Iran in detail

Getting Around

Services on most forms of public transport are frequent, fairly punctual and very cheap; airlines are often delayed. Book ahead if you’re travelling on a weekend or, especially, any public holiday.

Air An extensive network of generally reliable domestic flights is a great way to avoid some really long drives.

Bus You can get almost anywhere by bus. Most buses are comfortable rather than luxurious; speed checks have dramatically improved safety.

Savari Shared taxis that are usually quicker than buses; far less comfortable.

Train Links most major cities but departures are much less frequent.

Air

Domestic air fares in Iran are low and flights on most routes are frequent. For possibilities, check out www.parvazyab.com, though you'll need your best Farsi.

Airlines in Iran

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. For tickets it’s best to use one of the many travel agencies, where you’ll get all the options, rather than an airline office.

Iran’s domestic airlines:

ATA (www.ataair.ir)

Atrak (www.atrakair.com)

Caspian Airlines (www.caspian.aero)

Iran Air (www.iranair.com)

Iran Airtours (www.iat.aero)

Iran Aseman (www.iaa.ir)

Kish Air (www.kishairline.com)

Meraj Airlines (www.merajairlines.ir)

Mahan Air (www.mahan.aero)

Qeshm Air (www.qeshm-air.com)

Taban Air (www.taban.aero)

When making a booking, check the aircraft type and avoid any clunking old Tupolevs that have yet to fall out of Iran’s skies. Mahan Air, Iran Air and Iran Aseman are the most reliable and have the most routes. Whichever airline you choose you’ll find delays are common. Despite this, get to the airport at least an hour ahead of domestic departures.

Getting a domestic ticket from outside Iran is difficult. Sanctions mean paying for a seat online (if online booking is available) doesn’t work. It is theoretically possible to call an Iran Air office outside Iran and get a booking reference, which you then pay for at an Iran Air office in Iran or at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran. More reliably, use any Iranian-based tour agency.

Bicycle

Excellent roads, friendly people and a relatively small risk of theft mean Iran sounds like an ideal cycling destination. And that’s what most cyclists report. 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. And in recent years some cyclists have reported a more hostile road environment, particularly from young men on motorbikes. For women, you’ll need to stay covered up or expect unwanted attention. Male cyclists report that wearing cycling gear when actually on the road is OK, as long as you have clothes at hand to cover up as soon as you stop.

As you head east you’ll need to carry plenty of water and food to last the long desert stretches, a decent map and a phrasebook. Camping is possible but there’s no guarantee your presence will be welcome – it’s better to ask to pitch your tent at a mosque. Spare parts can be hard to find and there is nowhere to rent bicycles for long distances, so bring your own.

Boat

The only ferry services are between Iran's Persian Gulf coast (usually Bandar Abbas) and Kish, Qeshm and Hormoz Islands. Routes include the following:

  • Bandar Abbas to Qeshm and Hormuz Islands
  • Hormuz to Qeshm Islands
  • Bandar-e Pol to Laft-e Kohneh (Qeshm)
  • Bandar-e Charak to Kish Island

During No Ruz, there are also car ferry services from Bandar-e Lengeh to Kish Island.

Bus

In Iran, if you can’t get somewhere by bus (or minibus), the chances are no one wants to go there. More than 20 bus companies offer thousands of services on buses that are cheap, comfortable and frequent. The quality of bus drivers does vary, but the government does its best to minimise ‘insh’Allah’ (God willing) attitudes by aggressively enforcing speed limits. Speeds are recorded and drivers must stop and show this log to highway police every 100km or so. Fares are set by the government so variations are small. Except on very short trips, standing is not allowed.

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 such as ‘Lovely bus’ are not always a fair reflection of reality. There are no bus passes.

A useful resource for bus information is the Farsi-only www.payaneha.com.

