Secrets for a Cheap and Easy Holiday in Ireland
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Having just come home from my first trip in Ireland, and already planning a trip back, I thought it important that I share my experience to help other first-time travelers who dream of the Emerald Isle. My best friend Amy and I looked into packages, the internet and travel agents to come up with our plan, and found that the best plan was to not have one.
We bought our airline tickets through a travel agent that specializes in Ireland. They were at least $200 cheaper than anything we found on the internet or through a package. Leaving in October also helped as it is considered "mid-season" which makes it a bit less expensive than summer. The last thing that brought the ticket price down was flying into Shannon rather than Dublin. This was a better choice anyway, because as we learned, driving in Dublin should not be attempted. It was much easier to begin driving on rural country roads.
We ran into a little snag when renting the car. This was cheaper by using the internet, however an automatic is twice as expensive as a manual. And if they don't ask the difference, it will be a manual. We rented from Budget through Autorez.com. When we arrived at Shannon airport we found that it would be twice as much than we were quoted on the internet because, unknowingly, it was a manual. I went up and down to every car rental stall and found that it was still the best price available, so we took it. It will save you A LOT of money if your credit card will insure your rental car. We saved about $250 because Amy checked before we left.
Between us, we brought many of the latest guides and maps including Frommers and Hanging Out in Ireland. We should have thrown them out the window because they were useless. I take part responsibility for not buying the Lonely Planet Guide which has always been tried and true for me. The best map that we got came with the car.
Being the penny-pinching single people that we are, we planned to hostel the entire time and stay in a castle on our last night. It is important to note that you do NOT need to pay $25 for a Hostelling International card. We never stayed in a YHI hostel, and the money was wasted.
There were plenty of cheap hostels everywhere. A bed averaged in price from 9 to 19 Euros. Most provided linens, a light breakfast, and some had laundry services for a fee. Many of them were in historical buildings with great locations. The one in Cashel faced Hore Abbey and had the Rock of Cashel in perfect view to the left. It should be noted that open hours for hostels vary greatly. Some don't open until 5pm, and some close by then. It's probably best to call ahead.
We headed south from the airport and lasted less then a half hour. Jet-lag is a very real thing. We stopped in the quaint, adorable, and yet slightly touristy village of Adare and immediately decided to break from our budget. In town, there was a street where almost every house was a bed and breakfast. I'd tell you the name, but we found out quickly that streets are rarely labeled. We walked up and down asking for prices and availability. All of them had vacancies, and cost between 28 and 32 Euros per person. You will learn that not only is driving on the other side, but everything is on the other side. Keys turn the other way, the toilet handle is on the other side, silverware is reversed. If you can't figure something out, try it backwards.
If you're looking for good, authentic Irish food at good prices, go to the local pub. Ask someone to recommend one to you. Go before six, because prices are much cheaper. Many pubs are part of larger restaurants, you usually save about half by eating in the pub section.
My recommendation is the carvery dinner. It usually consists of roast beef or half of a roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, and homemade brown bread. You can find this almost anywhere for under ten Euros. If you're lucky you'll get mashed carrots, which are really good. Be careful of ordering soda. It costs about two Euros for a small glass and they charge you for refills, so two sips can cost four Euro. Tipping is not the rule. It's o.k. to round up the bill. If your bill says that there was no service charge, leave no more than 10%.
We found out the hard way that there are no longer hostels outside of Dublin. This is where our "guides" really failed us. Most, it seems, have been turned into refugee shelters. We heard it was cheaper south of Dublin, so we headed to Dun Laoghaire ( a fun game could be made of trying to pronounce this --"Dun Leery." Another fun game could be made of finding the Irish in Dublin.). We did eventually find a B&B, but BIG WARNING: during the school-year students often rent out rooms per semester in or near college towns.
The DART train system is easy enough. There's a tour bus for eleven Euros that will take you to the major sites in Dublin if you're interested. Since neither Amy nor I drink Guinness (I know, what's the point) going to the Guinness factory wasn't on our list of things to do. And, as much as I love Jamison, neither was their distillery.
The one thing we both agreed on was Trinity College. It costs seven Euros to see The Book Of Kells, and one more Euro to get a guided tour of the college. I paid the seven Euros and I have to say it was worth it. It's set up to explain every little detail. It really was breath-taking. However, I was a little disappointed to see the very amazing "long room" which was filled with two stories of very old books, but it was all roped off so I couldn't touch one.
