Q&A: What are the benefits and pitfalls of a self-drive tour of Ireland?

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.

— Tom

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…


Connemara road - photo by Romain Ballex via Flickr Creative Commons

Connemara road – photo by Romain Ballex via Flickr Creative Commons

Author: Corey

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  1. Another tip – if you plan to have a drink, book your lodging within walking distance of town. Bad enough driving on the left while unimpaired.

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  2. My friend and I did a self drive which was amazing. We didn’t book ahead just stopped somewhere when it appealed to us. It was June, not peak season.

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  3. My husband and I did a self-drive vacation in Ireland 2 years ago. I can’t imagine seeing the country any other way!! One of the best tips that I can offer is to stay more than one night at a location. I loved having extra time to meet some locals and really experience Ireland. We stay at a self-catering cottage for a week and used it as a home base for touring the area. We found an amazing walking tour at the Connemara Bog Festival in a town that probably never has a tour bus stop in! We learned a lot about the local flora and fauna but even better was being invited to join the locals at a pub for dinner and music!

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  4. My husband and I did this also almost 2 years ago and we loved it. As we were kind of “self-made” people with our own business, we felt that we were well prepared. We made our own itinerary and read several published books on traveling Ireland. I had a notebook of places I wanted to see, and ranked them according to importance. I felt that doing our own thing allowed us to be closer to the locals, and visit those places that we would have otherwise been unable to visit, like the Perfumery in the Burren, which is down some pretty curvy passages that a tour bus would not be able to maneuver. I felt like that going on a tour would have us interacting with others perhaps from other countries more than the people of the Irish villages we visited. I would do the very same thing again. Except for the first trip, we started in Dublin and ended up in Clare, staying at various B&B’s along the way. Next time, we are picking a spot and having it be our home base, like in Clare or Kerry. My husband was a good driver at home, but he was also able to manage the change in driving patterns pretty well, so it was well worth doing it ourselves. He accomodated my incessant need for picture-taking along our journey and we stopped wherever the mood struck us. Our trip was not just to travel, but one of personal connection with my family. Seeing the small village where my grandfather grew up was incredible, and I am sure this little place would not have been the highlight of any tour. My trip was very personal, so I was not going to take a chance being at the mercy of a tour guide.

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    • Hi, thanks for the great description of your trip. My husband and I are planning a 3week trip to Ireland. And trying to find out where the best places are to stay foe a bit. You mention Clair and Kerry. Can you tell me why you would like to spend more time there? I do appreciate your thoughts. Oh, and how many days would you stay? Thanks, Jeanne

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      • Suggest you stay in a location for 5 or 6 days. Suggest Killarney area. Do day trips to Dingle, Ring of Kerry, Kenmare, Bantry and west Cork, Gougane Barra is very special

        Go visit a small village outside the towns. Eat there and meet the locals .

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  5. I self-drove for two weeks while traveling alone. A navigator would have been nice–the first day or so was a little intimidating–but my trusty book of maps and I had a wonderful trip. I’m so glad I did it that way an not on a bus trip. I loved being able to stop in a small town, at some interesting-looking ruins, or to take a photo, on a whim.

    I also loved the occasions when I had a site practically all to myself. I spent an amazing hour up on the Rock of Cashel right after it opened, with only three other visitors. It was a crisp, sunny morning, and so peaceful up there. As I left, the first tour bus was arriving.

    A few suggestions:
    (1) As Corey said, it takes a while to get used to the turns. When I was getting acclimated, I would recite “Left, easy; right, hard” every time I had to make a turn, meaning that a left turn doesn’t involve crossing lanes going in the opposite direction, whereas a right turn does.

    (2) Some roundabouts are very simple; they take the place of what in the US would be an intersection with a four-way stop. Others are more complicated, sometimes with minimal or confusing signage. Rick Steves offers some great advice: plan to go around twice, investigating your options the first time. If you don’t need to go twice, that’s great; however, assuming you’ll make two circuits removes the stress of “Oh, but what if I miss my exit?”

