Inside: The pros and cons of driving in Ireland, plus a 4-day road trip itinerary.
“I’m not so sure about driving in Ireland,” my husband 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 answered encouragingly.
We had reached decision time in planning for 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 continued suspiciously.
A pause, while I pondered how much honesty was overkill. I had, of course, thoroughly researched this subject before suggesting the idea of renting a car.
“Well, the highways are great, just like ours,” I said, easing into the truth, “but the country roads – where we’ll spend most of our time – may 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 did decide to rent a car. In this case, convenience won out over caution. We had just four days to spend in Ireland and the only conceivable way to tackle our wish list was to have our own set of wheels.
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 targeted the southern portion of Ireland’s “Wild Atlantic Way,” ending with a stay in Dublin. To save driving time, we flew into Shannon Airport on the west coast and then departed 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 landed at Shannon Airport at 10:30am and darted straight for the rental car counter. After exhaustive research, we’d chosen 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 (it was 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. 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 played it safe and went with full coverage. Despite the fact that my Chase Sapphire card would have covered 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.)
I’m confident Chase 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 refund.
With three more weeks of travel ahead, it wasn’t a chance we wanted to take. And the peace of mind was well worth the additional $75 over the length of our 4-day rental.
We selected full coverage at the time of booking. The only additional option we were given at the counter was 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 jumped at this offer. Since these are two of the most likely areas for potential damage, the additional $20 was 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 afforded 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 of them 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 were 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 for 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’d 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.
Here goes nothing!
We did our research. We are prepared and we have our itty bitty car. Time to hit the road & pray for the best.
My husband, Dave, took 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 abandoned the safety of the Shannon airport parking lot and emerged into traffic, mostly prepared for whatever the Irish country roads would 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
Hugging Ireland’s western coastline, the Wild Atlantic Way stretches for more than 1,500 miles and 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, the plan was to devote the first two to the Wild Atlantic Way.
The Magical Cliffs of Moher
The forecast for our 4 days in Ireland was uninspiring. Lots of rain was expected (the norm this time of year), so when we landed to just partly cloudy skies, we decided to head straight for the Cliffs of Moher.
The drive from Shannon Airport took about 90 minutes and was mostly highway so Dave had a grace period to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road before confronting the single-lane-roads-used-for-two-way-traffic that are common in the Irish countryside.
The drive was beautiful and in no time we were parking at the Cliffs of Moher and paying our 6 euro 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 wasn’t an especially clear day, so we skipped that in favor of exploring the nooks and crannies of the trails. I can’t imagine a better place to start your first day in Ireland.
A quick tour of Galway
Galway wasn’t exactly on the way to our other destinations, but I figured since we were just an hour away, we should check it out (PSA: that kind of logic can lead to some really long days touring Ireland!).
Dave settled into a groove on the country roads. He quickly learned to just pull over and stop whenever something large was barrelling toward us in the oncoming lane. This strategy worked with all potential adversaries but the sheep.
Once in Galway, we made a beeline for Eyre Square, the town’s hub. Famished, we chose the first pub that looked enticing and ordered up some fish and chips (naturally).
After lunch, we meandered 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 was the Woodfield House Hotel, just outside of Limerick.
It was an absolutely charming B&B straight out of Irish central casting. With cozy rooms and a lively pub downstairs, it was exactly what the doctor ordered after a stressful day on the road.
The pub had terrific food and we shared a savory Guinness stew and a sticky toffee pudding for dessert (side note: how did I not know about sticky toffee pudding?).
Driving in Ireland Day 2 – Adare, The Dingle Peninsula, Killarney and Cobh
For our second day, we had a massive itinerary planned.
The original itinerary included tackling both the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. But with one day of driving in Ireland now under our belts, a quick look at the map told us it was ridiculous to think we could cover both in a single day.
Each was worthy of a full day on its own.
But with just one full day to spend in the area, we had to make a choice. We decided 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, since the heritage town of Adare was on our way to the Dingle Peninsula from Limerick, we couldn’t resist a quick stop to see the famous thatched cottages in what is often considered “Ireland’s Prettiest Village.”
We stopped for photos at the 13th-century Desmond Castle (one of Europe’s few remaining Norman castles) on the way into town and then parked along the main street to take in the quaint thatched cottages and rugged stone buildings.
It was a charming Irish village. Luckily, it was small enough to enjoy in a brief stopover before we headed 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 if I’d recommend tackling the Conor Pass on your first day driving in Ireland. However, on day two it was a little more manageable. (Easy for me to say, I wasn’t driving.)
Like most along the Wild Atlantic Way, the roads are narrow and shockingly meant for two-way traffic. However, they also have the added bonus of sheer drops off the side of a mountain. Just to keep things interesting.
