Archive | October, 2013

Ireland Bound? Here is a guide to your trip…

7 Oct

Many of you who read this Heritage blog may at some time desire to go to Ireland. Therefore, to make your trip easier, cheaper and more productive I have put together a little guide for you.

How To Get There

The best way to get to Ireland in this day and age is via Airplane. I recommend flying into the Dublin Airport. However, check fares to Cork as well. They can be cheaper at times. However, before you buy those tickets you will want to make sure your rental car company of choice services the Cork airport.

As always, before purchasing an airline ticket, remember to double check travel dates and weigh the cost savings between various tickets with layover times, baggage fees and airplane seat selections. Note that on most international flights the 1st checked bag is free.

One could also get there by boat. There are freighters that offer very cheap rates and basic cabin accommodations. I do not recommended this option due to the time it takes and the harsh travel conditions.

Rental Cars

There are numerous ways to get around in Ireland, hired car (includes a driver), bus, and rental car. The best option for most is via rental car. Renting a car in Ireland requires some planning and precautions.

The first thing you should do right now is pull your drivers license out and look at it to make sure it is not expired. Though this has not happened to me, it has happened to a many an Ireland bound tourist. Without a valid license they will not rent you a car.

When renting a car in Ireland you will want to rent it with a Credit Card that will cover the insurance in Ireland (A Master Card World Elite will cover Ireland rental insurance). Most standard credit cards do not. So many rental car companies will require a letter from your Credit Card company stating that it does cover insurance on rental cars in Ireland ( for example Thrifty does require a letter but Budget does not). So come prepared with this letter.

You may still elect to pay the insurance that the rental car company offers. There are reasons to do this: if you have the money to spare, and do not want the worry and hassle of actually working with the credit card company and getting the insurance claim filed. Also note if you decline insurance the rental agency will place a hold of $2000 to $5000 on top of the rental costs on your credit card, released back to you after the car is returned whole. If there is damage they will use this hold to pay for any damages and may charge the card for the total cost of the damages up to the cost of the car. It is then your job to work with the credit card company to issue an insurance claim and get your money/credit back.

Before you roll out of the parking lot be sure to carefully review any damage on your vehicle before you take it with the damage noted on the contract (yes, most cars are already damaged). Take pictures of your car as well and email them to yourself so they can be dated.

You will still need to pay Tolls. Be sure to get some Euro before you leave the Airport to do so. The M50 toll road in Dublin is an electronic toll and you will need to be sure that the rental agency provides you a way, and the instructions, to pay this toll as well.

I recommend you get a manual car. Automatic rental cars in Ireland tend to be damaged an under powered. You will want the manual flexibility as well for the different driving conditions and to help out on some of the steep inclines on the mountain roads you may find yourself on.  However, if you do not know how to drive a manual, Ireland is not the place to learn – get an automatic.

Most cars run on diesel – be sure to put diesel in the car when you fill up. If you accidentally put a few liters of gasoline in it, it should be fine, as long as it was just a few. Just fill the rest of the tank up with diesel and all will be good.

Do not be ashamed to have somebody from the car company show you the various controls for the car.  European cars have different ways of doing things and various features that may be confusing at first. It is best not to discover these things by accident.

One last, and very important, item. Make sure you have GPS. Go ahead and rent a GPS with the car if you do not have a phone with GPS maps.  They are worth their weight in gold.  I will have more to say on this item later though.

Driving Your Rental Car

Remember – in Ireland they drive on the LEFT.

When driving on the left – THINK about where you need to go before going there – specifically your right turns will cross the other lane. Ireland also has some very narrow roads. This requires that you be prepared to cooperate with other drivers that may be coming directly at you…and remember, that you should swerve (turn slightly) to your LEFT and not over correct. Drive slower than the posted speeds until you are comfortable with this unless you want to die.  Native Irish drivers will notice you are a tourist and will be understanding – kind of.

Roundabouts. Ireland has a lot of them. Sometimes they put a roundabout in a road just to do so. Read up on them and understand how they work before you find yourself in one. As a matter of fact it is a good idea to read up on all Ireland’s traffic/driving laws and regulations before you go there.

And one last time – Drive on the LEFT.

Parking Your Car

Parking in Ireland is free during certain hours, pay attention to the signs. During the paid period you may need to “Pay and Display” You can buy such “Pay and Display” tokens in certain shops, most notably the “Centras”.  Also many Parking areas have “Pay and Display” meters – some only take Credit cards and some only Euro. Many car parks provide a ticket that you pay and validate later when you are leaving – do not lose this ticket or you will pay an all day parking price for the mistake.

Also – if you are rusty on your parallel parking – get some practice in before going to Ireland.

GPS and Maps

As I mentioned before you will want to rent a GPS with your rental car if you do not have one. Be sure it has updated maps (ask them when the last update was). You will also want to bring a good map of Ireland, a good map of any cities you want to be in, and detailed maps of the areas and sites you want to visit. And I mean PAPER maps. GPS directions should be verified with your paper maps and your paper maps will be a valuable back up in the event that you can not get your GPS to work, and/or you can not get Internet access.

All this said, I have found in recent years that Google Maps is the best when it comes to getting around in Ireland; so a smart phone with a good International Data Plan is all you will need here; make sure though that you update you Google Maps App before you get to Ireland.

Credit Cards

You will want to bring a Visa, MasterCard, American Express if you have them and your bank’s debit card.  The primary card you will want to use is the one with the lowest Foreign Transaction Fee (FTF). Some cards have no transaction fee, and if you can, I would recommend getting a card without one if you can get one without paying a yearly fee for it. A Foreign Transaction Fee is a fee that the credit card issuer charges you for making a foreign purchase (anywhere from 1% to 3%).

