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:
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.
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.
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.
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, often with the word ‘Ta’avoni’ or ‘Bus No One’ written on it.
For a bit more comfort, Seiro Safar 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.
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.
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.
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:
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 is a guide/fixer who specialises in helping people with carnet trouble and getting their cars across the border at the Astara crossing.
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.
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.
Your vehicle will need a carnet de passage and a green card, both of which you should organise before you arrive.
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.
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.
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 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.
Bus & Minibus
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 Metro, where possible, or 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 (sometimes) in Tehran, tickets must be bought at little booths along main streets, or at local bus terminals, before you get on the bus. Tickets cost a few cents.
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 when you get on or 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.
Minibuses service local suburban routes and are quite often 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. 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.
Metros are the great hope for Iranian cities slowly being strangled by traffic. The Tehran Metro is growing and Mashhad’s smaller metro is operating. The first phases of underground railways in Shiraz and Esfahan are scheduled, insh’Allah (God willing), to be operational shortly but, be warned – they've been saying that for years and were originally slated to begin services in 2013... Other cities with metros in the pipeline include Tabriz, Kermanshah and Ahvaz.
City taxis come in three main incarnations in Iran.
Dar Bast Na!
If you hail an empty taxi the driver will probably think you want to hire it privately. He might ask you: ‘Dar baste?’, which literally means ‘Closed door?’, or perhaps ‘agence?’ If you want to share, then make your intentions clear by leaning in and telling him simply ‘Nah dar baste’, or ‘No closed door’. He’ll soon let you know if he’s interested or not.
Shuttle (shared) Taxi
In most towns and cities, shared or shuttle taxis duplicate or even replace local bus services. They usually take up to five passengers: two in the front passenger seat and three in the back. Kia Prides and Samand make up the bulk of shuttle taxis. Note that shuttle taxis operate in cities, while savaris offer a similar service between towns.
Shuttle taxis travel between major meydans (squares) and along main roads, so the key to using them is to learn the names of the meydans along your intended route. There is a certain art to finding a shuttle taxi going your way. Start by stepping onto the road far enough for the driver to hear you shout your destination, but close enough to the kerb to dash back in the face of hurtling traffic. If the driver has a spare seat, he will slow down for a nanosecond while you shout your one-word destination – usually the name of a meydan. If he’s going your way he’ll stop.
When you want to get out simply say 'kheili mamnun' (thank you very much) or make any other obvious noise. Pay during the trip or when you get out; drivers appreciate exact change.
The government-regulated fares range from a few cents for short trips to a couple of dollars, depending on the distance, the city (Tehran is the most expensive) and the traffic. Try and see what other passengers are paying before handing over your money.
If you get into an empty shuttle taxi, particularly in Esfahan and Tehran, it might be assumed you want to charter it privately. Similarly, if everyone else gets out the driver might decide you are now a private fare. Clarify what you want by saying 'dar baste' (closed door) or 'nah dar baste'.
When trying to hail a shuttle taxi, don’t bother with anything along the lines of ‘Iran Hotel, on the corner of…’: the driver will have lost interest after the word ‘hotel’, picked up someone else and be halfway there before you know it. Use a major landmark or a town square as a destination, even if you are getting off before then. Shout it quickly and loudly: ‘FeDOSe!’ will do for Ferdosi St or Sq; similarly, ‘eHESHTe!’ for Beheshti St or Sq; and so on. The driver will either ignore you, or give you a quick beep on the horn and pull over for half a second while you leap in.
Any taxi without passengers, whether obviously a shared taxi or a more expensive private taxi (usually yellow), can be chartered to go anywhere in town; an act usually called ‘service’ or ‘agence’. Unless it’s a complicated deal, including waiting time, simply hail the vehicle, tell the driver where you want to go, and ask ‘chand toman?’. Immediately offer about 60% of what he suggests but expect to end up paying about 75% or 80% of the originally quoted price.
If your destination has no known street address, tell the driver the name of the place and the nearest square, main road or other landmark.
Agency taxis, or ‘telephone’ taxis, are ordered by phone. Any hotel can arrange an agency taxi (often with the manager’s brother behind the wheel). These are the most expensive taxis but you get a better car, the comfort of knowing there will be someone to complain to if anything goes wrong and, possibly, a driver who speaks English. One reader wrote to say that lone women are advised to get someone to call them a taxi if they’re travelling after dark, thus avoiding being hooted at or ignored by dozens of drivers as they try to hail one. Demand is such that Tehran and other cities (Yazd among them) have women-only taxis – female drivers, female passengers, no groping.
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.
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).
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.
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
|Esfahan||Shiraz||IR500,000||9hr||daily (morning or evening)|
|Mashhad||Yazd||IR950,000||18½hr||every 2nd evening|
|Tehran||Esfahan||IR350,000||7½hr||every second day (overnight)|
|Tehran||Gorgan||IR500,000/300,000 1st/2nd class||10hr||daily (overnight)|
|Tehran||Kerman||IR700,000/500,000 1st/2nd class||8-13hr||14 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.