Bus Companies & Types

Most bus companies are cooperatives and were formerly known as Cooperative Bus Company No X (Sherkat-e Ta’avoni Shomare X), or whatever number it is. Most now have more varied names, but in the terminal they might still direct you to, for example, ‘ta’avoni hasht’ (cooperative number 8). The best ta’avonis, with the most extensive networks, are TBT (Taavoni 15) and Iran Peyma (www.iranpeymaesfahan.com), often with the word ‘Ta’avoni’ or ‘Bus No One’ written on it.

For a bit more comfort, Seiro Safar (www.en.seirosafar.ir) offers newer, better buses for a little extra cost, though most travellers don’t bother seeking out a specific company and just take whichever is the next bus going their way.

There are two main types of bus:

Mahmooly Meaning ‘normal’, these are Volvo, Scania or similar intercity coaches. The driver is accompanied by one or two attendants, who hand out packaged food and handle luggage. Most have toilets. Older, 1960s-era Mercedes mahmooly buses have mostly been retired on account of their pollution.

VIP More luxurious because they have seats that recline almost fully and more service. They operate on major routes, such as Tehran to Esfahan or Mashhad, and cost about 50% more than a mahmooly.

Bus Terminals

Most bus terminals are located at the edge of town and are easily reached by shuttle or private taxi. Some cities have more than one bus terminal; if in doubt, ask at your hotel or charter a taxi to the relevant terminal. Tell the driver ‘terminal-e (your destination)’ and he’ll know where to drop you – pronounce ‘terminal’ with a prolonged ‘aal’ at the end.

Bus terminals are filled with the offices of individual bus companies, though timetables are rarely in English. Just ask ‘Shiraz?’, ‘Esfahan?’ or wherever and you’ll be directed to the right desk, or listen for your destination being screamed out when a bus is about to leave. Terminals always have somewhere selling food, and larger terminals might have a police station, left-luggage facility and even a hotel.

If you’re leaving a secondary town, such as Zanjan or Kashan, you may need to go to a major roundabout to board a passing bus, rather than at the terminal. Locals will point you to the right place.

Reservations

You can buy tickets up to a week in advance from bus company ticket offices in town or at the terminal. Between major cities, such as Esfahan and Tehran, buses leave at least every hour between about 6am and midnight. 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.

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...or ask a local.

The Journey

Expect to average about 60km/h on most journeys. 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.

Car & Motorcycle

Self-drive ‘holidays’ don’t really exist in Iran unless you bring your own car, which is exactly what a steady stream of travellers used to do en route between Europe and Asia. The trail is largely empty these days, thanks to the dangers of travelling in southeastern Iran and (more particularly) southwestern Pakistan. When it was still a well-worn trail, most reported the country driving was great and the city driving was not. If you’re considering an overland journey these sites have the stories of those who’ve gone before:

  • www.africa-overland.net/Asia
  • www.horizonsunlimited.com

Bring Your Own Vehicle

If you are driving your own vehicle, you should always slow down and get ready to stop at roadblocks. Usually if you wind down your window, smile nicely, and give the officials your best ‘I-don’t-know-what-to-do-and-I-don’t-speak-Farsi’ look, you will be waved straight through. At worst you’ll have to show your passport, licence and vehicle documents. Be sure to find a hotel with safe parking when in the southeast.

Hossein Ravanyar of Iran Overland (www.iranoverland.com) is a guide/fixer who specialises in helping people with carnet trouble and getting their cars across the border at the Astara crossing.

Driving Licence

To drive in Iran you need an international driving licence. Get one from the national automobile association in your home country.

Fuel & Spare Parts

While fuel in Iran is not as dirt cheap as it once was, it will still be a bargain compared with what you pay at home. Except in the desert, you’ll find large towns with benzin (petrol) stations at least every 100km. Not all stations sell diesel and there is usually nothing written on the pump to differentiate it from benzin – be sure to ask. Fuel quality is poor – drivers told us most benzin was just 71 octane – so don’t expect the same mileage as at home. More problematic, though, are the long queues in towns within 100km or so of a border, where well-organised smuggling operations leave little for locals. Iranian motor oil can also be of dubious quality. International brands are safer.

