Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

Tips and Tricks for Visiting Ireland

I know that it seems odd to see a post about visiting Ireland, a country far in time from any form of war or humanitarian disaster. But, for one reason or another I’ve been asked recently by what seems to be an unusual number of people for tips on visiting the Republic.

So, in an attempt to avoid having to repeat myself here are some random tips and observations based on a recent trip to the south and west of Ireland.

Use a Smartphone – It’s Your Best Friend

A mobile phone with a decent amount of data allowance is an absolute must these days. Apart from the obvious need that you will have to keep people at home updated on Facebook and through email, or even in a blog posting, data enabled phones will make your trip a lot easier and cheaper.

Many of the large attractions in Ireland such as the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin offer on-line pre-booking of tickets. These are usually a little bit cheaper than the fees you would pay if you just showed up at the door. But even more important, on-line booking will save you a huge amount of time.

Waiting to get into the Book of Kells

The lineups to get into the Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College Dublin can get very long. It might well be the most popular tourist attraction in the country.

For instance. If you wanted to see the Book of Kells exhibit you would have to line up with hundreds, and on some days, thousands, of other tourists to get tickets and then still have to wait some more to be allowed in as a small group. It is possible to spend hours doing that. And while the people at Trinity College have had the decency to erect a canvas covered walkway that can take in most of the line, it is still an uncomfortable experience.

But, go on line with your phone the day before and pay for a ticket reservation, and you can just waltz right past the line and into the Book of Kells exhibit.

While you are there, don’t miss the National Library. It is a breathtaking sight.

cliffs of Moher

Tens of thousands of people visit the Cliffs of Moher each year. Unfortunately quite a number make it a one way trip. It is a popular suicide location

Likewise, at the Cliffs of Moher, one of the country’s major tourist attractions, you can save money and time by pre-purchasing your parking.

And so it goes.

The mechanics of using your phone in Ireland are straightforward.

You need two things.

  • An unlocked phone that works on European frequencies. I believe that iPhones are World Phones, and are unlocked at that, but many others are restricted to North America. Check with your phone provider. (Personally I think you should always use an unlocked phone that you have bought yourself. A rented phone on a three year contract will cost you much much more than if you had simply bought your own phone)
  • A prepaid SIM card with Data, good for as long as you want.

SIM cards have no contract and when you have used up all of your talk or data it is trivially simple to either buy some more time right over your phone, or by walking into the Irish equivalent of a 7-11 or Mac’s Milk and topping up your card.

Do not use your Canadian phone provider’s roaming plan. Those are horribly overpriced. And whatever you do, do not turn on your phone with its roaming function activated from the time you leave Canada. Automatic roaming is nothing but piracy and you can easily run up a phone bill of hundreds of dollars in just a couple of days without really using your phone much.

So, before going, check with your provider to see what they charge for unlocking your phone. Unlocking will allow you to use SIM cards from other providers. If you don’t like the price they want to charge then just do a little bit of Internet research and will find many mobile phone shops that can do the job in minutes for not a great deal of money.

When you get to Ireland you will most likely be landing in Dublin.

As you exit customs into the arrival hall you will see on the right hand side a convenience store called Spar. Spar is a country wide chain much like 7-11. Head straight for it and ask to buy a pre-paid SIM card with talk and data. They will ask you what brand of SIM. It really doesn’t matter, they are all about the same and go out of their way to make things simple for the phone user, unlike the twisted assholes who run Canadian phone companies. There are three sizes of SIM cards. The pre-paid package will have all three.

Just double check that the card will work in the areas where you are going. Note that if you plan to go into Northern Ireland or make a side trip into the United Kingdom they will not work. Just buy another SIM card when you get to those countries.

I bought a Meteor SIM Card purely at random and had terrific service. But there are several others so make your own choice.

If you are unsure about how to put a card in your phone just ask and after the guy at the cash finishes looking at you as a mental defective for not knowing how to change a SIM card he will do it for you.

