Planning Notes for Traveling to Ireland or Northern Ireland

When I decided to travel to Ireland I was prepared to go on my own. I dove into our family ancestry over the Christmas holiday and wanted to learn more about where we came from in a way that seems to happen when one is trying to understand who they are. 

The somewhat unexpected passing of both my grandparents on my mom’s side was the final motivation I needed. 

I realized before I traveled anywhere else, I wanted to explore my roots. 

As it turns out, my friend Jenna was up for an adventure so we picked some dates and set about planning a spring road trip through Northern Ireland and Ireland. For ten days, we travelled around the two countries in a somewhat beat-up little rental car, dodging oncoming traffic and falling in love with the views and people.

atlantic-coast-irelandThis post gives you the information we found most helpful as well as some lessons we learned on our trip.

Flights

  • We found cheaper direct flight options with Are Lingus than Air Canada. The planes aren’t fancy, and I was disappointed they broke my suitcase (and wouldn’t fix it), but I would still recommend booking with them to save money.
  • Plan your itinerary and book your flights accordingly. If you are planning on heading to the south (where you’ll find the famous Ring of Kerry and Cork) or west (Cliffs of Moher) then Shannon airport may be a better starting point than Dublin. 
  • If you’re going to Northern Ireland, you can easily rent a car in Dublin and drive to Belfast if flight options are more preferable for Dublin. 

Itinerary Planning

  • County versus city. We asked friends for recommendations and when people told us to visit Donegal and Galway, we mistakenly thought they meant the city when in fact they meant the county. We realized when we arrived to Donegal City that the scenery around the Donegal coast was what we were meant to admire. We only felt a little jilted though because it was raining and you really couldn’t see anything all day anyway. The Connemara area west of Galway is a popular area we also didn’t get too.
  • The best recommendations we got were from our AirBnb owners and locals so plan to go with the flow. From the car rental counter, to people on the street, everyone is  really friendly and love to share their area with you. The people we met did anyway. This is how we learned about some cool little castles, New Grange, the Hill of Tara, and the Burren Perfumery.
  • I’m glad we strayed off the typical tourist path. We visited Co. Cavan, Monaghan and the eastern part of Co. Galway. We saw areas of Ireland that haven’t recovered from the great recession in 2008 and realized how big the divide still is between places like Dublin and Portumna. While we marvelled how small towns still have a pub and a pharmacy and a little store, we heard many stories how they were nearly shuttered and no one wanted to live there because there was no work. Sound familiar?
  • County Galway is huge. That’s all.
  • Everyone is delighted when they learn you are from Canada. Not surprisingly, most people knew someone from Canada and wondered if knew them also. We didn’t.
  • There’s some great hiking. The weather and our itinerary didn’t cooperate for us to do much, but we did walk into the Giant’s Causeway. We parked at the beach in nearby Portballintrae, and there is a trail that runs along the golf course, below a huge estate and then along the coast to the Causeway. It’s about 3km one way. 
  • Our route was as follows (and AirBnb’s we’d recommend linked): 
    • Flew into Dublin, rented a car and spent the day driving to Belfast
    • Belfast for 2 nights
    • Giants Causeway for 2 nights (Cushendall and Portrush)
    • Donegal (city)
    • Newbliss, Co. Cavan
    • Galway (city)
    • Cliffs of Moher
    • 2 nights outside Portumna on a farm 
    • 2 nights in Dublin 

