The cost of rail travel can quickly mount up, but there are ways to save money. Whenever you can, book in advance. The example fares listed in this itinerary are all pre-booked; walk-up fares can be higher. The downside for booking that way is that you have to specify times of travel—but Irish Rail has a handy policy of letting you upgrade a pre-booked ticket into something more flexible for just €10.
If you’re going to be spending a lot of time on public transportation, you should also strongly consider buying a money-saving pass. In the Irish Republic, the Eurail Pass is good for travel on trains, Expressway coaches, and the Irish Continental Lines ferries between France and Ireland. They cost around €155 for a 3-day pass and €235 for a 5-day pass. Youth passes (ages 16–25), family, and first-class passes are also available. For further details, or for purchase, visit www.eurail.com.
BritRail Pass + Ireland: Includes all rail travel throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland, including a round-trip ferry crossing on Stena Line. Available from BritRail(tel. 866/938-RAIL in the U.S. and Canada; www.britrail.com). Prices for a 5-day pass start at £389 adults, £289 children. The BritRail pass is not available to British citizens.
Either of these can add up to significant savings, but there are a couple bits of small print to be aware of. First, it’s still advisable to make seat reservations to guarantee a space—this may cost a few extra euro or pounds each time in booking fees. Also, not everybody can buy a pass. E.U. citizens aren’t allowed to buy Eurail passes, and likewise, British citizens can’t buy BritRail passes. Both passes can also be purchased from Railpass (www.railpass.com), STA Travel(tel. 800/781-4040 in the U.S.; www.sta.com) and other travel agents.
Although Ireland has a reasonably extensive network of public transportation, there are many advantages to having your own car there. Trains tend not to go to charming small towns and villages, and great houses and castles tend to be miles from any major town. Buses are slow and service to places off the beaten track can be infrequent.
In the summer, weekly rental rates on a manual-transmission compact vehicle begin at around €160 and ascend steeply. Rates are much cheaper out of season.
Unless your stay in Ireland extends beyond 6 months, your own valid driver's license (provided you've had it for at least 6 months) is all you need to drive in Ireland. Rules and restrictions for car rental vary slightly and correspond roughly to those in other European nations and the U.S., with two important distinctions. Most rental-car agencies in the Republic won't rent to you (1) if you're 24 and under or 75 and over (there's no upper age limit in the North) or (2) if your license has been valid for less than a year.
Driving Laws, Tips & Warnings -- Highway safety has become a critical issue in Ireland during the past several years. The number of highway fatalities is high for such a small nation -- Ireland is ranked as the second-most dangerous country in Europe in which to drive (second only to Greece). In an effort to rein in the Irish drivers, the Republic now uses a penalty "points" system similar to that in the U.K. and the U.S. While visitors won't have points added to their licenses, they may still be penalized with fines if they speed or commit driving infractions.
All distances and speed limits on road signs in the Republic of Ireland are in kilometers, while in Northern Ireland they are in miles. Take care if you're driving around the borderlands -- the border is unmarked, so you can cross over from one side to the other without knowing it. It's easy to get confused and speed accidentally.
If you're not used to driving in rural areas on the left-hand side of the road, take precautions. Try to avoid driving after dark; stay off the road when driving conditions are compromised by rain, fog, or heavy traffic. Getting used to left-side driving, left-handed stick shift, narrow roads, and a new landscape are enough for the driver to manage, so it's helpful if you can have somebody along to navigate, or rent a GPS navigation device with your car -- most major rental firms offer them.
Roundabouts (what Americans call traffic circles or rotaries) are found on most major roads and take a little getting used to. Remember always to yield to traffic coming from the right as you approach a roundabout and follow the traffic to the left, signaling before you exit the circle.
One signal that could be misleading to U.S. drivers is a flashing amber light at a pedestrian traffic light. This almost always follows a red light and it means yield to pedestrians, but proceed when the crossing is clear.
There are relatively few types of roads in the Republic. National (N) roads link major cities on the island. Though these are the equivalent of U.S. highways, they are rarely more than two lanes in each direction, and are sometimes as small as one U.S.-size lane. Most pass directly through towns, making cross-country trips longer than you'd expect. Regional (R) roads have one lane of traffic traveling in each direction, and generally link smaller cities and towns. Last are the rural or unclassified roads, often the most scenic back roads. These can be poorly signposted, very narrow, and a bit rough, but travel through beautiful countryside.
In the North, there are two Major Motorways (M), equivalent to interstates, as well as a network of lesser A- and B-level roads. Speed limits are posted.
Both the North and the Republic have severe laws against drunk driving, and the legal blood alcohol limit is very low. Even one pint of beer can put you over the limit. The general rule is: Do not drink and drive.
Road Rules in a Nutshell
1. Drive on the left side of the road.
2. Road signs are in kilometers, except in Northern Ireland, where they are in miles.
3. On motorways, the left lane is the traveling lane. The right lane is for passing.
4. Everyone must wear a seat belt by law. Children must be in age-appropriate child seats.
5. Children 11 and under are not allowed to sit in the front seat.
6. When entering a roundabout (traffic circle), give way to traffic coming from the right.
7. The speed limits are 50kmph (31 mph) in urban areas; 80kmph (50 mph) on regional and local roads, sometimes referred to as non-national roads; 100kmph (62 mph) on national roads, including divided highways (called dual carriageways); and 120kmph (75 mph) on freeways (called motorways).
