There are tour companies in Ireland catering to all price ranges, from those on an extremely tight budget to those who simply want, and can pay for, the best.
As with any major purchase, you need to research and choose very carefully – an apparent bargain may have unforeseen downsides once you have arrived and started your vacation.
This page has advice on choosing the best company for you, whatever type of tour you are looking for. Read it, then consult out list of recommended tour operators in Ireland as a starting point for making your final selection.
Budget, Mid-range or Luxury?
Most organised tours follow similar routes, visiting the same places and often in much the same order regardless of their price. This means that even on a budget tour you will see exactly the same sights as those spending three or four times as much.
No matter what price range you are in, you want a good and reliable level of service and quality and while in general Irish tour operators are good on both, time spent reading the small print can be very well spent.
The main components of a tour where price makes a difference are:
- Quality of accommodation
On budget tours this can mean hostels or maybe B&Bs. Most mid-priced tours use good, if sometimes characterless, 3 and 4 star hotels, but then you won’t be in them that much and they are clean, comfortable and provide good service. At the high end accommodation in top quality luxury hotels or castles with a myriad of facilities is the norm.
- Style of transport
The extreme budget end may not have air conditioned coaches or particularly roomy seats, which can matter if you are doing a long journey. In the mid range you will have both. At the high end expect luxury coaches with additional leg room or good high spec cars or vans for the chauffeur type tours. There is NO excuse at any price level for substandard coaches and honestly most Irish tour companies have very good coaches.
- Size of group
Those traveling in larger groups tend to get better deals and unfortunately, especially in high season, people traveling alone will pay a premium for accommodation.
Specialist or Generalist?
Some operators offer a huge range of tours, from walking tours through self-drive or coach tours right up to luxury chauffeur driven tours. Other specialise in one type, perhaps budget coach tours for young travelers, tours built around a special interest like golf or extremely luxurious high-end tours staying in five star hotels.
Which to go for?
With the larger generalist you can get economy of scale – they often have good deals with accommodation providers which make them excellent value. You also know that if anything goes wrong, for example a vehicle breaking down, there is more likely to be a process in place for dealing with it quickly.
However those specialising in a niche will have excellent knowledge of what their market really wants with relationships with, for example, golf courses that mean great service for you. You will probably get a more personal service in general and there will be greater flexibiltiy in be customising tours for small groups.
Tour with a Group or Independently?
When you travel with a group you will generally be just one of many tour groups visiting each location where you stop, and that can mean crowds and hassle, especially at high season. For many people this doesn’t matter and the better operators are pretty skilled at making sure that you get to see all you need to in as comfortable a fashion as your budget allows.
Having a guide has a lot of plusses too. Irish tour guides must be qualified and are required to take refresher courses regularly, so they really know their stuff. They also tend to be gregarious individuals and really love the job and a good one can make a tour.
On the other hand, if you go independently you can do anything you like, go anywhere you want and travel at whatever pace suits you, and for many people that sort of freedom is what being on vacation is all about.
These are your options:
- Standard Tours
You chose from a range of itineraries, joining a group of others who made the same choice. A guide tours with you and sometimes you have specialist guides at certiain destinations. Usually evening meals are included in the cost as well as accommodation and breakfast. This is probably the most common way people tour Ireland.
- Customised Tours
You are traveling in a large group and only your group will tour together. This may not cost much, if anything, more than a standard tour if your groups is of a reasonable size – say 10-12 or more. You have more flexibility to decide what is included in the cost and where you stay. You’ll have a guide.
- Private Tours
If you are travelling in a small group or a family group, consider hiring a van or a car with a driver/guide. It may cost a little more, but you will have considerable freedom to decide where to go and what to do, even while in Ireland. You get the benefit of having a knowledgeable guide and of not having to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, while still retaining your independence.
- Tour Independently
You hire a car and take to the road. This isn’t the right choice for everyone, especially those who really don’t want to drive in Ireland, but it gives you total flexibility. Many companies provide a sort of half-way house, where you are self-guided but with a complete itinerary and all accommodation booked for you in advance.
Choosing the Right Company
While much of this choice will be dependent on your budget, there are some other factors to take into account when choosing who you will book your Irish vacation with.
- How long is the company established?
While a new operator may be full of good ideas, they may be short on the experience needed to carry them through. Do you want to be a guinea pig?
- What Memberships/references do they have?
There are several organisations (see below) for tour operators, but being a member, or not, is not necessarily as meaningful as it might seem. You should however see some references on the tour operator’s website, and if you don’t, ask about them.
- How is your money secured?
You will be handing over a lot of hard earned money even for a budget tour – make sure it is safe. Are bank, insurance or bonding references available? You may not wish to follow them up, but this information, if not available on a website, should be forthcoming if you ask.
- Are there testimonials from previous guests?
Try to follow up on these and speak to previous guests if at all possible. It’s not a common practice, but it is possible for testimonials on a website to be, well, fictional.
- How is your initial contact handled?
If the reply is efficient and friendly, the service is likely to be the same. If you are just replied to with standard or form responses then it may be somewhat less personal.
- Are there hidden extras?
Make sure you are absolutely clear about what is included and what isn’t. Meals, tips, ‘optional’ day trips and other such things can add considerably to the price of your vactation. A tour that does not include these, while initially seeming like good value, may work out a lot more expensive than an all-inclusive one.
Accreditation and Industry Organisations
You are likely to see mention of one or more organisations on any tour operators website. How meaningful are these?
The answer is not simple. They do have some meaning, but there are tour companies who are members of a raft of organisations but which are just about average and others who are members of none but are excellent. There is no single organisation to point to and say “the operator should be a member here”.
Some of the names or logos you are likely to come across are:
Failte Ireland Approved/Registered
This applies only to accommodation, not to tour operators.
In spite of this you will occasionally see a tour company saying it is approved by or registered with Board Failte (aka The Irish Tourist Board). This is odd, since there is no scheme to approve or register such companies. I assume they mean they are listed on their website or in their literature, but such listing does not in any way imply approval, inspection, liquidity or any minimum standard.
Irish Tour Operators Association (ITOA)
This is the recognised body for companies located either in Ireland or overseas, who organise tours within Ireland. It may seem that you would want your tour operator to be a member, but in fact for the ordinary visitor it has little meaning.
Primarily members are involved in organising incentive or conference travel or provide services to smaller tour operators overseas. Few deal directly with visitors and many of the best tour operators in Ireland are not members.
The European Tour Operators Association
This is a body which lobbies on behalf of tour operators and provides some commercial and education supports to its members.
It has no function at all in vouching for the probity or quality of its members or in dealing with complaints from the public.
International Air Transport Association (IATA)
The IATA is primarily an organisation for airlines, but has tour agency membership available to those agencies that sell airline tickets. Many of the companies offering tours in Ireland do not sell tickets or organise flights and are not therefore eligible for membership.
Membership of the IATA means that there have been checks made to ensure financial viability. However it does not mean that your payment has any particular protection over and above that made to any non-member company. Nor is it a guarantee of any particular level of service.