Are you planning a trip to Ireland? If so, you have come to the right place! For the last 20 years I have taken a family trip to Ireland almost on a yearly basis. Because of this, I often get emails asking for help in planning a trip to Ireland. “What should I do in Ireland” or “Where should we stay?”.
Based on common questions I get, and years of experience traveling to the green isle, I have put together a mini guide with all you need to know for planning a trip to Ireland whether it’s your first or 15th. For more detailed information, sign up for my 6 week email course on how to travel to Ireland like a pro!
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Top 5 Tips for Planning a Trip to Ireland
After almost two decades of visiting family in Ireland, we have visited much of the country and made plenty of mistakes along the way in planning our very own trips.
Don’t Try to See it All
There is so much to see and absorb in this fantastic country that you shouldn’t try to see it all on your visit. Read up about the different areas to figure out what you really want to do/see and plan around that. It is also important to understand distances when planning a trip to Ireland. While they may seem small, traveling in the country is often on small 2 lane roads through villages which can be slow going. If you are not used to driving on the left side of the road, it can also be a bit taxing mentally.
In a 2 week trip, you could easily cover Dublin, the Ring of Kerry and some of the Wild Atlantic Way, but you will be pushing it to also get to the North of the country for Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway. Be realistic about driving distances and give yourself time to enjoy the drive. This is often the best part of a trip to Ireland – the little out of the way scenic spots, spending time in a pub listening to the locals or hanging out with sheep on the side of the road!
Stay in a Variety of Accommodation Options
Ireland is known for many things and one of these is its abundance of cute, quirky and affordable B&Bs. They come in a variety of styles often much like regular hotels, so you won’t always be right under someone’s noses as you might imagine.
There are also amazing castles in the country that while expensive are wonderfully family friendly places to stay with an abundance of super cool amenities like archery, falconry and more. We loved Dromoland and have heard great things about Ashford Castle. In the West, Westport House offers similar amenities like the castles, but instead is an estate. Another great option to consider is Killeavy Castle which is just one hour from both Dublin and Belfast, making it an easy getaway from either major city.
Check out the Ireland Blue Book to save money and for more great suggestions ranging from B&Bs to unique hotels. I have stayed in amazing luxury 5 star hotels, B&Bs and castles throughout the country and they all have great qualities and are worth checking out on your travels. Mix it up! If you go on Ireland vacation packages, make sure to ask for a variety of accomodation to experience it all.
Eat at Local Pubs
Coming from America, especially with children it’s easy to overlook one of the most popular types of eateries in Ireland – the pub aka the local bar. Children are allowed in pubs since they are also considered restaurants. As a non-drinker, I could easily have passed these up were it not for my husband’s knowledge of the country. This is where you will meet the locals, experience local food and culture all in one. When you pass through a small village, stop into the local pub – I guarantee it will be some great food and a good craic too! These have been some of our favorite stops on our road trips around the country.
Have Cash Handy
Ireland is becoming more and more credit card friendly, but often times when you get out of the bigger towns, cash is still king. I can’t tell you how many times I have visited a local market with amazing items to purchase and did not have the cash on me. Also, many taxis still prefer cash only. Take out some Euros while in the Republic of Ireland. If you head to the North, you will have to have Pounds or exchange a little money. Although I will say we have found that more places in the north take credit cards even in small towns.
—> Want to know how much a trip to Ireland will cost? Check out this Ireland budget guide to help plan your visit.
International cell service can get pricey on the Emerald Isle and WiFi isn’t as common as you might hope especially when road tripping around the country. Consider renting a pocket WiFi device from Travel WiFi ireland (make sure to read all the terms and conditions to make sure it is right for your needs.) I used it on my trip around the Wild Atlantic Way and it was fantastic! I used it as a hotspot for my phone which then gave me access to GPS and for social media. You can connect several devices wireless as well which means the whole family will be happy along the way.
