Surviving Driving in Ireland
|Don't let the curvy narrow roads throw you for a loop!|
By Rick Steves
My family and I traveled to South Ireland some years ago, and took a tour of Waterford (of crystal fame), historic Cobh and Kinsale, and the scenic Ring of Kerry. When you're traveling with three or more, as we did in south Ireland, renting a car is the best way to experience Ireland's far-flung rural charms. Providing you're over 25 (younger drivers typically pay stiff premiums) and younger than 75 (Ireland's maximum age limit for renting), all you need is your US driver's license, and you're ready to roll.
Here are some tips for smooth cruising:
Touring Ireland by car is cheapest if arranged in advance yourself from home. Call various companies, look online, or arrange a rental through your hometown travel agent, who can help you out if anything goes wrong during your trip. Rent by the week with unlimited mileage. You can pick up and drop off just about anywhere, anytime.
For a trip that covers both Ireland and Great Britain (Scotland, England, and Wales), you're better off with two separate car rentals rather than paying for your car to ride the ferry between the two islands. On an all-Ireland trip, you can drive your rental car from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland, but be aware of drop-off charges if you drop it off in the North. You'll pay a smaller drop-off charge for picking up the car at one place and dropping it off at another within the same country (even picking up in downtown Dublin and dropping off at Dublin Airport). If you pick up the car in a smaller city, you'll more likely survive your first day on the Irish roads. If you drop the car off early or keep it longer, you'll be credited or charged at a fair, pro-rated price.
Ireland competes with Portugal for the most traffic accidents in Western Europe. Buying CDW insurance (plus "super CDW") is the easier but pricier option. Using the coverage that may come with your credit card saves money, but can involve more hassle. For peace of mind, I spring for the Collision Damage Waiver insurance (CDW), which limits my financial responsibility in case of an accident. While each rental company has its own variation, basic CDW costs $15–25 a day (figure roughly 25 percent extra) and reduces your liability, but does not eliminate it. When you pick up the car, you'll be offered the chance to "buy down" the basic deductible to zero (for an additional $10–30/day; sometimes called "super CDW").
If you opt instead for credit-card coverage (and your credit card is one of the few accepted for this type of coverage in Ireland), there's a catch. You'll technically have to decline all coverage offered by the car-rental company, which means they can place a hold on your card for the full deductible amount. In case of damage, it can be time-consuming to resolve the charges with your credit-card company. Before you decide on this option, quiz your credit-card company about how it works and ask them to explain the worst-case scenario.
Driving in Ireland is basically wonderful — once you remember to stay on the left and after you've mastered the roundabouts. Don't let a roundabout spook you. After all, you routinely merge into much faster traffic on American highways back home. The traffic in a roundabout has the right-of-way; entering traffic yields (look to your right as you merge).It helps to remember that the driver is always in the center of the road.
But be warned: Every year I get a few cards from traveling readers advising me that, for them, trying to drive Ireland was a nerve-racking and regrettable mistake. If you want to get a little slack on the roads, drop by a gas station or auto shop and buy a red "L" (new driver with license) sign to put in your window. An Irish Automobile Association membership comes with most rentals. Understand its towing and emergency-road-service benefits.
Seat belts are required by law. Speed limits are 50 kilometers per hour (roughly 30 miles per hour) in towns, 80 kph (approximately 50 mph) on rural roads (such as R-257, R-600, etc.), 100 kph (about 60 mph) on national roads (N-8, N-30, and so on), and 120 kph (roughly 75 mph) on motorways (M-1, M-50, etc.). Some sections of the M-50 ring road near Dublin carry a small toll (best paid electronically ahead of time with E-flow pass, easy to get at Dublin Airport.
Car travel in Ireland isn't fast. Plan your itinerary estimating an average speed of 40 mph (1 km per minute). Give your itinerary a reality check by finding distances and driving times between towns online.
Note that road-surveillance cameras strictly enforce speed limits. Any driver (including foreigners renting cars) photographed speeding will get a nasty bill in the mail. (Cameras — you'll see the foreboding gray boxes — flash on your rear license plate in order not to invade the privacy of anyone sharing the front seat with someone they shouldn't be with.)
Parking is confusing. One yellow line marked on the pavement means no parking Monday through Saturday during business hours. Double yellow lines mean no parking at any time. Broken yellow lines mean short stops are OK, but you should always look for explicit signs or ask a passerby.
Even in small towns, rather than fight it, I just pull into the most central "disk" or "pay-and-display lot" I can find. Disks can be bought at nearby shops. You buy one disk for each hour you want to stay. Scratch off the time you arrived on the disk and put it on your dashboard. I keep a bag of coins in the ashtray for meter/voucher machines (no change given for large coins). These modern pay-and-display machines are solar-powered and placed regularly along the street (about six feet tall, look for blue circle with white letter P). Signs along the street will state whether parking disc or pay-and-display laws are in effect for that area.
Study your map before taking off. Know the areas you'll be lacing together, as road numbers are inconsistent. The Complete Road Atlas of Ireland by Ordnance Survey (handy ring-binder style, 1:210,000 scale) is the best Irish road map, and includes translations of Irish place names on the last pages. It covers every road your car can wedge onto. Flipping to the next page of an atlas is easier to manage in a cramped front seat than wrestling with a large, ungainly folding map. Buy the atlas at the first TI or gas station you come to.
The best thing about driving in Ireland is stopping and talking to locals. On the Dingle peninsula, I asked an Irishman, "Were you born here?" He thought for a second and said, "No, it was about six miles down the road." When I told him where I was from, a faraway smile filled his eyes, and he looked out to sea and sighed, "Ah, the shores of Americay." I asked him if he'd lived here all his life. He said, "Not yet."