Most visitors are pleasantly surprised by the transport system in Iran. Once you accept that the driving is… erm… more imaginative than what you’re used to at home, you’ll appreciate that services on most forms of public transport are frequent, fairly punctual and very cheap. For planes and trains it’s worth booking ahead if you’re travelling on a weekend or any public holiday, especially No Ruz, Ramazan and Eid al-Fitr. At No Ruz bus fares usually rise by about 20%.
The only places you’re likely to use a boat are between the mainland and some islands in the Persian Gulf.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. However, many people do choose to hitch, and the advice that follows should help to make their journeys as fast and safe as possible. Women, however, should never hitch in Iran.
Hitching, as understood in the West, is a novel concept in Iran. Although you will often see people standing by the roadside waiting for a lift, they are actually waiting for space in a bus, minibus or shared taxi, for which they expect to pay. Occasionally drivers will offer foreigners a free ride in return for English practice or out of simple hospitality. Like anywhere, you’re most likely to find rides in more remote areas. We heard of one traveller who hitched the Howraman valley with his 12-year-old son, and loved it. And as we found hitching through the Dasht-e Lut, host drivers will be typically generous; ours bought us food, shared their smoke, even tracked down some rocket fuel in a tiny desert town because they thought we wanted it, and refused all attempts to pay them. In such a case it’s nice to have something small to thank them with.
In Iran, if you can’t get somewhere by bus (or minibus), the chances are no-one wants to go there. More than 20 taavonis (bus companies) offer hundreds of services all over the country, so business is highly competitive, fares cheap and, on busier routes, departures are frequent. Most buses are comfortable, with your own cushioned seat and, except on very short trips, standing is not allowed. Fares don’t vary much between companies, but they do vary between classes of bus.
Don’t be confused by the names of the destinations on a bus. It’s common for a bus travelling between, for example, Khorramabad and Ahvaz, to have ‘Tehran–İstanbul’ written on the front or side in English. Similarly, phrases like ‘Lovely bus’ are not always a fair reflection of reality. There are no bus passes.
Mahmooly buses usually cost a bit more than half what a Volvo costs. For example, the 1024km trip from Tehran to Kerman costs IR52,000/90,000 by mahmooly/Volvo, while the 440km journey between Tehran and Esfahan costs about IR23,000/50,000. Either way, it’s cheap, though expect prices to rise steadily.
Don’t count on averaging more than 60km/h on most bus journeys. Buses often arrive in a town in the early hours of the morning, which can be a hassle. On most trips of more than three hours you’ll stop at roadside restaurants serving cheap food. Ice-cold water is normally available on the bus and is safe to drink. Every two hours or so the driver will stop to have his tachograph checked by the police as a precaution against speeding. If it’s summer, try to get a seat on the side facing away from the sun.
Most Iranian towns and cities have local bus services. Because local buses are often crowded and can be difficult to use unless you know exactly where you’re going, most travellers use the ubiquitous shared and private taxis instead.
Bus numbers and destinations are usually only marked in Farsi, so you need to do a lot of asking around – most people will be happy to help (even if you don’t entirely understand their reply). Except in Shiraz and on one new private operator in Tehran, tickets must be bought at little booths along main streets, or at local bus terminals, before you get on the bus. Tickets on state-run buses cost between IR100 and IR500. Private companies cost a bit more.
Small children of both genders and all women have to sit at the back of the bus. This segregation can be complicated if you are travelling as a mixed couple and need to discuss when to get off. You must give your ticket to the driver either before you get on or after you get off, depending on the local system. Women must pass their tickets to the driver while leaning through the front door of the bus and then board the bus using the back door.
A small but steady stream of travellers take vehicles across Iran as part of a trip between Europe and the Indian subcontinent. Most report the country driving is great and the city driving is not. If you’re considering an overland journey check out www.africa-overland.net/asia-overland or www.horizonsunlimited.com.
The concept of car rental barely exists in Iran, not least because without a functioning system for accepting credit cards it’s hard for anyone leasing a car to be sure they can make good any damage. Instead, ‘car rental’ here means chartering a taxi, either privately or through a travel agency. Local drivers-cum-guides are mentioned throughout this guide.
Your vehicle will need a carnet de passage and a green card, both of which you should organise before you arrive. It’s possible to get into Iran without a green card from Pakistan, but getting into Turkey can then be problematic.
Travelling by train is an inexpensive way to get around Iran and meet Iranians, many of whom approach their rare rail trips with some excitement.
Iran’s first line was the trans-Iranian railway, built in the 1930s to connect the Caspian Sea at Bandar-e Torkaman with the Persian Gulf at Bandar-e Imam Khomeini. Passing through mountains and passes, it is one of the great engineering achievements of the 20th century. It will soon be joined by other engineering marvels. First among them is the track between Esfahan and Shiraz, which will quite literally bore its way through the Spartan mountainscapes of the Zagros as it links these two historic cities.
The line is part of an ambitious program to expand Iran’s rail network. Recently completed lines include Qazvin to Astara via Rasht and Mashhad to Bafq. The long-awaited Bam to Zahedan stretch is set to open late 2008, and other lines either being built or proposed by Raja Trains, the national rail network, include Arak to Kermanshah and Khoramshahr to Basra, in Iraq.
Tehran is the main hub and most services begin or end in the capital. There is at least one daily service to Mashhad, Esfahan, Tabriz, Bandar Abbas and Kerman. Trains usually depart on time, but departure and arrival times for stops en route are often in the middle of the night. For the latest routes and prices, see www.rajatrains.com.
The average age of passenger carriages is 26 years but they’re still fairly comfortable, efficient, reasonably fast and always cheap. For overnight trips a 1st-class sleeper is a delight, and while they cost a bit more than a Volvo bus, the comfort level is about 10 times greater. And, of course, trains are much safer than buses.
