Tips for saving money on your trip to Ireland

Ireland can be the trip of a lifetime without costing you your life's savings.

Ireland can be the trip of a lifetime without costing you your life’s savings.

Hoping to travel to Ireland this fall, but dismayed by the cost? There are ways to save money that will actually make your trip more pleasant.

First, stay in a B&B or Guest House, rather than a hotel. AirBnB is a great resource for both international and domestic travel. A whole apartment in Kinsale, with a view of the harbor can cost as little as $85 on AirBnB, whereas hotel prices can easily go for two or three times that much. On top of that, you have the ability to cook for yourself — you’ll save a lot by not eating out for every meal.What do you think?

Do keep in mind, however, that there are scammers out there. If you use a service such as AirBnB, be sure to contact the actual owner to conform the reservation.

If AirBnB isn’t for you, try staying in an old school bed and breakfast. Rick Steve’s tip is that a B&B offers double the warmth and half the cost of a hotel, plus all the local knowledge you could possibly ask for (and breakfast!).What do you think?

And, if you’re down for it, a hostel can be the most inexpensive option of all. There’s always the dorm-style lodging if you’re really cutting costs, but they’re not the only possibility. With the demand for cheaper travel options past just the backpacking hoards, hostels are becoming a bit more swanky and are adding more private rooms.

When you fly to Ireland, don’t travel on peak days. According to FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney in an article from USA Today, this means traveling on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Since most business flying happens at the beginning and end of the work week and most vacationers like to travel Friday through Sunday, airlines drop prices to try to fill seats on “off” days.

Also, don’t book too early or too late; it can actually play against you when it comes to airfare. Quartz suggests buying tickets about 60 days out for international travel to avoid paying too much for your flight.

Picnics save money. Ten dollars buy a fine picnic lunch for two anywhere in Ireland. Stock your room with drinks and munchies upon arrival. You can pass train rides enjoyably over a picnic meal. Many grocery stores have elegant deli sections.

Speaking of train rides, be sure to travel like a local. If the residents take the train or bus, why are you going through the expense and hassle of renting a car? In cities such as Dublin or Galway, you can often walk to most locations, and sometimes a taxi is cheaper than the bus. If you’re going out into the countryside, a car makes sense; not so much in the city.

Don’t rely on your credit card. Many locations won’t accept them. Ireland, for example, has a system of cards with chips embedded to help protect against fraud and can’t take an American card without them. (NOTE: More and more American banks are now switching to the Chip and Pin system as well.) Rick Steves also notes that many of the places that offer better bargains, like craft shops and independent bed and breakfasts, may not accept plastic. Use ATMs rather than travelers checks. You’ll get your cash cheaper and faster. While ATMs give the best possible rates, they do come with transaction fees. Check with your bank on fees and exchange rates before you go. Minimize the fees by making fewer and larger withdrawals. Take out enough for 4 or 5 days. Keep out enough for the day ahead and store the extra cash safely in your money belt.

Now is an excellent time to travel to Ireland because the off-season starts in October, and it’s a great time to look at booking your trip for the spring shoulder season of April and early May, before the main tourist season gets started and prices go up.

Tips for safe travel

The sightseeing bus can be one of the best ways to explore a new city.

The sightseeing bus can be one of the best ways to explore a new city.

Travel is up and prices are down, according to the latest travel industry statistics. Adults 50 and over are some of the nation’s most frequent travelers and some of their happiest memories are those spent traveling with family. As you plan your next trip to Ireland, it’s important to take steps to avoid being victimized. By taking time to prepare before leaving, you can significantly diminish your risk and focus on enjoying your hard-earned trip.

Consider the following tips to protect yourself while you’re away from home:

Safeguard your belongings. Before you leave, make copies of your travel documents or scan them and email them to yourself – that way your documents won’t go missing even if your bags do. Also, keep at least one source of money, such as a credit card, in a place other than your wallet or purse. Keep your passport and most of your cash in a money belt, and have just enough money in your wallet for the day’s expenses.

Prepare your home before you leave. Unplug all major electronics and turn off the main water supply. Also, have a friend keep an eye on your home, if possible. A security system can also add peace of mind. Modern security companies offer a variety of 24/7 monitoring packages that include smoke, fire and carbon monoxide detection. They also offer home automation solutions that allow travelers to adjust their home’s lighting remotely and receive security alerts on their mobile devices.

