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While planning our trip, Leslie and I knew that we wanted to see as much of Ireland as we could. Ireland is full of so many amazing things—there are over 30,000 castles, leprechauns are protected by law, and the scenery will make you weep.
Not that I did that or anything.
If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, here are some tips and tricks to help make it the best adventure ever:
1. Bring Good Shoes – It’s easy to do a lot of walking in Ireland, whether that’s exploring Dublin by foot, hiking along the Cliffs of Moher, climbing one of the Twelve Bens in Connemara National Park, or hoofing it to the top of Blarney Castle so you can kiss the Blarney Stone. Having a sturdy, comfortable pair of shoes is absolutely essential.
I would also recommend against wearing sandals, purely because it can be rather chilly. I had a pair of thin flats and my Chacos, and regretted not having something better suited to keeping my toes toasty warm.
Speaking of which…
2. Dress in Layers – The first time I went to Ireland was in the middle of July, and then Leslie and I visited during the first week of September. Both months are very much summer in our homes of Idaho and Arizona—but Ireland is pretty far north. I wore a lightweight sweatshirt the whole time we were there, and there were a few times when I wished for a warmer coat.
Weather in Ireland also tends to be pretty fickle. Leslie and I lucked out and only saw a few sprinkles, but it wasn’t uncommon for the sunny sky to suddenly disappear behind massive gray clouds. It was also quite windy at times. A good raincoat doubles as a windbreaker, and you can layer it over a sweater for extra warmth.
3. First Wednesdays are free – If you plan your trip to coincide with the beginning of the month, you can get into a whole slew of OPW sites for free on the first Wednesday. We were able to visit the Rock of Cashel for free, which was a pleasant surprise. You can also get into some places for free or reduced entry fees if you visit at the end of the day. This can be tricky, though: you have less time to really explore, so I wouldn’t recommend this option for places you’re really keen on visiting.
4. National Parks are free! – One of my greatest sorrows in life is how expensive it is to visit many of the National Parks here in the US ($15-30), so it was nice to see that all of the National Parks in Ireland are free! And while they may not have wolves and bears and buffalo like some of our parks do, they’re certainly not lacking in the looks department. Killarney and Connemara National Parks were both absolutely stunning.
5. Have exact change for the buses – If you plan on riding the bus at all, make sure you have exact change. Fares will vary depending on how far you are going, so having a pocketful of loose change will be really helpful. (And if you come home with a bunch of coins because the currency exchangers won’t take it back, there are plenty of fun projects you can do to display your left over travel money.)
6. Rent a car – While there are trains in Ireland, their rail system isn’t quite as extensive as those in many other European countries. We originally planned on just taking trains for our entire trip, but quickly discovered that most of what we wanted to see in Ireland wasn’t easily accessible by rail, so we opted for a car instead. That week gave us a taste of freedom that we missed during the remainder of our trip—instead of being subject to early departure times, late trains, missed connections, and crowded luggage racks, having a car meant we could leave whenever we wanted, stop to see whatever struck our fancy along the way, and not have to worry so much about cramming our bags into tiny spaces.
Manual vehicles are cheaper to rent than automatics, and diesels are even cheaper (but you’ll pay more for diesel fuel than petrol). I don’t drive a stick, so that meant Leslie did all the driving. Here is what she has to say on the subject:
Driving on the left wasn’t bad except for my brain freaking out at the very first round-about. I’d definitely recommend that any drivers look at the sticker so helpfully placed on the window of the rental cars showing how to handle roundabouts, which I didn’t look at until AFTER the fact, haha. The car [a Ford Fiesta] was fine, but a bit lacking in power when we were going uphill. On the other hand, any car with more power, even the diesel models, would have been bigger, and I was glad to have the smallest, narrowest car available when we were on some of those narrow roads.
7. Road signs – Most of the signs are in Gaelic and English, with Gaelic listed first. They also list upcoming cities differently than we do here in the States—we list them with the nearest location at the top and the farthest location at the bottom. In Ireland, they list the farthest location first, and end with the nearest. So if you’re trying to guage distance to your next destination, start at the bottom of the sign and work your way upwards. Confused? So were we…
But they do a great job of providing signage for roads, towns/cities, and points of interest. Motorway signs are blue, national road signs are green, and local road signs are white. Brown signs are tourist information, such as historical sites, hotels, scenic byways, and tourism offices.
8. Hostels – Ireland had some of the nicest hostels we stayed at during our whole trip, and they all were very reasonably priced. Sometimes I worry about paying for cheap accommodation—that whole “you get what you pay for” thing—but despite the low prices, our hostels were all relatively clean and cozy. They all had their quirks—like a lack of shelves in the shower stalls to keep our clothes off the floor, or a homeless guy living in his car in the parking lot—but the staff were always friendly, and the people we met were really interesting.
On my first trip to Ireland, I stayed in a cute Edwardian bed and breakfast, and the price there was also very reasonable. And the breakfast—*swoon*—was amazing. If hostels aren’t your kind of thing, booking a room in a B&B or guest house can be a great way to experience the charm of Ireland and taste some of that delicious food.
Which leads us to…
9. Stock up on groceries – Eating out for every meal is mighty expensive. Grabbing a few essentials at the grocery store can be a great way to save a few euros on grub, especially if you have a car and don’t have to lug food around in your backpack or luggage. We bought a loaf of bread, some butter, and jam, and had simple sandwiches for lunch. We also bought some fruit, which was really nice to snack on instead of junk food, and we took advantage of the kitchens in our hostels on most nights.
If you’re staying in a small town, it’s a good idea to stop at grocery stores in the bigger cities or do your shopping earlier in the day. Many of the smaller towns had local shops, but they usually closed fairly early. And if you’re planning on using the kitchen at your hostel, be aware that most of them have closing times as well, so plan for enough time to cook, eat, and clean your dishes before the staff kick you out.
10. Try something new – But don’t forget that travel is about experiencing other cultures, and food is a great way to do just that. I love to try new things, so I wish we had the budget to eat out more often. I did try a few new things in Ireland, like black pudding, Irish soda bread, and ginger jam. You also can’t go wrong with fish and chips pretty much anywhere in the British Isles.
If Ireland isn’t your final destination and you are flying to your next stop via Ryanair, be aware that they make you pay €15 (~$17 USD) for boarding passes if you don’t print them out in advance. They also won’t let you upgrade your pre-purchased baggage allowance from 15kg to 20kg at the airport without paying €50, so make sure you don’t stock up on so many souvenirs that you exceed your weight limit.
Not that I did that or anything…
Flights – Ryanair has super cheap tickets (~$25-35) between Ireland and England.
Have you been to Ireland? What travel tips would you recommend?