Even though ranking as one of the top travel destinations every year since 2014, many travelers are still unsure on how to plan a perfect trip to Iran. As this is a relatively new vacation spot, holidaymakers still feel unprepared, and a million questions arise even in the minds of more experienced travelers. This is mainly why many prefer to book an organized tour, even though more tourists are already starting to venture independently.
READ MORE: Iranian agency 1stQuest has a great tour package for Iran: 9 days for 369 euro is a pretty great deal! How does it work? The package includes 2 nights in Tehran, 1 night in Kashan, 2 nights in Isfahan, 1 night in Yazd and 2 nights in Shiraz.
» Click here for more info.
With more and more readers, friends and friends of friends asking me for tips and pieces of advice before travelling to Iran, I thought it was a good idea to gather the main questions in a single post so it can be a useful reference for future travellers to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This article covers the “before-you-go” planning process, while the next post will be devoted to my tips on how to enjoy your trip once you’re actually there.
Ready to start? Here are my best tips on how to plan a perfect trip to Iran.
INSIDER’S TIP: If you want to travel independently, planning a trip to Iran has finally become easy. Through 1stQuest, the first Iranian agency to accept online payments, you can apply for your visa, book local buses (so handy for travelling around the country), domestic flights, hotels and also the insurance, necessary in order to apply for your visa.
1. Don’t go for Nowruz
I know, you’ve heard about the celebrations of Persian New Year and you want to see what all the fuss is about. However, when it comes to Nowruz, this is something to think about very carefully.
Imagine a huge country (Iran) with millions of people (its residents) leaving their home altogether and roaming from province to province to enjoy the most important national holiday of the year. This will result in tourist areas and attractions incredibly crowded, some cities (Tehran, first and foremost) nearly empty and shops closed and, last but not least, soaring prices for hotels and sometimes restaurants.
Also extra-urban buses will be more difficult to book during Nowruz. This is the time when there are even more buses scheduled but you will hardly find any seat.
I have experienced this only marginally, as once I arrived in Iran on the last day of Nowruz. The traditional tables, haftsin, were still set, making restaurants and hotel halls very picturesque, but in Tehran, many shops were closed, most importantly, exchange agencies were. That time, right after Nowruz was their weekend, which caused a further delay in the openings. It wasn’t my first time in Iran, so I had some Rials with me, but if it’s your first time, this can be a problem.
For as beautiful as Nowruz can be in Iranian celebrations, this is probably the first tip I feel to give if you want to know how to plan a perfect trip to Iran
2. Find the best time to visit Iran
This being said, the best time to travel to Iran is right after Nowruz, roughly beginning of April. A pleasant weather, colourful blossoms, and life back to normal after the national holidays will guarantee a perfect trip to Iran.
Summer is very hot, especially in central Iran, where you are likely to go if you want to visit Iran for the first time, while winter is pretty cold and you’d rather enjoy provinces like Qeshm or Kish islands in the Persian Gulf unless you are into winter activities such as skiing.
Autumn is mild in central Iran while it can be cold-ish in cities like Hamedan and quite pleasant in Tehran since the summer heat is gone. Prices will also be lower than in spring as it’s a less busy season.
READ MORE: Ready to discover the wonders of Iran? Check out our detailed guide to planning a perfect Iran itinerary.
3. Plan ahead
The prices of flight tickets vary quite a lot, so planning ahead and checking often the flights through the many comparison websites and travel search engines will definitely help you save good cash. There are many airlines flying into Iran international airports, from the Italian Alitalia that I usually take from Rome to Qatar Airways to Dubai’s Emirates, to Abu Dhabi’s Etihad, just to mention a few.
There are also Iran airlines, such as IranAir and the very good Mahan Air. The agreements after the Iran deal are still being discussed and signed, so keep an eye on the news as both of them are resuming their direct flights to Tehran and other Iran airports from the main European capitals right in these days.
4. Check the visa requirements
In October 2015, Iran has granted visa upon arrival to 58 nations, and it’s recent news that they are starting to issue 30-day visas to 180 nationalities, so you are likely to be fine, but just to make sure you don’t have unpleasant surprises, get in touch with the Iranian embassy in your country to check their visa requirements. I have devoted a post to the process of getting Iran visa, the different requirements depending on your nationality and what papers you need should you apply at the embassy in your country or at the airport upon arrival.
