1. RENT A CAR IF POSSIBLE: Many first-time American visitors will use a tour bus for the land portion of their trip because they are fearful of driving in a foreign country, on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the car. If you are a good driver, you will be able to handle driving in Ireland. If you're a little nervous, rent a car with an automatic transmission. It costs more, but shifting is one less thing to think about while driving.
That said, a group tour traveling by tour bus can be a wonderful experience. But if you choose to go with a group choose one that will offer some level of flexibility and will visit some of the "hidden Ireland."
The flexibility of having your own car is twice or three times the value of being dependent on a second party. Also, it's often cheaper to make your car rental reservations on line when you book your airfare. I use Orbitz and Travel Zoo. You can specify the size of the car, insurance choices and standard vs. automatic, and it will be ready for you when you arrive at the airport.
2. GET A GOOD ROAD MAP OR TWO: - I always use two different maps - one that has more details in ROADS, and one that has more details with SITE MARKINGS. Roads in Ireland, especially off the beaten path can be confusing. A detailed road map (I use Michelin - can be purchased at Barnes and Noble)will be beneficial for keeping you on your course and excellent if you happen to get lost (you will get lost). Choose a second one that marks many sites of interest, such as "Ballintober Abbey" in Mayo or "the Hill of Slane" in Meath. Then you can see where your destination lies in relation to crossroads and you can see what you are traveling past that you may not want to miss. (Actually, the map published by the Irish Tourist Board, usually given free at the Airport is very good for site markings.)
3. HAVE THREE GOOD GUIDEBOOKS: Guidebooks are written from different perspectives and not all are equal. Most focus on accommodations, attractions and dining. Some will have more details than others. Many are out of date because things change so quickly in Ireland, and it's too expensive to publish a guidebook every year. I have recommended 3 guidebooks that I use to get a comprehensive and up-to-date view of Ireland, but search around and pick three that you like. Look for up-to-date information, comprehensive coverage of sites, and a specialty guidebook suited for your interests (nature, history, golf, literary, pubs, etc).
You can read about these 3 books in greater detail in my Top 3 Ireland Guidebooks post.
- Ireland 2009, by Rick Steves has the most up-to-date information. Rick Steves is the number 1 selling guidebook author in America and he updates his guidebooks every year - so admission prices, accommodation costs, and local information is the most accurate you can get. Rick was a history major and it shows in his writings. He adds interesting historical tidbits. His section on Ireland Past and Present gives a concise view of Ireland's evolving history - a perfect primer for the traveler.
- The Ireland Country Guide, by Lonely Planet has the most comprehensive list of sites, attractions and accommodations, as well as tons of photographs and historic background. I love the "voice" of this guide - very casual, very personal. This is the best comprehensive guide I've found for planning and I carry it my car when traveling in Ireland.
- The Traveler's Guide to Sacred Ireland, by Cary Meehan is my favorite guidebook because my particular interest in Ireland is the country's heritage, culture and links to Celtic Spirituality. Meehan lists hundreds of sites across Ireland that are sacred or mystical or tied to legend offering historical information, location, directions. In her own unobtrusive, humble way she reveals some of the mystical aura of each site. Every guidebook will have Newgrange, Hill of Tara, Drombeg Stone Circle, and the beehive huts in Dingle. But Meehan's book contains ancient sacred sites never listed in the major guidebooks, and it's laid out geographically so you can pick it up at any time during your travels and see what's near. NOTE: This is my guidebook pick for my particular interest. If your interest is pubs, genealogy, castles, horses, golf, whatever - get a guidebook specifically suited to your interest
4. PLAN, PLAN, PLAN: Planning before you leave home will make the difference between your being a tourist with limited experiences, or a savvy traveler - or better yet, being a pilgrim. (Pilgrim definition - A "pilgrim" is someone who travels within the context of a story - kind of a "theme traveler" - more on this in another post). Use your maps and guidebooks and make a list of sites that interest you well in advance. Then map out your course (read steps 5 and 6 before mapping out). Reserve your accommodations in advance (most will reserve via the Internet). Check with a travel agent to assist you with possible special deals concerning airfare, hotel, b&b and admission to attractions.
5. STICK TO ONE REGION (OR TWO): Because Ireland is small country (about the size of West Virginia) visitors often cram too much into one visit trying to navigate the entire country. If your trip is one - two weeks long, try to see more sites in less miles of travel. Your experience will be richer as you will be less tired and will have more time to hook into the Irish culture. Don't rush. The typical Ireland tour has 40-50 visitors on a large tour bus traveling for 10 days seeing Dublin (Trinity College), Blarney Castle, Ring of Kerry, Cliffs of Moher, Newgrange, Bunratty Castle, Waterford Factory, Guinness Brewery, W.B. Yeats' grave, and maybe (if you're lucky) Glendaolough or the Giant's Causeway - with various pubs along the way.
All of these are very worthy sites to visit - but if these sites are crammed into one ten-day tour, you'll pass by much of Ireland. You'll also experience less of the local culture.
