This article is part of our Trip Report, A Summer Holiday in Ireland & Scotland.
In all of our Trip & Event Reports on Middle Age Miles, we’ll fill you in on How We Did It – that is, how we planned our air travel, hotels, ground transportation and other activities to have a great and memorable travel experience for great value. We use miles and points to reduce out-of-pocket cash costs, whenever we can do so and it makes sense from a value perspective.
That said, when we were doing our planning for A Summer Holiday in Ireland & Scotland, I was just starting out with miles and points, and I did not know nearly as much on how to get the best values in travel. But I was an enthusiastic and resourceful travel planner, eager to learn as much as I could and willing to put in the effort to make our summer trip experience as great and cost-effective as it could be.
Choosing a Destination and Buying Airfare
A Summer Holiday in Ireland & Scotland was the 2016 version of our annual summer trip with Philly, Maria, Erin and me. The planning process for this trip started in earnest over the Christmas holiday in 2015. The 2015 version of our annual summer trip – which was our first – had taken us to London and Paris, and it came together very much last-minute. On that trip, we had gotten lucky with a mid-summer airfare sale to Paris and a fortunate choice in London of one of our all-time favorite hotels, The Royal Horseguards. But we also missed out on some things because of planning so late in the game. Our choice of Paris hotels was limited because many were sold out. We also missed out entirely on visiting the Palace of Versailles because all of the tours were full by the time we were looking. I knew that with some planning time we could do much better.
When we started planning the 2016 trip, we were intrigued by low airfares to European destinations on Icelandair, connecting in Reykjavik, combined with the potential for a stopover in Iceland. Fares were particularly good to the Scandinavian countries, so we actually got pretty far along with planning a trip where we would have arrived into Copenhagen, traveled by ground to Oslo where we would have departed for our return flight, and done a stopover in Iceland on either the outbound leg or the return. This would have been a fun itinerary – and we still might do something like this on another trip – but we decided against it for several reasons, including:
- It wasn’t really very convenient. At the time, Icelandair did not service DFW (it is starting seasonal service from DFW-KEF in late May 2018, and American and WOW are also starting DFW-KEF seasonal service around the same time). That meant that we would have to take a positioning flight to an Icelandair US destination, which would add cost, substantially complicate the flight itinerary, and add risk of a misconnection.
- As we were planning, fares on the Icelandair routes went up a bit, making this option less of a bargain.
- Philly and I both had Platinum elite status on American, which would make traveling on American easier (including complementary Main Cabin Extra seating on the flights on American metal), plus the flights would help us re-qualify for status next year.
We then focused our efforts on planning an Ireland/Scotland trip. American had fares to Dublin that were lower than to other European destinations. The tickets were reasonably priced (as of the time, early 2016), although they certainly weren’t on any great sale. In addition, the Ireland/Scotland trip had some special appeal because:
- Philly and I had visited Ireland a few years earlier – we loved it and were wanting to return and take the girls.
- And we had a special reason to add Scotland to the itinerary, as Maria was considering attending college at the University of Edinburgh or the University of St. Andrews.
We booked our itinerary on January 30, 2016 (4 months before departure), paying $1185 each for the air tickets:
- Outbound – overnight from DFW to London Heathrow (LHR) on AA, then connecting from LHR to Dublin (DUB) on British Airways:
- Return – AA DUB to Chicago O’Hare (ORD), then connecting onward on AA to DFW, all same-day:
This itinerary had the benefit of very convenient flights with easy connection times. We would have lounge access at our connecting points on both legs. As Platinum members on international flights, Philly and I could access Admirals Clubs and bring one guest each. Alternatively, on our London layover, we could use Priority Pass to access a lounge, or we could access a British Airways lounge as oneworld Sapphire members.
Additionally, our Platinum status gave us access to complementary Main Cabin Extra seating on the AA flights. On our outbound DFW-LHR flight, we took the four middle bulkhead seats in the economy cabin. This worked out well to sit together, have extra legroom, and have space to keep our bags with devices and snacks at our feet during the flight. We had the same four-middle-bulkhead seating configuration on our DUB-ORD return flight.
