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Inside: The pros and cons of driving in Ireland, plus a 4-day road trip itinerary along the Wild Atlantic Way.
“I’m not so sure about driving in Ireland,” my husband Dave declared, “don’t they drive on the wrong side of the road?”
“I believe they would call it the left side of the road,” I answer encouragingly.
We have reached decision time while planning our upcoming Irish holiday. Do we, or don’t we, rent a car to drive ourselves around the Irish countryside?
“And what about the roads, what kind of shape are they in?” he continues skeptically.
A pause, while I ponder how much honesty is, ah, overkill. I have, of course, thoroughly researched this subject before suggesting the idea of renting a car.
“Well, the highways are great,” I say, easing into the truth, “but the country roads – where we’ll spend most of our time – can be very narrow, winding, and (possibly) filled with large, speeding trucks and/or livestock at times.”
Despite his noticeably unfavorable response to that last part, we ultimately do decide to rent a car. In this case, convenience wins out over caution. We have just four days to spend in Ireland and the only conceivable way to tackle our wish list is with our own set of wheels.
So here goes nothing!
Can you see Ireland in just four days, you ask?
Well, obviously no. But, with the help of a properly-insured rental car, you can see heaps!
Our 4-day Irish road trip plan targets the southern portion of Ireland’s “Wild Atlantic Way,” ending with a stay in Dublin. To save driving time, we fly into Shannon Airport on the west coast and then later depart from Dublin at the end of our trip.
I’ll delve more into the itinerary in a moment, but first, a few words about our mode of transportation…
Renting a Car in Ireland
We land at Shannon Airport at 10:30am and dart straight for the rental car counter. After exhaustive research, we chose Dooley Car Rentals, which has since been bought by Enterprise.
If you’re considering driving in Ireland, there are a number of things to consider when renting your car.
1st: What size car should I get?
Book the smallest car available. When renting a car in Ireland, size matters. We reserved a Nissan Micra (yes, it is as small as it sounds). The goal: to increase our odds of success (i.e. staying alive) while navigating Ireland’s narrow country lanes.
One caveat, avoid the glorified golf cart known as the Smart Car. Yes, it’s the smallest car available. No, it probably won’t get you up those steep hills in the Conor Pass along the Wild Atlantic Way. Not to mention, unless your luggage is the size of a shoebox, you’ll be strapping it to the roof.
But, while it’s true that the roads are barely wider than a Brazilian runway model in some places (and that’s for two-way traffic), they are generally well-maintained.
In other words, it’s safe to forgo the SUV or 4WD.
2nd: Will I have to drive a stick?
Remember that like most of Europe, rental cars in Ireland are primarily manual transmission. Yes, you can get an automatic, but book early and be prepared to pay twice as much for it.
A word of advice…if you’ve never driven a stick-shift, Ireland is definitely not the place to give it a go.
Similarly, if it’s been years since the last time you drove a stick and your skills are a little rusty, consider spending the money for an automatic. The last thing you want to worry about when you meet a lorry on a winding one-lane road with a sheer drop-off on one side is what gear you should be in.
They drive on the left in Ireland, which means you’ll be driving from what’s usually the passenger seat and shifting with your left hand (awkward even for experienced stick shift drivers like my husband).
3rd: Insurance – yay or nay?
YAY. Dear God, yay. ALL OF IT. Whatever they will sell you.
I freely admit that I am usually cheap when it comes to rental car insurance coverage in Europe. Ireland is the lone exception.
Insurance options in Ireland are prolific. Even if you select insurance when you book, many companies will try to sell you additional coverage at the counter. This can easily double the price of your rental.
We play it safe and go with full coverage. Despite the fact that my Chase Sapphire card would cover us for driving in Ireland – most credit cards will not. (Note: If you have the Chase card and decide to rely on their coverage, you’ll need a note from Chase confirming your coverage to present at the counter when you pick up the car.)
Yes, Chase probably would have covered us. However, declining full coverage means a substantial hold is placed on your card during the rental. Additionally, any damages must be paid by the renter and then claimed with Chase for a refund.
With three more weeks of travel ahead, it’s not a chance we want to take. And the peace of mind is well worth the additional $75 over the length of our 4-day car rental.
We selected full coverage at the time of booking so when we arrive at the counter, we are only offered one additional option. The option to cover the tires and glass for an additional $5 per day.
