If you’re planning your first trip to Ireland, you’re in for a real treat. With its rolling green hills, historic castles, and lovely villages, the Emerald Isle is one of Europe’s most charming destinations. Nonetheless, before you go, there are a few things you need to know to make the most of your visit.
With this in mind, I’ve created this complete guide on how to plan a vacation to Ireland, breaking it down into 15 main tips. I’ll review the best time of year to visit the country, airport options, tips for driving in Ireland, and itinerary planning–all things I wish I had known before my first trip!
1. Begin tracking flights up to 11 months in advance.
One of my best Ireland tips is to start monitoring flights as early as 11 months ahead of time, especially if your trip dates aren’t flexible. I always use Google Flights to track flight costs! Remember that, as a general rule, it’s usually cheaper to travel during the week than on the weekend.
Likely, the cost will be high 11 months out and then begin to shift up and down once you’re about six months out. For flights to Ireland, I recommend booking at least three months in advance to save the most money (unless you find a great deal close to time!).
2. Dublin isn’t the only airport in Ireland with transatlantic flights.
While the Dublin Airport (DUB) is where most tourists enter and exit Ireland, it’s not the only option for Americans. In fact, the Shannon Airport (SNN) receives direct flights from Boston, Chicago, and New York, making it ideal if you plan to visit attractions on Ireland’s West Coast.
If you’ve visited Dublin already, consider flying into SNN for closer access to attractions like the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Kerry, and the Dingle Peninsula. Or, another option in your Ireland vacation planning is to arrive in Dublin and depart from the Shannon Airport in County Clare.
3. Travel in shoulder season to avoid crowds.
One of the most important parts of planning a trip to Ireland on a budget is choosing the right time of year to visit. The peak season for tourism runs from June to early September, when you can expect warmer temperatures and longer days.
As an expert Ireland trip planner, I recommend April and May for the best vacation weather with minimal rainfall and fewer crowds. Just make sure to avoid traveling during the country’s Easter holidays, as many local families choose to vacation during these two weeks.
Conversely, opt for mid-September to October (avoiding the mid-term school break around Halloween) for fewer tourists despite some increased rainfall. Visiting in the shoulder season means you’ll see Blarney Castle & Gardens and the Cliffs of Moher without the crowds!
4. Rent a car to see the most beautiful parts of Ireland.
Renting a car is the ideal way to explore Ireland at your own pace, offering more convenience than public transport. Not having a car can be extremely limiting, especially if you’re planning to leave Dublin (which you should be!).
If it’s your first time planning an Ireland trip, here are a few quick recommendations on renting a car:
- Can you drive a stick shift? If so, you can save money, as manual cars are more common and cheaper to rent in Ireland than automatics.
- Rental car companies in Ireland typically charge to add an additional driver. Nonetheless, I highly recommend having at least two authorized drivers per vehicle.
- Before paying for CDW insurance at the counter, check if your credit card covers it. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card provides auto rental collision damage waiver benefits. Obtain proof of primary insurance from Card Benefit Services before traveling to Ireland.
- Opting for a diesel vehicle can save you money during your Ireland vacation, especially if you plan to drive extensively. While the upfront cost might be higher, it proves cost-effective in the long run. Note that the black hose identifies the diesel pump in Ireland.
- Choose a compact car for Irish roads, particularly in the countryside. Opt for the smallest rental that accommodates your luggage comfortably.
5. Prepare yourself to drive on the left side of the road.
If you’re wondering how to prepare for a trip to Ireland, it’s key to remember that they drive on the other side of the road. While it may seem daunting to Americans, it’s manageable, especially with YouTube tutorials!
Keep in mind that the driver’s seat is on the right side, and the gear shift is to the driver’s left. Passing is done on the right, and highway exits are on the left.
Since everything is opposite, Americans (and other people from North America!) also need to get accustomed to driving in a clockwise direction at roundabouts in Ireland. When renting a car at the Dublin Airport, you’ll immediately encounter a few as you exit the airport.
Therefore, I suggest watching a few videos beforehand to get used to the concept–it really helped me! Use the left lane for left turns, the right lane for right turns, and the left lane for going straight unless signs indicate otherwise.
