So, you’re thinking about taking a trip to Ireland, eh? Well CONGRATULATIONS! That’s a great idea, because Ireland is totally freakin’ awesome! But, its mysteries extend beyond it’s clouded history and stories of the supernatural. It seems like just getting there and getting around are also the stuff of legend.
So here’s a few tips from Becki and I – derived from first-hand experience – to help you make the most of your vacation in Ireland. We’re going to talk about what we learned about getting there (airlines we would recommend and one we definitely wouldn’t…), where to stay and what kind of accommodation to look for (is it better to rent a cottage in the country for a couple weeks, or stay at B&B’s?), and tips for getting around (including how to survive driving and avoid getting scammed at the rental counter).
The Best Way to Fly to Ireland on the Cheap
As you may or may not know, Becki and I have become huge fans of travel hacking to help save us significant amounts of money while traveling – especially on flights. So after scouring the award charts of many various airlines, I’ve determined that there is no great way to get there with travel hacking. It’s doable, no doubt about that, but it’s not too straight forward or easy.
The good news here is that you can get a flight from the continental US to Europe for as few as 20k miles (40k miles round trip) per person. That means you can sign up for one AA credit card with a 50k point bonus, and get yourself a free trip to Ireland (not including taxes and surcharges). But therein lies the downside:
If you try to book a reward flight to Dublin on AA’s website, you’ll see that most of the flights there are by their partner, British Airways. And BA charges MASSIVE fuel surcharges – in fact, I priced it out and an award ticket using them would’ve cost ~$750 per person. Using kayak.com for the same dates, the best price I could find paying full-price for a flight was ~$850, so not exactly a savings worth writing home about, and really it’s a waste of your hard-won miles.
However, you can choose to use only American Airlines flights when booking your reward flight – when I did this, the total cost of a round-trip award ticket was 40k miles + about $150. This is a much better use of miles, and at a $700 savings per person is a good use of miles in my mind. The only downside is your flight options are limited, since there aren’t many American flights over to Dublin.
So to recap, sign up for a 50,000 mile AA credit card well ahead of your flight, hit your spend amount and get those miles. Redeem 40,000 of them for a round-trip flight to Dublin on an American Airlines-specific flight with about $150 in taxes and fees.
Website: American Airlines.com
United is a good option to look at because they don’t charge fuel surcharges, and their taxes and fees often seem to be lower than other airlines. The downside is that it’ll take a minimum of 60k miles for a round-trip flight from the US to Dublin. The current deal for the United credit card is a measly 30k miles – a far cry from enough for an award ticket. However, Chase Ultimate Reward points transfer directly to United at a 1:1 ratio.
There are multiple Chase credit cards that are available that will get you 50k points after hitting your spend amount, so while you still can’t get a round-trip flight with just one card, you can get close, and if you put all your expenses on that card you might just be able to get 60k points on one card.
Using Chase points for a United flight isn’t a bad idea, but the next option might be even better.
Well, in many ways Delta is one of the worst airlines for travel hacking. One of the main reasons for this because it’s not easy to earn miles with them – the best credit card offers they ever seem to have top out at 35k miles. A cursory check shows that you’d need 60k miles to fly Delta from Chicago to Dublin.
However, Delta is a member of the Skyteam alliance, and some of the other members have better redemption amounts for this flight. For example, it’ll only take 50k miles to fly on Air France, KLM, Czech Airlines, or Alitalia, all of which are Skyteam members, so you can transfer points to them from any other member.
Also, Chase Ultimate Rewards points can transfer directly to Korean Air miles (another Skyteam member, but unfortunately they don’t fly to Dublin), which could then transfer to any of the Skyteam members mentioned above. So with one Chase UR credit card and a few well-placed transfers, you could get an award flight from Chicago to Dublin. Unfortunately, all of these airlines have fuel surcharges of various amounts, so if your goal is spending as little money as possible, you’re better off with AA or United.
One Option We Definitely Can’t Recommend…
Ryanair. There, we said it. We wanted to love them, we really did. We had heard so many stories of the epic discount airlines in Europe. We had heard about flying from London to Jordan for only $25, and other such incredible deals. So you might think flying to London on a big airline, then flying to Dublin on Ryanair might be a good choice. But what we found was nothing to write home about.
Here’s the deal; if you can fly on them without checking a bag, it might be worth it. The flight prices are cheap, but checking two bags cost us about $150, totally canceling out any savings. And the quality of service and flight really feels extra cheap on Ryanair. So why pay the same amount of money for a substandard experience? Do yourself a favor, and forget all about taking them to Ireland.
Some Recommendations on Places to Stay
There are plenty of places you can stay in Dublin – after all, it’s a bustling city, full of hotels, hostels, and everything in between. We can’t personally speak to those, cause we didn’t use anything like them. We ended up renting a room through AirBnB.
