Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Ireland: Driving Around Dublin

Toto, we’re not Amsterdam anymore!  This became apparent as soon as we landed at the Dublin airport.  Everything went so smoothly for our Amsterdam visit, in terms of purchasing a data SIM card for our IPAD from the airport and figuring out the trains/trams required to get to our accommodations that we had our guard down a bit when arriving in Dublin.  Since we were renting a car for the Ireland leg of our trip, we knew we had to be wary about the cars driving on the left.  As a pedestrian, our time in Amsterdam had prepared us well for this.  When standing at the curb of the Dublin streets, you are helpfully warned about whether you should LOOK LEFT or LOOK RIGHT for oncoming traffic.  Spending two weeks dodging bicycles that came from all directions in Amsterdam had trained us to always look BOTH ways to look for speeding bicycles when crossing an intersection, so we did fine as pedestrians.  Occasionally, there would be the bewildering words “STAD FÉACH”, which we eventually learned was Irish for “STOP LOOK”.  I could not figure out the purpose of this, since anyone who understood Irish would surely also be familiar with which side the traffic flowed?  
Driving on the left was another matter and something that both Rich as the driver and even I as the passenger needed to get used to.  There was a large white sign taped to the base of the windshield reminding you to "Drive on the Left" and for the duration of the four weeks, I would occasionally prompt Rich to “turn wide” into the far lane when making a right-hand turn. It took a while to not cringe when I saw cars coming towards us from "the wrong way".  And for the first few weeks, we continuously did what I called the "Vehicle Do-Si-Doe", where one or both of us would head towards the wrong door, catch ourselves and sheepishly walk back to the other side.
Someone was waiting for us at our next home swap to give us the keys, so we were already a bit stressed when our plane was slightly delayed.  We had researched in advanced and planned to buy an Ireland data SIM card at the kiosk in the airport, just like the one for the Netherlands that we bought at the Amsterdam airport.  But upon arriving, we were dismayed to find that we were in the smaller terminal for EU flights and could not buy a data SIM card from there.  Then we got into our rental car and found out that our GPS that we brought from home was not working.  We were counting on the combination of the GPS and Goggle Maps on the IPAD to help us navigate and therefore had not prepared any maps.  So now we had no idea how to get to the home swap location and no access to phone or email in order to contact our host.  These days, we are so dependent on our devices and access to the Web that we feel very vulnerable without them.

Fearing that perhaps the wattages on the cigarette lighters in Irish cars did not support our GPS, and being in a rush to get to our awaiting host, we buckled down and rented a GPS from the car rental for a few days just so we could find our way home.  Renting the GPS for our entire 4 week stay was prohibitively expensive at 15 Euros per day, so we decided that we could buy a new one for much less, as we would need something to guide us on our road trips around Ireland.  When we finally got to our destination and settled in for the evening, we discovered that we did not have the correct power adapters for Ireland!  The ones that we brought and used in Amsterdam were not compatible!   This felt like three strikes and you’re out, as we had a broken GPS, no access to the internet and no way to recharge our devices.  This was a stressful start to our trip.

Luckily the next day, we were able to resolve most of our issues during our first foray into downtown Dublin.  We were able to buy power adapters from a local hardware store, a 7 Gig data plan good for 30 days from Vodafone on Grafton St and a relatively inexpensive UK/Ireland GPS from Argos in St. Stephen’s Green Mall.  Prior to purchasing our data plan, we were not able to rely on the trusty Google Maps on our IPAD to get directions, and so we had to revert to the old fashioned way of counting on the kindness of strangers.  We found a nice man who actually went out of his way to walk us 6 blocks to our destination.

The car drama continued when we returned home that night and tried our brand new GPS, just to find out that it also “wasn’t working”.  That’s when we realized that the issue was not with our old GPS but with the cigarette lighter outlet which had blown a fuse.  We were led astray by the rental GPS, which was actually running on battery.  We had already planned to return to the airport in a few days to return the rental GPS but now we also had to exchange cars.  Lesson learned for next time—confirm that the cigarette lighter adapter in your car is working before you leave the car rental.  This would have saved us much time and money.

There were a couple of other anomalies related to having a car in Dublin that we had to learn to deal with.  The first was regarding overnight visitors' parking.  In order for a visitor to park his car on a residential street, the resident must pre-purchase a stack of daily "scratch cards" that need to be presented on the dashboard.  Each card is good for exactly 24 hours and apparently the parking police will put a clamp on your tires if you are in violation.  You need to carefully pick the starting date and time, taking note of the row of AM hours as opposed to PM, so that you don't select the wrong one. Depending on our itinerary and whether or not we would drive or walk to our destinations, it took a bit of calculation and consideration each day to determine when we should put a new parking pass in the car for another 24 hour period.  If we planned to stay out longer than the previous day, then we would put in a new pass that morning rather than trying to rush home.  Luckily, the cost of the passes was inconsequential, at 1.25 Euros for a set of four.

Our other complexity was figuring out the toll highway called M50 which forms a ring around most of Dublin and its suburbs, so that it is almost impossible to avoid any time you travel into or out of the city.  Paying tolls on highways is not a new concept to us, and we had our coins saved up for this purpose, but this highway was different. There is no booth to pay the toll, either at the entrance to or exit from this highway.  Instead, your usage is automatically detected (by scanning your license plate)? and you owe 3.1 Euros for each one-way trip.  But unlike Toronto's 407 toll highway which sends you a monthly bill for usage, the M50 expects you to keep track of your daily trips and you must pay your dues by 8pm the next day or face escalating delinquency fines.  The cost is compounded with rental vehicles since the charge is sent to the rental company who tacks on an extra 30 Euro administration fee.

You can pay online by logging onto the website where you specify your license plate, number of trips and credit card number. The next day 8pm deadline seems severe, but my biggest issue with this system is that the onus on the driver to remember how many M50 trips he took.  This would take some awareness, especially for a tourist who is not familiar with the surroundings or this requirement.  For example, in our hurry to get home from the airport on the first day, we just blindly followed the rental GPS's directions and had no idea whether or not the M50 was involved.  There is nowhere on the website for us to check what whether we had outstanding fees or not.  In the end, we had to phone their service number to find out this information.  The whole process is extremely cumbersome and error-prone.

So we got off to a rocky start on the Ireland leg of our vacation, but everything was worked out within a few days and the rest of our trip was smooth sailing.

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