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A Guide to Traveling and Flying in Iran

By Alex Ananian-Cooper
April 12, 2006

For the civil aviation buff, Iran has got it all: uncommon planes, great spotting opportunities, and a chance to ride a B707. Alex Ananian-Cooper has prepared a thorough field guide to traveling to and within Iran, and offers valuable insights for those who would like to take advantage of Iran's unique aviation highlights.

Introduction


Iran is the aviation enthusiast’s dream. Full of aircraft in regular passenger service that are scarcely seen elsewhere, airlines that are otherwise never heard of, and airfares that are cheaper than busses in the western world.

The B707 in service with SAHA Air is definitely a highlight, being the last regularly flown B707 in revenue passenger service. However, even in the living aviation graveyard of Iran, its days are said to be numbered, so if you’re thinking of travelling to Iran, make those plans now! Iran is also the place to fly B727s, TU154s and older A300s and A310s.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Stuart Haigh


But just flying the 707 isn’t everything. The views both of the city of Tehran and the natural features around Iran as seen from the aircraft are breathtaking. A seat on a left-hand window flying Tehran-Mashad, for example, yields the most incredible mountain scenery. A clear day landing in Tehran is another sight entirely, as is the vast expanse of desert to the south.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Sam Chui



Photo © Alex Ananian-Cooper


Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Christian Waser


Iran is also ‘jumpseat paradise’. Of five domestic flights I took, I sat in the cockpit for landing on three occasions (including the B707) and visited the cockpit in-flight on a fourth flight. This is not to say it is easy—the security officer is often suspicious of these things, but I found a little note (in my case attached to a questionnaire seeking details on the flight) handed to the flight crew via the flight attendants on boarding did the trick.

Photographers—Iran is a difficult place for aviation photography. While there are great spots for spotting (one roundabout near the landing threshold at Tehran is particularly good—talk to the local spotters!), you have to be constantly vigilant for the police, especially as many of the major civilian airports (including Tehran Mehrabad) are also military airports. Photography is not allowed, but that said, a few ‘tourist’ snaps inside the aircraft and looking at the aircraft you are boarding never created any problems for me. Because I am not a dedicated photographer and don’t have any fancy equipment, I don’t know if professional-looking equipment might perhaps prompt extra questions from customs on arrival. My simple advice—be careful. From what I saw, the local enthusiasts enjoyed watching but not photographing. Scanners were also illegal.

Finally, Iran shouldn’t be seen only from the window of an aircraft. While you should absolutely take advantage of the amazing flying, take some time to see the equally amazing cities and meet the incredibly hospitable people. If possible, make contact with some local aviation enthusiasts who like nothing more than meeting (and assisting in every way they can) foreign enthusiasts—many of these people have very little contact with the outside world, so they embrace foreigners!

The following information should help you in planning this trip, should you now be inspired to visit Iran.

First – debunk the myths:


• MYTH: Going to Iran is crazy, it is not safe, you will be persecuted (you will hear this from all your family and friends)
• RESPONSE: While the political situation can be volatile (and you must always check what is going on before entering Iran), Iran is a very, very safe country, probably safer than many others around the world. The people are incredibly friendly and hospitable.

• MYTH: There’s no way I can get a visa.
• RESPONSE: See below. For many nationalities, visas are available now on arrival on payment of USD50. Expensive maybe, but very easy. This sadly doesn’t apply if you are a) American or British b) Jewish or c) have been to Israel.

• MYTH: No-one will speak English – it will be impossible to get around.
• RESPONSE: Not true, I found there was always someone who spoke enough English to make myself understood and get what I needed. It’s not to say it’s easy, but I never had any trouble getting around.

• MYTH: As a foreigner, I will be treated with suspicion.
• RESPONSE: Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is foreigners in Iran these days are rare, and people are genuinely thrilled that you have decided to come and will do everything they can to help, from offering you lifts, to inviting you home to meet their family and offer you dinner. My one experience with the police showed that they too respect and treat foreigners extremely well.

