This is first part of a series of posts on Iran based on travel experiences in the country in 2011.
“Sir, can I ask why Iran?” asked the travel agent whom I called to book the flight for Tehran.
“I have an interest in the culture, people and language”, I respond.
“Hmmm but people would normally go to Dubai for that… anyway”, he conveys his lack of cultural knowledge.
Just like a lot of people confuse us Pakistanis as Arabs, the Iranians have to face the same misery.
The country is so diverse in terms of culture, lifestyle and landscape that planning the trip to Iran was itself an exciting experience – from LonelyPlanet to Iranian travel agents, books and travel documentaries; I explored everything to ensure my time in Iran is well spent and I return with a better understanding of the country and its people. With the variety it has got, its unfortunate Iran isn’t a hot tourist destination.
Getting a Visa
Despite the bad press, the travel agency business seems booming in Iran. There are hundreds of them in the capital and tens in other bigger cities. They can help planning the trip, arranging accommodation, travel, guides and more. Most importantly, you may need them to get a visa. Although nationals of some countries can get a visa-on-arrival but the recommended option is to get in touch with a travel agency, email relevant documents (passport copy, itinerary etc), make the visa handling payment (30-50 Euro) and wait for them to get you a Visa Ref Number which you take to your local Iranian Embassy and get a visa stamped on the passport on-spot. I received my Visa Ref number in a week and didn’t even had to go to the Iranian Embassy. You can post your Passport, Visa Ref Number and payment details to the Embassy and they return passport with the visa fairly quick. The visa fee depends on your nationality.
I would highly recommend Shiraz based Pars Tourist Agency and specifically Marjan Owji in their Visa Department. She can help you in literally everything on your trip to Iran and she does that not from a customer-friendly-business perspective, its Persian hospitality at its best. She took only three working days to get back to me and the Embassy took another three days. The visa process was fairly straightforward. Everyone, except citizens of Israel can get an Iranian visa. The citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia and Turkey can stay for up to 3 months without a visa. The maximum duration of tourist visa is 30 days while for the visa-on-arrival its 15 days. Once in Iran, extension is possible fairly easy.
Visa fee for every country is available here and here. We had to pay something around £20 on a Pakistani passport and £120 on a British passport. More information can be obtained by calling the local Iranian Embassy or browsing the MFA Iran website.
As a notable exception, the 90sq-km beach resort of Kish Island, south of Iran, easily accessible from Dubai, does not require advance visas for visits of up to 14 days, including Americans. This is Iran’s response to the Emirates and the state is promoting trade (by making it free-trade-zone) and tourism on the island. The island has facilities for scuba diving, jet-skiing, sailing, fishing, parasailing, reef walking, coral viewing, boating and water-skiing and offers gorgeous white sandy beaches for relaxing walks and plenty of huge malls if you fancy a retail therapy.
Most of the major carriers have flights to Iran but the favourite for travelling to Iran are Iran’s national carrier Iran Air, Azerbaijan airlines with stopover in Baku, Aeroflot (Russian airlines) with stopover in Moscow, Air France and other Middle East based carriers. Other low-cost international carriers include Pegasus airlines (Istanbul-Tehran), Air Asia (Far East-Tehran), Air Arabia and Jazeera Airways both connecting through the middle East.
Launched in the mid of 20th century, Iran Air started with domestic flights between Tehran and Mashhad. By 1970s, Iran Air was ranked amongst the safest airlines in the world (second only to Qantas; being accident free for decades). However, things changed suddenly after the revolution. Because of the US imposed sanctions, the airline could not buy new planes and even had to cancel deals setup earlier. The sanctions meant the airline had to rely on older planes, risking the security of the passengers and the staff onboard. At present, majority of the fleet is decades old with average age nearing 25 years. The Fajr Aviation and Composites Industry in Tehran is responsible for overhauling existing fleet and designing new airplanes. Recently, there have been conflicts over refuelling Iran Air planes as well when UK CAA and the Abu Dhabi Airports Company refused to refuel Iran Air planes. The EU has also recently banned Iran Air’s fleet of Boeing and Airbus because of safety concerns.
I choose to fly with Aeroflot – cheaper, good connections and short stopovers. The flight originated from London Heathrow, serving nicely done Salmon and landing three hours later in Tehran’s primary IKA airport (30KM from city). The two-hour stopover at Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport was an interesting experience – this was by far the best airport I have seen so far. It’s so huge it could take hours walking from one terminal to the other with duty free shops spread everywhere and the airport giving a fine, shiny, glossy clean look and feel. Plenty of Iranians on the airport – some praying, some gossiping or buying stuff; looks like this the favorite route from EU to get back home for them. It took another three hours for the flight from Moscow to Tehran with an amazing Omelet served for breakfast as we approached Iran.
Note that if not staying in Tehran and planning to get to any city other than Tehran upon your arrival, you would have to change airports, from Imam Khomeini to Mehrabad, 40 km away, to get to your domestic flight.
Accommodation in Iran
Courtyard of a traditional hotel in Iran
You do not necessarily need travel agents to book accommodation for you, although that’s the easiest way. Popular travel/hotel-booking websites like booking.com, venere.com, laterooms.com do not support Iranian hotels; again because of the economic sanctions. However, there are lots of websites voluntarily setup by Iranians who like to see more people visiting their country and these provide lots of information on hotels, pictures, locations, costs etc. You can use these websites, in addition to travel agent websites to choose hotels and then book by directly calling/emailing the hotel, many of which have their own websites as well.
