THE BUDGET TRAVEL CHALLENGE
The Connected Traveler
With a smartphone in each hand, Arianne Cohen tests the limits of online networking in a foreign land. No guidebooks. No language skills. Only social media and mobile apps. The destination: Istanbul.
I spent the rest of that day and the next doing exactly what my new friends had suggested. I began with a one-hour Bosporus ferry tour. Halfway through, I read Gorkem's napkin note and looked at the "beautiful" newer, European side of the city. I realized that, like many Turks, she prefers the cookie-cutter new condos and monstrous housing projects to the grand old mosques and palaces, which I found spellbinding.
The next morning I started at Topkapi Palace. Suzy had wisely told me to arrive before the tourist buses do (at 9 a.m.) and had assured me that the $10 fee to see the harem area (on top of the $13 base ticket price) was worth it. It was. The sultan's private quarters are surrounded by those of his harem—women who were handpicked by his mother, I was mystified to learn.
You can't go to Istanbul without seeing the Blue Mosque, so of course I made a visit. But my friends had insider advice I'd never have gotten from a guidebook. Right behind the mosque was the Arasta Bazaar, which came up when I posted a blog entry on BudgetTravel.com asking for tips. I received two dozen comments—many of them insightful and detailed (thanks!). Jenna, a BudgetTravel.com user who'd lived in Istanbul for a year, wrote that I should seek out her "carpet guy." I paid a visit but declined to drop $7,500 on a rug. She also suggested her "ceramics guy," from whom I bought a folk-art mug and sticky-sweet Turkish delight.
While it was a treat to have my new friends lead me to their favorite spots, there's something innately satisfying about making discoveries of your own. On my last night in town, I took a meandering walk around my hotel, which led me to an outdoor couch at a hookah bar down a steep, quiet alley. The place was called Gulhane Sur Café, and the owner, Murat Coskun, was possibly the most fun guy in Turkey. His next-door shop, Coskun Bazaar, won my business with the lowest prices on ornate scarves that I'd seen all week ($7). Murat also treated me to a mint-flavored hookah.
While I practiced blowing smoke rings, I pulled out my Lonely Planet and Frommer's guidebooks on Istanbul to see what I'd missed. The culture pages answered questions that I'd wondered about, such as whether I should have been tipping taxi drivers (no, it turns out, and I had been) and why shaking my head for no had seemed to confuse people (a gentle uptick of the face is a Turkish no). The real hitch to traveling via networking is that you only learn what you ask about directly—and naturally, there are nuances you won't know to ask about. That aside, I'd had a much wider experience than the books could offer, seeing places only locals could show me, and learning up close how people actually live their lives. After exchanging e-mail addresses with my new best friend, Murat, I decided social networking would always play a part in my travels from now on.
I reached for my iPhone to inform my Facebook friends—old and new—that I was slurping down chai tea on a warm Istanbul night, with two sugar cubes, as they do in Turkey.
Contact "hub" people. I got in touch with locals via my hubs—those super-connected people I know who are friends with everyone and their mother.
Don't be a social snob. It's the people you connect with that matter, not the programs they're on. I used Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Google Talk to contact friends. Some of those tools I like; some I don't. I went where the action was.
Be blunt. I brazenly invited myself to events and proposed meals with strangers. Success rate: 50 percent. Major failure: No glorious yacht ride for me.
Print out contacts. Make a master list of phone numbers and e-mail addresses of everyone you plan to meet with, and call them when you have questions or can't find stuff. This was particularly pivotal when I couldn't connect to my hotel's Wi-Fi.
• I was glued to the WeatherBug iPhone app, which gives hour-by-hour forecasts.
• Irazca, a Turkish women's rights worker I met through my college alumni's Yahoo group, pointed me to the city ferry. It's so low-tech there aren't even receipts—you just hand over some coins and get on.
• The Currency app on my iPhone came in handy on Terkoz Çikmazi, a secret shopping alleyway. I checked to make sure I was getting a deal on neon plaid boxers for my boyfriend ($3). I was!
• My new Turkish Facebook friend Gorkem showed me around old Galata, the neighborhood where she does her daily shopping.
• My friend Matt pinged me from New York on Google Talk and said I should check out the fish carts near the Eminönü tram stop. Best fish sandwich ever.