Notify you card companies that your are traveling to Ireland before you go so they do not shut it off for fear of fraudulent use.

Sometimes, you will want to use a credit card and it will be declined. This is most likely due to the fact that your card does not support “Chip and Pin” which all European cards support.  In places like this – you will need to use cash.  Recently most U.S. credit card issuers have chips in them so this is less of a problem. However some places, like unattended gas stations, will not use credit cards at all and will require a chip enabled Debit card. So make sure you have one of those too.

Euro vs U.S. Dollar on Credit Card Purchases and ATM Withdrawals

Many establishments, and even Bank ATMS, will offer to convert your Euro to Dollars. Never accept this conversion to dollars.  This is a common, and legal, scam. Always request, and choose, to be charged in Euro (local currency). This “courtesy” conversion is offered usually at some percentage rate (about 3%) – this will be on top of your FTF fee. For example if your FTF rate is 3%, a $100 purchase will not cost you $103, but $106.

If you have an establishment that will not offer you the option to pay in Euro, then pay in cash. Don’t be mean to the person making the transaction for you – they usually do not understand what is going on with the FTF and “courtesy conversion”.  The easiest thing I have found to avoid any confusion is to request, before the purchase occurs, to be charged in Euro.

Cash

The best place to get Cash is from an ATM. They offer the best Exchange rate and will usually be cheaper than using your Credit Card (unless you have have a credit card with no no FTF).  Your bank will most likely charge you for an ATM withdrawal, but it will be a fixed amount (usually just $1) and not a percentage.

Because of this – it may be best to withdraw a bunch of cash and pay cash for most things.  You will need it anyway; as you will find many places in Ireland that you will want to go any many things you will want to do only accept cash.

VAT (Value Added Tax)

You don’t have to pay it. So whenever you make a purchase ask for a VAT receipt. You can get a VAT refund later when you are in the Airport or back in the states. Some items and services do not have a VAT tax assessed. It is too hard to remember which ones – so always ask for one (a VAT receipt).

Places to Stay

For the money, B&Bs (Bed and Breakfasts) are the best option. It is like staying in somebody’s home and getting a breakfast included. Hotels can not hold a candle to the services offered or value.

I recommend getting an Ireland B&B book and using that to set up your itinerary; just note that many good B&Bs will not be in the official book listing. No need to pre-book days or weeks ahead if you are traveling during the right time of year. Just make your booking the same day or show up and ask. This offers you the most flexibility in your Ireland travels. However, if you do book a B&B and can not show up, have the courtesy to call and cancel.

B&Bs are pretty much everywhere in the places you will want to go in Ireland.

Be careful to not plan your trip to be in Dublin the same time as the Hurling Championships, marathons, college breaks, etc. You will not find a place to sleep those nights.

Phones

If you plan on bringing a cell phone to Ireland make sure it is Internationally capable and that you set up an International calling plan for the time period you will be in Ireland.  Your other option is to use payphones, which can be hard to find, or rent a cell phone (which is also pretty easy and probably cheaper than what your cell phone company would offer but also not as convenient).  These days I opt to pay for an International Data plan on my phone.  Be sure to turn off any and all unnecessary apps using data though so your data does not get used up unnecessarily.

Also, at least for iPhones, to get data to work you will need to turn on WIFI Assist.  Just be sure to turn it off when you get back home.

Internet Access

See above if you expect your smartphone to have Internet access. Otherwise, almost every Hotel, Pub and coffee shop has free WIFI. Just ask them for the password.  Most B&Bs will also have free WIFI. Just be sure to verify that with them if this is important to you.

Bathrooms

Unlike most of socialist Europe, which claims to provide basic human care “for free” — but won’t let you use the bathroom without paying, you don’t have to pay to use most bathrooms in Ireland. Pubs will generally allow you to use their bathroom and of course there are plenty of green shrubs and trees in case you have to go on the side of the road.

Leaving Ireland

When you leave Ireland for the U.S., you will go through customs in Ireland if you fly out of the Dublin Airport.  This experience can be summed up as nothing less than hell itself.  American bureaucracy is the best in the world (that is not a compliment) and it has produced such a maddening system as to take all the joy from your life for the time you are subjected to it. So this is what you can expect:

You should arrive 3 hours before your plan departs; there are times when you will need all of this three hours depending on how many people are there.  You will need to check your bags immediately and then you will need to go to customs right away. To get there you will pass through two security checkpoints and several people asking for your boarding passes and passports.

The first checkpoint you will need to remove your shoes but not your small electronic devices from your bags. After that you can go into a shopping area full of things to buy and eat, but you can only briefly look at them because you need to keep moving.

Then you will come to the second checkpoint where you have to take out all of your electronic devices but you can keep your shoes on. Then you will come to a machine takes your smiling picture and scans your passport and gives you a receipt. After that you will wait in a line for customs. This wait can be long and tiresome and you will have no access to food, water or bathrooms so take care of all of that before you get to the customs line. The customs officer will ask some strange questions and may not even look at you all the while typing things on the keyboard; he will do this while mumbling to himself philosophical questions (yes, they too wonder what the madness is all about and how they managed to get where they are).

Then you will be released into the gate area. This gate area has just a small pittance of places to shop and eat as the area that you were presented with after the first checkpoint.  It is sad and bewildering…but hey, at least you will make your flight.

That is NOT all…..

I will add more to this blog post as I remember or as I learn more so before you go, check here for the latest information.

On Places To See and Things To Do…coming up in a future post…