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.
Istanbul is truly something else. With its 39 districts, a bustling population of 15 million, and a history spanning over 1700 years, the city's sheer size is mind-boggling. In my experience, the best way to enjoy Istanbul is to let go of preconceptions and simply immerse yourself in its dynamic flow.
If you’re heading to Turkey, chances are you'll arrive, layover, or depart at Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW), a busy hub that blends modern efficiency with Turkish hospitality.
Nestled on the Asian side of Istanbul, this airport predominantly serves short-haul flights, budget airlines, and those in transit to various corners of Turkey.
Istanbul from above on a clear winter day.
Let me navigate you through the ins and outs of Sabiha Gökçen (not to be confused with Istanbul Grand Airport (IST).
With tips on check-in, arrival, and layover procedures, finding the best coffee at the airport, or hopping on the most efficient transport to the city center, I've got you covered.
Get set for Istanbul: Essential tips before you go
To kick off your trip smoothly, here are some handy tips:
Check-in online: This is a breeze with most airline apps. You get to pick your preferred seats and skip the longer check-in lines at the airport.
Arrive early: Not only is it wise to consider traffic, but lines for check-in, baggage drop-off, and customs can stretch longer than expected. As a rule of thumb, be at the airport at least 2.5 hours before your scheduled departure time.
Keep your baggage sticker safe: The little sticker they attach to your passport? It's your bag's ID tag, in case it decides to take a different flight!
Departing from Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport: Busy but efficient
Having recently touched down at Istanbul Airport on the European side of this captivating city, I ventured to explore its counterpart to take off on a short trip: Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport.
This brief expedition granted me the perfect chance to immerse myself in the inner workings of Istanbul’s second airport.
iVisa tip: Take it from me, arriving early at this airport isn't just a suggestion; it's essential. Sabiha Gökçen is known for its (understatement) lively vibe, so giving yourself plenty of time is the key to a stress-free start to your travels.
The check-in process: A DIY adventure
Upon arriving at the airport, self-check-in is the standard procedure for short-haul airlines. It's a simple and convenient process, especially if you've completed your check-in online beforehand. This is also where you'll conveniently drop off any luggage you have.
Here’s an overview of what to expect:
Security: In Turkey's airports, always expect two security screenings: one at the entrance of the airport (this one includes the bags you’ll check in) and one after passport control. At each checkpoint, be ready to pass through metal detectors and x-ray machines.
Self-service kiosks: These machines offer a straightforward process for check-in and baggage drop-off, complete with multiple language options, including English. After scanning my passport (or boarding pass if you’ve already checked in online), my flight appears on the screen, and I follow the instructions.
First, I have to confirm my information is correct, then I am asked to weigh my bag on the scale below the screen and print the baggage tag and boarding pass.
Time needed for check-in: Allocate at least 30 minutes for this step, considering the potential queues. There are no check-in desks, but if you get stuck, multiple airport staff are ready to assist.
Luggage drop-off: After printing my boarding pass and baggage tag from the kiosk, I attach the latter to my suitcase following the picture instructions on the tag. Then, I walk over to the self-service luggage drop-off belts. Pay attention to the instructions above the luggage belt!
The system then checks the bag's tag and weight before seamlessly sending it off to - hopefully - the same destination as mine.
- Airport code: SAW
- Wi-Fi: Available through the "WiSpotter" hotspot, free for 60 minutes at one of the 8 kiosks scattered around the airport.
*Languages: Turkish, English
- Flights: To highlight the bustling activity, Sabiha Gökçen Airport impressively handles over 220 departures daily
Customs: Did I mention busy?
Customs at Sabiha Gökçen can be unpredictable. On some days, you breeze through, while on others, you encounter lengthy queues. This is particularly true during the busy summer months, from June to August.
iVisa tip: In my experience, confirmed by a helpful boarding gate agent, it's wise to allow extra time for check-in and customs if your flight is scheduled on a Friday. The airport tends to be exceptionally busy on this day!
To navigate customs without a hitch, here are a few tips:
Plan at least 30 minutes for the entire customs and passport control process. If your budget allows, consider the ALLWAYS fast track service, priced between US$16 - 30. It lets you skip the long queues at security and passport control by offering access to a priority counter, saving you time and hassle.
Have your passport and boarding pass on hand at all times.
