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Comparison of Non-Rick Steves Tour Operators in Ireland and North Ireland

Alas, it appears that the Rick Steves tour to Ireland and Northern Ireland will not be going this summer. Therefore, we need to look into an alternative tour operator. Does anyone know anything about Trafalgar, Go Ahead, and CIE 14-day tours to Ireland and Northern Ireland? We plan to go in late-August 2021. I am writing a thesis on Northern Ireland so am interested in seeing the street art and learning about the Troubles but am also keen on learning a lot more about the cultures of the Republic and Northern Ireland as well as experiencing the natural beauty of the Emerald Isle. There are three family members traveling together -- two of us in our 60s and our daughter, who is in her mid-thirties. I already looked into Overseas Adventure Travel and Road Scholar. The former doesn't include the Ring of Kerry, which we'd like to see, except as an add-on, which we do not have the time or budget to do. Road Scholar does not travel the period we need to go and does not appear to offer too much in Northern Ireland where major events of the Troubles occurred. I would be so grateful for any advice you can give on these alternative tour operators and am open to other suggestions as well. We are on a budget, however, and cannot afford high-end like Tauck. We also must travel at end-August 2021. With warm thanks!

Posted by
1055 posts

Hi Luke, are you asking for a tour operator to help educate you or do you want a tour that will get you to where you want to go? If it’s the latter, have you considered renting a car and hiring a personal tour guide in each place you go?

Posted by
619 posts This is an Irish company we used in 2015. Small group, very reasonable, nice hotels, and very knowledgeable tour guides. Their Driftwood tours offer a 6 day Northern Ireland tour and an 11 day discover Ireland tour.


Posted by
1260 posts

Caroline, welcome to the forum.
Have you thought about renting a car and doing an independent visit to Ireland instead of taking a tour? By driving you can go where you want to do your research. For three of you it may be cheaper than a tour. When driving, sometimes the road will lead to an unexpected pleasure, like the 300 year old woolen mill we found but I have no idea where after all these years. And the people you meet along the way will be friendly. Does your research only center on Belfast or does it include other North Ireland and border areas?

A friend and I went to Ireland years ago. After going to the Dublin Horse Show, we took the train to Sligo, did a week’s trail ride in Donegal, then picked up a rental car in Sligo to drive south and through the middle of the country back to Dublin. Driving a right-hand drive car was not as difficult as people make it sound and we rented a stick. We stayed in B&Bs except for a night at Ashford Castle. I know roads have changed and improved in 30 years, but as you plan your trip, give yourself time to sightsee and double the driving time from what Google Maps says.

If you do Google searches you will find rental cars and B&Bs. Also search the forum because I have seen posts about those from a couple years ago. This may be a place to start

Have a great trip! Ireland’s a wonderful country. But remember to check out Covid restrictions before you go. Be sure everything you book is cancellable and refundable. Last I heard from a friend in Dublin there were travel restrictions, quarantines and lockdowns. Like everywhere that is changing daily.

PS: a side note to your Troubles research. One morning on our Donegal ride, our guide told us that the Army (police?) found an IRA gun stash a couple miles from us. We were inland from Bundoran.
Post edited for format.

Posted by
3789 posts

I hesitate to mention I used Trafalgar once for Egypt. Tour as good, and company professional, but as we were one of the first tours after Egypt opened up after the Arab Spring, instead of a big bus of tourists there were only 5 of, I don't feel it to be a good example of their typical tours.
I wonder whether you would consider local tour companies? Rabbies Tours started in Scotland, but I noticed they have branched out to England and Ireland. They are often recommended. If I recall they either don't book hotels, or if they do, they offer various levels so that may be a way to manage your budget.
I know you were looking at tours, and I won't suggest driving, but Ireland offers self guided tours by train that organizes the logistics, but leaves the day to you. You can take a day trip to the Ring of Kerry..that sort of thing. If you need time for your thesis, it may be a way to give it the time you need.
But if tours are the way you want to go, all 3 companies have been around a good length of time, so they have that going for them.

Posted by
25786 posts

I am writing a thesis on Northern Ireland so am interested in seeing the street art and learning about the Troubles

Welcome to the Forums.

The news may not have filtered over the Atlantic yet, so are you aware that the Troubles have returned to Belfast? Related to the Brexit issues and the Good Friday Agreement, there has been a lot of sectarian violence mostly along both sides of the Peace Lines so far.

Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland are not happy places at the moment.

Posted by
68 posts

Hopefully, by August, we'll able to travel freely. I agree that Ireland is a country easily travelled independently by car. Do you have Rick Steves' Ireland guidebook? That would be a great place to start. There is so much information on his website you might not need the book....You can do this trip easily, making a plan yourself. You can model your itinerary after what Rick's tour would have covered. I've used the website GetYourGuide frequently. For Dublin, the last two weeks of August, there are already over 100 tour ideas posted. If you are budget-minded, your own research will save you a bundle. I think, if you are afraid to drive, you can hire a driver, but I don't know much about that. We (a couple of ladies in our 60's) drove ourselves, in a rented manual transmission car and did very well. (well, minus one hubcap....) I don't know about the border crossing into Northern Ireland, though....Maybe someone on the forum has some good ideas. Ireland is beautiful and friendly. You'll love every minute you spend there.

