Ireland is a fantastic self drive destination. Even exploring a short stretch of the impressive long-distance (for Ireland) drive routes such as the 1,500 miles Wild Atlantic Way connect sublime landscapes with quaint, Old World towns that will have you reaching for your camera.
The people of Ireland are generally incredibly friendly and welcoming to visitors, while the country has a considerable number of critical historical sights – from the Giant’s Causeway and Blarney Stone to the Book of Kells at Trinity College Dublin. Exploring these sights and driving in Ireland is not impossible for tourists.
Touring Ireland by car is undoubtedly one of the best ways of getting about, due to the rural location of many of the country’s best sights; for most visitors, this will mean renting a vehicle. So, what do you need to know when driving in Ireland? We explain all, starting with a little about the country itself.
Driving in Ireland
Located in the Atlantic Ocean off the West Coast of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland has been independent since 1922. As a member of the European Union, it uses the Euro as currency.
The population is roughly five million people, the majority of whom live in the capital Dublin – the site of the country’s main international airport. Cork is the next largest city in the republic but with a population roughly six times smaller!
The terminology of Ireland can be confusing and speaks volumes about the island’s history, both distant and modern. The Republic of Ireland (also called Eire) shares a land border with Northern Ireland (which is not to be confused with the north of Ireland). Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, with the Queen as head of state and pounds sterling as the currency. Crossing between the two is smooth, without any checks in place (though make sure you have the relevant passport documentation/visas).
Sometimes the term ‘the island of Ireland’ is used to denote the geographical entity that incorporates both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Distances and speeds in the republic are measured in kilometers, while in Northern Ireland, they are measured in miles.
We concentrate our tips on the Republic of Ireland, but many still pertain to Northern Ireland. Just remember to switch between miles and kilometers when crossing the border.
Ireland Driving Side
The Republic of Ireland (and Northern Ireland too) drives on the left-hand side of the road – the opposite side of the road to North Americans. It can take a little bit of getting used to, as you’ll find the steering wheel on the opposite side of the car, although the pedals remain in the same order as in the US.
So, from left to right, the pedals go – clutch (in manual transmission vehicles), brake, gas. Trust us when we say it can be particularly challenging to remember which side of the road to drive on when there’s no other traffic on the road, but after an hour you will get used to it!
Another point to note is that most rental vehicles in Ireland will more than likely be all manual transmission vehicles. That means you will have to change gears with your left hand instead of right.
If you’re not confident driving a manual transmission vehicle, make sure you specify a request for an automatic when you book. This may cost you more, but make your trip less stressful.
If you have more specific rental vehicle requirements a few sites I like to compare rates and specs on are:
- Discover Car Hire: Provides comparisons for car rentals in Ireland.
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Europe.
Inspect Your Vehicle
Even if you’re a regular driver in the US, it’s well worth having the rental clerk take you around the vehicle. Not only is this important to ensure they have any damage noted down (so you don’t get charged for it later), but also so they can show you the basic functions of the vehicle.
There have been times when we’ve been unable to access the trunk (generally called the boot in Ireland). Different makes of vehicle have different ways of engaging reverse gear, which can be difficult to guess. Make sure the clerk also shows you how to operate the indicator lights for turning, hazard lights, and windscreen wipers – it’s Ireland, you’re probably going to need them!
Finally, make sure you know whether the vehicle uses gas (petrol) or diesel. It could be either. Some rental vehicles will have a helpful sticker by the tank filler cap, but this isn’t a guarantee! If you find yourself unsure once you’ve set off, check the vehicle documentation. If this gives you no joy, don’t be afraid to phone the rental company. They will have the information on record somewhere; it’s much better to do this than end up damaging the vehicle or stuck in the middle of nowhere!
As always inspect the vehicle for damages on the exterior and interior before you take off and note them. Make sure to take photos so that you are not charged for damages upon rental car return.
Hitting the Road
Don’t feel like you have to rush, and don’t let other road users rush you into making mistakes – or worse. People are pretty chill when it comes to driving, even if the volume of traffic might suggest otherwise.
