I’ve dreamed of jumping on Turkish Airlines ever since I first began seeing images of its unusual business class lounge in Istanbul and hearing about its over-the-top inflight service. Most people who have flown Turkish said, “Get to Istanbul airport early so you can enjoy the lounge for a few hours before your flight.” Or, “Don’t eat for a day before flying Turkish- you won’t believe how much food they serve on the plane!”
Those dreams came closer to reality when Turkish started nonstop service between San Francisco and Istanbul last year. My interest was heightened even more when it launched nonstops from Atlanta last month because many TravelSkills readers hail from there.
Regrettably, unrest in Turkey has resulted in a decline in visitors to the country. So when Turkish offered to fly me from SFO to Istanbul (IST) for a TravelSkills Trip Report, I asked if I could fly to Athens instead and report on the experience using IST as a connecting airport, which I thought would be a much more likely scenario for our readers. Currently, about 60 percent of its passengers are transiting IST instead of starting or stopping trips there, and that number could rise.
Since neither SFO or ATL have nonstops to Athens, connecting to Greece via Istanbul (IST) is an easy and convenient option for those headed there or to the popular Greek Isles. (Plus, Turkish and other carriers have deeply discounted business class roundtrips a few times this year to as little as $1,500 round trip, so set up your fare alerts and grab one if you can!) For September trips, business class fares run about $4,000 round trip. Economy is about $1,100. There is no first class or premium economy “comfort” class on the SFO flights.
Turkish is a member of the Star Alliance, so United Mileage Plus members can redeem miles for Turkish Airlines trips.
My trip to Greece and back was quick…just four days on the ground there, plus two days flying. The flight from SFO to IST runs about 13 hours. From Istanbul to Athens is a short hop– only about 90 minutes. So the entire journey, including a quick 90-minute layover in IST was about 15 hours.
Highlights of this Trip Report include:
- Diverse, delicious and copious inflight dining that dazzled my eyes and filled my belly
- The best and worst seats on the plane
- Unusual touches like candle-light dining (see the gif!), hot towels served on small plates
- Overheated cabins
- Young, energetic and professional crew
- Issues around booze
- Two different B777s on the route
- That lounge. Oh, that lounge! (Included in Part 2 of this report)
Check in at SFO was smooth and easy at about 4:30 pm. There were only three people in the business class line and a very friendly, talkative agent wearing a hijab checked me in and told me to proceed to the United Club on International Concourse G.
Flight 81 departs SFO at 6:10 pm, so the club was very busy since several flights depart at around this time. Good news: United has upgraded the food station in the club, offering a broad selection of cheeses, sausages, vegetables, hot soup, bread, crackers and cookies. Plus the spread now has a nice view! Other than that, the United Club has not changed much since my last visit.
When I’m flying to write up a TravelSkills Trip Report, I usually ask if I can board a few minutes early to get some good photos of the cabin before passengers board. Thankfully, Turkish obliged and I snagged some great shots of both business and economy class cabins. I was unable to get an good image of the plane (a Boeing 777-300ER) from the gate area, so I’ve used one from the inaugural arrival at SFO in April 2015.
Business class seats are configured 2-3-2. Since you get outstanding views of North America and nearly the entire continent of Europe during this flight, a window seat is my recommendation. Plus it’s quieter and less likely to be disturbed by movement in the aisle if you are sleeping– and that’s the main upside to the dreaded “middle seat” seen below. Those are the “E” seats.
Business class is split into two sections on this plane. What you see above is the forward cabin, which has four rows. The aft cabin, behind the galley, has three rows.
What I really liked about this cabin is its open floorplan. Low seatbacks make it very social and fun compared to other layouts which cocoon passengers in their own little worlds. Plus, in this cabin style, I could watch flight crews as they went about rolling out the elaborate inflight meal service. If you are like me, and like to watch what is going on, book a seat near the rear of the cabin. If you want to sleep or work, go for one near the front.
There are miles of legroom between the seat and seatback. It’s tough to use those nice leather ottomans as footrests due to the distance, but it’s a perfect place to sit and visit with friends or colleagues face to face. Note the storage space for shoes and other items underneath the ottoman. When the seat is in full recline, the ottoman becomes part of the lengthy bed.
Unlike other Turkish Airlines B777 flights, the planes on the SFO run do not have a premium economy or “comfort” section.
Okay, let’s get back up front and take a look at the service and the seat in business class. First thing you should do before boarding a Turkish flight is learn how to say THANK YOU in Turkish. You would not believe the big, surprised smiles you get from the crew when you say Tesekkurler when they help stow your bag, offer you a juice or help make your seat into a bed. It’s pronounced something like Teh-shay-koo-lahrd. Here’s how to say it! Just do it!
I’ve heard over the years that getting a cocktail on Turkish Airlines is complicated. That’s mostly due to the country’s (and current government’s) Muslim roots. For example, Turkish recently stopped offering alcohol on its domestic flights and on several international flights to other Muslim countries.
So for those who’d like to imbibe, here’s how it seems to work: During boarding, flight attendants pass through the business class aisles offering fruit juice and water from a silver tray, but no champagne, a common offering on most other airlines. If you ask for champagne, the flight attendant is more than happy to go get you a glass, but it’s not on the tray. I noticed the same thing during meal service, if you ask for wine with your meal, you’ll get it, albeit a relatively small pour. Flight attendants do not offer you more unless you ask for it– which is quite different from U.S. or European flights where flight attendants wander the aisles with bottles, looking for empty glasses 😉
Seats are comfortable, but I never really understood this recliner control. I still don’t know what the MR and M+ buttons do! Similar to what I experienced on Qantas (See our Qantas Trip Report), a flight attendant will make your seat into a bed at your request, covering the seat with a fitted quilt, offering a large pillow and a blanket. Turkish does not offer business class passengers pajamas for this 13-hour flight.
