After joining this quest and doing some research (see Dermot post Ireland- The Inspiration), I accepted the lead on contacting tour companies who specialize in Irish golf. A budgetary level of $5000 max (including airfare) per man was discussed and established as a good jumping off point.
My first call was to Mel Sole at the Ritson-Sole Golf School in Pawley’s Island, SC for advice (www.ritson-sole.com). Mel is a teaching pro I’ve worked with who not only operates golf schools nationally, but also organizes annual golf trips to special destinations, such as Ireland, South Africa, Pebble Beach, etc… Although he had no Ireland trip planned for 2012, Mel happily gave input on favorite courses and Ireland in general that helped stoke the fire lit by Mr. Coyne. He provided me with a contact at an Ireland-based golf tour company that he has worked with in the past.
Next, I contacted the chap at the aforementioned Irish company. I believe the best options in life are often those that come from friends and carry good word of mouth. Sadly, here I was disappointed– not with Mel or his Ireland recommendations– but with this individual’s low sense of urgency around helping four guys with money play golf in Ireland. Though we started out promisingly enough, my contact (let’s call him Steve) seemed to drop off the Cliffs of Moher shortly after first contact. I gave Steve a few opportunities to redeem himself, but ultimately, he did not meet my requirements for even the most basic responsiveness. Steve, sorry pal, but you’re fired.
My subsequent approach was more web-enabled. When in doubt about anything in this modern age, we consult Google or similar search engine. Try searching “Irish Golf Trips” or “Irish Golf Tours” and you’ll quickly see that there are numerous companies on both sides of the pond who specialize. I augmented this approach by comparing the Google results with tour operators listed on Ireland tourism site www.discoverireland.com/us/. The result was a mix of US and Ireland based tour companies that I used to begin the planning and quotation of our nine day, eight night extravaganza.
After contacting two US and two Irish companies, the information quickly began to roll in. All responses confirmed that I had made the right decision in moving on from Steve.
In the case of the US companies, both did a great job understanding the makeup of our group, our main objectives for the trip, and our pricing tolerance. For instance, is hardcore golf or a relaxed approach more important? Is “craic” (Gaelic for fun) a primary driver in your decision making? Timing and weather considerations? Transportation options? Style and level of accommodation? This was a very important part in defining what was important or critical, rather than nice to have.
The Irish contingent acquitted themselves nearly as well, but with less interaction on the front end and less web-enabled, content oriented proposals. Maybe that’s a cultural thing or perhaps they just field a ton more inquiries? Anyway, both companies turned out to be very helpful with questions that ultimately defined the best itinerary options. Given this, our group had some decisions to make and it was on to Meehan’s Vinings for our first official planning meeting since the beer fueled “this is a great idea” stage.
After a few pints and some bangers & mash, we agreed on the southwest part of Ireland with air travel in and out of Shannon, August 31-Septemper 9. This was based on group consensus that the links at Old Head of Kinsale and Ballybunion would be our cornerstone courses. We also wanted to play in semi-warm weather.
Driving in Ireland generated some spirited discussion and it was quickly established that no one wanted to do it. Minivan + Right Hand Drive + Guinness = Trouble. Therefore, we agreed that no one should forgo the celebratory pint or drive on the wrong side of the road. We also wanted the benefit of local knowledge to help us fill some of our non-golf time. A lad with good knowledge of the pubs, restaurants, sites and scenery seems like a good investment. Since this trip is essentially a bucket list opportunity, we decided we wouldn’t sweat the details to try to do this on the cheap. If a driver, caddies every day, and 4 star hotel accommodations cost a bit more, then so be it.
I contacted the tour companies to quote the same, or similar itineraries. Since all companies use common star rating for accommodations, it was pretty easy to compare quotes. Even if they were not offering the same properties, it was simple to compare online to ensure the level was comparable. I found though that most offered the same properties when asked and this enabled me to get mostly apples to apples figures. After the Euro to USD conversion, I was pleased to find the pricing competitive across the US and Irish proposals.
It then boiled down to which tour company did we feel most comfortable? A teleconference was convened to review the proposals and we decided to work with a US based company. No real reason for this other than it felt better to us in the off chance anything went wrong and we needed some recourse. We then looked at the T’s & C’s for each company, deposit requirements, and overall quality of the engagement. We selected Iain McLean, President of Hidden Links Golf (http://www.hiddenlinksgolf.com/). Hidden Links has a long history of arranging trips to the Emerald Isle and other special golf destinations. Iain proved to be responsive, very knowledgeable about Ireland, Irish links golf and our need for “craic”. Lastly, we all agreed that adding trip interruption insurance was a good idea. Average cost per man was $200 and the Travel Guard “Tee, Tour & Travel Protection Plan” we purchased can be viewed at www.travelguard.com.
