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see an outright civil war break out there. Real democracy and secularism, backed by an independent military, made the country a shining beacon among majority Islamic ones. For years it was both safe and open, with a vibrant free press and liberal free speech. Now that the nation has taken a path of troubled autocracy though, with a president who holds a razor thin majority in popularity, there’s a seething rage among half the population. This is especially true in the big cities, where there’s more wealth and less religious fervor.
As a journalist, I’m not real anxious to enter Turkey these days, even though the thought of eating all that great food at half price does make me salivate uncontrollably. I’m normally the guy saying, “It looks worse than it really is.” here I’m worried more about what we don’t see, what’s happening behind prison bars and sham courts.
Should You Visit Turkey Now?
Usually I advise travelers to make the most of every economic opportunity, swooping in when others have left and reaping the benefits of reduced tourism. This is when you get the small crowds and small prices that can make it seem like the opportunity of a lifetime. I’ve experienced this multiple times after some kind of over-covered disaster and have incredible memories of feeling like a millionaire…briefly. The business owners are generally very happy to see you and you can upgrade your experience to a level of travel you can’t normally afford.
I’m a little hesitant this time though. I think if I were living in Greece or Bulgaria, I would visit in an instant, leaving my laptop at home and not doing anything that could rouse suspicion that I’m a writer. From those countries I’d know I can get out overland if the airport shuts down—as happened several times this decade. If the only choice was having to leave by plane though, I’m not so sure.
Instead I might choose to go to mainland Greece or a lesser-known island there instead. The Peloponnese Peninsula was nice. After all, Greece has finally paid off its massive debt to the EU after their financial crisis. It’s time for arch-rival Turkey to suffer for mismanagement now…