    (3) Remember that things are backwards on the motorways too. Exits are usually on the left, not the right, and people pass on the right.

    (4) I didn’t drive in Dublin, and I was glad I didn’t.

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  6. Corey, great article. Very thorough. If I may comment on one of the rules above. You mentioned not to drink and drive. Since moving back to Ireland last year it’s been quite a shock to see how many sobriety checks there are on the roads in the morning ( especially after weekend/holiday nights). It’s good to know that if you’re planning an early drive somewhere after a night out, you might want to designate a driver who has stayed on soft drinks.

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  7. Pitfalls: get comprehensive insurance for when the fairies crack your windscreen with one of those ‘loose chippings’ on the road. Good things: AA Journey Planner, very detailed directions, more reliable than SatNav (GPS). Ordinance Survey for exploring the little boreens.

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  8. In July 2013 my husband and I along with family and friends from Western Australia hired a small bus in Belfast and went on our own self driving bus tour of Ireland. When we picked up the bus we asked about a GPS and the fellow told us to get out there and have fun and that we didn’t need a GPS. We used a Road Directory that I purchased in Australia. Before leaving WA I planned all of the accommodation for the 16 of us. I was fortunate to find some great self catering places and also hotels that made sure we had rooms next to each other. We used the accommodation as a base and went off on day trips to various places. We stopped for sunsets, had family picnics, visited relatives who we were meeting for the first time and did lots of sightseeing. Everyone in our travelling party all had input to our many outings and there was only one occasion where our navigation skills let us down. Only in Ireland when you are lost could you find a pub bearing your family surname Connolly’s Corner. This would never have happened on a regular bus tour. With directions from the locals on where to get the best meal in town and how to head back to our accommodation we all agreed that we were definitely getting out there and having fun. After 3 weeks of bus touring my husband and I farewelled our family who were all heading off in different directions of travel and we then hired a car from Dublin to do a much quieter self drive tour. We had another 5 weeks of setting ourselves up with a mix of accommodation to suit our needs. We loved every minute of driving, seeing the most amazing natural wonders, making way for the sheep with their painted fleeces, tractors driving into towns, dancing, singing and drinking with so many friendly people that we will be going back again in the near future. We did do one organised bus tour to give my husband a break and that was to see the Ring of Kerry. It rained all day on the tour so we did it again in our car the next time. Who can complain about 1 day of rain in our 8 weeks of travel.

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  9. I know this all too well… I rent some place in the bush, get up at dawn with my GPS and my atlas, pinpoint a few castles or megaliths, pack up some food, and just drive like a beast and see what happens. It’s the most rewarding way to see the island. ~ S

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  10. My three best pieces of advice for a self-drive tour in Ireland: 1) don’t drive in Dublin for your first time 2) GPS is not essential and 3) bring a utility knife! I was a 32 year old female solo traveler, driving through the west counties when I ended up having a flat outside Lisdoonvarna on a bank holiday, no less 🙂 Even though I know how to change a tire, the car hire company had cable-tied the hub cabs onto the wheel base, not letting me take of the caps to change the tire. Luckily, two very nice lads from Dublin stopped and helped me out by cutting the cable ties and then changing the tire out for the doughnut. I also had a weird tire size, so after driving to 6 different stations, I finally found a place that had my size tire. Next time, I will definitely ask what the size is so I can call ahead and not have to drive 50km to get to a station 10 km away!

    Enjoy your travels, you can’t go wrong on a self-drive…I picked up driving on the left really quickly and after a stay in Dublin, picked the car up at the airport and hopped right on the Motorway towards the West. I would vote to ignore the GPS, grab a real map and let the road take you where it may. GPS ends up being too confining for my taste. You can’t beat the flexibility and the sheer joy in all of a sudden turning onto an unknown road and happening upon beauty that you can’t imagine.