After checking with the BBB and finding no issues, I contacted Iain at Hidden Links to commit to the trip. Keep in mind that deposits must be paid prior to any tee time and hotel confirmation. This is important to know because all tour companies are offering you hotels and courses estimating that they can accommodate you. We ran into a small snag when we learned that Notre Dame is playing Navy in Dublin on September 1. Although we are not flying into Dublin, it appears that the Americans will be a little thicker on the ground that normal during this weekend and surrounding days. Because of this, our original hotel in Kinsale (the Trident) needed to be changed to the Old Bank House. We also have a later tee time for our first round at Old Head. No big deal other than it pays to be planning and committing well in advance.
Our total trip cost (less flights) came to $3702 per man, with a $1300 deposit paid to guarantee this price. Payment balance is due 90 days from departure date. Delta round tip coach flights to Shannon were roughly $1500 per man, connecting through JFK.
Final itinerary (from Hidden Links, available to us on their secure online trip portal):
Saturday, September 1: Arrive into Shannon Airport and travel to Kinsale, the gourmet “capital” of Ireland. Relax this afternoon.
Sunday, September 2: Play Old Head
Monday, September 3: Play Waterville
Tuesday, September 4: Play Tralee
Wednesday, September 5: Play Dooks
Friday, September 7: Play Lahinch Golf Club, Old Course
Saturday, September 8: Play Doonbeg
Sunday, September 9: Depart via Shannon Airport (via private transfer).
Lessons learned about booking a golf trip to Ireland:
- Decide which region of Ireland you want to visit. There are essentially 4 distinct options– SW coast, NW coast. Northern Ireland and Dublin, with the Southwest being the most popular. We found the Tom Coyne book to be fun and helpful in deciding our route and “must play” courses, although we all had favorites in other parts of Ireland. A great excuse to go back!
- Decide when you want to go– the weather can vary dramatically from spring through fall. August and September are the most popular and highest priced months.
- Decide how you want to travel in Ireland. Almost all companies offer the self-drive, rental car option first, especially for small groups. Other options are to join a larger group and ride a bus with people you don’t know, take a larger group of friends and book a small dedicated coach, or pay for a dedicated chauffeur as we did. This is an important piece of your cost or budget. For our group of four, we paid over $400 per man for the chauffeur versus self-drive, worth every penny.
- Decide on B&B accommodation versus traditional hotel. Personal preference rules here.
- How much golf, quality (cache) of golf courses, and caddies will all have an upward impact on cost. We selected the classic, famous links courses of the Southwest during the prime season with caddies and are paying for the privilege. Caddie fees and tips are extra and must be paid onsite with cash!
- Everyone suggests travel insurance. For an extra $200, it seems like good peace of mind.
- Interview and get quotes from at least 4 companies. I talked to more like 8-10 in total, but was able to quickly eliminate some based on cost, lack of knowledge, poor responsiveness, etc… And when I say interview, make sure to call them early on to talk through who you are, what you want, and what makes them different or special. This will help you with intangibles when it comes to selection time.
- Look for companies who are willing to listen, but also make recommendations based on what you’re telling them. They are supposed to be the experts, even if you have done your homework ahead of time. This will help you flesh out the best itinerary for your trip.
- When you are ready to commit, deposits must be paid prior to any tee time and hotel confirmation. This is important to know because all tour companies are offering you hotels and courses estimating that they can accommodate you. Some changes may be required once the tour company starts contacting hotels and courses.
- When looking at pricing, be careful to understand fixed pricing versus variable, tied to the exchange rate. Most companies will offer both, but make sure to ask lots of questions about this.
- Talk to people who have been before and who know Ireland. We met an Irish guy at Meehan’s who helped us solidify our dates by explaining the weather and daylight differences between early September and mid-October. We know we will get rained on, but at least not in the dark as we try to finish or hopefully not all day, every day.
- Get your Irish on. Give yourselves Irish names and use them exclusively. Plan Irish touches for your trip such as Shamrock pants from Loudmouth Golf or other “ugly American” attire. Drink lots of Guinness, Smithwicks, and Jamesons before, during and after your planning sessions. Use this as an excuse to read about the history of Irish links golf and learn where the best bars, pubs and food is between rounds.
- Start a blog to publicize and document your trip. Take lots of pictures of the fine weather, beautiful seasides, perilous hazards, pubs visited, beers drunk, songs sung, pretty lasses, etc… Your friends and family will be in turns amused, jealous and embarrassed by your behavior.
- Don’t say “hey, that’s a great idea, I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland” and then not do it. That would suck.