How to transfer in comfort at Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport
Have you ever transferred through Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport (IATA Code: SAW) ? If so, how did you find it?
If you are heading from Europe to destinations in the Middle East and Asia on a budget, you may inevitably pass through it at some stage. Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport is the main hub of Pegasus Airlines, a Turkish budget Airline, which is very popular for their cheap flights and decent service.
After they had a few near misses and accidents a few years ago, overrunning runways and falling into the mud, recent years have shown increases in flights and no further incidents. Also, they really upgraded their fleet to all-new Airbus, which finally convinced me to start flying with them again.
So, for me, there is often to way to avoid Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport. And unfortunately, while Pegasus Airlines is pretty good for the low prices you pay, the airport is not a great one to travel through. But there are ways to make your trip nicer and swifter, and it would be a shame to avoid it since it’s small with great connections into central istanbul. I know I often complain to my husband that I am at the terrible airport again, but usually manage to settle somewhere comfortable.
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Getting to Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport
Just recently, a fast metro line (M4) was extended all the way to the airport. This means no longer the need of bus transfers which could be hit-and-miss with the congested traffic of Greater Istanbul. The Metro M4 takes you all the way to Kadiköy, with connections to the Marmaray regional train network, with further MEtro lines under constructions.
So, it is now quite easy to get there from central Istanbul although if you are near Taksim Square the bus shuttle might still be the faster option outside of rush hour. It takes 40 minutes on a good day but up to three hours in heavy traffic.
Bear in mind you need to go through a pre-security check before you are allowed to enter the airport. There are often queues and this can take up to an hour. Then, Check-In can take time, and there are usually long queues insecurity. Where possible, check in online to take out one of the potential delays.
Transferring in Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport
When I fly on two separate Pegasus flights, I often have up to four hours layover, so I got to know the airport quite well. Firstly, if you have a connection in Turkey, you will need to disembark, go through immigration, collect your luggage and go through customs then walk to the domestic terminal next door and go through security again. This takes at least 45 minutes on a good day.
Nowadays, I have experienced that even on an international transfer I had to go through at least one security check, and on the occasion of having to retrieve my luggage, also immigration. On the three or four occasions I had to do this, thankfully immigration was swift, with a maximum of 15 minutes wait.
The real fun starts in the airside departure lounge. I don’t think Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport was built for the capacity it is currently handling. The Departure Lounge is crammed, with barely any seating, and then, to make it more fun, has several kiosks with overpriced food plonked into the middle as well as a so-so smallish Duty Free Shop on the side.
If you are unlucky enough to be flying from gates at Departures “Down” Level (300-308), you will be directed to a basement area that is always crowded, has about two toilets for hundreds of passengers and stinks of smoke. It is best to stay put somewhere more comfortable. The other gates have better air but just as little seating, so finding somewhere comfortable is paramount.
You have a choice of an upstairs food court and several lounges.
I visited the International Plaza Premium Lounge a few years back before inflation got crazy and entry fees were just shy of 20 Euro. For that, it was great value. It was full but we managed to get a table, and after clearing some rubbish ourselves, had free WiFi, reasonably clean toilets, soft drinks and snacks (excellent lentil soup) while waiting for our flight. It now costs between 25 and 30 Euro for the lounge. If you have a few drinks it might well be worth it given food and drink prices are crazy in the airport.
If you slum it out, you get 30 minutes free internet, more if you purchase food and drink. The restaurants (Mc DOnalds, Simit Saray and a couple others) in the upstairs food court area are perhaps the best bet. Walk through the noisy open food court and pick one of the fast food restaurants that has the best seating and availability of power outlets.
I tried Simit Saray and McDonalds.
Simit Saray had grumpy staff but comfy seating. A tea, simit and spinach pastry set me back about 20 Euro. Tea and simit are decent, the rest was rather forgettable. For this, I got a nice sitdown for two hours with internet .
On my return, I was coming off a long budget flight and went to Mc Donalds for plenty of drinks and a cheese toast. That was comfy, too, although a bit pricey at about 17 Euro. And Turkish McDonalds is terrible for vegetarians. Basically, it’s fries or nothing. They even manages to put salami in my cheese toast.
So, while this airport is not the nicest, the great connections and good prices may be a good argument to use it. And to be honest, the new Istanbul International Airport (IATA Code: IST) isn’t that amazing either so its not like you got a great alternative. its bigger, perhaps even more expensive, and just as far from the city centre.
Getting Away from the Airport
I think Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport is the airport with the better transport links inside Turkey, to be honest. Not only do you have lots of budget friendly flights on Turkey’s budget airlines Pegasus and Anadolu Express, but also lots of decent train and bus connections within Turkey.
If you are travelling on to Bursa or Iznik, you will find direct buses to Bursa right outside the Arrivals Hall. They run so frequently there really is no need to pre-book – just go to their well signposted ticket office and buy one on the spot.
For fast trains, the Pendik High Speed Rail is nearby, about 15km by taxi or a couple stops on the M4 Metro, then a 1km walk. From Pendik you can catch a super fast train to Ankara or Konya several times a day. You don’t get these options when you fly to IST, meaning you have to traverse the city for your onward journey.
If your destination is Istanbul, I would say both airports are equally good. Both are on the metro, but you will have to transfer from the metro at least once to get to tourist areas like Sultanahmet or Taksim.
This is why flying to Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport is, in my eyes, a good decision and may save you time and money!
Let me know if you have any questions!
And should you get stuck… here are some hotel recommendations
Should you really get stuck in Sabiha Gokcen Airport and need to make an involuntary stopover in Istanbul, use your time in the city well and spend some at Istanbul’s sights and bazaars! Get on the metro and head towards Sirkeci Station.
From here, you can walk to some really amazing hotels.
Walk towards Galata Tower is the Galatatower Hotel , a small hotel in a residential building with neo-baroque styling to its cosy rooms. Great views and restaurants at your door step!
About 500m and past three major sights, you can find the Empress Zoe Hotel, one of the oldest boutique hotels in town, and offers exceptional style and value for money in Sultanahmet. You are close to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, yet in a beautiful building with garden and courtyard and individually styled suites with lots of natural materials and Turkish textiles. Some Turkish suites even come with mini steam rooms.
For convenience and style, it is hard to beat the MEG Hotel. It is in easy walking distance to the tram, Sirkeci Station and Galata Pier. This means a VERY easy transit to and from SAW Airport by taking a quick bus to Pendik and then the frequent trains to Sirkeci. In less than 10 minutes you can also walk across the Galata bridge and into Beyoglu – or take the tram to the Kabatas terminal and the cool funicular to Taksim Square. It’s a modern tasteful business hotel with prices starting from 35 Euro per night.
If you want to stay close to Shopping and sights, and bask in ultimate luxury at reasonable prices… the Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet might be for you. It’s a new hotel decked out head to toe in exquisite carved wooden panelling and mother-of pearl, an Arabian Fantasy come true.
For modern luxury at unbelievable prices (starting at 72 Euro), the Doruk Palace Hotel in Beyoglu is in a modern residential building close to the Galata Tower, and all sleek white walls with just a touch of rustic in its communal areas.
And if you really want to forget it all and dive deep into history and travel like in times begone, see if you can get a room at the Pera Palace Hotel. It is famous, and a step back in time – in a very elegant and comfortable way. It’s so good I wrote a separate post for it, but you will require a taxi to get there from Sirkeci Station or.
The Small Print
I have been travelling through Sabiha Gokcen Airport several times, and spent far too many hours and the odd night between flights. All my trip shave been paid for by myself. I just added some affiliate links to Booking.com in my hotel recommendations.