Protect your identity. A recent survey on identity theft revealed that 30 percent of travelers have experienced identity theft while traveling or know someone who has. Leave unnecessary items, such as Social Security cards or unneeded credit cards, at home. If you have your passport, you don’t need other forms of ID such as a state-issued driver’s license. Leave the bulky wallet at home. How likely are you to need your local discount cards in Ireland. Public wi-fi can be risky, so never enter secure information on a computer in a cyber cafe or businesses that offer wi-fi. Generally, make purchases with a credit card instead of a debit card; credit cards often offer better fraud protection. And use passwords for access to your smartphone or tablet. A variety of identity protection services are available to assist with proactive identity and credit monitoring. Check out Lifelock or Trusted ID for information.

Prepare for emergencies. You spent months planning and saving for your Ireland trip, but it can be ruined in a split second. If you’re traveling abroad and get sick or injured, hospital costs could be extreme – even for relatively minor injuries. Check with your health insurance provider to see if you’re covered while out of the country. If not, check with your travel agent. Travel insurance plans can include valuable medical coverage, trip interruption to protect your investment and more. Always a recommended precaution.

Enjoy that trip, and the peace of mind that come with being prepared.

Top Ten Mistakes to Avoid when Traveling to Ireland

Just read a list of mistakes not to make on your trip to Ireland. Most of them were stupid, so I thought I’d create my own.

When I was in college, we read a book called The Ugly American. There are reasons why Americans are not universally loved in other countries. My high school Spanish teacher once told us he was glad he could speak Spanish without an American accent so he wouldn’t be associated with the other Americans he encountered in Spain. We Americans have many endearing qualities. We also do stupid obnoxious things when traveling. Forewarned is forearmed, so here are ten things you should never do when traveling, especially to Ireland.

1. Don’t come unprepared.

Check out Rick Steves' guidebooks. Updated every year, just the essentials, and step by step when you need it.

Check out Rick Steves’ guidebooks. Updated every year, just the essentials, and step by step when you need it.

Good guidebooks are essential. Rick Steves offers my favorites.  You can also use those from Fodor, Frommer. Michelin, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Let’s Go, DK Eyewitness Backroads Ireland, and more. Check them out in your local library and decide which one(s) you like best, then purchase one or two favorites. If your guidebook covers much more than places you plan to visit, tear out the relevant sections and leave the rest at home.

While you’re at it, check some internet forums for up-to-date, often locally sourced information. Many people are intimidated when they do a web search and find out how much information is out there, so limit yourself to a few good sites. I like TripAdvisor, but there are others out there too. Local councils and visitor’s bureaus often have excellent information, so search for those with the local place names you want to visit.

Do your research before you come, check and verify it with as many sources as possible, and carry the information you need as you travel for constant reference. That way, you’ll be ready for anything, expected or not.

2. Travel as a local as much as possible, rather than as a tourist.

The front door is more expensive, less personal, and insulates you from the real Ireland. Go through the back door.

The front door is more expensive, less personal, and insulates you from the real Ireland. Go through the back door.

I call this traveling through the “back door.” Where I grew up, in the hinterlands of eastern Colorado, only strangers knocked or rang at the front door. Friends come through the back door. That’s so true in Ireland. A big tour company will show you great scenery through the window of the coach, as you follow all the other coaches to attractions and shopping areas that give the driver a commission on sales. Get away from those, find the locals, and learn how they live and what they value. Your trip will be so much better. The next suggestion is an excellent way to make this happen.

3. Don’t neglect the pubs.

A real Irish pub is a treasure.

A real Irish pub is a treasure.

The two most important social centers in Ireland are the pub and the church, in that order. While the church is essential to Irish culture, the pub is where it is really experienced. That’s confusing and contradictory to Americans, who often don’t know the difference between a pub and a bar. A pub may HAVE a bar, but it’s far more a place to socialize, meet people (not in the “pick up” sense of many American bars) and truly experience the life of a local. For this reason, I don’t ask which pub someone recommends, I ask which one they go to after work. I have an entire article with more details on this. Checi it out here: http://dorascuil.com/blog/?p=74

4. Don’t travel in the peak season.

Travel "off peak" and experience a more relaxed Ireland.

Travel “off peak” and experience a more relaxed Ireland.