If you want to travel with the visa already glued on your passport even if you are not joining an organized tour, there is the travel agency 1st Quest that offers the visa service. You will need to fill in an online form and they will send you the authorisation code that you need to take to the embassy or consulate alongside the other documents mentioned above.
Click here for more information on how to do it and 1stQuest fees.
5. Get a tour guide
This needs a bit of an explanation. You can travel independently around Iran, especially in the most popular cities as they are increasingly tourist-friendly, and it’s very safe, also for solo female travellers. This being said, I think a tour guide would be useful if you want to travel to less popular provinces such as Khuzestan, and of course if you don’t speak a word of Persian.
I would add that, being Iran a very diverse and complicated country, travelling with a local will be more insightful if you want to delve a little deeper into its society instead of just visiting the historical buildings and main attractions. Obviously, if you have a friend there, that would work even better than booking a guide.
6. To book a room, call hotels directly or use Iran’s travel agency
Especially due to the sanctions that are not entirely lifted yet, it’s still hard to book hotels online. On hotel’s sites like Booking or TripAdvisor, you can only find a few options, while using Iranian native travel agencies such as 1stQuest, you have more and better options. If you are going to apply for the visa on arrival, you will need confirmation of hotel booking, while if you are on an organized tour, the tour leader will have made the invitation letter for you so you will travel with your visa already glued to your passport.
To plan a perfect trip to Iran, you can find hotels in Tehran and other cities quite easily online or just checking your favourite guidebooks. The same Lonely Planet has compiled a list of accommodations in Iran from where you can just call them up and make your reservation.
Whatever place you visit, I would recommend you choose a hotel in the city centre, or at least close to a metro station if in Tehran so that it’s easy to move around.
To book hotels in Iran, your best bet is to refer to local agency 1stQuest. They have accommodation in many Iranian cities and fares for all budgets.
⇒ Click here to check hotels and prices.
7. What to pack for a trip to Iran
A list of the main tips on how to plan a perfect trip to Iran couldn’t elude some packing guidance. In Iran, you can find pretty much everything, so in case you forget to pack something, there’s nothing to be worried about. The main news can be for clothing, especially with regards to the female dress code in Iran, as women need to pack some longer tunic or dress to wear with a pair of trousers, jeans, leggings or whatever you are used to.
Most of all, don’t forget to carry a scarf in your hand luggage as you will need to wear it when you are getting off the plane. If you are going in winter, do pack some pretty warm clothes, especially if you are going to provinces such as Hamedan and Lorestan, or even Tehran.
If you take medicines, you should bring them with you. In Iran you find pretty much everything and, by law, you need to have an insurance in order to get a visa, but in case what you are looking for is not available, you are better off arriving well equipped.
8. Use local transport
If you are travelling independently, we suggest using the local Iranian transport both inside the cities and for extra-urban travels.
Taxis in Iran are pretty cheap, but in cities like Tehran, I don’t see why you shouldn’t benefit from the efficiency of the widespread metro lines. By metro, you can reach most Tehran attractions and when there is traffic, it’s also much less time-consuming.
Iran is so large that if there is a connection, the fastest way to travel in Iran is by plane. Iranian airlines IranAir and Mahan Air cover many routes. I flew from Tehran to Shiraz with Mahan Air and from Yazd to Tehran with IranAir.
Due to the sanctions, you can’t book the flights through the airlines’ websites. 1stQuest website, an Iranian travel agency with offices abroad allows Visa and Mastercard payments, so you can book domestic flights in Iran from there.
Click here to check prices and routes.
An alternative way to go from a city to another is by bus or train. There are usually many buses that depart at any time of the day and night so you can book even last minute.
I took the train from Tehran to Tabriz and from Yazd to Tehran and both experiences were great. The one to Tabriz was a night train, we were served a small dinner and beds were comfortable.
On the other hand, I took the bus many times to go to Isfahan, Yazd, and Gilan. If you take a bus, prefer the VIP, they are more comfortable, seats recline to become almost beds, and if the route is long they serve a meal and a drink.
Through 1stQuest website you can already book the local extra-urban buses and soon also the trains.
Click here to book online the domestic buses from a city to another.