Dublin

  • This deserves its own section and maybe even a post. It was a wild night!
  • Dublin is a big city and we found it to be nothing like the rest of Ireland. As in, it was a culture shock to come back too after 10 days on the road in small towns with friendly Irish people. In hindsight, it would’ve been more enjoyable to spend a few days here first before we set out. 
  • Book a Dublin city tour. We hooked up with the “Relive Past & Present in the Docklands” tour on AirBnb Experiences and loved that we got an understanding of the city’s history; more background on what happened during the famine and through the independence revolution, and also some context for what is going on in Dublin today. I realized how often we focus on learning about the past while traveling but completely miss out on understanding the present. We got to learn about how Dublin has become the tech hub of Europe, visited the Google neighbourhood and more from a prior tech employee. 
  • Don’t expect to get many non-touristy recommendations here unless you go on a tour like the above. Everyone that works in service here is not from Ireland which we learned is due to the booming Dublin economy.
  • This is a party town. We were done at midnight but walking home it was the only place in Ireland we felt a little unnerved. All sorts of people in all sorts of stages of coherence were on the streets indulging their pleasure. Like I said, a little shock to the system after we couldn’t find a place to eat dinner at 8:00PM in Co. Galway a few nights earlier.
  • We made the mistake of visiting when Taylor Swift was in town. Hotels were at least 100E more than normal and we ended up in an OK hotel at premium prices on hostel row. We could hear drunk tourists stumbling home all night.  
  • You don’t need a car in Dublin. Once down to the main quarter, we walked everywhere, but the transit and taxi system is also pretty good. 
  • Book your Guinness Tour online at least a few days beforehand. There was a massive line when we arrived for walk-up tickets and often people don’t get in on the same day. It’s the most impressive and glammed up brewery tour there is, but you have to do it. If only to get a photo pouring the perfect pint and to see the view from the top. I also really enjoyed the advertising floor cause I’m a dork like that.  
IMG_7642
Layered up in everything we had on the Cliffs of Moher

Packing

  • Bring clothes that can be layered. We arrived during a heat wave and the summer-like weather was unexpected but by a few days later the normal, damp coolness returned. During an evening out on a farm and our afternoon driving down the Atlantic Coast, all the weathers and jackets we owned wasn’t enough to keep us warm. 
  • If you’re renting a car and planning to purchase snacks to eat on the road, it might be worth taking a small cooler bag. A few times, we bought cheese and meat and wished we had something to store it in. 

Driving in Ireland

Car Rentals

  • Renting a car in Ireland is costly. Why? See photos above.
  • Most travel insurance does not cover rental cars in Ireland so you have to go with the insurance provided by the rental company which doubles your rental cost. I wouldn’t go without it. You never know when you’re going to have to pull off into a bush to let a tractor or tour bus pass or if you might bottom out on some dodgy lane that is marked as a main road on the map.
  • Renting a car is great way to see the country on your own watch. If you can handle driving a standard, you’ll master driving on the left quicker than you might think. If you’re worried, travel in the shoulder seasons as there is less traffic and splurge for a GPS, because it will tell you what lane to be in when going through roundabouts; and there are many of these! 
  • Google maps works well in Ireland but be aware that what shows as a numbered road on the map may actually resemble more of a cow path. Most roads that aren’t an expressway are like one and a half lanes. We yielded a lot in pull outs which I think sent up the flag immediately we were tourists. The farmers were most appreciative though when we met them with their slurry tanks or silage wagons.  

 

DSC00548
An amazing steak at the Bull & Castle. Make a reservation though – we just lucked out getting a spot at the bar.

Food

  • Drink Guinness always. Seriously, we tried some other beers but ended up sticking with the black stuff most often. 
  • Generally we ate well no matter where we went. I did get sick of potatoes even when they were good. 
  • I think we were expecting more of the European breads and meats and cheeses than we found. We did miss vegetables. A good salad just doesn’t seem to exist in Ireland. 
  • We never saw lamb on the menu, despite seeing a lot of sheep. Ireland is also known for good beef so we did enjoy some great steak. 
IMG_7496
Our AirBnB in Cushendall was the first hospital in town but it sat on such a steep hill we had to ask the owners son-in-law to get our car “unparked” in the morning when we left.

Accommodations

  • IMG_7741
    Damn you Taylor Swift

    We booked a mix of AirBnb’s and hotels. We stayed in a hotel in Dublin because my conscience weighed on me knowing there is a housing shortage in Dublin and it’s one of the cities AirBnb has most adversely impacted. There were no deals there anyway thanks to TS.

  • Our Belfast AirBnb forgot about us so as we were arriving into the city on the first night (after an overnight flight, being out all day and now getting a little cranky), we learned we didn’t have a place to stay. Within an hour he managed to find us another spot, which I appreciate now far more than I did then.
  • We booked some of our accommodations months out and others not until we arrived in Ireland. That was leaving it a little too late. Next time I’d try to book as much as I could at least a month in advance. I think we would’ve got some better pricing and options, but overall we were happy with most everywhere we stayed.

 

P.S. If you’ve never used AirBnb, you can sign up with this link and we will both get a travel credit when you stay your first night!

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