OK, so this one may not be avoidable, depending on when you have your time off. But if you can, visit Ireland during what is called the “shoulder” season. High season in Ireland is the summer, from June through August. Mid-September through October, and April through mid-May are times when far fewer people travel, so you’ll avoid crowds, find the locals less stressed, and even save money on airfares. You can travel the low season (winter) if you want, but the weather is not as friendly and many attractions are closed. Not bad if you spend much of your time in pubs (see above) and stay away from the tourist traps. This can be especially good if you like walking in the rain, but bring a good woolly jumper and a plastic mack. More info here: http://dorascuil.com/blog/?p=160 and here: http://dorascuil.com/blog/?p=80

5. Don’t miss Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is technically a part of Great Britain, but there's still a lot of "Irish" to be experienced there.

Northern Ireland is technically a part of Great Britain, but there’s still a lot of “Irish” to be experienced there.

Americans have heard the stories of The Troubles, and violence in Northern Ireland. But first, those times are largely behind us, and second, the violence was only between those who had grown up with the enmity between them; they never mess with tourists. Seriously, there was once a time when bombs went off and people were gunned down, but such things are a seriously rare occurrence these days, and they only target known enemies, never tourists. There’s no such thing as 100%, but I’ve never heard of Americans or other tourists being involved in such incidents these days.

On the other hand, Northern Ireland has some of the most outstanding scenery anywhere in the world, you can visit such places as the shipyards where the Titanic was built, and the pubs are as friendly as any you’ll find in the Republic, as long as you don’t try to talk politics. The Irish in the North are proud of their British heritage (well, most of them), but they’re still Irish to the core, and proud of that as well. And as an American, you can travel both sides of the controversy, from the walls of Derry, to the Shankhill road and bogside, to the Orange lodge and Church of Ireland facilities. Travel is a way to open your eyes to realities you’ve never known or experienced at home and the North of Ireland is an outstanding place for that. Ask questions and keep your mouth shut, you’ll learn more. Plus, you’ve never experienced the glory of a real Irish breakfast or full English breakfast until you’ve had an Ulster Fry.

6. Don’t miss out on the music.

Find a good local session and experience what Irish music is really all about.

Find a good local session and experience what Irish music is really all about.

Irish traditional music (or TRAD, as aficionados call it) reaches the soul more thoroughly and effectively than almost any other type of music, whether you’re Irish or not. I have played, sung, listened to, and experienced TRAD music in many different venues, and I never cease to marvel at the emotional impact it has on those who experience it. I have played and sung with Germans, Scandanavians, Europeans, Americans, and those of many different backgrounds; all of whom have chosen this style of music because of the way it attracts. It’s astounding.

As you follow this advice, and I really hope you do, read points 2 and 3 again. There are many places where they play only for the tourists. They can be interesting, but the real music of the people happens mostly in pubs and homes. Find a small local pub, not just a tourist trap like Temple Bar in Dublin. (Though Trinity College students actually lead an interesting TRAD music pub crawl out of the Oliver St. John Gogarty Pub. It’s a good compromise if you have limited time.)

For the real experience, find small town or out of the way pubs, where the locals gather just to enjoy the music and each other’s company. For instance, instead of the Temple Bar when you’re in Dublin, visit nearby Howth. Check out Doolin and Ennis, rather than the more touristy Galway. As with the pubs, ask locals where they gather, where they like the music, rather than where they recommend to tourists.

7. Don’t limit yourself to the bigger towns.

A small town can show you the real Irish spirit in a way that's harder to find in the city.

A small town can show you the real Irish spirit in a way that’s harder to find in the city.

As above, remember that bigger places, such as Dublin, see a lot more tourists, so they become jaded and offer what they think you might like, more than something you really should experience. Find time to get out into the country side, the small communities that are the heart of Ireland. Stay in a local B&B (instead of a hotel) and ask the landlady some probing questions about her favorite ways to spend some quality time. I know of a couple who own a B&B in Dingle who also do archaeological tours of the peninsula. That kind of discovery can make an already enjoyable trip into the experience of a lifetime.

In the UK and Ireland, every neighborhood in the big cities has its own local pub, where neighbors and friends gather regularly. That’s even more true of smaller towns, where the controversies of the day may be forgotten for the moment over a few pints. That’s when you start to experience the music and the stories that make the Irish people famous.

8. Learn about the history of the country.

The history of Ireland stretches back ten thousand years and more. Learn about it and you'll have a much more enjoyable trip.

