I saved $500 on international airfare by flying a top-rated airline most people overlook, and it was one of the best economy trips I've had yet

ShutterstockIf you don’t mind a stopover in Istanbul, Turkish Airlines is great bang for your buck
  • Turkish Airlines is the flag carrier of Turkey, operating in over 300 destinations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
  • Considered one of the largest airlines in the world, Turkish Airlines is consistently ranked in the top 20 airlines in the world by consumer aviation website Skytrax.
  • Key to the airline’s strategy is offering American passengers one-stop flight itineraries to far-out destinations in the Middle East, Africa, and India.
  • I decided to fly Turkish Airlines’ economy-class cabin on a flight from New York to Dubai. Taking the flight, which included a stopover in Istanbul, saved me $US500 on airfare, and included a free tour of the city. And the flight was one of the best economy experiences I’ve had yet.

One rule I follow when flying internationally: When in doubt, fly with a flag carrier.

One look at rankings of the best airlines in the world confirms that wisdom. Up and down the list are flag carriers like Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Emirates Airlines, and Etihad Airways, among others.

In my experience, flag carriers tend to go above and beyond other airlines. They usually have state backing and an implicit mandate to serve as an advertisement for the country they hail from.

Qatar Airways, Emirates Airlines, and Turkish Airlines all offer stopover programs that include free hotels or tours if you have a long layover. If you’ve ever been curious about Doha, Dubai, or Istanbul, those programs are a great way to get a glimpse.

When I was booking a recent trip to Dubai, I spotted that some of the best airfares in terms of both price, departure time, and length were with Turkish Airlines, one of the largest airlines in the world and one of the highest ranked by consumer aviation website Skytrax.

I’d never been to Istanbul before so I decided to pick one of the economy-class itineraries that had a 18-hour layover in the city, enough time to run to all of the main sites. It cost me around $US800 round trip. Other flights to Dubai were around $US1300.

Read on to see what I thought of my flight on Turkish Airlines, departing from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport and then onward to Dubai International Airport, operated on an Airbus A330-300 and a Boeing 777-300ER.

Turkish Airlines is the flag carrier of Turkey, operating in over 300 destinations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It flies to more countries than any other airline.


But I’d never thought to take it before. These days the big flag carriers that everyone flies are Emirates and Qatar Airways. But Turkish Airlines offers many of the same benefits — great service, fairly new planes, and one-stop itineraries to far destinations.

My flight to Dubai (via Istanbul) was due for a little after 1 p.m. Boarding went relatively quickly.

It’d be nice to have business class for the nearly 10-hour flight to Istanbul. I’d say it’s the leg room that I dream about, but I can sleep just about anywhere. Really, it’s the meals.


Oh well, onward to “cattle class,” as I like to call it.

My flight was on an Airbus 330-300, of which Turkish Airlines has 65 in its fleet. While I can’t say for certain how new my plane was, most 330-300s in the carrier’s fleet are between 3 and 7 years old.


Source: Air Fleets

Judging by the spiffy tablet touch screens on the seat backs, I was thinking it was probably on the newer side.

The weather was miserable on the day I left New York. Pouring rain turned my ride to the airport into gridlock. But at least Turkish Airlines only had a short delay.

It took a while for everyone to get settled with their baggage in the overhead compartment. I suppose that’s to be expected with a long-haul flight.

Leg room was solid, if unspectacular. Economy seats on the A330-300 have 17-18 inches of width. I can imagine if you are tall — I am only 5’7″ — this could be a problem. The 31 to 33 inches of pitch is ok.

But I do love the foot rest. You see these far more often on trains than planes, but they are so underrated in making it comfortable to sleep.

Everyone was given a set of headphones and a blanket for the flight. I usually use my own in-ear headphones for better quality sound.

One of the best parts of the flight was the amenities package. Flag carriers don’t skimp on the freebies. I have a lot of sleeping masks and slippers in my apartment at this point.

The safety video was done as an animation with The Lego Movie characters. The first showing was, of course, in Turkish.

Once it got to the English version, it was pretty funny. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for The Lego Movie.

But after the safety video came a commercial for Turkish Airlines. There were a couple more Turkish airline ads when clicking through the entertainment system which was weird because … I had already bought my ticket for Turkish Airlines?

I really appreciated how quickly they came around with beverage service after we took off. Some airlines wait until the first meal service to bring drinks. Not so with Turkish Airlines.

My seat-mate convinced me to get a cup of Turkish Raki. He said he usually drinks one glass on a flight and then passes out. I couldn’t get past one sip of the anise-flavored liquor. Not my cup of tea. They also offered homemade mint lemonade, which was delicious.

I couldn’t capture a good photo from afar, but the flight attendants went around to pass out Turkish newspapers.

The menus are getting very elaborate these days. Gone are the days where a gruff flight attendant barks, “Chicken or Pasta” at you. Now it’s “beef or cannelloni.”

I opted for the beef burger with sautéed vegetables and potato puree. The danger with getting a hunk of meat like this is that it will be dry and rubbery. I’m happy to report it was juicy and tasty.