One final tip about using a mobile phone. Don’t try to skimp on money by using the free WiFi you will find in all public places. It is terribly insecure. A great number of thieves set up fake, but seemingly authentic, wireless networks in places such as airports for the sole purpose of skimming any credit card or bank information you might be silly enough to transit over the WiFi network.

Use the data function of your phone. It is secure.

Only use WiFi on your phone for reading news or looking at questionable websites. Do not use WiFi to access any service you might have such as email, Facebook or whatever that requires you to enter a password. This is how bank accounts get cleaned out and identities stolen. Only use your data enabled phone. The WiFi in hotels, B&B’s etc is generally quite safe.

If by some chance you cannot use your own phone then consider renting or buying one there. Meteor sells pre-paid smartphones and so do other companies. European prices for phones are much cheaper than here.

I have no experience with either renting or buying in Ireland but there are phone rental companies listed on the Internet. Also, one of the largest phone companies in the world has an outlet in Dublin Airport. Vodaphone is right next to all the car rental kiosks.

But you do need a phone.


Car Rentals

There are some things you need to know about renting a car in Ireland. First of all, it is easier to arrange the initial rental on-line from Canada. Some companies make it easier than others so you might want to make use of a travel counselor at somewhere like an AMA or CMA office.

When you pick up the car in Ireland you can also add on extra insurance and a GPS.

The standard rental car insurance has a very high deductible for any kind of damage at all. It is not uncommon to find that the deductible is almost the value of the car. (There is a full description of this at Rick Steves website)

So, be smart and buy what is called Super-Insurance which usually has no deductible at all. It will really drive up the cost of the rental but in my opinion it is worth it given the unique nature of driving in Ireland.

Also, many companies have an additional insurance package that covers damage to tires and wheels. You might as well get it because a great number of people damage their vehicles by hitting curbs or slipping off the road surface onto the shoulder, except that outside of the high speed motorways there are no shoulders so going off the road can result in a very rough ride.

If you do not have a GPS with excellent maps of Ireland, and one that gives good voice guidance, then take the car rental offering.

It is difficult in the extreme to navigate throughout Ireland with just a map and impossible altogether if your co-pilot cannot act as navigator. The roads are narrow, twisty turny, and frequently change their road numbers at random. When you get to a town or city where you might be staying the night, chances are that the city roads are based on the road system as it existed in medieval times. Finding your hotel at night, in the rain, without a GPS, is a very bad experience.

Another advantage of renting the local version of the GPS is that it will be programmed with the speed zones. Road signage in Ireland can be inconsistent, cryptic, and completely absent. You will frequently go through areas where speeds will drop from 100 to 60, back to 80, down to 30, and so on for no discernible reason. The GPS will save you from trouble.

There are hundreds of traffic circles or roundabouts in Ireland. It is not uncommon to go through three or four in a kilometer. The GPS will get you through them easily.

A good arrangement for picking up a rental car is to do it at the Dublin airport – as long as you are not going anywhere near Dublin. That city is drivers’ hell for the next couple of years because the entire downtown road network is being redone. It is a nightmare.

Don’t drive in central Dublin.

If you are staying in Dublin for the first few days then rely on taxis and the “Jump on, jump off” tourism buses to get around. They are a great way to get around the main sights in the city, including the Guinness Distillery, and they don’t cost much. There are at least half a dozen companies offering this service and for some odd reason they all have similar names and paint schemes so it is easy to get on the wrong bus.

When it is time to head out into the country then either take a taxi to the rental place at the airport or find a car rental outfit with a location away from the centre of the city.


Driving in Ireland – it can get tense

There are four main types of road in Ireland.

The easiest to deal with are the national motorways linking the major cities. They are four lane and wider, and extremely well designed, They put most of North America’s major highways to shame. They are also riddled with photo radar so again, make use of your GPS which will know about them all.

Then there are the national primary roads. They are called N-something. Many of these are two lane divided highways but most are not. They are not too bad although they are narrower than most two lane highways in Canada.