9. Understand money in Iran: Tomans vs. Rials
Iran’s local currency is the Rial, but in Iran you will hardly hear locals mentioning it.
Why? Because Iranians talk Toman. 1 Toman equals 10 Rials, so far pretty straightforward. Problems start arising when you need to actually use the money. Due to the huge instability of Iranian currency, you will have to deal with “millions”, which will make things more confusing.
Whatever the Toman amount is, you need to add one zero and that will be the Rials that you need to give.
So for example, if you are paying a meal of around 80.000 Tomans (roughly 5 Euro), you need to give 800.000 Rials.
10. Currency exchange in Iran
Iran’s local currency is the Rial and the exchange rate swings a lot. As of today, May 2019, 1 Euro is around 150.000 Rials. Although the nuclear agreement has been reached, the US decided to arbitrarily aggravate the sanctions, meaning that you still can’t use your bank card to withdraw money from local ATMs.
To plan a perfect trip to Iran, what I suggest (and what I usually do) is to try to roughly guess how much money you will need considering the unavoidable travel expenses such as hotels, food, transport and entrance fees for the main Iran tourist attractions, and then add some more in case of some emergency or personal shopping you might want to do such as souvenir and traditional handicraft.
In most of the popular places to visit in Iran, you will find exchange agencies, usually located in the city centre. In Tehran, they are in Ferdowsi Square. They were briefly close by the government but now they are operative again. Also, the bank in Tehran airport applies a good exchange rate.
Tourists can also get what’s known as a “bank tourist card” that they can top up at their arrival to use as a normal ATM or credit card all over Iran to avoid carrying too much. I’ve never done it, but it’s worth inquiring at the Bank Melli branch at Tehran Khomeini Airport upon arrival. It’s open 24/7 and they will explain better how it works and if it’s actually already operative. An alternative is to purchase the Mah Card, a prepaid travel debit card to use in Iran. I haven’t done this either, but I think it’s worth checking it out.
11. Buy a local SIM Card
During your Iran trip, you might want to stay connected with family and friends. However, with your SIM card, you will have the additional roaming charges, that often can cost you a leg and an arm. This is why we recommend you get yourself an Iranian SIM card.
As a foreigner, you can buy a SIM card registered with your passport, although it’s much less of a headache to buy from phone stores one that is already registered. If the SIM needs to be cut to fit the slot of your phone, they will do it there straight away. There are several SIM providers in Iran but the ones I recommend are Irancell and Rightel. The prices are pretty much the same for both SIM card and data bundles. I tried also MCI, cheaper than the other ones but it gave me always problems with the internet connection so, in the end, I switched. Below roughly the prices.
50,000-100,000 Rials (0.50-1 USD) for a SIM card, then you pay depending on the data packages you decide to activate:
3 GB Date 150,000 Rial (less than 2 USD)
6 GB Data 280,000 Rial (less than 3 USD)
12 GB Data 460,000 Rial (less than 5 USD)
12. Buy a good VPN
In Iran some social media and websites are subject to government filters, so to access them you need a VPN (Virtual Private Network). There are many VPNs on the market, some are cheap, some even free.
I tested and tried quite a few brands and now the one I always buy is ExpressVPN: not too expensive, fast connection, some 145 server locations in 94 countries, you can install it on different devices such as a laptop, a mobile phone, and a tablet, and especially, it doesn’t mess up with your phone!
13. If you are married, some proof of your marriage won’t harm
Granted, this is a general rule and it mainly applies to Iranians only (even if you are an Iranian-born and living abroad, you are still an Iranian and subject to controls). For foreigners, it’s pretty loose and they are hardly asked about marriage proof when renting a flat or booking the same hotel room. However, this is still the Islamic Republic of Iran, and should I get married (anytime now!), I will take with me a copy of marriage certificate or some proof of it, just in case.
14. Join the Facebook page See You In Iran
The Facebook page See You In Iran is a great resource if you need any tip from locals on how to plan a perfect trip to Iran. As a matter of fact, this post has been concocted also keeping in mind the questions and issues raised by the members of the group as they asked locals for information about tourism in Iran and how to get by in their country.
In the group, you can ask both Iranians and foreigners who have already travelled to the Islamic Republic for help on different issues such as visa inquiries, best restaurants, hotels and whatever you can think of.
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