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Istanbul Airport transport: A guide to getting to and from the city's airports
iVisa | 15 min read | Updated on Jan 12, 2024

This is part of the Been There, Done That series, where our expert globetrotters travel the world to get the insights and information you need to have a seamless travel experience.

By Ra'eesah Manack, iVisa Travel Journalist

Istanbul, a city that straddles two continents, is a marvel of cultural fusion and historical grandeur. Whether visiting to explore its rich past, savor the local cuisine, or delve into the bustling markets, knowing how to travel to and from Istanbul's two airports is essential for a stress-free journey.

The city is served by two main airports: Istanbul Grand Airport on the European side and Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW) on the Asian side.

Let's discover the most convenient, cost-effective, and comfortable ways to travel between these air gateways and the heart of Istanbul.

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Descending into Istanbul: A breathtaking mosaic of history and modernity sprawling beneath the wings. The adventure begins!

How to get to and from Istanbul’s Main Airports

As part of our Been There, Done That series, I've navigated the bustling pathways of Istanbul Airport (IST) and Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW) firsthand, gathering insights and practical tips to share with you.

I’ve explored the various transport options so you don’t have to. Making sure I could provide you with the most reliable and efficient ways to get to and from these significant gateways in and out of Istanbul. Now, I’m ready to share all the tips and secrets to ensure your travels through IST and SAW are as smooth and enjoyable as Istanbul.

Havaist & IETT buses

Once I landed at IST I had the opportunity to experience both Havaist and IETT bus services firsthand, making my way from the bustling Istanbul Airport to the heart of the city.

Here's a detailed account of what you can expect based on my experience, complemented by some extra research to ensure you have all the information you need.

Havaist: The luxurious link

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HAVAIST at the ready: My sleek ride to the heartbeat of Istanbul, where every journey feels like stepping into a story

Havaist is a premium bus service connecting Istanbul Airport with several key locations across the city. What I loved about Havaist was the frequency of the buses. No matter what time I landed, it seemed there was always a Havaist bus ready to go. The buses are comfortable, equipped with free Wi-Fi, and have plenty of space for luggage – a blessing for someone like me who tends to overpack!

The journey duration varies. It can be as quick as 30 minutes or as long as 1.5 hours, depending on your destination and the notorious Istanbul traffic. My ride to Taksim Square was quite scenic and comfortable, albeit a bit longer during peak hours.

The most popular stops include Taksim Square, Besiktas, and Beyazit Meydani, each offering its slice of Istanbul life.

One thing to note is the payment system. You can't pay cash on the bus itself. Instead, you use the airport cash points or pay by card via the HAVAIST app or a QR code. This was a bit confusing at first, but once I downloaded the app, it was smooth sailing – or should I say, smooth busing.

Havabus: Comfort and Convenience

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Catching the Havabus at SAW: My chariot awaits to whisk me away through Istanbul's streets, where every ride feels like a mini adventure!

Like IST, Sabiha Gökçen (SAW) also has a fantastic bus system connecting it to the city. I've frequently opted for the Havabus shuttles, especially when heading to crucial locations like Taksim and Kadikoy. The Havabus is a beacon of efficiency and comfort – ample luggage space and cozy seating.

Priced at 102.50 lira per person, the Havabus offers an affordable yet comfortable ride. Its flexibility is a boon – I've conveniently paid with cash on the bus or utilized cash or card at the ticket window before boarding. Its accessibility, a mere short walk from my hotel, and its half-hourly departures make planning stress-free.

The buses are spotless, and the staff's helpful and welcoming nature makes each journey pleasant. Their professionalism and friendliness stand out, providing a warm start or end to my travels.

For me, Havabus isn't just the cheapest option; it's a blend of efficiency and comfort that's hard to beat. It is particularly beneficial for first-time visitors to Istanbul navigating to Sabiha Gökçen.

On my last trip, I noted the times carefully: leaving at 7:47am and arriving at 9:11am at the airport, affirming the need to allocate at least two hours for the bus ride to account for Istanbul's unpredictable traffic.

The Havabus shuttle is an integral part of my travel routine to Sabiha Gökçen, seamlessly fitting into my broader Istanbul adventures. It represents a reliable, efficient, and friendly mode of transport, essential for any traveler looking to go to and from this bustling Asian-side airport.