Rentals -- Try to make car-rental arrangements well in advance of your departure. Ireland is a small country, and in high season it can completely run out of rental cars -- but before it does, it runs out of affordable rental cars. Discounts are common in the off season, of course, but it's also possible to negotiate a decent deal for July and August if you reserve in advance.
Major international car-rental firms are represented at airports and cities throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland. They include Alamo-Treaty (tel. 871/384-1086; www.goalamo.com), Auto-Europe (tel. 800/358-1229; www.autoeurope.com), Avis (tel. 21/428-1111 in Ireland; 800/230-4898 in the U.S.; www.avis.ie), Budget (tel. 90/662-7711; 800/527-0700 in the U.S.; www.budget.ie), Hertz (tel. 1/870-5777; 800/654-3001 in the U.S.; www.hertz.ie), Europcar (tel. 353 1 8122880; www.europcar.ie), National (tel. 800/227-7368 in the U.S.; www.nationalcar.com), Payless (tel. 800/729-5377 in the U.S.; www.paylesscar.com), and Dan Dooley/Kenning Rent-a-Car (tel. 62/53103; 800/331-9301 in the U.S.; www.dan-dooley.ie).
When comparing prices, always ask if the quoted rate includes the 13.5% government tax (VAT), the €15 airport pickup fee (assuming you pick up your car right upon arrival), CDW (collision damage waiver), and theft insurance. If you have your own auto insurance, you may be covered; check your existing policy before you pay for additional coverage you may not need. If you rent a car in the Republic, it is best to return it to the Republic, and if you rent it in the North, return it in the North. (Most firms charge extra for cross-border drop-offs.)
If you rent with a credit card that claims to provide free protection, be sure to call your card's customer service line to make certain there are no restrictions on that coverage in Ireland. Visa does not offer insurance protection for car rentals in Ireland. And MasterCard and American Express -- even gold cards -- have limited their protection on Irish rentals. Be certain that your information is current. Always confirm the details of your coverage when you charge your car rental to your credit card. If you are renting a car in the Republic and taking it into the North (or vice versa), be sure to ask the car-rental firm if the CDW and theft insurance covers cross-border transport. If not, you may be required to buy extra insurance.
Parking -- You're better off without a car in Dublin. Traffic, a shortage of parking places, and one-way streets conspire to make you regret having wheels. In Dublin, virtually all streets are pay to park. Look for signs directing you to ticket machines; there should be one each block or so. Some larger towns also have multistory car parks; in central Dublin they average about €2 per hour and €23 for 24 hours.
By contrast, parking in most villages and small towns is easy and usually free. Look out for public parking lots -- they're often free and are clearly marked at the edge of town centers.
In Belfast and other large cities in the North, some special security measures are always in place. Control zone signs indicate that no unattended vehicle can be left there at any time. That means if you are a single traveler, you cannot leave your car; if you are a twosome, one person must remain in the car while it's parked. Also, unlocked cars anywhere in the North are subject to a fine, for security reasons.
Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail) (tel. 1850/366222 or 01/836-6222; www.irishrail.ie) operates the train services in Ireland. Train travel is generally the fastest way to get around the country. Most lines radiate from Dublin to other principal cities and towns. From Dublin, the journey time to Cork is about 2 1/2 hours; to Belfast, just over 2 hours; to Galway, just under 2 1/2 hours; to Killarney, 3 1/4 hours; to Sligo, 3 hours; and to Waterford, about 2 1/4 hours.
In addition to the Irish Rail service between Dublin and Belfast, Translink (tel. 028/9066-6630; www.nirailways.co.uk) operates routes from Belfast that include Coleraine and Derry, in addition to virtually all 21 localities in Northern Ireland.
One useful piece of lingo: when buying any sort of travel tickets—air, ferry, train or bus—a “single” means one-way, a “return” is round-trip.
Bus Éireann (tel. 01/836-6111; www.buseireann.ie) operates an extensive system of express bus services, as well as local service, to nearly every town in Ireland. The Bus Éireann website provides timetables and fares for bus service throughout the country. Similarly, Translink provides detailed information on services within Northern Ireland (tel. 028/9066-6630; www.translink.co.uk). Bus travel in both countries is affordable, reliable, and comfortable—but also slow.
Ireland is such a small country that there is very little point in flying from one end to the other. As it is, the options for internal flights seem to get more limited, year on year—partly because of improved roads and faster rail journey times. Aer Lingus Regional (tel. 1890/800-270; www.aerlingus.com), a joint operation between the national carrier and the smaller Stobart Air, still runs a couple of flights daily between Dublin and Kerry. The British budget airline Flybe (tel. 0044/139-268-3152; www.flybe.com) has one or two daily flights between Dublin and Donegal.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.