The history of Ireland stretches back ten thousand years and more. Learn about it and you’ll have a much more enjoyable trip.

The Irish are said to have a long memory. The famine of 1845 is a recent event. This past April we commemorated the anniversary of Brian Boru rising to become High King of Ireland in 1014 AD. I mentioned archaeological tours above. There are passage tombs a Bru Na Boinne that are older than the oldest pyramids of Egypt. The story of Ireland goes back ten thousand years or more. Don’t miss that when you go.

When we took the loop road around the Dingle penninsula, we saw clochan (stone huts) that are still tight against the rain hundreds of years after they were built, and the Gallarus Oratory, built along similar lines and just as solid as it ever has been. We saw standing stones so old that nobody knows why they were set up, and pillar incised with Ogham, one of the oldest forms of writing known to man.

I have a friend who says that every stone next to every road and field in Ireland has a story. You’ll find that the locals know those stories and will be glad to tell them to you, especially if you buy them a pint. Speaking of which, don’t forget that in Ireland, the custom is that you buy a round for you and your friends, and they return the favor, unlike America, where everyone is responsible for his own drink. So if someone buys you a pint, don’t neglect to return the favor.

9. Don’t miss out on local sporting events.

Hurling is an essential part of Irish culture, and actually predates soccer and rugby.

Hurling is an essential part of Irish culture, and actually predates soccer and rugby.

Hurling is the national sport of Ireland, and its cousin GAA football is played in every county and townland you’re likely to visit. You may not be able to find an event in Croke Park, but you’ll certainly see somebody playing one of those sports, or perhaps soccer, rugby or Australian rules football in any local community. I spent some of the most enjoyable hours in Kilronan (the only town in the Aran Islands) with some locals, watching a football (soccer) match between Dublin and Westmeath. It’s a great way to really get to know people.

10. Don’t try out your Irish accent.

Leave the Lucky Charms at home and you won't be an ugly American.

Leave the Lucky Charms at home and you won’t be an ugly American.

There are many other possible mistakes you could make on your trip, but I saved this until last because so many Americans just don’t understand how stupid it sounds when you great them with “Top O’ The Morning” or some other cliché you learned from the Lucky Charms leprechaun. If an Irish man or woman came to America and talked like a cowboy from a 1930’s western movie, you would look on them the same way as the Irish look on an American who comes to Ireland and says, “Sure and begorrah, ’tis a grand country you have here.”

There are many other suggestions I could make to enhance your trip to Ireland, but these are some of the top reasons many Americans don’t have the trip they really dreamed of. I hope this is helpful. Please make other suggestions in the comments.

Exploring Boston Beer

The Black Rose Irish Pub had excellent food, good music, and wonderful company. It was one of the highlights of the trip

The Black Rose Irish Pub had excellent food, good music, and wonderful company. It was one of the highlights of the trip

If you have read my blog before, you know that I believe the pubs are the heart of Ireland. That’s also true of towns like Boston, where there’s a significant Irish population. In the pubs, you find the working people, the locals, those who are not here for only a few days. Meeting those people is part of the magic of exploring a new area.

 

Fire Chief Ale, a good red ale, though not exclusive to Boston.

Fire Chief Ale, a good red ale, though not exclusive to Boston.

Beer is certainly part of the pub experience, and I always try to find local beers wherever I go. The same was true in Boston, but I was a bit disappointed at the lack of local craft beer. I have finally learned to ask for beer I can’t get anywhere else, but there doesn’t seem to be too much of that in Boston. There were a few exceptions, such as this Fire Chief Ale. Had a few good pints of Guinness at the Irish pubs, but you can get that anywhere these days. Still, never disappointed in a good pint. :-)

Not really a "craft brewery" but Samuel Adams makes some really nice beer, and we got to tour their pilot brewery in Boston.

Not really a “craft brewery” but Samuel Adams makes some really nice beer, and we got to tour their pilot brewery in Boston.

One of the highlights of the beer scene in Boston is Samuel Adams, and if you ask for a local beer, that will often be your answer. It’s actually quite good, for a mass produced beer. We learned the reasons whey when touring their pilot brewery, where they turn out small batches of some of the more distinctive beers, or experiment with new flavors. The tour guide was very happy his job included drinking beer and sharing that wonderful experience with us.

A fine pint, our last day in Boston, enjoyed at the Black Rose.

