For years and years, the number one thing on my bucket list was to journey to the island of green hills. I thought if my feet could just touch the ground of Ireland, my spirit would be incandescently happy. I wrote stories, day dreamed, swooned over Irish accents, jammed to Celtic rock, and gleefully threw St. Patrick’s Day parties. I don’t know what started this passionate obsession with a far away land, but I know the movie PS I Love You and my crush on Gerard Butler skyrocketed it to the point where it felt like my heart would burst out of my chest if I didn’t get to go there as soon as possible. It was the feeling of this consistent itch that I needed to satisfy. When I became an adult, reality hit hard and suffocated the dreamer inside of me. The real world isn’t an easy place for dreams to thrive in. Worries, fears, concerns, and stress ate away at my passions, desires, and dreams. I’m still struggling to hold on to the characteristics that make me who I am and who I want to be. But then all of a sudden, I found myself married and somewhere in the midst of everything, I also found myself holding onto the possibility of a dream that meant so much to me at one point. Was it really possible, for our honeymoon, we would be going to Ireland? It was and we did.
It was one of those experiences where it didn’t feel like it was really going to happen. Something must go wrong. We wouldn’t actually make it. I think during our entire trip I was in this disbelief that I was actually in Ireland because none of it felt real. I had idealized this country so much that when I actually arrived, I was surprised by some of the things I discovered. Now, I knew and never expected this trip to go perfectly, but I thought I would share with you some words of wisdom, thoughts, and discoveries from my personal trip and experience that may entertain you or precaution you if you are traveling to Ireland or perhaps even another European country.
Time or Money?
Do you have a tight budget you need to work with and have time on your hands or is your time extremely limited and you can afford to put a little more money into your trip? If you can afford more money than time, I would definitely recommend meeting with a – reputable – travel agent to gain insight and options for your trip. They will make sure you are all set with your flight, hotels or B&Bs, transportation etc. without a care or worry in the world. It will cost a little more to book through them than to schedule everything on your own. If you can afford more time than money, I would still recommend meeting with a travel agent just to ask questions and find out information and options that you can pursue on your own. I was able to find the cheapest flight option doing research on my own. I was also able to find the cheapest hotel options that were exactly what I wanted and customized to suit my budget and desires. I was a little hesitant to use a third party booking site, in all honesty, after I heard some of the horror stories, but I didn’t have any problems. I used booking.com and really appreciated the ease of use. The site was really easy to navigate and I was simply able to confirm all of my information, price, time etc by emailing my hotels a month prior to make sure there were no hiccups in the plan. Fun fact though: if you’re going to southern Ireland you will use euros and if you are in northern Ireland you will use pounds, but the paper euro actually increases in the physical size as the value of it increases whereas any American bill of any value is the same physical size.
Avoid O’Hare Like the Plague
Our connecting airport that we would fly out of to head to Ireland was Chicago O’Hare. We arrived at the airport two hours before our plane departed due to our connecting flight from Detroit to Chicago as scheduled through the Aer Lingus airline. We had to get on a shuttle to take us to the international side of the O’Hare airport which wouldn’t have been a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that when we arrived, we additionally had to wait in an almost 3 hour long line to get through international security. People were bordering the deadline of when their flights would be leaving. They were tired, confused, and concerned. Even a couple fights had broken out. “Was this normal for international flights?” I asked a lady standing by us who had travelled international plenty of times before now. She said she had never seen this kind of chaos before. The problem that ensued in our situation was that every airline had scheduled their flights within 30 minutes of each other which created a throng of 2,000 travelers and only a few hired TSA people to work them through security. Thankfully, with so many people stuck in line for security, half of the plane was empty by take off time so the plane didn’t leave without us and we didn’t miss our flight. Although, it did put us an hour behind schedule. Maybe this was just a one time incident, but I’m not willing to take my chances flying internationally out of O’Hare again. If you are, I’d recommend arriving with plenty, plenty of time to spare.
Ireland Has Palm Trees
Yes, you read that correctly. I can’t even express how confused I felt by this. They had tropical foliage everywhere I turned. Granted, after researching a little bit, I found out they are called cabbage palms. They are native to New Zealand and are able to thrive in Ireland because of the warm ocean currents. Although, you won’t feel like you are in the tropics due to the temperature, you certainly will feel a bit disoriented seeing this unexpected Irish foliage.