Expect to pay around IR10,000 to IR12,000 per litre.

Even the tiniest settlements have repair shops. The price for repair work is open to negotiation but you won’t have much choice when it comes to spare parts. In the height of summer, scalding heat makes tyre blowouts fairly common.

Hire

It’s theoretically possible to rent a car but unusual. Instead, ‘car rental’ usually means chartering a taxi and/or private driver, either privately or through a travel agency.

Insurance

Your vehicle will need a carnet de passage and a green card, both of which you should organise before you arrive.

Road Conditions

Road surfaces are generally excellent. On the other hand, driving at night is more dangerous because of occasional unmarked potholes and the risk of running into tractors and other vehicles crawling along the road with no lights. On intercity roads most signs are in English and Farsi. All cities have street signs, many in English and Farsi.

Road Hazards

Iranian drivers in the cities... Camels in the deserts... Unmarked speed bumps everywhere. The last, often at the edges of towns, are both highly annoying and dangerous, and you’ll often be completely unaware they exist until your car suddenly gets airborne as you launch over the bump.

If you’re in an accident the Iranian involved will probably call the local traffic police. If you’re alone, call the emergency number – 110 for police, 115 for ambulance. You should never move the vehicle from the road until the police have come to make their report. As a foreigner, you’ll probably be held responsible.

Road Rules

Lanes? What are they? Driving across Iran is not a task to be taken lightly. In theory, everyone drives on the right but this can’t be depended upon; faced with a one-way street going the wrong way, the average Iranian driver sees nothing wrong with reversing down it. Take 10 Iranian drivers and an otherwise deserted road and they will form a convoy so tightly packed that each can read the speedometer of the car in front. ‘Optimum braking distance’ is not widely understood.

Take comfort, however, in the knowledge most foreign drivers make it across Iran without too much trouble.

Hitching

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 and in Iran, women should not even consider it.

For men, however, it’s doable. Hitching, as understood in the West, is a novel concept in Iran. Although you will often see people standing by the roadside, 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 practising their English or out of simple hospitality. Like anywhere, you’re most likely to find rides in more remote areas. Host drivers will be typically generous, possibly sharing food and cigarettes, all while refusing attempts to pay for them. You should be prepared to pay something, however, and make the offer, although it will usually be turned down. In such a case it’s nice to have something small to thank them with.

When flagging down a ride, rather than using the thumb out sign (which could be construed as offensive), wave your hand down with palm down, as if patting the air down.

Minibus

Minibuses are often used for shorter distances linking larger cities and towns to surrounding villages. Sometimes they’re an alternative to the bus, but usually there’s no choice; just take whatever is going your way. Minibuses are particularly popular along the Caspian Sea coast, and between Caspian towns and Tehran.

Minibuses are marginally more expensive than buses, and can be faster because they have fewer passengers and spend less time dropping off and picking up. On the downside, they’re uncomfortable and usually leave only when they’re full, which can mean a wait.

Intercity Private Taxi

Almost every car in the country is available for private hire. Needless to say, prices are open to negotiation. One way to avoid getting ripped off is to ask the driver of a savari for the price per person of a certain trip then multiply it by four or five.

To hire a taxi for the whole day costs between about US$50 and US$150, depending on factors including your ability as a negotiator, the quality of the car, the distance you plan to drive and where you are. The smaller the town, the cheaper the price.

Savari (Shared Intercity Taxi)

You can almost always find a savari for a trip between towns less than three hours apart. Savari means ‘shared taxi’ and is usually applied to intercity versions of the species. Speed is the main advantage because savaris are generally less comfortable than buses. Sometimes two people will be expected to squeeze into the front passenger seat, though for longer journeys a total of four passengers is normal.

