The Real Deal: Thirteen nights' accommodations, guided sightseeing tours, and local transportation by private bus and plane, $1,600—including taxes.
When: Depart May 11, June 8, July 6, Sept. 14, Oct. 12, 26, 2008; additional dates in 2009.
The fine print: The $1,600 fee reflects a charge of $1,350 paid at the time of booking and a cash payment of $250 made on arrival in Iran. Tips and meals are not included. Groups are limited to no more than 15 people. Based on double occupancy; solo travelers will be matched with a roommate at no additional charge. Mention booking code ARIR. U.S. citizens are required to obtain a visa; for more information, contact the Iranian Interests Section of the Embassy of Pakistan (202/965-4990). Read these before you book any Real Deal.
Book by: No deadline; based on availability. Travelers must book at least 30 days before the departure date.
Contact: G.A.P Adventures, 800/708-7761, gapadventures.com.
Why it's a deal: The rate of $1,600 per person breaks down to about $123 per person per night and covers accommodations, guided tours, and local transportation. Beyond the package's value, it also grants you access to a country that is difficult, if not impossible, to visit without going through a tour operator — and provides the peace of mind and convenience of working with a company established in the area.
Trip details: The Discover Persia package begins in the capital city of Tehran, where you'll join your group leaders and fellow travelers for an evening meeting. The next morning, you'll set out on an hour-and-a-half drive to the holy city of Qom and then continue to Kashan, where you'll see the Fin Gardens and have free time to wander the bazaars before checking in to your hotel.
You'll spend the two following nights in Esfahan, the picturesque onetime capital. A tour will cover Imam Square — the second largest in the world with a grassy esplanade and a reflecting pool — as well as Imam Mosque, with its bright onion-shaped domes, 17th-century Sheikh Lotfallah Moseque, and Ali Qapu Palace. The second day will be yours for exploring more of Esfahan's mosques and palaces and strolling its elegant tree-shaded boulevards and the bridges that across the Zayandeh River.
Next up is Shiraz, known both for its universities and its grapes, where you can visit a traditional teahouse, the Bagh-e Eram gardens, and, yes, more mosques. The group will make a guided side trip to Persepolis, the ancient Persian capital, and check out the rock-cut tombs at Naqsh-e Rustam, the burial site of Darius the Great, who ruled in the 6th century B.C.
You'll then turn towards the Lut Desert and the city of Kerman, which was once a trading point along the Silk Road and still hosts a lively bazaar. You'll spend the night and then head off to Yazd, a Zoroastrian center whose warren of streets features badgirs (wind towers), bazaars, and a Zoroastrian fire temple.
Mashhad, a popular Shiite pilgrimage site, thanks to a shrine to Imam Reza, will be the last stop before you return to Tehran, where you'll have two days to soak up the atmosphere and tour sites like Golestan Palace, Imam Khomeini Mosque, and the former U.S. Embassy (whose walls are splattered in political images and graffiti). The Hotel Kowsar will be your base in Tehran, and you can add extra nights before or after the tour for an additional $40 per person per night, based on double occupancy.
Note that G.A.P has a network of local hotels and doesn't provide advance notice of which other properties will be used as they may change.
Some may feel that it's neither safe nor appropriate to visit Iran, a constitutional Islamic republic and member of the so-called Axis of Evil; read up on travel warnings and security conditions on the State Department Web site and share your opinions about visiting repressive countries with other readers by posting a comment on our blog.
Getting there: International airfare is not included. The lowest round-trip fares we found through Kayak for travel to Tehran in mid-May were $1,065 from Atlanta (KLM Royal Dutch), $1,081 from New York City (Aeroflot), $1,158 from L.A. (Aeroflot), $1,190 from Detroit (multiple airlines), and $1,372 from Houston (multiple airlines).
Wondering what to pack? Here is G.A.P's take: "Iran is a traditional Islamic nation, and a strict dress code is enforced throughout the country. The tour leader will advise passengers of appropriate attire during the welcome meeting. Men must wear long pants; loose-fitting cotton pants are preferable for the Iranian heat. Short-sleeved shirts that cover your shoulders and open-toed sandals are now acceptable for men—ankles must be covered. Men must wear full-length shirts at religious sites. Men must be wearing long trousers upon arrival and shirts that cover their shoulders, or they may be refused entry."
"Upon arrival in Iran, women not wearing a headscarf, long sleeves, sealed shoes, and a loose-fitting skirt or pants may be refused entry into the country (to avoid this problem, bring a thin, full-length raincoat if you choose to buy a manteau after you arrive). The most comfortable items of clothing to wear underneath your manteau are full-length, lightweight cotton garments like trousers or even skirts. Women must also wear covered shoes or sandals that cover their ankles and skin."
Looking for a last-minute deal? G.A.P offers a 20 percent discount on packages that still have spaces open for departure dates within two months.