The Cities Are Hit or Miss
Our first stop was Dublin. It’s the first city you think of when you hear the word ‘Ireland’ – a must see. It is a thriving, historical, and busy city. Did I mention, busy? I have to admit, I was warned it was “overrated”, but for my first trip to Ireland I still had to put it in our itinerary. Was it worth it? Yes and no. Yes, to be able to say I’ve been there and done that, but no, as in, if I go back to Ireland again I will not be visiting Dublin. In fact, I will make an effort to stay away from the majority of the popular cities. Why? The roads. The roads are terrible. Not in the Michigan sense with potholes, but in the “we are driving through an incredibly populated, busy, fast-paced city on our first day with three hours of sleep from the plane ride trying to remember how to drive stick-shift on the right hand side of the road and we are dealing with roads that are under construction, roads that are one ways, right ways, left ways, no ways, with small lanes, bus lanes, taxi lanes, bike lanes, where the people walk out in front of you when you’re driving, where bikes and motorcycles don’t hesitate to ride in between lanes, and you’re dealing with constant stop and gos for a miscellaneous sort of reasons” sense. Additionally, it is an absolute head ache to find parking anywhere and if you do, make sure you have euro coins with you because it is a city and you will have to pay … and pay probably more than you think is fair or necessary for parking (we are talking anywhere from 1-2 euro an hour which at our exchange rate was more than 1-2 American dollars). I don’t say this to discourage you. If you want to go, then go, see, and conquer, but perhaps consider doing it a different way. Maybe a tour bus or if you don’t mind walking, get a taxi into town and back to your hotel (although it’s aprox a euro a minute for drive time).
Carefully Weigh Your Car Rental Options
The majority of Europe drives manual cars. Manual cars are cheaper to rent by quite a bit. Unless you are confidently skilled driving manual, I caution you to spend the extra money to get an automatic. It could potentially save you a lot of headaches. I say this because we rented a manual and got a brand new Opel Insignia. We were the first drivers and even though my husband had experience driving stick, the clutch went out on the last day of our trip and we were without a car and had a huge issue with the car rental company we went through because they blamed the wear and tear on us since we were the first drivers. Our mechanic said the clutch was a common issue he dealt with on a day to day basis with other tourists who rented manuals. Save yourself time, headache, and potentially even more money in the end if you rent an automatic that you’re comfortable with. It will make city driving and mountain driving a little bit easier as well. Another thing to consider is the insurance. It costs a lot more and you get a lot less than you would in America. At 25 euro a day you only have to pay 1,750 euro if you total the car in an accident. The options are not the greatest, but if you are doing a lot of driving, which I would recommend to see the countryside, I wouldn’t risk going without any insurance.
It’s Rare to Have AC in Your Hotel Room or B&B
With the exception of our first hotel, we didn’t have any AC in our rooms. Ireland is not known for it’s warm weather so perhaps they think it’s not necessary. The rooms, however, seemed to be a lot warmer than it actually was outside and would make it feel like AC was necessary. Our solution was to open the windows and ask for a fan, which usually the front desk was able to provide.
See the Tourist. Be the Tourist.
Every city we visited you could find a Tourist Information building. I think we could say with certainty that we saw less Irish people and more people of every other ethnicity combined over the course of our trip. Natural and architectural Irish gems almost always were tourist traps that you had to pay to go see and there was always a gift shop nearby selling commercialized Irish baubles. Depending on how you look at it, the culture overload can be a good thing or a bad thing.
The World is Becoming Less Cultured and More Globalized
The first little grocery store we walked into, we were disappointed to find that we recognized a good majority of the brands. We found that the food the restaurants served was also familiar to us as we saw burgers, salads, etc. on the menus. There weren’t very many opportunities to actually eat a traditional Irish meal or, for that matter, find traditional Irish brands. It’s a bit of a shame because as our societies progress toward the future, we have brands that are becoming globally recognized and well-known around the world and as a result each country loses a bit of their own unique culture to support and provide the same brands as every other country.
Make Sure You Bring the Correct Adapter
I ordered two electrical outlet adapters that said they were good for the UK and Ireland. They weren’t. The main adapter in Ireland has three, hefty, rounded metal prongs. Thankfully, many of the petrol stations and convenience stores cater to tourists and provide the correct adapter for purchase if you made a mistake like I did. Being the tech savvy modern day 20-something that I am and traveling with my husband who is the same, we had a lot of electronics with us. Bring a power strip and you will have less adaptors you need to purchase.
The Rumors Might Just Be True
Have you heard what other countries say about Americans? They eat more and weigh more. You almost always have to ask for ketchup and salt. If it’s on the table, they are not catering to the Irish they are catering to the tourists. Instead of ketchup, they will use malt vinegar on their chips (fries). The portion sizes cost more and contain less. You will rarely see someone who is overweight and you will see a lot of people walking, running, or riding their bikes.
Ring Around the Rosy
If you are driving and are not already comfortable with roundabouts, you will become very comfortable after your trip. You will find traffic lights in downtown areas, but everywhere else you will find a roundabout at an intersection.
Learn the Signs
If you see a sign with an old camera on it, it does not mean that there is a scenic route coming up and that you should take out your camera. It means that there are speeding cameras around that will track how fast you’re going. Fortunately, we haven’t received any tickets in the mail as a foreigner.
You Are Safe
Ireland is generally a very safe place. You will rarely see a guard (police officer) around unless you are in Dublin. You pay for petrol (gas) after you pump. Very few people own guns in Ireland because the taxes on them are so high, but when it comes to protecting one’s self they’d argue you wouldn’t need one.
The Waiting Game
In America, if you don’t tip it’s considered a carnal sin and there’s a high expectancy that the waiter will be very attentive to you. Although the tip percentage in Ireland is 10%, if you are paying with a card, it will not leave a place on the receipt to add a tip. You have to leave a tip in currency … if you even want to. The service was far from being as attentive as we were used to in the US. At almost every restaurant, I had to track our waiter down to ask for a refill on water (and it was usually more than once).
