Turkmenistan is one of the many ‘stans’ in Central Asia. While places like Kyrgyzstan (here are my Top Things to do in Bishkek) love tourists and provide anyone who comes by with a 365 days, free one arrival, visa, the regime of Turkmenistan carefully selects the few thousand tourists every year.
The consulate website makes it sound like a tourist visa is easy – but the devil is in the details – a Letter of Invitation is needed and few and far can issue this letter in reality. Try booking a hotel in Ashgabat, the capital, online – you will be surprised of the outcome.
There are a few tour operators that can provide a tourist visa for most European and US passports but only if you join an organized tour that will cost you about $200 per day. If this sounds like North Korea it’s not a coincidence. The country prides itself in its xenophobic view and they just don’t see any room for tourism. Stantours seems to be the preferred travel agency recommended on both Lonely Planet and Flyertalk forums.
However unlike North Korea you can drop you assigned tour guide in the capital of Ashgabat and explore on your own. Getting out of town requires ‘a guide’ who will make sure you comply with the many rules of the Turkmenistan security apparatus.
There is an option to apply for a transit visa (which does not need an LOI) for 5-7 days but the embassy will usually require you to actually transit and have flight and visa for neighboring countries (Iran and Uzbekistan) in hand.
There aren’t a lot of airlines flying in but Turkish and Lufthansa as well as flyDubai fly several times a week. The Lufthansa flight comes from Baku, another interesting destination. The two major Russian airlines Aeroflot and S7 also fly.
I think the sensible strategy is to book an award ticket (ideally that can be changed without major fees. If you have a way to accumulate (mostly through flying) the Saudia Alfursan program considers Central Asia as Europe so it’s just 50,000 miles RT in Economy plus fuel surcharges.
You can route something like this – (some Delta flights)- LAX-SVO-ASB and open jaw TAS-SVO-LAX-(some Delta flights) as Aeroflot flies to Los Angeles (besides other US destinations) daily from their Moscow hub. This would cost 50,000 Alfursan miles plus ~$200.
Now the open-jaw would likely make you eligible for a transit visa (you need to book a flight to Tashkent yourself and get an Uzbekistan visa) yourself.
To book hotels you will need the help of Stantours (or another agency) and the same goes for domestic flights. Those are usually cheap and the Turkmenistan Airways has a fleet of B717 that is rather new.
Flyertalk member ‘DanielW’ recently went and documented his trip with some great pictures.