Over the first weeks of April 2018, my younger brother, sister and I traveled to the west coast of Ireland for about 10 days of touring. Ireland has become a pretty popular destination. And everyone that has been there likely has their own list of what you need to do and where you need to go. So instead of adding to those lists, I thought to simply offer up those aspects of our trip that worked and some of those that could have been done better. I had wished while planning that someone had taken the time to provide us real advice like this, not just on places to go, but on the practical aspects of traveling there. So here it is. Mainly these points are aimed at an American audience and the preconceptions they bring to the table, though not exclusively.
Along the way you will get a feel for both the trip and ideas about how to plan one on your own. In some cases these tips may be of general interest applicable to many other destinations. And if nothing else you will get to share with us some of this remarkably beautiful and wild place, filled with some of the most genuinely friendly people anywhere.
Package tour or do it yourself? All parts of Ireland are admirably served by very capable companies offering package tours. CIE, for example, has been in business for I don’t know how long (I took one of their tours with my grandfather back in 1969 and had a great time) and they are still chugging along. If you want to see all the highlights (but be warned, little else) are not comfortable staying in small inns or hostels, want someone else to drive, want your itinerary worked out by someone else who already knows what to do and where to go, and don’t mind paying about two to three times what we paid for our trip, then consider a package tour. They really are the best way to go for anyone with that focus, plus resources. That just wasn’t ours.
Flights and airports? My siblings flew in to Dublin and I flew in to Shannon. Both on Aer Lingus with discount fares. The farther in advance you book the cheaper. My round trip fare was about $450, carry on bags only, no frills and bought about 4 months ahead.
As to which airport works best, I would say that for us the choice was about equal. People will traditionally fly to Shannon when focused primarily on the west, but really unless your western focus is limited to the Southwest, then I don’t see that it matters much. See which has cheaper fares. Also Dublin may have more flight options depending on where you are coming from. Since we were flying to different airports we simply planned to meet in Galway. My siblings had no problem getting an express bus to Galway from Dublin, and I had no problem renting a car in Shannon and driving up to Galway on my own. Each transit time was about the same.
One aspect of flying in on separate planes (we were coming from different US locations) was that we planned for our first night’s destination to be somewhere that my Dublin bound siblings could get to by bus just in case my flight was delayed enough that I wouldn’t get there with my car in time for the first night. No stress that way.
We chose the small market town of Clifden in Connemara for our first night together even though we planned to meet first in Galway. If everything worked on flights, I would pick them up in Galway the morning I arrived and the three of us would drive on to Clifden. If I didn't get there that day, then they could still get to Clifden on their own. There are ample and easy bus connections from Galway to Clifden. Planning for what happens when things get messed up is the only real way to eliminate stress when they do. The first night we had three separate rooms reserved at a small inn that had reasonable single occupancy rates. This way we could all recover from jet lag in our own rooms. Thereafter we shared a room almost everywhere.
Car rental or busses and trains? My original plan had been to go to the west coast of Ireland on my own, but my siblings signed on early. I had researched busses mainly and it turns out that Ireland is very well connected by bus service and to a lesser extent trains. Not only are there some private bus companies but the national bus service has a mandate to service practically everywhere. Enough so that I felt I could get to most places I wanted to see, even though some were pretty remote. We met others in hostels that were getting around using busses and they were in some pretty small remote places. See bus ēireann
But once the plan was going to include three of us, a car, with the expense split three ways, was considerably cheaper and would offer up the ability to open our itinerary to many more remote spots.
A special note on traveling to the Aran islands. If you plan to head offshore to the Aran islands in Galway Bay (and I really recommend that you do, but it’s your trip) you might defer renting a car until you get off the islands. It is very easy to get a coach to Galway from the major airports. Galway itself would make a good first night’s stay, being a lively and very walkable town with a nice vibe and central pedestrian streets. From Galway you can take express coaches scheduled to meet both possible ferries that head offshore to the islands. One from the north and another from the south. Those coaches take about an hour and they go straight to the ferry terminals. You can’t take a car out there anyway. So your rental car would just be sitting in a parking lot on the mainland while you are exploring the islands. This will be how I plan to do it next time. Then I will rent a car back in Galway for the rest of the trip. I really recommend two nights on the Aran islands at a minimum. Don’t rush on and off as a day-tripper. You will regret that.
A word on cars. Get the smallest you can have any hope of squeezing into. The roads are narrow. Very. And winding and hilly. Those are the roads you most want to find. But you will on many turns be confronted with only a hope and a prayer that your car is narrow enough to slide past the oncoming car or truck that just materialized about 20 feet in front of you. And on the wrong side. My siblings and I are not small but we fit in this. And sometimes I wished it were smaller.
Automatic or stick shift? For most Americans this isn’t a choice. Do not go to Europe planning to drive a stick if you aren’t already comfortable with one, and most Americans are not. So why choose one at all? In some places a stick may be all you can rent. Or if an automatic is available there could be a premium attached to it, sometimes doubling the cost. But not always. In any case be sure you know what you are reserving.
