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When preparing for a big road trip around Ireland, it helps to know from someone that’s been there. Having recently completed 7 days in Southern Ireland, I meticulously kept track of all the random bits of information that I learned along the way that I knew would be immensely helpful for any traveller planning for their very own adventure.
If you haven’t yet, make sure you read the full week long itinerary in Ireland. This is an extension to it and provides much more in-depth detail to help you think about the things that most people don’t tell you about.
Table of Contents
VALUABLE TRIP PLANNING ADVICE
While you never expect to run a “flawless” trip and the intent of travel is never to be perfect because part of what makes travel so great is the discovering and learning as you go along. That being said, there are still things I wish I knew to help better prepare for the trip. The following sections are a breakdown of everything I learned that I know will allow you to travel smarter and be as prepared as you want to be.
Driving in Ireland
Having done Iceland just the year before, I felt pretty prepared coming into Ireland but I learned pretty quickly that things are quite literally the opposite and there are a whole bunch of factors you’re going to want to think about.
Driving in Ireland is personally the best way to truly see the country. It’s the only way that gives you the freedom to plan out an itinerary that meets your interests and timing. It’s also the only way to get you out to the the tiny country roads or small towns by the coast
The Left Side
Perhaps most obvious is the fact that Ireland drives on the left side of the road. If you’ve never done it before, this is going to be the biggest adjustment that you’ll have to stay conscious about and almost vigilant about.
Mentally prepare yourself to drive on the left side
Driving on the left side of the road means everything is the opposite. To get yourself in the right frame of mind and hopefully I don’t overwhelm anyone here but here is what this means for you:
- The steering wheel is on the right side of the car
- If you get manual transmission car, you’ll be shifting with your left hand and not your right
- Left turns are easy (you only need to look right) and right turns are hard (make sure you’re clear on both sides)
- On the highway, the fast lane is on the right
Luckily, I’ve had some experience but the first day I would be lying if I say I wasn’t nervous. The toughest part about being on the other side of the road is that instinct is that your body should be towards the left line of your lane when in fact you need to be closer to the right line.
A fun game you can play with yourself is that the white line on the right should be hitting the right edge of your car’s windshield.
Driving The Roads
Oh the fun you will have here. Driving in Ireland was perhaps some of the most challenging driving I’ve had to do while travelling. That being said, it isn’t as bad as some people say so don’t let them scare you!
Here’s what you have to pay attention to when driving around the country:
- Don’t expect too many highways – The highways are known as motorways (M-class) and there are only a few that branch out from Dublin. For the most part, you’re going to be driving on R and L-class roads. These are all paved roads so no worries about needing to go off-road in Ireland.
- Narrow country roads – This was probably the biggest shock of all beyond driving on the left. There are a lot of roads you’ll be on that will be no wider than 1.5 car widths. When you’re the only one in sight, this is fine but our hearts may have skipped a beat each time there was an oncoming car. Locals drive really fast and the corners are particularly unpredictable so my advice is to take it slow. When you see a small oncoming car, slow down and squeeze a little closer to the left. If it’s a giant car/bus/truck up ahead, be proactive and tuck your car into the periodic make-shift shoulders to let them pass. If it’s getting dark an
- The single lane roads – Around Dingle and some tiny country roads, the width will shrink down to one car width. Don’t panic! It’s totally okay but you just have to be careful about oncoming traffic. This is where those make-shift shoulders come into play. Pull off to allow someone on the other end to go through. Even if you can get a third of your car off to the side, that is often enough space. There will also be instances where you can’t pull off so be prepared to pull the car into reverse.
- Speed limits – For a majority of the non-M-class roads, the limits are set way higher than you really need to be driving. Jokingly, locals we talked to said that the real driving speed is half of what’s stated. Where you’ll feel this the most is around the peninsulas of the south (Ring of Kerry included) where giant coaches dominate the road,
- Roundabouts – If you’ve seen Mr. Bean, you’ll know the panic that sets in when you enter a round about. The thing is, it’s unclear for people living in non-roundabout countries like Canada what the actual rules are. The fool proof way to perfectly execute a roundabout is to always be on the left most lane. When you’re about to enter, make sure the way is clear to the right. Once you enter, you’ll keep circling until you get to your exit. When you’re close, signal to the left to exit. You can use the second lane from the right to enter which gives you opportunities to leave on exit 2, 3, or 4 but it could get tricky depending on whether the left lane car is trying to do the same thing.
