How to drive like a boss in Ireland

Ireland. The Emerald Isle. Home of Saint Patrick, Guinness, Jameson’s, the Blarney Stone, fine music and literature and much more. And from the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland to the Cliffs of Moher and everything beyond, Ireland is one of the most scenic countries in the world. While Ireland can be explored without a car through a variety of ways, having a car allows one the freedom and latitude to stop at that quaint roadside pub; to see the abandoned ruins without other people, let alone tourists; and to experience everything the country has to offer. Keeping that in mind, like any foreign country, Ireland has a number of rules in both obtaining a rental - and driving that rental that differ greatly from much of the world. For starters, unless one is from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, India, Australia, Japan, or parts of southern Africa, the concept of driving on the left side of the road is completely foreign. But never fear - below, I’ll cover the basics of how to properly obtain a rental, and how to drive it before concluding with some helpful tips related to driving in Ireland that will leave even novice driver’s feeling like an expert.

Ireland's city streets provide many challenges, but having a rental car opens up the country to all types of exploration.

No Insurance? Do not pass go. Before one even sees their rental car, or even feels the trepidation of sitting in a right-hand driver’s seat, every traveler (and local) has to comply with the law, which in this case means having insurance on the rental. While this concept may seem strange to some people (mainly Americans) who can elect not to have coverage when obtaining a rental, it is a big deal in Ireland. Irish law requires that at a minimum, each rental have Collision Damage Waiver Insurance (CDW). Depending on the rental company, this cost may be factored into the daily rate; or it may be added at the counter when one is attempting to get the rental. As with all things having to do with travel, costs for CDW vary from company to company, vehicle, and time of year. It is also worth noting, when talking about rules, that in Ireland, one cannot rent a car under the age of 21, and that those individuals 21-24 will pay higher insurance premiums than those in the sweet spot of age, 25-75. Generally, CDW does not cover tire, window, paint, or undercarriage damage to the car. The other interesting thing regarding CDW is that once one has it, the deductible for damage is then reduced to a paltry 1,000-2,000 euros (approximately 1,090.00-2,180.00 USD).

Ireland's country has many scenic drives, including the Ring of Kerry and the Dark Hedges.

Sticker Shock. To ensure that one has enough funds (or wherewithal) to cover that deductible amount on the CDW, all rental companies will place a hold on your credit card for some 2,000.00 - 3,000.00 euros (2,180.00-3,270.00 USD) if you decline all coverage after CDW coverage (remember, one HAS to have CDW coverage to just get the vehicle). In simple terms what this means is this: if you rent a car in Ireland with only CDW coverage, you will have a hold placed on your credit card for your trip of around $2,500.00 USD. And, when I say credit card - I mean credit card - not debit card, not library card - credit card. 

 While many two-lane country roads appear narrow in Ireland, there is plenty of room for all types of traffic.

While many two-lane country roads appear narrow in Ireland, there is plenty of room for all types of traffic.

While some companies now take debit cards in Ireland, the vast majority - approximately 99% only take a credit card for this type of hold. Chances are if you’re reading this for the first time, you are assuming that I am an idiot who doesn’t know what I’m talking about; or you think this is outrageous, or some combination of the two. First, while I may be an idiot about some things, I am dead right on this based on experience and research. This is how the car insurance rental market works in Ireland (feel free to Google for contrary information if you still don’t believe me). Separately, if you want to get mad and complain about this, my suggestion is that you go to any travel forum online and vent about it. There’s a lot of other people doing the same. My opinion: renting a car in a foreign country is a privilege, not a right. No matter which country it is, its their country, their laws, and their life. They can run it as they see fit. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. For Ireland, if you really don't like it, or can’t afford it, you can travel to other countries; or you can travel Ireland by other means. Venting about it does nothing except perhaps make one look like a bigger idiot than me, and ignores the fact that automobile insurance in Ireland is difficult for actual Irish residents as well. But most importantly, there’s a way around this $2,500.00 USD hold for a simple, reduced fee, which is…

Take it easy. Every major car rental agency offers in addition to the CDW, excess car insurance or what is commonly known as the “Super Damage Waiver (Coverage)” (SDW). This is insurance that, you guessed it, for an additional daily fee basically stacks onto the CDW and reduces the deductible to zero. If you elect to get the SDW, the hold on your credit card goes to a palatable zero dollars. Now, everyone’s personal economics vary, but my advice would be to purchase the SDW along with the CDW, so as to avoid the massive credit card hold; and to more importantly, have peace of mind during your trip (SDW covers all types of damage). As a practical lesson, when I rented a car in Ireland at the end of 2016, I paid $257.00 USD for SDW for an eight day rental. While some people may think I wasted that amount, in my mind it was completely reasonable as I never worried about a thing regarding the car or driving - I knew I was covered fully. Like CDW, costs vary on SDW, and that is also a consideration, but again for me, the purpose of traveling among other things is to relax, and with full coverage in Ireland, one can sit back at not worry about the car, but merely concentrate on the driving.

