Travelling around Ireland is short, simple and sweet – or maddeningly long and infuriatingly complicated. Distances are relatively short and there’s a good network of roads, but public transportation can be infrequent, expensive or both and – especially with trains – not reach many of the more interesting places.
Your own transport is a major advantage and it’s worth considering car hire for at least part of your trip. Irish roads are markedly better than they used to be. There’s a small but growing network of motorways to supplement the huge network of secondary and tertiary roads, although it is still true that smaller, rural roads can make for difficult driving conditions.
If you opt not to drive, a mixture of buses, the occasional taxi, plenty of time, walking and sometimes hiring a bicycle will get you just about anywhere.
Hitching is becoming increasingly less popular in Ireland, even though it’s still pretty easy compared to other European countries. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk, and we don’t recommend it. If you do plan to travel by thumb, remember it’s illegal to hitch on motorways.
Bus Éireann (01-836 6111; www.buseireann.ie; Busáras, Store St, Dublin) is the Republic’s bus line and offers an extensive network throughout the south. Private buses compete – often very favourably – with Bus Éireann in the Republic and also run where the national buses are irregular or absent.
The larger bus companies will usually carry bikes for free but you should always check in advance to avoid surprises. Ulsterbus (028-9066 6600; www.ulsterbus.co.uk; Milewater Rd, Belfast) is the only bus service in Northern Ireland.
Bus travel is much cheaper than train travel, and private buses often charge less than Bus Éireann. Generally, return fares cost little more than a one-way fare.
Ireland’s new-found affluence means there are far more cars on the road, and the building of new roads and the upgrading of existing ones just cannot keep pace. Be prepared for delays, especially at holiday weekends. AA Roadwatch (1550 131 811; www.aaroadwatch.ie) provides traffic information in the Republic.
In the Republic, speed-limit and distance signs are in kilometres (although the occasional older white sign shows distances in miles); in the North, speed-limit and distance signs are in miles.
You’ll need a good road map and sense of humour to deal with the severe lack of signposts in the Republic, and on minor roads be prepared for lots of potholes.
Petrol is considerably cheaper in the Republic than in the North. Most service stations accept payment by credit card, but some small, remote ones may take cash only.
All cars on public roads must be insured. If you are bringing your own vehicle in to the country, check that your insurance will cover you in Ireland.
Car hire in Ireland is expensive, so you’re often better off making arrangements in your home country with some sort of package deal. In July and August it’s wise to book well ahead. Most cars are manual; automatic cars are available but they’re more expensive to hire.
The international hire companies and the major local operators have offices all over Ireland. Nova Car Hire (www.rentacar-ireland.com) acts as an agent for Alamo, Budget, European and National, and offers greatly discounted rates. In the Republic typical weekly high-season hire rates with Nova are around €150 for a small car, €185 for a medium-sized car, and €320 for a five-seater people carrier. In the North, similar cars are marginally more expensive.
When hiring a car be sure to check if the price includes collision-damage waiver (CDW), insurance (eg for car theft and windscreen damage), value-added tax (VAT) and unlimited mileage.
If you’re travelling from the Republic into Northern Ireland it’s important to be sure that your insurance covers journeys to the North. People aged under 21 aren’t allowed to hire a car; for the majority of hire companies you have to be aged at least 23 and have had a valid driving licence for a minimum of one year. Some companies in the Republic won’t rent to you if you’re aged 74 or over; there’s no upper age limit in the North.
You can’t hire motorbikes and mopeds.
It’s more expensive to buy a car in Ireland than most other European countries. If you do buy a car (or intend to import one from another country) you must pay vehicle registration tax and motor tax, and take out insurance.
Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail; 01-836 2222; www.irishrail.ie ; 35 Lower Abbey St, Dublin) operates trains in the Republic on routes that fan out from Dublin. The system is limited though: there’s no north–south route along the western coast, no network in Donegal, and no direct connections from Waterford to Cork or Killarney. Northern Ireland Railways (NIR; 028-9089 9411; Belfast Central Station) runs four routes from Belfast. One links with the system in the Republic via Newry to Dublin; the other three go east to Bangor, northeast to Larne and northwest to Derry via Coleraine.
Train travel is more expensive than bus travel and one-way fares are particularly poor value – a midweek return ticket is often about the same as a one-way fare. First-class tickets cost around €5 to €10 more than the standard fare for a single journey.
Bus Éireann bookings can be made online but you can’t reserve a seat for a particular service.
Iarnród Éireann takes reservations for all its train services. You need to fax your details (name, number of passengers, date and time of service, credit-card number and expiry date) to 01-703 4136.
