Iranian transport is of high quality, and is very affordable. There are few places the very cheap buses don’t travel to, the train network is limited but comfortable and reasonably priced and travel by air is not expensive. The ticket prices are always fixed and you don’t have benefits of early bookings.
However, train stations and bus terminals are often located on the outskirts of their cities. As an extreme example, Shiraz Station is located farther away from the city center than Shiraz International Airport. Since city transport is notably underdeveloped, the cost of an intercity trip could mostly consist of taxi fares.
For anyone on a tight deadline, affordable domestic air services are a blessing. The major national carrier Iran Air, and its semi-private competitors such as Iran Aseman Airlines – Aseman meaning “sky” in Persian, Mahan Air and Kish Air link Tehran with most regional capitals and offer inter-regional flights for no more than US$60.
Their services are frequent, reliable and are definitely worth considering to skip the large distances within Iran. Planes are aging (although improved relations with Europe in recent decades has led to many orders and some deliveries of new planes), and maintenance and safety procedures are sometimes well below western standards, but it still remains the safest way to get around Iran, given the huge death toll on the roads.
Tupolev Tu-154 and other Russian planes aren’t used by some carriers and they change with MD82 or 83. However, the odds are you will board a Shah-era B727 or some more recent Fokker, ATR, Airbus A310 or even A320 if you’re lucky. Busy domestic routes were sometimes flown by B747SP, and the extra boarding and run-up time are worth the thrill of flying in one of the last of these shortened Jumbos still operated in the world. Saha Air, another internal Iranian airline, was also the last operator of the Boeing 707 in scheduled commercial passenger service. However, time has caught up with these aging machines, and they are no longer in service. If you insist on flying, try getting some of the new planes leased from Russia, or the newer Airbus ones.
Tickets can be bought at airports or travel agents dotted through the most major cities. Book early during the summer months of August and September since finding seats at short notice is virtually impossible. It is possible to pay extra to get onto a booked flight by bribing someone or paying them to take their seat on the plane. Some flights will auction off the last few seats to the highest bidder. For westerners, the conversion makes it easy to outbid everyone.
You can also find domestic tickets in some Iran Air offices abroad, such as in Dubai. Expect to pay a little more due to the exchange rate applied. Domestic tickets for other companies must be bought inside Iran.
If you are from a “western” country, some agencies are reluctant to let you book a domestic flight.
The Iranian domestic bus network is extensive and thanks to the low cost of fuel, very cheap. In fact the only drawback is speed: the government has limited buses to 80 km/h to combat lead-footed bus drivers so long haul trips such as Shiraz to Mashhad can take up to 20 hours.
There is little difference between the various bus companies, and most offer two classes: ‘lux’ or ‘Mercedes’ (2nd class) and ‘super’ or ‘Volvo’ (1st class). First class buses are air-conditioned and you will be provided with a small snack during your trip, while second class services are more frequent. Given the affordability of first class tickets (for example 70,000 rials from Esfehan to Shiraz), there’s little financial incentive to choose the second class services, especially in summer.
Buses start (and usually end) their journeys at sprawling bus stations, called “terminal” (ترمینال) in Farsi. On important routes such as Tehran–Esfahan they don’t stop along the route except at toll booths and rest areas. This probably shouldn’t discourage you from leaving a bus before its destination because most travellers would take a taxi from the terminal anyway.
You can buy tickets from the bus terminals or ticket offices up to a week in advance, but you shouldn’t have a problem finding a seat if you turn up to the terminal an hour or so before your intended departure time.
Most cities operate comprehensive local bus services, but given the low cost of taxis and the difficulties of reading Persian-language signs (which, unlike road signs, do not have English counterparts) and route numbers, they are of little use to the casual travellers. If you’re cash strapped and brave enough to try, however, remember that the buses are segregated. Men enter via the front or rear door and hand their ticket to the driver before taking a seat in the front half of the bus. Women and children should hand their ticket to the driver via the front doors (without actually getting on) before entering via the rear door to take a seat at the back. Tickets, usually around 500 rials, are sold from booths near most bus stops. Private buses accept cash instead of tickets. There is also rechargeable credit ticket cards accepted in buses and metro stations (in Tehran, paper tickets are not accepted in buses).
Raja Passenger Trains is the passenger rail system. Travelling by train through Iran is generally more comfortable and faster than speed-limited buses. Sleeper berths in overnight trains are especially good value as they allow you to get a good night’s sleep while saving on a night’s accommodation.
The rail network is comprised of three main trunks. The first stretches east to west across the north of the country linking the Turkish and Turkmenistan borders via Tabriz, Tehran and Mashhad. The second and third extend south of Tehran but split at Qom. One line connects to the Persian Gulf via Ahvaz and Arak, while the other traverses the country’s centre linking Kashan, Yazd, Kerman and Bandar Abbas.
