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By Car

Although Ireland has a reasonably extensive network of public transportation, it will only be useful if you don’t mind being confined to the major towns and cities, or depending on organized tours for attractions that are farther afield. Trains tend not to go to charming small towns and villages, and great houses and castles are usually miles from any major town. Bus service to places off the beaten track can be infrequent.

Renting a car is not for everyone—particularly if you’re not used to driving on small, winding European country roads (and on the left side of the road). But if you’re intrepid enough to do it, this is by far the best way to get around. It will give you the most freedom and open up more choices to you than any other way of getting around. Put simply: rent a car and you’ll see more of Ireland.

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 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 under 25 or over age 74 (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 regularly comes out near the bottom of European league tables for accident rates. In an effort to rein in Irish drivers, the Republic now uses a penalty “points” system similar to that in the U.K. and the U.S. Although visitors won’t have points added to their licenses, they may still be fined 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.

Getting used to left-side driving, left-handed stick shift, narrow roads, and a new landscape all present a challenge, especially if you’re driving solo—it’s helpful if you can have somebody along to navigate. Some people even use tricks such as sticking a big arrow to the dashboard reminding you that the left is your default lane.

A GPS navigation device can be invaluable in finding your way around, especially in the remote countryside. Nearly all 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.

The Republic has relatively few types of roads. Motorways (M) are major highways, the equivalent of Interstates in the U.S. National (N) roads, which link major cities, are rarely more than two lanes in each direction (and are sometimes as small as one American-sized 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 they usually travel through beautiful countryside.

Both the Republic and Northern Ireland have severe laws against drunk driving. The legal limit is 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100 milliliters of breath. What that equates to varies by person, but even one pint of beer can be enough to 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. Another roundabout rule: always go left (clockwise) around the circle.
  8. 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 -- Most rental companies offer their best prices to customers who reserve in advance from their home country. Ireland is a small country, and in high season it can virtually run out of rental cars—but long before it does, it runs out of affordable rental cars. Note that weekly rentals are almost always less expensive than day rentals, and keep in mind that the vast majority of available rental cars have manual transmissions (stick shifts). Automatics are available, but for a premium. Another word of warning: fuel is very expensive in Ireland.

By law, you must be between the ages of 25 and 75 to rent a car in Ireland. The only documentation you should need is your driver’s license and photo I.D., such as a passport, plus a printout of your reservation if you have one.

When you reserve a car, be sure to ask if the price includes: all taxes including value-added tax (VAT); breakdown assistance; unlimited mileage; personal accident or liability insurance (PAI); collision-damage waiver (CDW); theft waiver; and any other insurance options. If not, ask what these extras cost, because they can make a big dent in your bottom line. The CDW and other insurance might be covered by your credit card if you use the card to pay for the rental; check with your card issuer to be sure that there are no restrictions on that coverage in Ireland. (Not all cards do offer insurance protection for car rentals in Ireland.) Some travelers like to live dangerously and waive optional insurance. But when no CDW is purchased, many rental agencies will make you pay for any damages on the spot when you return the car—making even the smallest dent or scratch a potentially costly experience. To avoid any issues, take cellphone photos of your car with a time stamp, so that you have any dents and dings recorded and won’t be charged for it.

If your credit card doesn’t cover the CDW, consider buying Car Rental Collision Coverage from a third party. Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com; 1800/826-4919 in the U.S. and Canada) will insure you for around US$8 to US$10 per day. In the U.K., Insurance 4 Car Hire (www.insurance4carhire.com; 0344/892-1770) offers similar coverage.

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.

By Train

Train travel is generally the fastest way to get around the country. Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail) (www.irishrail.ie; 1850/366222 or 01/836-6222) operates the train services in Ireland. 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 Irish Rail service between Dublin and Belfast, Translink (www.translink.co.uk; 028/9066-6630) operates routes from Belfast that include Coleraine, Derry, and 21 other 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.

Money Saving Bus and Rail Passes

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. Eurail Pass is good for travel on trains, Expressway coaches, and the Irish Continental Lines ferries between France and Ireland. They cost from €159 for a 3-day pass to €296 for an 8-day pass. (Days can be non-consecutive, so long as they’re all used within a month.) Youth passes (ages 16–25), family, and first-class passes are also available. The passes are valid throughout Ireland (including Northern Ireland). You can also buy Eurail passes that are good for travel in up to 28 European nations. For further details, or for purchase, visit www.eurail.com. Eurail passes can also be purchased from Railpass (www.railpass.com; 877/375-7245 in the U.S), STA Travel (www.sta.com; 800/781-4040 in the U.S.), and other travel agents.

All of this 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 each time in booking fees. And if you’re already a resident of the European Union then you can’t get one! Instead, you may qualify for its Europeans-only equivalent, the Interrail Pass–see www.interrail.eu for details.

By Bus

Bus Éireann (www.buseireann.ie; 01/836-6111) 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 (www.translink.co.uk; 028/9066-6630). Bus travel in both countries is affordable, reliable, and comfortable—but also slow.

By Plane

Ireland is such a small country that there is very little point in flying from one end to the other. In any case, the options for internal flights seem to get more limited every year, partly because of improved roads and faster rail journey times. Daily flights on the Dublin–Kerry and Dublin–Donegal routes are operated by Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) and British Airways (www.britishairways.com).

By Bike

Cycling is an ideal way to explore the Irish landscape. Distances are quite manageable, and many hostels, B&Bs, and hotels offer bike storage and luggage transfers for touring cyclists.

Roads in Ireland are categorized as M (Motorway), N (National), or R (Regional). It is illegal to cycle on motorways, but R roads are always suitable for cycling, as are the N roads in outlying areas with little traffic. Be prepared, however, for two inevitable obstacles: wind and hills. Outside the Midlands, hills are just about everywhere, and those on the back roads can have thigh-burning grades. (Tip: if you’re biking in the west, plan your route from south to north—the same direction as the prevailing winds.) Note that you can bring your bike on all passenger ferries to Ireland’s islands, often for no extra charge.

Rental agencies with depots nationwide include Raleigh (www.raleigh.ie; 01/465-9659); and Emerald Cycles/Ireland Rent-A-Bike (www.irelandrentabike.com; 61/416983). Mountain and cross-country bike-rental rates average around €20 per day, €80 per week. You can also rent a car bike carrier for €40 per week (good for up to three bikes). On top of the hire price, you’ll also have to fork up a refundable deposit, probably of around €50 per bike.

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.