When it comes to travel in Iraqi Kurdistan (the semi-autonomous region of Northern Iraq), it can be quite difficult to gauge how much money a traveler would need for such a visit. There really isn’t much information to be found on the internet and as a result, even before I traveled there, I had no idea if this region would prove to be cheap, expensive or somewhere in between in comparison to other parts of the world, including the nearby countries of Syria and Lebanon.
So now that my visit has ended, I am happy to report that Iraqi Kurdistan is definitely accessible for travelers of all kinds, including those who need to stick to a tight budget. It is possible to travel this region for about $35 USD per day, as long as you stick with budget hotels and simple shawarma sandwiches for meals. And if you’re able to find the handful of hotels that offer dorm rooms, you could probably cut your costs down to $20 USD if needed.
If you choose to spend your nights in 3-star, mid-range hotels, and eat in hotel restaurants, you should expect to spend about $80+ USD per day, although you’ll probably agree that the difference in price may not be worth it once you read the below section on “Accommodation”.
Here’s a more detailed guide of the expenses involved with traveling around Iraqi Kurdistan:
$1 USD = 1200 Iraqi Dinars (ID)
For a handful of citizens – USA, Canada, UK, the European Union and Australia – obtaining a visa is as simple as showing up at the land border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey or flying into the regional capital of Erbil. 10-day tourist visas are provided free of charge for citizens of these countries.
Other nationalities must obtain an Iraqi Kurdistan permit/visa from an Iraqi Embassy or Consulate before traveling to Kurdistan or else they will be denied entry at the border.
The 10-day visas do state that all travelers must visit the Directorate of Residence at some point within those ten days, at which time you can also apply for a visa extension, but there is some confusion as to whether or not this is really necessary. Read this post about my experience at the Directorate for more information regarding the crazy bureaucracy involved with visiting this government department.
Budget accommodation in Iraqi Kurdistan is surprisingly comfortable and easy to find. A quick walk through the center of any town or city will pass by several, if not dozens, of hotel options, ranging from cheap and dingy to three-star quality. For the budget traveler, the cheaper options should be more than suitable as even these hotels all generally have lobbies, reception desks and relatively clean and spacious rooms, all with private bathrooms and sometimes, a refrigerator and television.
Here is a general outline of what you can expect in terms of price for budget accommodation:
Dorm Room: A few ultra-budget hotels in each city offer dorm beds for around 12,000 – 18,000 ID per night.
Single Room: Actual single rooms don’t really exist and so most hotels will charge approximately 75% of the double room rate for single occupancy. Prices range between 24,000 – 40,000 ID.
Double Room: Good rooms for two people are easy to find and are of great value, typically costing between 35,000 – 50,000 ID per night, which, when split between two people, is quite a bargain for what you receive.
Erbil: Hotel Shahan, located on the main road right below the Erbil Citadel, offers basic but clean and comfortable rooms at good rates. Single rooms cost 40,000 ID and double rooms 50,000 ID per night.
Sulamainiyah: Take a taxi to the Ashti Hotel on Salim Street and you’ll find several other hotel options for all budgets within a two-minute walk. Right around the corner from the Ashti is the Chrkan Hotel, where good double rooms are available for around 50,000 ID per night.
Dohuk: The centrally located and friendly Bircin Hotel was the best value hotel I found in all of Kurdistan. For only 20,000 ID, this hotel offers spacious and clean double rooms with large private bathrooms and wi-fi access (for a small fee).
In addition, most budget hotels also include a decent Middle Eastern breakfast (eggs, bread and vegetables) in the price of the room, however, the reception staff never seem to inform you of this fact when you are checking in. Just show up in the lobby before 10am and join the other guests who are eating their complimentary meal.
Unfortunately, food proved to be the greatest challenge of my visit to Iraqi Kurdistan as there simply is not much variety at all. Eating out almost always involves visiting a shawarma shop for a quick chicken or beef sandwich in pita bread. If you’re lucky, you may find a shop selling falafel sandwiches but the falafel are usually 99% bread crumbs and 1% actual chickpeas. If you’re super lucky, you just may stumble upon an eatery selling salads and roasted chicken (I saw one of these places during my stay).
For an excellent roundup of the food in Iraqi Kurdistan, here’s an article you don’t want to miss –
“A Taste of Eating Out in Iraq“.
Here’s what you’ll generally pay for food:
Shawarma (chicken, beef or ‘falafel’) – 800 – 1400 ID per sandwich
Roasted chicken & salad – 7000 – 12,000 ID per plate
Sweets (cakes, turkish delight, custards, etc.) – 1000 – 2000 ID each
Tea (from tea stalls) – 100 – 300 ID per glass
Occasionally, you may find a more upscale restaurant if you venture beyond the city centers. For example, in the Ainkawa district of Erbil (the Christian quarter), I noticed a few restaurants that seemed to serve a wider variety of Middle Eastern cuisine. In addition, the best meal I ate on the trip happened to be at Deutscher Hof, a German restaurant and pub in Erbil that served up excellent German fare in a relaxing setting for very reasonable prices ($25 USD per person for an entree, meal and drink).
For vegetarians, Iraqi Kurdistan will prove even more challenging as you’ll undoubtedly get sick of falafel sandwiches by the end of your first day. It will take some extra effort but chances are that you can eventually locate a restaurant that serves a variety of salads, such as Pizza Plus in Sulamainiyah.
Apart from that, you can pick up some fruit at the local markets and there are always vendors around selling fresh bread!
Unlike many destinations that are full of specific sights to see, most places in Kurdistan are best enjoyed by simply hitting the streets, going for a wander and seeing where you end up. As a result, unless you are interested in visiting an outer suburb (such as Ainkawa in Erbil), your own two feet are you best option for moving around. But when you do need to take a taxi, they are plentiful and cheap when traveling within a particular city or town.
