A Detailed Guide To Renting A Car & Driving In Ireland
An Ireland roadtrip conjures up images of shimmering green hills, rugged cliffs with crashing waves, rainbows arcing over sparkling blue ocean…and I’m here to tell you that those images are 100% true.
It’s a travel bucket list item for many people, but the idea of driving on the left and navigating in another country can be daunting to some. So this post provides a detailed guide to driving in Ireland, renting a car, and more Ireland roadtrip tips—because it’s an amazing experience and shouldn’t be scary at all!
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The main thing that throws people in the U.S. and other countries used to driving on the right is the fact that you drive on the left in Ireland. Personally (and somewhat weirdly), I’ve found that I quite like driving on the left, and have done so in Ireland and Scotland (twice each), England, and New Zealand.
Most people will find that they adjust fairly easily, though I still frequently hit the windshield wiper stick thinking it’s my turn signal 🙂
Here are some of the questions this Ireland roadtrip tips post will go into:
- Do I need a car in Ireland?
- Is driving in Ireland safe?
- Do I need an international driver’s license?
- How do I navigate?
- Should I get a manual or automatic?
- What type of insurance should I get?
- What is it like driving on the left side of the road?
- Plus things like road signs and etiquette
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Do I need a car in Ireland?
It depends on the type of trip you want, and what you want to see. If you’re just hitting some of the main tourist areas like Dublin, Galway, or other cities, maybe want to see the Cliffs of Moher or Killarney, etc., then you can definitely find a tour group that will take you by bus to those area.
For me, that’s not the Ireland I want to see, and not the Irish experience I’d enjoy (though yes, see Dublin without a car). I chose to drive in Ireland because I wanted to really immerse myself in the country and visit places that a tour bus wouldn’t even be able to get to—the gorgeous, uncrowded nooks and crannies of the island.
I wanted the control and freedom to go where I want, when I want, and so that definitely meant renting a car. Ireland has plenty of public transportation, but it wouldn’t get me to where I wanted to go.
Is driving in Ireland safe?
That’s pretty subjective, to be honest. From a people safety (crime, etc.), yes generally (though never a good idea to leave valuables in your car).
Road quality will vary. The highways (motorways) are really good, but in the more remote areas you’ll encounter lots of very narrow roads and many access lanes aren’t paved. You need to be alert to oncoming cars (many roads aren’t wide enough for two vehicles, or only barely) and livestock in the road. Plus it rains a fair amount, reducing visibility.
I only recommend driving in Ireland if you are a strong, confident driver in your current country. I’m a very confident driver overall (including on dirt/gravel roads, which I grew up on), and so I do fine in Ireland. But no matter what, I’d strongly recommend getting an automatic car, which I’ll speak to more below.
See some of the amazing places I’ve gone in Ireland because I drove…
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Tips for planning your Ireland roadtrip
The great thing is, Ireland is a fairly small and compact country so you can really have a rich and varied roadtrip experience without driving a billion miles.
However, it’s easy to get deceived by the seemingly-short distances. Don’t rely on Google Maps for time estimates unless you are ONLY on a motorway. You definitely need to assume any leg of your journey will take longer…plus you’ll want to get out and take photos.
To that point, as you’re planning your trip, you can look up distances and driving times on Google Maps because it’s easy (I add 25% to the time estimates, conservatively), but I’d strongly recommend using AA roadtrip planner as well. It’s a great resource and a bit more accurate on times and routes.
You also may be tempted to try and see absolutely everything. Resist the temptation to pack too much in and have a full day of driving. I’m probably the most guilty of this, but also start each day with a mental shortlist of stops that will have to fall off the day’s itinerary because I bit off more than I can chew. This is definitely one of those “the journey IS the destination” experiences.
Don’t plan to drive in Dublin, it’s not worth it. If you’re flying in or out of Dublin, pick up or drop off the car at the airport and take a taxi into the city when needed. I can’t speak to cities like Galway and Shannon, but generally I try to avoid driving in larger European cities when possible as there are often more complex intersections, areas with extra fines, parking’s a nightmare, etc.
Book your rental car well ahead of time! That’s especially true for automatics, which are still less common and so get snapped up quickly.
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Renting a car in Ireland (& insurance)
And that brings us to the actual process of selecting a rental car company and making sure things go as smoothly as possible. Renting a car is still one of those things that just kind of stresses me out, as I assume if anything can go wrong for me, it will when I’m driving someone else’s car.
Choosing the right company is always a bit of a process. For renting a car, I always search in a few different places to start with, and compare both the prices and specific offerings/benefits. My go-to’s are DiscoverCars, RentalCars.com, and AutoEurope. I’ve used Sixt (up to 15% off with this link) in several countries and been very happy with them.
