With incredible food, a merging of cultures and a charming mix of old and new, Istanbul has no shortage of cheap and fun things to do. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorites including free things to do in Istanbul, from the must-do activities that headline all guidebooks, to the lesser-known city secrets.
Updated November 2021
Every city claims to be unique, but Istanbul is truly one-of-a-kind. There is no other city in the world that spans two continents, after all.
Istanbul sprawls over seven hills and is split by the mighty Bosphorus River: Europe on one side of the water and Asia on the other. And that’s just the beginning…
You’ll see Muslim women wearing hijab walking beside thoroughly tattooed and pierced hipsters. Sophisticated restaurants share the same zip code as traditional teashops and spice markets. Istanbul is home to fishermen and millionaires, age-old mosques and H&M.
Although nearly 20 million people call this city home, it doesn’t feel too compact, and green spaces frequently break up development. Modern construction backs up to ancient ruins in a tangible marriage of new and old.
Because Istanbul is the meeting place of Asia and Europe, traces of both continents are found here, along with a presence uniquely its own. Influences from Christianity and Islam merge with the grandeur of ancient Roman civilization, and are then mixed with a pinch of Middle Eastern flair.
We were utterly enchanted by Istanbul. In fact, of all the incredible places to visit in Turkey, Istanbul is still up at the top of our favorites.
There are many reasons to visit Istanbul, but in our opinion, this city has a little bit of everything: Europe and Asia, old and new, upscale and authentic, Christian and Muslim. There is something incredibly charming and mesmerizing about how everything melds together in one beautiful masterpiece.
If you find yourself in this wondrous metropolis, you’ll soon see there is no shortage of things to do. he difficult part will be choosing how to spend your time.
We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite fun and cheap things to do in Istanbul, from the must-do activities that headline all guidebooks, to the lesser-known city secrets.
Jump to the section you are looking for, or just scroll down the page.
Free Things to Do in Istanbul
In a metropolis this big, it’s easy to get caught up in the big-city lifestyle of dining out and shopping ‘till you drop. But if you don’t have a big-city budget, you don’t have to miss out on the fun. We’ve rounded up some of our best suggestions for free things to do in Istanbul we think you will love.
1. Take a Free Walking Tour of Istanbul
Ever since our amazing walking tour in Medellin, one of the first things we do in a new city is take a free walking tour. Usually these excursions are led by young locals who can give you great insight to their city and the life its people lead.
You learn about this city’s history, its progression and the important places (including some stellar places to eat and check out on your own!). The free walking tour in Istanbul is a great introduction to this metropolis and its place in history.
Tip: Take the free walking tour on your first morning in Istanbul. That way, you’ll get a feel for how the city is set up and can decide where to best spend the rest of your time.
How to do it yourself:
Free Istanbul Tours offers daily tours of Old Istanbul beginning at 10:30 a.m. and they usually last about 2.5 hours.
As an alternative, they also offer a Parts Unknown tour (for those who have already seen the popular sights such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern or just want to get off the beaten path) which is on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m.
Important: Booking a reservation in advance is necessary to take the walking tour. You can make your reservation on their website. Tours are based on tips, and entrance fees to the sites are not included in the price. The minimum suggested contribution is 10 Euros, or 100 Turkish Lira per person.
Note: Attendees are asked to dress appropriately for entering mosques, which means women need to have their heads, shoulders and knees covered.
2. Picnic at Gulhane Park
This one may not be in your guidebook, but our picnic at Gulhane Park was once of our favorite afternoons in Istanbul. Pick up some fruit, wine and cheese from a local market, then buy a Turkish towel (great souvenir alert!) and head to park.
The mix of people lazily milling about in green landscaping creates an idyllic backdrop to an afternoon picnic.
How to do it yourself: Wander through Gulhane Park, located next to Topkapi Palace Museum. Find a grassy spot, spread out your blanket and watch the world pass by.
3. Explore Different Neighborhoods
Istanbul is a sprawling city and it can seem overwhelming at times, but think of it as a compilation of many smaller cities.
Each neighborhood in this metropolis has a distinctly different feel, and attracts people for different reasons. Spend an afternoon getting lost in narrow cobbled streets of Galata, or window-shopping and people watching in Taksim.