A fine pint, our last day in Boston, enjoyed at the Black Rose.

Not everybody appreciates the magic of beer, but to me, it’s one of those special parts of life to be enjoyed and shared with others. My favorites are those beers that are special to the locals, made with local ingredients, and infused with local pride. It’s one of those magic ways of getting to know the people and the culture better, and isn’t that what travel is all about?

Back door to Boston

Mass transit in Boston is great. We discovered that you can buy a pass that is good not only on the buses and subway, but also on the Inner Harbor Ferry. Almost like a sea tour, at no extra cost.

Mass transit in Boston is great. We discovered that you can buy a pass that is good not only on the buses and subway, but also on the Inner Harbor Ferry. Almost like a sea tour, at no extra cost.

Discovered a new favorite place. Usually, I prefer countryside and rural areas, but in Boston, I found a city I could really get into. Coming from Colorado as I do, I’m not accustomed to the depth of history you find in a place like Boston. Plus, there’s a pride of place, a belonging, and attachment to the land like we don’t see so much in the West.

We were in town for Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, the World Championships of Irish Dance. They are usually held in Ireland, but once in a while in America, and this was our chance.

My darling daughter: An evil Faerie? And she did a good job too.

My darling daughter: An evil Faerie? And she did a good job too.

Our daughter competes in Irish dance, and she has recently risen to the ranks where she can go to Regional and National competitions. This time, she was part of a dance drama team that was competing in Worlds. The drama was called “The Faeries of Trickery” and she was one of the evil faeries who fooled a local boy and played evil tricks on a young girl and her family. It was great fun, well-danced and very dramatic. They took fifth place overall.

Though the trip had a purpose, we also spent a few extra days exploring Boston. Met many charming people, experienced some nice Irish pubs, ate Italian pastry, saw the church were Paul Revere saw the signal for the coming British invasion, toured the oldest commissioned U.S. warship still afloat, and so much more.

I’m always excited about the opportunity to share the magic of Ireland with people. It’s why I’m in the travel business. This time I’m sharing the magic of Boston. Of course, a lot of that magic is Irish too. :-)

Keep an eye on these pages as I share more about this very wonderful trip.

“Got no fixed abode, with nomads I have wandered”

There’s a really meaningful Irish song, written by Ewan MacColl, which laments the diminishing numbers of The Travelers, who are the Irish equivalent of gypsies. They have an idea where they’re going, but don’t worry too much about the details of how they’re going to get there, or how long they’ll stay.

I was reminded of that song recently, when I saw a quote from Lao Tzu, the famous Chinese philosopher. “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

Both of these make a statement about travel that many of us would find unnerving. We usually develop painstaking itineraries, with dates and times and details of where we’re going to stay, and how we’re going to get there. When I do a custom trip to Ireland for someone, I research bus schedules, opening hours, and the like, and I work through the whole trip minute by minute to make sure my clients aren’t stranded or wind up in the wrong place. I often recommend they book attractions ahead of time, to make sure of being able to go. I tell them to bring enough cash to pay the B&B because some of them don’t take credit cards.

And yet, the surprises on a journey are sometimes the most memorable part of the trip. I remember speaking with a member of a group of doctors who had taken a tour of China that wound up in Beijing just as police were cracking down on protesters in Tienanmen Square. He described how the tour operator rounded them up onto a special bus and sneaked them out of town to the airport just ahead of flight cancellations and serious security restrictions. He almost glowed as the told me about these experiences and how he wanted to go back to China as soon as possible. Scared? Yes, but also tantalized and excited.

That kind of travel does appeal to some people, such as the college-ager who backpacks across western Europe. But we don’t have to go to that extreme to find the footloose version of travel, providing we do some advance preparation.

Many B&Bs and guesthouses, especially when it’s not high season, have openings for which you can call just hours in advance to book. And there are associations that keep lists of local accommodations, so you can call two or three if you have to, to find someplace to stay on short notice.

Having a car makes your itinerary much more flexible, but Ireland also has pretty decent public transportation and you can get from place to place fairly easily. Jump on the bus or train, call ahead to find a place to stay, and voila, you’re on your way to a new adventure.

In much of Europe, you can hop a train in the evening and arrive in another country by morning. Transportation and accommodation in one!