Get as small of a rental car as is humanly possible for your travel party (even if it means packing lighter). You’ll not only save on gas, but will be able to find parking easier, and will be able to access all those magical narrow roads and paths I talked about earlier. If they offer to upgrade you to a larger, fancier one at the desk, say no!
Do I need an international driver’s license in Ireland?
No, if you have a U.S. driver’s license you do not. I assume that applies to most countries but I’d definitely check with the rental car company to be sure.
If you’re on the younger (under 25) or the older (over 70) side, you definitely should make sure to confirm the rental car company’s age rules.
Should I get an automatic or manual car in Ireland?
Get an automatic. Just do it. Yes, it’s more expensive (sometimes almost double), but unless you are a super confident stick-shift driver AND comfortable driving on the left, it’s worth it from both a safety and peace of mind/lower stress standpoint.
And honestly, no matter how comfortable you are driving stick, you will thank me later. There is just too much new stuff to deal with—super narrow roads and bridges, hills, huge buses, no shoulders with low walls right against the road, roundabouts, livestock, navigation, passing, etc. Plus, you probably want to enjoy the scenery as well.
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What type of car rental insurance do I need?
Ireland is definitely a place where you want the maximum amount of insurance, including glass and tires (which are typically separate). That’s usually a Super CDW or something like that with the rental car company. Tires and glass (windshields especially) are two things that tend to be highly at risk in Ireland, so the extra insurance is worth it.
However, I’ve always used my Chase Sapphire credit card’s car rental insurance benefit and been very happy with it. So I always decline all of the rental car’s insurance and use that instead. But you need to know exactly what you’re getting into with credit card rental insurance.
- Some credit cards/travel insurance companies explicitly EXCLUDE Ireland in their coverage and most rental car companies need a confirmation from your credit card/travel insurance company that they, in fact, do cover rental cars in Ireland.
- I always make sure I get a letter from the credit card company’s benefits department that states that the insurance exists and covers me in the Republic of Ireland (or Northern Ireland, if that’s where you’re going).
- I call ahead to the credit card company to get this and confirm the coverage, because I got burned once a long time ago (in Ireland, actually) and wasted a couple hours on the phone on arrival.
- Make sure you read through the whole credit card benefits details, all the terms & conditions, to make sure you know what you can and can’t do under their coverage. Do your research.
A couple other tips for renting a car in Ireland…a flat tire might be your most likely issue, and cell signal is not always good, so make sure before leaving the car rental company that you have a spare tire in good condition, and the tools needed to change it.
Additionally, have them activate your car’s “lane departure warning” if it’s not already. This setting indicates when you are veering across the divide or too close to a wall or the shoulder, particularly helpful when you’re not used to driving on the left.
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How do I navigate around Ireland?
You have a couple options here. Certainly a physical map isn’t a terrible idea to have, but I haven’t done that in over a decade. Most people will say you HAVE to have a device like a TomTom (rented from the rental car company), and I can’t necessarily argue with them but I personally have not had that experience.
I haven’t had issues with using my phone and Google Maps to navigate in Ireland. If you get a temporary international plan (which I strongly recommend, and is typically about $10/day), you can use a decent amount of data without incurring big fees.
To avoid using tons of roaming data and going over my daily limit, I’ll briefly turn on my data/roaming, search for where I’m going on Google Maps, hit “Go”, and then turn my data back off. The app will have already remembered the route and will take you there (if you get lost and have to re-route, you’ll have to turn your data back on briefly). You can also download offline maps for an area when you’re on wifi.
Something to know is that most gas stations have free wifi (some restaurants as well). If you are lost and can’t get signal, pull into a gas station and get hooked up.
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Overall driving experience & safety
This section is partly tips, but also just some details on what to expect when driving on the left in general, and Ireland’s roads in particular. Again, take your time…enjoy the scenery, stop and take photos, and don’t rush too much.
First off, ALWAYS LOOK RIGHT!!! When it comes to things like roundabouts, oncoming traffic is coming from the right. Remember this when walking too.
When it’s time to fill up your car, petrol = gas = green. Unlike in the U.S., where we call what most cars use “gasoline” and instead diesel is green, in Ireland the gasoline is called “petrol” and is indicated by green coloring (diesel is black). Do not mix these two up!
When getting gas, you fill up before you pay. Just fill your tank, then walk to the register and tell them which pump you were on.
Drunk driving is a very serious offense in Ireland, and they have a very low tolerance limit (.05 vs. .08 BAC in the U.S.).