Getting to/from Iran:


There are a surprising amount of options to fly into Iran. If you want a major international carrier, quite a few offer flights to Tehran, such as British Airlines, Air France, Emirates, and Qatar Airways, to name a few.

Iran Air also has flights from many international destinations—if coming from Asia, taking their one and only remaining B747SP from Beijing is an attractive way to go. Most of their flights to and from Europe are operated by A310-300 equipment (all but one of their rare A310-200s are unfortunately grounded due to lack of spare parts).

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Jan Jørgensen


Mahan Air is also a growing international carrier—currently their A310 and A300 operate from Manchester, Birmingham and Dusseldorf in Europe and Bangkok, Manila and Shanghai in Asia. Their Indian flights are operated by A320 or sometimes TU204.

By far the easiest point of entry is Dubai, with heaps of options not only to Tehran but also the larger regional centres. There are also some mouth-watering choices of aircraft and airlines.

The cheapest option is without doubt the successful low cost carrier Air Arabia operating from Sharjah, 15km from Dubai (essentially Dubai’s second airport). They have only just started flights 3 times a week with A320s.

Mainstream airline options include Iran Air A310-300s operating to Tehran but also into Isfahan, Shiraz and other regional ports in Iran. Emirates offers regular flights to Tehran with a mix of aircraft including A330-200s and A340-300s.

Terminal 2 at Dubai also sees flights from:
- Iran Aseman Airlines (2-3 times daily to Tehran with 727s and F100s, and F100s to other regional cities).
- Mahan Air (daily flights to Tehran with a leased TU204-200).
- Kish Air (several daily flights to Kish Island with F50s and sometimes MD80 flights to Tehran).
- Caspian Airlines (flights to Tehran with TU154).

Ad-hoc flights into Dubai are also sometimes offered by other Iranian Airlines.

I found the cheapest for me (excluding Air Arabia) was Mahan Air to Tehran for approx USD200 return including taxes. To be honest I wasn’t too concerned about what I paid because it was the TU204 operating the flights that I was keen on. However, most airlines have pretty similar rates, although Emirates is more expensive. Although all flights on Iranian airlines are supposed to have fares set by the government, and all on a one-way basis (and this is adhered to strictly on domestic routes), I found that on the international flights, it was always cheaper buying a return ticket and that there were some differences in ticket prices.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Konstantin von Wedelstaedt


Booking on Iranian Airlines (apart from Iran Air) operating these international flights is quite complex. Mahan Air was available through my local travel agent’s booking system BUT they could find no ticket stock that would accept to print it, so they had to turn me down. The others aren’t even available at all; some don’t even appear as options in the schedules. Really the only way to go about it is to phone the airline’s office at the point of the flight’s departure (eg: Dubai) and make the booking over the phone. You then pay for and collect your ticket on arrival. Sounds easy, and in the case of Mahan, they assured me all would be fine. But when I arrived in Dubai, my reservation had been cancelled in their system due to non-payment (I had been assured this would be sorted out in my case!), and they were forced to issue a new ticket on the spot. This was no problem as there was plenty of availability, but it could become a major issue if the flights are full! If you have a friend or contact in Dubai who can actually pay for and pick up the ticket on the spot, I would suggest using those means.

The best way of finding out what airlines actually fly the route is to check a few days worth of the departure/arrival screens of the Tehran airports, for the IKIA airport, and for Mehrabad Airport. You can also go to the Dubai Airports website to check departures from Dubai.

The major international airports (though not all – so CHECK) offer the visa on arrival option—basically this is a 7-day visa (I have heard rumours of this being extended to 15-days, but it was not offered to me, so I would not rely on more than 7 days) for tourist purposes only, in exchange for USD50. Make sure you have the correct amount—there’s no guarantee they will have change for a USD100 note for example!