We rented a spare room in a two bedroom apartment. Our hosts were incredibly amicable and easy going. It was a great location on Parnell Street, directly across from Moore Street and its colorful market. We were able to walk the market, picking up food for a picnic, make it on foot to Trinity College and the Temple Bar area. Our hosts even drove us to the airport when we were done staying with them! There’s no way we could’ve had such a dynamite location without spending an arm and a leg for it. A nearby B&B charges $125/night, and we paid only $60.
Always do what you’re comfortable with, but for us, renting a room got us an outstanding price on the perfect location for exploring the city.
“The West Side is the Best Side”
We heard this phrase mentioned as we were packing up in Dublin and heading West to Galway. The West coast of Ireland is truly
breathtaking, and we can’t stress enough that you should get out there and see it for yourself.
Once you’re there, you’ll need a place to stay, and there are a few good options available:
Rent a Home
Renting a home while you’re traveling can be a hugely rewarding experience:
- It’s more comfortable and way cheaper than staying in a hotel
- It offers more privacy than staying in a hostel
- You can cook your own meals, saving more money and giving you some comfort of home if you’re getting homesick
- Great if you’re traveling with a group – splitting the cost makes it even cheaper still
We rented an awesome home – named Oyster Lodge – through a website called Sykes Cottages (found online using our 3 Secret Code Words) and could not have been happier with it. It was a gorgeous house, complete with two natural fireplaces, woodwork up the yin-yang, a huge kitchen, washer/dryer, and four bedrooms. Obviously, it was more than we needed for just ourselves, but a smaller place fell through right before we rented it. We were looking for a place pretty last-minute, the price was still decent (cheaper than most hostels), it had wifi (most don’t), and it was available, so we took it.
We couldn’t have had a better place. Only minutes from town, it was peaceful and quite, with no noise waking you up in the morning but the neighbor’s cows. You could walk to the ocean in 15 minutes from the house, and the owners met us there with hot tea and fresh, homemade brown bread. Seriously, it was wonderful.
Website: Sykes Cottages.co.uk
The Quintessential Irish B&B
Let me tell you something about the West side of Ireland – it’s old-fashioned, and in a good way. It feels like you’ve gone back in time there, and in some ways you have. There is a lack of internet presence on the West side – it’s hard to find anywhere, and I think the locals like it that way. And for visitors, it’s a true retreat from the modern world, and very relaxing.
However, what that means is that if you try to find B&B’s online, you’ll think they’re all pretty expensive. The average price we found online was about $135/night – much pricier than our rental home. However, once you get there, you’ll find out that the countryside is lousy with cheap B&B’s you’ll never find advertised online.
We saw cosy inn after cosy inn with the modest price of $35/night as the going rate – and it includes breakfast! There are so many, that you could easily drive into an area with no reservation and have no problem at all finding a place to stay the night. And here’s a fundamental difference between staying at B&B’s or renting a house:
If you rent a house, you have to return to it each night.
This makes it hard to explore an area as in-depth as you’d like, and you’ll spend a lot of your day driving there and back, rather than enjoying the sites you’ve come to see. But with the B&B’s, you could stop at a new one each night, and make a huge road-trip of the whole West Coast. Between home renting or B&B’s, neither way is superior – we truly loved coming home to the Oyster Lodge each night – it just depends on what you want from your trip.
Website: No website – these places aren’t online.
On the Road
Ireland is made for moving. There are so many things to see and do, that you absolutely need to get out and about. Luckily it’s not too big of a place, so you can see and do a lot of it pretty quickly. There’s a couple things you should know before you head to the emerald isle though…
Here’s the deal – you can take trains or busses on your tour of Ireland, yes, but we wouldn’t recommend it. Unlike many other parts of Europe, relying on public transit in Ireland will really slow you down and limit the amount of places you can go and things you can do.
If you’re dead set on not renting a car though, you should really look at going through Rail Tours Ireland. They put together routes to hit multiple sites in the most efficient manor, with as little backtracking and wasted time as possible. With trips lasting anywhere from half a day to over a week, they take care of everything, including where to eat and stay.
Website: Railtours Ireland.com
Don’t want to take a guided tour? No problem, you can always just buy a ticket and go your own way as well:
Website: Irish Rail.ie
There is a plethora of bus tours you can take in Ireland. So much so, I’m not even going to try to cover all the info about them – that could be a whole website in and of itself. Instead, just do a search on Google for “bus tour Ireland” or any such similar thing, and you’ll come across so many options it’ll make your head spin.
If you just want to take the bus independently around the country and not sign up for a tour, just as with the trains, you can do that too through Bus Ẽireann.