Planning Our Itinerary in Ireland & Scotland
We originally planned our Ireland/Scotland itinerary around three “must-do” activities:
- The Cliffs of Moher, well-known and widely acclaimed as one of the most magnificent places in the world to visit
- Giant’s Causeway, which had been on my bucket list of places to see for many years
- Visits to the University of Edinburgh and the University of St. Andrews, where Maria had applied to attend college.
Then, a fourth “must-do” activity appeared on our radar screen:
Maria and Erin are huge Star Wars fans, and over the Christmas 2015 holiday break, we had seen the then-newest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. At the end of the movie, there were spectacular, eye-catching scenes filmed on a beautiful, green, rugged island. I had a hunch that this location might have been in Ireland – and my hunch was right. The final scenes were filmed on Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage Site island about 7 miles off the coast of southwest Ireland. I did some research, and it turns out you can visit Skellig Michael by taking a boat tour from the small Irish fishing village of Portmagee. I knew the girls would be utterly blown away if we could visit. I’ll include more detail about booking our Skellig Michael adventure in a later article in this Trip Report; for now, suffice to say that this became our fourth “must-do” for this trip.
I was able to confirm a boat trip to Skellig Michael for June 7 (weather permitting), so this served as an anchor for planning the rest of our trip. I laid out our “must-do” destinations and some other “nice-to-do” places on a map of Ireland, and planned our route and lodging around those locations.
We decided that we would drive a loop around the western and southern parts of Ireland, return to Dublin and catch a short flight to Edinburgh, fly from Edinburgh to Belfast, and then return to Dublin for our flight home.
Our route for the first part of our trip looked like this:
And after returning from Edinburgh to Belfast, the route for the final part of our trip looked like this:
We seriously considered keeping the same car for the entire trip and taking the ferry from Belfast to Scotland, across the Irish Sea. As cool and unique as that may have been, we decided to fly back and forth to Edinburgh instead. Taking the ferry would have allowed us to avoid one-way fees on the car rental on the last leg of our trip, but that would have been about the only benefit. It would have added several hours of driving, and our itinerary was already pushing our driving time to the limit. Plus, it was actually less expensive for us to fly from Dublin to Edinburgh, and then back from Edinburgh to Belfast, than it would have been to take the ferry back-and-forth to Scotland (the ferry was roughly $250-300 each direction).
Internal Flights in Ireland and Scotland
We took advantage of good fares on low-cost carriers Ryanair and easyJet to get back and forth to Edinburgh.
Our Ryanair flight from Dublin to Edinburgh, booked about 3½ months in advance, cost 163 Euros for all four of us combined (about $180 at the time), including a checked bag and advance seat selection. Our flight time was very convenient, departing DUB at 12:35 pm and arriving EDI at 1:45 pm.
Our easyJet flight from Edinburgh to Belfast, also booked about 3½ months in advance, was 176 Pounds for all four of us combined (about $247 at the time), including a checked bag and seat selection. This flight time was also fairly convenient, leaving EDI at 3:20 pm and arriving BFS at 4:10 pm (we would have preferred a slightly earlier flight, but no complaints).[I don’t plan to do separate flight reviews of these flights, but let me summarize quickly here: Our flight experience with Ryanair was downright unpleasant. Our flight was delayed, and the boarding area in Dublin airport was hot, crowded, and chaotic. We were unceremoniously yanked from the line when we tried to board, as the very grouchy and impatient gate agent (who I think was a tarmac crew guy who had been pressed into “gate agent” service) said we were missing some sort of stamp or visa. He told us we would not be allowed to fly and said, in so many words, that we were idiots. Fortunately, we were “allowed” to board after at least two dozen people had been pulled from the line for the same “mistake.” Seats were not particularly comfortable, and our flight attendant was not particularly friendly. We have better news to report on the easyJet flight. With easyJet, our flight experience went smoothly. We’d be glad to fly them again. I suspect that flight experiences on both Ryanair and easyJet are very much your-mileage-may-vary (YMMV)!]