When to Go To Ireland
Anytime!! The weather in Ireland is often quite unpredictable, which makes it difficult to say what exactly is the best time of year to visit. What you can predict is that it will rain at some point on your trip regardless of the season. Early summer is a wonderful time to go to Ireland as you can often be graced with warm clear days, but this is also high season making accommodation more expensive and harder to come by at the last minute. It is also possible to get beautiful rain free days in spring or the fall. You just never know.
My recommendation is to go prepared for rain and be pleasantly surprised when you get sunshine. If I were to suggest any times to avoid, it would be the last few weeks of August as that is when much of Ireland is on holiday, out and about in the country. Additionally, as fun as it often is to spend your holiday in foreign countries, opening times are quite affected during certain holiday periods (Easter & Christmas particularly.) in Ireland.
What to Pack for Ireland
I have visited Ireland in all seasons. I have experienced both snowstorms and heatwaves in Dublin, a freak hail storm in Galway and sunny skies randomly throughout the year. Given this, packing for Ireland is sometimes a challenge – you just never know what the weather will be and it can turn on a dime.
The best recommendation for packing for a trip to Ireland is to pack plenty of layers. I have packed only winter clothes and been pleasantly surprised with warm weather forcing (OK it wasn’t that difficult!) me to purchase sandals in the country! I’ve also had to load up on sweaters during a particularly snowy cold winter.
The one must have item anytime of year is a rain jacket. Every year I would go to Ireland and my mother in law would loan me a small umbrella because we always arrived empty handed. Last year we finally arrived prepared with North Face rain jackets. Wow, what a difference. I will never go with an umbrella again. The rain in Ireland is funny – most of the time it is sort of a spitting rain as I call it. It’s not so hard that you need an umbrella, but it’s enough that if you don’t cover up you will be soaked soon enough.
Waterproof shoes with a good sole are also quite helpful as the cobblestone roads and sidewalks are often slippery.
Planning Your Ireland Itinerary
Ireland is a small country, but it boasts a rich history, varied landscapes and unique culture throughout. To get a feel for the country as a whole you would need quite a bit of time to experience it all. Don’t make the mistake many visitors do by trying to do it all in a short amount of time. Instead, choose one or two regions of the country to explore and come back to do more another time.
Given the size of Ireland, it can be shocking for people to realize how long it takes to get to places on the island. For example, from Dublin to Killarney it is only 300 km (150 miles). Google maps says it will take about 3.5 hours, but driving like a local (fast!) it still takes me closer to 4.5 hrs! The roads in Ireland are often small country roads which can have long delays since they are often only 1 lane each way. Don’t rush things. Take your time. If you are on a strict time schedule but want to see a lot, consider taking group tours or create a personalized vacation package to maximize your time.
Driving in Ireland
One thing that visitors to Ireland often feel nervous about is driving in the country. While it is not that difficult it can be stressful as they drive on the left side of the road and sit on the right side of the car, which for Americans and continental Europeans is the opposite of what they are used to. Overall, the drivers are quite friendly in Ireland (outside of Dublin!) and will be patient with you as you navigate your way around roundabouts. Traveling in Ireland without a car can be done, however it does limit your options in exploring off the beaten path and without organized tours or guides. Having a car is the best way to see the most in a short amount of time.
RENTING A CAR: If you plan to rent a car in Ireland, know that the most rental cars are standard transmission – aka stick shift with much higher rental rates for automatic transmission vehicles. Additionally, the economy sized car in Ireland is TINY and upgrades are not complementary like they often are in the US.
Lastly, your credit card rental car coverage does not work in Ireland, so make sure to purchase the additional insurance to protect yourself. Our last piece of advice – rent your car directly through Irish rental company websites rather than through US sites to get a real price estimate for your vehicle. That said, we also highly recommend using a service like Discover Cars as they make sure to provide ALL the extra costs that will be included unlike the US sites. They also make sure you see the best prices for all the options available.
