I’ve had a week to process my way through this post. I returned from 11 days in Ireland last Saturday (July 16th), and since I’ve waited long enough to be objective (read: I let the jet lag finally wear off), I feel I can give a pretty comprehensive list of things to do (and NOT to do) while one road trips across a foreign country.
Advice and Tips
The most important piece of advice I could give you would be to research everything — there were details we missed because we just didn’t think about them, and I’ll outline a few while I write. I think other than research though, my best advice would be to not hold too tightly to your expectations in a country you’ve never been in. Things may not work out like you hope, and that has great potential to ruin what could have been a great day if your brain can just convince itself to be flexible.
My basic recommendations are these:
- unless you are used to it, Youth Hostels may not be the best option for you. I will be the first to admit that I am quite spoiled, and I normally stay in hotels. Not the swankiest of hotels, to be sure, but there is a big gap between hostels and hotels. I hadn’t stayed in a hostel since I was 15, and when I did so, all of us in the room were from the same group travelling together, and we were chaperoned, and our chaperones told us when to be in the room, when to have the lights out, and when to be quiet. This was not the case, and didn’t fit with what I had remembered. Especially in Dublin when I was in a room with 9 other people, all working on their own schedules, it was very challenging to fall asleep, all while fighting some pretty wicked jet lag. More on hostels in a bit, as I’ll let you know where I stayed and give a review of each, BUT this to say: This is a good place to check your expectations. Budget accommodations are wonderful. I can’t complain too much, because I wouldn’t have been able to afford the trip if I hadn’t stayed in hostels, or at least — not for as long as I went. But remember to check your expectations 🙂
- Things to remember to take with you if you’re staying in hostels:
- cheap flip flops to shower in.
- a lock for lockers if the hostels have them.
- Read every last piece of fine print and check for any possible hidden fees if you’re renting a car. We booked a car through Sixt Ireland. The reason we went with Sixt and not with Budget or Enterprise was that you could waive the CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) insurance with them as long as you had written proof of it that you were covered from somewhere else. My VISA card offered this protection, as long as the rental was booked entirely onto my VISA. I got the letter I needed, emailed back and forth multiple times with customer service to the company to make sure there would be no hidden fees or charges when we arrived to pick up the car. What no one ever bothered to mention in the exchange of almost 20 emails back and forth, was that if you opt to waive Sixt’s coverage and provide your own, regardless of the documentation you provide stating that you’re covered, they will place a hold of 5,000 Euros on your credit card while you’re away. Having a 7,500 dollar limit on my VISA, that was my entire card availability and so naturally I couldn’t afford to have a hold on that for 8 days — I needed to access my money.
We ended up paying separately for their coverage, which cost us almost 500.00 Canadian more for the period of the rental. We should have gone with Budget, because while they didn’t give the option to waive the CDW coverage, their fee for the rental including their own coverage was far cheaper than the 1,100 dollars Canadian it ended up costing us to rent a car for a week.
- On the driving note, look up the specific road signs of the country you’re going to, and be aware that some of them may not make sense to you. Don’t be like me and wait til you’re driving to go “huh, I wonder what that means…..”
Also please note that if you’re following a GPS, pretty much none of the roads are labeled on the signs what the GPS tells you it’s called. For example, the GPS will tell you to enter onto “South Ring Road” but the road will be called like R528 or something else like that. Nowhere on any signs will it say South Ring Road, and you’ll be in the middle lane of a 4-lane roundabout with traffic lights (WHY do you need traffic lights in a roundabout??! Roundabouts are supposed to make it so you don’t NEED traffic lights!!!)
- This brings me to number 4 — Roundabouts. They’re crazy. I knew they were there, and I knew they’d be different from ours here in Canada, but no one told me that they’d be every 30 metres, that they’d be 4 lanes across, and that you’d just have to kind of point the car and hope for the best that you end up in the right spot….. for real. Insane. And as I mentioned in point 3, the TRAFFIC LIGHTS! oy.
- Along with looking up road signs, familiarize yourself with what the new country’s roads are like. I looked up enough to know that any road in Ireland that has an M in front of it is a motorway. The speed limit will be 120 km/h. Any road that has an N will be a National road, and the speed limit will be 100 km/h. Any road that has an R in front of it will be a regional road, and any road that has an L in front of it is a Local road. I don’t remember if there were consistent speed limits for those or if they varied by road. What I didn’t realize when I looked up that information was that just because a road is called N62, for example, and the speed limit is 100 km/h., does NOT mean it’s safe to drive 100, or that I want to be on it. I drove from Killarney to the Cliffs of Moher, and then from the Cliffs of Moher to Galway, and I ended up on N62 which, while a National Road, is also part of the Wild Atlantic Way, and I often felt comfortable going NO FASTER than 28 km/h., and even that was a stretch. I parked the car in a parking garage in Galway, turned it off, put my hands on the steering wheel and my head in my hands and cried. That drive was the most stressful thing I think I’ve ever done in my life. It may have been worse than the ridiculous snow storm I got stuck in one year on my way to my Grandparents’ where all I could see was the tail lights of the car in front of me and nothing else. I have never been so certain I was not going to make it out of something alive. Corkscrew Hill? With a little research I could have avoided it. However, I’ve lived to tell the tale, and I might be a stronger person for it? Time will tell.