Obviously, check carefully on the rules before you go, in case the rules have altered or the visa on arrival has been abolished. The details of applicable nationalities and which airports offer the arrival visa are listed on this website (look in the ‘conditions’ box). The site offers you the chance to pre-register but I don’t think it’s worth the hassle or expense. I didn’t pre-register and I still had my visa in 5 minutes. Note the requirements of a confirmed return ticket out of Iran (they checked my ticket carefully) and the 6-month passport validity (a common requirement). Once you have the visa, join the immigration queue and you’re through and into Iran in no time at all.

The Tehran airport situation


Flights into Tehran now operate into two separate airports. The rule of thumb basically is that all international flights to the Middle East operate from the new Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA) – IATA code IKA, except flights to/from Turkey. All others still operate to/from the centrally located Mehrabad Airport – IATA code THR. However, I believe Mahan Air may have chosen to operate all its international services from the new airport. Once again, check!

IKIA is a long, long way from Tehran and from the other airport (I’d be guessing 75km?), so if you plan on transiting flights or going into Tehran, give yourself plenty of time. Also remember Tehran traffic during the day is as bad as you will see anywhere, so you may need to build in several hours if planning to commute in peak times. There is no train or regular bus service that I know of, you will be reliant on taxis or the generosity of the locals.

The new airport terminal is quite nice – very modern, functional and while it does not have much retail, it does have everything else one would expect from a modern airport.

Mehrabad Airport is separated into three terminals – International, Domestic departure and Domestic arrivals. All are quite close to one another (especially the two domestic terminals) and are easily reached on foot. The airport is very old, so don’t expect any amazing facilities, but everything is functional, and generally you will find what you need.

I’m not aware of other cities with 2 airports, but quite often the International terminal is far removed from the Domestic one, and domestic arrivals and departures are also often split (though never seemingly that far apart).

Booking and travelling on Iranian domestic flights


Again, with the notable exception of Iran Air, it is pretty much impossible to book domestic flights outside Iran. There are no online booking systems available.

You have a couple of options:
1) Get a friend or contact in Iran to book the flights for you
2) Somehow get in touch with a travel agent in Iran to book the flights for you (but paying them in advance will be an issue – no such thing as credit cards in Iran)
3) Book the flights when you arrive—this is risky because flights are cheap and are often 100% full.

I have a contact in Iran who is willing to assist spotters for a small fee to cover his expenses. Feel free to contact me if you want more information on this.

Domestic flights have prices set by government and are incredibly cheap by western standards: if you are charged USD20 for a flight, this is no mistake. Also, prices are constant across all airlines, so you might as well mix and match to try different airlines. Prices are all per one-way sector and exactly double for the return, so again this offers great flexibility.

You will need to show photographic ID when booking tickets (when getting a friend to book the ticket, I had to send a scanned copy of my passport). Hotels in Iran usually insist on holding your passport, so if booking flights in Iran, bring a colour photocopy of the passport to show to the travel agent.

Check-in generally commences about 90 minutes to 2 hours before the flight, but I have seen it open less than one hour before the flight. Check-in desks are allocated for each individual flight, so don’t turn up early when another flight is checking in and expect to get your boarding pass.

Check-in is an extremely fast and simple process. No ID is checked, so if you wanted to risk using someone else’s ticket, you’d probably get away with it. You give your ticket and are given a small cardboard boarding pass in return with a sticker showing seat allocation stuck to it. They don’t bother filling in the other spaces (name, flight no., destination, gate etc). The process (without luggage) takes 5 seconds flat. If you have luggage, the usual applies – a label is placed on the luggage and a receipt attached to either your ticket receipt or boarding pass.

Note that upon entering the terminal building, you and all of your luggage will have been X-rayed.

You then pass through a second X-ray with your hand luggage (note there are separate entries for men and women) and into the boarding gate area. In all my Iran flying, I saw no domestic terminal with airbridges, so all boarding is conducted by bus, except where the aircraft is close enough to the terminal to walk. In Tehran, a bus is used in ALL cases. Some airports don’t have screens announcing the boarding of a particular flight; some don’t make announcements in English. So find someone going where you’re going and keep an eye on them. I almost missed a flight by not knowing when the flight was boarding. Tehran is very good with plenty of digital flight information screens in English.

