It's easy to see why some opt for package tours to Ireland -- every morning, you get on the coach with everyone else and the coach takes you to the next sightseeing destination. For some, however, package tours to Ireland may be too expensive, while others may want to avoid the "conveyor belt" experience of the package. So how can you plan and book a great vacation to Ireland, while saving on costs, without slumming it? Note: For day-to-day budgeting tips witihin Ireland, see my article on how to visit Ireland on a budget of $90 a day
1. Research and book your own flights using a flight comparison site
This may sound obvious, but the first place to start is by booking the cheapest flights to Ireland you can find. Obtaining the best flight prices will mostly depend on these things things:
- Which airport you are departing from / arriving at
- What time of year you are departing / arriving
- How long your stay will be
- What weekdays you will arrive / depart
- How you research and purchase your flights online
Which Airport are you Departing from and Arriving at?
Can you change the airport you are departing from? If so, you may be able to get cheaper flights. I'm presuming you've booked flights before and have realised this! But you may not be familiar with Ireland's arrival airports: Dublin is Ireland's main airport and most international flights arrive here. There are also smaller airports at Cork, Belfast, Shannon and Knock. The large majority of Ireland's international flights arrive at Dublin, and most of the best deals in and out of Ireland involve flying via Dublin. Ireland is a relatively small island, and no matter where you want to go in Ireland (or Northern Ireland), you will be no more than four and half hours drive away from Dublin maximum.
What Time of the Year will you be Departing / Arriving?
A lot of people aren't flexible on their travel dates, so if you are, it is a great way to make savings. For example, April,May and September are good times to visit Ireland, when the weather is generally mild and the light still lasts long into the evenings. Flights outside the tourist season months of June to August tend to be cheaper. From mid-October, the number of international flights to/from Ireland drops significantly, as the airlines' winter schedule begins, so while prices are cheaper, travel options are fewer. The summer schedule begins in mid-March.
How Long Will Your Stay Be?
A lot of airlines use software to figure out the typical vacation pattern. So if someone from New York books a flight to Dublin, they typically aren't coming back the next day. More than likely they are coming back in 5 days, 7 days, 10 days or 14 days. The same applies to people travelling to Ireland from other countries -- for example, a visitor from London may stay only 1, 2 or 3 nights. If you can behave differently to "the herd", you are more likely to get better fares. For example, stay for 3 weeks, or 2.5 weeks.
What Weekdays will you Arrive and Depart?
Airports are busiest on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays. Avoid these days and you may get a cheaper fare.
How do you Search For and Purchase Your Flight Online?
Rather than hunting for the cheapest fare on each individual airline site, I recommend using a flight comparison website, such as Skyscanner.com or Kayak.com to find the best deals. Note: I am not endorsing any of the websites listed on this page, nor (sadly!) am I receiving any commission from them. I am just passing on tips based on my personal experiences :)
My personal preference is for Skyscanner.com, for two reasons:
Skyscanner has the option to search flights from an entire city or country to another
For example, I can search for flights from London to Ireland, and it will find the lowest fares, taken from all the departure airports in London to all the arrival airports in Ireland, on my specified date.
Skyscanner has the option to search flights for a whole month
I can search for flights from London to Ireland and select "whole month", and will show a calendar with the lowest fares on each date, taken from all the departure airports in London to all the arrival airports in Ireland.
2. Take public transport or hire a car
If you're staying in Dublin or another large town, public transport can be a great budget option, especially for a short break. Here are some tips
- On the negative site, using public transport may restrict your itinerary to urban areas, as some of the (many!) rural locations in Ireland are not frequently served by buses and trains are quite expensive in Ireland
- I recommend hittheroad.ie --- a route planner for public transport trips within the Dublin area
- I recommend getthere.ie -- a route planner for public tranport trips outside the Dublin area
- Buses are usually a lot cheaper than trains in Ireland
- Buses are often faster too -- lots of good roads and motorways were built during the economic boom
Hiring a Car
You should book your hire car in advance to avoid excessive fees. There are lots of different car hire sites, and you can compare deals, but again I recommend using a rental car consolidator site. One such example I have used is Autoeurope.com - Note: Again, I am not endorsing, advertising or getting a commission from this site. There are other "consolidator" sites like this out there -- do your research and get the best deals. I am just advocating the idea of using a consolidator site. This is one I have happened to use myself a few times and it worked out okay for me. The idea behind a consolidator like AutoEurope is that they get the trade rates from big brand car hire companies like Aviz, EuropCar, Herz and Budget, and pass some of the discount to you.They claim to be up to 25% cheaper than renting directly from the brands themselves. Tip: Always watch out for the terms and conditions before you pay. A lot of car hire companies operate on the basis of giving you really low deals online, only to make you pay for insurance, excess and other extras when you arrive. Take your time before selecting your car hire. Read the quote carefully. Watch out for "sneaky" extras. They know you will be tired, and waiting in a long line, when you get off your flight. Another option for saving money when hiring a car is -- do not hire a car directly at the airport. In fact, I mention in my article about driving in Ireland that it's probably a better idea if you arrive at Dublin airport to just take the bus into the city your first night. Dublin has good local transport -- it's only when you get outside Dublin that you'll need a car.
