Bike Touring in Ireland
grew up in Ireland and has done extensive bike touring there. Pamela
made her first trip to
Ireland in late autumn of 1993, and has collected many Irish stamps
in her passport since.
Cycling in Ireland
The really nice thing about Ireland is that the scale of the country
lends itself very well to cycling. You can be absolutely in the middle
of nowhere, but still be within easy hitting distance of a town.
Not only that, there is a warren of small back roads, not to mention
tracks, just begging for exploration. There is endless history and
culture to immerse yourself in. The climate is temperate, which really
just means that it probably won't be much warmer in summer than it
is in winter.
When to go
Airline Recommendations and Left Luggage
Where to stay
Things to bring
Where to go
When to go
The best weather is often in September, after kids go back
to school - or so it always seemed to John when he was in school!
Pamela's experience goes along with that, but she also experienced
rather cool conditions in July and very pleasant warm conditions
in January. Airfares to Ireland tend to high in the summer,
but usually go down in September and continue to fall throughout
autumn and winter. July is the height of tourist season, so
you may need to be a little less spontaneous (completely against
our religion, but that's another story) in touristy areas, and
try to book accommodation before you get to your intended destination..
Airline Recommendations and Left Luggage
Most major American air carriers serve Ireland. We usually
travel with Aer
Lingus, and have had good luck with them. They have direct
flights from Boston - making them most appealing! We have traveled
with a full-sized tandem in a large padded case, single bikes
in large padded cases, as well as coupled bikes in stealth mode.
There are left-luggage facilities in both Shannon
and we have stored cases in both airports for a small fee. Left
luggage policies may change, so you may want to check with the
authority to confirm.
Both Shannon and Dublin are also quite handy for simply riding out
of the airport. You can put your bike back together in the airport
(there are even bike stands near left-luggage in Dublin), drop off
you cases at left luggage, and ride away - on the left side of the
road, of course.
That said, the area around Dublin Airport has seen massive development
in recent years, so expect plenty of traffic. On the positive side,
there is a marked bike route leading out of the airport, so initial
navigation is simplified. In general terms, my inclination is to head
west towards the village of St. Margaret's and then to either skirt
around the city to the south, or head north.
Shannon Airport was particularly easy to ride out of in 1995. Our
advice here is to avoid the city of Limerick, if possible. (It's
Airlines limit liability on luggage to some tiny sum, if any.
The Aer Lingus additional travel insurance lists coverage for
baggage loss at $500. They also insure things like trip delay/cancellation
and of course illness. Check with your airline for details.
If you have homeowners or a renters policy, you are likely covered
for lost luggage (but not trip delay) through it.
We encourage you to bring your own bike. Rental bikes are available,
but tend to be of the ubiquitous hybrid style.
Dublin has a city-bike
hire scheme, like Paris and London and Boston. See comments
below regarding credit cards.
Where to stay
There is a good network of relatively low-cost places
to stay - hostels and B&Bs - that enable you to travel light
(apart from carrying good waterproofs!). Hostels are our favourite
places to stay, as you get to meet lots of other people, and
get information and ideas that you might otherwise miss out
on. They fall into two basic categories, International Youth
Hostel Association affiliated (in Ireland, this means An
Oige hostels) and private hostels. To stay in the former,
you need to be a member of a Hostelling
International organisation. Private hostels tend to have
better facilities overall, but An Oige have some superb (which,
to us, means remote) locations.
Most hostels rent sheet bags these days if you don't have your own,
but we typically carry (very compact) silk sleeping bag liners. Hostels
also have cooking facilities, but you will need to bring your own
food. These days, though, many of the more de luxe hostels provide
In the smaller towns, if you don't see B&B signs, asking around
can usually unearth a low-key B&B. Many B&B's are run by empty
nesters, people whose children have grown and moved away. The children's
rooms are now B&B rooms. They often work hard on the breakfast,
serving up what is called a traditional fried Irish breakfast, with
eggs, sausages and various puddings, made from ingredients you might
prefer not to know about. Our typical ploy is to ask for porridge
(oatmeal), as the people running B&Bs always insist on giving
you something warm. Despite growing up in Ireland, I (John) never
had a traditional Irish breakfast until I stayed at a B&B!
Camping to me means being close to nature, so I like to camp
wild (responsibly, of course) and completely off the beaten
path. Failing that, I have often asked a farmer, or whomever,
for permission to camp in a field and have never been refused.