Hotel Choice and Booking
We ended up staying in 5 hotels on our Ireland/Scotland trip:
- Gregans Castle, near Ballyvaughan
- The Fairview Hotel in Killarney
- The Morrison DoubleTree Hotel in Dublin (two separate stays)
- The Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, Edinburgh
- The Hilton Belfast
We chose Gregans Castle for our first night because it looked like an interesting place, and it was in a near-perfect location. I knew all the girls would be tired after a long night and day of travel, and I wanted something for them to be excited about for our first night in Ireland. Staying at an Irish castle fit the bill perfectly. This would put us in a position where we could experience a bit of The Burren, and we’d be in a good place to get to the Cliffs of Moher for the next day, plus we’d have time for a coastal drive to Black Head and southward, and after our touring day was finished we could make it to Killarney for the night. There were also things to do nearby, such as walk around the village of Ballyvaughan, hike in The Burren, and visit Ailwee Cave – but our crew was way too tired for any of that by the time we arrived at Gregans Castle.
At Gregans Castle, we booked a Junior Suite for Philly & me, and a Classic Double/Twin Room for the girls. The booking was made online, direct through the Gregans Castle website. We paid a total price of 655 Euros (about $722 at the time). Our rate included Full Irish Breakfast in the morning, WiFi, and all taxes and service. Our booking was cancelable up to 7 days prior to our arrival date. I emailed the hotel to confirm 1 bed for Philly and me, and 2 for the girls, and the hotel responded in one business day to confirm. There was no points-or-miles play to be had at Gregans Castle as it is not a member of any hotel alliance.
I explored other options before settling on Gregans Castle, but they didn’t work as well. As a points-and-miles guy with (at the time) SPG Gold status, I was trying to make the Sheraton Athlone work (SPG Category 2; reasonable cash rates; good Reward Boss hotel review here), but it just wasn’t a fit for us. We needed to drive past Athlone all the way over to the Irish west coast that day, so we’d have plenty of time to visit the Cliffs of Moher and make it to Killarney the next day. I also looked hard at staying in Galway but ultimately chose Gregans Castle because of the castle’s “wow” factor and its location.
Fairview Hotel, Killarney
We planned to stay 2 nights in Killarney. Killarney was an obvious location for us. It’s a tourist town well-equipped to handle many thousands of summer visitors, it’s the traditional start/finish spot for a drive around the Ring of Kerry (and to get to Portmagee, where we needed to be for our Skellig Michael tour), and Philly and I had very much enjoyed Killarney when we visited Ireland a few years earlier.
There are a number of hotels in Killarney given its tourist nature, although none of them are affiliated with chains, and I don’t believe there are any in town that are affiliated with points programs. (The Europe Hotel & Resort, a very nice-looking place a few kilometers west of Killarney on the Lakes, is affiliated with the iPrefer program. But we wanted to stay in town.) I probably would have chosen the place where Philly & I had stayed before, Killarney Plaza Hotel, but it was already sold out for our dates (even 4 months in advance; I suspect tour groups had booked it full). I did a lot of searching on Google Maps, hotels.com, and other sites, and I finally settled on The Fairview Hotel. The Fairview looked nice enough, its location in town was good enough, and the rates were reasonable.
I booked a Junior Suite for Philly & me and a Superior Room for the girls. The booking was made online, direct through the Fairview’s website. The Junior Suite was 151 Euros per night and the Superior Room averaged 118 Euros per night, using a “the more you stay, the less you pay” rate that included breakfast and all taxes. All-in price for two rooms, two nights was 538 Euros (about $593 then). This seemed very reasonable. Cancellation policy was 72 hours prior to our arrival date.
The Morrison, a DoubleTree Hotel, Dublin
For our hotel in Dublin, Philly and I knew from past experience that we wanted to stay reasonably near the Temple Bar area, as it would be lively and the girls would enjoy it. (And maybe because we wanted to be close to one of our all-time favorite bars, The Bank on College Green.) We also wanted to stay at the same Dublin hotel twice – once on June 8-9 before we flew to Edinburgh, and again when we returned to Dublin on June 12 after visiting Edinburgh and Belfast – and if we were staying at the same place, we could pack light for Edinburgh/Belfast and leave our big bags at the hotel in Dublin. Hotel rates in Dublin for mid-June were already high, summer holiday pricing. Finding a nice place at a price point that wouldn’t make us choke was key.