Central Neighborhoods in Istanbul to check out:
Taksim: known as the “Time Square” of Istanbul, this shopping area is always crowded with people. This is where you’ll find the best shopping in the city, as well as several restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Beyoglu: This up-and-coming neighborhood has a bohemian feel and boasts many small shops and cute restaurants. Be sure to wander past the Galata Tower, and if you want views of the city, head to the top for 25 TL ($8.60 USD).
Kadiköy: We stayed in this neighborhood for its proximity to both Sultanahment and Taksim. We were impressed by the amount of trendy restaurants and soon discovered why this is often referred to as the “hipster” neighborhood.
- Galata: This hip neighborhood has a bohemian feel and boasts many small shops and cute restaurants. It’s the area we’d most recommend to stay in on your visit. Be sure to wander past the Galata Tower, and if you want views of the city, head to the top for 100 TL (~$10 USD).
Sultanahmet: This is where many of the main tourist attractions are, so as you may expect, it is very touristy. While it’s definitely a place worth a visit in Istanbul, we got tired of the restaurants’ inflated prices, the souvenir shops, carpet sellers and the lack of authenticity.
Ortaköy: Popular with locals and visitors alike, this neighborhood features a picturesque mosque on the Bosphorus and boasts some pretty cute restaurants and bars.
Balat: Get off the beaten path in this colorful neighborhood that makes for some pretty epic Instagram backdrops with brightly painted houses and kids playing in the streets. You’ll see traces of Jewish, Orthodox and Armenian communities living peacefully together in these winding streets.
- Bebek: This is a hip area popular with locals and right on the Bosphorus. Head here if you want a taste of trendy local life away from the typical tourism.
Check out this website for more information on these neighborhoods as well as the rest of Istanbul.
How to do it yourself: The metro is very convenient and is the cheapest way to get around. The taxi drivers are in short supply in Istanbul at the moment, so this was our preferred mode of transportation. First, you’ll need to purchase an Istanbulkart card.
Buy this from one of the machines at the metro station for 10 TL and it will come preloaded with 4 TL on it. Even if you are traveling with multiple people, you only need one card. Simply pass it back once the first person has gone through the turnstile.
Psst! Looking to get out of the city for a bit? Don’t miss your chance to pop over to Cappadocia, a region in Turkey with some of the coolest nature and plenty of unique things to do!
4. Stroll Istiklal Avenue
Istiklal Avenue is both the local and tourist center of Istanbul in the heart of the city. Would you believe this single avenue is visited by nearly 3 million people every single day? The nearly mile-long stretch of pedestrian walkway is home to restaurants, boutiques and even nightclubs. However, even with the chain restaurants creeping in, there is still a feel of old Istanbul here.
5. Catch the Sunset on the Galata Bridge
Istanbul has some killer sunsets, so be sure to catch at least one. Whether you’re on a rooftop or near the water, you’ll be enchanted by the orange sky and flapping seagulls.
Our favorite sunset-viewing spot was on the Galata bridge where we could watch the fishermen pack up for the day and see spectacular views of at least three mosques.
Look up the time of sunset, and make it to the Galata bridge (or whatever spot you wish to watch the sky fade to orange and purple) a bit ahead of time. Find a comfortable spot to relax and get ready to be wowed.
6. Cruise the Bosphorus River
Ok so this one isn’t exactly free, but we found a way to do it on the cheap so we figured we’d include it in this list!
Taking a boat trip on the Bosphorus was something we didn’t get to until our very last day in Turkey, but we’re sure glad we squeezed it in! Since Istanbul is the only city in the world that is split between two continents, it is pretty cool to cruise between the two, seeing Asia on one side and Europe on the other.
Tip: While there are several tour companies who operate boat trips along this river, we did this this little cruise the cheapest way possible by taking the government ferry on the short trip, which took 2 hours in total.
How to do it yourself: If you want to cruise on the government ferry, go to the office right next to the bridge (No need to buy a ticket online or at a tour agency. There are a bunch of scams out there so be careful). It leaves at 2:30 p.m. and costs 12 TL ($4 USD).