Unless you’re from a big US city, the amount of traffic in such a small place will probably surprise you! Dublin and the highways (motorways) heading into and out of the city have by far the worst traffic, so if you can survive here, you can survive anywhere!
Forget those wide multilane highways you’re probably used to; in Ireland, a lot of the roads you’ll be traveling along will have just one lane in either direction, and these lanes will be much narrow than you’re used to. (Irish/European cars tend to be much smaller than their US counterparts as a result).
You’ll likely notice the narrower road widths most when turning, which will often involve tight 90° turns. You’ll want to hug the curb when turning left (to avoid straying into the other lane) while keeping wide when turning to the right.
Roundabouts in Ireland
Also, beware the roundabout; they are a common way of controlling junctions in Ireland, with fewer traffic lights or signaling than in the US. These roundabouts can be pretty tight on space too. Our best advice is to take it slow, and remember not to go the wrong way around them!
Bear in mind that the vehicle to your right has the right of way. If there’s no vehicle on your right at a roundabout, you have the right of way. A set of two parallel dashed lines means ‘give way’ – in other words, slow down and prepare to stop for other vehicles if necessary.
Navigation in Ireland
It always helps to have two people in the car when you’re in a foreign country. Having someone act as a navigator for you is a great help when traveling anywhere for the first time, but particularly when in a new place and on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. They can worry about where to head while you concentrate on the job at hand.
Road signage is generally pretty good in Ireland, but easy to miss when new to a road. Because of this, it’s best not to rely on road signage alone but instead use your own maps – either traditional maps printed on paper if you’re old school or a mapping app such as Google Maps, which have the benefit of knowing minute-by-minute traffic conditions on your route and the ability to suggest alternatives. You should download Google Maps to your phone while you’re in WiFi so that you always have it with you. You likely won’t have internet all the time unless you pick up a sim card.
Many rental companies will offer the option of GPS (Satellite navigation/SatNav) for a small additional fee, which can take a lot of the stress out of navigation, especially if you’re driving on your own without anyone in the vehicle to help you out. But keep in mind that Google Maps is reliable if you download it to your phone – this is how we drove around Ireland.
If you do happen to be traveling alone, make sure to buy a phone holder for the car before you leave. There’s nothing more annoying (and dangerous) than continually looking down at your phone for directions when it could be right there on the dash!
Cell Phones While Driving in Ireland
Keep in mind that the use of a cell phone while driving in Ireland is against the law. Even handsfree can be distracting in a new country. Keep that in mind when you are considering GPS options – trust me you are going to want that cell phone car holder.
M, N, R, L
There are four main types of route in Ireland, all handily graded and signed as such. M stands for motorway – in other words, a highway – and are the largest routes comprising multilane roads with the highest speed limits. They are best for long distances.
N – or ‘national’ – routes are major routes connecting bigger towns and cities. The speed limit tends to be 100 kmh (60 mph), although their winding nature means as a visitor you’re unlikely to want to reach these speeds. Speed limits are just that; limits, not targets. If other vehicles on the road want to pass you as a result, let them, and don’t stress.
R roads are Ireland’s regional roads. They are much narrower, to the point sometimes they can appear as a single-lane for both directions. Go slow on these roads and be ready to pull to the side when encountering traffic heading in the opposite direction. Should you dare, the speed limit for these roads is 80 kmh (50 mph).
The last type of road are L roads. The L stands for ‘local,’ and they are rarely used countryside lanes.
In built-up areas including towns and cities, unless told otherwise, assume the speed limit to be 50 kmh (30 mph – when traffic allows!).
Estimating Times and Distances
With its twisting roads and town center speed limits, expect journeys to take you a little longer than they would back home. Plan accordingly and don’t try and squeeze too much into your day or you’ll come away stressed, disappointed, and in need of another vacation!
Toll Roads in Ireland
There are 11 different toll road routes in the Republic of Ireland, which basically cover the country’s major M and N routes. Despite the cost (they’re much cheaper than equivalents in much of the US in any case), they are worth using because they will substantially reduce your overall travel time, giving you more time at your destination.
