U.S. driver's licenses are recognized in Ireland.
Roads in the Irish Republic are generally good, though four-lane highways, or motorways, are the exception rather than the rule. In addition, many roads twist and wind their way up and down hills and through towns, which can slow you down. On small, rural roads, watch out for cattle and sheep; they may be just around the next bend. Reckless drivers (surveys says that Irish drivers are among the worst) are also a problem in the countryside, so remain cautious and alert.
Road signs in the republic are generally in both Irish (Gaelic) and English; destinations in which Irish is the spoken language are signposted only in Irish. The most important one to know is An Daingean, which is now the official name of Dingle Town. Get a good bilingual road map and know the name of the next town on your itinerary; neither the small local signposts nor the local people refer to roads by official numbers. Traffic signs are the same as in the rest of Europe, and roadway markings are standard. On the new green signposts in the republic distances are in kilometers; on some of the old white signposts they're still miles, but the majority of signposts are in kilometers. Most important, remember that speed limits are signposted in the republic (but not in Northern Ireland) in kilometers.
There are no border checkpoints between the republic and Northern Ireland, where the road network is excellent and, outside Belfast, uncrowded. Road signs and traffic regulations conform to the British system.
All ferries on both principal routes to the Irish Republic take cars. Fishguard and Pembroke are relatively easy to reach by road. The car trip to Holyhead, on the other hand, is sometimes difficult: delays on the A55 North Wales coastal road aren't unusual.
You can find gas stations along most roads. Self-service is the norm. Major credit cards and traveler's checks are usually accepted. Prices are near the lower end for Europe, with unleaded gas priced around €1.25 in Ireland and 1.12 a liter in Northern Ireland—gasoline prices in the United States are a bit more than half the price in Ireland. Prices vary significantly from station to station, so it's worth driving around the block (if you have enough gas!).
Most roads are paved and make for easy travel. Roads are classified as M, N, or R: those designated with an M for "motorway" are double-lane divided highways with paved shoulders; N, or national, routes are generally undivided highways with shoulders; and R, or regional, roads tend to be narrow and twisty.
Rush-hour traffic in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Belfast, and Galway can be intense. Rush hours in Dublin run 7 am to 9:30 am and 5 pm to 7 pm; special events such as football (soccer) games will also tie up traffic in and around the city, as will heavy rain.
Membership in an emergency car service is a good idea if you're using your own vehicle in Ireland. The Automobile Association of Ireland is a sister organization of its English counterpart and is highly recommended. Note that the AA can help you or your vehicle only if you are a member of the association. If not, contact your car-rental company for assistance. If involved in an accident you should note the details of the vehicle and the driver and witnesses and report the incident to a member of the Garda Síochána (the Irish Police) or the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) as soon as possible. Since traffic congestion is chronic in Dublin, emergency services are more likely to be dispatched quickly to help you and to clear the road. If your car does break down, if at all possible try to stop it in a well-lighted area near a public phone. If you're on a secondary or minor road, remain in your car with the doors locked after you call for assistance. If you break down on the motorway, you should pull onto the hard shoulder and stay out of your car with the passenger side door open and the other doors locked. This will allow you to jump into the car quickly if you sense any trouble. Make sure you check credentials of anyone who offers assistance—note the license-plate number and color of the assisting vehicle before you step out of the car.
An Garda Síochána (Police) (112 or 999. www.garda.ie.)
Automobile Association of Ireland (01/617–9999 in Ireland; 0800/887–766 in Northern Ireland; 08457/887–766 from cell phone in Northern Ireland; 1800/667–788 Roadside help in Ireland. www.aaireland.ie.)
Police Service of Northern Ireland (999. www.psni.police.uk.)
Rules of the Road
The Irish, like the British, drive on the left-hand side of the road in whatever direction they are headed (not, as in America, on the right-hand side). Safety belts must be worn by the driver and all passengers, and children under 12 must travel in the back unless riding in a car seat. It's compulsory for motorcyclists and their passengers to wear helmets. Speed limits in Ireland are posted in kilometers per hour and in Northern Ireland in miles per hour, so if crossing the border, be sure to make the adjustment. In towns and cities the speed limit is 50 kph (31 mph). On Regional (R) and Local (L) roads, the speed limit is 80 kph (50 mph), indicated by white signs. On National (N) roads, the speed limit is 100 kph (62 mph), indicated by green signs. On Motorways (M), the speed limit is 120 kph (74 mph), indicated by blue signs.