Savaris rarely leave with an empty seat unless a passenger (or all passengers) agrees to pay for it. These days most savaris are Kia Prides (or the rebadged Saipa Saba) and bigger Peugeot 405s. Peugeots usually cost a bit more.

As a general rule, savaris cost two to three times more than mahmooly buses. This is still cheap and worth using for quick trips, especially through dull stretches of countryside. As usual, lone women will normally be given the front seat.

Savaris usually leave from inside, or just outside, the relevant bus terminal, or at major squares at the beginning of whichever road they’re about to head down. If in doubt, charter a private taxi and tell the driver ‘savari’ and your destination.

Train

Travelling by train is an inexpensive way to get around Iran and meet Iranians.

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. A useful way of getting to Sari or Gorgan from Tehran, the route goes through mountains and passes, and is one of the great engineering achievements of the 20th century. It has recently been joined by another engineering marvel: the line between Esfahan and Shiraz that bores its way through the Zagros mountainscape. The line is part of an ambitious program to expand Iran’s rail network that in recent years has seen lines open from Qazvin to Astara via Rasht, Mashhad to Bafq and Bam to Zahedan (though the connecting service into Pakistan has not run for years due to security issues).

Routes

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 arrival times for stops en route are often in the middle of the night and, as a result, most travellers take the bus.

Classes & Costs

The majority of trains have two classes, though a significant minority have only one. If you decide a 2nd-class compartment is too crowded for you, you can often upgrade to 1st class along the way, provided there’s space. A seat in 2nd class costs a bit less than a mahmooly bus, and a 1st-class seat is a bit less than a VIP bus.

On overnight trains (usually to/from Tehran), the 1st-class carriages have sleeper couchettes (ghazal) with four or six bunks. Solo women should strongly consider requesting a single-sex sleeper. On most 1st-class services, meals are served in your compartment and aren’t too bad. Long-distance trains also travel with a restaurant car.

The most comfortable trains are on the busy Tehran to Mashhad route. The Simorgh, for example, is more expensive than other 1st-class options but includes dinner, breakfast, a particularly comfortable bed and the mixed blessing of a TV. You can ask to be seated in a nonsmoking compartment.

Reservations

Train ticketing is on an integrated system and tickets can be booked at railway stations up to a month in advance. Especially for trains leaving on Thursday, Friday and public holidays, it’s recommended you book ahead through one of the train stations around the country. At the time of writing, online bookings were not possible.

Useful Rail Journeys

FromToFareDurationDepartures
EsfahanShirazIR500,0009hrdaily (morning or evening)
MashhadYazdIR950,00018½hrevery 2nd evening
TehranEsfahanIR350,0007½hrevery second day (overnight)
TehranGorganIR500,000/300,000 1st/2nd class10hrdaily (overnight)
TehranKermanIR700,000/500,000 1st/2nd class8-13hr14 daily
TehranTabrizIR500,00013hrdaily (overnight)
YazdKermanIR215,0006hr6am daily

Feature: Is This Seat Free?

Choosing where to sit on Iranian transport can be fraught with difficulty. On city buses, even married couples must sit separately: men at the front of the bus, women at the back.

In contrast, on intercity buses and minibuses, seating is arranged so that women sit next to women and men next to men, unless they’re couples or family. A woman is not expected to sit next to an unrelated man even if there’s only one spare seat left on the bus; people will move around until the gender mix is right.

But sometimes the opposite sex is impossible to avoid. In shared taxis, people pop in and out of the front and back like pinballs in an attempt to keep unrelated men and women apart. But when this proves impossible, you’ll end up next to someone of the opposite sex and no one will get too upset. On the metro, women can choose the women’s only carriages or squeeze in with the men. And on sleeper trains you might find yourself in a mixed compartment if you don’t specify that you want a single-sex compartment.

Feature: Driver Guides

The private drivers and guides (mostly men) that Lonely Planet recommends speak English and make a good, flexible alternative to more formal tours. They are often happy to meet visitors in Tehran and take country-wide tours.