IETT: The economical journey

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IETT Bus: My window to Istanbul's soul, cruising through history and hustle one stop at a time

On another day, I decided to try the IETT public buses to understand all transit options. These buses are a more economical choice and are part of the city's regular public transportation system. They're less luxurious than the Havaist and Havabus buses but a viable option for getting to and from the airport, especially if you're on a budget.

The IETT buses immerse you more into the everyday life of Istanbul residents, which was an experience.

Catching the bus at Istanbul Airport (IST)

No matter which bus service you choose, navigating to the bus area at Istanbul Airport is crucial. You must follow the signs diligently, heading down to the bus section, and different buses may require you to wait at other places.

The Havaist bus is conveniently located at the Arrival Terminal of Istanbul Airport, near the Arriving Passenger Exit on the -2 Floor, with buses departing every 30 to 40 minutes.

Pay close attention to the signs because the bus and metro stops might be on different levels or sections of the airport. The HAVAIST buses are marked, making them easier to spot.

Before you hop on a bus, here are some things to do:

Check the schedule: Always check the latest Havaist and IETT schedules online or at the airport. This way, you can plan your journey more effectively.

Check the closest stop to your accommodation: Know the nearest stop and the bus schedule for that route. Not all buses go to all destinations.

Payment prep: Prepare your payment method before you board. If you're using Havaist, preload your card or have the app set up to avoid any last-minute rush.

Both Havaist and IETT offer distinct experiences, and choosing between them depends on what you value more: comfort and convenience or economy and authenticity. My journey through Istanbul's bus systems was an adventure in itself, part of the larger, vibrant tapestry of the city.

Catching a public bus at Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW)

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I'm whisked away on a local bus, winding through Istanbul's heart to my urban retreat.

Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW) is serviced by various public buses that weave through the city, offering a deeper immersion into Istanbul's daily life. Thus, craving a more immersive experience, I've ventured onto various public buses that stop at the Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW). These rides are a deep dive into Istanbul's vibrant street life, offering an authentic feel of the city.

Here are some of the critical lines to keep in mind:

  • E3 - 4. Levent to SAW: This line connects the Levent area, known for its bustling business district, directly to the airport.

  • E9 - Bostancı to SAW: Ideal for those staying near the Bostancı district, this route offers a direct link to the airport.

  • E10/E11 - Kadıköy to SAW: Kadıköy, a lively area in Istanbul's Asian side, connects to SAW through these services, offering a scenic route through some of the city's vibrant neighborhoods.

  • 16S - Metrobus Uzunçayır to SAW: This route is perfect for connecting to the broader Metrobus network.

  • MR60 - Pendik YHT to SAW: Pendik, with its High-Speed Train station, is linked to the airport, facilitating broader travel connections.

  • 130H, 132H, 131C, and 122H: These routes serve various districts, including the military academy and Sultanbeyli areas, ensuring coverage across a wide city area.

These buses are cost-effective and provide a vivid slice of Istanbul life, from its serene suburbs to its energetic downtown areas​​.

From personal experience, it can be super confusing to navigate. I advise double-checking with Google Maps and asking a local if it’s the right bus for you. Otherwise, you might accidentally get off in the suburbs of Istanbul instead of near your hotel.

However, despite requiring more navigation and patience, especially during rush hours, the journey is as much a part of my Istanbul story as the destinations themselves. Each ride is a chapter in my travelog, filled with sights, sounds, and the vibrant spirit of Istanbul.

They aren't just modes of transport; they're windows into the life of this captivating city, offering insights and experiences that enrich my travels each time​​​​.

Metro and the IstanbulKart

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Amidst the city's heartbeat, I await the metro that will whisk me away to the comfort of my hotel.

Diving into the heart of Istanbul's public transport, let's chat about the metro and the magical IstanbulKart. My adventures have taught me the ins and outs of navigating this vibrant city's underbelly.

First, the M11 metro line is a lifeline connecting Istanbul Airport to the city center. First, the M11 metro line connects Istanbul Airport to the city center, providing a fast and reliable route. Similarly, the M4 metro line links Sabiha Gökçen Airport to the city, enhancing access to the Asian side.

These additions to the city's transportation network offer a direct route into the bustling heart of Istanbul, promising a fast, reliable, and scenic transit option. Once aboard, you can wave goodbye to the city's infamous traffic jams and enjoy a smooth ride into the metropolis.

