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Are holidays in Ireland still ‘a rip-off’? Georgina Campbell and Conor Pope debate the issue

Nobody would describe Ireland as a cheap holiday destination. But there is value if you look hard enough

Georgina Campbell: There is time, energy and money to be saved by staycationing – here are my five top tips

Maybe your holiday plans are still open, or you’re considering short breaks in the coming months, but the phrase “rip-off Ireland” keeps ringing in your ears. Well, over-charging does happen – events-driven rates-hiking in Dublin, for example, where occupancy levels are always high. But Ireland is not unique in this. And, while it is undeniably an expensive country, there is always value to be found.

Pricewise, it’s similar to last summer, but the industry challenges have shifted to operating costs, partly relating to unhelpful Government policies such as raising the VAT rate to 13.5 per cent. Most people in hospitality are just trying to stay in business – rip-off it is not, and they’re doing everything possible to encourage bookings.

A memorable and reasonably priced Irish holiday is very achievable and aiming high in terms of quality and the experience really can pay off

Perhaps we need to recalibrate how we think about value. We’re still in a cost-of-living crisis and money is tight, especially for families, but the cheapest options can be a false economy. We all know how the “cheap” sun holiday can work out expensive when the extras are totted up – and, especially if travelling through Dublin Airport, the hassle factor is high. Think of the time, energy and money to be saved by staycationing instead – and, as we learned in the pandemic, when many people had the joy of discovering the fun and quality on our doorsteps – it can be a life-changing experience too.

Sustainability – and enlightened self-interest – is another factor. Local businesses (food, drink, hospitality, services) need our support and if we don’t give it to them now, they may not be there when we go looking later. Restaurant closures are rampant, causing not only job losses and heartache, but also large costs to the economy.

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But all is not doom and gloom. A memorable and reasonably priced Irish holiday is very achievable and aiming high in terms of quality and the experience (including genuine hospitality) really can pay off. So, do the homework:

  1. Be open minded about areas to visit – going to lesser-known places can mean big savings and exploring them can be hugely enjoyable
  2. Seek out special offers – sign up for promotional mailers from destinations that interest you. Many hotels are offering seriously good deals (including great family holidays) and the best offers may only be available to subscribers. Full/half board options can be the best value.
  3. Find free things to do – free attractions and activities can save a huge amount on the cost of holidays, especially for families. Also consider budget buys, eg the OPW Heritage card (free access to over 45 heritage sites; family ticket €90 – 2 adults & 5 children).
  4. Avoid staying in cities – stay nearby for less and make forays to visit attractions and dining destinations.
  5. The little things – coffees, snacks etc – can soon add up. But maybe we should see it as an investment rather than a cost and plan days out around lunch breaks or snacks at owner-run places, where provenance and service count.

Irish people love a hotel break, but alternatives like guest houses, B&Bs, glamping and old-fashioned camping may suit better. The Irish B&B is an endangered species but it can be a wonderful thing, as we were reminded recently on a visit to Cappagh, Co Waterford, where comfort, charm and outstanding food go hand-in-hand with traditional hospitality.

Another of our most memorable recent experiences was in a five-star hotel in Co Tipperary. On a miserably wet March day we sat beside the fire in the vaulted bar and enjoyed coffees and magnificent warm cookies, along with the most genial of Irish hospitality, and it cost just €22 including service for four people. Happy out.

Georgina Campbell is founder of the independent Georgina Cambell’s Ireland guides and President of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild.

Conor Pope: Business costs have stabilised, but at much higher levels than three years ago. There’s still no way €3.80 for a small cup of bad coffee is fair

There are few people who would argue, at least in any way convincingly, that Ireland is a cheap place out of which to knock a bit of craic during the summer – or indeed any time of the year. Even those charged with selling us to the world fully accept we’re pretty pricey, all things considered.

Last January, as Tourism Ireland lifted the green curtain on its plans for the year ahead, its chief executive Alice Mansergh pointed to its own research highlighting how foreign visitors don’t see us as a “low-cost destination”. “We don’t market ourselves as cheap overseas,” she said. “We’re trying to target those consumers who have the funds to travel and who prize experiences over low cost, who want to come and enjoy the scenery, the heritage, the people.”

Those “people” she was talking about – the ones the tourists come to enjoy, the ones who actually live here – don’t see Ireland as a “low-cost destination” either, and while many of us also “prize experiences over low cost” we often lack the “funds” to enjoy those experiences close to home.

I could handily fill this page – and possibly this newspaper – with examples of overly high prices across the hospitality sector but it would be dull and repetitive so I’ll confine the examples to just the one.

Energy prices have stabilised but are still higher than they were, and although the cost of ingredients is not soaring as it once was, things are dearer than they were in 2021

Last Thursday morning I was asked to pay €7.60 for two small Americanos in one of the glass and polished chrome hotels that have popped up in Dublin in recent years. Now, when I say small, I mean absurdly small and I did well to get three gulps out of the decidedly lukewarm liquid. I might have complained or expressed shock but I didn’t raise so much as an eyebrow at being asked to pay such a stupidly high price for something so small and mediocre. That is because like everyone else who lives here, I’m wearily accustomed to paying €1.30 for a mouthful of coffee.

I know pricing is complex and these are hard times for many in the hospitality sector. Wage and tax bills are climbing, while rents are going through the roof. Energy prices have stabilised but are still higher than they were, and although the cost of ingredients is not soaring as it once was, things are dearer than they were in 2021. According to a report from PwC earlier this year, the hospitality and retail sectors are “feeling the pressure” and made up 40 per cent of all insolvencies in the first quarter.

But even with all that, there is no way I can buy the idea that charging €3.80 for a small cup of bad coffee is either justified or good value and it seems clear that those responsible do it because they know they can.

Those who rip us off are doing a disservice to others in the service sector – the ones who work hard in hard times to make ends meet and offer genuine value for money. And that value for money does exist. Less than 12 hours after drinking that coffee, I found myself having dinner in a hotel in Westport with my family. Starters and mains plus (non-alcoholic) drinks for five cost just over €100 and the quality of the food was excellent while the staff serving it were lovely. There could be no complaints there.

That should be the norm rather than the exception. Tourism matters here and it matters to all of us. Over a quarter of a million people work in the sector and over €5 billion is generated by foreign visitors alone. So it needs the support of the State and of the public.

The hospitality sector wants the VAT rate cut from 13.5 per cent to 9 per cent to allow more businesses to survive. That should happen and whatever other supports it needs it should get, but the support should come at a cost. Just as we support the sector, it should support hard-pressed locals. And it can do this by charging what it needs to thrive and no more than that. If that happened, we’d all win.

Conor Pope is Irish Times Consumer Affairs Correspondent and Pricewatch Editor

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