Don’t worry, you’ve got this. Just follow these ten indispensable tips for driving in Ireland and you’ll minimize the aggro and maximize the enjoyment of your road trip.
How to Survive Driving in Ireland
I’m not gonna lie, driving in Ireland is tricky. Driving on the left with a manual transmission down charmingly tight roads requires fortitude. But you are making the right choice to tour Ireland by car. If you do a bus tour, you have no control over your itinerary. You coulc leverage Ireland’s pretty decent bus and rail system but then you won’t see the lonely stretches of coastline that make Ireland such a beautiful destination.
So rent that car…but also take my advice for how to drive in Ireland while also staying safe and sane.
1. Get the Rental Car Insurance
The rental car insurance offered by your credit card really only works best when you don’t need it, because making a claim isn’t easy. You have to collect all of the documentation from the rental car company, make a (fruitless) effort to submit to your own auto insurance carrier, THEN submit to the credit card company. If they accept the claim, they likely won’t pay it out for at least 45 days. This means that you are floating the cost of the repair in the meantime. In addition, not all carriers cover all countries. For instance my American Express does cover Ireland, but not Australia.
Getting by with the credit card rental insurance is a risk worth taking when driving on the right and using roads with ample lanes and shoulders. Ireland is a whole other kettle of leprechauns.
Even the “main” secondary roads are very narrow and there are no shoulders. You will be squeezing by with a tractor on one side and a rock wall on another. Dings, dents, or (in the case of my husband’s misadventure with a sharp curb) shredded tires and bent wheels can and do happen. It’s worth the peace of mind to pay for the insurance.
Here are a few tips for staying safe while driving in Ireland:
- If you get into a major accident, dial 999 for emergency services.
- Make sure that you note the phone numbers for roadside assistance and your rental car provider in case you also have a misadventure with a sharp curb.
- Always look right before crossing the road.
- Don’t drive drunk. If you need a beer, there is a pub on every street corner in Ireland. Just park your car at your lodging and walk.
2. Understand the Different Kinds of Roads
There are four basic kinds of roads that you will encounter while driving in Ireland.
- M: National Motorways. These are multi lane freeways that can handle high amounts of traffic at speed. They will have 2-3 lanes across in each direction and on/off ramps. Ireland doesn’t have many of these roads, but they are the fastest way to navigate between Dublin and Galway, Cork, Limerick and Waterford.
- M: Motorway Toll Roads. Some of the M roads are also toll roads. The tolls occur in the area surrounding Dublin. If you are on the ring road around Dublin, the tolls happen automatically as you pass through the purple toll gate. When you pass it, it will take a picture of your car license. You are then responsible for paying the toll at a kiosk at the car rental return or downloading the toll app. There is a second form of toll that occurs along the M roads that radiate out of Dublin. These are cash-only tolls, usually costing $1.90. You can pay by tossing the money in the bin or going through a gate with a cashier in it.
- N: National Roads. These national roads aren’t motorways but they do connect the larger towns on the popular driving routes for tourists, such as between Doolin and Dingle or between Killarny and Cork. Short sections of these roads will have wider and faster lanes, but they can also be narrow and winding.
- R: Regional Roads. These roads connect the smaller towns which dot Ireland. These are the kinds of roads that you’ll use while doing the scenic Dingle Peninsula route or navigating between Cashel and Kilkenny. They are narrow country roads with fairly light traffic, but you’ll still share the road with trucks, buses and tractors.
- L: Local Roads. Visualize yourself tootling down what feels like a driveway behind Farmer Jack’s tractor. These are the local roads. There are lots of these roads and lots of the tractors. Some of the coolest parts of the Wild Atlantic Way route are on these roads so don’t skip them just because they seem like a farm track.
3. Rent the Smallest Car Possible
When doing a self drive in Ireland, it does not behoove you to get the upgrade. The smaller compact cars are much easier to maneuver on the narrow roads. They are also more fuel efficient. Make sure your car has the basics, such as a USB charger for phones, but don’t expect air conditioning.
One way to survive renting a sub-compact car is to leave the large luggage at home. Look, you don’t need a lot of luggage for this (or any other) trip. We get by with 6 days of clothes in a wheelie carry on and we simply plan some extra time for doing laundry. Many B&Bs will allow you to use their wash machine. Here’s a UK and Ireland packing list that will help you make this happen.
4. Gas Up from the Green Pumps
In the US, gasoline pumps are black and diesel pumps are green. In Ireland, diesel pumps are black and gasoline pumps are green.
Most pumps are modern and take credit cards. However, you will occasionally find an old-school pump of the kind that doesn’t stop pumping just because the tank is full (I’m talking to you Galway, with your drippy pumps). Some pumps want you to indicate a maximum amount to be charged before filling the tank. This requires you to guess how much you think you’ll need. Good luck with that.