Historical Sights in Istanbul
You can’t visit a city whose history is rich with Roman, Greek and Ottoman influence and not visit some of the most historically significant sights it boasts. Here is our list of can’t-miss historical sights to see in Istanbul.
7. Visit the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia & Basilica Cistern
Being that the city of Istanbul spans two continents, it’s not surprising that it holds an incredible amount of historical significance. There are 3 buildings that should be on every history-lover’s Turkey bucket list and each has its own allure.
Take in the beautiful tile work of the Blue Mosque, see images of Christianity and Islam side by side in the unparalleled Hagia Sophia and walk underground in the eerily captivating Basilica Cistern. All three buildings are on the same block, so it’s possible to explore them all before lunchtime!
How to do it yourself: All located in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, you can visit these attractions in the same morning. The Blue Mosque is free to enter, but you must cover shoulders and legs and wear a head covering. (There are coverings available to borrow free of charge.)
Hagia Sophia underwent a change in 2020 and is no longer a museum but a working mosque once again. This means it’s free to enter (whereas the museum had an entrance fee) but you are limited in which areas you are allowed to explore. You will also need to follow the same dress code as with the Blue Mosque.
Tickets to the Basilica Cistern can be purchased at the entrance for 30 TL (~$3 USD) each.
*2021 Note: As of summer 2021, the Basilica Cistern is closed to the public for renovations until further notice. The Blue Mosque is also undergoing renovations and is only partially open for visitors. This meant that the lines to enter were extremely long.
8. Tour Topkapi Palace
Feel like royalty as you walk the halls of a palace where generations of sultans at the head of Ottoman Empire kept their primary residence during the 15th century.
Be sure to glimpse the Harem, an adorned room where the sultan ‘kept his women’, the treasury of the crown jewels and the weapons room, as your navigate through the palace. And don’t forget to check out the views from the courtyards as you can imagine they are some of the best views in the city!
How to do it yourself: Entrance to the Topkapi Palace Museum will set you back 72 TL (about $12 USD) and you can roam the palace and grounds as you please. Be sure to check out the official website for visiting hours as they change by the season and the ticket booth closes as early as 4:00 p.m. on certain days.
9. Climb Galata Tower
Erected in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul, this medieval stone tower was built in 1348 and stood as the tallest building in the city at the time. Today, it’s height gives an advantage to those who climb it (or let’s be honest, take the elevator to the top) to see the views!
If you’re looking for the best 360 degree panoramic view of Istanbul, there is no better place than at the top of the Galata Tower.
Once you’ve had a chance to check out the views, skip the restaurant in the tower and wander the neighborhood instead to find a nice rooftop to enjoy a drink or an afternoon meal.
How to do it yourself: Head to the Galata neighborhood and follow the tower on the horizon until your at the base. Get in line and get comfortable as it might be awhile before you get your chance to enter. You can purchase tickets for the tower at the ticket counter inside the base for 35 TL (about $6 USD) and then take the elevator to the top floor. The last story will be climbing stairs until you reach the rooftop. The tower is open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
10. Check Out Istanbul’s Archaeology Museums
Displaying one of the world’s largest collections of classical antiques, the Archaeology Museums are some of Istanbul’s hidden gems that are often missed by tourists. The Archaeology Museum, Museum of the Ancient Orient, and Museum of Islamic Art are the three museums clustered in the Eminönü district of Istanbul. Each with its own unique collection, they are great places to learn a bit more about the history of the region.
How to do it yourself: The museums are open to visitors everyday of the week except Mondays, so be sure to plan your schedule accordingly. Hours of operation vary by season so check out the official website and note that the ticket offices close promptly at 4:00 p.m. everyday. A museum entrance ticket will cost 30 TL.
Culinary Experiences in Istanbul
If you know one thing about us it’s that we love a good beer, almost as much as we love food! For us, visiting a new place is as much about the culinary experiences as it is about the cultural ones.
We’ve put together a list of our absolute favorite culinary experiences in Istanbul, some of which are very budget-friendly!
11. Take a Turkish Cooking Class
A country’s culture is tied closely to its cuisine, and you can learn about one by exploring the other. If you like to eat (and let’s be real, who doesn’t?!), taking a cooking class when visiting a new country is one of our favorite things to do.