If you're looking for souvenirs, Carroll's across the street from Trinity is the best place we found in all of Ireland. It's three stories and has the best prices. Another good place for souvenirs are the tourist information centers in all main cities. They have a big brown sign with a small "i ." These centers can be helpful for many things, but you will be charged up to seventeen dollars for any reservations they make for you.
Don't forget to ask for your "tax back" form when purchasing anything other than food, children's clothes, or books. A tax of 17% to 24% is included in the price of whatever you buy. Americans can get the tax back at the airport just by turning in your forms. If you paid in cash, you will get cash back. If you paid with a credit card you can either get it taken off of your charges, or receive a check at home. Fill them out as you get them and it will save added hassle at the airport.
Don't skip out on the North because of fear of the fighting. I wouldn't go on or near the marching season in July unless escorted by locals, but there are things up there that should not be missed. Giant's Causeway is spectacular. I would rank it up there with one of the seven natural wonders. The drive up the coast to get there is half the fun. Bring a picnic lunch, pull over, and watch the seals playing while you eat.
The roads on the coast are curvy and steep, so if you're prone to car sickness, it may happen on this drive. Make frequent stops starting in Belfast, then Carrickfergus, Bushmills, Portrush and all of the interesting places in-between. For example, if you climb up the hill at Torr Head, on a clear day, you can see Scotland.
There is no noticeable border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but there are money exchange places. Make sure you have a full tank of gas before you go up there, because gas is almost 40% more. It costs about 89 cents a liter in Ireland, it's about the same price --but its Pounds Sterling, in the North.
We were blessed to have friends in Lisburn who put us up, fed us and took us on day tours. I'd like to recommend them to you, but I'm not sure they would appreciate it. I will recommend that if you know anyone on the island, visit them. Get that "real-life" experience.
County Galway --under NO circumstances, should be missed. In fact, plan several days there. There are three hostels in town containing 500 beds between them, but be careful. Apparently, on weekends, it's a college party town. All beds could be taken, even on the off season. We stayed in Sleep Zone (beds were between 15 and 19 Euros). They offered a very light breakfast in the morning, and they will wash a garbage bag full of clothes for six Euros.
There are many ferry agencies who offer trips to the Aran Islands. Check around because the prices, boats, and terms are different. We found it was six Euros cheaper if you buy your tickets a day in advance
No matter what your interests, Galway has it. There's Connemara National Park containing the Twelve Bens, and lots of hiking. The Burren is just south, and when you see postcards around the country of these places, you just know you have to go there. There is also an array of castles, museums and historic homes.
And then there's the shopping. The first Claddagh ring was made in Galway, so jewelry stores are plentiful. My favorite store was Kenny's Bookstore, hands down. They specialize in rare and out of print books. The higher you go up the stairs, the rarer the books are. Most other goods were reasonable, and it's nice to just walk on the pedestrian streets and look.
Now about staying in a castle. There are a lot of castles out there. We saw Adare Manor which is highly advertised. It had the atmosphere of a country club. There are enough rooms to accommodate a busload full of people and other guests. We did notice that all the guests that we saw were American. It costs at least $157 to stay there mid-season. There are many others that vary in price range, accommodations, and activities. The internet will definitely help you with this.
Castles weren't on Amy's list of things to do, so she was a little particular. "It must be within fifteen minutes of where we are. I don't want it to cost me more than seventy Euros, and they better have a good breakfast." I found one that fit all her criteria. Cregg Castle is less than fifteen minutes from Galway city, it cost us sixty Euros, and they had a huge breakfast.
Pat Broderick greeted us, showed us around, picked his best room (out of nine) for us, and then met us back in the great room where there was a warm fire in the fireplace. We were cold and wet to the bone, and the chairs were so comfortable, we just sort of napped there awhile. We had the run of the house, and the grounds, which I took advantage of before dinner time.
In the evening, Pat and his wife Ann Marie play traditional Irish music in the great room. Ann Marie plays the bodhran and Pat plays the Irish bagpipes, the tin whistle, and a long wooden whistle. Picture this: Sitting in a coushy velvet chair by the fire, the walls lined with beautiful tapestries, the tables hold scattered candles, while listening to an impromptu recital of the most mystical, traditional Irish music.
Now for the bottom line, grand total, final analysis. We spent thirteen days in Ireland and saw the entire island north and south. It cost $561 for the round-trip plane ticket, $202 for my half of the car, $176 total for lodging (including the castle), $27 for my half of the gas, $14 for admissions, $6 laundry, $25 for other transportation (train, boat, ferry), and about $135 for food (about $15 a day for nine days.) The grand total is $1146. If you can do better than that, please write to me and tell me how before my next trip.