Posted by
4998 posts

Tours definitely have their place, and O.A.T. definitely puts together exceptional itineraries, albeit for a price. We’ve just signed up with them for an African safari tour in April 2022. But that’s going to some developing countries, with large wild animals about. For Ireland, a very First-World destination, we’ve done 2 trips ourselves, using Rick Steves’ and other guidebooks. As horsewoofie describes, a rental car makes your own itinerary doable.

Our first trip was actually by bicycle and bus, and we visited western Ireland, including part of the Ring of Kerry. Second trip, 2 years ago, started in Dublin, with a bus to Galway, then very short flight to and from Inishmore island, then rental car to go clockwise around northwestern Replublic, then Northern, then back in the Republic, finishing in Dublin. We, too, used a manual transmission and managed fine on left-side-of-the-road driving.

Another advantage of doing a trip on your own is that you’re not confined to round-trip airfare, if “open jaw” works better for you. You could fly in to Dublin, do your trip, then fly out from Shannon, possibly saving backtracking, and the time and money that might require. Or vice versa. This way, you could see sights on the O.A.T. agenda, plus fit in the Ring of Kerry. You might have to make some timing adjustments, but with the O.A.T. Website itinerary and Adventure Guide they’ll happily mail you, plus the Rick Steves Tour agenda described on his Website, plus Rick’s guidebook and some others that might be available through your library, you’re well on your way to planning a trip that goes where you want to go, when, and at an affordable cost.

Doing a trip on your own does take some extra effort, compared to a company doing much of that for you, but planning is part of the fun of travel. If you do use a company, I hope you get the full trip you want.

Posted by
879 posts

OK, so I really hate it when someone asks about tours and most of the answers say, "Just do it yourself!". Everyone on the planet knows that they can schedule their own trip.

I took a CIE tour in 2015. I loved it. I do like Rick Steves tours better though because of more time on your own and not focused on shopping. The guide was knowledgeable. They also offer a lot of different itineraries so you can pick what you want to see. The tour I took did stop in Belfast, but most of the time was spent at the Titanic museum, so if you want to be able to see the city and learn more, I would definitely communicate with the company ahead of time. Maybe you could veer off of the tour while the group was at the museum.

I hope you get to travel this year.

Posted by
7 posts

Many thanks to all of you for your thoughtful suggestions, and to vandrabud of Ohio, especially, for addressing my specific question about the quality of group tour operators in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Upon further reflection, I realize this might not be the best time to travel to Northern Ireland after all, especially given that violence in Belfast does not appear to be letting up. For example, one tour operator told me they may have to adjust their itinerary to exclude Belfast and Derry if violence continues there.

We may decide to wait this out until Rick Steves tours start to operate again. By then, hopefully we'll have a more accurate picture of precisely what is happening in Northern Ireland. Again, I am very grateful for your input and will keep your advice in mind for future planning.

Posted by
183 posts

Celtic Tours World Vacations was an excellent tour operator to Ireland for me. I was on their tour of Ireland in early 2019. Don't remember what I paid, but it definitely wasn't Tauck level. Learned a lot, ate great food, had unforgettable experiences and can't wait to go again. Their dairy products are delicious, extra creamy due to the soil I was told. Awesome potato chips!

Good luck on your research and safe travels.

Posted by
3527 posts

I've just been reading about the recent troubles in Northern Ireland because I was hoping the Rick Steves tour would go in early October. I'd planned to stay a few days after it ends in Belfast, like I'd planned to do last May.

You can Google for lots of news about what's happening that could affect your plans. This BBC link is just one of many:

This Washington Post opinion piece has more background and explanation, but it is opinion:

BTW, Northern Ireland voted 56% to remain in the European Union and 44% to leave. The issues now seem to be based in that vote. Unionists, primarily Protestant, believe that Northern Ireland should be part of the UK. Nationalists, primarily Catholic, think Northern Ireland should be in the Republic of Ireland.

Posted by
7 posts

Thank you, horsewoofie, for that wonderful link to group tour operators. I had erroneously assumed that it covered only the one operator that you cited in your text. This is, indeed, a most helpful resource. I am very appreciative.

Posted by
7 posts

Lo, the articles you sent me are illuminating about the recent outburst of violence in Northern Ireland. I had actually read the BBC article earlier but missed the Washington Post article. Both of these articles confirm my intuition that this is not a good time to visit Northern Ireland. Thus, we will either delay those plans until the situation seems more stable or adjust our plans to travel elsewhere. Sicily is high on my list as well. I may look into that as an alternative. Many thanks, again!

