“Amricouri! Amricouri!” That was the yell across the terminal from the passport officer as I smilingly placed my passport on the passport control counter of the Shiraz airport in Iran. Everyone in the airport stared at the lone American (me) that had just flown in on the very late flight from Istanbul. It was 1:30AM and most people just wanted to clear immigration so they could get home or to their places for the night. The estimate is that only about 1,000 – 1,5000 Americans visit Iran each year, so it was surely a novelty to see one. One way to stand out! 🙂
Another official came up to the counter and asked, “Farsi balideed?” It is amazing how well the language program drilled some of the core (tourist) words of Farsi into my head. I almost instinctively gave the Farsi reply that no, I only understand a little Farsi. But, fortunately my tongue was tied for a minute as it probably would have created more questions if I had answered that question in Farsi. After a moment of staring, he showed me over to a separate window and took my passport before telling me to go sit down.
Having been fingerprinted several weeks before at the Iranian Embassy, I knew that I would eventually have my fingerprints checked against the previous ones. I figured that they were just clearing out all of the citizens before handling the foreigners (in this case, just me). Sure enough, after about 30 minutes, they called me back up, took my fingerprints, asked a few questions and I was on my way.
Just past the secure area, I spotted my tour guide and driver and we threw my bag in the car before heading to my hotel for the night.
A Visit Into Iran
I love to visit places that are sometimes off the beaten path by many American tourists. I had always wanted to visit Iran since I had first seen stories about it in the late ’80s. Last year, I was able to go there for 5 days on a individual tour (I am not a big fan of organized tours and like to go at my own pace). Americans are now the only ones that are allowed in the country that need a mandatory guide or representative. That means that the only way you are going to get in the country (as an American) is through a tour, outside of having an Iranian citizen inviting you and being responsible for you.
The tour agency I used was fantastic. The pricing for a private tour was only a little bit more than a group tour and included all transportation, entry fees for tourist sites, hotels, and afternoon meals. Breakfast came with the hotel reservations so the only meal I was responsible for was dinner – and food is very cheap there!
The tour agency handles all of your paperwork to submit for approval for a visa and the representative that kept in contact with me did a great job. It all went very smooth (though took a while) and she was very pleasant and professional throughout the exchanges.
Iran is under sanctions for dealing with any banks in the US and that almost got me very stuck. I was putting the trip together using miles and cash and planned on using Turkish to fly there and was going to use AtlasJet for the return (a Turkish airline). I was flying into Shiraz (in the south of Iran) and flying out of Tehran (northern part).
The problem came when I went to buy the AtlasJet ticket. It was cheap – $79 from Tehran to Istanbul. The problem was that the payment for that flight was structured in such a way that the processing and charges were handled as based in Iran. That meant that the sanction firewall prevented that charge from even getting to my credit card. No matter what I did, I could not get it to ticket. I started getting a little nervous since I had all of my flights except the most important one – the one leaving Iran! Finally, I ditched the Atlast Jet option and went with Turkish Airlines which processed outside of Iran. Flights done!
Whenever I travel, it is always nice to know that I have my credit cards (with no foreign transaction fees!) and debit cards. I do carry some currency as well, but am normally not walking with a lot because of my cards. However, because you cannot use any credit cards or debit cards in Iran, you have to have all the cash on you that you are going to need. That means thinking ahead in case of flight problems as well! It is definitely a different mindset to realize that you cannot get money out if you need it, but you also don’t want to be walking around with a ton of cash!
Until Next Time…
I will put out some posts with photos and interesting tidbits every weekend for a while. If you have any questions about the process of getting a visa, tour groups, other things I may be able to answer about Iran, let me know! Besides Lee Abbamonte and Stefan (Rapid Travel Chai), I had never met any other Americans that had been in Iran so it was definitely an interesting trip and one that I had been very curious to take. Hopefully you enjoy some of the photos that I will be posting.