To drive or be driven, that was the question when my mother and I planned our trip to Ireland. Should we do the “typical tourist” thing and sign up for a bus tour? Or be independent, and strike out on our own in a rental car?
Unfortunately my impressions of bus tours were not very positive. I had visions of being shuffled from one tourist trap to another by a cranky guide with an incomprehensible accent – Mora na maidine dhuit. Dia ‘s Muire dhuit! (!?)
Driving, on the other hand, held it’s own perils. People in Ireland drive on the “wrong” side, and their farm animals tend to materialize without warning in front of your car. Of course driving would give me the freedom to see exactly what I wanted, but that was only if I dared to pry my eyes from the road.
Since the entire outcome of my once-in-a-lifetime trip rested on this decision, and I was not an experienced traveler, I decided to consult others who were. Their opinions were many and varied. “If you’ve never been to Ireland before,” said a travel agent friend, “take the bus. It’s easier and more relaxing.” Upon hearing this, a co-worker recoiled in horror. “Don’t take a bus tour! It costs more and you’re stuck with strangers!” “But gas is $6.00 a gallon in Ireland,” said another. “You should go on a walking tour.”
After listening to the experts I decided I was more confused than ever. The time had come to call in the big guns, the heavy-duty problem solving artillery. This decision called for . . . a list of pros and cons!
To Drive, (Self Guided Car Tours) Pros:
1. With self-driven tours, the advantages are many, but flexibility rates high on the list. When you happen onto a breathtaking view or an intriguing photo op, rather than flying by and incurring whiplash from gawking at what’s behind you, you can stop. You can spend the whole day in a particular spot. You obviously won’t cover as many miles this way, but the experience will be your own. You can do what interests you, even if it’s not on a list of must see stops.
2. When you travel in small groups, you are much more likely to interact with local people. Large bus tours understandably send the natives running for the hills, but many are quite willing to engage in conversation with a lone traveler or two. By getting to know the people, you come to understand the culture, and get a more accurate picture of what a place is really like
3. You get to choose the company you keep. Whether it’s friends or family, you know these people, and (hopefully) know what to expect from them. Traveling together can, if done right, be the basis of memories that will last a lifetime.
4. Self driven tours are also more economical. This depends of course on the lodgings and restaurants you choose, but many tour companies offer incredible rates on car tour packages. Sometimes you can find combination deals when you book flights to Ireland. Ireland’s climate is mild, and unless you’re one who melts in the rain (don’t go to Ireland if this is the case) you should have an enjoyable trip anytime of the year.
To Drive, Cons: 1. While spending time in Ireland, I overheard one of the locals discussing out-of -town drivers. “You can spot them a mile away,” he said, ” weaving down the middle of the road, with a crumpled map in one hand, and Rosary beads clutched in the other.” The art of driving on the left is a skill more easily acquired by some than others. Needless to say, the complications spiral off the chart if you’ve tried to save money (approximately $16 dollars a day) by renting a car with standard transmission. Even the most adaptable drivers have an adrenalin jolt or two in the beginning. So keep in mind, that this may not be the most relaxing way to go.
2. A driver is also at a disadvantage when it comes to sightseeing. While others are gasping at the scenery, you are required to keep your eyes on the road. Also, you’ll need to be on the lookout for unexpected roadside impediments – wandering flocks of sheep for example.
3. Be aware that the roads in Ireland are narrow, and if you meet a tour bus going the opposite direction you will be expected to get out of the way, or back up to a place where the less maneuverable vehicle can get around you.
4. Road signs can be confusing. Distances shown with a km following it are in kilometers, while those with nothing following it are in miles. Most signs are in English but not all. There are Gaelic speaking areas in the South where what appears on the road signs will not match your map. Should you find yourself hopelessly lost you can either enjoy the spontaneity of the experience, or dissolve into tears. The latter isn’t really necessary though, since you can always find a tour bus, and follow them to the next point of interest.
For the rest of the story, and the dramatic final decision – see To Drive or Be Driven Part Two. Coming soon to a blog post near this one.