I've been back in the drudgery of the real world for just over a week now & it's been quite frustrating, what with no one making my bed or serving me breakfast on a daily basis. Quite frustrating indeed.
While I understand the itinerary for next years 2 week tour of Ireland is changing somewhat, what follows is my somewhat protracted review, which is intended for people who, like me, have never been on a Rick Steves' tour before & are not entirely sure of what to expect from the experience. Rest assured however - the short version is that you will be quite pleased overall.
My tour was from October 4th through October 17th. I booked well in advance & chose the single room option, as I was traveling alone & while the option exists to share a room with a stranger, & form lifelong friendships & all of that, I like getting up at 4:00 a.m. going for a run, or watching random stuff tv. The single room option is worth the extra bit of money. The tour began in Dublin & the first meeting with my tour group wasn't until 5:00 p.m. on a Sunday night. With this in mind, I decided to spend a couple of nights prior to the tour in Liverpool, which was an easy 40 minute flight via RyanAir to the John Lennon Airport. I know there have been other threads about RyanAir & I will just say that it's fine if you go in prepared. Print your tickets in advance or you will be charged a fee. Make sure your baggage is of the right weight, or you will be charged a fee. I paid for a business class ticket, which allowed me an extra bag & "priority boarding," which amounted to little more than a 10 second head start as dozens of people walked to the plane. I'll spare you a summary of my adventures in Liverpool, except to say it's certainly worth a visit & for more than just The Beatles. There's a good deal to do with The Titanic, which would fit in quite well with the time spent on Belfast on this tour.
First bit of advice: do plan for your free time. I arrived back in Dublin at 7:30 Sunday morning & took in as much as I could of the city on my own. St. Stephen's Green, Grafton Street, the grounds of Trinity College, lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe (yeah, yeah), Temple Bar District & Dublin Castle. Our first & final hotel was Buswell's, which was very close to the National Library of Ireland, the National Museum of Archaeology & Bram Stoker's home, among other things. Or, get blitzed at the Guinness Storehouse, which Rick Steves' skips over. Just fill your time. We were a small group of 20 people, which was an excellent number. During this initial meeting, we introduced ourselves, met our guide & learned the expectations of the tour. We then went to dinner & did a bit of a walking tour to orient ourselves to Dublin (O'Connell Street - a touristy strip that is also rather rich in history). The next morning, we met for a walking tour of Dublin, led by a local guide, who was a graduate of Trinity College & working as a magazine editor. After this, we visited Trinity & saw The Book of Kells. We split up around noon & had the rest of the day to ourselves.
At that point, I went off & had a business meeting near the Ha'Penny Bridge, & then took in the Jeannie Johnston (a famine ship with about an hour long tour), & took in the moving sculpture of starving, famine era Irish citizens marching toward it. On that first night (your last in Dublin for a while), consider dinner & music in the Temple Bar District. You'll get some suggestions from your local guide or from your Rick Steves' guide, but as for music, I'd suggest just going where your ear takes you.
Each morning, the tour bus, which in our case, traveling with only 20, allowed for us to have a seat open next to us, would generally leave the hotel around 8:45 - sometimes a bit earlier, rarely later. This gave everyone ample time to get cleaned up, enjoy breakfast in the hotel (all breakfasts were included as part of the tour) & if necessary, check out & load their bags on the bus.