“Let me tell you the deal we have right now,” says Brian Stack in his good-natured brogue. “For $363, you can have six nights in Ireland staying at a choice of over 1,100 bed and breakfasts, a self-drive Hertz car, your full Irish breakfast every day, a private room with bath and shower, and a guide. We have airfare starting incredibly low that would go with that … so I reckon for less than $800 you’d be able to go to Ireland, including your airfare, car, and accommodations.” After twenty years with CIE Tours, Stack is passionate about the opportunities that his company provides for first-time and return visitors to see Ireland at reasonable prices and with minimal stress over planning, which can be a concern when visiting a country with overwhelmingly numerous attractions. CIE has been around for nearly 80 years and is the single largest purchaser of accommodations in Ireland, as well as the largest provider of tourists to Ireland from the U.S.
CIE offers 22 different tours, ranging in price, amount of time visitors have to spend, and in their coverage of the Emerald Isle. “The reason why you would take a coach trip is that most people who are visiting Ireland are going there for the first time, and they’ve actually no idea where they’re going,” says Stack. “When you go on a coach tour, everything is taken care of from the moment you arrive to the moment you depart, and the itinerary is all spelled out for you. You can go knowing that your itinerary and your overnight accommodations are planned and you don’t have to worry about driving around the country because someone else is going to do the driving for you.
“If I was going to go to China tomorrow, I wouldn’t dream of arriving at Shanghai airport and renting a car, and thinking that I am going to be able to find my way around the country, because I wouldn’t have a clue.” A coach tour of Ireland is a much more manageable introduction to the country, and nine out of ten people that CIE brings to Ireland are first-time visitors. On an average one-week CIE tour, travelers save $650 against the same trip with a competing company. “Our tours are all-inclusive, and this is a very important part of this equation, because when you go to your travel agent and you buy a CIE tour, you pay your travel agent, say, two thousand dollars. That will include your airfare to Ireland, your one-week tour of Ireland; that will include all of your breakfasts, all of your dinners, all of the visits to the various attractions in the country, including a Bunratty Castle banquet or an evening at the Abbey Tavern. Our couriers are not allowed to sell you anything. They’re only there to make sure you’re having a good time and that everything is taken care of. Some tours include one courier who serves as both the coach driver and as a guide, while others have two staff members separating the duties. But they all are characters that add to the authentically Irish experience, with an average experience of over 25 years working for CIE.
“If you tried to take one of our tours yourself, you’d have to go through about 300 different transactions. Just thinking about your breakfast, where you’re going to go during the day, where you’re going to visit, how do you arrange that in advance … having somebody like us worry about foreign currency and all of the other details takes the onus off people; they don’t have to worry about it, we worry about it.”
CIE’s coach tours range from the indulgent Supreme Tour, which takes only 26 visitors on one coach “to the Merrion in Dublin, Ashford Castle, Dromoland Castle, and the Park Hotel in Killarney,” to the very affordable Irish Spirit tour. All of the coach tours include a visit to “the Abbey Tavern in Howth, which is the oldest tavern in Dublin,” Stack explains. “Every evening, they have this incredible Irish group that have been going for 40 years, although the musicians change. They do a dinner cabaret and they do traditional Irish music. A lot of the “Wild Rover” and all the songs that you’ve ever expected to hear at an Irish party, you’re going to hear at the Abbey Tavern. And then they do a little bit of Irish dancing there as well. So that’ll be something that visitors can expect to do. And they can expect to go down to one of the medieval banquets down in the Shannon area, Bunratty Castle or Knappogue Castle, depending on which tour.”
Some packages include a catamaran tour of Ireland’s only fjord, near Westport in County Mayo. “This fjord goes for miles and miles and on each side there’s this beautiful scenery and you have this fabulous catamaran that has a bar on board,” raves Stack. “So the coach brings the people, the bus goes right down to the catamaran, you get off the bus onto the catamaran and take this two-hour tour up this fjord and see the most fabulous scenery and it’s a great, very relaxing thing to do.”
For travelers that desire a more independent experience, CIE offers the option of a more self-directed tour, where “you can rent a car with a navigation system and do exactly the same itinerary as one of our coach tours, and stay in exactly the same hotels, but you’re driving yourself.” A more luxurious choice is the tour with a chauffeur car and deluxe castle hotels. “So you’ve got a chauffeur driving the car and you get your premium hotels, full Irish breakfast, it includes the driver’s accommodation, it’s just an incredible value. If you had the premium hotels – like the Merrion, the Capella in Cork, Blarney Park, Ashford Castle, Ritz Carlton, the Powerscourt, say for two people, its about $4,000 per person including accommodations, breakfast every day, the driver’s accommodations and everything.”
Ireland is a lot to take in over the course of just a week or two, especially for first-time visitors. For this reason, CIE offers several packages that focus on different parts of Ireland, and at least ten tours that combine visits to Ireland and Britain. “Just to give you an example, there’s the Britain and Irish Delight, a ten-day deluxe tour, or the Taste of Scotland, the Scots-Irish tour. This is a tour that really caters to the Scots-Irish connection here in America. It’s a tour that goes from Glasgow to Loch Lohmond and Behr Castle in Edinburgh, then you take the ferry over to Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway to the Ulster American Folk Park down to Westport, Achill Island, then Viking Dublin, Kilmainham jail, then return home from Dublin. And the price is $1,798. That tour would suit a lot of Canadians of Scots Irish ancestry who would have more of an interest in the Scotland and Northern Ireland parts. We have some tours that arrive in Shannon and just visit the southwest of Ireland, and some that start in Dublin and go around the whole country including Northern Ireland. There are several tours that go into Northern Ireland.”
One of Stack’s favorite tours is the Circle of Friends, which was created with an intergenerational focus in mind. “What we’re aiming for here are grandparents who are taking their kids and grandkids over, so groups as small as 10 people. We provide them with their own coach and an itinerary, and they can go with their family throughout the country and have everything taken care of. There are a lot of Irish Americans who have done very well and rather than just dying and leaving money to your kids, to have the experience of traveling with them and spending the money while you’re alive, enjoying the company of your family, is really lovely.”
After ten years with Aer Lingus, ten years working for the Irish Tourist Board (now Tourism Ireland) and approximately six years with the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, Stack began leading CIE International in 1990. He lives in Rye, New York and also maintains an office in Dublin. ♦
To learn more about CIE Tours visit www.cietours.com or call 1-800-223-6508
This article originally appeared in the April / May 2010 issue of Irish America.