At first glance, the Republic of Ireland seems deceptively small. Theoretically, you could drive from the east coast to the west coast in a few hours. This is great, because it means that much of the country is accessible, even if you want to make a single city your home base. You can stay in Dublin and complete day trips that will take you through most of the country.
When I decided to road trip through Ireland, my plan was a little different. Arriving in Dublin and leaving from Shannon, which was clear across the country, it made more sense to rent a car and drive one way. At the start of the trip, I really had no plan and no idea what I was getting myself into. Now, in hindsight, there are a few things I did well, and several things I absolutely would do differently.
7 Tips for Driving in Ireland
I think it’s important to start by saying that I would absolutely recommend renting a car and driving through Ireland if it’s an option. You have so much more freedom of movement, and you aren’t tied down by the limitations of tour companies. Rental is easy (no need for an international driver’s license for us Americans, though I brought one just in case) and relatively painless, and you can blaze your own trail.
If you do decide to drive Ireland, though, there are a few things that you should keep in mind.
1. Avoid renting a car from the airport, if possible
One of the biggest mistakes I made was renting our car from the Dublin airport. There was no need to do this, as I arrived in the city by ferry and not airplane. It just seemed, in the spur of the moment, like the most logical place to get a car. While there were certainly endless options, the rates at airports are much higher than those elsewhere. It would have been just as easy to take a bus to a location slightly outside the city, where the fees wouldn’t have been so high.
2. Rent the right car
There are a couple of important factors to consider when renting a car in Ireland. First, stick to a manual transmission if you can. I, unfortunately, have zero idea how to drive a stick shift. This was a total bummer, because the daily rental price almost doubled for an automatic. If you don’t know how to drive a manual car, it might be worth learning before your trip, unless you’re willing to pay a little extra.
Second, keep in mind that Irish roads are narrow. They have a pretty fantastic highway system, but many of the country roads contain little or no shoulder, with high hedges creeping right up to the roadway. This is a country where small cars definitely benefit, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the roadways.
Finally, Ireland is a relatively cool country (I mean that temperature-wise!). Even in the middle of July, I found myself rolling the windows down far more often than craving air conditioning. Save a little extra money by ditching the A/C. You really don’t need it.
3. Don’t forget to drive on the correct side of the road
If you aren’t Irish, British, Japanese, or a handful of other nationalities, driving in Ireland will be a little jarring at first, as they drive on the left side of the road. My biggest piece of advice here is this: don’t panic. It’s far easier to drive on the left side of the road than you may think. My American sensibilities had me a bit nervous at first, but it really didn’t take long to adapt.
The trickiest part is turning, and it’s important to stay to the left once you do so, rather than veering to the right. Lucky for me, the rental car had a nice big sticker on the front windshield telling me which side of the road to drive on — just in case. Luckily, most highway exits and many in-town areas have roundabouts rather than stoplights. This may sound intimidating, but Irish roundabouts are probably the best invention ever. The flow of traffic made so much intuitive sense, and there were no backups getting off of the highway. It was like magic!
4. Don’t overplan
The great thing about Ireland is that it is beautiful and full of history, no matter where you are. Practically every inch of the country is dotted with ruins, and the highway has convenient historical marker signs pointing your way to sights of interest. There are some major stops that every traveler seems to make: The Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, etc. I would encourage you to simply follow a few random signs off of the freeway, to ruins that may not be quite as famous.
Doing this gave me the opportunity to experience bits of Ireland’s history in a much more intimate setting. There were no admission fees and no groups of tourists. There are so many ruins in Ireland that you can easily take a few adventures that aren’t on the well-trodden path. It also awarded me with some gorgeous views.
For comparison, check out the crowd at The Rock of Cashel. This was just one group of tourists – during my visit several other large groups arrived.
5. Pick a peninsula, any peninsula
The Ring of Kerry, on the Iveragh Peninsula is by far the most famous drive in southwest Ireland, and tops many people’s itineraries.
While the Ring of Kerry is definitely beautiful, I would implore road trippers to look into one of the other peninsulas. There are actually five peninsulas total, with the three southernmost being the Beara Peninsula, the Iveragh Peninsula and the Dingle Peninsula.
On my trip, I chose to explore the Dingle Peninsula which, while still quite famous, sees somewhat fewer crowds than the Ring of Kerry. Even better, I went so early in the morning that the tour buses had not yet arrived, giving me the luxury of almost complete solitude while I explored the peninsula.
6. Don’t forget the smaller cities and towns
Dublin and Cork get most of the publicity within the Republic of Ireland, but there are other great places to explore. Since I wasn’t able to visit Northern Ireland I had to forego Belfast, and the Titanic Museum. Instead, I made my way to Cobh, the last port of call of the Titanic before it sank. The town has its own museum which, while lacking the immensity of Belfast’s version, does an absolutely stellar job of depicting Ireland’s tumultuous maritime history. Beyond the Titanic, it discusses the entire history of Irish emigration, both by force and free will. It’s an absolutely fascinating exhibit that I highly recommend to anyone visiting Cobh.
Other towns, such as Ennis, still keep largely to their medieval roots, and are dotted with bed and breakfasts that you can lodge in.
7. Take your time
Because there is so much to see, it’s important to give yourself time. The fact that Ireland is relatively small leads many people to believe that they can conquer it in a day or two, but that simply isn’t the case. With so many nooks and crannies, unmarked ruins, small towns and national parks, you really need to give yourself time to experience it all.
My trip along the southern and western coast lasted five days and was not nearly enough. I didn’t get to see the Cliffs of Moher, and I didn’t get to go inland at all, instead hugging the coastline. Next time I will definitely allow more time, and perhaps journey into Northern Ireland as well.