- Not many service stations – I remember making this comment while driving on the motorway. There are pitstops on the side of the road but the bizarre thing is that they’re only rest stations with a pullover area for parking. There are no bathroom facilities. The only real service station we encountered was during our drive from Galway to Dublin. That being said, Ireland is so small where you should be able to easily exit off of the motorway at any point to find a gas station or bathroom facilities.
- Follow the suggested direction of driving – As much as I heard advice around going against the flow of traffic for the Ring of Kerry, I personally wouldn’t advise it. Trust me, you really don’t want to be constantly jockeying for space on the road against coaches.
- Scenic pull overs – If there was one big thing I was annoyed with in Ireland, its the fact that there aren’t many scenic points with proper pull overs. It’s really because the roads weren’t built to have extra width and the geology doesn’t often allow it so I can’t complain really but I did find myself wishing a number of times that to just stop on the side to take a photo. It’s not like Iceland where the main highway has giant gravel shoulders on each side. My tip for you is that if you see an area that looks like a safe place to stop or is a proper scenic point, make the stop because the next one might not be for awhile.
- Fold your side mirrors when parking in the city – We saw one car parked on the side of the road get hit by pass-through traffic. Don’t be that guy (either of them). Fold your mirrors if you can if you feel like you’re in a tight spot.
If you keep the above in mind, you’ll be fine driving out there.
Car Rental Companies
Boy are there a lot of car rental companies. Initially I was quite overwhelmed by all the choice. There are all the big chained brands but there are the smaller locally owned Irish ones. At the end of the day after all of my research and quotes, it was Europcar that had the best deal. For 7 days, our rental only cost 56.18 EUR. Insanity.
Now if I had to distill everything I learned from my rental experience, it’d be these few tidbits of wisdom.
- Size matters – In Ireland, the smaller the better. With how tiny roads, you want to have the tiniest footprint you can possibly have. For the two of us, the Seat Mi was perfect. There was just enough trunk space for two suitcases and the back row was for our quick access day things. Don’t get tempted by the offer of an upgrade to a larger vehicle!
- Transmission – To get the lowest prices, manual transmission is the way to go but if you don’t know how to drive stick, you’ll need to look for auto. Since most car rental companies have a limited number of automatic cars, they will naturally jack up the price significantly or run out quickly so I would book as early as possible.
- Car insurance – This may be specific for Europcar but I’d say everyone renting in Ireland should have this prepared. A friend of mine gave me the heads up that Europcar is extremely anal about renters that rely on their credit card as their primary insurance. As a result, it is mandatory to have a letter from your credit card company that has your card number and states the coverage that it has. If you don’t have it, they won’t let you proceed because it is mandatory to have coverage. In some ways this is a ploy to force unsuspecting people to buy their insurance coverage but it may be a country policy thing. For me, all I did was call American Express before my trip, explained the requirement for a letter by a car rental company and they had one created for me within 15 minutes. It was emailed to me and all I had to do was print it.
- Air condition – I totally didn’t think about checking for this feature when we booked but our little car didn’t have A/C. This makes sense in Ireland because 30C is extremely rare. Of course our first couple of days in Ireland it did hit those temps so we were craving A/C but made do with the windows down. If this is a must for you, make sure you double check.
- GPS – We brought a standalone Garmin unit but with cellular data, it was actually better to use our phones with the Waze/Google Maps to account for traffic flow. This was preferable since I already had all our destinations pre-saved. Another thing to keep in mind in terms of GPS is that driving will often take longer than you think because the speed limits are so high and you’ll end up driving slower.
- Returning your car at Dublin Airport – We had quite the adventure trying to return our car. We probably should’ve read the fine line details but there is no clear signage as you drive into the terminal where you’re supposed to turn off. It is Parking Garage Unit C that you’re looking for which is tucked in behind.
- International driver’s license – No you don’t need one as long as you have your own license. Full details.
Filling Up Gas
Unlike Iceland, this was super easy. Your choice at the pump is either green for gasoline or black for diesel. Make sure you get it right and use the indicator on the car (usually on the inside of the gas door or cap) to double check. There’s no octane to worry about.
You won’t be able to pay at the pump but it was always easy to walk inside to either pay by cash or credit card.
Cabs in Dublin
Driving in Dublin doesn’t make sense and as a result you’ll either need to return your car rental/pick it up later or park it at your hotel. To get around, you’ll end up taking the cab or there’s public transit too.
I made an interesting observation when we were using cabs to get around the city. Uber and regular off the street cabs are the same thing. If you get a cab with Uber, the rate is set to “Meter” and you get a regular cab driver.
The problem I encountered with Uber was that we kept getting cancelled on. There’d be a car on its way and then it’d abruptly cancel to pick up someone off the street along the way. This got incredibly annoying.