Gas (petrol) or diesel? unlike in the US, a very high percentage of cars in Europe use diesel fuel. And when renting a car you will have a choice. What makes that choice doable is that unlike in the US, gas stations there pretty much always have both to choose from. Diesel is generally the cheaper option. But they do drive slightly differently. Not a big deal either way. But don’t decline diesel just because in your American experience you have to drive around to find a place that sells it.
Daily travel distances? Try to not let your American concept of driving distances fool you. 70 miles in America is not usually a big deal, but on one and a half lane winding roads it is a lot. Don’t wear yourself out. Set conservative goals for distances each day, and even better stay put in an inn for more than one night and explore locally without having to move all the time. For the most part we followed this dictate, with just two days where we had some distances to cover. They were hard days. On reflection we simply tried to do too much. Consider seeing less and seeing it better, then go back another time to see more.
A very good way to bring your daily mileage tallies down is to take the numbers you see on road signs or maps for distances, they will be in kilometers, and treat them as if miles. That will automatically mean that when you see 100k and treat that as if 100 miles in your head, you will have a better idea of how long that will take and how much wear and tear you will suffer as driver. And change over your map App to give you readings in kilometers for the same reason.
Timing of the trip in Spring? Our trip covered the first weeks or so of April. Crowds were very light. Inns and hostels were not full, in fact sometimes empty. Weather ended up being very good, most days clear and only two with rain or overcast. Of course no matter when you go weather is a toss up. Roads and country lanes, which would be full of bicycles in summer, were empty.
But, the country hadn’t really greened yet. Ireland is really green most summers (this past summer was a big exception, a drought plagued Ireland and I am not sure it ever really greened up.) On reflection I think one to three weeks later in the season might have given us more green panoramas, which people sort of expect.
But overall we were very happy with not going in summer when all logistics and the quality of experience would be severely harmed by sharing everything with multitudes.
A final note on planning. Look up online when they schedule school holidays. Usually Easter week for instance, but there is one in Fall too. Try to avoid those because summer-like crowds can occur then. We went early April just to avoid Easter week.
North or south of Galway? We did both. Thinking back on it I wish we had picked one or the other, given that we did this in just 10 days. People will read up on different things to see and it does seem a shame to be there and not go see them. A certain amount of that thinking crept into our own planning too. But overall we did fine and were very glad we saw what we did. I just think that we could have been as happy and more relaxed had we focused a bit more on fewer regions.
Going North of Galway we spent time in Connemara and then Achill Island and Mayo. I would highly recommend the northern, western and middle sections of Connemara. The southern portions along the shores of Galway Bay have been taken over by holiday homes to such an extent that, though still beautiful, it isn’t exactly what you have traveled to see. The western tip, interior mountains and northern coast however remain spectacular and are worth getting lost driving around. Achill Island is very special, and the drive up to northern Mayo is stunning in its wildness.
Galway Bay has at its mouth three islands, the Aran Islands. I have written about them in other posts. Because they are islands requiring a ferry to access, they are less visited, though we were assured by locals that the small roads could become bicycle infested in the summer months. But the landscapes there are everything you expect to see in Ireland. We spent two nights and I would go back for at least three.
Going South of Galway are three large peninsulas sticking out into the Atlantic. The best known is the Iveragh Peninsula, though no one will know it by that name. It is far better known as the “ring of kerry,” a name which I think may have been invented by the tour companies. In fact the “ring” is a day trip with them, starting or ending in Kilarney and passing along the coast in a counter clockwise fashion. Keep that in mind. You can choose to either meet their tour busses head-on or get stuck behind them. Up to you. Iveragh is in fact beautiful. We spent a night there at the very tip.
The other primary, but slightly less well known, peninsula is Dingle. I would say that in many ways I enjoyed Dingle more than Kerry but both are so great it is hard to choose. Far fewer tour busses though in Dingle. For a place to stay for a bit and just enjoy without rushing, I would favor Dingle slightly.
The Wild Atlantic Way? As you research the west coast of Ireland you will come across this term and for me it was a bit confusing at first. Just what is this? The Wild Atlantic Way is a route designation with signs. Someone figured out that to name the route that hugs the coast and runs from the very far north to the very far south would be good for tourism. And it is, and it was helpful to have. The signage is good. And the route does in fact travel along the small roads (including detours that you might otherwise ignore) that are what you have come to see. As long as one doesn’t get too fixated on it, the WAW is a very helpful device to make sure that as you drive along the coast there is almost always something very worth seeing within sight.
Driving on the left? It’s not that bad. You get used to it. If you survive the first day. Just concentrate especially at all turns, right turns more than left, to make sure that coming out of the turn you are on the correct side of the road.
Don’t let the left driving stop you from going or renting a car. Note that stick shift will be on opposite side too with pattern reversed. But foot pedals are the same as at home.
Have fun. It’s a wonderful drive.
©️ 2019 D Abbott