Your carry-on luggage is scanned and maybe manually inspected. You can only bring liquids under 100 ml in your hand luggage, with a maximum of 1 liter, in a transparent bag (you’ll find them at the entrance of the customs area). So remember to keep those liquid items small and travel-friendly!
Customs officers are there to ensure safety and compliance with regulations. As always, being polite and patient can make things a lot smoother.
Passport control: Smooth sailing
Despite how busy this airport is, it's pretty efficient. Passport control is split between Turkish passport holders and other nationalities. However, it does depend on the flight and whether you are a transit passenger.
The airport's departure hall is divided into international and domestic. The correct entrance is usually right near your check-in area – no map needed! Once you've found your spot, join the queue and let the airport staff, who are pros at herding travelers, guide you through.
Find your gate in the right terminal.
At passport control, hand over your passport, answer any questions with your best smile, and don't forget to gaze into the camera for a last ID-check.
Shopping, eating, and duty-free delights
Strolling through the terminal at Sabiha Gökçen, I notice a diverse mix of shops. Post-security, you'll find everything from international brands to regional favorites.
For a bite, options range from Starbucks and Mado to fast-food joints like Burger King and Subway, not to mention local Simit Sarayı which has multiple kiosks scattered throughout the airport.
There's a spread of duty-free stores, great for browsing while you wait or picking up a last-minute gift.
iVisa tip: Craving coffee that outshines - dare I say it - Starbucks? Try Kahve Dunyasi, a local chain famed for its top-notch coffee and delicious ice cream.
Unwinding after the hustle of immigration checks.
Arriving at Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport: Follow the signs
In my experience, the most challenging parts of an airport adventure are the arrivals, customs, baggage claim, and catching onward flights. I've been through it all and am ready to share some insider tips to help you easily navigate these.
Immigration checks: Follow the right path
The great thing about this airport? Once you've figured out your destination – be it the grand exit or another gate for transit – just follow the floor markings. It's so straightforward, that even a sleep-deprived traveler couldn't get it wrong!
Simply follow the floor markings to your next destination.
At passport control, the process is quick and simple. My passport gets scanned, I pause for a camera to confirm my identity, and they verify my visa status. Smooth and efficient!
- For Turkish eVisa holders: Your eVisa status automatically appears on the screen when they scan your passport.
iVisa tip: While your eVisa is electronically linked to your passport, always carry a printed or digital copy – it’s always smart to be prepared for any tech glitches.
For Turkish Embassy Visa holders: The officer will verify the visa sticker in your passport, checking its validity and your travel dates.
Once everything's verified, you can move on to collect your baggage.
Documents and info needed for immigration
Keep the following info and documents on hand when going through immigration checks:
Your passport with a validity of at least 6 months beyond the date of your arrival
Ensure you have at least one blank page in your passport, especially if you're a frequent traveler, for entry and exit stamps
Your valid visa or a copy of your eVisa downloaded on a mobile device (if you need one)
Details about where you'll be staying and the places you plan to visit during your trip
Return or onward flight ticket within the validity period of your visa
Despite my lack of Turkish language skills, I had no trouble navigating this part, as everyone spoke English, and all signs were in English, too.
Baggage claim and beyond: As simple as that
After passport control, I follow the red floor markings to baggage claim. Once there, look for the screens displaying carousel numbers for each flight. Find yours, grab your bags, and you're all set to head to customs.
iVisa tip: I recently had the experience of my bag not arriving at a different Istanbul airport.
Should you face any luggage issues at Sabiha Gökçen Airport, just visit the Left Baggage Office or talk to any staff member. Provide your baggage tag, contact information, and a description of your bag (type, size, and color), and they'll take care of the rest.
Something to declare: Navigating customs
At the exit to the arrival hall, you'll find it divided into two sections: a green lane for travelers with nothing to declare, and a red lane for those with items to declare.
In general, the following items should be declared:
Large amounts of currency: If you're carrying a significant amount of cash or financial instruments, you may need to declare it.
Duty-free items: Purchases made in duty-free shops might have limits in quantity and value, and exceeding these may require declaration.
Restricted or prohibited goods: Certain items like firearms, certain food products, plants, or animals may be restricted or entirely prohibited.
Valuable Items: If you're carrying valuable items like expensive electronics, jewelry, or antiques, these might need to be declared, especially if they're not for personal use.
