**Disclaimer: This is a small novel. Short version: We had a great trip, a ton of fun, and learned a lot while figuring stuff out on the fly. If you’re going to go to Ireland, take the bus, book rooms as you go (except on weekends), bring rain coats and good walking shoes, and plan on wet weather.**
When Eric found cheap (relatively) airfare to Ireland this winter, he booked the trip pretty abruptly. We had no idea where we would go in Ireland and hadn’t even booked places to stay. I am a super-planner, so these facts gave me some anxiety, but also made me feel a bit adventurous. We had decided that we’d spend our almost 2 weeks in Ireland driving around the country in a rental car, stopping at various places to camp for the night before heading out to see more. This seemed like the most perfect plan…
But perfect plans on paper are not always perfect plans in reality, and what little planning we’d done went to shit early on. Over the course of 12 days on the Emerald Isle, we learned an awful lot. I know Ireland is a bucket-list trip for so many people, so here are the things I wish someone had told us about traveling to Ireland.
- Do NOT, I repeat DO NOT, think you are going to drive yourself. At least not easily. We rented our car, left the parking lot, and promptly broke down on the side of the road. After some tense conversations between ourselves and also with the rental car place, trying to explain where we’d gone so that they could find us, we were delivered back to the airport. We decided against even attempting to get a new car. Sure having a car would have been convenient–we could’ve gone exactly where we wanted, exactly WHEN we wanted (which crossed my mind every time we were waiting to go somewhere via bus). But in my opinion, the bus was the better option for many reasons. First, it was cheaper (Bus Eirran, the national bus company, has an open road pass that is relatively cheap–we paid just over 100 euro each, way less than we’d have paid for a car, insurance and gas, to use it for unlimited trips for 6 days…additional days could be purchased for 16.50, which was less than most tickets between cities would’ve been). Because we were on a bus, we could both just watch where we were going instead of
naviguessing navigating or focusing on the road and driving. Apparently roads in Ireland aren’t labeled, or are labeled very differently from ours (see Number 5 for more info), so following directions without a GPS could be nearly impossible. Read: If you are getting a car, you are going to want to pay for a GPS, too. But perhaps the best reason to just bus it was that the roads are SUPER narrow and wind-y. There were times when vehicles had to stop and inch their way around each other. The side mirrors on many cars are ripped off. Combine all of that with the “weirdness” of driving on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. The bus system in Ireland is a little tricky–the bus schedules could be hard to find (especially to get to small towns) and you had to be very careful to read them correctly. But they were clean, comfortable (most of them) and even had power outlets to charge stuff and free WiFi!
Glad this guy had to drive and we didn’t. Thanks, bus drivers, for getting us safely around the country!
2. As much as it sounds crazy, you should try to book your rooms as you go. The only times when this seemed false is for weekends and/or if there is a festival going on in your destination. The reasoning for this is that if you get to a town or city and really love it, you might want to spend the night. If you get somewhere and hate it, but have already booked a room, you’re kind of stuck there, and it sucks (we learned both from experience). The nice thing about the bus pass was that if we couldn’t find a place to stay, we could just get back on the next bus (so travel early enough to do that haha) and head to another town. Having no plans made us able to be really flexible. There were a wide range of hostels, hotels and B and Bs in every town, even the really tiny ones. We stayed in B and Bs and hostels mostly–I had stayed in some when I lived in Spain, and they were mostly the giant room with bunk beds and shared bathrooms, so basically college again. In Ireland (and maybe this is true now of other places), you can get a room with a double bed and “en suite” (aka your own private bathroom) in a hostel. Which means you have your privacy, but also can access lounges with games and books (I learned how to play chess on the trip!) and the kitchen (so you can cook your own meals if you want to save some money!) at a bit cheaper rate than a hotel or B and B. A lot of pubs/restaurants also had rooms above them to rent for the night. Since the buses had free WiFi, we would often book a place to stay either on the bus trip to the next place or even more daringly in a cafe/pub when we’d arrived and realized the place we were at was cool enough to want to stay put and explore more.