Most flights offer a full meal as part of the catering, which is mostly quite acceptable. Alcohol is banned in Iran so don’t expect a glass of wine with dinner (and don’t bring any in your luggage)! Newspapers are available, and usually a couple of copies of the English-language ‘Iran News’ is available on request. Seating is allocated on all flights and is adhered to. There are no inflight entertainment systems that I came across, though many of the airlines do have complimentary inflight magazines with small English-language sections.

On arrival you will go to the arrival terminal, which is often separate to the departure terminal (though mostly adjacent). There the standard procedure occurs – any baggage retrieved (your baggage receipt is checked and surrendered) and then into the arrivals area, where meeters and greeters (and many taxi-touts) await. In major cities, there is often a useful information, hotel and tourism counter.

In all my experiences, flights have been on time and reliable, weather permitting of course. I saw little evidence of cancelled flights or long unexplained delays.

Airlines operating domestic flights


Iran Air (IR) is the main state airline, with flights to all major and many minor destinations. The mainstay of the domestic fleet is the F100 with some flights still operated by B727 and A310s. Their website has a great timetable and availability search function, though as yet no English language online booking.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Konstantin von Wedelstaedt


Iran Aseman Airlines (EP) is the second largest domestic airline, with most flights also operated by the F100, again backed up by the 727, though most 727 flights are dedicated to the Dubai-Tehran flights. Their website has an accurate timetable search function.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Dmitriy Pichugin


Iran Air Tours (B9) (site currently under construction – use Iran Air website which has most but not all of their flights in their schedules) is a subsidiary of Iran Air operating exclusively TU154Ms, some still in hybrid livery (I saw a Siberia airlines tail in Shiraz). Their tickets can often be booked through the Iran Air system, which is very useful, being the only widely available (including abroad) airlines reservations system in Iran. They fly only on major domestic routes as well as some Tehran-avoiding point-to-point flights, which can prove very helpful, such as, for example, Mashad-Shiraz.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Christian Waser


Saha Air (IRZ), the spotters dream, flies 2 B707-300s. They had three but one crashed on landing in Tehran in 2005 – the plane can still be seen on takeoff from the left of the aircraft. Schedules are irregular, only determined 2-3 months in advance and impossible to get outside Iran. You will need inside help. Flights are generally to Kish Island, Mashad and Assaluyeh, but this does vary – I have also heard of flights to Isfahan. Flights do not operate daily, so you need to be flexible. The airline is owned and run by the Iranian military, so do not expect to find many female flight attendants!


Photo © Alex Ananian-Cooper


Mahan Air (W5) operates a mixed fleet of A310, A300, TU204, TU154, MD80 and A320. The first 3 aircraft types are almost exclusively on Mahan’s international flights. Flights are more limited than the 2 majors but Mahan also operate a number of Tehran-avoiding services from its hubs in Mashad, Kerman and Assaluyeh (see a route map). Their website’s timetable page wasn’t working last time I checked.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Yakfreak


Aria Air (IRX) operates a limited number of TU154s on domestic flights and some regional flights. Schedules are determined on a week-by-week basis, and it is really the case of finding out when you are there if you can fit a flight of theirs into your schedule. The same applies to the new start Eram Air (IRY I think) also operating TU154s.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Christian Waser


Safiran Airlines (SFN) operate a leased B737 from Turkey’s Corendon.com and operated limited domestic flights. It is also the operator of the only IR(AN)140 turboprop (Iranian assembled AN-140), but this is not flying until further notice.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Arash Naghib-Lahouti


Caspian Airlines (RV) operate TU154s to regional international destinations such as Dubai, Yerevan (Armenia), Damascus and Kiev as well as domestic flights to Ahvaz, Tabriz and Mashad.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Olaf Juergensmeier


Kish Airline (Y9) is quite a large airline based out of the resort island of Kish. It has a varied fleet comprising 3 MD-80s, 2 TU154Ms and 6 F50s. It operates a number of domestic flights (not just to/from Kish) and regional international flights such as into Dubai with F50s and sometimes MD80s. The website isn’t bad, but their online timetable is confusing and I don’t think very accurate.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Peter Pontoppidan


Qeshm Air (IRQ) mainly operates cargo services with IL76s, but operates a single leased A321 on passenger flights to/from Qeshm Island and also limited other domestic services (esp. Mashad-Tehran). Their website doesn’t seem to have any information on their passenger services.

