My apologies to William Shakespeare who never had to make that decision.
When vacationing in Ireland is it best to hire a car, utilize public transportation or join an organized tour? The ability to come and go as you wish, avoid a strict itinerary and enjoy the sense of personal freedom makes hiring a car appeal to many people. Most Americans have been raised with a car available whenever they need it. Waiting at a bus stop, studying train schedules and having their personal transportation space invaded are not things many of them are used to. (I know, I know….some readers are used to commuting on the tube but we are talking about the majority here.)
Yes, it is absolutely wonderful to drive along the highways and byways of Ireland in a reliable car. One can stop at an interesting historic site, appealing sea food restaurant or scenic overlook on a whim. One can book accommodation on a daily basis or even just show up unannounced. (Do not rely on finding a place during July and August particularly in popular tourist places.)
Stopping on a whim is something tourists do on a far too regular basis. Beware of being rear-ended. Most of the local drivers are well aware of the beauty of their neighboring real estate but they have jobs to get to, kids to pick up and errands to run.
Then there is the security issue. Sadly, criminals do target tourists because they know their rental cars are loaded with desirable loot. It is not very easy to store everything out of sight in a compact. There are times when one has difficulty getting the suitcases in. If there are passengers everyone had best be traveling light. The parking lots of beaches, historic buildings and beauty spots are all places where your property is at risk. Do set the car alarm if it has one. As well as organized gangs that troll the popular spots there are the opportunistic thieves. It is difficult to know what advice to give. One option is to leave your valuables at your accommodation but that can have its risks. Anyway, that option is not available when traveling between accommodation places. The problem is particularly bad if, as I sometimes do, you camp. I would greatly appreciate the input of others on this subject.
There is no point complaining about the prolific use of roundabouts, narrow roads and driving on the left. These are facts of life and have to be dealt with. The roundabout is a wonderful invention. Just take time to study the rules on the internet or information available from the car hire firms or/and Irish tourist board. Place a prominent sticker on the windscreen reminding you to drive on the left. Keep reminding yourself you should be seated on the outside. Many roads are narrow but please learn how to judge your closeness to the road edge. It is not fair of safe to expect other road users to pull waaaay over to the left while you cavort along the middle of the highway. Ireland is a place where one should take pride on ones driving even if that phenomenon is fast going out of fashion.
It is no coincidence Ireland produces many top rally drivers. Most people tend to get on with the job. The curse of texting while driving has been adopted by many young drivers but it is illegal. Concentration is imperative. Park off the road when you wish to enjoy the scenery.
There are some things that are relatively easy to deal with. Avoid rush hour. The tourist brochures still indicate rush hour in Ireland means a lowing herd winding o’er the lea but the reality is somewhat different. Even rural roads have commuters rushing to and from their places of work. If you find yourself driving white-knuckled with pumped arms in heavy commuting traffic look for a restaurant to pull into. (Most bars serve food but to not even consider drinking and driving. That Irish habit has thankfully disappeared along with the Celtic Tiger and donkey and carts.)
If you are not used to a manual transmission (stick shift) your trip to Ireland is no place to learn. The extra cost of renting an automatic may well save you money in the long run. If you do your research well it may be possible to hire a car similar to what you drive at home. There is comfort in familiarity. If you insist on taking this to the ultimate conclusion you can program McDonnells, Subway, Best Western and Starbucks into your GPS device.
I realize I may come across as attempting to discourage you from driving in Ireland. I want your Irish vacation to be a pleasant experience. I recall the time I was riding my Honda CD175 motorcycle along a dual-carriageway (divided highway) on my way home from night shift to my apartment at Shannon New Town. I encountered a rental car heading south on the north-bound lane (mine). No amount of frantic arm waving or gesturing would convince the driver he was making a big faux pas. The car occupants politely returned my waves and probably thought those Irish people are really as friendly as we were told. Another time my wife and I encountered a couple of elderly tourists stopped on a busy roundabout. We quickly took them to where they wanted to go before someone ran into them. And us. There is a bend near my mother’s house where the traveler suddenly comes upon a panoramic view of Galway Bay, Black Head and Connemara in the distance. Oh yes, I almost forgot there is an ancient castle in the foreground. It is the scene of frequent rear-end accidents. I recall encountering a particularly arrogant group of tourists who had swung wide on a difficult uphill bend and ran into a local driver. (They seemed to be of the opinion he was in the wrong simply by being there.)
It often makes wonderful dinner-table conversation to tell about your near squeaks, narrow misses and lucky escapes. Sadly, many of the incidents end up with ambulances, hospitals and, occasionally, people returning home in a casket.