My initial research revealed that the tires and windshield were not covered under any insurance, so we jump at this offer. These are two of the most likely areas for potential damage while driving in Ireland, so the additional $20 is a welcome no-brainer.
All in all, a 4-day car rental picked up in Shannon and returned in Dublin cost us $265. Not bad for the total freedom it affords us to explore the countryside without fear of any damage to the car.
4th: Which rental company is best?
With Dooley now out of the picture, you’re left with the typical international rental chains.
But remember, the usual suspects like Enterprise, Avis, Hertz, etc can vary greatly by location. Many are independently operated. Always research reviews on the specific location where you’re planning to rent. And make sure you’re fully insured, no matter which company you choose.
I like RentalCars.com for comparing rates across a variety of companies and reading reviews.
5th: Should I spring for the GPS?
GPS can be invaluable in navigating through some of Ireland’s more rural areas. We have T-Mobile’s free international data plan, so we are able to use our phones for GPS without a problem.
If you don’t have the ability to use your phone for navigation, consider spending the extra money on a GPS unit.
The Bottom Line: Get a small car, buy all the insurance, and don’t rent a manual if you can’t drive one at home on a good day.
But there’s one thing NO amount of insurance will cover…
Putting the wrong type of fuel in the car.
Who would do something so silly, you ask? It happens more often than you think.
Pumps in Ireland are green for unleaded and black for diesel – the opposite of how they are marked in the States. This is an extremely costly repair, so be extra cautious when refueling.
If you do put in the wrong type, do not start the car. Call the rental company immediately. Draining the tank is far less expensive than the resulting engine damage from starting it with the wrong fuel type.
Driving in Ireland – Here goes nothing!
We did our research. We’re prepared. We have our itty bitty car.
Time to hit the road & pray for the best.
Dave takes a few minutes to familiarize himself with the car, test the clutch and forget everything he previously knew about driving (which is the proper mental approach to adopt when driving on the “wrong” side.)
Moments later, we abandon the safety of the Shannon airport parking lot and emerge into traffic. Mostly prepared for whatever the Irish country roads will throw at us.
(Later, find out how we did and – more importantly – what we learned.)
First Day of Driving in Ireland – The Wild Atlantic Way
Stretching for more than 1,500 miles along the western coastline, Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way is the longest defined coastal drive in the world.
From jagged cliffs and deserted beaches to Signature Discovery Points like the Cliffs of Moher, you could spend weeks exploring this scenic length of (mostly) pavement.
With just four days total in Ireland, we plan to devote the first two to the scenic Wild Atlantic Way.
The Magical Cliffs of Moher
The forecast for our 4 days in Ireland is typically Irish with lots of rain (the norm this time of year). So when we land to just partly cloudy skies, we’re excited to head straight for the Cliffs of Moher.
The drive from Shannon Airport takes about 90 minutes and is largely highway. It’s a nice grace period for Dave to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road. Soon enough he’ll be confronting the single-lane-roads-used-for-two-way-traffic that are common in the Irish countryside.
The drive is beautiful and in no time we are parking at the Cliffs of Moher and paying our EUR 6 entry fee at the lot.
As Ireland’s most-visited natural attraction, the Cliffs of Moher rise 702 feet at their highest point and stretch for 5 miles along County Clare’s Atlantic coast. The area is home to 30,000 breeding pairs of seabirds including Puffins and even a pair of Peregrine Falcons.
Trails (mostly without railings, I might add) line the edge of the cliffs and spectacular views await around every corner. Near the visitor center, tickets are available to climb the spiral staircase of O’Brien’s Tower view. Built in 1835, the tower offers views to five counties on a clear day.
Today isn’t an especially clear day, so we skip that in favor of exploring the nooks and crannies of the trails. I can’t imagine a better place to kick-off the first day of an Irish road trip!
A quick tour of Galway
Galway isn’t exactly on the way to our other destinations, but it is a stop along the Wild Atlantic Way. So, I figure since we are just an hour away, we should check it out (PSA: that kind of logic can lead to some really long days touring Ireland!).
Dave quickly settles into a groove on the country roads. He eventually learns to just pull over and stop whenever something large is barrelling toward us in the oncoming lane. This strategy works with all potential adversaries, except sheep.
Once in Galway, we make a beeline for Eyre Square, the town’s hub. Famished, we choose the first pub that looks enticing and order up some fish and chips.
