Even though ranking as one of the top travel destinations every year since 2014, many travelers are still unsure of 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.
With more and more readers, friends, and friends of friends asking me for tips and pieces of advice before traveling 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 travelers 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.
Table of Contents
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 traveling around the country), domestic flights, hotels, and also the insurance, necessary in order to apply for your visa.
Don’t go for Nowruz
I know, you’ve heard about the celebrations of the 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 homes 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 being 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 seats.
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
Find the best time to visit Iran
This being said, the best time to travel to Iran is right after Nowruz, roughly the beginning of April. Pleasant weather, colorful 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 the low season.
Don’t miss our guide to the best places to visit in Iran.
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.
I used to fly with Alitalia because it had a very convenient direct flight, but now Alitalia went bankrupt and they launched ITA instead and ITA doesn’t even have direct flights to Iran. From Europe, you have direct flights to Tehran with Lufthansa from Frankfurt, with IranAir from London, with Pegasus and Turkish Airlines from Istanbul Sabiha Airport.
In Middle Eastern countries, several airlines operate direct flights with Iran. Here are some:
- Qatar Airway from Doha, Qatar
- Emirates from Dubai, UAE
- Etihad from Abu Dhabi, UAE
There are also Iran airlines, such as IranAir and the very good Mahan Air. Unfortunately, as the Iran Deal is in a total stalemate, they don’t fly to and from Europe anymore, but only from other destinations such as Moscow, Shanghai, Beijing, Delhi, Dubai, Bangkok, Baghdad, Istanbul, and Ankara.
Check the visa requirements
In October 2015, Iran has started to grant visas 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 authorization 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.
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 travelers. 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, traveling 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.
To book a room, call hotels directly or use Iran’s travel agency
Especially due to the sanctions that have not been entirely lifted yet, it’s still hard to book hotels online. On hotel 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 by checking your favorite 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 center, 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 the local agency 1stQuest. They have accommodation in many Iranian cities and fares for all budgets.
⇒ Click here to check hotels and prices.
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. You can find pretty much everything, so in case you forget to add something to your Iran packing list, 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 they 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 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.
Use local transport
If you are traveling independently, we suggest using the local Iranian transport both inside the cities and for extra-urban travel.
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.
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 the 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 for a meal of around 80.000 Tomans (roughly 5 Euro), you need to give 800.000 Rials.
Currency exchange in Iran
Iran’s local currency is the Rial and the exchange rate swings a lot. As of today, February 2023, 1 Euro is around 45,000 Rials, or in US dollars, 1US$ equals 42,300 Rials. This, however, even though is the official exchange rate set by the Iranian government, is not the reality in Iran.
While the official currency you would search online is the Rial, the results you are going to get are all wrong and closer to Toman.
To date, in February 2023, this is the exchange rate at this very moment according to Iranian sources:
- 100,000 Toman USD 2.5USD/€ 1.90
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 center. In Tehran, they are in Ferdowsi Square. They were briefly closed 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.
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 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 the 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 are the prices for a local SIM Card in Iran with the most reliable phone companies that are currently operating:
- Irancell: 48,000 GB data valid for one month for 130,000 toman/less than 3USD/2€
- Rightel: 50,000 toman/1.2USD/1€ for a SIM and then you add GB separately. The price is 1 GB data for 4000 tomans/0,10USD/0,09€
- MCI/Hamra Aval: 7 GB data valid for one month costs 28,000 toman/0.50USD/0,40€
Learn a few Persian words
The local language in Iran is Persian (Farsi), and learning a few words will get you a long way in the eyes of Iranians, especially if you are in a non-touristy area. While you are likely to find English-speaking Iranians in popular destinations such as Isfahan and Shiraz, everywhere there are districts and neighborhoods where only Farsi is spoken.
Learning a few sentences will make things smoother if you need some help. Carry your own dictionary and print out our guides for common situations such as asking for directions in Farsi, at a restaurant, or knowing the days of the week in Persian. And if you are serious about shopping, knowing a little bit of haggling in Farsi will make you save some bucks.
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, and some are 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!
Click here for more information on different packages of ExpressVPN and the latest prices.
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 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 the marriage certificate or some proof of it, just in case.
Join the Facebook page See You In Iran
The Facebook group See You In Iran is a great resource if you need any tips 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 traveled to the Islamic Republic for help on different issues such as visa inquiries, best restaurants, hotels, and whatever you can think of.
Is Iran friendly to tourists?
Yes, both the Iranian government and the Iranian people love tourists. Iranians adore telling foreigners about their country, their food, and their culture. The government is aware that tourism brings money and that foreigners in Iran are their responsibility so there is particular attention to guests.
The tourism industry in Iran is not a novelty anymore, so you can’t really expect starry-eyed locals who go out of their way to show how hospitable they are like it was at the beginning. Nevertheless, Iranian culture is very hospitable in general, so don’t be surprised if you get invited for lunch or if locals go a long way to help you when in need.
How many days is enough for Iran?
This very much depends on how much of the country you want to visit. If it’s your first time, for a classic itinerary, I would suggest planning at least 2 weeks in Iran.
Keep in mind that Iran is a very large country so you need to consider also the time necessary to move from one city or province to the other. For example, the bus from Tehran to Isfahan will take at least 5 hours, while from Isfahan to Shiraz, it will take more than 7 hours. There is also the option to book a flight, and this will definitely shorten your traveling time, but sometimes, a bus is easier to find last minute.
Can tourists wear shorts in Iran?
No, both men and women shouldn’t wear shorts in Iran. Women are not allowed by law, men would really look out of context. Even if there is no specific law forbidding men to wear shorts in Iran, you are not going to see any, so I strongly suggest you don’t. You would risk disrespecting the local culture and society.
I happened to see a young man who immediately looked like a foreigner because wearing shorts. Nobody told him anything as far as I could see, but he definitely looked the odd one out.
Can you wear jeans in Iran?
Of course, you can wear jeans in Iran, both men and women. Women will need to have a longer long-sleeve shirt to cover up to the thighs, while men can wear t-shirts or button-down shirts.
Can you drink alcohol in Iran?
No, drinking alcohol in Iran is not allowed. While I know you will be able to find alcohol at private parties, I always suggest sticking to the local rules because the police can arrive at any time and I doubt you want to be caught in the middle and accused of breaking the law.
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