If your time is limited it might be worth considering an organised tour, though it’s cheaper to see things independently, and Ireland is small enough for you to get to even the most remote places within a few hours. Tours can be booked through travel agencies, tourist offices in the major cities, or directly through the tour companies themselves.
CIE Tours International (01-703 1888; www.cietours.ie; 35 Lower Abbey St, Dublin) Runs four- to 11-day coach tours of the Republic and the North, including accommodation and meals. The Taste of Ireland tour (five days) takes in Blarney, Ring of Kerry, Killarney, Cliffs of Moher and region around the River Shannon (€680 in high season).
Grayline Tours (01-872 9010; www.irishcitytours.com; 33 Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin) Located in Dublin and offers half- and full-day tours (€22) from Dublin to Newgrange, Glendalough and north Dublin, and three- and four-day trips to the Ring of Kerry (€295 to €400).
Over the Top & Into the West Tours (01-869 0769; www.overthetoptours.com) Daily historical and heritage tours of Wicklow (€26), the Boyne Valley (€28), three-day tours of the west of Ireland (€255) and a five-day tour of Kerry and Cork (€370).
Paddywagon Tours (01-672 6007; www.paddywagontours.com) Activity-filled three- and six-day tours all over Ireland with friendly tour guides. Accommodation is in IHH hostels.
Ulsterbus Tours (028-9033 7004; www.ulsterbus.co.uk) Runs a large number of day trips throughout the North and the Republic.
It’s worth checking GoIreland.com (1800 668 668; www.goireland.com) for holiday packages.
For train enthusiasts, Railtours Ireland (01-856 0045; www.railtours.ie; 58 Lower Gardiner St, Dublin 1) organises a series of one- and two-day train trips in association with Iarnród Éireann. A three-day trip from Dublin to Cork, Blarney Castle and Kerry costs €219.
There are many boat services to islands lying off the coast, including to the Aran and Skellig Islands to the west, the Saltee Islands to the southeast, and Tory and Rathlin Islands to the north. Ferries also operate across rivers, inlets and loughs, providing useful shortcuts, particularly for cyclists.
Cruises are very popular on the 258km-long Shannon–Erne Waterway and on a variety of other lakes and loughs. The tourist offices only recommend operators that are registered with them.
Ireland’s size makes domestic flying unnecessary unless you’re in a hurry, but there are flights between Dublin and Belfast, Cork, Derry, Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Shannon and Sligo, as well as a Belfast–Cork service. Most flights within Ireland take around 30 to 50 minutes.
The only domestic carriers are:
Aer Árann (1890-462 726, in Dublin 01-814 5240, in Galway 091-593 034, in Cork 021-814 1058; www.aerarann.ie) Operates flights from Dublin to Belfast, Cork, Derry, Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Knock and Sligo; flights to the Aran Islands from Galway and a Belfast to Cork route.
There are comprehensive local bus networks in Dublin (Dublin Bus), Belfast (Citybus) and some other larger towns. The Dublin Area Rapid Transport (DART) line in Dublin runs roughly the length of the city’s coastline, while the brand new Luas tram system has two very popular lines. Taxis tend to be expensive.For up to date prices see the Irish Taxi Regulator Website
Security has been progressively scaled down in Northern Ireland in recent years and all border crossings with the Republic are now open and generally unstaffed. Permanent checkpoints have been removed and ramps levelled. On major routes your only indication that you have crossed the border will be a change in road signs and the colour of number plates and postboxes.
Ireland is a great place for bicycle touring, despite bad road surfaces in places and inclement weather. If you intend to cycle in the west, the prevailing winds mean it’s easier to cycle from south to north. Both Irish Cycling Safaris (01-260 0749; www.cyclingsafaris.com; Belfield Bike Shop, UCD, Dublin 4) and Go Ireland (066-976 2094; www.goactivities.com; Old Orchard House, Killorglin, Co Kerry) organise tours for groups of cyclists in the southwest, the southeast, Clare, Connemara, Donegal and Antrim.
Bicycles can be transported by bus if there’s enough room; the charge varies. By train the cost varies from €3 to €10 for a one-way journey, but bikes are not allowed on certain train routes, including the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART); check with Iarnród Éireann (01-836 3333).
Typical bicycle hire costs are €15 to €25 per day or €60 to €100 per week plus a deposit of around €100. There are many local independent outlets, but several dealers have outlets around the country:
Rent-a-Bike Ireland (061-416983; www.irelandrentabike.com; 1 Patrick St, Limerick, Co Limerick)