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Commuters stream into the metro station, each step bringing them closer to Istanbul's myriad destinations.

However, as with all great urban adventures, vigilance is vital. The metro's convenience often attracts crowds, especially during peak hours. My experiences taught me to clutch my bag close and remain aware of my surroundings, as pickpockets always look for a distracted tourist. Keep your belongings secure and your wits about you, and you'll easily navigate the metro.

Your journey through Istanbul's underground is seamless with the IstanbulKart, a versatile card granting access to the metro and trams, ferries, and buses. It's your key to the city, allowing you to hop from one mode of transport to another, exploring Istanbul's rich tapestry of neighborhoods and landmarks.

Embrace the metro's quirks, the ebb and flow of its crowds, and the rhythm of the city it pulses through. With your IstanbulKart and a sense of adventure, experiencing Istanbul like a true local.

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Istanbul commuters rush to step aboard the train that connects multiple destinations around the city.

Buying and recharging my IstanbulKart

Let's talk about the IstanbulKart – this little card is a lifesaver! It's your all-access pass to virtually every mode of public transport – from the metro, tram, and nostalgic tram to ferries and even some Bosphorus cruises. The beauty of it? You can swipe for multiple people and top it up whenever you need. It's like holding the key to the city!

Here’s how I bought and recharged mine during my stay:

Snagging an IstanbulKart at the Airport:

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The key to Istanbul's vibrant pulse: my Istanbulkart promises a journey through the heart of this ancient metropolis.

Stepping off the plane, my adventure begins. I navigate through the arrivals hall to the bright, inviting IstanbulKart vending machines.

I interact with the user-friendly interface, selecting my language preference and inserting crisp Turkish Lira into the slot.

With a satisfying clunk, the machine dispenses my brand new IstanbulKart. I pocket this little gem, my ticket to the city's pulse.

Recharge in the city

My exploration takes me deeper into Istanbul's heart, where keeping my IstanbulKart topped up is essential. Here's how I ensure a smooth journey:

  • Finding a kiosk: There are kiosks or vending machines at nearly every metro and tram station before the turnstiles.

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Kiosk to recharge or buy an Istanbulkart are usually yellow and blue and can be found outside most metro and tram stations

  • Check my balance: Before jumping onto my next metro or tram, I quickly walk up to the machines outside the station, place my card on the marked spot, and check my balance if I need to recharge.

  • Recharging my card: If my balance is low, I select the recharge option, feed my cash into the machine, or tap my credit or debit card and watch my balance update instantly.

  • Keep cash: I've learned that many machines prefer or only accept cash. I've been scrambling for coins more times than I'd like to admit. So, a pro tip I've learned: always keep some money handy for those urgent top-ups.

  • Recharging at a newsstand: At one point, I couldn’t find a kiosk at the station, and while scrambling, I stumbled across small shops and newsstands bearing the IstanbulKart logo. After a quick stop and a friendly exchange with one vendor, they were able to recharge my card, and I was all set for the next leg of my journey.

With my IstanbulKart in hand and a sense of adventure, I experience Istanbul's dynamic rhythm firsthand. From the first purchase at the airport to mastering the art of city travel, each step is an exciting part of my journey. Let's dive in and enjoy the ride!

Taxi & ride-sharing apps

Taxis line the curb outside the airport, ready to ferry weary travelers to their next destination in Istanbul.

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Sometimes, Taxis are a great option despite being significantly more expensive than public transport.

The first time I landed at Istanbul Airport, I was too tired to figure out the bus system, and the metro had already closed for the day. Instead, loaded with my bags, I opted to catch an airport taxi for the half-hour drive to my accommodation.

To be fair, in my jet-lagged desperation, the convenience of being dropped off at the hotel door sold me on this option. The $30 fare was reasonable for a Taxi considering the standing traffic we had to navigate to get to my hotel in Taksim.

Using BiTaxi

The airport offers newcomers a seamless Taxi booking experience via the kiosk opposite Turk Telecoms, or you can use the intuitive Bitaxi app like me. However, in the hustle of Istanbul Airport, I learned a valuable lesson about ride-ordering.

Eager to reach my destination, I hastily booked a taxi while still inside the terminal. This decision led to a frantic rush to locate the correct meeting point amidst the airport's labyrinthine layout. My delay proved costly, as the Bitaxi app timed out, canceling my ride before I could set foot in the car.