3. Create an itinerary
You will need to do some research here. There are lots of sample itineraries online, and your own itinerary depends on
- How long you've got
- What attractions you would like to see, e.g. castles, cities and towns, romantic places?
- Browse through the places to visit here to get some ideas
For example, this 6-night itinerary I put together has a mixture of castles, medieval towns, scenery and heritage.
Plan Your Daily Drives
If you're going to be driving, use Google Maps to plan your drive times. For example, type Dublin, Ireland to Kilkenny, Ireland into Google. You will see a map with driving directions and driving times. This should give you an idea of distances and how much you can reasonably expect to drive on any single day.
Keep Your Itinerary Light
This is nothing to do with budgeting per se but I'm including this tip because I think it's valuable. One thing I've learned from helping North Americans plan self-drive itineraries in Ireland is that they start out trying to pack in A LOT of visitor attractions in a short trip, e.g. 30 attractions in a one-week vacation. Looking at the map of Ireland, and seeing how small it is compared to the US/Canada, anyone could be forgiven for assuming that it will be easy to get from A to B to C to D, etc. While theoretically, many of the attractions are close to each other as the crow files, country roads in Ireland are narrow and winding, so driving times are often longer than expected. And part of enjoying Ireland is the hanging out and mingling with the locals, or just soaking up the atmosphere. Ireland, particularly rural Ireland, is famed for its slow pace of life. If you try to take in too much, you may miss something of the experience.
4. Book Hotels, B&Bs, Hostels or Home Exchange
Irish developers built hotels furiously during the Celtic Tiger economic boom. The supply of hotel rooms generally now exceeds demand, and there are bargains to be found. Once again, I recommend using consolidator sites. In my experience, Hotels.com usually has rates that beat or at least match any other site, including the hotel's own official site. Tip: You will always get a discount from Hotels.com. Just type type "Hotels.com discount code" into Google. Disclaimer: I am not advertising, endorsing or acting as an affiliate for this Hotels.com. If that doesn't work, add the current year and month to the end of the search query, e.g. "Hotels.com discount code March 2015".
Spare Rooms, Guesthouse B&Bs
As with many other countries, AirB&B has really opened up the budget accommodation possibilities in Ireland. You can rent a room in someone's house, or even rent a whole property for the during of your stay. You can even stay in genuine Irish castles at similar prices to regular hotel rooms. Disclaimer: I am not advertising, endorsing or acting as an affiliate for AirB&B. Many of Ireland's bed and breakfasts still don't have their own websites, or are more likely to have Facebook pages. A lot of B&Bs are now actually on AirB&B. In my view, this is the best way to find a traditional B&B, because AirB&B has a great review system, and also has great photographs of the property. However, if you want to find a full listing of Ireland's tourist-board approved B&Bs, take a look at B&BIreland.com - this is a commercial booking site for Ireland's B&Bs and they have a very good list. Like AirB&B, they take a commission on the bookings. Disclaimer: I am not advertising, endorsing or acting as an affiliate for B&BIreland.com. A lot of visitors like to stay in B&Bs, partly because they are up to 50% cheaper than hotel rooms, but also because the offer the old-style Irish hospitality treatment.
- In recent years, many regular visitors have switched from hotels to B&Bs because the hospitality experience in Irish hotels "is not the same as it used to be".
- B&Bs, however, allow visitors to spend time in a traditional Irish family home, and hosts become de-facto tour guides.
Vacation Home Exchange
Another option for the budget conscious -- and a way to have a unique experience -- is to exchange your home for the duration of the vacation. Sites such as homeexchange.com faciltate this service. Note: I am not advertising, endorsing or acting as an affiliate for this homeexchange.com. I have no personal experience of this service, but while researching for this site last summer, I met a nice US family who were waiting in line to see the Book of Kells. They had arrived just a day earlier, and were staying in the home of an Irish family, who were simultaneously staying at their US property. They seemed slightly nervously about that! But they told me that they Irish home where they were staying was lovely.
Hostels and Boutique Hostels
Hostels are another option and remain very popular with those travelling on a budget. If you haven't stayed in a hostel before, you may be surprised to learn that you can book private rooms as well as shared dorms. In fact, a new niche of botique hostels is emerging, particularly in Dublin. These offer some slightly better services than those traditionally associated with hostels, usually one or more of the following: Shabby chic interior design
- Bar and DJ
- Rooftop terraces
- En suite bathrooms,
- Flat screen TVs, free WiFi
- Complimentary breakfast
Prices are usually higher than regular hostels but lower than hotels (e.g. around 25 euros / 40 dollars a night). Hostelworld has a probably the largest selection of Irish hostels to choose from. Disclaimer: I am not advertising, endorsing or acting as an affiliate for Hostelworld.
5. Just Do It!
What are you waiting for?! Go ahead and start planning your once-in-a-lifetime trip to Ireland now. Soon you will experience incredible history and heritage, fantastic scenery and wonderful people that make this little country with a big heart so special. Don't forget to also check out my article on how to visit Ireland on a budget of $90 a day
Aille River Hostel in Doolin, County Clare. Image by Alex Ranaldi