Five days before my husband and I were set to travel to Malta, Homeland Security issued its alert for 10 Middle Eastern and North African airports, including Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, where we would have layovers on both ends of our trip. Electronics larger than a cell phone were banned on any westbound flights, among other restrictions.
We briefly looked into switching flights, but nothing made sense. We had booked our Turkish Airlines itinerary two months earlier for $500 a person roundtrip. This flukishly good rate was the only one under $1,100 we’d found. So, I unpacked my iPad, bought a hard copy of the book I was reading, and off we went.
30 years ago, I first experienced Turkish hospitality on an overnight bus ride from Istanbul to Izmir. Midnight at the bus station was not pretty. But the bus itself, with an onboard steward who passed out snacks and hot scented towels, was a surprising Turkish delight.
Turkish Airlines seem just as committed to traveler comfort as that bus company did 30 years ago. In addition to a pleasant crew, Turkish’s Airbus A330 had footrests (great for someone my height); seatback coat hooks and USB ports; good and plentiful food; free wine; a full-length mirror in the bathroom; and a little travel kit including socks, slippers, a sleep mask, earplugs, tooth brush and paste, and lip balm. All in coach! Even the air safety video was entertaining, thanks to a dose of trompe l’oeil.
We had an immediate connection to Malta and then a fabulous, weeklong trip. Then came the four-hour layover in Istanbul’s Ataturk on the way home. This is what we had worried about, given the recent terror alert and in that airport as well as in southeastern Turkey.
Despite the anxiety, the time flew. Instead of a series of long hallways, Ataturk’s modern, international terminal was incredibly comfortable. We walked about five minutes from the gates to a two-story, very open, nicely landscaped area of shops and eateries. On the way, we passed three massage kiosks, a piano (passengers played it), plenty of seated charging stations, and one slightly-dodgy looking oxygen bar.
Originally, we’d figured we could buy a day pass to the private business lounge if we weren’t comfortable in the main waiting area. But it wasn’t necessary, or even easily accessible. Online information about the lounge was inconsistent, and none of the airport employees we asked even knew what it was. So much for that idea.
Lunch time. Ataturk’s choices included a burger joint, upscale seafood, a bakery with some sandwiches, and a healthy cafeteria. We didn’t find the obvious (and our first) choice: casual Turkish food. Truly Turkish options were limited to a costumed, dry-ice Turkish ice cream vendor and a stylish coffee shop where we got (sludg-ily wonderful) Turkish coffee, mint tea, two small meat-and-cheese-filled pastries, and a piece of baklava.
Boarding began an hour before the flight. This is where we felt security pressure. We showed our passports and boarding passes no less than four times in the course of waiting in that line. I’m not sure what it accomplished, but it felt intense. And there was a second carry-on bag screening right before we boarded the plane.
Once on the plane though, it was a return to that wonderful Turkish hospitality. But the sweetest moments were reading from a real book in my hands, and my husband Chuck & I reviewing a week’s worth of glorious pictures from Malta.
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