Tips for Touring Ireland from the Accidental Tourist

 

When I was planning my trip, I looked over lots of travel info.  I fell in love with blogs like The Lost Girls, I collected Ireland travel books and brochures, and I pinned countless planning and packing guides.  And during my three month journey, I definitely learned a couple things that I thought I could pass on to anyone else planning a long jaunt to Ireland... or to anywhere else for that matter!  Most of the following tips apply to traveling in general.  I hope they help you on your next journey!

- Write it down. Always write down where you went, places you stumbled onto, great meals you had… Write down bulleted things even if you don’t take the time to journal. THIS IS MY BIGGEST REGRET FROM MY TRIP, and it’s why I listed this as my first tip.  I started out wanting to journal everything, and I did fairly well for about 5 weeks, up until I left Cork.  After that I was on the go all the time and I let all writing fall to the wayside, and I regret it big time.  There are so many things that happen in the course of travel... WRITE THEM DOWN!!  Again, even bulleted points that you can fill in later.  It really sucks to be giving advice on an area you visited later and say "I had the best dinner in Ireland there!" and then have no idea the name of the restaurant you went to.

- Throw it out. If, when packing, it’s something you don’t absolutely NEED, don’t pack it.  The day before I left, my sister went through my suitcase (the huge, brand new, $110 suitcase I had just purchased from TJ Maxx) and basically starting ripping things out of it, ignoring my protests of "I really need that!" or "What if they don't have wrinkle release spray in Ireland???"  In the end, it made my bag a little lighter, but I could have done a lot better.  Trust me, if you think you might not need it, take it out.  There's nothing worse than literally having to rent a car to get your bag from one place to another because its too heavy to hoist into the bus.

- Plan ahead. Don’t rely completely on Bus Eireann.  There were some times that I prebooked a rental car because I knew I wanted to stop at a bunch of places between Point A and Point B, but there were a few times where I thought Bus Eireann would do the trick and I relied on that.  That is, until I tried to take it from Dingle to Doolin and realized what would be a 3 hour car journey would be a 9 hour bus trip.  When you’re traveling, even for an extended period of time like 3 months, time is precious and you don’t want to waste an entire day on the bus.  Make sure to check the schedules ahead of time and see when it makes the most sense to take a rental car rather than the bus.

- Cover yourself. Always, ALWAYS get the full insurance on your rental car.  Seriously, I cannot stress this enough.  I don’t care if you’re a great driver, I don’t care if you’ve been driving stick shift since you were 15 years old.  GET THE INSURANCE.  With it, you are able to walk up to the rental counter drop-off, hand them a rearview mirror that you managed to rip completely off the car, and walk away without saying a word or paying an extra dime (not that I know from experience or anything).

- Take advantage. There are tourist offices everywhere in Ireland, something I hadn't realized or hadn't really thought of before I was there.  Take advantage of this gold mine of information!  Try to stop in when you arrive in a new area, talk to one of the reps there, grab some brochures, grab some coupons.  You can find great deals in the tourist offices and you can also find out about local tourist attractions that your guidebook might have missed.

Don’t overtip. So in most cases in Ireland, tipping is not expected because service people are paid a normal wage, unlike in America where they rely on tips.  I still tipped every night at dinner, but I cut back on tipping for most other things after the first time I had an Irish bartender chase me down the street to give me back the 5 euro I tipped him for a couple of afternoon beers.  Ironically, this bartender ended up being the first person I kissed in Ireland… so maybe the moral of the story is really that you should definitely overtip ;)