In the end we ended up trying both methods. Uber was good because there isn’t the hassle of paying with cash and dealing with tips but if we wanted a cab right away, hailing on the street often was just more efficient.
This being a road trip, the type of things you want to bring should bring to mind that you’ll have the luxury of having a car to store things as you go. Space should be less of a concern and the need to be ultralight. Power is also a luxury you have as you go.
Here’s a list of the things I brought on the trip and why they should be on your packing list.
- Columbia Women’s Outdry Ex ECO Tech Jacket – Whether it’s this or another waterproof jacket, the key is to have a light and durable outer layer that will at least keep your upper body dry.
- Helly Hansen rain pants – We were lucky enough to never needs these on our trip but have learned from Iceland, it is always good to have pants that you can slip on.
- Columbia Conspiracy Titanium OutDry Trail Running Shoe – To round out the waterproofing gear, having good shoes that perform well during hikes, walks, and rain is so important. I love these shoes because they’re breathable, low profile which is good for summer, and very comfortable.
- Travel towel – B&B’s are great at providing amenities like towels but the one instance for us where we needed this was at Galway Glamping. Whether you need it or not, these are super compact and can be useful in other scenarios like if you get wet from the rain, decide to go to the beach, or do surfing lessons.
- Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Cube Set – These are awesome for any travel you do. I’ve been using this set for awhile to keep my shirts organized, my underwear together, and all my random loose cables and chargers in one spot.
- Victorinox Travel Organizer – Ireland was so safe that I didn’t feel the need to travel with a money belt so organizers like this were perfect to keep my passport and travel papers nice and tidy.
- Toiletry kit – The hanging toiletry organizer is a must for any traveller. I’m a big fan because the hook allows you to hang this off of a vanity mirror or towel rack in a hotel/hostel and gives you counter space. Kits like this are small but surprisingly allow you to pack a ton of things inside.
- Travel power bar – Surge protectors such as this that take 1 outlet into 3 is helpful especially if you have to charge a bunch of things at night. You never know how many outlets your B&B or hotel is going to have so this is super handy.
- Cigarette USB adapter – USB plugs in cars are notorious for being slow charging. Get one of these chargers for the cigarette adapter to allow two USB devices to be charged at the same time and at a faster rate. The one we used was unfortunately a slow speed one.
- Power bank – If you have more devices you want to charge on the go and you’ve run out of ports/adapters in the car, it’ll be smart to have a basic power bank as your back up. This Xiaomi one has a ton of capacity (10,000 mAH) and is super light.
- Car phone holder – If you’re going to be using your phone as your GPS, don’t forget to bring a holder. My favourite are these magnetic ones which clip to an air vent. The unfortunate thing for us was that I didn’t account for our rental car to not have a regular air vent which made it near impossible to mount. We eventually found a way but it was at a weird angle and the phone would periodically fall off. The kind of things you don’t really think about when you’re packing right?
This tally of costs gives you a bit of insight into our spending from 7 days in Ireland. It’s meant to be a guideline to help you budget how much you’ll need. I’ve broken things down by high level categories.
For simplicity, I’ve converted everything to CAD. Also keep in mind that these are for 2 travellers.
- Air – $1,908.24
- Accommodation – $1,078.61
- Activities and Excursions – $386.01
- Auto Expenses – $223.04
- Car Rental – $83.40
- Food – $519.98
- Souvenirs – $88.47
TOTAL = $4,287.75 ($2,143.88 per person)
From this you’ll see that a big part of the expenses to the trip are the flights. Ticket prices are constantly fluctuating but if you’re able to grab a flight at a good price, your expenses would drop considerably.
Other ways to keep costs low would on food and accommodations. I’d say that for us, while we cut lunch on most days, dinner ended up being quite expensive so if you’re more careful, you can keep spend low on food. Accommodation wise, there’s always ways to find cheaper accommodations but you get what you pay for. The B&Bs and hotels we stayed at were very good for the price and I’d recommend each and every one of them.
To Tip or Not To Tip
There is not a strong tipping culture in Ireland but many locals and visitors do tip for services. Use 10% as your rough guideline.
Whenever you make any sort of purchase at a large store such as Blarney Woollen Mills as we did, ask for a tax free receipt. They’ll print out a special receipt and provide you an envelope.
If you fly out from Dublin, once you pass through security, there’ll be a wall where you’ll see some signage for tax-free. This is an unmanned both. The expectation is for you to fill out the necessary details in the form (most likely built into the receipt), put this into the provided envelope and drop it into the slot. Note that there are several companies that offer tax-free. Put in your envelope in the right one and hope for the best!