This mishap spiraled into a heated negotiation with the taxi driver, who, without a locked-in fare, sought to charge me a higher rate than the one initially quoted by the app.

The experience was a stark reminder of the challenges and unpredictability of navigating airport transportation, especially when language barriers and time pressures are at play. It underscored the importance of being fully prepared and aware of the terms and conditions of ride-sharing apps, particularly in bustling travel hubs like Istanbul Airport.

So, remember that if you opt for Bitaxi, punctuality is crucial to prevent miscommunication and unexpected charges, and you should only order the taxi when you’re already outside and waiting.

Uber

With a few taps on my phone, an Uber arrives, a beacon of convenience in the bustling cityscape.

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Alternatively, Uber is another ride-share option you can use. Though it was forced to stop operations in 2019, the ride-sharing app came back with a slight twist. In Istanbul, Uber uses regular yellow taxis and charges metered fares, diverging from its usual fare structure.

As the rider, you must ensure the taxi meter runs to avoid overcharges. Confirming the fare before starting your journey is wise, and always prioritize your safety while waiting, especially if you're unfamiliar with Istanbul's dynamic streets.

You can also reserve an Uber in advance according to the Uber site. However, I advise factoring in enough time to get through passport control, get your bags and go through customs when reserving your Uber to avoid having to dash to the exit.

Be prepared for some taxi drivers to still claim that Uber is illegal, a tactic to persuade you to opt for their service. In such cases, firmly assert that you will only pay a fare within the Uber-quoted range. Many drivers are open to negotiating within these limits.

However, if you travel alone, remember that your safety is paramount. Always take precautionary measures like sharing your live location with trusted contacts and ensuring the driver's details match those provided by the app.

Hailing a standard yellow taxi

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A group negotiating their taxi fare before they get into a standard yellow taxi that they hailed in Istanbul.

When hailing a yellow taxi in Istanbul without using an app, be prepared for the city's infamous traffic, which can substantially inflate your fare especially on holidays like New Years Day when parts of the city are closed or experiencing traffic jams.

Taxis come in three categories: the most economical yellow, the slightly pricier blue/turquoise (15% higher rate), and the luxurious black taxis (double the price).

They are generally affordable due to metered rates based on starting fees and distance, but rush hour can be a budget buster. If you pay by card at the end of your trip, you will likely be charged an additional commission fee on the card machine to avoid surprises; carry cash in Turkish Lira, or book ahead if you prefer to pay with a card.

For a safe journey, stick to the official taxi ranks, utilize reputable online taxi apps like iTaksi, or seek assistance from your hotel concierge.

Lastly, arm yourself with knowledge about common taxi scams. Insist on resetting the meter at the start of your journey, steer clear of agreed fixed fares unless you're sure it's a fair price, and remember that crossing the Bosphorus bridges may incur additional tolls.

Whether you choose a traditional taxi or a ride-sharing app, Istanbul's transportation offers a fascinating insight into the city's pulse. With some preparation and street smarts, you can easily navigate the city, embracing the journey as much as the destination.

Tips for a smooth journey

As I've navigated Istanbul's bustling streets and airways, here are my golden nuggets for a smooth journey:

  1. Traffic Tactics: Istanbul's traffic is infamous. I always check conditions and plan extra travel time.

  2. Holiday Alert: Be mindful of holidays as areas like Besiktas and Taksim can be congested or closed, affecting travel costs and availability, especially for services like Uber.

  3. Terminal Know-How: Familiarize yourself with the correct terminal to avoid rush.

  4. Cash Convenience: Having the Turkish Lira handy is a lifesaver for small expenses.

As you plan your journey to or from Istanbul's airports, remember that each option has benefits. Whether you prioritize cost, comfort, or convenience, you'll find a mode of transport that suits your needs.

Istanbul is a city of endless discovery; navigating its airports is just the beginning of your adventure. If you're explore more than just Istanbul, also have a look a our other airport guides for Turkey by our expert travel reporter:

Happy travels!

Disclaimer
  • iVisa is NOT affiliated with any government agency. This app does not provide legal advice and we are not a law firm. None of our customer service representatives are lawyers and they also do not provide legal advice. We are a private, internet-based travel and immigration consultancy provider dedicated to helping individuals travel around the world. You may apply by yourself directly on the various government websites. The source of information: https://www.mfa.gov.tr/visa-information-for-foreigners.en.mfa

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