whew. that title was a mouthful, i know. but it's essential. because if you live in/come from a country where you drive on the left-hand side of the road then you don't even need to be reading this post (though if you choose to stay - thank you!)
but let's back up for a moment and before we walk through the in's and out's, tip's and trick's, let's start with the entire thought process of renting a car. because there is a whole lot that goes into this for your first time. i mean, i'm a pretty laid back person. i'm also a highly organized person which puts me in this unique position where i prefer to go with the flow while knowing all of my options. weird, right? let's begin!
step 1: i've booked my trip to ireland, should i rent a car?
the short answer? yes. now of course if you're not leaving dublin, or belfast, or cork, or whichever city you're staying in, then you can probably forgo the expense that comes with renting a vehicle. but if you're planning on seeing that little thing that's kinda beautiful called the irish countryside (*insert sarcasm*) then yes. and it's worth it. in a nutshell - get comfortable with being uncomfortable (a saying that a girlfriend of mine told me when I started on my weightloss journey!).
so why should you rent a car? because the majority of ireland is countryside. this isn't london and you're not hopping on the eurail to get you to paris. you wanna see it? you gotta get there on four wheels. and trust me when i say that you don't want to spend your time on the motorway (aka freeway) because you'll miss SO MUCH.
step 2: alright fine, i'll rent a car. how does that work?
congratulations! you've made the brave decision to drive in another country. at this point you're more excited about your trip than the realization that you will be driving on the left-hand side of the road (from the right-hand side of the car). that realization comes in step 3 and right now we gotta focus on "how do i rent the damn thing"?
we reserved our car through expedia, but most third party travel websites offer car rental reservations. and just like booking any trip, be sure you're using a reputable third party. and of course you can go directly to the car rental website as well, and it's probably not a bad idea to do so and compare prices.
manual vs. automatic
you're on the car rental site and you're probably thinking 'wow there are a lot of manuals and WOW automatic's are way more expensive!'. yes and yes, your keen observation skills are still intact. most folks in ireland don't drive automatics. so if you're lucky enough to know how to drive a stick-shift than congratulations! you just saved yourself hundreds of dollars. if you're like dylan and i have never been taught how to drive a stick shift, well, just know that it's going to cost you more.
when you're done taking a drink because you realized you have to spend lots more to rent an automatic (or taking a drink to celebrate knowing how to drive a manual!) it's time to pick your car.
now i want you to pause. stop. and take what say next very seriously - unless you're traveling with a family of 5, YOU. DO. NOT. NEED. TO. RENT. A. BIG. VEHICLE. That SUV you drive at home does not need to follow you to ireland. and i get it. i love my jeep grand cherokee i drive at home but you're not going to be in america anymore and unless you're only traveling on the motorway, that big car is going to be a pain in your ass as you attempt to navigate the narrow lanes in ireland. and trust me. no one cares what you're driving. you're not vacationing for other people, you're vacationing to have fun and having fun is not navigating around the countryside on a two lane road that is as wide as your one car. we'll talk more about that later, and feel free to skip ahead if you don't believe me.
license? insurance? what do i need to rent this car?
both! but at the time of rental reservation - nothing. you shouldn't be renting a car unless you have a valid driver license and nothing changes about that when you rent a car in ireland. your passport will not rent you a car, even if you have it reserved. your passport may be your valid form of id and is required for air transportation, but it doesn't show the car rental agency that you're legally licensed to operate a vehicle. so be sure to bring both.
the easy part about insurance is that you don't have to rent it at your time of purchase, but you most certainly do when you pick up your car. it does buy you time to do the research on what type of insurance you'll want to get though, and i'm going to tell you what other bloggers, youtubers, and professional travelers told me in all my research - get the full insurance. get the insurance that you can drop the keys off and nobody can penalize you for the tree branch scratches. barring any major damage no one can ask questions and you're not liable.
it will be expensive. especially if you're staying for two weeks like we did, but it's worth it. because as i've mentioned before, and as you'll read later, the lanes are SMALL when you venture outside of the motorway.
gps. do it. add it on. because those country roads are going to start to look the same and you're not going to have any mobile service.