Driving Ireland's country roads also sometimes means being prepared for all types of traffic.

Gone in Sixty Seconds. Along with insurance, the other thing travelers should realize about rentals in Ireland is that the standard rental is a manual transmission car, which is vastly different than rentals in North America, where the standard rental is an automatic car. While automatic transmission cars are readily available in Ireland, such a feature comes with an added cost. For people like me, who love driving, have driven in many countries, and who are very familiar with manual transmission cars, having a manual transmission rental is no big deal. But, for people who have never driven a manual transmission car, or are somewhat shaky with shifting gears or operating the clutch, having a manual transmission can turn an Irish vacation into a miserable experience.

The main reason for this is that driving a manual transmission car takes a certain amount of skill - knowing when to shift, how to shift and how to drive under normal conditions - so that when one gets into a new car that has a different set of gears and clutch, the driving experience is similar. This baseline is necessary for Ireland because the stick which is normally on the right hand side for a majority of the world now is on the left hand side. While those of us who are primarily left handed likely love this feature, for the other half of us, this adds another element of challenge (and at times difficulty) when driving in Ireland. In my mind, if you don’t have the natural skills to start out with, adding on another challenge is not the way to go, especially when you get to the other issues that present themselves in Ireland. If you don’t feel comfortable with a manual car in your home country, Ireland is not the place to learn - spend the extra money and rent the automatic. If you end up with a manual - be like me and enjoy every minute of the island, because there are many excellent locations to drive.

Even though there are difficulties at times, having a car in Ireland allows one to experience epic views like this, alone. 

Check yourself - before you wreck yourself. Once you’ve got the insurance and transmission issues sorted, it is now time to hit the road, and chances are its going to be a crash course unless you focus on what you’re doing, because the roads of Ireland are vastly different than the driving experience one has likely accumulated. Without getting into a complex discussion of left versus right and right versus left in terms of driving, which would confuse every reader, let me say this: unless you’re from a commonwealth country listed in the first paragraph, you’ve spent your entire life driving on the right (direction, not “correct”) side of the road. What this means is that on interstates, the far left lane is the “fast” lane. On surface streets, the standard check-down/safety look is to the left, because that is the direction traffic is coming from. A right turn is always into the near lane, and a left turn is into the far lane.The steering wheel is on the left; and the rearview mirror is on the right. Well, in former commonwealth countries like Ireland, all of that information goes out the door. What is up is down. Down is up. 

The stick is on the left. The steering wheel is on the right. The rearview mirror is on the left. The far right lane on the interstate is the “fast” lane. The standard check-down/safety look is always to the right, because that is the direction traffic is coming from. A left turn is always to the near lane, and a right turn is to the far lane. I could go on and on, but the main point people should know about driving in Ireland is to first, pay attention. It’s obvious. After all, you are driving in a country that operates differently than what your brain has experienced for its driving career. Right up there with pay attention is always watch the right. It takes a while, but once you get that in your head, life becomes much easier. The toughest thing about driving in Ireland generally, is that you get your rental in a big city - Dublin, Belfast, Shannon - and big city driving is much more difficult than the country roads. Be patient, be attentive, and be ready, and chances are, you’ll make it out of - or around the city with few difficulties. 

Irish Road Trip Sunset

You spin me right round baby, like a record, baby. Along with everything being reversed on Irish roads and cars, one of the more popular traffic features in Ireland is the roundabout. If you’re from North America, this feature is rarely used, so along with everything being reversed, it may seem especially complicated. However, roundabouts are actually fairly simple to navigate. First, remember, traffic is coming from the right. One needs to watch the right hand side before pulling out - always. While the left hand side isn’t immaterial - it’s near immaterial. Second, every roundabout has two lanes: the inner - and the outer. The outer lane is always the lane that is the edge of the circle. The inner lane is always the one closest to the core. Ring selection is also important, but simple. The rule is as follows: if you are turning off on the first exit on the roundabout, you enter the roundabout in the outer lane, and stay in that lane. If you are exiting any other exit on the roundabout - second, third, fourth, whatever - you take the inner lane. With these things in mind - watch the right; and how to chose your lane, chances are you should be fine navigating roundabouts. But remember: if you have difficulty, the nice thing about a roundabout is that you can go around one more time to get it right.

