Turkish Delights and Frights on My First Guided Tour with Gate 1 Travel

There are certain experiences that you know — in the very moment they’re happening  — you’ll never forget.

For me, one of those pre-packaged memories occurred as I wandered the deck of a ferry chugging across the Dardanelles. Gulls swirled across the skyline.

To my right, the minarets of European Turkey faded into the distance. To my left, the country’s Asian coastline rose out of the aptly turquoise water.

And perched in the tour bus below deck was my husband, doubled over with the most debilitating case of food poisoning he’s ever experienced.

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Ah yes, the age-old combination of exotic locale and stomach-twisting bacteria.

And that, incidentally, perfectly encapsulates our experience on Gate 1 Travel’s affordable Turkey tour. It was the best of times, it was the barfiest of times. But would we do it again?

To find out, I thought it’d be a handy exercise —  and the best way to give you a sense of what taking a guided tour really is like — to tally up the pros, cons, and everything in between. Let’s dive in.

The Good

1. Turkey Is a Remarkable Place

Like the apple tea that you’re offered at every roadside stop, Turkey is a flavorful brew of East and West, Europe and the Middle East, Islam and Christianity. The country’s culture has been shaped by the Romans, the Ottomans, and, of course, the Turks. It’s filled with mosques and churches, Byzantine mosaics, Roman artifacts, and Ottoman jewels.

The people are joyful and hardworking with the country boasting the sixth largest economy in Europe. In fact, Turkey exports many important goods to the rest of the continent, including oil, gas, and automobiles.

And while its recent troubles have left many Americans wary of the nation, Turkey’s fledgling democracy was shepherded by a founding father who turned down the opportunity to be king and believed in equality for all (including women). It’s a remarkable place — rich in culture and resources — that unfortunately has, as our guide put it, “the worst neighbors in the world.”

Although Gate 1 can’t take credit for this remarkable destination, the fact that Turkey is such a fascinating place made the tour. So I’m counting majestic Turkey as a huge, huge pro.

2. We Saw More Than We Would Have on Our Own

I’ve planned international trips before, but I’m no match for Gate 1. Our itinerary was filled to the brim with Turkey’s best and most important sites. The country is large —  bigger than Texas — and we saw almost everything west of Ankara, the country’s capital, in our two-week visit.

Note: When we visited the country, the U.S. State Department had issued a travel advisory warning American citizens against visiting sites in the southeastern part of the country due to conflicts in Syria and Iraq. For up-to-the-minute information on travel to Turkey, visit the State Department’s website.

Another plus: because we were on an official tour, we never had to wait in line to get into a museum or attraction. I felt a little guilty as we marched past the solo travelers queuing for tickets, but that increased access is what you’re paying a tour company for.

3. We Visited Places We Wouldn’t Have Known about Otherwise

Let’s get real, for a second. If Scott and I had planned a trip to Turkey ourselves, there is no way we would put a pilgrimage to Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya  at the top of our list. We didn’t know much about the man himself, and the museum is an eight-hour drive from Istanbul.

But it was one of the most educational stops on our tour.

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Rumi was a Persian poet and mystic whose belief in the sanctifying power of music led to the creation of Turkey’s Whirling Dervishes — priests who spin hypnotically to symbolically throw off their earthly confines and commune with the Divine. Nearly 800 years after his death, Rumi’s prolific writings continue to transcend time and culture, and in 2014 the BBC named him America’s best-selling poet.

“Travel brings power and love back into your life.” ― Rumi

While we encountered many foreign tourists at sites across the country, we were surrounded by Middle Eastern travelers at Rumi’s tomb. These people were there to pay homage to a man who shaped their respective cultures and religion.

Watching as these visitors bowed and kissed glass cases filled with huge illuminated copies of the Quran gave me powerful insight into the earnest devotion of the practitioners of Islam.

And I would have missed that without Gate 1.

4. Our Guide Was Fantastic

Şenol (pronounced Shay-nol), had a diamond stud in one ear, a kelly green sweater, and countless anecdotes to share. He’s been leading English-speaking guests around his country for nearly twenty years. He’s also a big Meryl Streep fan — so big that when he saw her in New York City’s Central Park a few years back, he told her he loved her.

But beyond entertaining us (see Meryl story above), he provided a Turk’s perspective on everything from the U.S. military presence in Turkey to the country’s generous maternity leave policies.

He also really cared that we were having a good time on our trip without getting up in our business. I’m an introvert. Leaving me alone when I want to be alone is a definite pro.

Oh, and he gave us a bottle of water every time we got on the bus. Every time.

5. The Wheels on the Bus

Speaking of getting on the bus, it was a really comfortable way to travel. It was nicely maintained, the seats were plush, and our driver worked miracles, maneuvering that two-story beast down windy cobblestone roads.