On most 1st-class services meals are served in your compartment and aren’t too bad. Long-distance trains also have a restaurant car, and iced water is available. Security is better than in most other countries in the region, but it’s worth asking someone to look after your luggage (or chaining it to something solid) before leaving your compartment.
As a rough guide, a seat in 2nd class costs about the same as a mahmooly bus, and a 1st-class seat is about 1½ times the price of a Volvo bus, depending on the class of train; see www.rajatrains.com for specifics.
It’s possible to buy tickets up to a week in advance, except at No Ruz when most people don’t bother. Between major cities, such as Esfahan and Tehran, buses leave at least every half-hour between about 5am and 1am. In medium-sized towns, such as Hamadan and Kerman, buses to nearer locations leave every hour or so, but longer trips (and any cross-desert trip) will often be overnight. In smaller places, where there may be only one or two buses a day to your destination, it is essential to book ahead.
There are often no-shows for bus trips, so seats can magically appear on otherwise full buses just before departure. Alternatively, you might be offered the back seat. If you’re desperate, then looking like it, plus helpless and lost, usually helps.
Tickets are almost always in Farsi, so learn the Arabic numbers to check the day of departure, time of departure, bus number, seat number, platform number and fare. If it’s incomprehensible someone at the terminal, should point you in the right direction.
Train ticketing is on an integrated system, so you can book tickets at stations and travel agencies around the country up to a month in advance. Especially for trains leaving on Thursday, Friday and public holidays, it’s worth booking ahead.
Most organised tours start and finish in Tehran, with a quick look around the capital before concentrating on the must-sees: Shiraz, Esfahan and Yazd, with either Tabriz or Mashhad, or possibly Kerman and Rayen, thrown in.
The handful of Iranian travel companies listed here have been recommended by readers. Most offer standard itineraries plus something different, and can organise tailor-made trips to suit particular interests. They can help with visas if you give enough notice. Guides who speak English, French, German, Japanese and sometimes Spanish or Italian can be arranged. Costs depend on the length of the tour, the mode of transport, the type of accommodation and the current exchange rate. Expect to pay in dollars or euros.
These companies often act as local handlers for foreign-based agencies selling tours to Iran, so booking direct should give you the same tour (without the foreign tour leader) for significantly less than foreign agencies charge. Feedback on these or other operators is welcome and will help us keep this list as helpful as possible; see www.lonelyplanet.com/contact.
Pars Tourist Agency (0711-222 3163; www.key2persia.com; Zand Blvd, Shiraz) Highly professional, well-organised outfit dealing purely with foreign travellers. Has literally dozens of tour options, from highlights through cultural to mountaineering. Offer free online chat consultations in English, German and French.
Freelance guides can be found in most cities around the country.
Metros are the great hope for Iranian cities slowly being strangled by traffic. The Tehran Metro is growing and similar systems are being built in Mashhad, Shiraz and Esfahan; the first two of which should, insh’Allah (god willing), be operational for some time to come.
If you think using local buses is a hassle, don’t even bother trying to use the infrequent and desperately crowded minibuses. Quite often they are so crammed with passengers that you can’t see out to tell where you’re going. You normally pay in cash when you get on – about IR1000 a ticket depending on the distance. Men and women get a seat anywhere they can; there is no room for segregation. Minibuses stop at normal bus stops or wherever you ask them.
Iran Air is the largest among a growing roster of domestic airlines and boasts an extensive network of flights, covering most provincial capitals. Domestic prices are set by the government, so it doesn’t matter which airline you fly the price will be the same.
Of the others, Iran Aseman and Mahan Air fly the most routes, while Caspian Airlines, Kish Air and Taban Air have fewer. Generally speaking, Iran Air is the most reliable, but whichever airline you choose you stand a good chance of being delayed. On this trip all three domestic flights we took were delayed by more than an hour. Despite this, it’s worth trying to get to the airport a good hour ahead of domestic departures (just in case it leaves on time).
Except for Iran Air, which has unnecessarily large offices across the country, airline offices can be hard to find. It’s much easier to visit one of Iran’s thousands of travel agencies, which can book you onto any airline. When making a booking, check the aircraft type and avoid, wherever possible, the clunking old Tupolevs still struggling through Iran’s skies.
Booking domestic flights from outside Iran can be difficult in some places and nigh-on impossible if the flight is on a smaller airline. None of the airlines yet do online bookings. However, some readers report it’s possible to book domestic flights by calling an Iran Air office outside Iran. They give you a booking reference which you take to an Iran Air office in Iran or to Tehran domestic terminal... You pay for it then.
Excellent roads, friendly people and a relatively small risk of theft mean Iran sounds like an ideal cycling destination. And indeed, there are usually one or two travellers pedalling across the country and reporting a fantastic experience full of selfless hospitality. It’s not, however, all easy. Vast distances, dodgy traffic and hot, tedious stretches of desert road – not to mention seasonal winds – can get tiring. You’ll need to carry plenty of water and food to last the long desert stretches, camping equipment if you are not sticking to major towns, a decent map, and a phrasebook.
If you arrive in a village or small town and find either nowhere to stay or only a hotel you can’t afford – and if you can’t persuade the caretaker at the local mosque to take you in – you might have to load your bike on a bus or truck and head for the next big town.
The biggest drawback with cycling, as with most other activities in Iran, is the need to stay covered up. We have received varying reports from travellers: some say that it’s fine to wear cycling gear when actually on the road, as long as you have clothes at hand to cover up as soon as you stop; others say that women in particular must be covered at all times.
Spare parts can be hard to find and there is nowhere to rent bicycles for long distances, so bring your own.