The landscape is rugged and rocky, yet strangely beautiful and was 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 32 years. Frequent hour-long boat tours take visitors out to see the dolphin. But keep in mind that no one knows exactly how old Fungie is, so get there while you can.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for an hour-long boat trip to see Fungie. So, instead, we opted 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 was so delicious that we later searched 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 were surprised by the number of large, resort-style hotels in town. But not by the massive amount of tour buses sharing our narrow road.
We stopped 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 didn’t have many other castles on our itinerary, we happily forked over 4 euro each to take the tour.
The tour itself was fascinating. But the views over the lake and the national park from the tower were alone worth the price of admission.
From the castle, we hiked to the scenic Torc waterfall. Athletic efforts for the day complete, we ventured into Killarney proper in search of a late lunch before continuing to our final stop for the day.
That evening we arrived 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 was the Commodore Hotel. Right across the street from the harbor, the Commodore had the perfect location. And a rooftop garden with panoramic views over both the town and the waterfront. The room was comfortable and the pub in the lobby had tasty food and live music.
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 heard of Cobh. But when I stumbled across that picture, I knew I had to see it for myself.
Car parked for the night and bags dropped, Dave headed straight for the bar. He was in dire need of a “medicinal” Guinness after another day of white-knuckle driving. I, however, was 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 mused, how hard could it be? Turns out, harder than I thought.
The location of the church (St Colman’s Cathedral) was obvious as the entire town rested in its shadow. I even quickly located the correct row of houses without a fuss. But I could not, for the life of me, figure out how someone had gotten the shot of both. Especially, from such a high angle.
I walked along Bishop’s Road in search of the perfect view. Finally, I realized that to get it, I’d need to hold my camera up over the 6’ wall lining the road and shoot blindly.
And ta-da! That was it.
There may have been an easier way to get the shot, but I don’t have any idea what it was. Mission accomplished, I rejoined my husband for a celebratory cocktail.
Driving in Ireland Day 3 – Cobh to Dublin
Our final day with the car would 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 admire the neon-colored storefronts that line the streets of Kinsale’s 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 made for a lovely walk around town. It was the perfect start to our third day in Ireland.
The Rock of Cashel – worth the stop!
By lunchtime, we were back on the road and Dublin-bound. On the way, we had just one more stop on the agenda – the Rock of Cashel.
Located in County Tipperary, the Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most spectacular archaeological sites. Since it was just off the motorway on our drive to Dublin, we couldn’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 on the site 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, rain jackets were donned for a walk around the complex. The extensive graveyard was a highlight, with historic stone high crosses standing watch over panoramic views. A vast green blanket of rolling hills below.
It was a spectacular scene. Unfortunately, a passing storm soon thwarted the rest of our tour.
Defeated, we ducked into a crowded pub in the adorable town of Cashel. It was time to fuel up for the final leg of our southern road trip.
Less than two hours later, a brilliant blue sky greeted us as we rolled into Dublin. A perfect Sunday afternoon awaited.
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 was an easy stroll to the Temple Bar area. Conveniently, that was our first stop in the city.
Since a car is the last thing you need in Dublin, we arranged for Dooley Rental Car to retrieve the car from the Hilton’s parking garage the next morning (at no extra charge).
This left us free to wander on foot in search of a cold pint and live music.
And we didn’t have to go far. We turned the corner into the teeming streets of Temple Bar and heard lively tunes coming from nearly every pub. Selecting the most famous of the pubs, the Temple Bar Pub, we worked our way into the crowded main room. Happily, an Irish trio was just beginning their set.
Afternoon turned to evening as we sipped our pints while the spirited Irish melodies permeated the room and cascaded out crowded doorways onto cobbled streets.
Day 4 – The Guinness Storehouse
For our final day, the Guinness Storehouse tour was tops on our list. On the advice of the hotel, we’d booked tickets the day before for a 10am tour time.
Tip: If you’re visiting Dublin during the height of the summer season, book your tickets well in advance.
After breakfast, we grabbed a taxi on another gloomy Dublin day to learn more about one of Ireland’s most iconic brands.
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.
We explored each floor at a leisurely pace, savoring the colorful history of the Guinness brand. Then adjourned 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 quickly realize Dublin is perhaps best appreciated from street level. It’s a skyline that could be considered mostly uninspiring.
After the Guinness Storehouse, a self-guided walking tour of the city occupied the remainder of our afternoon. From Stephen’s Green and the Christ Church Cathedral to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College, we covered it all.
Later, one last steaming bowl of Irish stew in Temple Bar was the perfect end to our Irish adventure.
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 8pm the following 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. And having our own wheels was the key to maximizing our short stay. Despite a few minor moments of terror, 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.
Nope, renting a car in Ireland is just not for me. Now what?
Still on the fence about whether you could safely retain your sanity while driving in Ireland? Fear not, there is another way.
From Dublin, or any of the other main cities, day trip options are at your fingertips. They can 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?
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!