first - you have no idea where you're going. and that's okay - you're in a new country! it's expected.
second - i don't recommend relying on your google maps. as i just mentioned mobile service will go in and out, especially on the country roads. and the time you're going to need it most will be when you're literally in the middle of nowhere (a beautiful middle of nowhere though) and you most definitely won't be able to pull up your gps.
also, if you're doing any kind of a road trip, using your gps can drain your battery and your phone usage quickly. quicker than you realize. this isn't you gps'ing yourself to the newest restaurant in town, this is you having an adventure through ireland. save your data for when you get your destination and get a gps in the car.
pickup time/location + drop-off time/location
you'll want to set all of this based on what time and where your flight arrives, and what time and location your flight leaves.
we flew into dublin and out of cork so we had to be careful to change the drop off location when we booked. the site will likely default your drop-off location to the same as your pick-up, so just take your time filling out the details and reviewing them before reserving.
step 3: the realization that you're a little bit nervous and how to prepare for it
alright so if anyone is reading this thinking "whatever, i totally wasn't nervous for my first time driving on the other side of the road", my hats off to you. and i'm not talking deep seated jittery nerves that tie a knot in your stomach, but normal "oh shit, how am i going to do? will i be a quick learner? will it feel natural?" thoughts.
first, know that everyone is different. dylan and i are not generally nervous people, but i can tell you that the morning of our flight we were at home drinking coffee and i thought 'you know what, i'm going to just youtube 'driving in ireland' and see what comes up.'
we watched a few first person videos that other people had posted of them driving, giving tips and tricks, and it was really helpful. it's not going to take the place of what it's like to actually drive, but it at least gives you some perspective.
step 4: you're there! time to rent that car
you've made through 2 airline meals, a snack, 2-3 in-flight movies, a power nap, and you're finally in ireland! but before you can even leave the airport you need to pick up this elusive rental car, so follow the airport signs to the rental car pickup and find your agency you rented with.
we rented through europcar, a rental agency exclusive to europe, and we had the BEST customer service from the man who checked us in. we ended up with a little bit bigger car than we had hoped - we tried to reserve a compact, automatic - but we knew gps was important so he upgraded us at no charge. he also recommended the 'drop your keys and go' insurance, so we signed everything and off we went. it was finally time to see what we were made of.
step 5: the car
now we used the scientific 'rock, paper, scissors' method to decide who would drive first and dylan won (or lost?), so he was up first. we got to our car loaded up with our bags, and got comfortable. it's a car, so you can figure out how to adjust your mirrors and use your nav.
your gas tank will be labeled - diesel. diesel is the common petrol in ireland and 'petrol' is the term you'll hear for 'gas'.
when you're in the drivers seat you'll have a big window cling at the bottom of the windshield in front of you that says 'stay in the left lane'. a reminder you'll be thankful for. it's just not your norm when you're used to driving on the right-hand side of the road.
step 6: driving
here it is. all the prep work in the world can't actually take the place of putting your foot on the gas pedal and embarking into traffic. especially into dublin traffic if that's where your adventure begins. to be fair we were going on one hour of sleep because neither one of us is good airplane sleepers, but if i had to describe the initial drive from the airport to the hotel in one word? terrifying.
mutli-lane roundabouts, bus lanes, cyclists weaving in and out of traffic, turning from the left lane - sweet dumbledore santa jesus! i'm not sure if it would have been less terrifying had we not only had one hour of sleep, or if it was simply just the initial rite of passage that one takes their first time driving on the other side of the road, but all we wanted was to be at the hotel and out of the death box.
now i want to note a couple things. being the passenger is scary. those other travel bloggers and you tubers i had read and watched before leaving the states all said that your natural tendency when you're driving will be to hug the left. so when you're the passenger sitting on the left-hand side of the car and you look out the window and a city bus is 3" from your car? well you might freak out a little bit.
but it's also really important that as the passenger you try NOT to freak out. keep it inside. calmy tell your driver that they're hugging the left but realize that this is a new and different experience for them too. i'm giving you this advice as someone who went the opposite way and learned my lesson (sorry babe!).