Posted by
9825 posts

If you are U.S. passport holders, make sure that any plans you make are fully refundable. Your planned trip is four months away and no one is sure that you will be able to travel at that time to Italy. (Many of us hope we can but we aren't sure.)

If everyone in your travel party is not fully vaccinated, you may want to make sure that is done as many places, at least for now, are requiring either vaccinations or quarantine on arrival. No one knows what the rules will be when Italy opens up.

Posted by
4372 posts

As Emma has pointed out, the violence isn't particularly widespread, in fact it's fairly limited and is created by young thugs desperate for an excuse to riot and cause trouble. Brexit isn't the cause, those demonstrating wouldn't even be able to explain to you why Brexit would be a reason for their angst but rather a convenient excuse to justify their behaviour. If you were to visit now it's unlikely that it would impact your visit by any meaningful amount but no-one knows what the situation will be like in August. Currently there are discussions ongoing between the Irish government, Brussels and the British government in an attempt to solve the issue surrounding trade and the Irish border and these are reportedly progressing well.

As for travel in August, the vaccination rates in Northern Ireland are progressing well but the same can't be said for Ireland so it's likely that the two countries will have different restrictions and requirements.

Posted by
1793 posts

I have been to Ireland twice. Once on a tour focused on music, the other independently, so I can’t help you with your question, but just wanted to chime in that I love 🇮🇪 Ireland!

Posted by
100 posts

I have traveled with both Trafalgar and Globus and would not hesitate to travel with either again. As a matter of fact my Globus “Escape” (which are off season tours) to Northern Ireland in March of 2019 was one of my favorite. If/when you decide to go you could also consider combining a shorter escorted tour with some independent travel. I arrived in Dublin prior to the start of the tour and spent a day exploring the Boyne Valley with a private guide.

Posted by
8280 posts

I'll just add some general comments about tour operators. Do your research on how companies treated customers during the pandemic with tours that were company cancelled. Both Trafalgar and OAT had a number of complaints on the Trip Advisor Senior forum regarding lack of refunds for cancelled trips. The OAT customers, in particular, were having to resort to contacting the MA Attorney General's office for assistance.

Here is a compilation thread with forum discussions on a number of tour companies with both good and poor reports.

TBH, if Rick isn't doing tours, I'm not doing tours. I have a Road Scholar tour of SW France set for October but will probably cancel it if Rick doesn't feel he can resume his tours. I trust his research on keeping his customers and guides safe. I have traveled on 11 Rick Steves tours and 11 Road Scholar tours but I trust Rick's research and instincts.

Posted by
4 posts

If you are interested in doing research on Northern Ireland, I strongly recommend that you visit Derry. The geography of that town is very interesting, with the cannons on the walls overlooking the neighbourhood of Bogside. When you go, look carefully for the small plaques on the walls honouring the young people who died in the Troubles; there are so many.

In Belfast, I found that a great way to learn first hand about the Troubles was to take the Coiste Irish Political walking tour.
It is a very informative tour led by 2 former combatants (one Unionist, one Republican). It is a long walking tour (about 3 hours) that goes along Falls road, crosses under the wall (where the Unionist guide takes over), and then explores Shankill Road.
For anyone writing a thesis about Northern Ireland; I can't think of a better experience.

Posted by
9 posts

And to get a feel what Derry was like in the 90s, watch Derry Girls. It takes a bit of time to adjust to the accents but the atmosphere is quite spot on.

Posted by
7 posts

To hhdellar: The tour to which you refer sounds totally intriguing and exactly what I have been looking for. I had never heard of it prior to your posting. I shall be looking into this and thank you so much for sharing this with me!

Posted by
7 posts

Fear Olygirl,
The Derry Girls does come very highly recommended indeed for getting a taste of what life was like in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. I shall be looking into this! Thank you!

Posted by
70 posts

I highly recommend CIE. I did a tour with them in Ireland a few years ago and my parents did tours with them in both Ireland and the UK (separate tours). I have high standards and they met and often exceeded those standards. Great guide, coach (bus), and tour. I am an American expat (if that helps).

Posted by
98 posts

folks please do not listen to the news media there were minor disturbances in Belfast in april, would i cancel my trip to New York because someone was murdered in Brooklyn? i wouldnt, the ironic thing is Northern Ireland is the safest part of the UK, the riots were back in april and fizzled out its now 6th of august and everything is quiet, also i am from Northern Ireland and Belfast is safe to visit in fact you are missing out if you dont go to Belfast the riots back in april took place in a small area away from the main areas so you dont have to cancel anything folks feel free to message me any questions and i will try and reply as soon as possible

Posted by
9 posts

I took a Rabbies tour in 2019 and was very happy. Their tours are very reasonable, but do not include food or lodging. You are free to book your own hotels, or you can have them book rooms for you in the price category of your choice. Their tours are small (maximum 16 people I believe) so their vans can get to harder to reach areas that some of the larger tours cannot. The tour we took was a 3 night trip that included the Ring of Kerry and Kinsale.