I recently got back from an 11 day trip to Ireland with my two kids, ages 14 and 9. I thought I would share my experience of driving in Ireland for anyone who might be feeling anxious about it. I was terribly anxious about it myself. I hope my story gives you courage.
We departed Denver International Airport, had a 3 hour layover in Boston, and landed in Shannon at 6:00am. The plan was to rent a car at the Shannon Airport and drive 2.5 hrs. to the Connemara Airport near Inverin – about 20 miles west of Galway – where we would catch a small plane over to the Aran Islands for two nights. The plan didn’t work out.
I had booked a VW Golf (or similar). At the counter, the Hertz guy asked me if I wanted something a bit bigger. I had specifically reserved the smallest car we could fit into, because I have driven a very small car for 11 years and wouldn’t be used to a big one. So I politely declined the offer of a bigger car, but when we got out to the parking lot we realized the guy had given us a big car anyway. It was some kind of Nissan that felt like the size of a minivan compared to what we’re used to. I thought about marching back in there and demanding a smaller car, but we were already running late and I just . . . didn’t. I really wish that I had.
After driving an hour and a half we hit those confusing Galway roundabouts right at the peak of morning rush hour. On the last big roundabout, the GPS told us to take the 3rd exit which I thought I did, but I it was apparently a wrong turn, because I found myself on a tiny side-road. I panicked and tried to take a right turn, swung too far to the left, and side-swiped a group of metal poles on the side of the road. The tie rod bent backwards and forced the wheel up against the wheel-well which produced an unpleasant grinding noise that I knew was a bad sign. I pulled into a parking lot and called the number on my rental agreement.
The guy on the phone said he’d send a tow-truck for the car and we had to stay there until it arrived. It took two hours for the tow-truck to get to us from Shannon, meanwhile we were completely exhausted, scared, and weren’t anywhere near a bathroom which was a very bad thing. I called the Connemara Airport and rescheduled our flight for the afternoon, thinking we could take the shuttle from Galway. The tow-truck driver said he could give us a ride to the shuttle pick-up, but changed his mind halfway there and flagged down a cab at a red light. We had to jump out of the tow-truck in the middle of traffic, get our luggage out of the car in the back, and run down the shoulder of the road and throw everything in the cab. Once we got to the bus station it was 4 hours until the shuttle was due. I suddenly felt very ill like I was going to throw up or worse so we staggered into the nearest building which was a hostel. The guy at the counter was very kind and allowed us to lie down in the t.v. lounge. My 9 year old collapsed on the floor and fell asleep with her coat still on . I sat there and tried to calm down. It didn’t work. I started having a severe panic attack and thought I was going to pass out or have to go to the hospital. I was completely terrified that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my kids. I decided to call the only person in Ireland that I know by name, Sheila Tiernan of the Ashgrove House B&B in Bunratty. I had stayed with her on both of my previous trips to Ireland and had already booked our last night with her this time as well. I cried on the phone to her that I was ill and alone with no car and I didn’t know what to do. She took charge of the situation and had a friend of hers who drives a cab come up to get us and bring us to her B&B. It cost €100, but it was worth it just to know we were going somewhere safe. Thank god for Sheila. She sent us directly to bed and we stayed with her for two nights until we all felt better. She and her husband, Frank, helped me get back on my feet and gave me the courage to go back to Hertz and try again. Thankfully, Hertz was very accommodating. They had one car available, a SEAT (pronounced say-at) – a tiny little car like I wanted in the first place. We jumped in, took a deep breath, and drove off. And ended up having an amazing trip! We learned falconry, saw the Cliffs of Moher from the top and bottom, stayed in a thatched cottage on Inis Mor, spent the night in a castle, toured the Dingle Peninsula, went Sea Kayaking with Fungie the Dolphin, ate the world’s best ice cream, attended a medieval banquet, and kissed the Blarney Stone. Not bad for such a rough beginning!
Even though it all turned out alright in the end I might be able to save someone else a whole lot of trouble with just a few pieces of advice:
1. Book with EasyTourIreland.com. They had the lowest price and I was charged exactly what I was quoted, no surprises. It was easy to use and I highly recommend it. It’s not EasyTour’s fault that I got the wrong car. The guy at the counter probably thought he was doing me a favor by giving me a free upgrade. Which brings me to number 2.
2. Rent the smallest car you can possibly fit into, and make sure they give you the right car! There were countless times I barely squeaked through a tight spot with that little tiny car (especially in Dingle). I just have to say that I’m a very careful driver and had never wrecked a car before in my life, but I’m positive I would have run into many things if I had tried to drive that big car everywhere. Which brings me to number 3.
3. Buy the Super Cover insurance. Just in case you’re sitting there thinking it wouldn’t happen to you, let me say that driving in Ireland is like driving in a demolition derby. Someone ran into our second car at some point while it was parked and dented up the front pretty bad. We didn’t even realize it had happened until sometime later. Thanks to the Super Cover, Hertz didn’t give me grief about any of it, even after bringing back another wrecked car. It’s worth every penny for the peace of mind knowing whatever happens you can just sign a piece of paper and walk away. Twice.
4. Use some kind of GPS system. I bought the Ordnance Survey Road Atlas but we didn’t use it. The map they give you at the rental car counter is good enough as a backup, but you need a GPS. The most cost-effective solution I found was a $30 app on my iPhone called “Sygic”. It accesses the GPS on the iPhone without using any data. It eats up battery so I brought along a cigarette lighter power adaptor to use in the car. It’s not perfect, though. In fact, when navigating through towns or cities it’s entirely useless and you’re better off ignoring it completely or it will send you driving in crazy circles. From what I hear, the other GPS systems aren’t any better. Unfortunately, the maps won’t help you either in this situation so you just have to guess and get used to taking wrong turns. With a GPS you at least know immediately when you’re on the wrong road. Which brings me to my final piece of advice.
5. Give yourself lots and lots of time to get places. At least for the first couple of days. My biggest mistake was creating an itinerary that forced us to be on a schedule right off the bat, not realizing that it would take a while to get used to things. With our second car I drove really, really slowly. Like a snail. When someone came up behind me I would pull over and let them pass. When things got scary I just repeated to myself SLOW DOWN and STAY LEFT. This was my mantra. And it worked! But only as long as we weren’t in a hurry and could take all day if we had to. I gave myself more than twice the expected time to get anywhere for the first few days. After a week I was able to keep up with traffic and go the speed limit no problem and we made great time.
I have anxiety and panic disorders and I get stressed out about driving in my home town. Naturally, I was extremely anxious about driving in Ireland. After our little accident I was more scared than I’ve ever been in my life, but I just wasn’t willing to sacrifice our trip because of my fear. So I got behind that wheel and I drove. And after a while it wasn’t so scary anymore and by the end of our trip I actually enjoyed driving on those crazy Irish roads. I really did! So don’t worry! Just SLOW DOWN and STAY LEFT and everything will turn out fine. Take it from me, because if I can drive in Ireland ANYONE can!
(If you feel like it you can read about the rest of our trip at mcfool.blogspot.com)