On the road in Ireland

Want to see the best of Ireland? Get ready to hit the road. Whether you book it yourself or opt for a self-drive package, a driving tour of Ireland offers the freedom to explore your interests as well as the countryside. Tours can be as short or long as you like, whether you want to include them as part of your Ireland getaway or make them the main attraction.

It’s up to you where you go, what you see and where you stay. Enjoy the countryside and coasts, divide your time between major cities and small towns, or plan a tour around a specific interest — like golf, spas, food, religious sites, castles or culture. There’s also plenty of choice of where to rest your head for the night: stay in country manors, local inns, unique bed and breakfasts, country manors and even castles.

Sounds tempting — but perhaps a little daunting? You can do as little or as much of the planning as you please. There are three options for this type of trip: you can plan the route, itinerary and accommodations yourself (which is often easier on the budget), book a self-drive tour through a tour company (you travel independently, but the company handles the details) or opt for a create-your-own or customized self-drive tour package (the company modifies a tour package to suit your interests). For the ultimate luxury, you can even hire a private car and chauffeur.

Need a little help or inspiration? Here are five ideas to get you started:

Getaway ideas

Irish Pub and Folklore Tour, 7 nights, $587-$964 CAD

There’s something about the atmosphere of an traditional Irish pub with its mix of music, food, drink and good humour. In addition to seeing some stunning landscapes and must-see attractions like Blarney Castle and the Aran Islands, you’ll have plenty of time to relax and raise a glass. (More information: IrishTourism.com.)

Golf & Spas in Ireland, 8 nights, $1229-$1623 USD

Why compromise? Ideal for a group vacation, this tour pairs classic golf courses with nearby award-winning spas around Cashel, Killarney and Ennis — including the medieval-themed Cloisters Spa. (More information: Bonaventure Tours.)

Irish Opulence, 8 nights, $1,362-$1,873 USD

You can’t help but have sweet dreams as you slumber in castles, manor homes and some of Ireland’s best 4 and 5 star hotels. This tour combines the city life of Dublin and Cork with a tour of the scenic countryside. (More information: Authentic Ireland Travel.)

Northern Territories Tour, 10 nights, $657-$1056 CAD

Discover what some argue to be Ireland’s best kept secret: The Northern Territories. This tour starts in formerly turbulent Belfast City and tours both cities and countryside in its loop. Visit castles and coastlines, and take in some of Dublin’s favourite sites like the Christ Church Cathedral and the Book of Kells at Trinity College. (More information: IrishTourism.com.)


Perfect Ireland, 14 nights, €757-€1188 (approximately $1,000-$1600 CAD)

From Kerry to Clare, this grand tour circles the country’s perimeter and is perfect for travellers who want to experience a little of everything. Visit villages and major cities, and tour famous sites like the Giant’s Causeway as well as hidden gems like the manor villages of Louth. (More information: Explore Ireland.)

(Note: prices are based on double occupancy and vary by season and type of accommodations.)

Tips for your trip

It’s easy to fall in love with the country, but perhaps not so easy to plan. Here are some tips to help:

Research, research, research.. An Ireland travel guide can be a boon, especially driving guides. There are several available at the bookstore or library — like Frommer’s 25 Great Drives in Ireland— but you can also find plenty of free resources online. Here are some places to look:

– The Car Rental Council of Ireland’s Regional Itineraries or Themed Itineraries

– Ireland Tourist Board’s Touring Ireland by Car and View from the Wheel.

– Local car rental company websites often have their own routes and guides, such as Dooley Car Rental and Thrifty.

– Travel providers. Even if you don’t plan to book a tour, visit a few travel provider websites for inspiration. The itineraries can provide some hints for activities, and help you gage what’s possible within a given time frame.

Book ahead. To save cash and avoid disappointment, book your car before you leave — especially during the peak season (July to September). Most rental cars have a standard transmission, so you’ll need to give plenty of notice — and pay extra — to get an automatic.

Also, beware that people under the age of 21 or over the age of 75 usually aren’t allowed to drive rental cars. (Visit the Car Rental Council of Ireland website for more information.)

Go off-season for savings? Weather conditions can make a big difference when you’re driving. While you can find the best rates from November through to March, the shoulder season months of April and October also offer some savings. Expect to pay the most during the busy July to September season.

Consider all the costs. If you’re booking a package, make sure you get a full list of what’s included and what’s extra — in writing. Many packages don’t include airfare, but do include accommodations, a full Irish breakfast each day, the car rental and insurance. Some packages include vouchers for inns and beds and breakfasts rather than bookings so it’s up to you to find vacancies. Make sure to include the costs of optional activities, fuel and meals.

Make sure you have the proper documents. A Canadian or American driver’s license may do, but an International Driving Permit (IDP) is recommended. (Available through the Canadian Automobile Association.)

Review the rules. Many are the same — like no drinking and driving or talking on your cell phone without a hands-free device. However, you will find a few differences, like no right-hand turns allowed on red lights. (For more information, visit the Road Safety Authority.)

Also, know what hazards to be on the lookout for and what precautions to take, like slowing down on rough, narrow country roads. (For more information, see Five things you should know before you drive abroad.)

Practice first. After you rent a car, experts recommend taking it for a spin around the airport parking lot to get used to driving on the left hand side. Stay off side roads and out of busy city traffic until you’re comfortable. Also, be extra careful when pulling out of parking spots or gas stations — that’s where many foreign drivers run into trouble.

Also, if you want to learn to drive standard, master the skill at home before your trip.

Give yourself plenty of time. Experts warn to allow yourself more time than you think you’ll need to get from place to place. Distances can be hard to gage on a map, and you never know when you’ll want to stop to explore or snap a few photos. Travel guru Rick Steves warns that travel in Ireland can be slow and advises planning around an average travel speed of about 60 km/h.

Keep some cash on hand. Many motorways have tolls, though pre-paid electronic cards are also an option. (See AAIreland for details.)

Carry a mobile phone and emergency numbers. Just as you would on any road trip, know who to call if you run into trouble. For instance, call 999 for emergency services, or contact the Irish Tourist Assistance Service for support in the event of an accident.

Consider other options.. Cars aren’t the only vehicles for getting around. If you prefer, hope a bicycle or motorcycle for a tour of the country.

Have you ever been on a road trip in a foreign country? Tell us in the comments.

Additional sources: Ireland Travel Report (Voyage.gc.ca), Rick Steves’ Driving and Surviving in Ireland