One this B777 flight, there were 15 crew members, including three chefs and four flight attendants in business class.
On SAS, “Chefs” are really flight attendants who change clothes to serve meal. (See our SAS Trip Report) But on Turkish, these guys are dedicated to meal service throughout the flight– there were three onboard in both directions.
Prior to the full meal service, the chef and flight attendants wheel out a tiered cart full of all kinds of unusual and delicious appetizers– passengers can choose from about eight options that include: Prawns, smoked trout with horseradish cream, grilled crab cake with sweet chilis, avocado tomato salad, spiced chicken breast, beet & goat cheese salad, hummus, deep fried eggplant with green pepper and tomato sauce, romaine salad with cherry tomatoes and creamy tomato soup! (Sorry I don’t have good photos to share of this course.)
And that’s just the starters! After that, the main courses come. Thankfully, the beautifully orchestrated service takes a while, so it gives you time to assimilate all the food. And I can’t think of a better way to pass the time on a 13-hour flight that departs at dinner time. But I know that a lot of folks would rather just eat quickly and go to sleep and if that’s the case, you can order a open-faced salmon sandwich and cheese cake at any time.
My experience on Turkish was replete with those “small things” that really make a big difference. For example, bread is served in a special cloth pouch to keep it warm and moist– have you ever noticed how fast bread dries out while flying? Not here. Also note that you get both butter and olive oil for your bread, and a small dish of Turkish spices in addition to real salt and pepper shakers. And get this…. they are magnetized so they stick to the plate!
By far the most noticeable small touch are the votive candles in tiny bags placed on each dining tray. While these are small electronic votives, they flicker just like the real thing, and add a warm and welcome ambience to the meal service. It’s quite a nice sight to see the entire cabin filled with these flickering lights. Good job!
Main dishes included grilled salmon with parsley butter and zucchini, filet of beef with arugula and roasted potatoes, or mushroom ravioli with leeks, tomatoes and parmesan.
After the main course, there is even more! A dessert and cheese cart including several baklava-type Turkish desserts plus apple pie, chocolate mousse and strawberry ice cream. Phew! I agree with the advice I’ve received from others: Do not eat at all before getting on the plane. You’ll regret it!
Turks are really big on tea, and the tea selection was endless, including an anti-jet lag blend of melissa, camomille, sour cherry and lavender. For digestion, there’s a fennel, anise and caraway blend. And to help “resolve the edema, reduce the swelling,” there’s a blend of green tea, cherry stalk, cornsilk and close. For stomach relief, you get a cold blend of mint, fennel, lemon and date syrup. Seriously!
After a cuppa tea, it was time to start thinking about cooling off and bedding down for the rest of the flight. But the cooling down part was tough. Turkish, like most other European carriers, tends to keep cabins way too warm… to the point of feeling stuffy. Maybe it’s just an American thing, but to me, a cool cabin promotes sleep and is just more comfortable. I inquired about turning the temperature down a bit, but flight attendants pushed back, stating that they are instructed to keep the cabin at 23C – about 75F, and showed me the thermostat. But the cabin sure felt warmer than that, and as you can see below, fellow passengers slept in mostly uncovered. This is not the first time I’ve suffered through an overheated flight, and probably won’t be the last, but is it just me? Or do you feel like some airlines keep the heat up too high? Please leave your comments below.
Despite the warmth, I was able to get about six hours of sleep on this flight and woke up in late afternoon, Istanbul time, for a hearty breakfast that included a small greek-like salad, cold cuts, and eggs with potatoes and spinach, coffee. Then I took a walk through the plane cabin, and had some fun with the crew just before our 5 p.m. arrival.
Inflight wi-fi was free for business class passengers... but the connection was relatively weak, allowing for texting, email and light surfing, but I was unable to upload photos, or access photo-dense websites.
Istanbul Ataturk Airport has clearly outgrown its space. How do I know? Every Turkish Air flight I was on parked at a remote pad, and passengers were bussed to and from the terminal. After a 13-hour flight, a 15-minute bus ride to the terminal is unwelcome, but did not take too long. Due to the growth, Istanbul is now laying plans for one of the largest airports in the world, to be called Istanbul New Airport, the first phase of which is to open in 2018.
My connection from Istanbul to Athens was only about two hours, so I hightailed it to a place I’ve been waiting to see for years, the famous CIP Lounge. It turned out to be everything I’d dreamt of, and more… and my only regret is that I did not have enough time to really soak up all it had to offer! Like pool tables, olive bars, fresh pizza, a driving range, two grand pianos and more!
This post is already long enough, so stay tuned for Part 2, which will include a good look at the lounge and my trip from Greece back to San Francisco. Thanks for reading this far!
Have you flown Turkish Airlines before…or dreamt about it? Please leave your comments below.
Disclosure: Turkish Airlines covered the cost of Chris’s airfare to Athens. TravelSkills paid for hotels, transfers, meals and other incidentals related to this trip.
NOTE: Be sure to click here to see all recent TravelSkills posts about: How to get the BEST summer fare deals | One airline fee fading fast | Trip Report: Aer Lingus Economy Class | 5 top jobs for frequent travelers | First class phase out coming soon