Remember: Ireland = Green = Gasoline
5. Book an Automatic Transmission Well in Advance
Most of the car rental inventory in Ireland is manual transmission. If you know how to drive a manual, then rent one, because it will save you money. Sure, you have to shift with your left hand, but doing that will be the least challenging thing that you’ll have to learn while driving in Ireland.
However, if you don’t know how to drive a manual, then you’ll need the automatic. Don’t leave it to chance that the rental company will have an automatic, especially if you are picking up the car outside of Dublin. Reserve the car well in advance to ensure that you’ll get what you want.
6. Don’t Treat Google Maps as Gospel
I love Google maps and rely on it frequently. However, using it while driving in Ireland isn’t always going to net you the best result. Google will usually map you on a direct route based upon a line of site. However, the most direct way isn’t always the fastest way.
For instance, if you map from Dingle to Cashel, it will suggest you take local L roads for most of the route. Lovely countryside, to be sure, but also the surest way to spend three hours behind Farmer Jack’s tractor. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s faster and more comfortable to leave Dingle, divert north to Limerick and then zig zag south to Tipperary before heading back north to Cashel. Most of this drive would be on the N roads.
Tips for navigating Ireland by car:
- Use Google Maps, but trust your common sense. Also, never use Apple Maps…it’s rubbish.
- Pick up a paper map at the car rental. It will give you a birds eye view and they do a good job of indicating which roads are M, N, R and L.
- Ask your lodging provider about the best way to get from point A to point B.
7. Assign a Designated Navigator
I did a two day road trip in Galway by myself and really enjoyed it, but it is always more fun to road trip with a companion. Having a co-pilot also means that you have a support staff to help you navigate Irish roads.
Someone else in the car needs to be responsible for the following:
- Reminding you to stay in the left lane.
- Toggling back and forth between the paper map and Google Maps.
- Speed reading the signs in the roundabouts and helping you choose the correct exit.
- Feeding you snacks and water.
- Offering comfort when you start crying because you’ve been on the road just a bit too long today and your nerves are frayed and will you please get there already so that you can relax with a pint.
8. Calculate Your Drive Times, Then Add 25%
You will not be driving the speed limit in Ireland.
Rather, you will be white knuckling the roads, cautiously driving 10 kilometers per hour under the speed limit. You will also be doing panic braking every time you pass a bus, gliding into micro pull-outs when the lane narrows to one lane for both directions, and doing the slow stare at rear end of Farmer Jack’s aforementioned tractor.
It’s fine. You are on vacation, so just chill and go with the flow. But, because driving between stops will take you longer than you imagine, be thoughtful about how to put together your itinerary and don’t try to cram in too much.
9. Make a Point of Taking the Slow Road
Despite what I said about using a paper map to find the fastest route, sometimes you should deliberately get lost by taking the slow road.
Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way route covers 2,500 kilometers of coastline from Kinsale to Donegal. Ireland’s coastal beauty goes way beyond the Ring of Kerry and I would argue that the Dingle Peninsula is far prettier.
The best way to see this epic coastal scenery is to get off the main road and go bumping down some random peninsula or following the Wild Atlantic Way signs to a hidden beach. Road tripping in Ireland should not be about the mad dash between “must see” tourist spots. It should be about enjoying the beauty to be found everywhere in the country.
For instance, on my Galway-to-Connemara road trip, rather then simply taking the fast road to Clifton (which normally takes an hour), I spent nine hours driving the winding coastal road. Or in Dingle, instead of (or in addition to) doing Slea Head drive, drive over the beautiful Conor Pass and hit the northern coast at Brandon Point.
10. Don’t Fear the Roundabouts
Americans get flummoxed by roundabouts because we have so few of them in our country. However, they are a great tool for the clueless tourist.
In Ireland, you get clear warning when a roundabout is coming up. The signs are clearly labeled for the next large-ish town (and often smaller ones). If you mess up and miss your exit, just keep circling around and take it on the second circuit.
Just remember, that cars already IN the roundabout have the right of way.
(This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission.)
Make Your Car Reservation Now
OK, now you are certifiably ready to go driving in Ireland. Shop around to get the best deal on a car rental in Ireland. Don’t forget to check costs for the insurance, because it will cost you more than the actual car rental. I’m a fan of Budget and use them almost exclusively both in the US and abroad. They were very responsive when we had our accident and made swapping out for a new car very easy.
Here are some links for you:
Ireland Itinerary Planning Resources
Here are some resources to help you plan your self drive in Ireland:
- Two day drive from Galway around the Connemara Peninsula.
- Inspirational books set in Ireland.
- Two different 1-day itineraries for Dublin.
- A specific literary itinerary for Dublin and also a list of the best bookshops there.
Failte (welcome) to Ireland and have a great road trip.
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