Ireland has no dangerous animals (drunken yahoos excepted),
so camping is straightforward on that score. Also, An Oige hostels
usually allow you to camp on their grounds and use the facilities,
for a reduced fee compared to sleeping in the hostel.
There is no camping is Irish National Parks.
Camping grounds also exist, but it would probably be difficult to
plan a trip around them. They tend to cater more to caravans and cars,
but do offer facilities such as toilets and showers. We found the
following resources by doing a search for Ireland and camping.
Parks and Caravan Sites
We mentioned the great network of tiny backroads as an attraction
of cycling in Ireland, and it certainly is. However, some modicum
of map reading ability is required in order to make best use
of them. Ordnance
Survey maps are available from most decent book shops and
news agents, and are of very good quality, cartographically
speaking. Unfortunately, the old cyclist friendly 1/2":1
mile scale maps are no longer made. (We found a full supply
of the 1/2 inch maps at Hodges
Figgis many years ago. Eason's
in Dublin also had some. We later had them all laminated and
are quite protective of these collector's items!)
The 1/2 maps have been replaced by 1:50,000 scale maps, of
which you need many more to cover a given area. And if you have
money to burn, you can now also get waterproof OS maps - which
may not be a bad idea! Waterproof or not, you basically just
want to aim for the white and yellow coloured back roads and
the "brown stuff" - altitude, which means hills and
mountains, is shown by various shades of brown.
Update - We now also make use of a bike GPS when travelling.
Pamela considers it invaluable, enabling us to explore tiny
little roads without stopping every few meters to check the
map. Garmin's City Navigator Europe NT (at about $100) provided
great coverage. One can also get Ordnance
Survey maps from Garmin for a lot more money. These are
full topo maps, providing much more detail and are good for
hiking as well. One big drawback is they only cover the Republic.
No matter where we travel with our GPS, we still use the paper
maps to get the big picture and find the brown stuff, but the
GPS saves loads of time if you can plan ahead.
Things to bring
Make sure to have mudguards on your bike. They are a requirement
on all of the best roads in Ireland - you will also be calling them
"mudguards" instead of "fenders" by the time you
return! Many of the best roads run through farms. Farmers regularly
move their sheep and cattle from a field on one side of the road to
one on the other. Pamela's theory is that since the animals don't
want to poop on the grass they eat, they save it up for the crossing
of the road. Also since the diet, is high fiber, the byproduct is
And while we have had some rainfree trips to Ireland, it is pretty
rare. Also for some reason that isn't totally clear to me, the roads
tend to take a lot longer to dry out after a shower than they do in
the US. So it may not have rained for days, but the roads are still
Many Irish roads are surfaced with a kind of chip seal. A plump
tire will go a long way toward making the trip comfortable.
We really like the Grand Bois tires in 26 and 28 mm widths on
bikes with limited clearance. Schwalbe Kojaks are quite beefy
and will handle the tiny little tracks you may want to explore.
Fit the fattest tire your frame has clearance for with fenders.
I also highly recommend waterproof panniers, like Ortlieb.
Ortlieb makes a nice BOB bag (if you are using a trailer).
Basic Reliable Parts or Your Own Spares
While almost every town has a bike shop, don't expect to find
much speciality or high end stuff in them. If you are riding
anything unusual, like a tandem or recumbent, be aware that
it will not be very easy to find special parts, even in Dublin.
Bring spare long cables, or better yet, use DaVinci
cable spltters, so you can use standard length cables. If
you use Campagnolo shifters, spare cables are always a good
idea, since the head on Campag cables is smaller than others.
Basic standard stuff is not too hard to come by. A few years
ago, Pamela broke a speedplay cleat on a trip. While no one
in the country had speedplay cleats, she was able to get a pair
of inexpensive SPD pedals to complete the trip. There are a
couple of good bike shops in Dublin, but even with them, you
might have to wait a while to get a 10 speed DuraAce Barend
shifter shipped in. And despite the fact that it is known for
rain, and we said mudguards are required, high quality mudguards
and raincapes are also hard to find there. Take them with you.
Of course it isn't a third world country and if you have the time,
parts can be ordered and shipped in easily from England (or Europe
or the US for that matter).
Laundry facilities are rare on the ground in Ireland. However, given
our penchant for wool clothing, we typically avoid them even
if they are available, and do our own washing. However, getting
stuff to try overnight in Ireland is next to impossible and
Irish youth hostels do not have drying rooms. With that in mind,
carrying two cycling jerseys etc. or two sets of clothes that
you can wear on and off the bike, is a good idea. Carrying some
clothes pegs (I think that translates to "clothes pins"
in Americanish) is also a good idea, so that you can hang your
stuff out in a good stiff breeze.