Food is another issue, but if you’re not tied to four-star restaurants, your options are pretty open. Stop at a farmers market or a grocer’s and pick up some picnic style eats; fruit, sandwich fixings, bottled drinks, etc., and you can dine almost anywhere. Hit a little cafe or pub when you get the chance and you’re much more in touch with the local scene all around.

One essential item for this kind of travel is a good guidebook. I recommend those published by Rick Steves. They are practical, informative, and updated every year “on the ground” from actual travel experiences. You can also get good information from Frommer’s, Michelin, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and more. Rick recommends tearing out the sections that cover your destination and leaving the rest behind. A good tip for traveling light.

With this kind of travel, “light” becomes even more important. You don’t want to be schlepping a heavy suitcase when you walk a few blocks from the train station to the guesthouse, or when you’re hopping a bus with limited baggage space.

There’s a comfort factor in a package tour or pre-arranged itinerary that can be very relaxing, but if you long for a more flexible holiday, that’s possible and enjoyable as well.

Savvy travelers use the “shoulder”

Many travel professionals recommend that their clients avoid the “high” travel season, when crowds are bigger and locals more frustrated. But weather and other factors can dampen your spirits if you go in the “low” season. A nice alternative is the “shoulder” season, when many sights and attractions are still open, but there are fewer tourists and more relaxed locals.

When traveling from Denver to Ireland, the shoulder season is in the fall and early spring. Once school has started, many people stay home, so if you can travel to Ireland in September, you’ll still find some lovely weather but avoid the crowds of summer. And if you take that trip in late April or May, you get to see the sights and meet the locals before they’ve been worn to a frazzle by the crowds.

A survey conducted by Travel Leaders Group from July 30 – August 23, 2012, which includes responses from 871 U.S.-based travel agency owners, managers and frontline travel agents, shows that many travelers are taking this advice, which can also lead to lower airfares and accommodation costs.

“Based on our survey data, it is abundantly clear that savvy travelers – heeding the advice of our travel professionals – are taking advantage of ‘shoulder season’ in Europe.” says Travel Leaders Group CEO Barry Liben.

Airfare from Denver to Dublin is usually in the US$1100-1200 range, but deals can be found for less than $1000 during shoulder season, and many hotels, B&Bs, and guest houses lower their rates after the peak summer months are over. So now is a good time to book that trip to Ireland and enjoy that legendary scenery and hospitality even more.

When is the best time to travel?

Many people ask me when the best time to travel is. Usually, they want to know when they can find the lowest air fares. But there are other considerations too.

There are three basic seasons in the travel business; high season, low season, and shoulder season. In Ireland, as in much of Europe, the high season is the summer. The weather is beautiful, the countryside is green, it’s just a great time of year, and lots of people take advantage of that.

But there are disadvantages too. Air fares are highest during the high season because the demand is higher. There are more crowds, especially in the more popular areas. And if you come later in the summer, the storekeepers, tour guides, etc., are more tired and less likely to exhibit that famous Irish hospitality in such an enthusiastic manner.

Low season is less crowded, but many of the attractions aren’t open, tours aren’t running, and the weather is not nearly as nice. It can be a wonderful opportunity to have a much more relaxed visit and get to know people more intimately, especially if you know the secret life of pubs.

A compromise that’s not as well known is the “shoulder” season, early spring and late fall. Many of the attractions are still open or just opening, in spring the locals are just fresh and ready, and air fares are lower than the peak season. The weather can be chancy, but the adventure can make a trip even more memorable.

So, as you make your travel plans, keep the season in mind. There’s no one “best” time to travel, but you can plan your trip around your own preferences and desire.

Find the locals in the pub

Wallace Bar, The Forth Inn, Aberfoyle ScotlandMost Americans have no clue what a pub is. There are a number of reasons for that. The primary one is that there are so few real pubs in America. Another big one is that lots of bars have the word “pub” in the name, but they are not really pubs at all, leading to confusion.

A pub is not a bar. A pub is not a restaurant. A pub usually HAS a bar, and often serves food, but it’s not the same thing.

The word “pub” is short for “Public House.” Back in the old days in Celtic cultures, hospitality was offered to strangers and travelers. You could count on staying in somebody’s home, being given a meal and a place to sleep, and when somebody visited your area, you provided the same. But with the coming of Roman influence, things began to change. Rome had taverns and inns, and that custom began to spread where Roman culture held sway. People started charging money for “hospitality.”