- Dublin and the East: If you love history, architecture and culture, then visit Dublin with Trinity College, the Irish History Museum, the restaurants, theater and shopping. Also in this region is the Hill of Tara, Newgrange passage tombs, and the Boine valley. The Wicklow mountains are near with the ancient monastic city of Glendalough. Kildare is a close ride and is famous for the thoroughbred horses, the curragh, the Japanese Gardens, and the holy wells and monastic sites of St. Brigid.
- The West: If you love a wild landscape relatively untouched by development with archaeological wonders - visit the West. The Burren with the ancient Poulnabrone dolmen, the hills and bogs of Connemara - some of the rarest "light" in Ireland, Galway, Westport, the Literary paths of W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, the Aran Islands, the sheer cliffs of Achill Island, the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock, and pubs full of traditional Irish music.
- The South has beautiful coastlines, castles, formal gardens, and the second largest city- Cork, as well as Cobh famous for its port, Wexford the medieval city, and Kinsale which is becoming known for gourmet restaurants. The south is famous for its beautiful, scenic fingers - The Beara Peninsula, The Dingle Peninsula and the Iveragh Peninsula (Ring of Kerry) landscapes that rival any in Western Europe for beauty.
- The North has the hills of Donegal (one could spend a week here and never run out of things to see) and the wonderful counties of Northern Ireland - Fermanagh with its scenic lakes and megalithic monuments, Belfast - a historic, vibrant city, Derry - the only completely walled city in Western Europe, the Glens of Antrim, the Giant's Causeway, the oldest continually operational distillery in the world - Bushmills, and the home of St. Patrick - Armagh.
6. STAY AT LEAST TWO NIGHTS IN A LOCATION: There's nothing that tires a traveler more than schlepping their gear in and out of the car and hotel room, checking in and checking out. When you plan your trip, pick "hubs" where you will stay for a few days, then make day trips from there spanning out like the spokes of a wheel. You can travel 40 to 50 miles in an hour which covers a lot of territory in Ireland. Staying in one place also helps you get to know the people of that locale, especially if you're staying in a B&B thus getting maximum exposure to Irish hospitality - one of the country's greatest tourist assets.
- Choose your "hubs" or central locations, then decide if you want to stay at a B&B or Hotel. B&Bs are pretty modern these days, offering private bathrooms (en suite) and televisions. Some even have phones for guests, dinners upon request, family rooms, and high speed Internet access. The benefit to a B&B is expense (they run cheaper than hotels) and the friendship guests gain with the host family. You experience hospitality up-close and personal. Hotels and Country houses are another option.
- Once you've identified your "hubs" choose accommodations and make reservations before you leave. The Irish Tourist Board has good listings for B&Bs, hotels, country houses, hostels, camping sites and self catering on its website. They will also send you free booklets that have comprehensive lists of these types of accommodations.
7. PUB FOOD VS. RESTAURANT: Most pubs serve food, so consider them for lunch and dinner. If you're entering a restaurant, take notice whether or not there is a pub attached to it. In many cases the pub offers the same food at a cheaper price. At a pub you can usually pick a table and sit away from the bar (if you want privacy and don't want conversation). I always go right up to the bar and sit down. I ask if they serve food (the answer is almost always yes), then I order and eat at the bar. Invariably someone will speak to me / us. The visit is much more pleasant, and I spend less money for the meal.
8. RENT A CELL PHONE IN IRELAND: On my last trip to Ireland I used my personal cell phone, stayed 10 days and my cell phone bill was $358. I did speak to my husband each day for a few minutes, but we paid overseas long distance charges at both ends. Additionally I made many calls in Ireland - phoning the B&Bs, calling ahead to attractions to check hours, calling to local tourism offices to find out where the nearest Wi-Fi cafes were. I discovered later that you can rent a phone and pay by minutes of use and it's much cheaper. In most cases you can find a vendor near the airport.
9. USE THE ATM (CASH POINT) TO GET EUROS: Exchange rates vary and if you're wanting to get your Euros before you leave home - don't. It costs you to use those exchange stations. Once you're at the airport ask where the nearest "cash point" machine is. You insert your VISA or VISA Debit Card and withdraw however much you want. Only take as much as you need for a few days, as these machines are in every City. The exchange rate is lowest this way and you don't have to worry about carrying lots of cash to get you through the vacation. Check with local bank before you leave to see if they impose an additional fee for these withdrawals.
10. VISIT THE ROCK OF CASHEL: Every person should visit the Rock of Cashel at least once in his or her life. To me, this is the most amazing site in Ireland with the most rich history - both legendary and mystical. The rock itself is geographic wonder. The fact that civilizations living in the Golden Vale of County Tipperary have held it sacred for centuries and marked it with various monuments is also a wonder. This was where the Kings of Munster ruled - including Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland. Ruins of Cathedral are atop the Rock today. I visit Cashel every time I go to Ireland. It is a thin place.
Check out our Thin Places Mystical Tour of Ireland this September.
For more information on Ireland and sites to visit, please scan the other posts on this blog. Additionally, you may want to visit these links:
Thin Places - Photographs of thin places in Ireland and UK
Discover Ireland - Irish Tourist Board site
Fishing in Ireland
Irish Literature, Mythology, Folklore and Drama
Bernd Biege's About.com - Travel Ireland