Our friends’ eyebrows lifted skeptically when we told them our plans: To hit the road in a campervan. In Ireland—in winter. It seemed their idea of a vacation was pretty different than ours. Or maybe we just had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. I mean, we were just sort of winging it, after all.
Pulling my puffy jacket’s hood up and tugging the comforter tighter around me in bed a few weeks later, I chuckled to myself that maybe our friends were right to be skeptical. The campervan was jerking, shaking and shuddering in the winds blasting from the North Atlantic as I tried to sleep on the double bed in the back. We’d been striking out on places to stay and had parked on the pier outside the sleepy (at least this time of year) village of Doolin on the west coast. The waves boomed deeply, growling on the boulders a few yards away from where we were trying to sleep. It turns out most people don’t caravan through Ireland in the winter for a reason.
Our idea had been to simply rent a campervan and hit the road, taking advantage of off-season ticket prices and hoping for lighter crowds. No tight plan. No intense agenda. Just a road map, a few ideas from photos we’d seen online, and 13 days to drift around the country, relaxing, seeing sights and eating the occasional pub chips. Maybe hiking a trail here and there. But we quickly learned two things: 1) Most RV-style campsites close during the winter, and 2) van camping is not nearly as easy in Ireland as it is in the American West, where we’d previously lived out of a van for a couple of years.
Even though we steered away from renting one of the larger campervans available, we often found ourselves gasping with anxiety as we nearly sideswiped parked cars or stone walls—the roads so narrow that our van’s tires were often on both the shoulder and the center line. We shook our heads, imagining what it would be like to drive those roads during high tourist season, playing chicken with massive tour buses, and were actually grateful to see little traffic. Mostly tiny European cars that zipped quickly around us.
We opted to rent a wifi hotspot from the campervan company, and it was a lifesaver; when it worked. I used it to navigate through roundabouts and intersections with street signs the size of bumper stickers while Brendan athletically shifted gears with his left hand, stomping the pedals which were in reverse of what both of us had driven our entire lives, since in Ireland cars drive on the left.
What we thought would bring us freedom—the ability to park and sleep wherever we wanted—actually became a crux. On Brendan’s birthday, we’d planned to drive into the city of Cork to enjoy a meal and a night in a hotel. Cork is the second largest city in Ireland, and we were psyched to spend time walking the streets, peeking into cafes and pubs and digging into a big birthday meal. But the streets of Cork were built long before the likes of our hulking van. Long before automobiles, actually. It took us about three hours, miles of circling and asking around, to finally find a parking spot at a train station where we’d be able to leave the van overnight—and where it actually fit.
The good news is, it was absolutely worth it. Within a few minutes of strolling by shops and over waterways, we were both smitten with the city’s vibe. We stuffed ourselves with savory vegetarian pot pie at the Quay Co-op, sighing at how the warm streetlights reflected off the water outside the second-story windows. This was what we’d been hoping for. We arranged our strolls through the city based on where we might get a good cup of coffee and were happily surprised to find a booming coffee culture in a region certainly not famous for it. And when we hit the road again, we decided we were okay with compromising on a few nights in hotels instead of driving around desperately to find someplace to park for a night’s sleep, as nearly all of the caravan parks were closed for the season.
Surprised at how long it took to get from place to place on the tiny, twisty roads, we dialed back our expectations for how much of the country we’d be able to see during the one trip and vowed to come back. We rode a ferry across the misty River Shannon to explore Loop Head—which felt wild, uncrowded and magically wind-whipped. We pulled the van over to enjoy coffee looking out on sea stacks with the remains of ancient dwellings perched on top. We parked for the night at a bed and breakfast where the owner’s school-age son greeted us with freshly baked scones. We extended our stay in the city of Galway because we loved it so much, the street musicians undeterred by incessant drizzle, the River Corrib roaring powerfully under the ancient bridges, the notorious donut man frying dough fresh to order at the farmer’s market.
We sludged through muddy fields to walk from Doolin—famous for its traditional music—along the coastal cliffs to the iconic towering Cliffs of Moher. And while we certainly didn’t have the place to ourselves, we felt for a minute grateful to have come during the off season.
That night, we warmed up over curry and chips at Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin, a fire glowing in the fireplace and only a handful of other visitors quietly enjoying what I imagined would be a rollicking packed joint during the high tourist season. Maybe next time I’d opt to ride trains and stay at AirBnBs instead of driving a campervan. But, maybe this winter stuff isn’t so bad after all.
If you’re thinking of taking an Irish winter vacation—and I highly recommend it—here’s how we budgeted for it.
Plane tickets for two
While summer round-trip ticket prices range from around $900 to $2500, we opted for January’s off-season rates, about $700 per person from Denver to Dublin and back.
I wouldn’t recommend renting a campervan in winter—I’d suggest renting a car or taking a train, since open caravan parks were few and far between. But if you’re dead set on it, you can rent one in the off-season for $700. Ours was equipped with a double-sized bed, a tiny eat-in kitchen with refrigerator and a bathroom. All plates, pots and pans were included. One thing we learned: We’d rather opt for a van without a bathroom, at least in wintertime, because it’s difficult to find open places to dump the waste. Going with a smaller van that doesn’t include a bathroom would be an easy way to save a little money.
A huge lifesaver for us was the portable wifi hotspot we rented from the van company for $50. Neither of us had international cell service, so this allowed us to navigate, look up restaurants and shoot out the occasional e-mail or Instagram post.
This was the surprise cost for us. Since we’d been planning to sleep in the van for almost the entire trip, we were glad to find off-season prices at hotels a bit lower than normal. We booked funky downtown rooms in independent hotels like the Spanish Arch Hotel in Galway’s Latin Quarter. And instead of finding prices from about $140-$240 per night we got away with rooms from about $85 to $140 per night.
The average price of parking at a caravan park—where we could charge up our electricity, dump our waste and spend the night—started at about $35. But most of the caravan parks were closed. This saved us money on caravan parks, but cost us much more in hotel rooms.
Meals for two
If you’re renting a van, you can save as much money on meals out as you’d like. We opted for keeping a small stash of groceries—greens for salads, eggs and oatmeal for breakfast, bread and peanut butter for sandwiches. But we certainly didn’t skimp on eating out. The eggs we enjoyed at cafes and the hearty pot pies—have you been to The Pie Maker in Galway?!— and curries were some of our favorite memories from the trip. Meals for the two of us averages about $50.
The cost of fueling your campervan will vary, based on what type of van you choose and current fuel prices. It’s better to budget high than to be surprised. Reaching out to your campervan company in advance will help you figure out the best estimate for the trip you want to do.
Hilary Oliver is an outdoor adventure writer, editor, and filmmaker based in Denver. Her work has appeared in Adventure Journal, Climbing, Sidetracked, National Geographic Adventure, and many other websites and magazines. You can see more of her work at junipermedia.co..
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