This article was originally posted on Travestyle.com
When planning a trip to Iran everyone will eventually come to the stage where they’ll have to choose between joining a tour provided by a company or having it all in their own hands. For some nationalities such as Americans, British and Canadians the choice is rather easy. Since these nationalities are required to join an organized tour in order to obtain a visa, choices are rather limited. But through my own experience and the emails I receive from readers this seems to be an issue they are all confused about. Today I thought I’d get deep into the subject and give you a clear understanding of the circumstances no matter what your choice may be.
So let’s get right into it:
From what I’ve seen this is usually directed toward tourists who enjoy the comfort of having a bus drop them off and pick them up at every attraction and don’t like to worry about getting lost or finding a decent place to eat. Most people who choose to travel this way are over 40, are well traveled and have a decent knowledge of Iran and its history. They usually opt for cultural tours and appreciate a guide who’s knowledgeable and can answer all their doubts on Iranian culture and history.
Pros: You’ll have a carefree journey, get to tick off many attractions from your list and you’ll stay in a nice hotel and eat in some of the best restaurants. Since you’ll have transportation right at your service full time, you will get the most out of your visit in terms of the number of places you will see. There won’t be much wasted time and you’ll have someone who will explain you inch by inch of Persepolis. Having people who are normally from your own country and speak your language around all the time is kind of nice. You will make long lasting friendships and getting to share the experience with others is actually rewarding.
Cons: If you’re in your late 20’s and thinking of joining a tour beware that your fellow travelers might be a lot older than you. This is not always but from what I’ve seen it’s 90% of the time. Perhaps they’re not willing to stay up late and wander around the streets. They prefer to sleep early and wake up even earlier. Everything depends on you. As a guide I travelled with people who were much older than me and had a fabulous time. We even took selfies and stood up until mid-night chatting in the middle of Nash-e Jahan square in Esfahan. But than you never know whom you end up with. So pack yourself some tolerance and be ready to adapt yourself to any situation.
While it’s nice to have familiar faces around, you’re not really here to speak your own language. If you’re into getting in touch with the locals, making connections and befriending a few Iranians, it’s very unlikely this will happen in a group tour. But then it all depends on what tour you’re joining.
Most arranged tours are very much focused on destinations rather than experiences. You might be able to see 5 major Iranian cities in just 2 weeks along with a few smaller towns and you’ll have a huge collection of photos to take back home, but you’d actually need a few days of rest when you’re back since you’ve been on the rush the whole journey. Some of you will prefer slower travel, you’d like to sit down and chat with a local for more than a few minutes or even sit in front of Arg-e Karim khan in Shiraz and binge on your scoop of luscious saffron ice cream and Faloodeh like the locals do. This can be a bit hard when you’ve got an itinerary that has to be checked by the end of the day and no guide will want you to miss on that.
So what if I hold an American/British/Canadian passport but I still want to have things my own way???
You always have the option of requesting a tailor made tour. You choose a company, tell them exactly what you want and where you’d like to visit and they’ll have it all arranged for you. The only condition is that a guide will escort you all the time. Don’t think of the guide as some police officer who’s there to make sure you’re not a spy, they are actually there to make sure you have fun and most of them are not even that serious.
But a tailor made trip for one or two is expensive! So what if you don’t have the money? Well, my best suggestion would be to arrange your own group. See if there are any friends or family who’d like to join you on the trip. This way you’ll pull the strings yourself, split the costs with others and get to share the experiences with only those you want.
What’s the difference between choosing an Iranian agency or one that’s from my own country??
There’s really not much. Most people prefer to travel with a company they know of in their own country. They get to arrange things in person which is kind of reassuring and they’ll know that if anything goes wrong they can file a reclamation according to laws they are familiar with. But this is usually for those who are a bit skeptical. When I asked some of my own tourists why they didn’t choose an Iranian company instead, they responded that it was just to be sure that if something didn’t go as plan they could just go back home and ask for a refund while with an Iranian company that would be extremely difficult. But you must all know that whichever agency you choose in the world in the end it’s their Iranian partner who does the real job. A foreign agency cannot provide you with visa or arrange your bookings alone. The simply do not have the authority. So what happens is that they either sell you a tour from an Iranian agency or request their own tour from them. They will increase the price by about 20% and take their own commission out of it.
The same tourists I questioned responded that they would choose an Iranian operator the next time they travel. Because they realized Iran wasn’t that complicated after all and there’s no reason to pay more when you can get the same service cheaper.
Iran is just starting to bloom with tourists and there’s a tough competition going on between all the agencies. No one wants an unhappy client who’s going to discriminate their reputation as soon as they get back home so they will all do whatever they can to make sure you had one hell of a time.
Which agency should I choose?
I’m really in no place to provide you with the right info on this one. While I work with a few really good ones and recommend them to those who ask for it, I don’t know many of them. So I’m not going to take sides.
Usually the more experienced operators are those who participate in International tourist fairs around the world on a regular basis. So that would be a good thing to consider. You could also drop them a line and ask who their partners are in your own country or continent. If they’ve got a legit partner that you know of then you’ll know they are to be trusted.
This includes most of you who follow my blog. Because you’re here to do your own research before you leave.
Pros: You get to pull the strings. You travel at your own pace and get to visit wherever you want. You’ll make many friends and even be invited to spend time with locals, which is always a bonus point. Your cost of travel will be much lower and you’ll always have the flexibility of adjusting things to your budget.
Cons: You’d have to do a ton of research and considering information on Iran is not as available as other countries it might be a bit difficult. I’d say check Trip Advisor as much as you can and don’t be intimidated to send a message to a local on the internet and ask your questions. You’ll find that Iranians are extremely helpful with that. Trust me on this one!
Travel blogs on Iran are limited but give you the most genuine information out there. People are there to write of their actual experience and are not gaining money to give you certain information.
There are chances that you might get lost or have difficulty interacting with locals because of the language barrier in smaller towns but that’s part of the journey itself.
You’ll read here and there that couchsurfing is illegal in Iran but nevertheless popular. It’s really not illegal like they put it but from what I know hosting foreigners at your home needs some sort of permission in Iran. Well guess what? No one gives a damn! And the government is very much aware of this and even acknowledges it so I guess it’s some law they’ve put up ages ago and someone hasn’t found the time to go up and change it! Feel free to find hosts through couch surfing if that’s your thing. Their community is actually really big in Iran and there are many backpackers who are already doing it.
I know this was one rambly post but I wanted to make sure I cover everything that could help you make the right decision. If you have any other doubts regarding this issue, please make sure you point them out in the comment section and I’ll be sure to update this post with the answers.
The Iran section of my blog provides a huge range of guides, from safety to dress code and destinations, which are all from my personal experience. Feel free to check those out.