Some homes were turned into the local equivalent of an inn or tavern. Rooms were rented out, food and drink was served. These were houses where the public could stay. Sometimes buildings were erected for this purpose, but often, it was just somebody’s home. The “public house” became a feature of Celtic culture.

Today, there’s technically a difference between a “public house” and a “free house.” A public house is tied by contract to a certain brewery, while a free house can serve beer from anyone. But the term “pub,” short for public house, has come to apply to both.

Ireland is my specialty, so I’m mostly talking about there, but much of this is true in other Celtic-influenced countries as well. In Ireland, the lack of large population centers led to customs such as gathering at a crossroads for dancing and socializing. Similar gatherings were held in people’s homes, and in pubs. The pub became a center of social life, next only to the church. It’s an essential part of the community, a gathering place and nerve center.

In Celtic countries, people gather in the pub to play music together. This has led to the custom of “sessions” where musicians gather to play, sing, and enjoy a few pints together. The pub is also usually where gossip and news are passed on, romances are born and die, where plans are made and friendships are forged. Deals are made, help is asked and offered, and generally, anything that requires more than one person is accomplished or decided at the pub.

There’s a scene in the movie “Crocodile Dundee” where Sue, the journalist, uses the term “shrink” and Mick Dundee asks what that means. She explains that a shrink is a person to whom you tell your problems and who helps you deal with them. Mick says that’s why you have mates in the pub. You tell Wally your problems, Wally tells everyone else, and pretty soon, everybody knows. No problem. Australia is a very Celtic-influenced country.

One of the most common misunderstandings about the pub is that it’s a bar, where the primary purpose is the consumption of alcohol. While it’s true that alcohol is usually a part of pub life, it’s certainly not the primary purpose. Sharing drinks is merely part of the social life of the pub.

The pub is unlike a bar in several other ways as well. When Americans go to a bar, they either spend the time with the friends they came in with, or they’re looking to meet someone of the opposite sex. Again, those things happen in a pub, but it’s not the primary reason people go there. Pub patrons socialize with everyone, friend and stranger alike.

This can confuse Americans when they go to Ireland. If you sit (or many times, stand) at the bar, people will involve you in conversation. If you want more private time, sit at a table away from the bar. The pub is a social place.

For traveling through the back door, that’s one of the biggest advantages of a pub. When you visit Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England (or even Australia and New Zealand), plan to spend a fair amount of time in the pubs. This seems foreign to Americans; why would I want to spend my time in bars? But remember, the pub is not a bar, the pub is where you find the locals.

You want advice on the best sites to see, or the best music, or the best local culture? Find it in the pubs.

Back door accommodations

One of the best “back door” strategies involves where you stay. A bed and breakfast, guest house, or small, family-owned inn is a much more enjoyable place to stay than a big chain hotel. And if you search out the right ones, it doesn’t have to cost more.

Think about your last stay in a big chain motel. Perhaps you learned the desk clerk’s name, but probably not. You may have read the name tag worn by the maid who changed your sheets, or the server who took your order in the generic restaurant, but otherwise, you really didn’t meet people. And the people you did meet where service professionals, who treated you with a distant courtesy, as they have been trained.

Now imagine this. You are met at the door of a lovely cottage by Mrs. Brown. Her husband is gone now and she has turned their home into a bed and breakfast. She invites you into the parlor and serves you a cup of tea, and joins you with her own. She has made the little cakes herself, and she tells you stories of growing up in this community and how it has changed.

Later, she shows you to a room that’s as clean and comfortable as the room in any five-star hotel, but there’s a hand made bedspread and some very unique knick-knacks and curios.

Next morning she serves you a splendid cooked breakfast, featuring local products and specialties. During the meal she gives lots of wonderful advice and information about local sites and activities, and where to buy some groceries for a nice picnic lunch so you don’t have to spend the money on a restaurant for lunch.

When you return later in the afternoon from the most enjoyable day you can remember, she mentions a splendid little pub just down the block where some local musicians come to play and sing, as they have for many years together. So you cap off that wonderful day with an even more enjoyable evening, sharing a pint and a bite to eat with people who have lived here all their lives. (More about the pub in another post.)

Traveling through the back door could also be described as traveling closer to the ground. You meet real people who live here, working to make a living, enjoying their lives, sharing their experiences with you in a way that you’ll never get from the desk clerk in that chain motel. That’s why I think “back door” accommodations are so much superior to the places where you pay more to be treated like a tourist.