It’s easy to travel between the Republic’s larger towns and cities by public transport. However, it’s common for small towns and villages to have just one or two bus services per week, often geared towards market days. Transport in Northern Ireland is equally sparse in rural areas, with just a few train lines across the region, though the bus network is pretty comprehensive. Renting a car is perhaps the easiest way to explore rural and remote areas across Ireland, though traffic has become increasingly heavy on major routes. Picturesque areas are particularly enjoyable on a bike, though you may need to bring your own as rental outlets have dried in rural areas. If you want to travel quickly from Dublin or Belfast to outlying areas, it’s also worth considering the internal flights available.
Train services in the Republic are operated by Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail; t01/836 6222, whttp://www.irishrail.ie). Prices are usually higher than taking a coach, though journeys are often much quicker – for example, the train from Dublin to Killarney can take at least two and a half hours less than the bus. The main lines fan out from Dublin towards the southern and western coasts, but there are few links between them, and some counties (such as Donegal and Cavan) have no rail links at all. Work has begun to open what has become known as the Western Rail Corridor, County Clare to County Sligo (the first section, from Ennis to Athenry, opened in 2010, and the next phase, Athenry to Tuam, is due to commence operation in 2011).
Tickets come in a variety of formats – single, day return, five-day return, monthly return, family day and monthly returns. However, bear in mind that sometimes a single can cost almost as much as a return ticket – for example, a single to Killarney is €68.50, a five-day return €72 – and note also that the price of travelling on the lines from Dublin to Sligo, Ballina/Westport, Galway and Waterford is higher on Fridays and Sundays. It’s always worth checking if any special deals are available, especially via the website.
The North’s rail service is operated by Translink (t028/9066 6630, whttp://www.translink.co.uk) and restricted to just a few lines running out of Belfast. Services are generally efficient and the rolling stock has been recently updated. Fares are pretty reasonable and often comparable with bus services. The only line operating between the Republic and the North is the Dublin–Belfast Enterprise service.
Although rail passes for travel within Ireland represent reasonably good value, a combined bus and rail pass, such as the Irish Explorer, is probably more useful owing to the limitations of the rail network. Passes are available at all major train and bus stations.
In the Republic the Railtrekker ticket (€100) allows unlimited travel over the network for four consecutive days. The Irish Explorer rail pass (€160) covers eight days travel out of fifteen consecutive days, though you can extend this to cover also bus travel on Bus Éireann services (€210). Those aged 66 or over are able to take advantage of the Golden Trekker pass which provides free transport across the Republic’s entire rail network (including the DART and suburban trains). Call t1800/7426 7625 at least 48 hours before your arrival in Ireland. The pass lasts for four days and only three passes are available to each applicant per calendar year.
The only relevant pass currently available in the North is the Sunday Day Tracker (£6) which allows unlimited travel around Northern Ireland’s rail network on Sundays
If your visit to Ireland is just part of a grander European trip, it’s well worth investigating the range of different passes on offer, such as InterRail (whttp://www.interrailnet.com) and Eurail (whttp://www.eurail.com).
Bus Éireann (t01/836 6111, whttp://www.buseireann.ie) runs express coach and slower local services throughout the Republic. Ticket prices are generally far more reasonable than trains and you can often snap up cheap deals, especially between Dublin and Cork. Timetables and fares (including special deals) for the major routes can be found on the website. The majority of buses show destinations in both Irish and English, but some in rural areas may only display the former.
Bus Éireann offers two different bus-only travel passes (for a combined bus–rail pass). The Open Road pass can be purchased in a variety of combinations; three days’ travel out of six costs €54, five out of ten is €84, ten out of twenty €159 and fifteen out of thirty €234. The Irish Rover pass covers travel on services in both the Republic and Northern Ireland and costs €83.50 for three days’ travel out of eight, €190 for eight out of fifteen and €280 for fifteen out of thirty.
A vast number of private bus companies also operate in the Republic, running services on major routes, as well as areas not covered by the Bus Éireann network (especially County Donegal). The names, contact details and routes of these companies are listed at the end of each Guide chapter, where applicable. These can sometimes be cheaper and quicker than Bus Éireann, but are usually very busy at weekends, when advance booking is advisable.
In Northern Ireland, Ulsterbus, part of Translink, runs a pretty comprehensive network of regular and reliable services across the six counties. Its Rambler ticket (£8) provides unlimited travel around the network on Sundays.
By car and motorcycle
Travelling by car or motorbike is the ideal way to explore at your leisure, especially in remote areas. If you bring your own vehicle, it’s essential to carry its registration document and certificate of insurance – and make sure that your existing policy covers you for driving in Ireland. Whether bringing your own vehicle or renting one on arrival, you’ll need to be in possession of a valid driving licence (and should bring it with you – a photocopy is insufficient). A licence from any EU country is acceptable, but visitors from outside the EU (unless they possess a licence issued in Australia, the Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, South Africa, South Korea or Switzerland) must acquire an International Driving Permit, which can be obtained from motoring organizations before leaving for Ireland.
In the Republic, unleaded petrol costs around €1.30 a litre – cheaper than the North where the equivalent price is £1.18.
