Consider Turkish Airlines for your next group trip to Southern Europe and the Middle East
Quick—which airline flies to the most countries?
If you said Turkish Airlines, you’re right.
The national flag carrier of Turkey serves 303 cities in 121 countries, including 43 nations in Europe, 34 in Africa and 69 in Asia including the Middle East and Far East.
Of more importance to American travelers, though, Turkish Airlines offers nonstop flights to its hub, Istanbul, from nine U.S. cities—New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It also flies out of Toronto and Montreal.
Despite its status as one of the world’s top airlines, Turkish Airlines flies under the radar of many Americans. On my recent trip to Turkey, I discovered how prominent a player it is—and how the quality of its service rivals or exceeds that of better-known carriers.
From 2011-2016, Turkish Airlines was recognized as Europe’s Best Airline by Skytrax, which evaluates global airlines and gives out annual awards. Skytrax has rated it Southern Europe’s Best Airline for the past nine years running. Since 2008, Turkish Airlines has been a member of Star Alliance, the world’s largest airline partnership
Waiting for my flight to Chicago from Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, I was intrigued by all the Turkish Airlines destinations posted on the monitor—Porto, Bilbao, Birmingham, Manchester…Athens, Moscow, Minsk…Cairo, Dubai, Jeddah, Singapore. And some cities I never heard of. It made me start dreaming of places to go on my next trip in that part of the world, a fascinating region where the Middle East meets Europe and Africa.
Hopping Around Turkey by Plane
Besides the long-haul flights from Chicago and back, my son and I took Turkish Airlines domestic flights as we toured the Aegean coast and central Turkey’s Cappadocia region following a three-night stay in Istanbul. Though we had been spoiled in business class coming over to Turkey, we found economy class on domestic flights to be first class in every way, and we even got a substantial snack—a warm cheese-and-tomato sandwich flavored with thyme—on even the shortest hops.
Most important, we always felt well cared for by the airline personnel, a friendly, group of professionals. The check-in agents, gate agents and flight attendants, immaculately groomed and smartly dressed in dark blue uniforms, just looked the part and exemplified the culture of Turkish hospitality.
We were the only Americans on the domestic flights, but every airline employee we encountered spoke English, and airport signage in two languages—Turkish and English—made it easy to find our way in the strange land. Though I initially was a little nervous about flying into one of the smaller airports, Nevsehir in Cappadocia, I soon realized I had nothing to worry about. We found the airports to be clean and modern, and state-of-the-art facilities at Istanbul and Izmir (Turkey’s second-largest city) put many American terminals to shame.
New Istanbul Airport Readies for Take-off
Ataturk Airport seemed like a fine facility to me, but come October 29, 2018, Istanbul gets a new airport. In fact, it’s called Istanbul New Airport (or Istanbul Yeni Havalimani). Upon completion (only the first phrase opens in October), the airport reportedly will be the world’s largest under one roof and also in terms of passenger capacity (200 million a year). It will boast more than 400 retail shops, the world’s largest duty-free shopping complex and Europe’s largest parking lot. Another superlative: Istanbul New Airport will be the world’s largest flight point, serving over 350 destinations worldwide. The airport will have the capacity to handle more than 2,000 aircraft a day.
As it readies for take-off, Istanbul New Airport’s new terminal is trumpeting its overall design, which borrows elements of art and architecture from mosques, Turkish baths and other historic structures. The futuristic-looking flight control tower is inspired by the tulip, a symbol of Istanbul and an important reference in Turkish and Islamic culture. Beginning to sprout up around the airport, Istanbul Airport City will feature office space, hotels, private residences, shopping, arts centers and a trade show area. All this will be about 20 miles from the center of Istanbul.
Living the Life of a Sultan in Business Class
Flying business class on Turkish Airlines is what luxury travel is all about. It seemed as if one minute I was in Chicago, the next minute in Istanbul. Well, I may be exaggerating, but it was the shortest 10½-hour flight I’ve ever taken, if you know what I mean. Nestled in a seat that reclined to a totally flat position, I got a good five hours of sleep, compared to the measly half hour I normally manage on an overseas flight. Time also went fast thanks to gourmet fare prepared in the onboard kitchen by two Flying Chefs (in toques and white coats) and served by five or six flight attendants in our rarefied 49-seat space aboard the wide-body Boeing 777-300ER.
Also keeping us occupied was the wide variety of choices available from an entertainment system accessed through deluxe, noise-cancelling headsets that shut out the world. Besides watching two movies, I enjoyed “Discover Turkey” travel shorts, starting my vacation before arrival by boning up on subjects like the Turkish breakfast and Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. On the flight home I watched other videos on Turkey to help recap and relive my trip.
Turkish-American TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz of “The Dr. Oz Show” works with the airline to promote its Fly Good Feel Good program. Short in-flight videos offer expert advice on healthy eating and exercise for air travelers.
Our multi-course meals started with assorted canapes, a trolley with six appetizers and soup, and a choice of three entrees that included a pasta. On the eastbound flight, the choice was Chilean sea bass with lemon pepper risotto, fillet of beef with grilled eggplant and other vegetables, or gnocchi with roasted red pepper sauce. The dessert trolley offered baklava and other traditional Turkish desserts, plus ice cream, fresh fruit salad and cheeses. On the flight home, the blueberry bread pudding with vanilla sauce was outstanding. The seven hot and cold teas in the Wellness Tea Selections, each with a certain health benefit (such as reducing the effects of jet lag or aiding digestion), were chosen by the Fly Good Feel Good Science Committee.
The Ultimate Airport Lounge
Booked in business class on the way home as well, we knew that two great in-flight meals awaited, but we couldn’t resist the multiple food and drink stations at Lounge Istanbul, the business class enclave for passengers flying out of Ataturk Airport. In Skytrax surveys this spacious oasis was voted World’s Best Business Class Lounge in 2015 and 2017 and has been the World’s Best Business Class Dining Lounge for three years running.
During a six-hour layover following a short flight from Izmir, we made our way from one station to another, feasting on kebabs and rice, paninis, Thai specialties, manti (Turkish ravioli), Viennese pastries and honey-soaked Middle Eastern sweets like baklava, just to mention a few of the temptations. The assortment of olives, bowls of fresh fruit and big salad bar keep vegetarians happy. Lounge guests can help themselves to Turkish wines, local beers and top-shelf spirits, including two brands of raki, the aniseed-flavored grape brandy for which Turkey is known.
Sprawling across two levels, the elite lounge has a library with a billiards table, remote-control auto racing track, arcade games, a golf simulator, cinema, prayer room, wall of TVs with news channels from around the world, computers and music from automated grand pianos. Massage therapists circulate to revive weary bodies, and private suites await those needing a nap or shower. Bamboo trees and other foliage bring the outdoors indoors. A seating area with Ottoman-style rugs and embroidered cushions has a 150-year-old olive tree.
With the number of passenger and cargo planes at 327 and growing, Turkish Airlines’ fleet is expected to reach 500 by 2023—a far cry from the five aircraft that launched the fledgling company in 1933. The average age of its planes is eight years, making the fleet one of the youngest in Europe.
I am looking forward to my next trip on Turkish Airlines. Maybe I’ll go to Macedonia, Ukraine or the country of Georgia. And there are so many other parts of Turkey I want to see, perhaps some towns on the Black Sea. It’s good to know there is a friendly, reliable way of flying to that part of the globe, direct from Chicago.