Pro tip: Look to your right instead of your left when crossing the street.
6. Plan your driving route around Ireland.
Start planning your Ireland road trip itinerary by listing your top places of interest. Then, group attractions together, considering Ireland’s geography. For instance, if you’re starting in Dublin, you’ll want to head south for experiences such as kissing the Blarney Stone or driving the Ring of Kerry.
After completing these steps, I recommend marking your must-visit attractions on a map to understand where they are in relation to your start and end points. Some of the most popular places to see on an Ireland vacation (outside of Dublin) include:
- The Cliffs of Moher: These sea cliffs in County Clare are Ireland’s most famous tourist attraction, receiving over 1.5 million visitors per year.
- The Ring of Kerry: This scenic driving route in County Kerry, southwestern Ireland, passes through the Iveragh Peninsula. Popular highlights include Killarney National Park, the Kerry Cliffs, and boat tours of Skellig Michael.
- Blarney Castle and the Blarney Stone: Blarney Castle in County Cork is famous for the legendary Blarney Stone, believed to grant the “gift of the gab” to those who kiss it. Don’t miss the beautiful gardens!
- Connemara National Park: Laid out across Kylemore Abbey & Victorian Walled Garden and the Twelve Bens mountain range, Connemara National Park is a stunning natural space in County Galway, Ireland.
7. Book accommodations in advance.
For a budget-friendly trip to Ireland, pre-book hotels, B&Bs, or Airbnbs, especially during the high season when accommodations fill up quickly. Early booking secures better rates, and if you fancy staying at a castle hotel, remember these boutique properties have limited rooms.
To secure your preferred castle stay in Ireland, book well in advance. Here are some of the most sought-after properties to stay at on the Emerald Isle:
- Ashford Castle: This 5-star hotel is located in County Mayo, Ireland, and is one of the oldest castle hotels in the country, dating back to 1228.
- Adare Manor: Adare Manor is an award-winning five-star hotel & golf resort in County Limerick, Ireland. The manor dates back to the 13th century, and the present-day estate spans over 840 acres.
- Dromoland Castle: One of Ireland’s finest luxury castle hotels, this property dates back to the 15th century and makes the perfect base for exploring the West of Ireland, including the Cliffs of Moher.
8. Limit your time in Dublin to 1-2 days.
Dublin is an ideal starting point with attractions like the Guinness Storehouse and Trinity College. However, while staying at hotels in Dublin City Centre and taking day trips is suitable for shorter trips (four days or less), it may be limiting for extended vacations in Ireland!
Staying solely in the city means missing out on an authentic Irish experience. Accommodations are much cheaper in smaller towns than in Dublin, making exploring the south or west coast ideal for a budget-friendly trip. Opt for B&Bs or inns to save money!
Another of our best Ireland travel tips is to save Dublin for the end of your trip. Pick up your rental car at the Dublin Airport and explore destinations outside the city first. This flexibility lets you adjust your time elsewhere before spending around two days in Dublin at the end!
9. Make sure to include Northern Ireland in your itinerary.
Don’t overlook Northern Ireland; it’s a must for your itinerary. For one thing, it’s home to some of the most stunning scenery in all of Europe. The Giant’s Causeway, the Mourne Mountains, and the Glens of Antrim are just a few natural wonders you can find there.
Explore Belfast for historical sites from the Troubles, including Crumlin Road Gaol and the Peace Wall. I highly recommend taking a walking tour to see the renowned murals in Belfast and visiting Titanic Belfast for a deep dive into the Titanic’s history next to the place where it was designed and built.
For Game of Thrones fans, Northern Ireland is a must-visit, home to filming locations like Castle Ward, the Dark Hedges, and Tollymore Forest Park. You can even take a guided tour from Belfast to see some of the Game of Thrones filming locations in Ireland for yourself!
When traveling to Northern Ireland, remember that it’s technically part of the United Kingdom. So, when you cross the border, you’ll notice the switch from kilometers to miles per hour and the use of pounds instead of euros like the Republic of Ireland.
