Wednesday, October 7, 2015

guest post: ireland - castles, churches, and tips for travel!

and finally, part three: the west coast & dublin! 


We stayed in Donegal, Galway, Killarney and Dublin. Donegal was a small market town, one small square surrounded by shops.  Galway and Killarney are larger (Galway is the third largest town in Ireland after Dublin and Belfast) and have lots of bars and shops and things to see.

Dublin is a big city, with cathedrals, a castle, Trinity College, the Guinness factory, funky neighborhoods, and all that you would expect from a large city.

Trinity College – home of the Book of Kells. Tip: Go there first thing in the morning. We got there around 9:15 and walked right in; by the time we left, there was a line. By mid-afternoon, the line was all the way to the street, probably a 1-2 hour wait.

Guinness Storehouse – there’s a museum tour that comes with a pint at the end, and the bar (Gravity Bar), at the top of a seven-story building with windows all around, has a great view of the city. The museum is interesting if you’re into beer, and of course there’s the pint at the end. I’m not a beer person, so I was more struck by how smart Guinness was in setting up the tour. It’s not a group of 30 people with a tour guide – instead each person walks through the museum at their own pace, with the beer at the end as the incentive to keep the flow of people moving.  An average of 3,500 people a day visit the Guinness Storehouse – it’s the most-visited spot among visitors to Ireland. We got there mid-afternoon (kind of hard to have a beer at 10 in the morning!) and there was a line. We had prepaid vouchers that came with our trip so we got to skip the line – it might pay to book your tickets online in advance in hopes that you’ll also be able to go to the head of the line.

One must-see section of town is the Temple Bar section. It’s a pedestrian mall area of bars and restaurants and is filled with musicians busking on the sidewalks, outdoor cafes, and tons of high-energy people having a great time.

We had a minor adventure at the Dublin Airport.  Our guide and the hotel advised us to get to the airport three hours in advance for flights to the U.S. Seemed a bit much to us, but we followed their suggestion. Good thing we did – you need the extra time because you go through U.S. Customs in the Dublin Airport. We had never run into anything like that, although I understand that Dublin isn’t the only place that this occurs. Good to know, though – it means extra time up-front, but if you don’t go through Customs at your first stop in the U.S., you don’t need to allow extra time before catching your connecting flight. In any case, when we checked in, the gate agent said that the lines were long at security, that we had enough time but that we should go right through and that we could change our money and get our VAT refund after security. Well, that may be, but you’re funneled directly into U.S. Customs pre-clearance, and after that, there’s no shops or money exchange or VAT refund location and only one tiny duty-free shop. So, if you need to change money or need to get last minute gifts, allow an extra 30 minutes, and go there first, before you go through security! Luckily, we hadn’t made any big purchases, so we didn’t miss out on much by not claiming our VAT refund.

Tip: Ireland has a couple of programs to make it easy to get your VAT refund (VAT=value added tax. As non-EU residents, U.S. citizens are entitled to get refund of the ~17% VAT paid). We used the Horizon card. Shops that participate often have cards to give out. You register your card and give it to the shop clerk at the time of purchase. The card keeps a record of your purchases, and then you hit the Horizon kiosk at the airport, swipe your card to prove that you’re leaving the country, and you get your refund. (If you don’t swipe at the airport or go online to say you’ve left the country, they charge your credit card for the tax amount.) Horizon takes a percent of your refund for this service, but it’s worth it to not have to bring your items and receipts to a certifying official at the airport.

Another tip: Remember that if you cross the border into Northern Ireland (and the border isn’t marked in any way!), you’ll be paying for stuff in pounds sterling as Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom. Most of the border tourist locations will take euros, but they’ll give you change in sterling. Easier to just pay by credit card.

Speaking of credit cards, before you go, get one that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. And at the point of purchase, when they ask if you want the amount in euros or dollars, the guidebooks say to do all of your transactions in euros (or pounds sterling in Northern Ireland). That way the exchange rate is set by your credit card’s issuing bank, which may be a better one than offered in the store.

All in all, we had a great time in Ireland. We aren’t of Irish descent, so we felt a little out of it when it came to buying Claddagh rings and jewelry with celtic designs and looking up the history of our name. But we had fun having a pint or two at the local pub and listening to traditional Irish music, and you can’t beat the Irish scenery for beauty.

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