Layovers at Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport: Smooth transits
Whether you're hopping continents or just cities, here's your go-to guide for hassle-free transit.
iVisa tip: From what I've learned, it's wise to have at least a 4-hour buffer between flights, especially if you're on separate tickets and need to handle luggage pickup and drop-off.
Layover on a single booking
If you're flying with the same airline and have a single ticket for both legs of your journey, here's good news: your connection should be smooth, and no visa is needed for transits in this case.
If you have checked baggage, it will be transferred onto the next plane for you. You'll undergo an additional layer of security but skip the baggage drop-off process.
Transfers at Sabiha Gökçen depend on your route. Take my trip from Qatar on the way to Ankara: we were guided to a special passport control point and security before reaching the departures. A tip? Allow a bit more time for these steps.
But heading to Antalya? Totally different story. I skipped the baggage claim and check-in, going directly from international arrivals to domestic security. So, each journey might have its own unique twist!
Miss your connecting flight due to a delay? The airline will, in most cases, book you on the next available flight.
Heads-up for separate airline tickets
If your flights are with different airlines on separate tickets, it's best to rethink your plans.
In such cases, a short transfer might not be feasible, as you must go through the arrivals process and check in again (including picking up and dropping off your luggage).
Making the most of longer layovers
If you have a long wait between flights, consider a short trip to Istanbul, booking a lounge, or resting at a nearby airport hotel.
Airport lounge: There are several lounges to enjoy at Sabiha Gökçen Airport, even for those without an airline membership. Your options depend on the terminal you're in. Check them out here.
Layover hotel: While not strictly a hotel, Kepler Resting Units are specially designed for weary travelers. They come with soundproofing, comfy ergonomic beds, smart TVs, an alarm clock, and air conditioning. A perfect way to rest up or kill time in between flights.
Spending time in Istanbul: Read the list of top 10 sights and hidden gems in the city by our travel reporter!
Connect with ease: Getting a local SIM card
Upon landing at any airport, my priority is to stay connected due to my remote job's demands across various time zones. So, I always grab a local SIM card right away.
As soon as you leave the customs area, you’ll see a Turk Cell boot, as well as many currency exchange offices, taxi services, and car rental stations dotted along the corridors.
In my case, Turk Telecom offered the most cost-effective plans. All you need to do is pick a plan that suits you and provide your passport for registration. The staff are really helpful and can assist with setting up the SIM card on your phone.
Money matters: Currency exchange & ATMs
In the same hall, you can easily exchange currency or withdraw cash from an ATM. However, it's wise to only exchange or withdraw what you absolutely need there. Better exchange rates await in the city, so you can stretch your money further.
iVisa tip: Get to know the Turkish Lira and think about exchanging a small amount before your flight. This can cover any immediate expenses upon arrival.
Getting to and from Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport
Located on the Asian side of Istanbul in Pendik/Kurtköy, Sabiha Gökçen Airport is just 40 km (24 miles) from Kadıköy and 50 km (30 miles) from Taksim.
The location offers a plethora of transport options, from taxis and car rentals to metro and public buses.
On my recent trip, I had a flight departing from Sabiha Gökçen, and admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about using taxi services. I'd heard quite a few cautionary tales about taxis potentially overcharging travelers.
iVisa tip: After a bit of research, I found the Moovit App, a super helpful and reliable tool for planning my transport to and from the airport in Turkey.
Taking the bus
With the Moovit app in hand, I walked from the Taksim neighborhood to the nearest Havabus stop by following the app’s directions along a well-lit, safe, and clean road.
It’s a budget-friendly and easy way to get from Taksim to Sabiha Gökçen Airport and back, even before dawn. Havabus Shuttle Service connects the airport with key spots in the city like Kadıköy and Taksim.
Buying a ticket for the bus: On my way, I passed several ATMs and found a handy kiosk at the bus stop to buy my ticket. The kiosk featured Turkish and English signs, and the attendant was bilingual. The fare was 102.50 Lira (about US$4), payable by cash or card.
Straightforward boarding: After buying my ticket, I headed to the white Havabus (for Sabiha Gökçen Airport; note that Havaist serves Istanbul New Airport). The driver assisted with my luggage before boarding.