Some B&B's have been known to offer use of their laundry facilities.
We usually take wool jersies, arm and leg warmers. Wool tends to
keep you warm even when wet, and doesn't retain odor like synthetics.
If I had a penny for every mile I've ridden in the rain in Ireland,
I could be somewhere warm and dry right now, but we can all dream
Rumour has it that it rains more on the west coast than on the east.
The ratio of rainfall is roughly two to one. You just might not believe
it when you're on the east coast!
One option for raingear for touring in Ireland is a cycling
cape. They are cheap, pack up small, allow air to circulate
and keep you drier than anything else out there, providing protection
for your body, hands and upper legs. They are very comforting
in a teeming downpour, but perhaps most advantageous of all
in typically showery Irish weather, they are easy to get on
They are not without their drawbacks too, of course. I don't
like using them in very windy weather (not uncommon in Ireland,
even during the summer).
Where to go
The peninsulas on the we(s)t coast are a well known bike touring
destination. You can ride around the perimeter, or go back and
forth across them for a much more scenic ride.
This 400km route
takes in most of John's favourite climbs within striking distance
of Dublin. It would likely make a nice multi-day tour. The Humpy
Hundred is another great ride in the Carlow area. This is
a non-touristy area of great beauty.
Drive and bike on the left side of the road. If you forget,
some friendly driver will honk and yell to remind you!
Driving and car ownership has increased astronomically in recent
years in Ireland. Yet the skill of drivers has not. The good thing
is that with a little map reading, you can avoid them as much as possible.
It used to be quite simple to roll a bike onto a train, but
this has changed.
Years ago, it was was 6 pounds (about $8) each way. Bikes went
into a separate baggage car, available on all intercity trains.
You were responsible for loading and unloading. We used bungee
cords to secure the frame to something on the train. But baggage
cars seem to be disappearing all over the world, Ireland being
Most of the intercity trains now accomodate only 2 bikes per
carriage, with a nice bike rack set up at the back of each carriage.
However, we recently discovered it is not possible to actually
reserve a spot for a bike on the website or even on the phone,
despite statements to the contrary on the Irish Rail website.
We called the station where we planned to depart and were assured
that even without a reservation that we would be able to get
our bikes on board.
The rail system is really excellent as far as coverage, and frequency
of trains. However, depending on where you are traveling to and from,
you might occasionally have to make an awkward connection. On the
west coast, this is typically through Limerick Junction. Of the places
you might want to visit, Donegal in the northwest, has the worst train
service. The nearest place you can get a train to is Sligo, and the
Sligo line was in need of considerable work last time we were on it
- i.e. it was really bumpy. Rumor has it that this is being addressed.
Any train station will have information and schedules. Maps
and timetables can also be found on the Irish
Jan 1, 2002, Ireland, along with most of Europe changed their
currency to the Euro. For a while the exchange rate favored
American travellers, but that changed quickly and is now Irish
travellers come to the US bargain shopping. I recommend changing
very little money in the US. The exchange places at US airports
have ridiculous rates. Getting money through ATMs once you arrive
will net you a far better rate and lower fees.
Most banks in Ireland will exchange money (unlike in the US).
American travellers take special note: Most of Europe uses
chip and pin technology in credit cards. The US lags far behind
in this regard, but a few US credit card companies are finally
thinking of coming around. Until these more secure cards become
widely available in the US, you may have challenges trying to
use your magnetic swipe credit card in Europe. Unmanned kiosks
at train stations and gas stations will only accept chip and
pin cards. Waiters will not be able to use their fancy hand
held devices, but will have to carry your card away to find
the antique swipe machine kept in the back just for American
tourists. At grocery stores and pharmacies, you may have to
find the one special register with the swipe card reader. ATM
machines will work, so you can withdraw cash and avoid some
of the card hassle by using cash.
GSM is the standard for mobile phones. Your Verizon CDMA phone
won't work there. If you have a GSM from a US carrier, such
as ATT or T-Mobile, it will work, but at costly roaming rates.
If it's a smart phone, turn off data and data roaming unless
you want to get a phone bill the size of the national debt.
It is possible to buy a local SIM card to use in your unlocked
GSM phone, or to rent a mobile phone there.