Don’t let your guard down when it comes to your stuff. By my last weekend in Dublin, I had been in Ireland for 3 months and I felt pretty comfortable in my surroundings.  A little too comfortable, as it turned out.  On my second to last day there, I was sitting with Kevin and friends of his in a pub in Dublin, and I had my bag down by my feet because the bar didn’t have any hooks.  Quite suddenly, I felt something bump against the leg of my chair, and I glanced to the right of me.  Down the bar sat my bag.  I was very disoriented, confused, trying to figure out how my bag that had been on the floor had ended up on the bar.  A very disheveled woman standing in front of my bag turned around, looked at me and said "Oh, is this your bag?  It was out on the middle of the dance floor and so I grabbed it for you and was going to give it back to you."  I took it from her and Kevin and his friends made me check it completely before the woman scurried out of the bar.  She hadn't taken anything, I think simply because she didn't have time.  My good camera, which is pretty heavy, was in my bag, so I think she had hooked her foot around the straps and tried to slide it down to where she was sitting.  She wasn't expecting the bag to be so heavy and so it bumped my chair on the way and caused me to notice when I normally wouldn't have.  I couldn't believe that I had lasted three months without any incident and I almost had my wallet and camera stolen my last weekend there.  My point is, as comfortable and safe as you feel, don't ever let your guard completely down.  There are bad people everywhere, even in beautiful countries like Ireland.

- Join Meetup groups if you’re anywhere for an extended period of time. By the end of my second week in Cork, I felt like I had seen everything I wanted to see on my own, and I went on Meetup.com to see what sort of meetup groups Cork had to offer.  I found one for expat women in their 20s and 30s that was having a brunch the following day, so I quickly joined it and attended the event.  I was so glad I did, because I ended up hanging out with two girls from the group quite a bit before I left Ireland, and I feel lucky to stay in close contact with one of them.  I felt like I walked away from Cork with one really close friend, and I think that's the point of meetup groups to begin with.

- Always be completely honest at customs. This might seem like a fairly obvious one, but really.  My welcome into Ireland was less than warm thanks to a seemingly harmless lie I told.  On my way to Ireland, I sat next to a chatty Irishman (imagine that :) going home to visit his family.  He asked me why I was heading to Ireland and I told him that I would be traveling for the next few months.  We talked about it a fair amount and he asked me what I was going to tell customs.  I said that I was going to tell them I was traveling for fun.  Now, I don't know if this man was just mean-spirited and pulling my leg, but he spent about a half hour convincing me that if customs heard I was just hanging out in Ireland for 3 months they might be suspicious of my intentions.  So what did I decide to say instead, as I strode up to an already-scary looking customs agent at 5 a.m. in the morning?  "I'm here for work."  Yup, that's what I said.  The stupidest possible thing you could ever say to a customs agent in a country in a catastrophic recession is that you're coming into the country to work.  I mean, if that's actually why you're going and you have the proper work visas, then more power to you and that's what you should say.  But when you're going for leisure and planning on taking photos for recreational purposes and to MAYBE sell later, never call that work.  Unless you are ready for the three hour interrogation, the threats, and the tears.  Just be honest, and save yourself the hassle.

- Take pictures, but also put the camera down. I took over 22,000 photos in Ireland.  22,000.  And that actually does not include the photos I took on my crappy point and shoot camera, which probably brings that number to about 24,000.  In my defense, I was working as a photographer full time before I went to Ireland and this was a major reason why I went to Ireland, to see pretty scenes and take pretty pictures.  But looking back, and thinking of my level of interaction with other people at certain points in my trip, I wish I had put the camera down more often and just enjoyed what was around me with my own eyes and not through my lens.

- Ask your B&B host for recommendations. Here's the wonderful thing about B&Bs:  very often, you will be staying with a family who has lived in that area for decades, if not generations.  They know the best pubs, the best restaurants, and the best off-the-beaten path spots that will never be in any guidebook.  Use these people, talk to them, listen to their wonderful stories, and take advantage of their knowledge of the area.  They're in the hospitality business for a reason, and that reason is that they want you to have a wonderful time in their home and in their town.