Comfortable ride: The bus offered air conditioning and free Wi-Fi, perfect for staying connected or using the Moovit app for real-time updates. It took me about 1 hour and 24 minutes, so allow at least 2 hours for the journey.
Convenient drop-off: The bus stops right at the departure hall, making it easy to get into the airport quickly.
For nervous travelers, or those looking to avoid haggling with taxi drivers, I highly recommend the Havabus. It's a stress-free way to reach the airport. Check out more routes and current prices on the Havabus website.
Taking the metro
If buses aren't quite your style, the M4 metro line now offers a direct route to and from Sabiha Gökçen Airport. It's about an hour's journey (22 stops) from Kadıköy, with no transfers needed.
For those heading from the airport to the city, the metro station has three entrances:
If you're on the upper floors of the airport, most elevators clearly mark the metro level (level -1). Once there, simply follow the metro signs or ask airport officials, who are always ready to guide you.
It can’t get easier than this.
Here you’ll find an overview of the metro M4 line, to help plan your journey.
Buying a ticket for the metro: If you decide to go by public transport, note that you cannot pay for public transport in Istanbul using cash or contactless debit/credit cards.
Instead, pick up an Istanbulkart, a handy reloadable card for the metro, bus, tram, funicular, and ferry, including to and from the airport. It's super convenient and easy to top up as you go.
Taking a taxi
Taking a taxi from and to Sabiha Gökçen Airport is easy, but remember, its distance from the city center means it's also pricier. Sometimes, however, particularly after a red-eye flight, that extra convenience is exactly what you need.
Takes about 50 minutes and costs approximately 350 Lira (€19/$20).
Yellow taxis are cheaper, more premium blue taxis are 15% more expensive, and black luxury taxis are double the price.
Be cautious of unofficial taxis and overcharges and only use the official taxi rank just outside the arrivals hall or at the departures area on the second floor.
Only use official taxis, identifiable by their “TAKSi” signage.
About using ride-sharing or taxi apps in Istanbul
- Uber is available, but is somewhat more expensive than regular taxis. The airport's free Wi-Fi coverage is strong enough to use the app without a local SIM card. |
- The local BiTaksi app can be used to request a regular taxi, which offers the same price as regular taxis, but you can also pay by credit card. I found it to be a bit glitchy, however.
How to get from Sabiha Gökçen (SAW) to Istanbul Airport (IST)?
Did you know Istanbul's two main airports, Istanbul Airport (IST) and Sabiha Gökçen Airport, are not only 52 miles (ca. 84 km) apart but also on different continents? Istanbul Airport (IST) is on the European side, while Sabiha Gökçen (SAW) is officially located in Asia.
If your travels include a same-day transfer between these airports, here are your options, complete with costs and travel times:
Taxi: Expect to pay around 550 Lira (€30/$32) for a 65-minute trip.
Bus: A budget-friendly choice at about 85 Lira (€4.60/$5) for a 110-minute ride.
Private transfer: For your peace of mind, you can book a transfer in advance.
And a tidbit for future travelers: there are plans for a high-speed train to link these airports more efficiently.
Facilities: Effortless travel starts here
Though it may seem bustling at first glance, the airport operates quite efficiently, especially if you've allowed sufficient time before and between your flights. Take a look at the facilities of this airport for your peace of mind.
Restrooms: Sabiha Gökçen Airport ensures your comfort with clean, well-maintained restrooms located throughout the terminal. They are accessible to all passengers, including facilities for individuals with disabilities.
Information desks: Got questions? The airport's information desks are your go-to spots. Staffed with friendly, knowledgeable personnel, there are two information desks in the Departures Level, one in the International Hall and one in the Domestic Hall.
Charging stations: Sabiha Gökçen Airport offers charging points around the entire airport, but don't forget to bring an adapter if your devices have different plug types than those used in Turkey (type C and F).
Luggage services: You can conveniently store your luggage at the Baggage Storage Office in the International Terminal. Open 24/7, they offer daily storage at a fee based on your baggage size. Two luggage wrapping units serve all travelers at the Terminal Building Departures level.
Prayer rooms: For those seeking a quiet space for prayer or meditation, the airport provides dedicated prayer rooms.
Experience an unforgettable adventure in Turkey! And don't forget to explore our comprehensive airport guides for more travel insights: