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Getting Around Ireland

ireland car coastGetting around Ireland has become far more convenient in the last several years, thanks to the introduction of new highways that connect most major cities of the Emerald Isle. Prior to the construction of major thoroughfares like the M1 and M4, driving from one major hub to another could take the better part of a day or more. Most Irish people over the age of 15 have tales of all-day family drives from their rural villages to Dublin, Galway or Cork, complete with references to cows or sheep blocking traffic on country roads. Back in the day, they'll tell you, going up to the Dublin Zoo meant waking at the crack of dawn and returning well into the middle of the night.

Thankfully, this isn't the case today. In addition to driving, visitors to Ireland can also get around efficiently via trains, buses and even planes.

Ireland by Air
The Republic of Ireland has three international airports -- Dublin, Cork and Shannon -- while Northern Ireland (which is technically part of the United Kingdom) has one in Belfast. Dozens of European airlines offer direct flights to Ireland from European countries including Aer Lingus, Air France, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa; from the United States, Aer Lingus, US Airways, American Airlines and United are some of the major airlines with flights from Ireland (the only direct flights into Dublin are from the East Coast of the U.S.).

Getting around Ireland by air isn't the most convenient way to travel if you are staying within the country. There are several regional airports, including Galway, Knock, Sligo, Waterford and Kerry -- but considering how small the country is, it is far more cost- and time-efficient to drive or take the bus or train than it is to fly.

12 Best Ireland Experiences

Ireland by Car
Driving in Ireland takes a certain amount of skill. For Americans, there's the whole other-side-of-the-car, other-side-of-the-road thing to contend with -- just remember to stay left and you'll be all right. On highways (known as freeways to Americans), there are typically two to three lanes; rarely will you find monster four- or five-lane thoroughfares in Ireland. As on most European highways, the fast lane -- which is always on the right -- is used solely for passing slower traffic.

Be aware that speed limits vary widely on highways; it may be 120 kilometers per hour (approximately 75 m.p.h.) in parts and then suddenly change to 80 kilometers per hour (50 m.p.h.), so always keep an eye out for the number inside the round signage on the side of the highway.

When planning your trip, check to see if your route has any toll requirements. Toll charges, which are based on the size of your vehicle, are listed at NRA.ie, the Web site of Ireland's National Roads Authority. The booths typically feature a human toll collector, a basket for exact change and an e-toll option, so plan ahead and decide which one you'll be using.

Driving on city streets in Ireland can be highly stressful or relatively easy depending on which city you are in. Dublin is the most congested city in Ireland, and rush hour traffic in and out of the city center is challenging, even to the most seasoned driver. Most city streets feature roundabouts, one-ways, and road signs and signals that might be confusing for foreign drivers. While Americans are used to double yellow lines dividing the two sides of a street, in Ireland the lines are all white, which can be confusing. As well, there is absolutely no turning on red lights, even for right turns; this is illegal and breaking this rule will guarantee a ticket from the local Gardai (police). Give yourself a quick lesson on Irish traffic rules before embarking on your road trip by visiting RulesoftheRoad.ie.

Country roads, many of which offer picturesque views of Ireland's famed rolling green hills, often require even more attentive driving than the city streets. Conditions can be poor (dirt roads, old surfaces with potholes) and obstacles may be present (the aforementioned sheep crossings, farm tractors that move at a snail's pace). Local drivers can also be an issue; as they are familiar with the winding roads, they tend to drive very fast -- even around blind turns and hidden corners. The best advice? Drive with caution and take your time.

International Car Rentals: What You Need to Know

Renting a car in Ireland is fairly standard. Most rental cars are manual/stick shift, though rental agencies typically have a small number of automatics available. It's best to book your reservation early to ensure you get the type of car you want. Car sizes range from small, economic models to SUV's and luxury cars. Keep in mind that city streets and country roads in Ireland can be quite narrow, and parking spaces in public lots are notoriously small, so you may want to reconsider the Land Rover and opt for something a bit more compact unless you really need the extra room.

Holders of licenses from the U.S., Canada, Australia and E.U. member states are not required to have an International Driving Permit. Those that must have one should have both their international driver's license and original domestic license with them. If you are over 25 and under 75 years of age, you should be able to rent a car quite easily (younger drivers will face stiff premiums; those older than 75 may be rejected for rentals).

Insurance is offered at all car rental locations and is standard in regards to level of coverage. Petrol (gas) is offered in diesel and unleaded forms only; the green handle at petrol stations indicates unleaded while black indicates diesel.

Ireland by Train
Relying solely on trains to get around Ireland isn't recommended, as it is not possible to travel to all parts of the country by rail. However the trains serve most major hubs and are a great way to see the country, particularly for longer-haul journeys, and buses can provide transport from major train stations to smaller areas if you'd rather not rent a car in between train rides.

ireland train athenryIrish Rail offers service to all major cities in Ireland, and tickets can be purchased online or at stations. Booking online is recommended, as fares are cheaper when purchased in advance --sometimes you can save up to 40 percent by buying your ticket a month ahead of time. While it's not always possible to reserve a specific seat, some routes offer this option. The trains are not luxurious but are generally comfortable, with most longer-haul route trains featuring onboard toilets, dining cars and/or snack carts. Wi-Fi is available on Irish Rail trains, though the service can be patchy at best.

Dublin offers a light-rail train that makes getting around the city easy, depending on where you're going. The LUAS currently has two lines; one that covers the city center area and another that goes further south (though these two lines are not connected). DART -- Dublin Area Rapid Transit -- is the local train in Dublin that covers a much larger area and runs from Howth (nine miles north of Dublin city centre) to Bray (12 miles south of the city center); fares on this local train are relatively inexpensive. DART is ideal for day travel around Dublin County.

Post Your Questions About Ireland

Ireland by Bus
Though by no means luxurious or glamorous, traveling by bus is probably the most convenient and budget-friendly method of transportation around Ireland. For long-haul travel, bus travel is very affordable and tickets can be purchased in advance through BusEireann.ie. Bus connections are available between all major cities and are reliable and comfortable, and as of last year most of these buses offer free Wi-Fi.

Local bus service is a different story. The inter-city bus services are known for frequent delays and occasional bus breakdowns, but they are still a cheap way to get around a metro area if you're on a budget and not tight on time. To catch a bus, you need to wave at the bus driver as the vehicle approaches; buses will not stop just because there are people waiting.

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    --written by Clare Kleinedler, AnAmericaninIreland.com
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