After lunch, we meander the tangled streets of the medieval district for a bit enjoying the music of the local street performers. Then we hit the road for the 90-minute drive to our hotel and some much-needed rest.
A perfect stay near Limerick
My excellent hotel find for our first night is the Woodfield House Hotel, just outside of Limerick.
It is an absolutely charming B&B straight out of Irish central casting. With cozy rooms and a lively pub downstairs, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered after a redeye flight and a stressful day on the road.
The pub has terrific food and we share a savory Guinness stew and a sticky toffee pudding for dessert (side note: sticky toffee pudding, where have you been all my life?).
Driving in Ireland Day 2 – Wild Atlantic Way to Adare, the Dingle Peninsula, Killarney & Cobh
For our second day, we have a massive itinerary planned along the Wild Atlantic Way.
The original plan was to tackle both the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry today. However, with one day of driving in Ireland now under our belts, we reconsider. A quick look at the map shows it is ridiculous to think we can cover both in a single day.
Each is worthy of a full day on its own.
So, with just one full day to spend in the area, we have to make a choice. We decide to focus most of our day on the Dingle Peninsula. And then limit our Ring of Kerry stops to the more central Killarney area.
Adare – Ireland’s Prettiest Village
But first, a quick stop in the heritage town of Adare often considered “Ireland’s Prettiest Village.” It’s on our way to the Dingle Peninsula from Limerick, so we can’t resist stopping to see the famous thatched cottages.
We stop for photos at the 13th-century Desmond Castle (one of Europe’s few remaining Norman castles) on the way into town. Then, we score a parking space along the main street to see the quaint thatched cottages and rugged stone buildings.
It’s a charming Irish village and well worth the stop. Luckily, it’s also small enough to enjoy in a brief stopover before we continue on to the Dingle Peninsula and the Conor Pass.
The Dingle Peninsula is Ireland’s most westerly point and one of the most popular sights along the Wild Atlantic Way. The most scenic way to reach the peninsula’s only town, Dingle, is to take a drive along the dramatic landscapes of the Conor Pass, the country’s highest mountain pass.
The adventure of the Conor Pass
I’m not sure I’d recommend tackling the Conor Pass on your first day driving in Ireland. However, on day two it’s a little more manageable. (Easy for me to say, I’m not driving.)
Like most along the Wild Atlantic Way, the roads are narrow and shockingly meant for two-way traffic. However, as an added bonus, roads along the Conor Pass also feature sheer drops off the side of a mountain.
Just to keep things interesting.
The landscape is rugged and rocky, yet strangely beautiful and it turns out to be one of our favorite drives of the trip. At the end of the Conor Pass, the road slowly descends into the seaside town of Dingle.
The Dingle Dolphin
Aside from its rainbow-colored storefronts, the town of Dingle is famous for two things – a dolphin named Fungie and Murphy’s Ice Cream.
Fungie, Dingle’s most famous resident, is a male bottlenose dolphin who has been visiting the fisherman of Dingle Bay for nearly 40 years. Frequent hour-long boat tours take visitors out to see the dolphin known for delighting tourists and locals alike.
Update: Since December 2020, Fungie has not been spotted in the bay. No one knows how old Fungie was but locals believe the beloved dolphin has surpassed the normal lifespan for a bottlenose dolphin (about 45 years).
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time for an hour-long boat trip to see Fungie. Instead, we opt for Dingle’s second most famous attraction, Murphy’s Ice Cream.
Because. Ice cream.
Handmade in Dingle, this artisan ice cream shop is unlike any other I’ve visited. Made with all-natural ingredients including the milk of Kerry cows, Murphy’s creative flavors run the gamut. From Sticky Toffee Pudding (yay!) to Irish brown bread (pass) to gin (yes, gin as in “and tonic”), there’s something for everyone.
Though the original location is in Dingle, the popular shop can now also be found in Killarney and Dublin. (It is so delicious that we later search out the Dublin location.)
Killarney National Park
It’s the primary hub along the popular Ring of Kerry, surrounded by the verdant landscape of Killarney National Park. Killarney definitely caters to the tourist set and we are surprised by the number of large, resort-style hotels in town.
But not by the massive amount of tour buses now sharing our narrow road.
We stop first at Ross Castle, a 15th-century fortress at the edge of the Lower Lake. The castle’s interior is by guided tour only. Since we don’t have many other castles on our itinerary, we happily fork over EUR 4 each to take the tour.
