Advice and recommendations for people traveling to Ireland:
First of all, pick a good time to go. We chose early September because we thought there would be fewer tourists to compete for rooms, fewer crowds to battle at the sites, and so forth. Unfortunately, the weather was rainy most of our trip. Perhaps late August would be better. I suspect the on-season would have more music in the pubs and more fun crowds.
What we did right
I think we packed reasonably well. I took five sets of clothes: four in the suitcase and one to be worn. Of course we brought all our camera equipment, spare flash cards, five sets of fresh NiMH batteries, all charged beforehand with a 15-hour trickle-charger (not a quick charger) for maximum charge. The trickle chargers don't charge well at all. We brought the computer, flash card reader and a couple DVDs to watch on the plane.
I also brought my noise-canceling headphones and case-logic DVD player case, which is big enough to fit my computer but it allows the computer’s sound output to be split so we can both hear the sound.
We bought a big eight-pack of large spring-water bottles on the first day for drinking and brushing our teeth. That lasted us most of the trip.
We brought $200 in cash and $500 in travelers’ checks and two credit cards that double as ATM cards. This was a good amount. Sometimes we couldn’t find anywhere to exchange money. Sometimes the exchange places only took cash (not traveler’s checks) so it was good to have some cash on hand. Other times we could only find ATMs, but more often than not, the ATMs would say “Out of Service” so we were unable to withdraw money. Other times they simply wouldn’t accept our card. Often, there were long lines at the ATM. As a matter of fact, we only used an ATM successfully once during the entire trip. This was surprising because we used the ATMs in Turkey without problems.
We brought our own shampoo and conditioner, and it was a good thing because most B&B’s only provided a basic bar of soap.
We brought rain jackets. We needed them and thank God we had them.
I had a zipper pouch that attached to my belt that I used to keep my money and passports. It works well.
What we did wrong
I didn’t bring enough mints. I love mints, and I ran out halfway through the trip.
We did way too much driving. I think it’s probably far better to try to focus on a single area rather than power-tripping the whole country. For example, fly into the Shannon airport so you don’t have to deal with Dublin at all, then focus on the Ring of Kerry and possibly the Dingle peninsula. Don’t try to do everything like we did.
I should have brought that small umbrella I almost grabbed when I was heading for the car.
We brought shorts and didn’t need them. Too cold this time of year.
I recommend buying the National Trust annual membership. We got our first week free because we came at the right time. Even so, we could have saved a little bit of money visiting sites if we had bought the yearly pass.
The hotel vouchers were a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gave us a good list of Bed and Breakfasts and their locations. It also gave us a fixed price. On the other hand, some of the prices were ordinarily lower, so giving them a voucher meant we lost a few Euros. Plus the middle-man makes the lion's share of the money so the Innkeepers don't make any money to speak of for their rooms.
Other Misc. Notes and Suggestions
Bed and Breakfasts are plentiful in the popular tourist places, like the Ring of Kerry. However, they're much more rare in the less-popular Northern Ireland. So if you're traveling in high tourist season, you may have a very difficult time finding a room unless you decide where you're staying and call ahead. Even in low season, it's a good idea.
Ireland is much more expensive than I would have ever imagined. It was very expensive. Think Hawaii expensive. We were told multiple times that the reason we didn’t see Irishmen drinking in the bars or eating in the restaurants was because they simply couldn’t afford it.
A cheap meal consisted of a 15-17 Euros per person plus drinks. For example, in Thomastown, when we ate dinner at the pub, we had one bowl of Irish stew, one plate of a chicken dish, two tap beers and a plate with three small scoops of ice cream to split. The meal cost us more than 40 Euros, which is nearly 50 dollars! I could never have guessed the food would be so expensive.
Don’t rent a car and try to drive yourself unless you’re brave, have a good sense of distance, nerves of steel, and are not afraid. This isn’t nearly as bad as driving in India or Egypt, but the roads were often very narrow and extremely winding and twisty. There were single-lane bridges that were literally only wide enough to permit one car on them. There were many intersections where there was either no road signs at all or else dozens of them—too many road signs to take in—which makes it impossible to decide which direction to go as you drive.
Add to that, the roundabouts that most Americans don’t know how to use unless you happen to live in some towns in New England. They’re often a chaos of cars merging, entering and exiting in all directions, and it’s not always clear which exit needs to be taken. It's total chaos until you're used to it.
On top of that, remember that you’re driving on the left side of the road and controlling the car from the right-side of the vehicle and shifting with your left hand.
I was quite comfortable driving in Ireland, but I encountered quite a few cowards who went too slow, or heard horror stories about damaging their car. You’re better off going on a tour bus and letting someone else do the driving if you’re not up to the task.
If you do decide to drive in Ireland, I highly recommend one person be designated as the full-time driver (in this case, me) and another person be designated as full-time navigator who can keep track of the maps and tell the driver which exit he or she needs to take. I also recommend you get the full insurance, even if it costs more money. We didn’t get it, but I’m an exceptional driver.
Leave room in your luggage for buying gifts.
We used several maps and several books on the trip. I highly recommend taking only one book: The Eyewitness book. All others are secondary.
Bring your digital camera, a computer that you can download photos to, a USB reader that can read your camera's flash card (compact flash, secure digital, smart media, combo, etc). Make sure you have plenty of hard drive space. Make sure your camera is set to take photos at the camera's highest possible resolution. You can always cut a photo down in quality, as I did for the web site, but you can never go up in quality.