Since Şenol made a point of making a new seating chart each night, we all took turns sitting in the front. He believed in good views for all.

6. It Was a Work-Free Vacation

Full disclosure: I love planning.

At the office, I’m always pushing to get the next quarter’s content planned as soon as possible. I’ve loved planning (and deadlines) for as long as I can remember.

But when it came to this vacation, I didn’t have it in me. I’d already planned our wedding. I was in the middle of planning another issue of the magazine. I just wanted to hand my vacation over to someone else and say, invoking the spirit of Tim Gunn, “Make it work.”

And Gate 1 did handle everything. They helped us get our visas, were flexible with our dietary requirements, and picked us up from the airport in Istanbul. Each day Şenol would tell us what time we needed to be on the bus the next morning. There was literally no planning needed. We just showed up and had a good time.

I wish my day-to-day life was like that.

7. The Price Was Right

We spent just under $4,000 for two flights to Turkey (we booked through Gate 1) and our tour (which included several meals, most entrances to the attractions, and all our hotel stays and porterage). That is a great price, especially when you consider that we were traveling over Christmas and New Years.

Since our flights and the tour were so inexpensive I had plenty of extra cash to blow on a probably overpriced but oh-so-beautiful Turkish carpet.

The Okay

1. The Quality of Accommodations Varied Widely

Our hotels in Turkey’s larger cities were truly first-rate — especially the plush Hilton Ankara. But as we ventured toward the center of the country, the accommodations dipped down to the level of — dare I say it? — a small-town motel. The rooms were well maintained but everything, from the bedding to the bathroom fixtures, was old. And some of the rooms didn’t really offer much sound-proofing.

In fact, we had to call the front desk about some of the teens and tweens on our tour goofing around in the hallway outside our door in the middle of the night. While annoying, hearing them being hushed in Turkish by the doorman was undeniably memorable.

2. Unscripted Moments Were Limited

Putting our nighttime rescue by the Turkish doorman aside, one of the biggest downsides of taking a guided tour is that you miss out on some of the unscripted experiences you might have had if you were going it alone.

For example, we didn’t get lost and stumble into a gem of a store or restaurant that we’ll never forget. We didn’t really make any new friends. The only Turks we met (not including the people we interacted with as part of the tour or at the hotel) were the store clerks who sold us Pringles, Turkish biscuits, and jugs of bottled water (the diet of champions who just don’t want to throw anymore).

We knew this going into a tour. It’s Adventure Lite. You’re trading in some of the mystery and excitement that goes with overseas travel for the security of a guide, prebooked accommodations, and attraction access. For us, that trade-off was worth the opportunity cost.

3. There Was No Lingering Longer

One thing we didn’t anticipate: we ended up wanting more time at some of the attractions.

We really only had one full day in Istanbul to take in the sites. While our guide gave us plenty of time at the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, it felt like the rest of the day was a race to cram in as much as possible.

After visiting the Basilica Cistern, we barely had enough time to explore Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans, before finishing at the Grand Bazaar. And if there’s one place you want time to explore, it’s those stalls full of pretty goodies in the heart of Istanbul. We were so exhausted and jet-lagged that we headed back to the hotel and crashed without haggling for a single souvenir.

Note: Gate 1 now provides at least 2 full days in Istanbul on all its tours of Turkey — a great fix!

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4. We Had to Upgrade For Add-Ons

While you can’t knock Gate 1’s low prices, it’s important to note that we did have to pay extra to see some additional attractions:

  • Half-day tour of Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar
  • Day tour to Ephesus
  • Evening excursion to see the Whirling Dervishes
  • Day tour of Cappadocia

The only add-on we didn’t sign up for was the early-morning balloon ride over Cappadocia. While I wish I could say this was my intuition talking (since the balloons ended up being grounded because of bad weather), the idea of soaring in the sky with only a basket between me and the ground was terrifying. I chose life!

The prices for these upgrades only added a couple hundred dollars to our overall vacation price, but they really took our trip from “good” to “wow!” It’d be nice if more of these add-ons were simply included in the tour when you sign up.

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5. We Shopped ‘Til We Dropped

When you book a Gate 1 tour be prepared for several shopping stops. Now don’t get me wrong. I love shopping when I’m traveling, and I do enjoy finding cool trinkets to bring home with me (e.g. that magic carpet I mentioned earlier).

However, on our tour there were several pre-arranged shopping stops, where our bus would pull up to a warehouse for a particular kind of handicraft (rugs, leather goods, ceramics). We’d squeeze into the entryway, passing the previous busload of tourists, to get a “free” demonstration before being led into a showroom lined with salespeople. In the case of the leather factory, we got to watch the world’s most awkward fashion show before entering the showroom.

