American citizens and a Tour in Iran
American citizens can receive a tourist visa for Iran only if they are on an organized tour. Fortunately, for those of us who do not care to be in a tour group, the tour can be a tour for two or even one, as long as it is guided and with a recognized tour agency. For our tour, we used the widely recommended Pars Tourist Agency (www.key2persia.com), based in Shiraz.
After looking through Pars’s website and researching some Iran guidebooks, we put together a 30 day itinerary for our two-person tour, and asked Pars for a quote. Zahra, our contact at Pars, communicated well in English over both email and phone and was reasonably responsive. First, Pars suggested that we change our itinerary to 25 days, as maxing out the 30-day visa period would not be viewed favorably by the foreign ministry in its review of our application (all visa approvals for U.S. citizens are handled through Tehran directly). For a personalized guided tour for two using public transportation (a budget option that Pars calls “Iran Life”), Pars quoted approximately $1500 per person for the 25 days, including transportation, lodging (with breakfast), a guide and entrance fees, and about $1000 per person additional to have a private car. Shortly after we arrived in Iran and after in-person discussion with Pars, we modified our itinerary to 28 days, for which we were charged $1650 per person.
An American in Tehran
We had had a few concerns about our tour. First and foremost, we were concerned that the “guide” requirement meant that we would not be able to spend time by ourselves, interacting with Iranian people. This fear was totally unfounded. We were able to spend as much time as we wanted wandering the cities alone, either when our sightseeing program was over or when we felt like being alone (we’d just tell our guide when we’d next like his company). In places such as Esfahan and Tehran, where our itinerary had ample time, we spent entire days alone, unfettered by our guide. In truth, it was often good to have him around, since he acted as an interpreter better facilitating our interaction with locals. Our concern that the guide worked as a pair of ears for the Iranian government was also without any basis.
Second, we were concerned that our budget “Iran Life” trip would not allow us to see everything we wanted in the time we had, because we would always have to track down public transportation. This was also unfounded. Whenever necessary or optimal, our guide would commission taxis (or share taxis), allowing us to see essentially everything we wanted quite efficiently. If anything, I thought that our tour was probably more comfortable in the end, since the truly long stretches were done by modern bus, far better than sitting in a car for hours at a time. Especially given the necessity of hiring taxis for day trips, we thought that the tour was very good value. The standard of lodging varied but was generally quite acceptable, and I’m not sure that we could have paid for much more than transportation, lodging and admissions with the amount we paid for our tour (seemingly leaving Pars not much profit after paying the guide, although I’m sure that their negotiated rates for the hotels are better than we could arrange for ourselves). [In terms of expenses, it may be worth establishing whether you will pay for your guide's meals. Our first guide assumed that he would pay for his own meals, while our second guide was somewhat ambiguous on the point until we expressed what the first guide did.] Pars also helped us arrange, at some additional cost, the initial approval process for our transit visas for Turkmenistan, which was very convenient.
So, positive things aside, some criticisms:
The quality of the guides is variable. We ended up having three guides on the trip, one for the first two days, a second for the rest of the trip (save one day, when he had to run an errand) and a third for that one day. Of the three, we felt that two were excellent (both in terms of knowledge and attitude) while one was seriously deficient. He was a nice enough guy, and did what we asked, but his knowledge of the sites was substandard (noticeably less than Lonely Planet, which really should serve as a baseline for a guide anywhere) and at times we did not feel that he was totally honest with us (a long ordeal involving a train reservation that nagged us for several days of our trip). (We think that we may have gotten a poorer guide in part because our itinerary was relatively tiring and demanding (one person called it a “marathon tour”), although we don’t know for sure.) All things considered, this problem wasn’t a deal-breaker for us–we’re pretty self-sufficient with books on background information and as I said the tour was reasonable value not including the guide. It would have been better, however, to work before the tour at securing just the right guide. [This is tricky of course, on your first tour, but I can suggest a name if you email me!]
There were a few problems with hotel reservations. Since our guide did all of the work on planning our sightseeing and transportation, during the tour Pars–that is, the office–really only had to worry about our hotel reservations. Unfortunately, this process was not without glitches, which proved quite frustrating to us (and our guide) on the ground. It would be helpful if Pars (or one’s guide, as we requested after the second incident) confirmed each hotel reservation immediately before the tourists’ arrival. In one incident, the faulty reservation meant that we suffered what seemed to us to be a severe downgrade in lodging, which royally pissed us off and severely impacted our first half day in Esfahan in terms of time and aggravation.
Iranian local Tourist Agency
Be clear about the sites you want to see, and if there are any that are particularly time-consuming or out of the way, be proactive in making it happen. Our initial itinerary with Pars only included a rough outline of the places we wanted to visit, including names of cities and certain attractions. We expected that Pars would fill in the details, and, for the most part, they did. When our itinerary specifically included places that were a bit out of the way, however, we had to be fairly persistent with our guide to sure that we ended up going. After the first few days, we also made sure that we visited the sites we wanted to in the order we wanted to, going over our itinerary with the guide in advance. Bottom line: If you know what you want to see, be fairly aggressive and do not shy from handholding your guide there.