if i'm sounding a bit dramatic it's probably because that's how it felt in the moment. my normally calm, happy, positive and laid back demeanor did a 180 for the first 20 minute drive. seriously. i don't get upset about hardly anything and my reaction is usually "okay, what is the solution? how do we change this?" so lesson learned, and with everything in life the more you do it the better you get at it. and the same is true for driving in ireland.
my research had told me that it takes about 2 days to adjust to driving and i would say that's accurate. in the spirit of always being truthful we switched once, and as i was rounding a corner a big tour bus came barreling around the corner, halfway in my lane, and the driving gods were thankfully in my corner because one there was a rare curb that i was able to jump on to.
dylan was in the passengers seat getting a very real, first-hand experience to what it's like from that point of view (spoiler alert: he didn't like it), and I pulled over at the next turn off, laughing hysterically because what else does one do when when they see their life flash in front of an irish tour bus. we both agreed we would rather switch seats. i'm a better navigator and he's a better left-hand side of the road driver, so we switched and went on our way. by the next day we were MUCH more cool, calm, and collected.
m, n, r & l roads
roads in ireland have four different designations:
m (motorway) - similar to a freeway with wide, multiple lanes in both directions. the motorway is the fastest and most spacious route to your major cities, but keep in mind you're going to miss seeing the beautiful Irish countryside or driving through small villages and cities. if your final destination isn't a major city you're very likely to have to take an 'n' or even an 'r' road to get there.
n (national) - national roads vary a lot. at times they were like a two lane highway, and other times they seemed to get a bit smaller and we'd say "are you sure this shouldn't be a rural road?"
r (regional) - think 'rural' instead of 'regional' and you'll be on the right track. these small roads are tiny, one-lane looking roads that are two lanes.
l (local) - there are actually various types of local road designations in ireland that i'm not going to get into, but just know that if you take an l road it's going to be vary narrow. watch out for cars coming around bends in what physically is the size of a one lane road.
step 7: the roads
so you've probably got the sense that the roads are narrow? ;-) much more narrow than in the states is probably an important qualifier. because obviously if you live in ireland or any other country with more narrow roads that's your norm. but for us from the states? narrow!
you adjust. you brush up against some tree branches. and since you got the 'drop the keys and go' insurance you don't worry about it!
caution on curves
one cool thing that they do on the roads in ireland is to paint on them to slow down or use caution. you're going around many windy curves and the speed limit doesn't necessary slow down, but you'll probably have to, so they warn you both in street signs and paint on the road when it's time to hit the brakes.
they're everywhere. and they're not nearly as scary as they might sound or initially seem. at first your reaction might be something like 'oh holy shit, which lane am i supposed to be in and where am i supposed to exit?!' well that gps you got in your rental car should help you on which exit to take.
now as far as the lanes it goes like this. let's say your roundabout has 3 exits and 3 lanes. this is pretty standard in ireland. stay in the left lane (or far outside lane) to get off on the first exit. stay in the left OR middle lane to get off on the second exit, and stay in the far right (inside) lane to get off on the third exit. and it honestly makes so much sense once you do it a few times.
i don't know if that's what they're officially called, but you'll notice as you're winding through the roads that there are various places to pull off to the side. not only can these be great picture taking opportunities, but you can, and should, use them to pull over and let people who want to go faster, pass you.
we found ourselves driving under the speed limit often when we were on the windy and narrow roads. we were new! and nobody was mad about it, so it was only courteous for us to pull over when we spotted an opening to let the locals go by at their faster speed. don't feel bad for having to go slower, but also just be an aware driver.
overall driving thoughts
aside from the fact that it's really the way to go if you want to see the country, i highly recommend renting a car in ireland. this seemingly overwhelming thing became a normal routine by day 2 or 3 for us. sure you'll have some white knuckle moments going around curves, but you'll relax into it pretty quickly, and as long as you treat your road trip like the fun and adventurous experience it should be, you won't regret it for a moment. now that we have our feet under us for driving on the left-hand side of the road we can't wait to rent cars in other countries and explore!
are you heading to ireland soon and renting a car? pin this post so you have all the information you'll need for your road trip!