Turkish cuisine has complexities you won’t pick up on as an outsider, yet many dishes are easy to recreate at home. Istanbul has many classes to choose from, but the team at Cookistan was exceptional. We’ve written all about our own experience in this Turkish cooking class so you can see if it would make a good addition to your time in Istanbul (Spoiler alert: you’ll most likely love it like we did!).
In this class you’ll not only learn, but you’ll leave Turkey with a souvenir that keeps on giving – a recipe and the knowhow to recreate it at home!
How to do it yourself: Make a reservation on our favorite cooking class website, Cookly.
12. Indulge in a Turkish Breakfast
The Turkish breakfast is unlike any breakfast I have ever experienced – and this is coming from a breakfast food fanatic! The traditional breakfast spread is usually a decadent affair consisting of variations of cheese, bread, jams and spreads, vegetables like cucumber and tomato, and of course olives. Top it off with a Turkish coffee or tea (always black!) and you have yourself a true Turkish delight.
Experience it for yourself: Whether your at a five-star restaurant or a local hole in the wall, every place in Turkey will offer their variation of a Turkish breakfast spread. Try out a few and decide which Turkish breakfast staples are your favorites.
Are you a vegan traveling in Turkey?
Fear not! This article has top vegan restaurants in Istanbul; it also describes which Turkish foods are vegan, so you can travel to this beautiful country without worrying about what to eat!
13. Eat and Drink Everything!
After taking a cooking class (see #5), you’ll understand why we were surprised by the cuisine!
You’ll find some amazing Turkish food in Istanbul. While you’re in this city, try the street food, sit down at a local restaurant, and don’t forget to try Turkish tea and coffee.
Wander the bazaars, sampling local cheese and Turkish delights (yes, sampling is encouraged!). Snack on dried fruits and nuts, and save room for baklava.
Be sure to try kaymak. Just do it and don’t check the calories! It is a type of clotted cream and is best eaten with a drizzle of honey and fruit or served with a dollop of Nutella on bread.
If you’re anything like us, you’ll leave Turkey wowed by the food!
14. Have a Local Pint
As you know, we are big fans of beer. Craft beer, that is. After spending 7 months drinking the light stuff Asia has on tap, we were itching to have something a bit darker, stronger, better.
And we found our fix at BBC in Istanbul. BBC, which stands for Bosphorus Brewing Company, serves up a plethora of their own brews as well as a wide selection of imports. The night we visited, Guinness was on tap for under $3 USD, which Ben just couldn’t resist!
Sample a flight or have a pint of your favorite style brew in a cute garden setting outside the tourist zone.
Tip: Our favorite BBC beers were the chocolate stout and the IPA. We hadn’t heard great things about the food, so we just stuck to one appetizer, but it was actually pretty good!
15. Eat a Fish Sandwich on the Bosphorus
Lining the Galata bridge are crowds of fishermen, and beneath the bridge are an assortment of restaurants that all have one thing in common on their menus: fish sandwiches.
According to our Free Walking Tour guide (see #1), they no longer make the restaurants in the traditional way over coals, but instead focus on getting them out as quickly as possible. He said to expect soggy bread and wilted lettuce. No thanks.
But we were still determined to eat a fish sandwich on the Bosphorus. And we finally found one that was worthy of our quest.
Located right next to the Bosphorus in the Kadiköy neighborhood, on a street not frequented by travelers, there is a small stand where one man cooks up a mean fish sandwich over coals and tops it with roasted peppers and onion, fresh cucumbers and herbs, a squeeze of lemon and Turkey’s famous pomegranate molasses. Mmmmm…
How to do it yourself: Head east on the Galata bridge. Once you reach the end of the bridge, turn left 180 degrees and aim for the water.
Walk north close to the water, dodging restaurant owners trying to lure you in, and you should find the man with the charcoal grill making the holy grail of fish sandwiches. Be sure to order one with all the fixings!
16. Grab happy hour on a rooftop and watch the sunset
Ok, ok, so this may not exactly be a culinary experience unique to Istanbul, but come on—who doesn’t love a rooftop happy hour??
Istanbul boasts some pretty spectacular sunset views with the Bosphorus cutting the city down the middle and the Golden Horn waterway separating the Sultanahmet neighborhood from Galata. Post up at a rooftop bar near the water and take in the incredible views as the sky turns to a blazing orange.