After researching many Dublin hotels, I decided on The Morrison DoubleTree Hotel. The Morrison is just across the River Liffey from the Temple Bar area, but easily walkable. It looked nice, with kind of a funky vibe. Room rates were lower than other comparable properties in the area. And importantly, I knew that as (then) Hilton Honors Gold members, we would get a nice free breakfast because of our elite status.
For all of our nights at the Morrison, we booked a King Junior Suite for Philly & me, and a Twin Guest Room for the girls. We booked direct through hilton.com. Room rates averaged about 300 Euros per night for the Junior Suite and 250 Euros per night for the Twin Guest Room. All-in price for the two rooms for three total nights was approximately 1,650 Euros (a bit over $1,800 then). The booking was made using a special “Gold Medal Rate” that is no longer available. I don’t have the specifics, but this rate, when available, was always excellent and generally saved 10% or more versus other available rates (including Hilton Honors member rates and AAA/AARP rates). The rooms were fully cancellable up through 11:59 pm on the day before check-in, giving us great flexibility if needed.
Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, Edinburgh
Choosing the Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa for our stay in Edinburgh was an easy call. Its location was good, we would get SPG Gold benefits, room rates were reasonable, and I had read good reviews. But most importantly – I could book Castle View Rooms!!!
I have since learned that there are lots of nice hotels in Edinburgh. Maybe I’ll stay at some of them, some day. But I have to say, it’s hard to beat the Castle View Rooms at the Sheraton Grand.
We booked our Castle View Rooms direct through spg.com. The room rate was 167 Pounds per night (about $234 then), including taxes, using a corporate rate available to me.
We also assessed point redemption options, but they didn’t make sense for us. The Sheraton Grand is a Category 5 SPG hotel, which means redemptions would have been 12,000-16,000 SPG points per room per night. I don’t recall whether the price for points redemptions at the time was 12,000 or 16,000, but even at the lower 12,000 level it would be better to pay for a room at $234 versus using 12,000 SPG points (which have a baseline value of $270 (12,000 * 2.25 cents per SPG point)). And in any event, I’m virtually certain there were no points redemptions available for Castle View Rooms.
Our last hotel selection was the Hilton Belfast. Again, this one didn’t require a lot of thought as the location was decent, we would get Hilton Gold elite benefits including free breakfast, there were few if any points-and-miles options in Belfast, and the room rate was reasonable.
The Hilton Belfast had an unusual room rate available, where you could book “Family Connecting Rooms” as a single room for four guests under a single reservation, but you would actually get two rooms for two guests each, with a connecting door between the rooms. This worked out perfectly for us. We originally booked a “Family Connecting Room” using the “Gold Medal MVP” rate for 203 Pounds all-in, with the rate being cancellable until the day before check-in. The flexible cancellation policy came in handy as Hilton had a flash sale a few weeks later where I was able to cancel the original reservation and re-book at a rate of 170 Pounds (about $238 then). This new reservation, however, was non-refundable.
We rented a car for four days for our loop from Dublin to the Cliffs of Moher and Killarney. We needed a big vehicle for four people and all of our luggage, so we rented a Premium level car from Hertz. Using a AAA Texas rate, our all-in cost for four days was 258 Euros ($284 then).
For our second rental car, we would be picking up the car in Belfast and returning it in Dublin. For this rental, we chose a Luxury level car, also from Hertz. We also used a AAA Texas rate on this rental, but our price was substantially higher because of the one-way rental, which also started in one country (UK/Northern Ireland) and ended in another (Republic of Ireland). Even though our “base rate” was only 36 Pounds per day, our all-in cost for the three-day rental was 305 Pounds (about $428).
I’m not belaboring the details of choosing this rental, because unless there are no other options, we will never rent from Hertz in Europe again! When we returned our first Hertz car at Dublin airport, they charged us for damage we did not cause. And they were rude about it. I later read that this has happened to many an American traveler in Dublin. I chalked that up as a Dublin-specific incident, but the next year, the exact same thing happened to us on a rental from Hertz in Germany. I can’t say this strongly enough: We will never rent from Hertz in Europe again. (We have had good experiences with Sixt and will use Sixt in Europe whenever possible.) If you foresake this advice, do so at your own peril (and at least use a credit card with primary coverage for damage – this saved us in Ireland although our claim from Germany has never been paid).