Website: Bus Ẽireann.ie
Renting a Car in Ireland
Ahh, okay, now we’re talking. If you really want to independently explore Ireland, you can’t beat driving a car. There are countless little road zigging and zagging all over the countryside, and if you want to stop at random castle ruins, megaliths, or museums (and all of these things are strewn all over the country) and not just the big-name ones, you’ll have to have a car. A few tips about renting a car in Ireland:
Get a small car! I can’t stress this enough – while they do have a few nice modern freeways, once you’re off them the roads are tiny, with no shoulder and stone walls on both side (or stone wall on one side and precipitous drop on the other…), meaning no room for error. We got a Peugot 207 – about the size of a Honda Fit – and anything larger would’ve been crazy
- Get a diesel: Get a diesel car to save money on gas, as gas prices are very high in most of Europe. While we were there, diesel cost us about $9/gallon, but it was offset by averaging 78mpg in our car. Our car rental guy tried telling us that only larger cars can in diesel, even though I had booked an Economy-sized diesel online. He lied. Even if it were true though, take the smaller car for reasons mentioned above. Better to spend a few more bucks on fuel than crash into a stone wall.
- Don’t rent from Budget: We had a miserable experience at the counter. I played him and the Hertz guy against each other to get a better rate, but in doing so I learned that the Hertz people were much more upfront and honest. I’d go with Hertz in Ireland.
- Insurance: Here’s the deal – liability (sometimes called LDW) is mandatory in Ireland. Many rental places (such as Budget) don’t put this on their website, then you’re shocked at the price when you get to the counter. It’s not a scam, it is indeed mandatory… it would just be nice if they didn’t surprise you with it. CDW isn’t mandatory, and this is the one that many travel credit cards will cover for you. However, if you read the fine print, many credit cards don’t cover in certain countries – Ireland often is one of them. Based on the list of countries my card doesn’t cover, I’d say they’re the ones most Americans crash rental cars in. Therefore, you’ll probably have to purchase this as well. It’s true, renting a car in Ireland isn’t cheap, but worth it for the freedom.
- Different than home: Remember, most rentals are stick shift, the driver seat is on the right, and you drive on the left-hand side of the road. Even for experienced manual drivers, this can be unnerving. You can purchase a large red letter “L” (for Learner) from gas stations, tourism bureaus, and even some rental car companies, and hopefully people will go easy on you.
Things to do in Ireland
Well… this is going to be an abbreviated “Things to do” in Ireland. Trying to cover all of it would be a whole website by itself, and there are multiple websites dedicated to just this. In fact, www.discoverireland.ie and www.ireland.com are two such examples. However, and I can tell you about a few of the highlights of the time Becki and I spent there:
- Cliffs of Moher: Absolutely Goddamn breathtaking! Like Becki said, it’s like the Earth opened up, the ocean rushed in, and all the natural forces of the world wound up trying to share the same plot of land. And for all you nerds out there, these are the famous “Cliffs of Insanity” from the cult classic, The Princess’ Bride.
- Ring of Kerry & Connemara: These are both peninsulas (peninsulae?) on the West side of Ireland, with ring roads you can drive for awesome road tripping. The Ring of Kerry is way more well-known, thanks in no small part to glowing stories from respected travel authorities such as Rick Steves. And you know how it goes – once one person discovers something, hordes of other travel personalities follow suite, and one places gets more tourists than the know what to do with, while another similar place gets nothing despite being amazing. The Connemara is that amazing place that gets nothing.
We drove both, and for our money, The Connemara takes the cake. It’s wide open landscapes and complete lack of traffic and other tourists make you feel like you’re in a pre-historic land. Add to the start of Ireland’s fjords (yes, Norway isn’t the only place with them) and awesome sites like the Kylemore Abbey, and you have the makings of a truly epic (ugh, epic… hate that word, yet I still use it… why?) Irish road trip. Don’t get me wrong, both are great, but if you only have time for one, make it The Connemara.
- Knowth and New Grange: Ancient stone pyramidal tombs, aligned to the position of the sun, made by unknown peoples 500 years earlier than Stonehenge and 1,000 years earlier than the pyramids of Egypt. What more can we say? These places are completely mind blowing, and still rather unknown of outside of Ireland. If you’re in Ireland, do not miss these – you won’t be disappointed. And if you are, well… you’re probably a twit.
- Dublin: Dublin is a fantastic city, and much older than we realized with more history than you can shake a stick at – over 2,000 years, actually. There are a million things to do here, so you really have to pick your poison, so to speak, because if you try to do it all you’ll need a month. To speed things up, there are hop-on/hop-off buses that go past most of the major landmarks. There’s also walking tours that have a reputation for being excellent, and if you want to really get authentic, why not go for a pub crawl?
We went to Trinity College and had a great time there, even though didn’t get to see the Book of Kells. Little tip – if you want to see the book, bring lots of cash as they don’t accept checks or credit cards, and get their as early as possible. Make sure you take the time to stop in at an authentic pub for a pint or two – you’ll kick yourself if you come back from Ireland without spending at least a little time in a true Irish pub. If you need a little break from all the tourists, you can easily take the city bus to the zoo. We went to get a little break, and it is actually a really nice zoo, with HUGE enclosures for the larger animals to run around in. Of course there’s also things like the Guiness tour, the bullet-riddled Post Office, and the National Museum of Archaeology.
I hope this helps with planning your trip to Ireland. If you go, be sure to tell us all about it!