I’m in charge of the itinerary for our family trip to Ireland, and I’m struggling to figure out how to put together a schedule that let’s us see a lot, but won’t leave us exhausted (and make me crazy trying to plan it).
When planning a big trip, it’s easy to feel pressured to get it right. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but here are a few tips that might help you along the way.
Work out the critical details first.
While you can work on your Ireland wishlist at any time, there are a few decisions to lock in before finalizing your “real” itinerary. Decide the exact dates you’ll be traveling (these are usually not definite until your tickets are booked), what airport you will use, and how you plan to get around.
Ask for advice BEFORE you make plans.
Once your accommodations and activities are booked, there’s not much advice anyone can offer beyond pointing out any glaring problems with your plan. In fact, any recommendations that come back will likely cause you a bit of a headache. If you genuinely want suggestions, ask before you lock in your reservations; or ask about a specific portion of your itinerary where you are able to make adjustments.
Concentrate on what you WILL SEE instead of what you’ll miss.
It happens all the time. An email arrives in my inbox, and a good portion of the message dwells on the things that won’t make the itinerary. Instead of mourning the places that simply can’t make the cut, look a little closer at the region you will be visiting. Start with lesser-known sites for that county listed on sites like www.Ireland.com or www.IrelandTravelKit.com or a local tourism website. Then spend some time investigating festivals, markets, and events in the vicinity. You’ll find yourself replacing “unfortunately, we can’t do…” with “we’re going to try something different…”
Focus on experiences rather than places.
Delusions of seeing “everything” can overcome a travel planner. Apply a bit of reason by ranking your must-see list. Then, try identifying destinations as a category or type of experience rather than a standalone attraction. When you have to cut something, you can prune activities that are similar to other things you’ll be doing. For example, if Malahide Castle is on your must-see list but you can’t include it this trip because you’re concentrating on the west coast, look for another castle located in the area you will travel… it won’t be the same, but it will likely lead you to something interesting.
Pause before booking a package deal
Sometimes you’ll find a great bargain by booking a package deal (transportation + accommodation + possibly attractions or meals). Before you hand over your credit card details, make sure the deal truly suits you. Will you be staying in accommodations in the areas that match the sites you want to see or are convenient to the amenities you require. Some packages offer B&B vouchers that give you a choice of places to stay, but restrictions or limited availability sometimes make them difficult to redeem. Also, internet deals from sites like Groupon can offer a great value, but they often come with limitations that don’t provide the flexibility you need when planning a short trip.
Try to add a bit of variety
When the time comes for trimming some sites from your list, consider cutting experiences that might be similar to other things you’ll see and do elsewhere. For example, if most of your trip hugs the shoreline, sacrifice a coastal view for something inland; or if castle ruins populate most of your plans, consider a museum or restored structure to offer an alternative adventure.
Cater to your interests
It’s easy to get caught up in building your itinerary based on attractions and towns, but it’s a great idea to look to your interests when choosing how you’ll spend your time. These types of activities will turn out to be more personal and may introduce you to Irish people with similar interests. A few examples include archery, birding, boating, cooking, cycling, dancing, fishing, golfing, hiking, horseback riding, knitting, music lessons, rock climbing, sailing, traditional craft, as well as traveling to sites featured in your favourite films and TV programs (Game of Thrones, anyone?).
Don’t follow your friends.
You may get great itinerary ideas talking to those who have traveled to Ireland before. However, don’t expect great success trying to recreate the highlights their trip. Driving an hour or more out of your way to catch that pub or B&B or destination your pals loved (or some stranger from a review site) probably isn’t worth the extra time. Instead, make note of their tips for places on your route, then concentrate on finding your own gems in the areas you’ll be visiting (these will be the places you’ll be recommending to THEM on their next trip).
Remember there’s more to Ireland than Dublin City
Unless the purpose of your trip is specifically to see the many sites in Dublin, be sure to plan some time away from the capital city. From Dublin, it’s easy to use public transportation, hire a car, or take a bus tour to other parts of the Emerald Isle. For most first time visitors, two or three days provides enough time to get a taste of Dublin. On the same note, Dublin Airport is not Ireland’s only airport; Shannon on the west coast and Belfast in Northern Ireland offer year-round service to the US.
Stick to two sites a day
You may have to fight the temptation to fill every mile and minute of your trip, but it’s a good idea to limit your planning to two major sites that are within ninety minutes from each other per day. This will assure you’re not packing in too much and you have adequate time for the sites you choose. For example, you might plan for the Cliffs of Moher in the morning and Bunratty Castle and Folk Park in the afternoon. If time permits, you can easily add more nearby sites. If you’ve got more must-see sites in the area, take that as a clue you need to spend more time there.
Join in the festivities
Once your itinerary starts to take shape, be sure to visit local websites and newspapers to find out about festivals and events going on in the area. This might offer something to add to your itinerary or point out a major happening that might impact traffic or accommodation availability.
Consider your method of transportation
Renting a car allows you the greatest flexibility in your touring plans. However, you can get to most towns and cities in Ireland using trains and buses, but they won’t get you to remote attractions or specific rural locations. If you use public transport, be sure to pad your schedule to accommodate transfers and extra travel times. You can also consider hiring a driver or taxi for any size of group.
Avoid one-night stands
Although you might cover more ground by staying in a new place every night, you probably won’t be able to do much if you only stay one night. Instead, try planning a string of two and three night stays… or really dive into a region, and stay in the same spot for your entire trip.
Time of year
Although there’s a better chance of decent weather in the summer, Ireland’s climate is mild and changeable. That means you could have just about any kind of weather at any time. Your plans are more likely to be impacted by hours of daylight… very little in the winter and a lot in the summer. We go deeper into this here.
Stick to three counties
For those looking to avoid a crazy hit list of sites in Ireland, consider focusing all your attention on three adjoining counties for each week of your trip. By zeroing in on a specific geographic region, you’ll turn up lesser-known sites and spend more time interacting with the locals. If Dublin is on your must-see list and you want to visit another part of Ireland, limit yourself to Dublin and two adjoining counties elsewhere.
Start a “when I return to Ireland” list
Even the trip of a lifetime cannot include all of Ireland’s magnificent sites, so it’s important to resign yourself to the fact that you won’t see everything… this trip. Start a list of places you’d like to visit on your next trip.
Feel free to add your itinerary planning tips in the comments below.