The tour itself is fascinating. But the views over the lake and the national park from the tower are worth the price of admission alone. From the castle, we hike to the beautiful Torc Waterfall.
Athletic efforts for the day complete, we venture into Killarney proper in search of a late lunch before continuing to our final stop for the day.
That evening we arrive at one of my favorite stops of the entire trip, Cobh.
Pronounced “cove,” this seaside town is most famous as the departure port for the Titanic in 1912. Today, maritime history still pervades its cobbled streets.
Originally called Queenstown, Cobh was also Ireland’s chief port of emigration in the early 20th century. During those years, several transatlantic liners departed weekly.
Today, Cobh is a popular stop for cruise ships. Visitors can learn more about its role in Titanic history with an hour-long themed walking tour or a stop at the Titanic Experience museum.
Our hotel choice for the night is the Commodore Hotel. Right across the street from the harbor, the Commodore has a perfect location. Plus a rooftop garden with panoramic views over both the town and the waterfront. Our room is comfortable and the pub in the lobby has tasty food and live music.
A little backstory: I originally added Cobh to our itinerary after finding a stunning Instagram photo of colorful houses fronting an enormous cathedral by the sea. I’d never even heard of Cobh. But when I stumbled across that picture, I knew I had to see it for myself.
With the car parked for the night and our bags dropped, Dave heads straight for the bar. He is in dire need of a “medicinal” Guinness after another day of white-knuckle driving.
I, however, am on a mission.
Determined to scour the streets for the coveted painted-houses-giant-church photo spot, I set off on foot. The town’s not that big, I muse, how hard could it be?
Turns out, harder than I thought.
The location of the church (St Colman’s Cathedral) is obvious, the entire town rests in its shadow. I even quickly spot the correct row of houses. But I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how someone got a shot of both. Especially, from such a high angle.
I walk along Bishop’s Road in search of the perfect view. Finally, I realize that to get it, I’ll need to hold my camera up over the 6’ wall lining the road and shoot blindly.
And ta-da! That’s it.
There may be an easier way to get the shot, but have no idea what it is. Mission accomplished, I rejoin my husband for a celebratory cocktail.
Driving in Ireland Day 3 – Cobh to Dublin
Our final day with the car will culminate in Dublin. But first, a detour in the opposite direction, south to the adorable seaside town of Kinsale.
The colors of Kinsale
Located in County Cork, Kinsale was originally a medieval fishing port. Two 17th-century fortresses – Charles Fort and James Fort – overlook the town. But most visitors come to Kinsale to admire the neon-colored storefronts that line the streets of the main shopping district.
Kinsale is known as southern Ireland’s gourmet capital and is home to a number of delightful restaurants and annual festivals.
Its yacht-filled harbor and vibrant shops and cafes make for a lovely walk around town.
The Rock of Cashel – worth the stop!
By lunchtime, we’re back on the road and Dublin-bound. On the way, there’s just one more stop on today’s driving itinerary – the Rock of Cashel.
Located in County Tipperary, the Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most spectacular archaeological sites. Since it’s just off the motorway on our drive to Dublin, we (obviously) can’t pass it up.
Said to be the site of the 5th-century conversion of the King of Munster by St. Patrick, the Rock of Cashel is well worth a detour on any Irish road trip.
Though few of the early structures survived, many buildings date from the 12th and 13th centuries. It’s also home to perhaps the most remarkable collection of Celtic art found anywhere in Europe.
Amid stormy skies, we don our rain jackets for a walk around the complex. The extensive graveyard is a highlight, with historic stone high crosses standing watch over panoramic views. A vast green blanket of rolling hills lurks below.
It is a spectacular scene. Unfortunately, a passing storm soon thwarts the rest of our tour.
Defeated, we duck into a crowded pub in the adorable town of Cashel to fuel up for the final leg of our southern road trip.
Less than two hours later, a brilliant blue sky greets us as we roll into Dublin.
Dublin & Lively Temple Bar
For our stay in Dublin, we chose the Hilton Garden Inn Customs House. Perfectly situated along the River Liffey, the modern hotel is an easy stroll from the Temple Bar area.
Which is, conveniently, our first stop in the city.
Since a car is the last thing you need in Dublin, we arrange for our rental car company to retrieve the car from the Hilton’s parking garage tomorrow morning (at no extra charge).