Our favorite rooftop bar in the city for doing just such a thing is Monkey Bar in the Galata neighborhood which is a hip cocktail bar with a chill vibe and nightly DJ. Other good rooftops include:
360Istanbul: A famous restaurant, bar and nightclub overlooking Embassy Row on the famous Istiklal Street.
16Roof: A swanky bar on top of the Swissotel in the Nişantaşı neighborhood with great weekend vibes.
Balkon Restaurant & Bar: Open for late night, this rooftop offers a chill Bohemian vibe and pub-style food.
Mikla Bar: The rooftop bar atop the sought after fining dining establishment is a great place for a cocktail with live DJ music.
Cultural Things to Do in Istanbul
Istanbul is a melting pot of cultural influences and there are so many opportunities to experience traditional and authentic cultural experiences. Here are some of our best suggestions to dive into the culture of Istanbul.
17. Witness a Whirling Dervish Ceremony
While it may seem like a tourist attraction, the hatted men wearing skirts and spinning in unison is actually a ceremony of Mevlevi order, a branch of Sufism. It was founded in 1273 by followers of Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi, a Muslim saint and Anatolian mystic.
There are few places in the city where you can witness a ceremony for yourself. Aside from the designated cultural centers, you can head to the Galata Mevlevi House (sometimes referred to as the Galata Lodge) to see the dervishes ‘whirl’.
How to do it yourself: The sema dances are held every Sunday at the Galta Lodge at 5 p.m. during the summer months, and every other week during the winter months. Tickets will cost 70 TL (about $12 USD) for the ceremony, and they don’t have seat numbers so be sure to get there early for a good seat!
18. Get Scrubbed Down in a Turkish Hammam
There are plenty of hammams, or traditional bathhouses, to choose from around Istanbul that range from basic to straight up luxurious.
If you’re on a budget, look no further than Aga Hamami, the oldest Turkish bath in Istanbul. This historic hammam is over 560 years old and the basic package costs just 250 TL (~$25 USD) per person. A comparable experience at other, more luxurious bathhouses average around $85 USD.
One of the things we enjoyed most about this hammam is that as a couple, we were able to experience it together. Many bathhouses are completely separated by gender, but this hammam features a central room that we could hang out in together.
If you want to try a slightly more luxurious traditional hammam experience, head to Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamami. Built nearly 1.5 centuries after Aga in 1580, the impressive main dome is considered among the largest in Istanbul. Here you will receive the traditional hammam package for 450 TL (~$50 USD) but it includes a personal attendant, hot stone relaxation and unlimited access to the lounge facilities.
How to do it yourself: Check the hours of the hammam you choose to be sure they are open and if/when they are receiving men or women. (Some hammans split their hours so only women are allowed during certain hours and only men during others.)
If you can, it’s helpful to make a reservation online beforehand to guarantee your appointment, but you can also just show up and see if they can fit you in.
The staff should be able to explain the procedure to you in English. Prices range from about $30 USD to $85 USD, and vary in luxury according to cost. And if you are traveling with children, they will love the experience too. Our friends over at The Educational Tourist wrote about their Turkish bath experience with kids.
19. Browse the bazaars
Istanbul is known for its variety of Bazaars, and we’d recommend taking a gander. Breathe in the scents of the Spice Bazaar, but if you want to purchase anything, step outside, where prices are cheaper.
Get lost in the Grand Bazaar, and wander through the Little Bazaar, both of which mainly sell souvenirs. We wanted to get a taste of where the locals shop, so we wandered through the farmer’s market in the Tarlabasi Pazari neighborhood.
It felt far less touristy than the main bazaars and had unbeatable produce prices, which tempted us into buying more cherries than two people should be able to consume. Oops! But we aren’t most people.
How to do it yourself: Check out this website for a list of farmer’s markets happening each day!
20. Experience Istanbul’s Nightlife
A city as big as this is bound to have a booming nightlife scene and Istanbul is no exception. Whether you’re looking for loud electronic dance music, hip upscale lounges, or a live performance, Istanbul has no shortage of bars, clubs and venues to dance the night away. The neighborhoods of Galata and Ortakoy on the Bosphorus are particularly popular for a good party.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Istanbul has many different neighborhoods, each with their own vibe and unique draws. Do a little research and see which area intrigues you most.