10. Include hidden gems in your Ireland trip itinerary.
When planning your Ireland itinerary, blend popular destinations like the Ring of Kerry with hidden gems like the Dingle Peninsula or World Heritage Sites like Brú na Bóinne and Skellig Michael for a more authentic experience with fewer crowds.
Here are some of our favorite off-the-beaten-track attractions to consider in your Ireland trip planning:
- The Dingle Peninsula: This Peninsula in southwest Ireland features one of the most scenic drives in the country: Slea Head Drive. Experience rugged cliffs, sweeping beaches, and even Star Wars filming locations.
- Slieve League Cliffs: The second-highest sea cliffs in Ireland are located in County Donegal along the Wild Atlantic Way. They offer stunning views of the Irish coastline at nearly 2,000 feet high (600 m).
- The Aran Islands: This group of three islands is situated in Galway Bay, off the west coast of Ireland. After you reach the islands by ferry, popular activities include cycling, hiking trails, and visiting the beaches.
- Skellig Michael: This island off the coast of County Kerry is best known for its historic Gaelic monastery, dating back to the 6th century. You can only visit on an eco-boat or landing tour!
Pro tip: tipping in Ireland isn’t mandatory, but it is appreciated. Check for a service charge first–especially if you’re in a large group.
11. Don’t try to see everything in one trip.
If you’re wondering how to plan a trip to Ireland, this tip is essential. If you have a short amount of time in the country, the main question to ask yourself is: do I mind being in a rush? For a laid-back vacation feel, you may want to make some cuts.
Note that driving distances on Google Maps in Ireland can be inaccurate, especially on narrow country roads. Plus, if you’re new to left-side driving, you may not feel comfortable at the speed limit. Irish roads, particularly those with unmarked lanes, can be challenging!
Resist the urge to cram everything into one Ireland trip! Instead, set specific goals for each visit; for the first time, many people focus on small group day trips from Dublin and Galway. Alternatively, consider a multi-day guided tour for a quick, comprehensive experience without the hassle of driving.
12. Maintain some flexibility in your Ireland itinerary.
When visiting Ireland, unpredictable weather may affect your must-see destinations. Given the likelihood of rain or fog, maintain flexibility in your itinerary and allocate extra time to your bucket list locations.
Plan to stay in Doolin overnight for a better chance of clear views at the Cliffs of Moher. Attempt an evening visit, and if the weather interferes, try again the next morning. Similarly, for the Ring of Kerry, allocate two days so you can enjoy the loop leisurely and wait for possible rain to pass.
Explore Ireland in 10-14 days for an in-depth experience and greater schedule flexibility. However, for those with limited time, create specific goals for a more intimate experience within 5-7 days. After all, prior planning allows you to cover significant ground!
13. Purchase a SIM card to stay connected.
Save money by purchasing an Irish SIM card for your phone! Stay connected with family, use social media, and conveniently access maps and other vital information. While using your phone’s data plan abroad is possible, it’s almost always more costly than purchasing a SIM card.
Ensure your foreign phone is unlocked with your service provider before using an Irish SIM card. Vodafone and 3 are budget-friendly options, with storefronts in Dublin City Center and major cities. Or, for an even easier option, buy an eSIM card with Airalo.
14. You’ll want to pack clothing that you can layer.
Pack layers for Ireland’s unpredictable weather, including a light jacket or sweater for cooler mornings and evenings, even in summer. In winter, add a heavier coat and thick sweaters to your Ireland packing list. For hiking, bring comfortable shoes with good traction and chapstick for windburn.
Remember to expect rain in Ireland and pack a portable umbrella or raincoat for your travels. However, don’t let the weather deter you from enjoying all that Ireland has to offer. With some planning, you can have a great trip no matter what the forecast says!
15. Purchase travel insurance.
Consider purchasing travel insurance for peace of mind during your Ireland trip, especially if you plan adventure activities like hiking or biking. This coverage can reimburse expenses in case of trip cancellation, cover medical treatment costs, and compensate for lost or stolen luggage.
Did you enjoy this post? Pin this Ireland travel guide for later!
This article was first published in June 2022 and has since been updated.