For those of you just starting to plan, I thought it might be helpful to give a rundown of different ways for getting around Ireland. It’s a surprisingly hot topic among former visitors. Some swear by a guided tour. Others are adamant that a rental car is the way to go.
I am partial to driving myself (more on that below), but there are lots of different methods of travel. Each has advantages and disadvantages. You don’t have to stick to one. A combination of group tour, self-drive or even hiring a private guide might be the right fit for you. Ireland is a fabulous host no matter how you travel, but hopefully this helps a little!
Getting around Ireland by Large Group Bus Tour:
In the height of summer, there are hundreds of coach buses traveling around Ireland, so an easy Google search will bring up dozens of companies with various itineraries, budgets and accommodation styles.
The biggest advantage with a bus tour is that you basically won’t have to lift a finger to plan the trip. Just place a deposit and start counting down the days. Everything from where you are going to where you are staying is planned for you.
You also have an instant social group since you and about 50 other people of all ages and walks of life will be traveling together the entire time (but many will likely be 55+ years) . Making new friends and sharing this experience with others is often the highlight for many people on the bus tour.
Some tours offer great deals and this option is usually the least expensive of all the guided experiences.
Unfortunately, large group tours tend to be the least flexible option. Obviously, it takes a lot of work to get 50+ people from point A to point B multiple times a day—so the schedule has to be pretty rigid. While having everything planned for you can be a pro during the planning phase, once you arrive it can be a little frustrating not having the option to linger around places you really enjoy.
Large group tours also tend to be fairly fast paced and move to a new place each night (which again limits your time each place). It also means lots of packing and unpacking your suitcase.
Oh and those 50 other people on the tour, well, there is usually at least one person who will likely get on your nerves. It’s inevitable, but get on the bus early and you’ll avoid being the one sitting next to him/her all day.
- Ask for references or testimonials from others who have traveled with the tour company you are looking at (or get recommendations from friends and family). Be sure to ask them what they didn’t like (that is often more helpful to you than what they did).
- Do your homework on the itinerary to be sure you are excited about the places you are going.
- Ask how much free time you get in each place to get to see things not included on the tour.
Getting around Ireland by Small Group Bus Tour:
There are far fewer tours out there for small groups (I think the money is in the big ones), but they can be great options for someone who wants a guided experience and a little more flexibility.
Small group tours have similar benefits to the large ones: much of the tour is planned for you before your arrival and you get to share the experience with a new group of people.
Once you have less than 15 other people traveling together, you will find the trip more intimate, relaxing and flexible. You may even find the group has the ability to make some spontaneous decisions about how the day goes.
Small group tours are often more expensive than their larger counterparts, but likely less expensive than hiring your own personal driver.
They still have the potential to be pretty fast paced and may not include your must-see sites on the itinerary.
- Look for small group tours that are geared toward a particular interest of yours. There are several unique experiences in Ireland that give a fascinating focal point for a tour (breweries, whiskey, textiles, celtic mythology, literature…).
Getting around Ireland by Hiring a Driver/Personal Guide
Maybe you don’t want to travel with a group of other people but still don’t want to go at it entirely alone. A driver might just be your happy medium.
With a driver, you get the most flexibility without actually having to get behind the wheel of a vehicle (remember—you’re driving on the left in Ireland).
You also don’t have to come up with itinerary all by yourself. Usually drivers/guides have suggestions for routes and things to do. On top of that, you’ll receive infinite local knowledge and likely be able to take part in experiences that can’t be organized for groups.
You can hire drivers for your entire trip or just for a specific outing or two like driving around the Ring of Kerry or visiting the Bru Na Boinne region.
You really have to read reviews and make sure you get a good driver that wants to be there with you. Unfortunately, if you get someone who isn’t a good match, you are stuck with them (with that said, it’s rare to get a bad Irish guide).
This is usually pretty expensive, especially if you only have one or two people traveling together.
- If you are thinking of hiring a driver for your entire experience, make sure you engage with him or her before the trip so they know your interests, travel style and expectations.