The assorted sides were more impressive. Tabbouleh, moutabel (a spicy eggplant dip), and smoked salmon to start. And then the light, frothy panna cotta to finish.

The movie and TV selection on the entertainment system was solid. A nice mix of new releases and classics.

But, truthfully, I’m the kind of person that just passes out right after my meal. Unfortunately, the tray was poorly designed. When the person in front leaned back their chair, it crushed my cup, spilling liquid on my seat.

We touched down in Istanbul at 7:05 a.m. I was raring to go see Istanbul. The city is stuffed with more historical sites than I’d be able to see before my flight 18 hours later.


I had heard that it was a bit confusing to find where the free city tour provided by Turkish Airlines left, so I did research beforehand. For future travellers, it leaves from Turkish Airlines “hotel desk”on the land side of the airport. After about 40 minutes of waiting, the tour guide arrived and brought us to the bus.

I had always wanted to see the Blue Mosque (known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque to locals). It’s a spectacular 17th century architectural achievement. Unfortunately, when I visited, half of it was under renovation.

Turkish Airlines provides a complimentary local tour guide. She spoke excellent English, but with a tour group of about 30 people, it was sometimes hard to hear her. Every time I got a chance to speak to her alone, she gave excellent local context.

After the Blue Mosque, we walked by the Hagia Sofia, one of the most famous religious structures in the world. I was bummed the tour didn’t take us inside, but I guess that gives me a reason to come back.

Julian Finney/GettyImages

As a cultural center for three different empires (Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman), Istanbul has a ton of historical sites. The Topkapi Palace, the main residence for the Ottoman sultans, is one of the highlights.


Built in the 15th century by Mehmed the Conqueror, six years after the Turks’ conquest of Constantinople, the ornate palace outshines many European castles and palaces. One of the main benefits of taking Turkish’s tour is that there’s no entrance fee or line to wait in.


The last stop on the tour was the Spice Bazaar. While it’s not the Grand Bazaar — the most famous bazaar in Istanbul — it was a great teaser for what Istanbul’s colourful markets have to offer.

Annie Zheng/Business Insider

The tour ended around 4:30 p.m., which gave me a few hours to check out some sites on my own before heading back to the airport. I decided to go to Istanbul Modern, an art museum. No matter what city I’m in, I like to check out the modern art, as I think it gives a window into contemporary attitudes and culture.

After a late dinner, it was back to the airport. I was feeling extremely groggy at this point. I was approaching 30 hours of no sleep.


I still had a few hours to kill before my 1:25 a.m. flight. Thankfully, I could hang out in a lounge because I have Priority Pass. One note: Whereas Qatar Airways will give Doha stopover travellers a tour and a complimentary hotel, Turkish Airlines makes you choose between the two.

But I made it to the plane without a hitch. My second leg was on a Boeing 777-300ER. Business Class on the 777 didn’t look as nice as on the Airbus.

And neither did economy. But, oddly enough, there was more leg room on the 777 than the Airbus.

The plane wasn’t ancient, by any means, but there was a clear difference in the age of the entertainment systems. It was still a touch screen, but not nearly as sharp or intuitive as the Airbus’s entertainment system.

Service on the airline was pretty good. After my seat-mates never got the fruit they ordered, the head flight attendant apologised profusely and chopped up fruit for them from business class herself.

Annie Zheng

At least, the beverage service came early and often. Not that I was drinking alcohol or anything. Drinking on a flight after 30 hours of no sleep is a bad idea, my friend.


Pro tip: The key to surviving long flights is drinking lots of water. Flying on planes dehydrates your body. I always ask for a couple of extra water bottles.

It was only a 4.5-hour flight from Istanbul to Dubai, but you can be sure I was out cold for most of it. As was the rest of the plane. Hopefully not the pilot, though.

Top benefit of pulling a 30-hour flight itinerary that ends with a red-eye flight? The spectacular sunrise as you close in on your final destination.

And that was it. I was in Dubai! So what did I think of my whole Turkish Airlines experience?

In the past, I’ve flown Qatar Airways, Austrian Airlines, Air Astana, and Aerolineas Argentinas, among others. Turkish Airlines lived up to my experience with those flagship carriers.

While the planes were far from the most high-tech or new, the service stood out. I was pleasantly surprised at how many times Turkish Airlines’ flight attendants came around for beverage service. That kind of attentiveness makes or breaks a long-haul economy-class flight.

The complimentary tour was efficiently planned and hit most of the major stops in Istanbul. It was a bit rushed and more of a teaser than anything else. I definitely want to come back to see the inside of the Hagia Sophia and spend an unhurried day exploring the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. I suspect that’s the point.

I will say that not having a hotel room to stop in was a bit of a bummer, considering my 18-hour layover. I did not account for how tired I would be at the end of the itinerary. I guess I’m not a student backpacker anymore.

All that said, it was definitely worth the $US500 I saved on airfare and I would recommend it to someone looking to tack on an extra sightseeing day to their next international trip.

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