- Leave some wiggle room in your itinerary, and don’t prepay for hotels and B&B’s if you can help it. I planned and booked a B&B for every night of my trip, but things change.  I skipped my Waterford overnight stay because I loved Kilkenny so much.  I left Wexford early for the same reason.  I ended up on the Aran Islands twice, in Cork twice, in Killarney twice.  I got to stay in Lehinch, Inisheer, Kenmare... and none of these places were on my original itinerary.  Keep your options open, figure out where you like best, and do what you want to do.  Travel is your time to be selfish, so don't feel guilty if you decide to cancel a stay in a certain place.  Obviously, you want to be courteous and give as much notice as you can, but try not to prepay for any B&B or hotel stay if you can help it.  This way you won't lose money and go over budget if you decide to change your plans as you're traveling.

- Do your research on TripAdvisor. I planned my entire trip on TripAdvisor.  Seriously.  I found it to be completely invaluable when it came to booking quality B&B’s and hotels in the right locations.  I would search B&B's in the towns I wanted to stay in and go through TripAdvisor's first 10 or 20 recommendations.  If there were as many negative reviews as positive on a place (or if there was one particularly bad review on a place that mentioned something awful like bed bugs or some other repulsion), I crossed it off my list and moved on to the next.  I usually came up with a list of about 15 places to stay in each town.  From there, I would visit the B&B's website, check out the photo gallery, check the map to see how close it was to where I wanted to be, get in touch, ask if they had availability, see how low I could get the rate down for a solo visitor... and when I was sure I had the best choice for me, I booked.  It may sound like a tedious process, but it was actually fun, and it's the reason I'm not sitting here telling you housing horror stories.  I honestly stayed in some of the best B&B's in the country of Ireland, and I could not be more happy that TripAdvisor was there to help guide me to them.

- Leave reviews on TripAdvisor when you can. After relying on TripAdvisor to plan my trip, I felt sort of a sense of responsibility to leave my own TripAdvisor reviews for places I visited, especially places I liked!  I always made sure to leave reviews for great B&B's and restaurants I visited and tours I took.  Honestly, that's how some of these businesses survive, and as a small business owner I know how important it is to get great feedback from your customers.  Word of mouth is huge in the hospitality business, and who better to hear reviews from than fellow travelers?  Take the time to write reviews, even if its weeks or months after you've arrived home.

- Try to meet a new person every day, but forgive yourself if you need some alone time too. Here's the funny thing about me:  people that know me and know my personality would probably call me outgoing.  My own sister called me outgoing before I left for Ireland.  But here's the truth:  I am outgoing once the initial part is over.  The MEETING part.  That part terrifies me.  I'm sorry to tell the hard truth, but without a little liquid encouragement, I find it very hard to strike up a conversation with a stranger.  It's much easier to make friends and be outgoing when you're introduced by other friends, but when you're in a place where you don't know anyone, that isn't an option and you have to fend for yourself.  And it definitely took me awhile to get into the groove, but I started opening up more and becoming less worried with how people perceived me, and it made all the difference.  There were nights, however, that I didn't want to meet anyone new, that I didn't want to go through the awkwardness of saying hi to a stranger, and so I would stay in.  And then a few hours into my night in, I would start beating myself up that I wasn't out making the most of every moment.  It was a vicious cycle.  But then I would remind myself that if I was home I wouldn’t be going out every single night.  I was on the road for 3 months.  That gets tiring, and some nights I just didn’t have it in me to go out and try to meet new people.  After a couple weeks, I forgave myself for those nights and really concentrated on making the most of my alone time, whether it was catching up on emails, blogging, journaling, or writing home.  One night, I decided to stay in, and what would come on RTE but one of my favorite Irish movies, Circle of Friends.  I managed to write 42 postcards that night :)

- Load your phone up with helpful apps. I was lucky enough to be due for an iPhone upgrade a few months before my trip, so once I had my iPhone 5 and my old iPhone 3 was out of use, I had it "unlocked" so I could take it with me to Ireland and just purchase a new SIM card when I arrived there.  I did my research and downloaded some helpful travel apps.  Honestly, I went a little crazy with the app buying, because I had a few Apple gift cards I wanted to use, but I can say that my most useful apps when traveling were Whatsapp, Viber,  Oanda Currency Converter,  and TripAdvisor (of course).

