Don't hire a car directly from the airport
If you’re arriving directly from the US, you’re going to be jetlagged. Make your first night in Ireland car free. Public transport from all of the airports is good, and there’s always a lot to do in the vicinity of the airports. If you’re arriving at Dublin, you’ll have a chance to explore the city. Use public transport to take you to your next destination, or even take a taxi from your hotel to your car hire pick up location. The further away you get from the city, the easier the driving is likely to be. Also, cars hired from non airport locations are usually significantly cheaper.
Smaller cars suit Irish roads
Ever wonder why Europeans drive smaller cars? You will understand why when you see the narrow roads in Ireland. Take a look at the video below, which is a speeded-up drive from Westport in County Mayo to Dublin. It will give you a sense of the size of the road and the kind of traffic and junctions you will encounter. [mhvid description="Rapidly speeded-up video of a car travelling on a typical Irish road, from Mayo to Dublin.
The car rental company will want to see it and, if for some reason you were stopped by the Gardai (Irish police), you may have to produce it. Note: You do not need an International driving licence. Your state driving licence is best.
Get comfortable with the car’s orientation controls and how it operates
The car’s layout will be flipped from what you are used to, and you may find it strange at first that the driver’s seat is on the right side. Rest your left hand on the gearstick and get used to the feeling of it (unless you requested an automatic, not a bad idea, if you are prepared to pay a little extra). Look in the rear view mirror and adjust it. Make sure you know how to demist the windows (something that you may need to do frequently in Ireland if it’s raining). Try out the pedals. Start the car and feel where the clutch “bites”. Get used to the brake – is it a soft or hard brake?
Practice before you get going
Don’t be embarrassed to do a little slow driving in the parking lot where you pick up your car, before you head into the main traffic. If you are unsure, ask the person who rents you the car where you can practice. Irish people are generally quite friendly and helpful, and will not find this question unusual.
Keep to the left side of the road
Don’t worry yourself sick about driving on the left. It’s easier than you think. A great way to remember this is as you are driving is to repeat this mantra to yourself: Hard left, wide right. In other words, you make narrow left turns, but wide right turns – the opposite of what you do in the US. Remember that most of the time, you will be following other cars, and they will be driving on the left, so you will follow their road position.
- Beware of complacency. If you are an experienced driver, within 15 minutes the panicky feeling about driving on the other side of the road should be over. Within an hour, you will feel you’d been driving on the left side of the road your whole life!
This comfortable feeling is enjoyable but slightly dangerous. Be alert at key moments when some visitors inadvertently revert to driving on the right:
- The first time setting off in the car in the morning
- Getting back into the car after a few hours of driving, particularly when tired
- Emerging onto a new road layout, for example after a junction or a roundabout, particularly when not following any other vehicles
In these key situations, try to repeat the mantras ‘stay on the left’ and ‘hard left, wide right’ to yourself.
Observe the speed limits in the Republic of Ireland
Speeds are officially measured in kilometres. Your rental car will show speeds in kilometres, typically with miles shown in the inset (see image).
- The speed limit for motorways (highways) is 120 kilometres per hour (kmph). The names of the motorways are prefixed with an M, for example the M6 connecting Dublin and Galway.
- National primary and secondary roads are prefixed with an N, for example the N17 between Galway and Sligo. The speed limit for national roads is 100 kilometres per hour (kmph).
- Local and regional roads are small roads between villages, prefixed with L or R. Sometimes without road markings, these roads have a top speed limit of 80kmph.
Pay attention to the signs on the road. A road that has a default 100kmph speed limit may abruptly show a 50kmph sign. These signs often precede a tiny roadside village or school. Just as in the US, drivers should proceed at a speed that is appropriate for the local conditions. Poor road surfaces and rain are just two of the conditions that may cause motorists to slow down. Note also that mobile speed cameras are sometimes used in these locations. Being in a hire car does not immunise you from speeding fines.
Be aware that speed limits and road signs change if you cross into Northern Ireland
You won’t actually see a border, so you may not even realise that you have crossed into the United Kingdom. You may simply notice an odd looking road sign that contains a black diagonal stripe on a white background. This sign means: the UK speed limit for national roads, 60miles per hour (mph), applies here. So, unlike in the Republic, Northern Ireland uses the miles per hour system. Don’t worry, however - the speed limits are roughly equivalent to those in the Republic. The motorway limit in Northern Ireland, for example is 70 miles per hour. For local and regional roads in Northern Ireland, pay attention to the speed limit signs on the roads.
Use a GPS or Sat Nav system
Ireland is still a predominantly rural country and many locations can be difficult to find. At the time of writing, the country has not introduced a planned postal code (zipcode) system. Even Irish drivers use a mobile navigation system to find a location they aren’t entirely familiar with. Try to get a device with Google Maps, which covers Ireland very well and is always up-to-date, or some other form of GPS navigation. You can either rent a device locally, rent a car with a device, or rent a car-powered mobile data or wifi dongle that can work with your existing device.
Be prepared for motorway tolls
In Ireland, most motorways ensue tolls, usually in the region of 2 or 3 euros, which are collected at toll booths by throwing coins into a basket, or by paying the toll operator with a credit card. The M50 motorway, which is a ring-road around Dublin city and is used to access the airport, has a "toll-free barrier" system. This means the toll is collected electronically, and most locals have registered their cars in advance. Your rental car company will normally have pre-registered your car, so they will pay your M50 tolls and this will be covered as part of your rental agreement. However, it is worth checking this with your rental company when you pick up the car.