Rules of the road
The fundamental rule of the road in Ireland, both North and South, is to drive on the left. Wearing seat belts is compulsory for drivers and passengers, as is the wearing of helmets for motorcyclists and their pillion riders. The Republic’s speed limits are 50–60km/h in built-up areas (though in some parts of inner-city Dublin it’s 30km/h), 80km/h on rural roads (denoted by the letter “R” on maps and signposts), 100km/h on national roads (denoted by an “N”) and 120km/h on motorways (“M” roads). Maximum speeds in Northern Ireland are 20–40mph in built-up areas, 70mph on motorways and 60mph on most other main roads. Minor rural roads in the Republic are generally poor in quality, often potholed and sometimes rutted – a situation notably different from the North where the overwhelming majority of roads, of all categories, are well maintained. Signposts in the Republic generally provide place names in both Irish and English, though in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking areas) you’ll generally only encounter signposts in Irish. Virtually all signposts in the Republic provide distance information in kilometres; in the North distances are given in miles.
Throughout Ireland many town centres require payment for on-street parking, either using ticket machines or a disc or card parking scheme (discs or cards can be purchased in adjacent shops). If you don’t display a ticket or disc you may end up with a parking fine or, particularly in Dublin, Cork and Galway, your car being clamped or towed away. Some Dublin streets still have parking meters, but since the city suffers from high rates of theft and vandalism, it’s always advisable to use a secure car park.
Outlets of multinational car rental companies, such as Avis and Hertz, can be found at airports, in the cities and in some tourist hotspots. Rental charges are high – expect to pay around €30/£25 per day plus insurance – though prices are often much cheaper in the Republic than in the North, with the best offers garnered if you book well in advance, especially via the internet. Sometimes smaller local firms can undercut the big names.
In all cases, to secure your rental, you must be 23 or over (though some may accept drivers aged 21 or 22 with a hefty price hike) and able to produce a full and valid driving licence, with no endorsements incurred during the previous two years. Considering the nature of Ireland’s roads and all the attendant risks, it’s always advisable to take up the collision damage waiver (CDW) offered when picking up your car. The daily rate for this is usually around €10/£7, but it guarantees that you won’t be liable for a hefty bill if you suffer an accident or any other damage. If you’re planning to cross the border, ensure that your rental agreement provides full insurance; in some cases, you may need to pay extra.
Booking a car prior to your journey saves time when you arrive in Ireland and provides the chance to shop around on the Web for the best deals.
Apart from some steep ascents, occasional poor road surfaces and an unpredictable climate, Ireland provides ideal territory for cycling, one of the most enjoyable ways to explore the country’s often stunning scenery. There are a number of waymarked trails. Tourist offices can supply information on organized cycling tours, or contact a specialist cycling-tour operator. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s free Cycling Northern Ireland guide, available at tourist offices and downloadable from whttp://www.discovernorthernireland.com, describes various routes and accommodation packages available.
If you plan to bring your own bike, note that some airlines will transport bicycles for free as long as you keep within your weight allowance, but it’s always worth checking with them well in advance.
Across the island, minor roads in rural areas are generally quiet, but major roads are well worth avoiding due to heavy traffic. Bikes are easy to transport over long distances by train, but less so by bus, though note that you can only take folding bikes on DART and commuter services in the Republic. The cost of taking a bike on an inter-city service ranges between €2.50 and €15 depending upon the length of the journey. Folding bicycles incur no charge. Taking your bike with you on Bus Éireann costs an additional €11.50 single, however long your journey, though drivers are not obliged to take a bike and may in any case only have room for one. Private bus companies will sometimes allow bikes to be carried, though usually only if booked at the same time as your seat; prices vary according to the company. In the North carrying a bike is free on both Ulsterbus services (provided that space is available – folding bikes can be taken on board) and the railways (as long as room is available and, in the case of commuter routes, it’s after 9.30am Mon–Fri).
Thanks to a rise in insurance premiums, far fewer places in the Republic now rent out bikes, though Dublin does have a city bike scheme, and there are still just a small number of outlets in the North, meaning that it’s always wise to book your wheels well ahead. Eurotrek Raleigh (t01/465 9659, whttp://www.raleigh.ie) is the largest distributor of bikes in Ireland and its website lists a number of its agents offering rental. It’s best to contact one of these directly, and bear in mind that local dealers, including some hostels, may often be cheaper. Rental rates are generally around €20–25 per day, €80–90 per week and rising to €100 a week if you want to leave the bike at another agency, with an extra charge of €5 per day or €20 per week for hiring panniers, though a helmet is usually included free. A deposit of anything from €100 to €200 is also required. When collecting your bike, check that its brakes and tyres are in good condition, and make sure that it comes equipped with a pump and repair kit. If you’re planning on cycling in upland areas it makes sense to rent a bike with at least sixteen gears and preferably 24.
Easily the quickest way to reach outlying areas is to take a scheduled flight from Dublin or Belfast to one of the regional airports dotted around the country. Aer Arann operates the largest network. Prices range from around €20 to €90 for a single journey, depending on season and demand) and there’s often little to be saved by booking a return ticket. However, much time can be gained; for instance, the flight from Dublin to Donegal takes only an hour, compared with at least four hours on the bus.