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Why We Should Have Flown to Istanbul (or Ten Reasons Not to Drive to Istanbul)

Recently my dad and his wife visited Bulgaria, and we decided to go to Istanbul as part of the fun, and step foot in Asia as part of their Southern European itinerary.

With a new car, I was excited to drive there, in order to see more of Bulgaria and Turkey along the way. In roughly reverse order of importance, here are the reasons we should have flown instead:

  1. Parking. It was actually pretty convenient and cheap to park in the center. But if you don’t drive, you don’t have a car to park and worry about.
  2. Vignette. You have to buy a separate vignette to travel on the roads there. I still don’t know how much it cost me, but I think I paid the fine for *not* having a vignette, and I also paid for the vignette.
  3. Hassle of getting pulled over. We were pulled over twice. Once to check that our vignette was valid (and by that time, it *was* valid). And another time we didn’t figure out why we were pulled over, but it felt like it was one of those ‘here’s an opportunity to pull a foreign car over–let’s see what we can find’ kind of things.
  4. Sightseeing. If you stick to the limited access highways (we did), you won’t see anything in Bulgaria or Turkey as you’re driving through. Just lots of sunflowers.
  5. Arriving in the center. If you’re staying in the center of Istanbul, it’s much easier to go from the airport to the center than it is to drive from the edge to the center. That must be true for every European city. I don’t know why it didn’t send off alarm bells in my head to book an Airbnb in the middle of the most attractive district in Istanbul.
  6. Terrible truck stop food in Turkey. I don’t know what the rest of the life of a Turkish trucker is like, but judging from the food at the truck stop (we ate at two), they have very low expectations and an active social life.
  7. Tourist visas purchased at the border are more expensive (25 euro versus 20 USD) than at the airport.
  8. Early morning departure. We left early on both sides. It did us almost no good.
  9. Border shenanigans. I needed a power of attorney from my wife to drive the car across the border. Who knew? Plus I lost my registration card to one of the seven different people we had to talk to in order to cross the border. Never got it back.
  10. Insurance. It’s a multi-hour process to buy insurance to drive your European car outside of Europe, apparently.
  11. Disinfectant for cars arriving from Turkey: 5 lev (okay, is that a shakedown or what? why don’t they just call it a departure tax?)
  12. Flights to Istanbul are about a third the cost of driving (per person).
  13. Google maps’ driving directions. Are simply awful in Turkey. Like in Bulgaria, the pronunciation of street and place names will make you turn the volume off. (Why is there no option to just say ‘Prepare to turn left’ when the text-to-speech engine doesn’t support the local language?) The recommended detours were really dangerous (see below) and, if we had missed a single turn, we would have eliminated all the savings of the recommended alternative route. And of course, the time estimates were off by more than 50% (which I’ve come to expect from any cross-Europe route that crosses a border).
  14. Bulgarian drivers. You are either a sheep or a wolf on the road in Bulgaria. Pray that you don’t find yourself a sheep with a drunken wolf on your bumper.
  15. Turkish drivers. Like Bulgarian drivers, minus the alcohol.
  16. Methane stations? There is one. In all of Western Turkey. We found it, thank God.

Attendants at methane stations in Bulgaria are super helpful; they offer advice about how to get the best mileage and the fullest tank. Only at one station, when we asked what the next station was to the East, did we get a cold stare and a ‘I don’t know anything about methane stations in Turkey’. Like that was going to keep us from going there.