This is not my video, but this accurately captures the terror that was my drive down from the Cliffs. Driving on narrow, winding, cliff-side roads on the other side of the road is not something I’m itching to do again. Ever.
- Embrace the bus tour — some of my most relaxing days were spent not driving, but on bus tours out on some crazy crazy roads (We did the Ring of Kerry and the Giant’s Causeway on buses — and should have done the Cliffs of Moher as well).
If you’ve tracked with me this far, here are a couple of my favourite pictures from my trip — the ones that made the driving worth it!
The Road Trip
We did two days in Dublin using Hop-on-Hop-Off bus passes as our transit around the city before we picked up our rental car. I had NO desire to drive in Dublin, and the second we got into the city this was confirmed as a great decision.
In Dublin, we stayed at the Dublin International Youth Hostel for two nights.
From Dublin we drove to Cork via the Rock of Cashel. (I highly recommend renting from the Swords Airport business park — it’s right near the airport and North of the city, and to get anywhere other than downtown Dublin, all you have to do is jump on the M50 ring road. There are tolls for this road, and they’re electronic — ask your rental company if they deduct the tolls automatically from your card or if you have to pay them. Ours were deducted automatically.) The Rock of Cashel was a great stop! I highly enjoyed the village of Cashel, and while Cork was a total bust (more on that in a second), it was still worth it to go through Cashel to get to Cork instead of having gone straight on to Killarney.
In Cork, we stayed at Bru Bar and Hostel. More on the hostels near the end of this write-up, but I don’t recommend it. Also, it was pouring when we arrived in Cork, and the parking was expensive! We had a hard time finding somewhere to eat (I’m gluten and dairy free), and my umbrella broke the first time I opened it. Combined with not having slept more than 5 hours in the previous 72, Cork was kind of a wash. I’ve heard it’s lovely though, so it’s worth a fair shake of your time if you’re not jet lagged beyond recognition I would think. And embrace the rain — it’s Ireland, after all!
The next morning, we drove on to Killarney and experienced our first slightly narrow roads. Nothing like what was to come, but it was interesting to say the least. Killarney is a lovely town with a great feel to it. We ate at Cathleen’s Country Kitchen and at Roost while in Killarney, as well as at Caragh Restaurant. Cathleen’s was AWESOME! So was Roost. And so was Caragh. I loved Killarney, and have nothing bad to say about it. We stayed at Neptune’s Town Hostel.
While in Killarney, we did a bus tour of the city and surrounding areas (Muckross House, Torc Waterfall, Ross Castle…), as well as a bus tour of the Ring of Kerry. Totally worth it, and I’d recommend doing it by bus instead of driving if you’re the least bit scared of the drive. It took way longer than I figured it would have, so I was really glad we bused it. I was disappointed that we didn’t manage to fit in a tour to the Dingle Peninsula and a boat ride to see Fungi the dolphin. I guess I’ll have to go back!
From Killarney, we drove to Galway via the Cliffs of Moher. The trip up to the Cliffs wasn’t terrible, but the rest of the journey to get to Galway was terrifying, prompting me to tell you that if you value your sanity, take a bus tour. For real. Unless adventure, cliff-side winding roads, and near-death experiences at the hands of trucks and tour buses that are just bigger than the lanes they’re in sounds exciting to you…. then, by all means, lol, try it….. But me? Never again.
Once we finally arrived in Galway in one piece, I was quite shaken from the drive and felt sick to my stomach at the prospect of driving to Sligo the next day, because once I’d realized what the roads could be like, I looked at a map and wondered if the drive to Sligo and then on to Belfast wouldn’t just be more of the same. The staff, particularly the manager, Ewa, at Kinlay Eyre Square Hostel in Galway were amazing. They helped me look at a map and decide that in fact I did NOT want to do that drive to Sligo, and since it was just a place to crash for the night they helped us cancel our hostel in Sligo and switched us into a room we could stay in for two nights. We were encouraged to just go straight to Belfast because it’s all motorway and it’s an easy, straight-forward drive. I loved Galway as well, and am going to have to go back to see the things I missed out on, like The Burren and Connemarra National Park. While in Galway we ate at Quay Street Kitchen, where I had a gluten free pineapple chicken sandwich that was heavenly, and then the next night we ate at …. Fat Freddy’s I think it was called? It was right next door. The atmosphere in Galway is incredible — live music just kickin it in the streets, authentic Irish music coming from pubs all up and down the pedestrian walkway through the center of town…. I left part of my heart in the beautiful seaside town of Galway, and I’m going to have to return to get it.