3. Make sure you bring a good rain coat because it WILL rain. In fact, bringing clothes to layer is a good idea, since the weather in Ireland can change dramatically in the course of even just a few minutes. You always hear this, but I didn’t understand just how quickly the changes could come. We were hoofing it around Limerick and I was digging through one of my bags to find my sunglasses. Not five minutes later, we felt a couple of rain drops, which turned into a deluge two more minutes later! No worries, though, because 15 minutes later it was super sunny again. You need a rain coat. And sensible shoes. High heels on wet cobblestone is not smart, as evidenced by the wide number of women stumbling around like baby giraffes when heels got caught in uneven stones or slipped. Also, ladies, if you can’t walk in your heels, you shouldn’t wear them out. You look ridiculous. But I digress. (Side note: I used to wear heels in Spain all the time…fml…I think I’m just getting old…fml.) Also 60 degrees may sound like t-shirt weather, but it is not that warm–I had at the last minute packed a couple of extra sweaters, and I pretty much lived in them except when we were out hiking/walking and I had on my rain coat.
Thanks, Columbia, for amazing rain gear that kept us mostly dry during what was apparently a very rainy (even for Ireland) two weeks!
4. Because of all the rain, things are not going to dry. We’d packed lightly thinking we were going to have a trip similar to camping–so we’d wash our clothes at some point and hang ’em up to dry and be good to go. Except nothing dried, except in the hostel that had the “drying room.” I rarely blow dry my hair because it air dries quickly (like within 30 or 45 minutes usually)–there were mornings where I’d washed my hair and 2-3 hours later it was still damp! NOTHING seemed to dry well there. Leave heavy cotton, jeans, etc at home because if they get wet (when?) they will take FOREVER to dry.
5. Ireland does not believe in street signs. If there are street signs, chances are good they will be on sides of buildings on the corners (so look there first). BUT don’t count on it. We were over a week into our trip and stopped into a tourist information center for our second set of directions to our hostel (the first ones were confusing–another fun fact is that people in Ireland give confusing directions). There was another couple inside, asking for directions. The man said, “Are there street signs in town for us to follow?” and the woman at the counter just laughed. We got our next directions…and still had to stop one more time to confirm directions. So three stops for three different sets of directions (WITH a map to follow btw) all to get to our hostel, which was ONLY a half mile from the bus stop. Ask for directions. Multiple times if need be. I consider myself to be pretty good with a map and directions, and I found myself struggling a bit to find my way around some of the cities we visited.
6. Most places closed down in Ireland by around 6 pm, and many things weren’t open at all on Sundays. We aren’t big shoppers, so that was ok, except that tourist offices, where you could get maps of the city/ideas for things to do were closed on Sundays. Which made getting off a bus in Galway city on a Sunday a little daunting–luckily I had grabbed a map in another city’s tourist office and had pre-looked up directions to our B and B for the night on the bus. If you’re going somewhere on the weekend, you should probably book your room for the night and at least get directions to that before you get there. I suppose that’s cheating a little bit on the “don’t plan anything, just see what happens” front.
7. Walk. I’d say this about traveling anywhere new, though. You will see more, experience more, learn more if you are walking and not driving. We walked a LOT–and in Ireland that meant that around every turn was something new or cool or funny to see.
If you walk, you could find cool rocks to climb… or cannons… or sheep that have escaped and are being chased by their farmer…
8. If you don’t want to walk, rent a bike. I am a nervous cyclist, but drivers in Ireland were very respectful of us. I never felt like I was going to die (except going up some of those hills…when they tell you a route isn’t very hilly, just know there will be hills to climb). And we were able to leave the little town of Letterfrack in Connemara to explore places that would’ve been too far to walk to. Looking back, we probably should’ve rented bikes a few more places…it’s relatively inexpensive and a quick way to get around, particularly if you’re in the countryside. Also they are going to tell you that you don’t need bike locks and no one steals things. Try not to be too surprised by this.
The views from our bike ride through Connemara were pretty incredible! Mountains to one side, coast to the other!
9. When booking flights, if possible, book overnight flights and get there early in the morning and then book flights out in the evening, so that you can maximize your time there and not waste money on hotels for a night when you didn’t actually get to do or see anything.
