Iran has a reasonable choice of accommodation, from tiny cells in noisy mosaferkhanehs (basic lodging houses) to luxury rooms in five-star hotels. Camping, however, is almost nonexistent. The Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Culture & Islamic Guidance categorises most hotels and decides what they can charge. Prices rise in April each year and the rates are displayed (usually in Arabic numerals) at reception. For many years, foreigners paid more than Iranians for the same midrange and top-end rooms, but this officially mandated dual-pricing ended in 2008.
While otagh (room) prices are fixed, friendly negotiation might save you a bit during quieter times, especially between mid-October and early March. But don't count on it. The reluctance to bargain is partly due to a lack of effective competition. For foreigners, midrange and top-end places will sometimes quote prices in US dollars or euros, though they accept (and are, in theory, required to be paid in) local currency.
Hotels will almost always keep your passport overnight so carry a photocopy, and get the original back if you're heading out of town. Checkout time is usually 2 pm.
If you get off the beaten track and are open to it, you will likely encounter heart-warming hospitality that sucks you into unplanned homestays. It's worth packing a few small presents from home to express your gratitude, as paying cash for such accommodation might be inappropriate.
Iranians love tents, but there are few official camping grounds. Unless you can make yourself look like a nomad, camping can draw unwanted attention from the authorities. Trekkers and mountaineers who need to camp should discuss plans with the provincial tourist information office first if not accompanied by a recognised guide. The office may be able to write a letter of introduction.
Iran has a fast-growing Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.org) community and making contact with its members is an easy and in-creasingly popular way to get inside Iranian culture. Most readers who have surfed Iranian couches, or more likely carpets, have reported a memorable time for positive reasons. However, there have also been warnings that some Iranian hosts expect to accompany their guests everywhere, and if you are not up for that it's best to commit to less time with the option of extending to avoid an early and embarrassing departure. Also, taarof or not, do insist on paying for at least something during your stay, or take a gift from home.
Mosaferkhanehs & mehmanpazirs
Iran's most basic accommodation is in male-dominated mosaferkhanehs (literally 'travellers' houses'), a dorm or basic hotel, and similar mehmanpazirs. Standards in these places vary but expect shared bathrooms, squat toilets and no spoken English. Some bottom-end places won't even have a communal shower. Prices start at around US$6 per bed in a noisy, grotty, male-only dorm. Simple, private rooms, perhaps with a sink, start at about twice that. Pack a towel, toilet paper and sleep sheet, as bedding can sometimes be semi-clean and/or stained.
In a growing number of cities some mosaferkhanehs are not allowed to accept foreigners, or require written permission from the police. That's easy to organise through a 10-minute visit to the local Amaken - an arm of the police - assuming you arrive in business hours.
Basic one- and two-star hotels, noted in this guide as 'budget hotels', normally have an attached bathroom with at least a hot shower, plus air-con, heating, TV (Iranian channels), fridge and maybe a phone. Prices start at about USS12/18 for a single/double and go up to about US$35/45. Double beds are rare, breakfast will often cost extra, and cleanliness can be questionable - don't be afraid to ask for fresh sheets.
Most two-star hotels, and all three- and four-star rooms, will come with a clean private bathroom, phone, fridge and TV (sometimes with foreign channels). There might be a reasonable restaurant, and breakfast will be included. You will find toilet paper but bath plugs are a long-shot. Like a 40-something boxer, a lot of places in this range charge rates that reflect a more glorious past than the beaten-around present; try negotiating. Aside from garden-variety hotels, the midrange includes:
The most charismatic midrange places are the hotel sonnati (traditional hotels), where old courtyard houses have been transformed into social little hotels. If you are staying in a hotel sonnati, you will know you are in Iran. Yazd has many and others can be found in Kashan, Esfahan and Shiraz.
In the upper midrange are a growing number of modern 'apartment hotels' which can be good value outside the high season.
Most towns of decent size have a government-run tourist inn (mehmansara jahangardi). Standards vary considerably but they are usually fair value and often employ at least one English speaker.
Until recently, many of Iran's top hotels pre-dated the 1979 revolution. Several accidentally maintained decor which became so out-dated that it was almost retro-cool. However, competition from new luxury hotels and apartment hotels has seen many, though not all, of these places refitted.
In most top end establishments the rooms and service will not live up to Western standards, but while prices are high by Iranian standards they are not (in most cases) outrageous compared with what you will be used to. Note that hotels with indoor pools and saunas have segregated swimming times for men and women. The generously sized outdoor pools of the disco-era hotels are purely ornamental these days.
Along the Caspian Sea coast and in those northwestern rural resort-villages most frequented by Iranian tourists, you will find locals renting out rooms, bungalows and self-contained apartments ('suites') in their homes, gardens or above shops. In the low season, prices can be very reasonable, but in summer prices rise by up to 400% and bookings are essential. Some suites and almost all rooms/homestays are unmarked in Farsi let alone English so it's just a case of asking around for an otagh. Food is generally not included.
There are two clear tourist seasons in Iran. Low season starts in October and continues through winter until shortly before No Ruz (Iranian New Year, on 21 March) and the beginning of spring. From a few days before No Ruz, hotels in popular holiday destinations, such as Kish Island, Esfahan, the Caspian Sea coast, Shiraz and Yazd, are packed, and prices are at their highest.
No Ruz marks the beginning of daylight saving, longer opening hours and annual government-approved price increases across the economy, including hotels. After the 13-day holiday period is over you'll find room prices usually rise by about 20% from the winter (low season) rate, and stay that way until October, when they fall back a bit or can be (slightly) more easily haggled down. The whole cycle then begins again next No Ruz. There are a few exceptions. In summer prices along the Caspian Sea coast can skyrocket, while in hot places like Yazd and Kerman prices can fall with demand.