We did a bus tour of Galway, but I’d not do that if I were making recommendations — the things there are to see are walkable within half an hour to an hour of each other, and we didn’t see much on the tour that we hadn’t already seen by walking around.
We were going to go to Sligo after Galway, because I heard the beaches were amazing, and then on to Belfast via Enniskillen, which looked super cute in the pictures I saw, but after the harrowing drive…….
After two not-long-enough days in Galway, we completed the indeed very easy drive to Belfast via Dublin, and arrived at the Belfast International Youth Hostel where we’d make our home at our last real destination city. My only caution when driving to Belfast from the Republic is that you pay close attention to where you cross into the UK (just north of Dundalk if memory serves correctly), as the speed limit drops from 120 km/h to 70 mph (about 113 kph) and I found it challenging to keep myself from speeding like a crazy person after 3 hours at 120-130 kph. There is a sign, and it tells you, but you’ll miss it if you’re not conscious of the change.
We did a bus tour of Belfast, but it was unfortunately one of the last of the day so we couldn’t really get out and explore anything, but it was VERY informative and I learned a lot about Belfast that I didn’t know going into the tour. I didn’t research Northern Ireland nearly as thoroughly as I did the Republic before booking all the trips, so learning things was sweet. If I ever get back to Belfast, I’d spend a whole day doing that tour so that I could take in things like the Titanic Museum. We also did a bus tour out to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the Giant’s Causeway. That in itself was worth the drive to Belfast (though I’m sure you can do them from Dublin if you’ve found yourself a great place to stay there — it would just be a much longer day I would think). In Belfast we ate at a great Italian place called Fratelli’s. It was expensive, but delicious. Try the duck salad, and their pizza (gluten free) is great! We also ate at McDonald’s the last night after spending so much the night before, haha…. #balance
From Belfast we traveled back to Dublin where we stayed at a Travelodge HOTEL (yes! Back into my comfort zone!) by the airport so that we had easy access the following morning to head back to Toronto. We walked into the village of Swords to a restaurant called The Old School House (a little hard to find, but totally worth it!) and had a fabulous steak dinner to commemorate our final night. Spectacular. They garnished our food with shamrocks.
We ended up cancelling our last night and staying in a hotel near the airport instead because if it was as loud and hard to sleep as it had been on a Wednesday and Thursday night, we did NOT want to try it on a Friday.
- Bru Bar and Hostel, 57 MacCurtain St., Cork. — 3 bed private room (which was actually one bunk bed but the bottom bunk was a double) with private bathroom
- You have to go through a bar to get to the reception area of the hostel and to get to the stairs to the rooms (no elevator)
- The whole place smelled kinda smoky even though there was no smoking in the bar and there were stern no smoking signs throughout the hostel.
- We were two floors above the bar, and there was no live music the night we were there, but you could still hear the dull thump of the bass from the music at the bar.
- what was louder though was the slamming of doors that lasted well into the night as well.
- no parking was provided. It cost us nearly 20 Euros to park in a lot that wasn’t even super close.
- We had a private bathroom, which was nice — we had our own key for it. But there were no towels of any kind — not even to dry your hands after you went to the bathroom, which was bizarre to me.
- on the up side, there were plugs close enough to our beds that we could charge our phones while we slept and have access to Facebook and such while trying to fall asleep.
- Neptune’s Town Hostel, New Street, Killarney — 4 bed mixed dorm.
- the common area was LOUD our first night (Saturday). There was a bachelorette party going on where girls were yelling chug at each other in Spanish….
- The wifi didn’t work great in our room, and there was only one outlet for four people…
- once 11 pm hit, the hostel staff shut down all the common areas and patrolled the hallways to make sure people were quiet as they were coming in from wherever they were
- the front desk staff, especially Peter, were VERY helpful
- when I told him how poorly I’d slept in Dublin and Cork, he made mention to the night security to make sure it was quiet in the hallway by my room, AND he made a point of asking me how I’d slept the next morning
- they’ll arrange activities at the front desk
- there was free parking, even though it was a bit far away — when you’re staying for two days it’s worth a walk to not have to pay.
- the showers and bathrooms were insufficient for an entire floor of people — only two showers and two toilets for the whole floor.
- there were no hooks to put anything on and the shower was small, so my clothes got wet while I showered
- if you were using the toilet while someone else used the shower, your shoes and pants may get wet as the water comes under the floor
- no lockers in the rooms.