Getting around Ireland by Public Transportation (and “Hub” travel)
If you don’t want to travel in a group, and hiring a personal tour guide or rental car is too expensive, you could consider visiting Ireland via public transportation.
Ireland has efficient public transportation via train between large cities and decent bus service to many smaller towns.
This is the best option for budgeters and backpackers. Because you aren’t paying for a tour guide or a car, you’ll certainly spend less money on transportation than the other options.
Trains run frequently between Dublin and the cities of Cork, Limerick, Galway and Belfast. Buses are generally efficient and run according to the published schedules.
Some areas of Ireland aren’t accessible by public transportation. Even if you do get to an accessible town, getting out to see specific sites like ancient ruins or castles that are not located within in walking distance can be difficult. You will have to use taxis or rely on the generosity of others to get you from site to site.
While buses run on time, it doesn’t mean that you will get where you want to go quickly. Often, there aren’t direct bus routes between small towns. You may have several stops between each location or possibly have to switch buses midway. This could mean a lot of waiting (and feeling like you are wasting your precious exploration time). Also, be aware that public transportation could be subject to worker strikes. These are usually announced in advance, so you won’t be left in a lurch as long as you pay attention and make alternate arrangements.
- Before making your itinerary, look at the direct routes (sometimes called express) on bus and train lines. Utilize those as much as you can to minimize your waiting time.
- Pick two or three larger cities as a hub and make day trips from there. With this method you can explore the city for a day or two and then utilize tour companies, public transport, taxis or even Uber to get you out into the countryside.
- Dublin, Cork, Killarney and Galway are the easiest locations to have a “hub” type of trip.
- Check out Bus Eireann, AirCoach , JJ Kavanagh and City Link for bus schedules; Irish Rail for train schedules; and Get There to connect your itinerary.
Getting around Ireland by Renting a Car
Finally, my favorite—renting a car!
By renting a car, you get to be in charge of everything. Your itinerary, your pace, your accommodations, your food, your activities. If you feel like hanging out in one spot a little longer, you can. If you aren’t too excited about something, you can skip it.
I love being able to decide how to spend my time.
Renting a car can be an economical choice too, especially if you have more than 2 people traveling together. Because you can decide every aspect of your trip, you can also save money by renting a cottage for a week, going to the grocery store to make meals, or deciding to visit mostly free sites.
Driving on the left. It is really intimidating, right? But even though it can be a scary at first, most people get the hang of it after a couple of days (and subsequently it ends up not being so scary after all).
Since renting a car offers all the freedom to do what you like, it can be overwhelming to plan the itinerary on your own, and the rental car process can be confusing.
- Roughly plan out your itinerary in advance and take a good look at Google maps before you go. Use Google Street View “to drive” the routes that appear to be most challenging.
- Rent or bring your own GPS to help you navigate.
- Purchase a good map before you leave.
- Check out this post on renting a car in Ireland (pay specific attention to the insurances)
If you are feeling overwhelmed with planning the details of getting around Ireland in a car, use these resources to help get you started:
Trip Advisor—their Ireland Forums and experts are wonderful. Spend a couple hours perusing the “sticky” posts on the right which cover a lot of basic information.
Talk with someone—Ireland is a popular destination and you might be surprised how many of your friends and family have already been. Seek them out and ask for recommendations.
Hire someone to help you book–Travel agents and several tour companies will also be happy to help you plan an itinerary and even book your car rental and B&B reservations. However, a quick word of caution—be sure your agent knows Ireland well so you get a feasible itinerary customized to your interests.
Hire someone to help you plan–Unlike travel agents, who will book your plane tickets or accommodations, you can hire someone to help you plan, but leave the booking up to you (picture me raising my hand, jumping up and down saying oh, oh, me, me! I can help you!). This can be a really nice option to have someone to bounce itinerary ideas off of, get recommendations for places to stay and off-the-beaten-path things to do. However, its a good idea to make sure that the person you hire matches your travel style. For example, I am not the best person to help you arrange seeing the whole country in five days, but if you like a deeper rather than wider approach then I am your girl. :-)