All but one of the toll routes have traditional booths where you pay. Payment is taken in cash, so make sure you have Euros with you. Cashiers are not able to accept US dollars or pounds sterling.
That leaves one toll route that doesn’t have traditional pay booths. This is Dublin’s M50, which uses a barrier-free system where cameras record each vehicle’s license plate (number plate).
You then have up to 8 pm that day to pay, either online, over the phone, or at shops anywhere in the country that display the Payzone sign. If you don’t pay by 8 pm, you will face a fine, which will be passed on to you by the rental company. But check first with the rental car companies, many companies have an electronic tag which pays the toll automatically (before passing the cost on to you). Our last time in Ireland we rented wit Dooley, and this wasn’t included. We forgot to pay the M50 toll a few times, and the find doubled. It was extremely annoying to have to remember to pay this by a specific time every day. I wish they had a better system for this.
Parking in Ireland
Free parking for vehicles is getting harder and harder to find outside of the countryside and tourist sights/hotels. You’ll be hard pressed to find any free parking in Dublin or Galway city center. If you do, you’ll likely have to be there early or get lucky to nab a spot.
However, there is plenty of on-street parking available in cities. You’ll need to make sure your vehicle sits within the white boxes painted on the road surface and pay attention to times the bays operate (generally 9 am – 5 pm Monday to Friday or Saturday).
Outside of these times, you might be able to park for free. Each set of parking bays will have meters/machines. You’ll need to buy a ticket at the time you park and display it in the vehicle, with charges generally related to the number of hours you intend to stay. Though the majority of machines take credit card payments, some don’t, so take cash.
Stay Outside the City
We had to stay in both Galway and Dublin with our rental car. In Dublin there was no parking, so we paid €20 a night to park it at our hotel. Not the highest price in the world, but I certainly wish it was cheaper.
In Galway, we got smarter. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to find free parking, we picked a hotel with free parking included. It was outside the city center, but next to a bus stop. Uber and taxis are also popular in the Irish cities too.
Filling Up in Ireland
Gas stations (petrol stations) usually are well signposted and easy enough to spot because of their similarity to the US version. Needless to say, be sure not to run low on gas. They tend to exist on the outskirts of towns and cities, on major roads in towns, and on the highways.
In the countryside, they can be much rarer. You have been warned! If you can, avoid filling up on highways, where the cost per liter (the standard way of selling fuel) will be higher. (A point to note – fuel is much more expensive than in the US, so it’s essential to take this into account.)
Despite their name, petrol stations sell both gasoline (petrol) and diesel. All gasoline in Ireland is unleaded. Gas stations tend to be self-service, so you’ll need to fill up the tank yourself, although if you’re struggling, someone will be happy to help. The pumps keep flowing until you take your fingers off the trigger, or the tank is full; there are no set volumes/prices to fill up to. To pay, you’ll need to pop inside (afterward).
If it’s a shorter trip, you might not need to fill up. However, if you return your rental vehicle to the company without a full tank of fuel, you’ll likely be charged, and a premium charge at that. Read more of our rental car tips here.
Emergencies While Driving Around Ireland
In both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland both 112 and 999 will connect you to the emergency operator.
Drinking and Driving in Ireland
This should go without saying, but drinking and driving is a grave offense in Ireland. The legal limit is .5 milligrams of alcohol per milliliter of blood. So pretty much, no alcohol should be in your bloodstream.
The Irish take this very seriously, and most do not drive if they plan on drinking. If you want to go out for a night at the pubs and drink as much Guinness as possible, make sure you have a responsible way back to your accommodation.
Should You Travel Ireland By Car?
YES! Absolutely! Especially if you want to get into the glorious Irish countryside and stay outside the cities. I have visited Ireland three separate times. The first time I backpacked around Ireland and stuck to buses, which was great. The second and third time we opted for a rental car, and it was well worth it.
Having a rental car means you can go wherever you want, whenever you want and gives you unlimited freedom. There are so many hidden gems of Ireland you will regret not having your own set of wheels to get around. Follow these top tips, and you’re sure to have a great time driving in Ireland!