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The first time I went to my local pazar (weekly market), I spent quite a bit more money than I intended to.
I was blown away by the variety of dried fruit, plump dates, sweet dried apricots, and wrinkly figs and excitedly pointed out what I wanted to the vendor. I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted in metric units or in Turkish – much less how to say “that’s enough!” when he kept adding more and more fruit to the bag. I walked away with about a kilo (2lbs) of fruit and $50 less in my wallet.
Some might say I got scammed but I saw it as a learning experience – especially since I technically got what I paid for at what I learned later was a fair price.
Still, there are a lot of lessons in this experience – the first one being, beware of the upsell – that will keep you from getting taken advantage of during your trip to Turkey.
While the upsell might not technically be considered a rip-off, pretty much every scam can be avoided if you do some research and set boundaries ahead of time.
Taking the time to understand cultural nuances is a great way to prevent yourself from being duped. Armed with knowledge, you can relax when there is no actual threat and identify problematic behavior when it does come your way. Here’s what you need to know to prevent two common scams before they even start.
Locals take great pride in their history, cultural heritage, and national identity and are eager to share it with visitors. Talking to tourists, and even asking direct or personal questions, is normal and doesn’t necessarily mean the local in question is out to get you.
Especially in the Old Town area that includes the Grand Bazaar, it is customary for vendors to strike up conversations and for vendors to offer you a tea or small gift, or hediye.
However, don’t accept “free” jewelry or flowers from random people on the street – unless you want to pay for it and be stuck carrying a flower around all day.
Similarly, if a person offers you an alcoholic drink or invites you to a bar, that’s a red flag. Alcohol is heavily taxed and quite expensive relative to other goods in Turkey, making it extremely unlikely that anyone is going to offer you booze for free.
A common scam, which fellow ex-pats tell me has gone on at least since the 1990s, goes like this:
A man will approach you, say hello and engage you in conversation, and then ask if you want to get a drink.
He’ll offer to take you to a bar or restaurant where he knows the best wine or the best kebab and insist that you join him. Once there, you may be joined by a group of women or some of his friends.
At the end of the night, you’ll find yourself in possession of an inflated bill. If you refuse to pay, things could get ugly.
Fortunately, this scam is incredibly easy to avoid. The internet veritably teems with reviews of bars and restaurants. Choose to go to reputable ones with positive reviews.
If your new “friend” insists that you only go to this particular bar that he knows, and won't compromise on an alternative, don’t go with him. You can always find drinking buddies at trusted establishments recommended on review sites.
While you’re online, check out the Overseas Security Advisory Council report on Turkey and Travelscams.org, a crowdsourced database of scams spanning more than 100 countries, to see what other scams may be trending.
Turkish hospitality also permeates business culture in Istanbul, a merchant city since Constantine founded it in 330 A.D.
Shopping here is more relational – and more protracted – than you may be used to. Just try buying a carpet without storytelling and copious cups of tea. You will fail. Sellers aren’t necessarily trying to “butter you up”; this is how business gets done here.
Travelers to Turkey always worry about getting ripped off buying a carpet. As in any country, there are a few dodgy dealers but, again, there’s a lot you can do ahead to protect yourself.
Learn from my dried fruit debacle: decide what you want, how much of it, and what you can afford to spend before you even start looking.
Check out YouTube videos, articles, and the Turkish Cultural Foundation website for information about traditional Turkish crafts, including carpet weaving, so you know what to look for.
Understand what makes Turkish carpets distinct – especially from imports made from inferior synthetic materials. For example, Turkish rugs are traditionally made from wool, silk, and cotton yarn, which is colored with natural dyes like madder and indigo. Wool dyed this way has tonal variations that add visual depth and interest, while silk has a luster and reflective properties that synthetic fibers can’t match.
Make a list of trustworthy sellers by talking to friends who have bought carpets in Turkey or asking for recommendations from trusted locals. You can also check out the Turkish Cultural Foundation’s “Who’s Who” list to discover master artisans associated with various Turkish crafts and how to contact them.
When it comes to mailing your carpet home, you’ll just have to trust your dealer. English is not widely spoken outside tourist areas and government-mandated shipping regulations can be complicated and subject change without notice. A reputable carpet vendor should be able to give you a tracking number by the end of the working day, or at least within 24 hours.
It only takes a little research to avoid the most prevalent scams in Turkey. But after that, don’t sweat the little stuff. You’ll never know whether your taxi driver took you the long way to run up the meter or because the scenic route actually avoided the traffic congestion that on main roads – I never do and I live here.
And, does it really matter if you paid the yabanci (foreigner) price for that box of Turkish delight or set of teacups? Do your homework to find out about cultural norms and what to look for when buying big-ticket items, but don’t let worrying about being scammed steal the joy of traveling in Turkey.
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On a trip to Turkey in October 2019, solo traveler Heather Kenny had to stop before setting off and ask herself, “will I be safe?”
How are coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions affecting travel to Turkey? Find out about requirements for pre-departure and arrivals.