Avoiding Istanbul’s Favourite Scam
Travelling to Istanbul, Turkey? Avoid getting scammed. Here’s some advice about how to deal with the most common con game taxi drivers try to pull on unsuspecting tourists.
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I was new to the city and in a rush—and that was my downfall. I was in Turkey, staying in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmed district, and had to make my way to Besiktas on the Bosporus. The distance, as the crow flies, is about 23 kilometres, but Istanbul’s rush hour lasts all day and night, so the journey could take anywhere between half-an-hour to an hour. Sultanahmed is the hub of Istanbul’s most famous sites: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar are all grouped together and within easy walking distance of each other.
Worse, this was an important business meeting in one of Istanbul’s most beautiful and expensive hotels, the Ciragan Palace. The hotel’s history is a fascinating one. Located on a huge plot of land bordering the Bosporus on the European side of Istanbul, the first building erected there was a yali dating back to the 16th century. Yalis are the massive and richly carved and decorated wooden palaces bordering the water and favoured by Ottoman sultans and nobles. The original yali was replaced by a stone palace, then demolished. In the 19th century, Sultan Abdulaziz had a new summer palace constructed. Much of the interior was made from wood and, in 1910, a fire destroyed all but the outer stone walls. The charred ruin was left as it was and used as a depot for construction material and a make-shift football stadium!
In 1985, a group of Japanese investors saw the potential and created the first version of what is today a Kempinski resort and one of the most luxurious hotels in Istanbul. A new wing was added joining the old palace and creating more rooms for guests. This was the venue where I was going to meet a photographer, whom I hoped to persuade to provide some photographs for my planned literary guide book on Istanbul. It’s hardly surprising that I was in a hurry and that my mind was focused on other things than being alert to a taxi scam.
Hurrying along Divan Yoglu, Sultanahmed’s main street, in my heels and chic suit, I was desperately looking for a taxi and already running late. Finally, I saw a lone car at a taxi stand. The driver got out, took one look, assessed my clothes and my destination and said, “I’ll give you a special price. TYL 90,” which is approximately $50 and seemed like quite a lot to me, but, foolishly, I agreed. The meter, of course, was switched off.
I arrived in time and when, during the conversation, I mentioned to my host what I had paid for the taxi, he was dismayed. “Never, ever get into a taxi that doesn’t have a running meter and never agree to a ‘special price.’ It’s the taxi drivers’ favourite scam on unsuspecting tourists who don’t know any better,” he said.
Sure enough, on the return journey, the hotel ordered me a taxi and the same trip cost me TYL 25! Since then I have encountered many taxi drivers who have tried the same stunt, particularly on rides to the airport. Or else, they try to charge extra for luggage. My advice is to insist on a running meter, even if the taxi driver pulls a face. If he refuses, get out.
Istanbul has a very good public transport system. The best and most convenient option is the metro. There is also the tramway, which runs from close to the central bus station all the way through Sultanahmed over the Galata Bridge to the Bosporus. Buy tokens or a metro card and you’ll rarely have to deal with taxis and their predatory drivers.