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    • Cory, Great advice and excellent comments. Betty and I have traveled to Ireland several (15) times and have rented a car each time. I enjoy driving in Ireland and love the freedom of going where we wish, when we wish. The one recommendation I would have for self-drivers, especially the first time, would be to fly into Shannon. It is a much smaller airport than Dublin and considerably easier to get in and out of than Dublin. Leaving Dublin Airport you immediately come to what is undoubtedly the largest and busiest roundabout in all of Ireland – 4 or 5 lanes of concentric circles crowded with taxis, trucks and other travelers. It can be intimidating for first time drivers. Having a good co-pilot is very helpful. I still will not drive in to Dublin City Centre but prefer to stay in Howth or Portmarnock on the north of Dublin and take the DART or a bus into town.

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  11. My wife and I are getting ready for our third trip to Ireland…all self-drive. What I found to be very helpful was landing in Ireland on Sunday morning.
    It gave me the opportunity to get use to driving on the opposite side on a day and time of day when traffic was less hectic.
    One thing to remember is that when you want to turn and face backward while you are backing up or maneuvering, you turn and look over your left shoulder. It took a few attempt, a sore neck and an ah-ha moment to figure out what I was doing wrong.:)

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  12. Self-drives are the way to go. My daughter (in her 20s) and I travelled to Ireland last September and after a couple of days in Dublin, picked up our automatic rental car and headed out. We opted for a GPS and found it very useful, especially the first few days. After that we plotted our routes with a fold-up map and forced the GPS to give us help where we needed it. Although fairly expensive with the additional insurance, renting a car allowed us to find some gems, especially in Donegal which does not have as many established tours. I agree with not planning too much in a day, I would not let distances scare you. We planned our nights along routes, but in the future I would select strategic bases and drive out from there. It is best to stay in one location for several nights. I hope to go back in the next year or two with my husband as we did not explore south of Dublin. He will not be as helpful as a navigator and wishes not to drive, so I am thinking of taking a bus from Dublin to a smaller centre and then renting a car from there. I will also look at getting my own GPS so I am familiar with it before the trip. The cost to renting the GPS for 1 week is almost as much as purchasing one. From experience, if you don’t get to see all you had planned, don’t worry, you will have a great time and start planning your next trip.

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  13. Arriving for my Irish adventure at the end of June 2015. Taking a two week coach tour to get the touristy major sights out of the way and to get the lay of the land. I’ve then got two weeks car hire and look forward to getting into the real countryside and meet the locals. Loving all the tips here. My only concern is getting out of Dublin and working out best maps. Hard copy Vs GPS

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  14. I wouldn’t want to drive through Ireland any other way than autonomously by hired car. But the only caveat I will suggest if you’re traveling to Ireland via a long flight is to give yourself perhaps a 24 hour acclimation period to adjust to the time change. Long flights can be disorienting, and to hire a car at the airport the moment you leave the plane is almost overwhelming, especially if you’re not used to Irish driving conditions ( which were addressed brilliantly in this article.) I advise a good nights rest to get yourself on track, then hire a car!

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    • We will be arriving in Dublin in a few weeks. After a few days in Dublin, we pick up our two cars (six adults) in Dublin City Centre – South Circular Road. My husband insists that it will be fine. How crazy is this? We will have maps and GPS. I am playing with the thought of hiring a car to lead us out of the city. Suggestions please!

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      • I took a taxi to the airport and rented my car there. It’s been a few years since I went, but my recollection is that it was pretty easy to navigate from there. I don’t know the city well enough to know what area you’re talking about, but personally I would not have wanted to drive in Dublin city center at all, especially not when just getting started driving.

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  15. As a solo driver it sucked. A copilot is essential. ABSOLUTELY get GPS or you will spend much of your precious time lost. Get FULL insurance on your rental car. As if it includes tire coverage. Get tire insurance. I was almost killed twice. It is stressful.

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