- Have an emergency credit card just in case. I used a debit account to pay for everything in Ireland, and if this is the route you're going, be sure to talk to your bank about your travel plans, including exactly where you're going and how much you would like your daily limit to be.  If I had been paying just a tiny bit more attention to those daily limits, I would probably not have run out of money in England like I did :).  Within a week of being in Liverpool, I found out that I had overdrawn my checking account and I was officially out of funds.  This was especially distressing since I had an entire week in London ahead of me.  Spoiler alert: London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and I was officially freaking out.  Luckily, I had applied for an emergency credit card before leaving the states, and I was able to use this for my week of London adventures.  Obviously, it's never ideal to have to put purchases on a credit card, but it can help you out of a jam like it did with me, and if you're diligent about paying it off when you get home then you have nothing to worry about.

- Buy an Irish GPS card.  I have a Garmin GPS that I use in the states, and before I left I decided to look up and see if there was an Ireland SD card for the Garmin I already had, so that I could bring it with me for when I had a rental car.  Lo and behold, there was, right there hanging out on BestBuy.com!  I read the review and was a bit nervous about it, as the reviewer said that it only worked on major roads and not in smaller towns and villages, but I decided to give it a go anyways.  It was honestly the best investment I made in preparation for this trip.  It worked EVERYWHERE, and I didn't have to pick up my map once.  I would highly, highly recommend getting an SD chip for your GPS if you are planning a trip abroad and will be doing an significant amount of driving.  To take away the headache of trying to find your way (especially when you're driving on the opposite side you're used to on narrow, winding roads) is priceless.

- Make copies and backups of your itinerary and all important documents. I made 3 copies of EVERYTHING; my passport, my travel health insurance card,  my credit card, my itinerary, etc.  I gave one folder full of this stuff to my mom, one to my best friend, and I kept one with me, but in a separate bag than the originals were stored.  My itinerary was on an Excel spreadsheet that listed the dates I would be places, the address and phone number of each B&B I was staying at, and the names of the proprietors of the B&B’s.  I also took down the address and phone number of the Embassy in both countries I was visiting.  Overcautious, yes, but when you’re a single female traveling alone, you try to have all your bases covered.  If anything had been stolen at any time, I know that I would have not had much of a problem at all, and that was all the reassurance I needed.

- Bring at least one converter to charge electronic devices. I brought one charger with me (that I purchased from Apple, in the World Traveler Adapter Kit) and bought two more there.  They’re not always provided at B&B’s and so it’s good to have them on hand.  I was charging quite a bit; my iPhone 3 would lose battery quickly, I needed my iPod for all those long walks around cities and countryside, and I would always have my iPad with me for writing purposes.  I also needed to charge my camera equipment pretty much every night, so it was a lot.  Make sure to be prepared!

- Try new things you wouldn’t normally try. Maybe this should be number one… this is SO IMPORTANT.  Travel, in itself, forces you out of your comfort zone, and my advice is to let it.  Do things you wouldn’t normally do.  Kayaking on the ocean?  Never in my life would I do that at home.  I have a deep-seeded fear of sharks after being allowed to watch Jaws at a very young age lol.  But in Ireland?  Yup, sign me up.  Dangle over the edge of a castle to kiss a stone?  Sure, why not.  Hell, I even ate black and white pudding, because when in Rome, right?  Live it up, do things you never thought you would, and enjoy the ride.  No good travel story ever started with the words “So there was this one night when I stayed in the hotel room and watched TV…”

Next up on the blog:  my final summary of the most incredible trip of my life :)  I wrap up my Ireland trip in a neat little bow and give you the real deal on the next blog post... I hope you enjoy it!