The majority of the best things to do in Istanbul are going to be in the Sultanahmet and Galata neighborhoods. You’ll especially find a lot of expats and digital nomads living near Galata. We’d recommend staying here if you are hoping to get to some of the attractions and activities on this list as you won’t have to travel as far.
…By the way, did we mention traffic in Istanbul is horrendous?? We’re talking seemingly 24/7 traffic all day everyday. It can easily take you an hour to get 5 miles down the road! So be sure to choose your stay according to where you’ll want to spend the most time while in Istanbul.
Cheers Porthouse: This charming guesthouse is located in the up-and-coming hip neighborhood of Karaköy, which is between the hotspots of Taksim and Sultanahmet, and is walking distance to each. Plus, there are numerous restaurants and local watering holes close by. Porthouse has clean rooms with the most friendly staff. Breakfast is simple and available from 8 a.m. until whenever, so you can always grab a snack.
Metropolis Hotel & Guesthouse: A 5-minute walk away from the Blue Mosque, this hotel is right in the center of the action in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, but off side street so it’s quiet and peaceful. Metropolis has simple rooms and helpful staff, but what sold us was the Turkish breakfast buffet! Not only do you get to start your day off with a full belly, but you get to have breakfast on their lovely rooftop, overlooking the bosphorus.
Hotel Miniature: Situated in the Sultanahmet neighborhood just steps from the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, this 139-year-old Ottoman mansion has been renovated into one of Istanbul’s cutest boutique hotels. The rooms compliment a range of budgets and feature original brick walls, high ceilings and luxurious modern en suites. A rooftop terrace is the perfect place to enjoy your Turkish breakfast spread.
Celine Hotel: Another Ottoman mansion turned into a gorgeous boutique hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. The Celine Hotel features an indoor winter garden with a fireplace and classic furnishings. Each of the air conditioned rooms have historical touches and modern finishes to make you feel comfortable and at home.
AJWA Sultanahmet: This 5-star hotel is situated right in the historical center of Old Istanbul. If the seriously Instagrammable entrance isn’t enough to make you want to stay, check out the gorgeously decorated interiors. The property features 61 rooms, an onsite restaurant and spa, embracing all aspects of luxury hospitality.
George’s Hotel Galata: Situated in a majestic historic building in the heart of the Galata neighborhood, George’s has found itself on the Hot List and the Gold List by Condé Nast Traveller. This one-of-a-kind boutique luxury hotel offers breathtaking views over the Bosphorus from the room’s private balconies and its top notch restaurant.
A note about safety in Turkey…
Many people are wondering if Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, is safe right now. Here are our thoughts on safety in Turkey…
While we felt very safe in Istanbul overall, there was one little scam that we fell for. We’ve met a few other travelers who fell victim as well, so we’re sharing this common ploy so you know what to look out for.
Watch out for this scam in Istanbul:
A man carrying shoe shining equipment will walk in front of you and drop something (maybe a brush or some wax). When you pick it up and hand it to him, he will act very grateful and say how he wants to repay your kindness with a free shoeshine.
Even if you refuse (like we did), he may just start scrubbing your shoes. Ben was wearing super crappy Vans made with canvas material, and the “shine” just got them wet. The man will then tell you a sad story about his sick child, etc. and will pretty much force you to give him a few lira.
While it’s not the worst type of scam we’ve encountered, it is a bit annoying and it happened to us two times while we were in Istanbul (thankfully the second time we didn’t fall for it, and just kept walking). Now that you know what to look for, it might just be interesting to see if happens to you!
If you’re headed to Turkey, we’ve got some things you should see!
We have lots of resources on travel in Turkey and destinations throughout the country. Check out our Ultimate Turkey Travel Guide for all the answers to your travel questions, or read some of our favorite articles below.
- Epic Places to Visit in Turkey
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We want to hear from you!
Have you been to Istanbul before? What was your favorite experience there? Is there anything else you’d add to this list?
Are you planning a trip and still have questions? Comment below and we’ll do our best to get back to you!