Independent travel in Iran
Most (non-Iranian) ziarene seem to go with organised groups. This site has been created for independent ziarene who wish to make their own arrangements.
In my experience 'doing-it-yourself' is very easy, can be relatively cheap and gives you far more flexibility than you would otherwise have. You do not need to speak Farsi!
You also do NOT face any additional problems when applying for a VISA. Each trip I have made has been as a pilgrim.
In each city you will find English speaking guides who will be able to explain the sights to you, if you wish. This can save time and hassle - but it will add to your costs. It is also not essential for an enjoyable and productive trip.
The main trick, I have found, is that if the staff in the hotel you are staying at speak English, then they will be more than helpful in explaining things to you and writing down or even explaining instructions etc. for taxi drivers in Farsi.
Security-wise I have never felt threatened in Iran, then again I do follow the usual security recommendations. Valuables are always kept out of sight, cash kept in the hotel safe and you should always carry the hotel business card with you, in case you get lost and need to tell a taxi driver where to go.
If there is a risk to your finances, I think it comes from believing that you can get a bargain when buying precious stones and carpets, for example. Unless you really know what you are doing you could be losing rather than gaining. Hotel staff and local guides may well recommend people who can offer a good deal...
Some of the most well known guidebooks are those published by Lonely Planet. Links to these are provided on the pages for every city on this site. Also provided are links to TripAdvisor, which contains reviews by travellers. If its users do not go to a certain place, it does not have any reviews, which is the case for Qom.
In terms of a guide book that has more than the usual amount of information, the ones published by Bradt, are the best in my opinion. because of the amount of historical detail and information.
On this page I have collected links to various newspaper articles, from British newspapers, that have covered travel trips to Iran.
Take U.S. dollars with you. These should be relatively new issue and should not be marked or torn. Take a mobile phone with a built-in camera. Generally SLR type cameras are discouraged in places-of-worship, but they are ok elsewhere. Two pin plugs are used in Iran, so you'll need an adaptor if travelling from the UK.
I find an iPod shuffle is quite handy for duas etc.
Places of worship have books of duas, ziarats and the Qu'ran (obviously). But they generally do not have detailed instructions about what a ziarene should do. You should therefore take a copy of the instructions given in a book such as, "Call on me, I answer you'. This site will have the relevant pages pdfs shortly in the download section.
I have never had a problem in Iran with upset stomachs, except for one occasion when I bought a cold drink served in a cup. I tend to prefer eateries that look busy, on the basis that the higher turnover will mean that food has not been left around for very long! You will find that even in nice hotels the restaurant prices compare very reasonably to those in the West.
I do make sure however, to only drink mineral water and even for brushing teeth. These are widely available and are local brands. You really should buy fruit such as water melons (whole ones), they are delicious and very cheap.
In Qom, on the main square, is a shop that sells freshly baked naan (there's usually a queue outside). For a few cents/pennies this is a real treat.
These are my personal experiences only and should not be construed as advice. Do check information about eating out from other sources.
Itinerary - Very Short
This will just allow you to do the main ziarats of Qom and Imam Reza (a.s.) in Mashhad. You may be able to squeeze in the ziarat of Shah Abdul Azeem in Tehran, but it will add 3-4 hours to your journey time.
1. Arrive Iran/Tehran and go to Qom. Travel time to Qom is 2 hours. If you come back the same day, the total journey will take at least 6 hours.
2. Qom to Mashhad exit Iran from Mashhad
Itinerary - Short
This is the same as the above, but involves exit from Iran from Tehran. Returning to Tehran in order to leave Iran can add an extra half day to your journey time. If possible I would prefer to go to Bahrain from Mashhad. Plane changing is the same as you'd have to do if you went to Tehran, but in Bahrain you stay in the airport and don't need to touch your hold luggage. In Tehran you will need to change airports!
2. Qom to Mashhad
3. Mashhad to Tehran/Exit Iran
Itinerary - A suggestion from Brother Orion
DAY 1 - Go from Airport directly to QOM.
Find a holtel near the holy shrine.
Do Ziyarat of the Holy Shrine of Masooma (SA).
Stay in Qom over-night.
DAY 2 - Spend day in Qom.
Evening go to Jamkaran Mosque. Spend a few hours at the Mosque. (2-3 hrs - Tuesday evening would be ideal)
Return back to Qom and Stay in Qom over-night.
DAY 3 - Pack your bag and go to Tehran early morning and complete all Ziyarats in Tehran during morning and afternoon hours. (6 - 8 hrs)
Take an evening flight Tehran - Mashad.
Find a hotel in Mashad near the Holy Shrine.
DAY 4- Stay in Mashad full day and visit Holy Shrine of Imam Reza .
DAY 5- Spend morning in Mashad and visit Holy Shrine of Imam Reza .
Take an afternoon trip to visit Ziyarats in the vacinity of Mashad plus go to Neshabur for Ziyarats. (3-5 hours)
Return back to Mashad in the evening.
DAY 6 - Spend full day in Mashad and visit Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. Have free guest lunch at the Holy Shrine (need to get tickets)
DAY 7 - Spend morning in Mashad and visit Holy Shrine of Imam Reza. In the afternoon - take your flight Mashad - Tehran - Dubai.
Budgets from a Pakistani perspective
This information is from Bro Orion on the shiachat.com website (reproduced with permission). Here are some rough estimates that will give you some idea.
Pak Rs. 1000 = Irani Tooman 12,000.
So divide everything by 12 to convert prices in Pak Rs.
HOTEL (2-3 star)
1 room for 2 persons range from 35,000 to 45,000 tooman (i.e. Pak Rs 3000 to 4000) per day.
(Note that hotel prices vary with the month of the year.)
Meals are 2,500 to 4,500 tooman (Pak Rs 200 to 400) for 2 persons per meal (x3)
Tehran Airport to Qom 35,000 to 45,000 tooman (i.e. Pak Rs 3000 to 4000) .
Qom to Jamkaran by taxi not much maybe 1,500 to 2,000 tooman (Pak Rs 150) one way. (x2)
Qom to Tehran including Tehran Ziyarats and drop to the Airport - possibly 55,000 tooman (Pak Rs 5000).
Mashad Airport to Hotel - 20,000 tooman (Rs 1,600) (x2)
Mashad vicinity Ziyarats including a trip to Neshabur and back to Mashad - 40,000 tooman (Rs 3,500).