Departures along mainlines are frequent. 6 to 7 daily trains leave Tehran for Kerman and Yazd, with additional three bound for Yazd and Bandar Abbas. Mashhad and Tehran are linked by some ten direct overnight trains, not counting services to Karaj, Qom, Kashan, etc. Direct services between main lines are rare, if any. For example, Esfahan and Yazd are connected by one train running every second day.
There are high-speed trains from Tehran to Mashhad and Bandar Abbas called Pardis. Another high-speed line connecting Tehran, Imam Khomeini Airport, Qom and Esfahan is under construction as of 2016.
Tickets can be bought from train stations up to one month before the date of departure, and it is wise to book at least a couple of days in advance during the peak domestic holiday months. First class tickets cost roughly twice the comparable bus fare.
Known as a “ghatar” in Persian; trains are probably the cheapest, safest, most reliable and easiest way to travel around the country. As an added benefit; you’ll get to meet the people, sample food and see other tourists. You also avoid all the checkpoints you will encounter driving on the road. Trains are frequently delayed so leave plenty of time between destinations.
By metro (subway):
- Tehran has 5 metro lines. One of these is essentially a suburban line going to Karaj and beyond.
- Mashhad has 1 underground line. It runs from Vakil Abad to Ghadir. Two further lines are to be added in the near future.
- Shiraz has one metro line.
- Isfahan has one metro line that connects Terminal-e Kaveh with northern parts of the city.
Low fuel costs have made inter-city travel by taxi a great value option in Iran. When travelling between cities up to 250 km apart, you may be able to hire one of the shared savāri taxis that loiter around bus terminals and train stations. taxis are faster than buses and Taxis will only leave when four paying passengers have been found, so if you’re in a hurry you can offer to pay for an extra seat.
Official shared local taxis or Savari, also ply the major roads of most cities. The taxis are generally yellow, and on busy routes there are green vans with a capacity of 11 passengers. They offer a lower fare for each passenger. They usually run straight lines between major squares and landmarks, and their set rates between 2,000-10,000 rials are dictated by the local governments.
Hailing one of these taxis is an art you’ll soon master. Stand on the side of the road with traffic flowing in your intended direction and flag down a passing cab. It will slow down fractionally, giving you about one second to shout your destination–pick a major nearby landmark instead of the full address–through the open passenger window. If the driver is interested, he’ll slow down enough for you to negotiate the details or simply accepts your route.
If you’re in a hurry, you can rent the taxi privately. Just shout the destination followed by the phrase dar bast (literally ‘closed door’) and the driver will almost be sure to stop. Negotiate the price before departure, but since you are paying for all the empty seats expect to pay four times the normal shared taxi fare.
You can also rent these taxis by the hour to visit a number of sites, but you can expect to pay from 40,000-70,000 rials/hr, depending on your bargaining skills.
Most of the taxis have “taximeters” but only ‘closed door’ green taxis use it.
There are several popular ride hailing services available in the major cities similar to Uber. Snapp and Tap30 are the major applications which can be installed on iOS and Android devices for free. You can pay in cash or if you have an Iranian debit card, you may pay in the app as well.
A large road network and low fuel costs (10,000 rials/L for Iranians in Oct 2017) have historically made Iran an attractive country for exploring with your own car. However a government fuel tax on foreigners entering Iran by private car has somewhat dimmed the allure.
Foreigners arriving in Iran with their own car must have a Carnet de passage and a valid international drivers’ license. Petrol stations can be found on the outskirts of all cities and towns and in car-filled Iran, a mechanic is never far away.
Do not underestimate the sheer chaos of Iran’s traffic. The often ignored road rules state that you must drive on the right unless overtaking and give way to traffic coming on to a roundabout. Drivers frequently top 160 km/h (100 mph) on intercity highways. Laws requiring car occupants to wear seat belts for rear passengers are not always complied with.
Motorcycles are sometimes seen transporting up to five people, without helmets.
Avoid large rocks in the middle of highway. These are often placed there in an attempt to burst your tires. Afterward, a passerby will offer to replace your tire for US$50. This is of course a scam that occurs mostly at nighttime but has diminished due to aggressive policing.
You can also rent a car, usually for US$20-50 a day. Insurance and legal liability may make you think twice about renting a car, especially considering the fact that renting a car with a driver usually costs the same.
People are not allowed to carry their pet even in their private car and will receive driving penalties if caught by the Police.
Iranian roads and major streets usually feature traffic enforcement cameras.