Monday, July 25, 2011

In Search of Roots - A Trip Through Great Britain and Ireland

Part 1 – Introduction and Preparation
This series will describe the trip that my wife, Pat, and I took through Great Britain and Ireland in the summer of 2011. It discusses the reason for the trip, the preparation, and some of the adventures we had along the way.
Pat had wanted for a long time to visit Great Britain and Ireland on one of our trips; however we always seemed to find an interesting tour that would take us somewhere else, so the idea was shelved for another year. Just last year she investigated her ancestors on and learned specific locations where they had lived in Ireland and Scotland before coming to Canada, where her mother was born and lived before coming to the United States. With this knowledge, she was even more interested in visiting these countries, but also knew that no organized tour was going to go to these particular places.
This meant that we would have to construct our own tour either by driving or taking public transportation such as train or bus. The big unknown about driving was the fact that all the driving would be on the left side of the road in a car with its steering wheel on the right side. Could we make the necessary adaptations? At a party we met some people who had recently finished a driving tour of England and they said that they had been able to do exactly that. They had planned their trip along the lines of Rick Steves’ “Britain’s Best Three Week Trip by Car,” which starts with a bus trip to Bath to pick up the car and leaves the car in York before hopping a train to see London at the end of the trip. Somehow, we were sold before the end of the evening.
The next day, I went to our local bookstore and picked up Rick Steves’ Great Britain and Rick Steves’ Ireland and started to plan the trip. The idea was to combine Rick’s three week Britain and three week Ireland trips into one trip about a month long with specific visits to County Wicklow in Ireland and the two places in Scotland where her ancestors had lived, and to see a lot of important sights while we were there.
This started about the middle of July in 2010 and we wanted to visit between the middle of June and the middle of July the next year. The first commitment for a trip like this is to get your air reservations locked in. The airlines open reservations for a flight 330 days before the flight, so I wanted to get reservations about the middle of August to be able to get available Business Class upgrades with my frequent flyer miles.
I went to work right away, planning a trip on a spreadsheet with a nominal start date of June 15th, but the ability to adjust dates when I knew the actual date we would leave. Going through the two books, I picked towns to stay in and sights to see, trying to stay at least two days in each place. I used lodging recommendations from Rick Steves’ books and then vetted them against recommendations on the TripAdvisor web site. By the middle of August, I had a draft trip laid out and was able to call United Airlines to get my reservations. I was able to get a business class upgrade on a flight from Santa Barbara to Heathrow through Denver, returning on July 12th. With that information in hand, I was able to start making lodging reservations at the B&Bs that I had selected. In each case the establishment had a web site, which at least gave me a general idea of the rooms and in some cases allowed me to reserve a specific room over the web. In other cases, an email exchange with the innkeeper was required. In any event, I had all my room reservations made before we left for a vacation in the East in September. The main items left were the car rental, the bus trip to Bath from Heathrow, and the round-trip ferry between Great Britain and Ireland. The reservation systems for the latter two would not be available for my dates until after the first of the year, and I felt that the car rental could also be delayed.
The bus reservation with National Express went smoothly. I made a mistake with the ferry reservations, reserving with Irish Ferries from Holyhead to Dublin, when in fact I had planned on going to Dun Laoghaire, south of Dublin on Stena Lines. Irish Ferries does not refund your money when you buy a ticket, so I had some loss there. I had considered making three car rentals, one from Bath to Holyhead, one in Ireland, and the third from Holyhead for the remainder of the trip. This would save some money on ferry fare and also for the days I was going to be in Dublin and wouldn’t need a car, but this plan was too much hassle and I rented one car from Hertz for the whole trip, which saved in some other ways.
The last part of preparation was driving directions. I had considered getting a GPS and several people advised getting one. In the end, I used the CoPilot UK GPS app for my iPhone and decided to back that up with Google directions. I spent the last few weeks before we left programming the GPS program for each leg of our trip and printing out Google driving directions for each leg. Just before we left, I prepared four looseleaf folders. One had vouchers and insurance data for the trip. Each of the other three had confirming emails and Google driving instructions for one leg of the trip.
The map below shows the route of our trip, which ran to some 2500 miles on the rental car when we turned it in.

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