Click here for full size photo!
Photo © Shary(Shahram)


There may well be some other airlines operating, and some of the above may be a little unreliable in terms of operating at all times. Once again, a good way of checking is by looking at the Tehran (Mehrabad) online departure/arrival information.

Other useful info


The Iranian Civil Aviation Organisation have a good website with information and links. Until mid 2005 they also offered a timetable search facility for all Iranian airlines on all domestic routes, which was GREAT. However, it hasn’t been updated and so is unusable until new timetables are loaded. It’s worth checking to see if it’s back up and running. The site can be slow, but it’s worth looking around.

Iranian visa information can be sought from iranvisa.com—this is a commercial site but also has all the up to date info on things such as the visa on arrival.

For travelling around Iran generally, I found the Lonely Planet guide to be up to date (2005 edition) and very useful—it’s a worthwhile investment.

Note that you should be careful what you bring into Iran. My luggage was never searched, but there is a strict ban on alcohol, on pornography and western magazines are frowned upon (especially if they are either political or have scantily clad women in them).

Women must wear a headscarf at all times in Iran – no exceptions or leniency. There is no need for the face-covering cloth that you see in some Islamic countries. Body-tight clothing (anything which might reveals your curves) is a no-no. While women can and do travel alone in Iran, it is not as easy as for men. As a woman, you are best to travel with a male, and a fake wedding ring will make life easier too. Men should also dress conservatively.

Iran is strictly a cash economy. Due to embargoes, no credit cards work anywhere in Iran, so make sure you have in USD all the money you will need on the trip, and probably then some as back up (ATMs do exist but strictly for people with cards from Iranian banks – nothing foreign). Keep the money in several separate places in case of theft. Also, when converting from USD into Rials, be prepared to feel like a Mafia gangster—changing 200USD made me a millionaire in one hit (about 1.8m rials to be exact). And given the largest denomination note is 20,000 rials, you almost do need a suitcase to carry the cash around in. Another confusing thing is that many Iranians quote things in Tomans to make it easier. 1 Toman = 10 Rials. So if you’re told something costs “10,000”, it’s likely to actually be 100,000 rials: always worth asking. However it’s purely a convention—there actually isn’t any money printed in Tomans, so when looking at notes etc, remember it’s always in Rials!

Finally, if you are making all that effort to go to Iran, please don’t spend all the time flying. There are some amazing sites to see and I found that with a 7-day tourist visa I was not only able to get some good flying in, but got to see some incredible sites – Isfahan and Shiraz are two cities well worth a visit to, but there is plenty more to see!

Feel free to email me with any questions—apa_c@hotmail.com.


Photo © Alex Ananian-Cooper

Written by
Alex Ananian-Cooper

Apart from working in management in the aviation industry in Australia, Alex Ananian-Cooper is an avid traveler and ventures regularly to many and varied corners of the world both to experience the people, culture and countryside but to seek out some of the more interesting aviation experiences. His passion is achieving the most interesting and varied "flight logbook" (spreadsheet detailing flights traveled on) possible for the smallest capital investment! He has currently flown over 550 sectors and almost 1 million kilometers. Alex has also published several articles as a freelance writer for Australian Aviation magazine on various airline and airport related matters.

11 User Comments:
Username: Bofredrik [User Info]
Posted 2006-04-19 10:38:27 and read 32768 times.

Fantastic info! I give it ***** Stars!

Username: Luzezito [User Info]
Posted 2006-04-20 14:27:24 and read 32768 times.