The national secondary roads, also designated with an N are narrower still and are never straight for very long.

The real horrors, and the ones that tourists most often have to use to get to various tourist attractions are the R, or regional roads.

Here is where things get tense.

These are nominally two lane blacktop but so narrow that some will take your breath away. While the other roads will often, but not always, have a shoulder that you can pull over on, the R roads rarely do. It is common to be driving at 70 and more kilometres an hour with a stone wall or overgrown hedge within a foot or less of the left side and about a foot, perhaps a little more, of clearance on the right side for other vehicles. Other vehicles means not just little cars like yours but also large semi-trailers, huge tourist buses that fill their lanes exactly, farm machinery, and god knows what else.

Add to this the almost complete lack of signage warning you about tight turns ahead, or T junctions, or blind hill corners.  You can see why driving at night would be suicidal and not recommended in bad weather.

If you do see a sign warning of a tight curve then believe it and slow down hard. If someone has gone to the trouble of putting up a warning sign then take it seriously.

Speed limits on these impossible roads can be as high as 80 or 100 but you will still be had pressed to do more than 60 until you get used to them, a process that probably would take several years in my estimation.

The trouble is of course that the locals can easily go the limit and beyond. So if you are tootling along at 60 you will cause quite a tail-back. For that reason, keep an eye out for anything at all on the left that will allow you to pull over to let the traffic past. Don’t try to speed up to the limit if it is uncomfortable for you, chances are you still won’t be able to go fast enough for the local drivers.

Driving these roads is the one time that you want to come across other tourists. Things get a lot easier when you come up on a pack of rental cars creeping along at a sensible speed. Just settle into the back of the pack and make your tortoise way to the local castle everybody else is headed for, secure in the knowledge that your blood pressure will subside to safe levels.

There is one other aspect of driving on these narrow Irish roads; they are also used by cyclists and hikers.

Nothing quickens the blood like coming around a blind corner to find some struggling cyclist weaving around the road and there is oncoming traffic.

I think that anyone who rides a bike on the secondary roads, particularly in hilly country, should be locked up.

Oh yes, the roads are also used to move sheep from field to field so watch out.

Odds and Ends

You likely have a good idea of what you want to see and where you might go on your trip. But you can drive yourself crazy if you spend all of your time reading guide books and making lists of places and things.

There is too much of everything in Ireland. It seems like every town, village, and certainly city, contains major world worthy historical sights and attractions. The very ground is saturated with history. Two thousand year old hill forts sit next to modern housing developments, castles dot the countryside so much that I can promise you will start to tune them out. But don’t. They are fascinating places.

So much of a good visit to Ireland will come from chance discoveries, a conversation with someone in a pub about local attractions, a chance sighting of a roadside billboard for something or other that you had no idea was there.

Buy just one guide book, (I recommend the Rick Steves Ireland guides), a good map, and just go and explore. More than one guide book will just make  you anxious about what you might be missing. Don’t fret, just plan in general and allow the serendipity of the moment to look after the rest when you get there.

Have at least one pre-planned attraction set for each day and spend the rest of the time just looking around and exploring.

You will of course have an idea of where you are going each day but be flexible, don’t fuss if your timetable gets messed up, and use your phone to book accommodation if you need to.

A really sound rule for any kind of trip anywhere is to know by ten o’clock in the morning where you will be sleeping that night, without any doubt or uncertainty. If you don’t know by mid-morning then scrap all the sightseeing until you have nailed down your lodgings.

Keep in mind that Ireland is a modern technological society so don’t worry about drinking the water, don’t worry about the food, and know that if you lose, break or forget anything you will find a place to buy another without any effort at all.

As for the people. What can I say? They are the closest people on the planet to Canadians. Their attitudes and outlooks are identical to ours. Most have visited Canada, and everybody has relatives in Canada. Don’t be surprised if you are asked whether you know so-and-so, a cousin, and you find that you do indeed know so-and-so.

I can’t think of an easier and nicer place to visit.

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