Dublin and the Ancient East
If you love history, architecture and culture, then make sure to put Dublin and the Ancient East on your itinerary when planning a trip to Ireland. Within Dublin there is much to do from literary tours to visiting Trinity College, the Irish History Museum. There are also amazing restaurants, theater and plenty of shopping on Grafton Street. If you are with children, there is a ton to do in Dublin from making chocolate to learning more about vikings and the history of Dublin. Dublin is one of the best places to start and often end your trip as the flight connections are more frequent than other places on the island.
How many days in Dublin should we plan on?
Often people say that you don’t want to spend too much time in Dublin as there isn’t a lot to see. Having spent a great deal of time in the city I can see this perspective if you are considering how much else there is to see throughout the country. That said, I also find that Dublin has a lot of history and charms worth exploring. I would plan at least 2-3 days in Dublin on any trip to Ireland. It is easy to take a day trip from the city reducing your need for a car if you are weary of driving.
The Ancient East is encompasses much of the eastern seaboard from a bit north of Dublin all the way down to Waterford. You can spend your entire trip exploring this fascinating area, getting your outdoor fix in Wicklow, discovering Viking history in Wexford or go medieval in family friendly Kilkenny. Or you can spend your time exploring all the fantastic restaurants in the region!
Our family loves this area and spends a wonderful family weekend retreat at the lovely Kelly’s Resort almost yearly.
If you are heading out from here towards Killarney, make sure to make a stop at the Rock of Cashel, one of Ireland most famous sites and well worth a detour.
If your vision of Ireland encompasses wild landscapes, small villages and lively Irish music, the western areas of Ireland are calling your name. With amazing archaeological wonders like the Burren the bogs of Connemara, the spectacular Cliffs of Moher and arty town of Galway you will have plenty to keep everyone in the family happy.
Exploring off the beaten path in County Mayo along the Wild Atlantic Way will get you away from the crowds and close to the Ireland of old, but can pose a challenge in planning a trip to Ireland with no international airports nearby. Trust me when I say it is well worth the effort though!
A favorite family friendly stop in Westport will check every box – nature, historic place to stay, bike riding and fantastic farm to table restaurants. Moving on to the coast, don’t miss a stop to Achill Island where the sheer cliffs up against brilliantly blue waters are absolutely stunning.
Another great place for families is Dingle. There is so much to do in Dingle which used to be home to the famous Dingle Dolphin. Sadly he disappeared during the pandemic not to be seen again.
If you are heading up to County Donegal, don’t miss the opportunity see the Slieve League Cliffs center which is packed full of local history and culture. Of course you will have to make it out to the cliffs as well to have a look at the wild Atlantic waters below you.
While planning a trip to Ireland, you will surely be lured to one of the most touristy areas of the country, the south. Beautiful coastlines, castles, gardens, and landscapes from the recent Star Wars movies brings tourists en mass all for good reason. The south is famous for the well-heeled Kinsale, breathtaking Dingle Peninsula, Ring of Kerry, and the adorable town of Killarney. It is easy to spend most of your trip here in this area alone. The south is extremely easy to get around by car and is a wonderful destination for families to get into the slower pace of life in Ireland and try to learn a little bit of the Irish language.
Belfast & the North
The North of Ireland is actually another country as it’s part of the United Kingdom. For travelers on the island, however, it’s easy to cross over without any trouble. Northern Ireland is one of our favorite parts of the island. Belfast is a striking contrast to Dublin with a vibrant feel of its own loaded with history from the historic political murals outlining the ‘troubles’ to the beautiful Titanic museum.
Outside of the the capital, many visitors head up the Coastal Causeway Route leading from Belfast up the coast past the Giant’s Causeway, which is a must do if you cross the border to the north. See geological wonders at the Giant’s Causeway, explore castle ruins, drink some whiskey at Bushmills and find your way to famous Game of Thrones sites.
A visit to one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations is a lifelong dream for many. Make sure to make the most of your first trip to the island by spending some time planning it well. Whether you go on your own or a tour, there is much to experience in this beautiful country.
Did I forget anything or do you have any tips you would like to add for people planning a trip to Ireland?
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