- no sheets on the beds, and they only appeared to change the pillow cases and the bottom sheets — not the comforters — when they cleaned the rooms.
- Kinlay Eyre Square Hostel, Merchants Road, Eyre Square, Galway — 4 bed mixed dorm
- The staff were so friendly and helpful. As you read in my description of our route, the manager Ewa, as well as a guy at the front desk, Evan — were amazing. After I arrived shaking at the front desk they provided nothing but great service.
- The place is very well decorated. Posters, fish tanks — very inviting. The common area isn’t scuzzy…. very nice.
- They’ll arrange activities for you at the front desk
- They’ll give you directions to places, let you use the phone
- the breakfast was great — they even had gluten free options and fruit, which we hadn’t seen in a week!
- there were plugs AND lights in the beds.
- our beds had curtains. Curtains! So nice in a room that you’re sharing with strangers.
- there were lockers under the bed big enough for my mammoth suitcase AND some other items, as well as shelving by the beds for things that didn’t necessarily need to be locked up.
- They had good security, and they were also conscious of making sure the atmosphere was quiet and conducive to sleeping between 11 pm and 7 am.
- They validated our parking so that it was 8 Euros per 24 hours, which is excellent because it otherwise would have been quite expensive.
- The bathroom was pretty great, at least the women’s — my travel companion said the men’s wasn’t awesome, but I didn’t see it. There was a separate curtain separating the shower area itself from where I’d hung my clothes. That’s a win in my book.
- Unfortunately there were no sheets on the bed — just a comforter. It got quite warm in our room the second night, and disregarding the cleanliness issue, I would have much preferred a sheet to sleep under than a comforter when it was warm.
- The dinner recommendation we received on our first night was top notch! We almost went back the second night but decided to be adventurous.
I can’t say enough great things about this place and the people who work here. Hands down, the nicest place we stayed in Ireland — maybe even nicer than the hotel, though my jury is out on that. I was very ready for a hotel by that point. As far as budget accommodations go, there is definitely good reason that this place has won awards multiple times for being the best hostel in Ireland.
- Belfast International Youth Hostel, 22-32 Donegall Rd., Belfast — private room (one bunk bed with a weird, random sink….)
- small, lacklustre room
- we arrived the day after Orangemen’s Day (July 12th), which I learned on our tour is a very big deal. The bar across the street was still blasting music that had to do with it, but thankfully that stopped by bed time. The people in the streets did not, and so it was noisy the first night, but that’s not really the hostel’s fault.
- Our window in our room didn’t seal properly. Even when closed, I could feel air coming in, which made everything quite damp while it was raining, and I certainly would not have wanted to stay in that room in the winter time.
- The online pictures of the rooms were pretty misleading, unless the dorms were nicer looking than the private room
- Wifi barely worked in the room, and was spotty in the cafe and common areas.
- Weird showers — the water lasted about 20 seconds (I’m not exaggerating) before you had to push the button again
- Weird bathrooms — they’re gross, for one. Like…. the worst of all the places we stayed. They could use a good coat of paint to cover some of the dirty hand prints on the doors and some of the gunge growing in the corners. They are poorly ventilated to be sure. Some of them on our floor (3) didn’t even have sinks! One was a toilet and a shower but no sink, and one was just a toilet. None of them had anything to dry your hands with.
- The cafe on site was great, but it meant that unlike the rest of the places we’d stayed on our trip, our breakfast wasn’t free.
- They did have a great take-out lunch option though, which we opted to take on our Giant’s Causeway tour
- They have a tour company that has an office right in the main level of the hostel, so you don’t have to worry about getting to the pickup and drop-off points as you’re right there to leave
- no locker in our room — it was a private room though, so there may have been in bigger rooms, but I don’t know
- There was a duvet cover on the comforter, which I assume they wash when guests leave… I hope so anyway, but I still would have enjoyed a sheet for when it got warm in our room because we had to close the window because it was pouring our second night.
- parking was free, on-site, and secured. That was awesome!
- Travelodge Dublin Airport North Swords – Pinnock Hill Roundabout, Swords — 2 bed room
- Yay! TV!
- Yay! Hot shower! Long shower!
- Nice restaurant on-site with all you can eat breakfast
- short walk to Swords village for shopping and dining
- they appeared to have parking on site, but we’d returned our car by then so it didn’t apply
- 2 Euro each direction airport shuttle — but we had a hard time finding info about that on the website ahead of time (they said at the desk that the website is out of date), and so we paid 15 Euros for a taxi from the airport to the hotel when we wouldn’t have had to if the website were up to date.
- No elevators
Well, that’s it! I’ve been typing for hours, so I imagine you all have more than enough information to plan an Irish road trip if the need ever arises for you!