I'm going to begin this post with a disclaimer: Every trip I have ever taken to Ireland has involved renting a car. I truly believe this is the best way to see what Ireland has to offer the traveling family. That said, I'm going to lay out for you the three most popular independent travel options you'll find in Ireland: car rental, bus travel and train travel.
Planning Your Irish Vacation
While a tour, packaged with tour bus transport, puts many people at ease, what you gain in security you lose in timed visits, busy motorways and long periods of sitting. Take control of your Irish vacation by traveling independently, stopping when the mood strikes and following your own road.
Traveling Through Ireland by Train
There is no doubt that train travel is relaxing. You sit back and watch the beautiful landscape pass. But, as you can see on the map, Ireland's train system visits only major cities and large towns. Train travel in Ireland is great if you plan to explore urban areas, a few days in one, then off to the next. One thing to keep in mind- if you want to explore outside the town at all, be prepared to walk or rent a bike. Out of larger cities you may even find day tours of popular destinations like the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher or Giant's Causeway.
In the Republic of Ireland, the rail system is Iarnrod Eireann, while in Northern Ireland it is Northern Ireland Railways. While the two connect, a ticket from one system is not valid on the other. The only exception I have found to this is to buy a Eurail pass, which gives you travel “on the national rail networks of Ireland”.
Tip: If you decide to use a trail as your main mode of transport, Iarnrod Eireann has tourist rail options: a Trekker 4 consecutive day pass and an Explorer 5 day pass for any travel during 15 consecutive days.
Traveling Through Ireland by Bus
If you're traveling through Ireland by rail it's likely you'll find yourself on a bus sooner or later. Both Iarorod Eireann and Northern Ireland Railways have combination tickets for bus and train transport, for when you want to visit locations the train just doesn't go.
Dublin and Belfast both have superior in-city transport, while Ulster Bus and Bus Eireann can get you to most towns around Northern Ireland and the Republic. Again, once you reach your destination, be prepared to walk or rent a bike. Bus Eireann has tourist bus passes– including the Irish Rover pass which includes travel in Northern Ireland on Ulster Bus.
Bus travel can be highly affordable, especially if your plans are to stay close to your lodging or take day tour trips.
Driving in Ireland
The majority of questions I receive here at Ireland with Kids have to do with driving in Ireland. Here's a quick wrap up and links to more information.
From my first post titled Tips for Getting Around in Ireland:
In Ireland and the UK you drive on the left. The driver’s seat is on the right side of the car and you shift with your left hand. This actually sounds more difficult than it is. This is your smallest worry. More importantly you need to remember to look right, then left, then right again. This is very easy to forget when you are walking in a city. I have found that the best advice I can give is to just pause before you turn or cross a street. Look everywhere. Look again. Then proceed.
Be prepared to abandon your itinerary and follow interesting signs you see along the road. Some of the best memories are unplanned.
From the second post I wrote titled More Getting Around Ireland:
I believe you don’t drive through Ireland so much as you hurtle. Merriam-Webster defines hurtle as : to move rapidly or forcefully. And, quite honestly, when you are driving down roads like this you don’t have to be going very fast to feel like you are going way too fast.
Driving along the more scenic -and smaller- roads will definitely take you longer in terms of time but it will also provide you many more memories than the fast paced highways.
And very helpful tips from my Car Rentals in Europe post:
…we found that mini van translates to “7 passenger vehicle” in Ireland. Which is not the same as a mini van.
…be sure to pay in US dollars if at all possible. (With the exchange rate this will keep your costs down. Way down.)
I highly recommend calling the rental company a couple of days before you leave, just to confirm your reservation. At that time ask what kind of car you can expect- there are many European cars that we just don’t have here in the US. Go online and research that car. If it just won’t do for your family and plans call back and see what is available for an upgrade. And make your change online if possible. Or through your travel agent if you have used one.
Another thing to be aware of in Ireland is the CDW- collision damage waiver. I've found only two companies that include the CDW costs in their quotes. Be sure to ask about this, otherwise you'll get hit with a rather large, unexpected fee, at the airport. While certain credit cards offer auto insurance when you travel, if you read the fine print you'll see that it does not include Ireland. I recommend this post about CDWs and why you need it in Ireland.
In Ireland you'll see signs in both English and Irish. If you enter a Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area) the signs may all be in Irish, so be sure to check your maps carefully! It is helpful to get used to some common Irish place names you'll see on road signs.
The trick to enjoying your family vacation in Ireland is to know how you like to travel. You may find that you use all three methods of transportation to some degree.
Train routes image via MyGuideIreland.com