There is no presence of international-chain-hotels like Marriot or Holiday Inn in Iran – if you have read this far, you should know why. The hotels in Iran come in three varieties:
(i) Cheap bed-n-breakfasts with private or shared accommodation – These can be found in pretty much every city and are generally located in city centre with good transport links. Tehran is scattered with hundreds of them.
(ii) Traditional hotels – These are Iranian version of premium-posh hotels. They are generally converted Inns, older mansions/houses, travellers and traders resting spots – called Sofrekhane Sonati in Farsi. Ponds, trees and fountains in the central lawn, tinted glass windows and beautifully lit at night, these are your best bet to experience Iranian culture.
(iii) Mid-range to top-notch modern hotels – Larger urban capitals and tourist destinations like Kish Islands have a few modern hotels to compete with multi-star international hotels. Generally, they are not located in city centre and price range vary on a large scale, so one needs to be cautious to check prices from several sources.
Travelling between cities
Transportation between cities in Iran is comfortable, safe, timely, reliable, well managed and cheap as chips. Cities and towns are connected through buses, rail network and domestic flights while port-cities and towns both in North and South also enjoy ferry connections. Depending on the distance, time available to travel and cost considerations, one can make use of flights, trains, buses or even hire comparatively cheaper private taxis.
- Iran Map showing major cities and distances between them
Buses: Iran enjoys a pretty extensive and competitive bus network from most of its major cities. Major cities have bus terminals a few miles outside the city, planned on the model of airports with separate terminals and connected to city through local transport links. Buses can take you from anywhere to anywhere in Iran – pretty much anytime of the day (or night), normally without long stop-overs and running on time. Police checkpoints on the highways ensure safety. Tickets can be booked either in advance by calling the bus station or on-spot if you reach sometime before expected time of bus departure.
The buses generally come in two classes: lux/Mercedes/2nd class and super/Volvo/1st class. First class buses are air-conditioned and you will be provided with a small snack during your trip, while second class services are more frequent. There is little financial incentive to opt for the second class tickets. Among the many bus operators, Royal Safar Iranian is the best, in terms of comfort and reliability, with a fleet of modern comfortable buses. They also run sleeper buses between major cities with reclining chairs, serving Iranian meals and sweets and movies on play – e.g. Shiraz to Isfahan all for $11; while regular buses cost $6. Apparently, you can book tickets online at http://www.royall.ir/ , if you can read their Farsi website or by calling the available phone numbers. Other bus operators are named Seir-o-Safar and Taavoni. Saipa Diesel, Iran’s leading manufacturer of trucks, trailer and mini-buses provides many of the buses you see on roads in Iran. The company also imported several hundred larger buses from China to serve on longer routes.
Trains: The train network is limited but comfortable, speedy and affordable. It has been expanding at 500KM every year for few years and major cities have been connected through contracts with Chinese companies. The under construction Chabahar-Zahedan-Mashhad railway line extending from northeast to southeast will enable Pakistan pilgrims to travel by train to Mashhad instead of the long bus journey from the border. Other international links include trains to Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is possible to travel from London to Tehran, by train!
Tehran Railway Station
The passenger rail system is called Raja Passenger Trains. The Sleeper berths in trains allow good night’s sleep specially on longer journeys like Tehran-Mashhad; will cost almost double the bus ticket but are worth it on longer journeys. The best of the trains are called 4 pax Ghazal or Plur train. The added benefit of travelling by train in Iran, like anywhere else, is that you get to see a lot of places on the way, sample food, see tourists and unlike many places, get a chance to meet, talk with and befriend locals. This is your best option to make a few good friends in Iran.
For Train timings, ticket prices and booking information, Google is your friend. If nothing helps, travel agencies can do it for you.
Domestic Flights: A leading oil producer can of course afford to have cheap domestic flights, sometimes dramatically cheap in comparison to international market. Planes are aging, and maintenance and safety procedures are sometimes well below western standards, but it still remains the safest way to get around Iran, given the huge death toll on the roads and longer distances between cities. The average price is in the range of $50 – $80.
Iran’s major domestic carriers Mahan Air, Iran Air, Kish Air and Aseman Air, all have websites and online booking system but you cannot make use of online ticket booking unless you have an Iranian bank account or a debit/credit card. The reason obviously is economic sanctions imposed on Iran means no international banking relationship with Iranian companies. The best way to book domestic flight tickets in Iran before landing in Iran is (i) find local office of above stated Iranian airlines in your city/country and they can do it for you or (ii) use an Iranian travel agent to book tickets for you, they will give you eticket and you pay them into their bank account normally setup somewhere in the EU.
Off Days in Iran
Thursday is generally half-day and Friday is the weekend break. Saturday and Sunday are normal working days. The biggest and most celebrated of all events in Iran is Nowrooz – the start of new year on Persian calendar which is marked with a week off. Other holidays are linked to the revolution and religious days (Muharram/Ramzan) as well as Eid festival.
Based on all the information I gathered from websites, Lonely Planet and talking to travel agents, I composed a comparative chart with compares price offers by four different travel agencies for hotel accomodation and travelling between cities (cab/train/flight). This helped me figure out which agency works best for me. The chart can be downloaded in image format here and more detailed Excel format here.
In the next posts, we’ll explore Iran from inside…. with pictures, videos and lots of interesting stories and interpersonal observations.
Some of the travel Agencies I spoke to….
Some of the websites I used for hotel search…