This leaves us free to wander on foot in search of a cold pint and live music.
And we don’t have to go far. We turn the corner into the teeming streets of Temple Bar and hear lively tunes coming from nearly every pub. We select the most famous of the pubs, the Temple Bar Pub, and work our way into the crowded main room. Happily, an Irish trio is just beginning their set.
Afternoon turns to evening as we sip our pints and toast the end of Dave’s driving career in Ireland. Spirited Irish melodies permeate the room and cascade out crowded doorways onto cobbled streets. It’s a terrific Dublin evening.
Day 4 – The Guinness Storehouse
For our final day, the Guinness Storehouse tour is at the top of our list. On the advice of the hotel, we booked tickets yesterday for a 10:00am tour time today.
Tip: If you’re visiting Dublin during the height of the summer season, book your tickets well in advance.
After breakfast, we grab a taxi to learn more about Ireland’s most iconic brand.
Founded by Arthur Guinness in 1759, the Guinness Brewery at St. James’s Gate is synonymous with Ireland. The Guinness Storehouse opened in 2000 and quickly become one of the city’s most popular attractions.
The self-guided tour boasts seven stories of fascinating Guinness history including the brewing process, marketing campaigns (my favorite floor), and a tasting room (Dave’s favorite floor).
We explore each floor at a leisurely pace, savoring the colorful history of the Guinness brand. Then, we adjourn to the 7th-floor Gravity Bar for our free pint (included in the price of the tour) and the city’s best view.
Of course, once you’re high above Dublin enjoying the best 360-degree views over the city, you realize that Dublin is perhaps best appreciated from street level. For such a great city, it has a mostly uninspiring skyline.
After the Guinness Storehouse, a self-guided walking tour of the city occupies the remainder of our afternoon. From Stephen’s Green and the Christ Church Cathedral to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College, we cover it all (including another stop at Murphy’s Ice Cream!).
Later, one last steaming bowl of Irish stew in Temple Bar is the perfect end to our Irish adventure. OK, technically, another round of Sticky Toffee Pudding is the perfect end.
But who’s counting?
3 things we learned while driving in Ireland…
In addition to the exhaustive information listed above, we did pick up a few more important tips while on the road:
- Toll Plazas – Watch out for “barrier-free” toll plazas along Ireland’s M50 motorway. If you pass one, you must pay the toll online here before 8:00pm the next day. Otherwise, your rental car company will charge it to your credit card. Along with a hefty service fee for the convenience.
- Roadside Hazards – Once you’re off the main motorways, the roads are narrow and many have shrubs or trees growing close to the road. These are unavoidable and can easily result in scratches down the side of the car. (Hooray for full coverage insurance!).
- Roundabouts – Otherwise known as the Irish stop sign, these are ubiquitous throughout Ireland. Because you’re driving on the left, you must yield to traffic coming from your right in a roundabout. And signal before exiting the circle. Trust me, this does not come instinctively. You’ve been warned.
Those things aside, we absolutely loved our time in Ireland, especially the beautiful Wild Atlantic Way. And having your own wheels is truly the key to maximizing a short stay.
Despite a few minor moments of terror (both for us and the sheep), we actually did enjoy it.
The Bottom Line: Don’t be afraid of driving in Ireland. It is absolutely the best way to see the country, especially when you have limited time.
Looking for Other Great Road Trip Ideas?
Nope, renting a car in Ireland is just not for me. Now what?
If you’re still not sure whether you could safely retain your sanity while driving in Ireland, there is another way.
From Dublin or any of the other main cities, day trip options are at your fingertips. Let an experienced guide show you all of Ireland’s best sights in relaxed comfort. I’ve sprinkled in some great options above, here are a few more:
Another option? Consider hiring a taxi and driver to take you around to some of the closer sights. In search of a terrific taxi driver in Dublin? Reach out to the ever-charming Alan O’Brien, (353) 879210599. He’ll keep you laughing across the Emerald Aisle.
But if you’re a bit adventurous, there’s no better way to see Ireland than with your own set of wheels.
Just watch out for the livestock.
Where to next?
Why? Because Italy is always a good idea.
Our three-week journey will culminate at the Tuscan villa where we got married. Just in time for our 2nd anniversary. Chianti, limoncello, and reckless-carb-abandon, here we come.
Next stop, one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, the island of Procida!