Ireland is a beer drinking country. You’ll walk into a restaurant to see the entire community with a beer in their hand. The priest drinks, the farmer drinks, the mother drinks. Everyone drinks and since everyone drinks the drinking age is 18 there so if you look older than 18 you will not be carded. We weren’t carded once. Legal driving limit is the same as in America. Coming from the state that has the most craft breweries in the nation, we were surprised to find little variety in the types of beer available. My husband, who I loosely call a beer connoisseur, was generally unimpressed by the taste of the beers in Ireland compared to the ones in Michigan. And in case you are wondering, Guinness in Ireland doesn’t taste any different than Guinness anywhere else.
Check With Your Service Provider
We use Verizon and for $10/day we were able to use our service internationally while we were in Ireland for talk, text, and data. I loved the data aspect of it because it allowed us to use the GPS on our phones to navigate where we needed to go. It also allowed us to call people in case of an emergency both in Ireland and back home. Life saver. The cool thing is that when my phone was roaming it would tell me the time back home and the time in Ireland. The only frustrating aspect we encountered was that our service would drop and I’d have to switch from one network to another all the while still paying for a service I wasn’t necessarily able to access 24/7. I’d be happy to give you a detailed explanation for how to do this, but I believe it’s different for each phone. All you have to do is call the international service number for your provider – which you can always reach – and they will walk you through how to solve the problem.
Download the Best GPS App
I’ve used MapQuest as my go-to GPS up until about a week ago when I found myself in Ireland and unable to get directions to where I needed to go. I downloaded several that I was unimpressed with until I finally went with the Google Maps app. It’s Google so of course it has no problem pulling up EVERYTHING and geo-locates you without a problem. It also has this wonderful offline feature so if you’re having the above said problem with your international service there’s an area in Google Maps where you can select an area and download it for offline use.
Don’t Hesitate to Try New Things
Of the things that are new and different, take a chance and try them just for the opportunity and experience. Try the black pudding in the traditional full Irish breakfast. Get fish and chips and if you’re a little bit hesitant because you think they are too highly priced for your idea of what fish and chips should be priced at, get them anyway. It’s high quality, fresh fish and probably different than what you are envisioning. Although, if you really don’t care for fish then you probably won’t enjoy it.
Look for Tax Free
Ireland has a crazy sales tax upwards around 18% that is included in the final price making many goods and services quite a bit pricier than what you might be used to. Most all goods that you take back home out of the country within three months of purchasing are eligible for a tax refund. Look for the tax free sign on the side of stores and make sure to ask for a tax free form. You will need the form as proof that you are taking the goods out of the country. You will also need to find to get a stamp at customs before leaving the country. When adding up all the tax, you could be receiving a hefty lump sum back.
Some of the items that we absolutely loved and couldn’t have gone without on our trip are as follows:
- an empty plastic water bottle that you can take through security, fill up before you get on the plane, and use for the rest of your trip so you don’t have to buy water bottles
- an umbrella because you will inevitably encounter rain on your trip
- portable chargers, a car charger (American cars have the same port as European cars so your car charger should work without a problem), and extra camera batteries
- the correct adapter for your electronics
- a small, stylish backpack instead of a purse so you can carry what you need without the hassle
- a GPS with maps of Ireland either
Must Sees and Dos
- Wicklow Mountains National Park
- The Blarney Castle – Kissing the Blarney Stone
- The Ring of Kerry – the entire coastal drive
- The Burren
- Cliffs of Moher
Must Buys and Tries
- the new Guinness beer called Hop House 13 which is only available on tap in Ireland (as of May 2016)
- a traditional Irish breakfast with black and white pudding
- a Cadbury chocolate bar (my favorite was the cookies and cream one)
- malt vinegar on your fries instead of Ketchup
- Green Spot whiskey – only available in Ireland
- a claddagh ring
- a picture documenting you kissing the Blarney Stone
- an aran sweater
Overall Ireland is a beautiful country with so much character in its natural structures and historic medieval architecture. The cities are quaint and colorful and the green hills are speckled with white fluffy dots. The sights are definitely something to behold and the Irish people we were grateful enough to encounter on our trip are genuinely the most understanding and kind human beings. It lived up to my expectations, but painted the reality of cultural differences in a clear light. I really enjoyed our trip, but it did give me a new appreciation for home that I don’t think I had before. Michigan has similar weather, similar landscapes (minus the cliffs, mountains, and castles of course), similar food, and better beer. Michigan is home and for the first time in 9 days when we walked into our house I felt like I could breathe and relax. There’s something about traveling abroad in a foreign country that – although I love and enjoy – has you a little on edge. I feel accomplished checking this off my bucket list and am so grateful for the experience and the ability to finally say I’ve traveled to where my heart was content.
You can check out more pictures from our trip HERE. Have you been to Ireland? What was your favorite thing to see or do? What countries are on your bucket list to travel to?