10. If you are limited on time, based on our travels (Limerick, Killarney, Cork, Waterford, Galway, Letterfrack, Clifden, Cliffs of Moher), here are the best/worst things we did that we’d recommend to you:
Things/Places Not To Miss:
- Connemara: The whole area, just outside of Galway, was really beautiful, and I’m not sure you can go wrong anywhere. Think tons of small coastal towns, which means beautiful rugged coastline, awesome mountains (the Twelve Bens were something we missed but wished we’d had time to research more and do), fresh seafood (if that’s your thing), small shops to bum around in, great bike routes and walks. If you go to Clifden, stay at The Inn to the West–it was by far the coolest place we stayed. People will act like it’s far from town–it’s MAYBE a half mile walk. And totally worth it.
- Clifden Castle: This is in Connemara, but I’m giving it it’s own bullet point because it was my favorite thing we did. Take the Sky Road Loop from town…it’s a pretty walk on its own. Stop for a trip up to the Darcy Monument, which is unimpressive, but the views from up there are sweet. Keep walking. Old castle ruins sit at the bottom of a muddy, rocky farmer’s road. To get there, pass under the old castle gate and by the farmer’s house, walk by all his cows and horses and sheep, and eventually you’ll see a handwritten “castle” sign with an arrow. Keep going. It’s totally worth it to explore the old, busted castle and try to imagine what it really looked like and who lived there and what things had happened on the ground you are now standing on. So. Cool.
- Kilkenny: An old medieval city, the new stuff is built right around the old…and it’s really cool. They offer a pass book for 25 Euro to get into most of the “tourist” sites (think: castles, cathedrals, Smithwicks) and if you do 3 of the things, you’ve already saved a ton of money. We did pretty much everything (except the cycling because we didn’t have time for it) and it was so worth it! Smithwicks was really well done (not just your average brewery tour–they go thru the history of the company, which involves the history of the country as well), the castle was cool (who doesn’t love walking around castles???) and the cathedral and climbing the round tower were incredible. The best part was the ghost tour–you’ll feel like a total tourist doing it, but the guy who gave the tour was super informative and hilarious…also ours was 2 hours, so it’ll finish around 10, which means you are going to have limited food options at that hour (most restaurants there seemed to close around 9 or 10), so plan ahead.
- Killarney: This city was so festive and cute and the walk to Killarney National Park was pretty cool (there’s also a bus if you’re so inclined). This place is the perfect mix of small city (bustling shops, busy streets, street music, live music in pubs, etc) and outdoors scene (bike rentals, the national park with places to hike, Torc Mountain and waterfall trails are right there, too).
- Cliffs of Moher: The Cliffs themselves are super amazing. The Visitor Center was cool–lots of interesting information about how they formed and the history of the site as a tourist destination. Cooler still, and what we wished we had known about, you can get off the bus in Doolin and hike all the way along the Cliffs, up to the Visitor Center (and another bus stop) OR all the way to Hags Head and then to Liscannor (another bus stop). So basically you have options for a really beautiful hike all the way along the Cliffs. Put it on your list of things to do. You won’t regret it.
Things/Places to Skip if You Have Limited Time:
- Waterford: The oldest city in Ireland, it’s a port town with some cool history and buildings to check out and of course the crystal factory (if that’s your jam). However it’s not a place I’d recommend staying in. If you’re going to check it out, I’d recommend making it a pass-thru stop on your way to better things!
Overall, the trip was really awesome. I think backpack/busing around the country was especially cool, and I feel like we really saw and did a lot of cool stuff. I wish we’d just planned to do things this way from the get-go, because I would’ve done more pre-planning, but ultimately it was a great adventure. There were, of course, some frustrating moments, but figuring shit out on the fly is part of the adventure of traveling, especially international travel. We’d normally be hiking mountains, paddling our canoe, and camping it up for our anniversary, but this was a pretty cool, different adventure for this year. Here’s to an awesome 7th anniversary trip, and to an even better next year of marriage–and beyond!
Doesn’t matter where we go as long as we go together!