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Navigating the narrow roads
When it comes to roads in the more remote areas (basically anywhere off the highway and out of urban areas), we’re really talking about “country lanes” more often than not.
The roads are narrow and winding…like, EXTREMELY narrow at times, and also very rough at times. Now, you can avoid those places and roads, but you’ll miss out on some of the best that Ireland has to offer (like the stunning Beara Peninsula).
Often they’re really only a wide one-car road vs. a true two-way. And often there are no shoulders at all, and in many cases there’s a low hedge (of stiff wooden thorny branches) or stone wall right against the road (again, no shoulder) that can easily do damage to the car. I reiterate, get good insurance, including tires!
Outside of the main highways, you always need to watch out for livestock on the road! Livestock in the country tend to be free-roaming, and will frequently cross the road and even sleep in the road at night. They don’t care about you, but you should care about them.
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Road markings and signs
Speed limits are clearly marked, and Google Maps often told me the speed limit as well (note, speed limits are posted in km/hr).
The center divide is a white dashed/broken line, but many smaller roads don’t have a center line marked—don’t assume that means it’s a one-way, it is probably NOT! If the white middle line is solid on your side of the road, you’re not supposed to pass. Roads signs are pretty self-explanatory if you’re used to driving in a western culture.
Instead of traffic lights going from green to yellow to red, then turn green (like in the U.S.), the traffic lights go from red, to yellow, to green (when you can go). A bit like an F1 race 🙂
Always carry some toll money on you (coins, ideally). There should be someone at the booth to collect a toll and you can pay with larger bills (5,10, 20, 50 euro) or with credit card if needed. But it’s easier to just pay with coins and dump them in the basket.
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A lot of etiquette really boils down to 1) using common sense, 2) being considerate of others, and 3) taking your time. When you first drive the country roads, you may feel a bit like you are playing a game of chicken. You have cars barreling at you with no center divide, and surely something’s got to give!
It can be a bit nerve-wracking, but just go slow and you will get used to it. There were times I felt like I needed nerves of steel (or something slightly less than steel, but still very strong) for driving, just to be able to react calmly and not panic or swerve the wrong way in a very tight space.
Here are some tips to help you be prepared and less stressed:
- In some places the roads are so narrow that you or the person coming at you will need to gently pull into a little bump-out in the road to let the other person pass.
- Drivers there are quite polite about this and you should be too…generally speaking, whoever is closest to a bump-out on their side of the road should take it (even if it occasionally means going in reverse).
- For one-lane bridges, the car that gets there first should usually have the right-of-way. If two cars are coming up around the same time, they should both stop to make sure it’s clear who’s going. If you’re approaching it alone, you don’t have to stop.
- Tour buses will sometimes come at you on a narrow road when there is no lane divide. Pull as far left as you can (to the shoulder, even if there isn’t one), and simply stop. Let them squeak by with two inches of space—they’re more experienced. The great thing about more remote areas is that few tour buses can get there…
- In fact, this is a good tip for any two-way passing on a narrow road if you’re scared…when in doubt, pull over to the left and just stop, and let the other driver go past you.
- If you are coming down a pass or on a narrow road, the car that is going uphill yields—that is, they back up into the nearest shoulder. This can be sketchy but the locals are pretty skilled.
- When in doubt…pull over and take a deep breath if you’re overwhelmed!
And then there’s the tip that I PERSONALLY feel the most passionate about—getting over when people want to pass! Sometimes you’re the slow person that people want to pass, and it’s just polite to PULL OVER. It can be a bump-out, or even just on the side of the road. But it’s safer for everyone and then you can take your time and enjoy.
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Okay, a few more Ireland driving tips before we go, but more on the urban side of things…when there are multiple lanes (like on a motorway), slow traffic should stay to the left (the opposite of in the U.S.). Don’t be that person sitting in the right-hand lane going at a snail’s pace.
It’s good to learn the etiquette for roundabouts before you go.
- If you need to take the first exit, stay left (think of it as staying in the lane closest to the exit), and use your turn signal.
- If you need to exit the second or third exit in the roundabout, generally you should stay in the right lane (though I’ll say I will usually do left lane if I’m doing the second exit). Again, use your turn signal and check over your left shoulder when exiting.
- If you are lost…go around again, and again, and again, until you feel good about exiting. Yes, I’ve done this 🙂
In towns and cities, parking tends to be fairly loosey-goosey, but do check any signs to make sure it’s not prohibited.
If you’re in a city and unsure of where to go at a complicated intersection (particularly with driving on the left), just follow the car in front of you through the intersection. Easiest way to be safe.
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So hopefully you’re feeling more confident about driving in Ireland, from renting a car to dealing with the roads and other drivers!
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