As the first model sashayed down the runway, flipping a two-sided cape around her shoulders, my husband leaned over to me and said, totally deadpan, “I didn’t know reversible was in.”

Me either, honey.

My guess is that these pre-arranged $$$ stops help keep the tour prices low. But if I’m honest, I did really enjoy the carpet factory in Cappadocia (and busted out my Amex at the end of the visit). So these stops aren’t necessarily a bad thing. You should just be aware that if you’re going on an “affordable tour,” you’re probably going to be led through a gift shop more than once.

6. We Spent a Lot of Time on the Road

Remember when I mentioned that Turkey is the size of the Lone Star State? Well, that translated to a lot of time on the bus, traveling from place to place. Our guide did a great job of letting us take regular breaks, and the countryside is beautiful. Plus, Scott and I both got some quality reading time in, which, for me, makes a vacation actually feel like a vacation.

Even with all those pluses, I’m still putting this in the okay category. One, you don’t want to be stuck on a tour bus for hours with a little tiny bathroom when you’re experiencing the gut-wrenching revolutions. Nope.

Second goes back to my earlier point about wanting more time in certain places. If we’d have upgraded to Gate 1’s pricier Turkey tour, we could have flown back to Istanbul from Ankara and had another full day to explore. Learn from our mistakes: book the more expensive tour and bring a good book!

The Bad

1. We Encountered Choco Octo

Blame it on my time in Slovenia, where kebab stands are plentiful, but I was expecting to lap up the tastes of Turkey. Instead, the food had me praying to a porcelain god on the regular.

I mean look at this.

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Choco Octo: the premier dessert served at our hotel on New Year’s Eve. That doesn’t look terrifying, right?

Both Scott and I have lived abroad before without spilling our guts. We were very careful with only drinking bottled water and followed our guide’s instructions about what foods to eat and avoid as wimpy Westerners. But we still got really sick.

The other European Americans on our tour also experienced bouts of illness. Meanwhile, our tour companions who had immigrated to North America from other countries were just fine.

One Chinese-American woman on our tour told me that she knew exactly what I was going through. “When I first moved to the States,” she said, “I got sick on McDonalds every time I went there.”

To quote Hamilton: The Musical, “Immigrants, they get the job done.” Or in this case, speak the truth and don’t get sick in Turkey.

2. We Slummed It

As part of the tour, we stopped at a rural school that’s sponsored by the Gate 1 Foundation. We were invited to interact with the children and leave a donation. This was not a highlight of the tour for me. It felt like, to put it strongly, “adventure tourism for the idiot rich” (a phrase I completely lifted from Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone).

Let me explain.

As someone who has been given many opportunities, I feel a responsibility to share my access and resources with others. I strongly believe in empowering individuals with the education and financial backing they need to make their community a better place (which is a huge reason why I support microloans). However, visiting these kids isn’t really about helping them. It’s designed to make the tourists feel good. And it turns rural Turkish kids into a sideshow attraction.

It’s great that the Gate 1 Foundation is dedicated to giving back in the countries where the company runs tours. Yes! Good! But let’s not drag a bunch of wealthy tourists (because that’s what you are if you’re able to travel) to slum through the school and gawk at little children.

There has to be a better way to give back.

3. The Flights Nearly Killed Us

While we booked our flights to New York City and back on our own, we took advantage of Gate 1’s deal for flights out of JFK to Istanbul.

The flights were really cheap and booking through Gate 1 meant that our transfers to and from the airport in Turkey were included. And the book experience was really easy.

However, we had terrible layovers and worse departure times. On the way home, we had to leave for the airport at 3 a.m. And then we were essentially traveling (read: awake) for more than 30 hours.

On top of that, somewhere between Munich and JFK, I got what felt like sudden-onset pneumonia. I was so tired that when I accidentally dropped my last DayQuil tablet on the plane floor, I burst into tears as it rolled away. I will never ever fly for that long in one go again — no matter the amount of money I save.

If I could do it over again, I would book our own flights and airport transfers.

So Would We Go on Another Guided Tour?

Yes, yes, yes! While there were some downsides to traveling with a group, a lot of them could have been avoided with better planning (or more spending) on our part. And the good things about the tour far outnumbered the negatives. Overall, I think Gate 1 provides an amazing experience for your money, and I’ve recommended it to friends and family members who are looking to try a guided tour experience.

While we’re currently tied down with a little one at home, I’m still dreaming about my next foreign escape. And guess what’s on my nightstand: a brochure full of Gate 1’s tours to Italy. Arrivederci!

 

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