My son and I are in the planning stages of a 15-day visit to Ireland. We decided we are not interested in the canned tours and want to strike out and see the countryside on our own. Could you point out some of the benefits and pitfalls of trying to do tours on our own? Your sage advice would be well received.
Driving around Ireland on your own will definitely give you and your son a chance to see what you want, when you want, and with whom you want (or more specifically WITHOUT whom you want ;). Let me offer these thoughts…
Tips for Making the Most of Your Self-Drive Tour
- Drive the minor roads – the buses can’t manage the turns and hills of many small roads, so your rental car can take you on some exciting journeys. That doesn’t mean you should avoid the main roads completely which are labeled with an “M” or “N” in front of a number (e.g. N7 is National Road 7, M1 is the Motorway 1), just be sure to include mix of both.
- Mind your start time – whether you want to rise at the crack of dawn or sleep late, you aren’t locked in to someone else’s schedule. Just remember if you start late, you might limit your chances of catching places while they’re open. Note that your accommodations might offer breakfast during a specific time frame… if you let them know you’re leaving before or after breakfast time, they might leave out some cold breakfast items for you.
- Stop on a whim – if you see something interesting, STOP! It might be a shop, artisan gallery, pub, restaurant, scenic overlook, or historical marker. In contrast to the folks on the tour bus, you can check out things that aren’t on the itinerary.
- Use your evenings – unlike the bus tour groupies, you aren’t limited to spending your evenings close to your hotel or B&B. You may choose an evening drive (especially in the summer when the sun sets late), dinner on the edge of town, or an out-of-the-way music session (my favorite is this one near Thurles).
- Get to know your vehicle – before you leave the car hire lot, make sure you know how to turn on the lights, wipers, blinkers/indicators, radio; set and release the parking brake; open the trunk/boot and hood/bonnet; and shift the vehicle into reverse (and if you’re planning to charge a mobile device or use a GPS/Sat Nav, test those out in the lot as well).
- Pick one must-see destination per day – over-planning and over-extending can be the curse of the self-drive itinerary. If you highlight one must-see destination per day, you’ll assure it gets the due it deserves (it’s on your must-see list after all). Alongside that one stop, you can make a list of “might-stop” attractions in the area that you’ll hit if you have time.
- Sleep where you want – bus tours only stay at the accommodations that offer them the best group price; so as an independent traveler, you can stay anywhere you like. You also have the advantage of leaving a few nights unbooked and finding a place to stay as you travel. It can be fun to “drive-up” to a B&B (if they’re full, they’ll usually have “no vacancy” posted), or you can stop by a tourist office and they’ll find a place on your behalf.
- Limit your distance – a map of Ireland can be easily “diced” into quadrants or “sliced” into four horizontal strips, and taking on one-fourth of the island per week of your trip will assure you make the most of your time… sorry, you’ll have to save the rest of the island for next time. Your mantra should be that it’s more important to EXPERIENCE MORE not COVER MORE GROUND. This one can be tricky, but if you string together a list of sites across large distances, you will be building the exact same itinerary as a bus tour.
- Avoid going out of the way for a single draw – just because someone said you “have to stay” somewhere or “must see” something, it’s probably not worth a giant detour. You’re setting your own course, and there will be plenty of magical spots to discover on your primary route.
- Consider a signposted drive – Ireland’s biggest draw recently has been the Wild Atlantic Way driving route, and its success has inspired many regions to fine-tune their scenic driving routes. If there’s a region or county you want to explore, search for a signposted drive or contact the local tourism office.
- Get a map – your car rental company will give you a basic map of Ireland. Use it to find a town with a bookstore or tourist office that will be stocked with maps… some gas/petrol station will have a few on offer as well. There are some extremely detailed maps (they’re more like books)… although useful, they contain more information than the average traveler needs… a regular fold-up map with a reasonable amount of detail will likely get the job done.
- Delegate a navigator – if there is someone in the passenger seat, they should be in charge of the map, alerting the driver of upcoming turns and road names, and helping plan the route. A good navigator will know the names of the next two main towns on your route and will help you spot roadsigns that point you in the right direction.
- More tips from one of our past blog posts.
Overcome the Downfalls
Self-drive tours come with some pitfalls. You’ll want to mentally prepare for a few things that might add a bit of stress to your trip… remember, it’s likely some of your most interesting stories will come from the following:
- Driving on the left – if you’re from a right-hand drive country, it will take some time to adjust to switching sides. Expect white knuckles and a slight headache for the first 24 hours.
- Turns – just when you think you’ve mastered driving on the left, you arrive at an intersection and confusion sets in as you elect which side of the road you belong. Be extremely careful not to pull out on front of cars… they’re on the opposite side of the road from what you’d expect.
- Roundabouts – these traffic circles at intersections are appearing on more roads in the United States, so they might not seem as foreign as before; but maneuvering them can set off your anxiety alarm. Stay calm and wait for an opening in the roundabout… everything WILL be okay.
- The dashboard and gear shift – even if the steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car, the pedals will be in the same spot. However, your levers and buttons might not be where you’d expect them. This is especially frustrating when you need to turn on the wipers or lights while driving.
- Narrow roads – rural roads and some city streets can be too narrow for two cars to pass. In the country, look for pull-offs that exist specifically to allow two cars to go by (this may require you to back up); you can also “take the road” which means you drive with one tire over the center line until there is oncoming traffic or you’re approaching a turn or hill. In the city, you may need to pull in your mirrors on narrow lane ways or wait for oncoming cars to pass a narrow stretch.
- Speedy drivers – the locals know the roads and may drive waaaaaaay faster than you feel comfortable. If they’re behind you, just look for a safe place to pull off the road and let them pass. Don’t try to keep up.
- Hedgerows – Irish roads can become tunnels with tall foliage on each side. The passenger will likely gasp each time harmless leaves and grass sweep the side of the car. Just note that there are rocks and branches behind that greenery that can seriously scratch your side panel, knock off your mirror, or slash your tire.
- Farm zones – tractors pulling loads and cows transferring from one field to the next can slow down your travels. Only pass in the safest stretches of road… when passing a herd of cattle, drive very slowly and don’t “chase” the cows down the road (they may miss their turn into the field). Be on the lookout for orange cones, temporary signs, or a parked car with its flashers on that might be warning you of a farm hazard or field entrance ahead. If you spot someone on the side of the road moving their hand or arm in an up an down motion (as if they’re patting an invisible dog or testing the firmness of an invisible mattress), they are probably telling you to slow down and there’s probably a road hazard ahead.
- Pedestrians and cyclists – when there are no sidewalks, it’s important to keep you’re eyes open for people walking and cycling. They will usually wear a neon yellow visibility vest. Before you pass, slow down and alert other drivers by using your turn signal/indicator before you cross the center line.
- Parking – many towns require you to pay for your parking at a kiosk and then place a printed receipt on your dash. Parking structures in cities usually clearly state if you must pay when you enter or exit (often at a kiosk). Note that parking stalls may be quite narrow.
- Fatigue – the amount of extra concentration required for driving in Ireland can cut your stamina in half… especially when combined with jet lag. If you’re getting tired, take a break.
- Getting lost – even with GPS, you should expect a few wrong turns. Embrace the opportunity and enjoy the view.
A Few Rules
- Don’t use a mobile phone while operating a vehicle
- Wear a seat belt
- Don’t drink and drive
- Child seats are available from car rental companies, but many parents choose to bring their own from home (they’re allowed on planes)
- Traffic in a roundabout ONLY travels in a clockwise direction, so don’t turn right into a roundabout.
Leave your self-drive tour tips in the comments below…