Photography and Videography
The photography opportunities in Ireland are just brilliant and the same thing goes for video. The natural beauty combined with the legendary medieval and going even further back, prehistoric, history is unparalleled.
Ireland’s weather consists of a lot of rain but even when the forecast says rain, it’s often not a continuous rolling rain. It comes and goes.
On average, I’d say there’s a lot of overcast skies and that could be good or bad depending on what you’re looking to shoot. For the wide landscape shots they unfortunately make your skies look very dull but if you’re shooting people, architecture, it’s actually a good thing because you don’t often get overblown highlights.
Most Challenging Shooting Situation
For this trip, I’d say it was when we were at the Cliffs of Moher right at the middle of the day. The sun was beating down from the top and because of the contour of the cliffs, it naturally creates a lot of shadows. To overcome this, I luckily had my gradient drop in filter to balance out the overwhelmingly bright sky and water with the very dark rock that needed to be boosted. I tried HDR as well to help but I didn’t like the effect it created.
It definitely wasn’t the ideal time to be there but you have to make lemonade right?
The Best Timing
It’s no surprise that sunrise and sunset are still going to be your best times for capturing photos. It’s during the golden hour where you get the vivid hues in the cloud and you don’t have to worry about harsh light so you can have a well balanced photo.
The tough part with a road trip that is that you’re under the gun to hit spots at certain times in order to not fall behind. That mean your’e not going to be able to visit every destination at sunrise or sunset.
What I recommend is that if there a specific shot you just have to get, plan around it. The rest, let it just happen the way it was intended to.
Besides the photos that you’ll find on the blog here, one way I quickly scout out a new place prior to the trip is to do a search on Flickr to see what others have been able to capture. Just type in the city, county, or specific sight and you’ll be able to get all sorts of good ideas.
My Camera Kit
As you know I’m a big fan of the micro four-thirds mirrorless system by Olympus so this is going to be heavily biased but this gives you an idea of how I pack my camera gear.
- Backpack – The 30L Peak Design Everyday Backpack is my go-to travel daypack/camera backpack. Make sure you read and watch my review.
- Body (Olympus OM-D E-M1) – I’ve since upgraded to the Mark 2 version of this body but this is a stalwart of a camera that is packed with so many features but a fraction of the weight of my full frame Canon gear. Read more on why I’m a big fan of M43.
- Lenses (Olympus M. Zuiko 12-40 f/2.8, 7-14 f/2.8, and 40-150 f/2.8 PRO lenses) –
- Filters – UV filters on all the lenses and a circular polarizer on the 12-40 lens. For drop-in filters, I’m currently using the Formatt Hitech 100m holder paired with the adapter for the 7-14mm lens and graduated ND filter kit.
- Cleaning – Always helpful to have a simple microfibre cloth, Lenspen, and blower because you’re going to encounter, rain, dust, and fingerprints.
- Tripod – I bring a super lightweight tripod for travel. I don’t use it all the time but they do come in handy for things like long exposure shots, sunsets, and cinemagraphs.
- Drone – Mavic Pro with ND lens filter set for aerial shots.
- GoPro – GoPro Hero 5 with stick for handheld video.
The Drone Situation
Flying drones is still largely unchartered space but more and more, increased flight limitations are being put in place both by the government and special locations. As we drove around the southern part of Ireland, we encountered a number of sights where there were very visible no drone symbols near the entrance.
Then there were many locations that weren’t marked. With DJI, several locations were marked as either strict or warning no fly zones (NFZ). In the strict case, my remote actually made me acknowledge I had rights to fly there. I couldn’t resume flying otherwise. In the warning case, there was an NFZ statement that would pop up on the side but could be ignored.
As a precaution, I did register my drone with the IAA (Ireland Aviation Authority) on their drone registration page. I didn’t really know how this would help but I thought it couldn’t hurt.
For me, in the cases where there were clear no fly markings, I’d adhere to it in the direct area but was a bit more liberal about flying the drone outside of it. For instance, I knew drones weren’t allowed to be flied overtop the Rock of Cashel but we drove to a nearby farm which allowed me to fly it around its perimeter. In areas where I didn’t see (possibly missed) markings, I flew where I could. Typically this still meant trying to launch away from a crowd and hidden somewhere so that I could do a quick fly by at high altitude as quickly as I could before flying back home. The key is to be as discreet as possible.
I adjusted my altitude to be 200m and at the upper end, noise was at a minimal but I’d say even at 150m, it was quite noticeable.
I’m no authority on drone flying and the rules are still quite fuzzy but at the end of the day it’s about being smart about flying and not disturbing people while you fly.