Drunk-driving laws are strict. The legal limit is 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. Ireland has a Breathalyzer test, which the police can administer anytime. If you refuse to take it, the odds are you'll be prosecuted anyway. As always, the best advice is don't drink if you plan to drive.
Speed cameras and radar are used throughout Ireland. Speeding carries an on-the-spot fine of €80, and if the Gardaí (police) charge you with excessive speeding you could be summoned to court. This carries a much higher fine, and you will be summoned within six months (meaning you could be required to return to Ireland).
Note that a continuous white line down the center of the road prohibits passing. Barred markings on the road and flashing yellow beacons indicate a crossing, where pedestrians have right of way. At a junction of two roads of equal importance, the driver to the right has right of way. On a roundabout, vehicles approaching from the right have right of way. Also, remember there are no left turns permitted on a red light. If another motorist flashes their headlights at you, they are not warning of a speed trap ahead, they are giving you right of way (or warning of a Gardaí/police checkpoint up ahead).
Despite the relatively light traffic, parking in towns can be a problem. Signs with the letter P indicate that parking is permitted; a stroke through the P warns you to stay away or you'll be liable for a fine of €20–€65; however, if your car gets towed away or clamped, the fine is around €180. In Dublin and Cork, parking lots are your best bet, but check the rate first in Dublin; they vary wildly.
In Northern Ireland there are plenty of parking lots in the towns (usually free except in Belfast), and you should use them. In Belfast, you can't park your car in some parts of the city center, more because of congestion than security problems.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's website. There are other reasons to book ahead, though: for popular destinations, during busy times of the year, or to ensure that you get certain types of cars (vans, SUVs, exotic sports cars).
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
If you're renting a car in the Irish Republic and intend to visit Northern Ireland (or vice versa), make this clear when you get your car, and check that the rental insurance applies when you cross the border.
Renting a car in Ireland is far more expensive than organizing a rental before you leave home. Rates in Dublin for an economy car with a manual transmission and unlimited mileage are from about €35 a day and €160 a week to €50 a day and €190 a week, depending on the season. This includes the republic's 12.5% tax on car rentals. Rates in Belfast begin at 25 a day and 130 a week, including the 17.5% tax on car rentals in the North.
Both manual and automatic transmissions are readily available, though automatics cost extra. Typical economy car models include Volkswagen Lupo, Ford Focus, Fiat Panda, and Nissan Micra. Minivans, luxury cars (Mercedes or Alfa Romeos), and four-wheel-drive vehicles (say, a Jeep Cherokee) are also options, but the daily rates are high. Argus Rent A Car and Dan Dooley have convenient locations at Dublin, Shannon, Belfast, and Belfast City airports as well as at ferry ports.
Most rental companies require you to be over 24 to rent a car in Ireland (a few will rent to those over 21) and to have had a license for more than a year. Some companies refuse to rent to visitors over 70, or in some cases 74. Children under 12 years of age aren't allowed to ride in the front seat unless they're in a properly fitted child seat.
Drivers between the ages of 21 and 26, and 70 and 76 will probably be subject to an insurance surcharge—if they're allowed to drive a rental car at all. An additional driver will add about €5 a day to your car rental, and a child seat costs about €20 for the rental and will require 24-hour advance notice.
Your driver's license may not be recognized outside your home country. You may not be able to rent a car without an International Driving Permit (IDP), which can be used only in conjunction with a valid driver's license and which translates your license into 10 languages. Check the AAA website for more info as well as for IDPs ($10) themselves. Happily, U.S. driver's licenses are recognized in Ireland.
Car Rental Resources
Local and international car hire companies in both the Republic and Northern Ireland are listed on www.carhireireland.com.
Argus Rent A Car (023/888–3002 in Ireland;. www.argus-rentacar.com.)
Dooley Car Rentals (800/331–9301 in U.S.; 062/53103 in Ireland. www.dan-dooley.ie.)
Avis (800/331–1212 in U.S.; 021/428–1111 in Ireland. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/472–3325 from U.S.; 01/837–9611 in Ireland. www.budget.com.)
Dollar (800/800–6000 in U.S.; 01/670–7890 in Dublin. www.dollar.com.)
Hertz (800/654–3001; 01/676–7476 in Ireland. www.hertz.com.)
Auto Europe (888/223–5555 in U.S.; 1800/472–3325 in Ireland. www.autoeurope.com.)
Europe by Car (800/223–1516; 212/581–3040 in U.S. www.europebycarblog.com.)
Eurovacations (877/471–3876. www.eurovacations.com.)
Kemwel (800/678–0678. www.kemwel.com.)
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