We wanted to fully control our itinerary in Ireland. So no packaged tours for us: we decided what we wanted to see, no matter how far off the beaten path — or to go nowhere, if we felt like it. So we rented a car and drove it all over Ireland wherever our noses led us.
We’d do it again. But we learned some important stuff along the way.
1. Rent the smallest car you think will fit you and your stuff.
The roads are narrow and curvy. You will have an easier time maneuvering them in the smallest car you can get away with.
When we rented the car online before the trip, we asked for a mid-sized car. In Ireland, that’s a Toyota Corolla. But on the ground in Ireland, the rental agency didn’t honor our reservation. Starting over, our only choice was a tiny, dumpy-looking Nissan Note. We were over a barrel so we took it.
I’m glad it happened, because as I’ll explain below, more than once a bigger car would have certainly resulted in a fender bender.
Along the way, Margaret met a group of four American women who had rented a minivan. Both side mirrors dangled forlornly from the front doors. They broke one in a parking lot trying to maneuver out of a tight space, and the other against a roadside stone wall trying to get out of the way of a large oncoming vehicle.
We had some stunning good luck in a couple very tight situations, but we returned our little car without a scratch.
2. If you can’t drive a stickshift, be sure to specifically request an automatic from the rental company.
Most people in Ireland drive stick, so most rental cars are manually shifted. Fortunately, both Margaret and I enjoy shifting our own gears.
We saved a bundle renting a stick, by the way. The rental agencies have few automatics and they cost a lot more.
3. Be prepared for the driving to exhaust you, especially at first.
Driving in Ireland is very involved. You’re driving on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, shifting with the wrong hand. My brain worked overtime in overcoming the strong urge to return to the “proper” side of the road and even to return my body to the “proper” side of the lane, and also in having to think about driving moves that, back home, would be automatic. Fortunately, after a couple days it started to feel more natural.
I think it must be Irish statute that no road run straight for more than thirty meters. And except for the Interstate-like motorways, many highways and almost all rural roads are narrow with no shoulders. The road’s edge was often bordered by a stone wall — or a steep dropoff. I needed to be extra alert at all times.
And especially on rural roads we noticed fewer signs preparing drivers for hazards. A whole series of tight curves can appear with little or no warning. And because bus tours are popular, many, many, many times we entered a blind curve to meet a bus going the other way, wheels over the center line. We moved left as far as we dared and hoped for the best. Thankfully, we always squeaked by, thanks to being in a tiny car.
One last surprise: outside of cities, sheep are everywhere. You may round a curve and suddenly have to brake hard for a sheep blithely grazing roadside grass, his hind end well into the roadway.
4. Try not to drive in the large cities.
This isn’t to say you should limit driving to the country. We did fine in the smaller towns and villages. Some of that driving was a little tricky, such as where parked cars narrowed even a major highway to one lane and everybody has to take turns getting through. But with focus and patience, it was all doable.
But driving in Galway, one of Ireland’s larger cities, was hard. We picked up our rental car in Galway on the day we arrived in Ireland, after a long flight to Dublin and a train ride to Galway. We were tired. And then our first driving experience was on roads going every which way and all choked with traffic.
I figured driving in Galway would be easier when I was better rested. So we went back one afternoon to explore the shopping district. Nope — it was the hardest driving of the trip, harder than the moment on the 1½ lane rural road where we passed a giant RV with less than an inch separating us.
In the city center, tightly packed cars moved fast on streets that ran at odd angles to each other. It was disorienting. I knew where we wanted to go, and like a true American I figured we could just drive right up to it. No dice. Not only could we not figure out how to navigate to it, even when we could see it in the distance there wasn’t any place to park within a mile of it. We ended up circling around for quite some time before finding a shopping mall’s garage. We gave up, parked inside, and walked from there.
And then getting out of town involved blind turns across oncoming traffic and a one-lane road that accepted two-way traffic where a big Audi sedan refused to back out of our way. Four-letter words may have passed by my lips in that standoff.
By the time we got out of town I needed a stiff drink and a long nap.
A bus connected our B&B’s town to Galway, running every 30 minutes. We should have taken it instead.
5. GPS is a godsend when you can get it, so take your smart phone — you might get a good enough signal.
We discovered right away that Irish roads can be poorly signed. Major highways are generally signed well, but city streets and rural roads frequently aren’t signed at all. It often made paper maps and written directions useless.
So we got out our phones and tried the GPS. My iPhone is on Sprint. Before the trip, I signed up for a free addition to my plan that gives me unlimited free 2G data outside the US. It worked surprisingly well. I got a signal in even most of the remotest places that was good enough for GPS to keep working. Once in a while we were remote enough that my iPhone switched to general packet radio service (GPRS) and kept tracking and telling us where to turn. None of this cost me a cent.
The mobile signal was frequently too weak to find a destination, however. I took to using hotel or cafe wi-fi to punch it in and start navigation, and then going out to the car and starting the trip.
On the other hand, Margaret’s Android phone on a budget carrier had spotty coverage. Google Maps wouldn’t work half the time.
GPS was spot on 95% of the time. Sometimes it told us we’d reached our destination a little too early or a little too late, but we could see the destination so it didn’t matter. Once, however, while trying to find one of Margaret’s distant cousins in a remote part of County Galway, GPS took us five miles beyond and deposited us on this desolate one-lane road. “You have arrived at your destination,” indeed.
Fortunately, everybody knows everybody in the boonies. We found a house; Margaret knocked on the door. The fellow who answered gave us great directions right to the house we had been looking for.
6. Share the driving.
Margaret kept calling out wonderful things she was seeing from the passenger’s seat, things I couldn’t look at because I was busy navigating a series of curves, or braking to avoid a sheep, or inching my way around a bus.
And then Margaret asked if she could drive one day. And happily I was the one calling out the passing scenery.
Such scenery! And I arrived at our destinations less tired. So whenever she said she wanted to drive, I handed her the keys with a smile.
7. But do drive in Ireland.
It sounded dreadful to both Margaret and me to be cooped up on a tour bus with strangers, not being able to decide for ourselves where we wanted to go and how long we wanted to stay there. And no tour bus would ever take us to the remote island in western Galway where Margaret’s distant cousin lived. Renting a car gave us freedom.
More than once, we just pulled over for an unscheduled stop to explore a town or photograph a vista.
Oh! but the views! While we lingered near this hairpin turn, several tour buses crept by, their passengers gawking out the window for as long as they could before the bus swept them away.
We, on the other hand, stayed here for as long as we wanted. That, my friends, is vacation.
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