December 22, 2008

Buses with Wi-Fi and Duty-Free Border Shopping
Istanbul, Turkey

I think a lot of younger Europeans have trouble with the idea of long-distance transportation by bus. Cars, trains and planes—this is about all they focus in on when getting around the region.

Our path through Bulgaria

In and around Plovdiv, we had several locals and travelers telling us repeatedly to take the train to get to Istanbul. It ran once daily, from Sofia to Istanbul, departing an hour or two before midnight, and arriving around 9am the next morning. Even though the travel by train takes longer than the bus, two people can bunk privately in a cabin and wake up refreshed.

Yeah, what people aren't telling you is that two border controls points are passed in the dead of the night, requiring people who need to purchase a visa for Turkey (like myself and Aidric) to stand in line outside in the near-freezing temperatures. Additionally, Turkish customs goes through the entire train and its cargo, waking people up as they go along and adding large variable delays to the journey. And just to make sure the trip takes as long as possible, the train actually stops (in international limbo) to let passengers shop at the Duty-free stores for a long as it takes for them to finish their purchases.

Even though we were departing Devin at the crack of dawn, one CouchSurfer strongly suggested taking the train instead of a bus. But she pretty much clammed up when I asked her why I'd spend a full day waiting in Plovdiv for a train that departs hours after a morning bus would've already deposited me in Istanbul that same day.

Yes, train travel is often times more comfortable for about the same price as a bus, and certainly our preference when it comes to traveling with an infant. But the overnight train to Istanbul just made no sense at all.

Thankfully, about a dozen different bus companies run services along this major European corridor that Plovdiv is situated upon. Buses are departing every few hours, and though I was rather worried about full transport around the holidays, those fears were quickly squashed when I saw how empty most of the buses were.

Wireless, but no Internet

The Turkish bus company Metro Plus was our selection, with the ticket running 40 Bulgarian lev/person (about US$26) for the 7-8 hour journey.

This was the first bus I'd ever seen advertising onboard wireless Internet for passengers. I wondered if it interacted with a satellite to provide the service.

My interest piqued, I discreetly pulled my laptop out in the half-empty bus to give 'er a test. Yes, there was indeed Wi-Fi, but unfortunately the access point wasn't connected to the Internet. Lame.

Duty-Free Shopping and Turkish Border Formalities

It took well over an hour to pass/process from Bulgaria into Turkey. Just like the train, the bus stopped so that people could shop to their wallet's content at the Duty-free stores (which seemed to contain little more than vast displays of cigarettes and alcohol). Business seems good for these outfits.

After people were done stocking up, the bus continued to a point where I plopped down to crisp $20 bills for the 90-day visas Aidric and I needed for our U.S. passports. Tatiana, traveling into Turkey on her Chilean passport, required no such thing. She automatically got 90 days on arrival without need for a visa.

Shortly thereafter, the bus was driven through a large garage-like structure, where everyone was instructed to disembark and retrieve their luggage. I told Tatiana to stay on the bus with Aidric and to let me deal with the customs officials.

Turkish customs control

The bus pulled ahead and out of the structure while the Turkish customs officials slowly sized people and their luggage up (protocol at this juncture dictates you stand next to your bags with the locks taken off and zippers opened). Everyone had a good laugh when a man transporting an Arabian lute was asked to play to verify himself/the instrument, and then instructed by the officers to keep playing for the duration of inspection.

Lots of Construction

Kapıkule is the Turkish frontier town on the border of Turkey and Bulgaria. Its counterpart on the Bulgarian side is Kapitan Andreevo. Together, they are the second busiest land border crossing point in the world and the busiest in Europe.

Around 400,000 vehicles and 4 million people cross annually the border in Kapıkule, totaling 35% of the vehicle and 42% of all the passenger traffic passing through the land borders of Turkey.

Looks like they're building a shopping mall!

The Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey signed an agreement with the government in August 2007 to completely overhaul the facilities at a cost of US$100 million in exchange for twenty-year operation.

When reopened in the beginning of 2009, there will be 13 passenger car and 5 truck gates for inbound, and 7 passenger car and 6 truck gates for outbound traffic. High tech security equipment like smart-card controlled access, closed-circuit television and x-ray truck cargo check systems are installed at the border area. Also commercial services are provided by fast-food restaurants, duty-free shops, outlet stores, supermarkets and banks.

Comments:

Spain

Isabel

June 5th, 2009

Thank you so much for your explanation. I'm traveling next summer from Bulgaria to Istanbul but it seems that the metro web only allows search options from Turkey. How did you get your tickets? Is there any way to buy tickets via internet?

Egypt

Craig | travelvice.com

June 6th, 2009

Tickets were purchased in person in Plovdiv, as the their Web site doesn't allow for purchases online, and the operator over the phone didn't make a reservation because of the proximity to Christmas. There are several companies though — tickets shouldn't be an issue.

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