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TRAVEL Q&A

DIY Ireland: It's Doable

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By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 21, 2008

Q. I'm planning a trip to Ireland within the next six to eight months. Will you recommend a reputable tour company? There's so much to see!

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Lynne Murray, Silver Spring

A. Be happy to, but first, let me make a case for not using a tour operator at all: If there's one country where you can travel independently with ease, it's Ireland. The country is small and manageable, it's easy to get around in and there's not a more welcoming, friendlier, more engaging people on the planet than the Irish. Plus they speak English.

Every major Irish city has a well-staffed tourism office where you can book lodgings and find information on attractions. To be sure, you'll get confused driving the winding roads; you'll need directions to obscure villages; you might even get a flat tire. But it's all part of the experience, and in virtually any situation, a local is likely to come bounding over to help you. And will have a story to share in the process.

If you're still unsure, consider something like the self-drive program offered by Alexandria's Isle Inn Tours. It's designed for those who like to plan their own itineraries yet want the security of guaranteed accommodations and the savings of a package. You can choose open vouchers for B&Bs or book in advance at a variety of lodgings.

Cost is $900 per person double (plus $95 tax, which is subject to change) for travel in March and April and includes round-trip air from Washington Dulles to Dublin, six nights' lodging in B&Bs with private bathrooms and a standard-shift car with unlimited mileage.

You can also upgrade if you'd like to stay in castles or manor homes. Details: 703-683-4800, http://www.isleinntours.com.

And if you're still not convinced, go to Tourism Ireland's Web site, http://www.discoverireland.com/us, for a comprehensive list of recommended tour operators; click on "Plan Your Visit," then "Tour Operators." You'll find a variety of escorted tours with everything taken care of for you: airport transfers, meals, guides, even nightly entertainment. But nothing beats the serendipity of wandering into a random pub on your own and listening in as the locals make music. Take a chance and go unguided. You won't be sorry.

My husband and I met on Amtrak in December 1976, and we were married Dec. 29, 1979. To celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary this December, we'd like to take an Amtrak trip to somewhere from Washington (with a sleeper). Do you have any suggestions for a seven-to-10-day trip the last week of December?

Tran Kratzke, Herndon

How does Chicago in December sound? We thought so. There are only two sleeper-car destinations from Washington, and the Windy City is one of them.

Mercifully, the other overnight option from Washington's Union Station is Amtrak's Silver Service to Miami. The Silver Star leaves at 3 p.m. Dec. 28 and arrives in Miami at 6:05 p.m. on your anniversary.

Spend the next five days frolicking in South Beach or Coral Gables, then catch the Silver Meteor home at 8:40 a.m. Jan. 4. It arrives in Washington at 7:46 the next morning. The grand total for this little extravaganza: $2,242 for two ($2,196 with a AAA discount), and that's not including your expenses in Miami. But hey, 29th wedding anniversaries don't come along every day.

You could cut the price of your accommodations dramatically with a roomette instead of a bedroom, but then you wouldn't have your own shower, and the quarters would be far less spacious.

By the way, you can easily go farther afield by connecting in Chicago: All California trains originate there. So consider the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles or the California Zephyr to Emeryville (just outside San Francisco). Details: 800-872-7245, http://www.amtrak.com.

Whatever you decide, you'd better book soon: Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero said sleeper cars fill up quickly in December.

Your Turn

Regarding the French perfume town of Grasse (Travel Q&A, Sept. 7), Eric G. Malguy of Fairfax recommends buying train tickets in the United States through Rail Europe at http://www.raileurope.com/us/rail/fares_schedules/index.htm: "It is often cheaper than purchasing the tickets in Europe."

Single senior women looking for travel partners (Sept. 7) should consider the Shillelagh Travel Club, says Donna Manz of Vienna. "The Vienna-based organization has approximately 2,000 members. . . . [and] hosts about 100 overnight trips a year." Details: http://www.shillelaghtravelclub.com.

Send queries by e-mail (travelqa@washpost.com) or U.S. mail (Travel Q&A, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Please include your name and town.


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