Hello Alex,

a great thanks for this extensive article. My best friend's parents live and work in Iran and they have also repeatedly told me that it is a fantastic place to live. Locals are helpful, modern and full of life.

My friend has had the chance to hop onto Iran air's 747SP and said it was an experience, especially because of the dated inside colours.

I myself have lived in Russia some years ago and have repeatedly tried to give the real portray of a country often despised by too many "modern" aviation lovers in this site

In any case articles like yours have further opened my minds and eyes and reading it would do much good among some of the members of this site.

Again, thank you Alex

Username: Rotate [User Info]
Posted 2006-04-26 15:49:50 and read 32768 times.

Very informative! I would love to go there, but the NO NO situation on photography is a problem for me.

Robin

Username: Brokenrecord [User Info]
Posted 2006-04-27 03:07:23 and read 32768 times.

Great article! I would love to visit as well, but I have 2 strikes against me. I'm a US citizen, and security cleared by the US gov't, which makes travel to some locations risky for me upon return as I would need to have a good excuse.

Username: Aussie_ [User Info]
Posted 2006-04-28 00:10:28 and read 32768 times.

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Brokenrecord: you mean planespotting and flying on the last 707 is not a good excuse?? lol...! But seriously, I know just what you mean. I'm security cleared by my government, but I think they're a little bit easier on us in respect of those things than perhaps the US, so I haven't been asked anything.

Username: Falcon50B [User Info]
Posted 2006-04-30 01:05:54 and read 32768 times.

Very good article.Having traveled to Iran myself 12 times Teheran and Isfahan.I am a us citizen but i have dual nationality so didnt have any problems.Very nice people
As a crew to get into the airport for our departures took forever,you have to arrive at least 5 hours prior but that has improved substantially.Alway came in and already had a visa but you can buy one upon arrival.

Username: Maxleo66 [User Info]
Posted 2006-08-15 14:30:43 and read 32768 times.

Wow! Congratulations for such an informative and extensive article.
One thing I would like to say, if I am allowed to....

among the major airlines operating to Tehran, you mention British Airlines....

The airline operating the route is British Mediterranean Airways, now renamed BMed (www.flybmed.com) operating a daily service to Terhan Mehrabad airport from London's Heathrow Terminal 4.
BMed is an independant franchise carrier of British Airwasy, so bookings can be made on www.ba.com Aircraft livery and classes available on their planes are the same as BA.

Regards,
M.

Username: Mazmanr [User Info]
Posted 2006-10-18 19:16:23 and read 32768 times.

I was born in Iran (live in Canada now), and I found your article quite interesting.

Great job.

Username: UK_Dispatcher [User Info]
Posted 2006-10-23 02:42:29 and read 32768 times.

Very interesting article.

I am British but live in Abu Dhabi, so taking a trip to Iran would be so easy for me. I have been wanting to go and fly on the B707 for some time, but sadly my Iran visa application was denied.

Gutted.

Username: Cedarjet [User Info]
Posted 2006-11-13 04:03:48 and read 32768 times.

I went to Iran last month and flew Saha's 707s twice and it was amazing, beautiful beautiful beautiful old planes, 60s interior with a lounge at the front, the whole works. Very reliable airline, both flights rolled off stand on time to the minute.

Wanted to add here, that Saha have just added a third 707 to replace the one that crashed on landing last year. So I think they're going to stick with the 707 for a while longer, god bless them.

And yes indeed, Iran is the friendliest country I've ever visited, and yes indeed, I changed 200 Euros on arrival and felt EXACTLY like a gangster, I could barely zip up my bag, it was so crammed with bundles of Rials.

Thanks for a great article, spread the word about this unique country and the most awesome flying experience in commercial aviation today - Saha's 707s.

Username: Gholami [User Info]
Posted 2007-05-13 06:19:10 and read 32768 times.

Hello all, I'm iranian and I'll glad to visit other citizen of countries in IRAN. Also I realy want to see other Iranian - who are living in other countries - in OUR BIG IRAN.

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