Thread the needle. Ireland is a country with a rich history, and in terms of driving, what this means is that like many European cities, most Irish towns and cities have large sections with narrow streets. These streets can lead to congestion to go short distances, and can lead to the feeling like there is not enough room for two-lane traffic. In this respect - keep calm - traffic jams are a world-wide feature - and always remember that unless a street is marked one-way (which it will be - boldly) there is room for cars on both sides. Similarly, a number of Irish country roads are notoriously narrow, which again calls for patience, and an ability to tune out the frightened comments of parties in the passenger seats. Most of all, be a confident - but respectful driver, and don’t be afraid to pull over in the country to allow locals to pass.

Fueling Up. While it may seem obvious, check what kind of fuel your rental takes before you complete the checkout process at your rental company. Unlike North America, diesel is the preferred fuel in Ireland and much of Europe. Placing unleaded fuel in a diesel engine or vice versa will result in a one-way trip on a flatbed tow truck. In terms of gas prices, it is important to remember that gas is sold by the liter; and that as an island, Ireland has expensive prices in general, although not as expensive as say, Iceland. While they are not everywhere in the country, I found that one of the best places to stop for fuel when possible were Applegreen centers, as they always had a number of restaurants, bathrooms, and free Wifi in addition to gas.

The taxman cometh. Irish interstates and roads have a number of toll booths and toll spots, especially in and around Dublin. With the exception of the M50 (a ring expressway around Dublin), all of these tolls and booths operate like anywhere else in the world. If you are driving around Dublin and are on the M50 in the requisite marked zone, there is a toll - but no booth. What this means is that you will have to pay the toll online within a day. Failure to do so will lead to increased fees which your rental company will ultimately pass on to you.

No matter how tired you are, you must always obey the law when driving - or parking in Ireland.

The boot! The boot! While one should never park illegally, at home or abroad for a number of reasons, Dublin takes such violations seriously, as I can attest to from my own experience. On my first night in Dublin, I was jetlagged, and tired after a long day of travel. When it was suggested to me that I park on the nearby surface street, I was happy to find what I thought was a spot. The next morning, I was raring to get an early start on my day with my wife, and I went out to my car to find that…it had a boot on it. For those not in the know, a “boot” is a device that restricts one (or more) of a car’s wheels from driving. In North America, the boot is used generally for habitual offenders in urban cities.

Getting booted in Dublin is easily avoidable, but easily rectified as it is commonplace. 

But, in Dublin, the boot is commonplace. In my situation, my car had been on the street for about nine hours. My offense? Parking in a zone that was clearly marked “No Parking” during the time I had parked there. In retrospect, the signs were clear and it was unquestionably my fault, no doubt about it, but rather than be faced with a ticket that I could pay at a later date, I found my freedom restricted by the boot. Just as I was about to panic about when the boot could be removed, and how my vacation day was ruined, I read the citation, and learned that all I had to do was call a number to pay the fine, and a crew would be out at my vehicle to fix the problem (boot) within an hour. Once I knew that having a boot was, well, common, I relaxed, and the situation became an expensive (80 euro) lesson. I followed the ticket’s instructions, and sure enough, within forty-five minutes, a two man team showed up and removed the boot, and assured me that this type of thing “happened all the time in Dublin”. So, again, while I would never recommend parking illegally, if you happen to be in Dublin, and make a mistake like me, know that if you can pay the fine, it will get sorted beyond quickly, and there is nothing to worry about.

If you’ve read all these tips and suggestions this far, the last thing that I would suggest is to enjoy your time driving - like a boss - around Ireland. The country is indeed truly stunning, and by having a rental (if you can afford the insurance, gas, and other costs), you do get to have a memorable time driving around all of the scenic portions of the country that other people miss; and the drive itself also turns into part of the travel adventure. Also, if you’ve got a suggestion, tip, or anything else, be sure to leave it below in the comments for other travelers.