Local Taxis: Official taxis are either cream color or part white/part orange and it will rarely take you more than 20 seconds to find one. Prices are generally fixed, but of course, you may end up with a driver who will try to charge you a little more, so it’s a good idea to find out ahead of time (from your hotel, etc.) what the official price should be.
As an example of cost, in Erbil, most journeys within the city center cost 2000 ID and a trip out to one of the suburbs costs 3000 ID.
Long-Distance Taxis: Traveling between cities is also quite simple as every city has one or more ‘garaj’ where official, long-distance shared-taxis gather. You simply show up at the ‘garaj’, tell the first person who asks where you’re headed and you’ll be led to the proper line of taxis. Once the next taxi is full (with 4 people), you’ll pay the official price to the ticket man and off you’ll go.
It can be a little confusing trying to figure out which ‘garaj’ you need to go to as some of the destinations can sound quite similar. But, for example, if you’re in the city of Dohuk and you want to travel to Erbil, you would tell the taxi driver to take you to “Erbil Garaj”. If you were headed to Zakho, you’d want to go to the “Zakho Garaj” instead.
Here is a list of prices for shared taxis between major destinations:
Zakho (Iraq/Turkey border) to Dohuk: 8,000 ID / $7 USD
Zakho to Erbil: 30,000 ID / $25 USD
Erbil to Sulamainiyah: 15,000 ID / $13 USD
Sulamainiyah to Halabja: 5,000 ID / $4 USD
Dohuk to Amadiya: 7,000 ID / $6 USD
You will see actual buses every now and then traveling between destinations, however, it is not a recommended mode of travel for foreigners. These buses, instead of traveling directly to their destination, often stop in either Kirkuk or Mosul, two cities located just outside of the safety of Kurdistan and each of which is considered one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. While Kurdistan is a safe place to visit, these two cities present a very real threat to foreigners and should be avoided.
The shared-taxis do not stop in Mosul or Kirkuk, although they do leave the safety of Kurdistan and travel through the outskirts of these cities without stopping. If you wish to avoid these areas altogether, you would need to hire a private taxi to take you to your destination, using a much longer route through the mountains that will cost approximately $70 USD for a ride between Erbil and Sulamainyah.
To/From Kurdistan: If you’re traveling overland into Iraqi Kurdistan, you can find a detailed guide and outline of the costs involved by reading this post I recently wrote about my experience traveling to Kurdistan from Syria.
There really aren’t too many actual tourist sights in Iraqi Kurdistan, so entrance fees will not be a major expense at all. Places such as the Erbil Citadel and Minaret Park are free of charge and other interesting places to visit simply involve walking around a town, which of course doesn’t cost anything. The only entrance fee I had to pay was 2000 ID when visiting the memorial at Halabja, the village where Saddam gassed and killed over 3000 people in the final days of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. And even if the entrance fee was significantly higher, this site would still be well worth a visit.
Apart from that one site, however, every other place of interest that I visited was free of charge.
Iraqi Kurdistan is by no means the most connected region of the world, but there are enough internet cafes and wi-fi signals around so that anyone relying on the internet for work, could survive without too much of a struggle.
In the capital city of Erbil, I found two internet cafes in the city center, both of which offered quite reliable connections for around 1200 ID per hour. One of these internet cafes is located just below the Citadel under the four-star Erbil Tower Hotel.
In Sulaymaniyah, I managed to find at least a dozen wi-fi signals from my hotel room, although it was a struggle to connect for more than a couple of minutes at a time. However, it turns out that shisha cafes, such as the Shawany Maliek Cafeteria just off of Salim Street near the Great Shang-Hai Chinese Restaurant, offers free wi-fi for customers. Order some apple shisha (about 9000 ID per hookah) and you can sit in a big comfortable chair using the internet for as long as you want.
In Dohuk, the budget hotel I stayed at (Hotel Bircin) actually had wi-fi available at a cost of 1200 ID per hour and for those who don’t travel with a laptop, there was also a huge internet cafe just across the street.
And interestingly, unlike neighboring Syria or nearby Lebanon, there did not appear to be any government censorship of the internet in Kurdistan. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter, which are not officially accessible in other Middle Eastern countries, are easily accessible in this region.
Apparently, for the independent traveler, it’s possible to find work teaching English in the major towns and cities of Kurdistan. I’m not too sure about the potential wages and I have not met anyone myself who is teaching English here, but I have heard through other people that it is possible. Considering that you only receive a 10-day visa upon arrival, it’s probably best to do some research beforehand and try to find a language school that needs foreigner teachers. Otherwise, you could always visit the more expensive hotels or even the internet cafes, both of which tend to have more English speaking staff, and start your search from there by simply asking around.
- Very few people in Kurdistan speak English, so it pays to learn some Arabic or Kurdish ahead of time or at least carry around a phrasebook.
- Bargaining is not at all common and you will almost always be charged the local prices given that locals are not yet used to foreign travelers.
- Bottled water is available everywhere although you will rarely find large bottles. Some hotels have filtered drinking water machines where you can fill up your bottles safely instead of having to buy more bottles.
- There are no ATMS in Iraqi Kurdistan at all and no credit card services either. You must bring plenty of cash with you – US Dollars, Euros and Turkish Lira would be best – which can be exchanged for Iraqi Dinars with the money-changers that line most of the main streets in every town.
MORE RESOURCES TO CHECK OUT:
Any questions about the cost of traveling in Iraqi Kurdistan that I didn’t address above? Please leave a comment below or send me an email and I’d be more than happy to help out as much as I can!