How to: Take the train to Ireland

Or: How remnants of British Rail discounts live on (if you don’t value your time and can understand the system).

I go over to Ireland a lot. Fuchsia complains that it’s not as much as I should but she fails to understand that I’m a VERY BUSY MAN and Dublin is a bit of a pain to get to unless you’ve book months in advance with Ryanair.

So after a few visits I discovered SailRail, a poorly advertised and fairly complicated ticket that lets you get to Dublin from anywhere in the UK (or vice-versa) for relatively little money without booking in advance. There’s a few sites that try and explain it but they’re all really badly designed (the official site), useful but without any explanations for why they’re sending you via Cardiff (National Rail) or with WAY too many words without quite telling me what I want to know. The latter is the man in Seat 61 which is pretty exhaustive but doesn’t seem to consider that you might want to travel from somewhere outside London. I just got back from Ireland so here’s the full, torturous explanation of how to save a few quid and go overland.

A fast Irish boat.

SailRail is simple: you get a combined train and ferry ticket from anywhere in the UK to Dublin for a maximum of £29 (or €44 if you buy in Ireland). It’s even less if you live nearer to Holyhead. No railcard discounts, no variation in price between adult and child tickets. No need to book in advance or on specific trains. Just turn up on the morning at your railway station and buy a ticket to Dublin (or turn up at the Irish ferryport a minimum of twenty minutes before departure and purchase a pass to your British destination).

It’s not that fast but you can do Manchester to Dublin in six hours and London in under seven hours. By the time you factor in the cost/time of getting to an airport, trying to squeeze all your belongings into hand luggage and chucking out your prized bottle of Sainsbury’s Basics Gin because it’s over 100ml then it’s more appealing. On the ferry you can take as much luggage as you can carry, there’s no limit on liquids and no customs control.

It’s all pretty good except for the fact that:
-The train companies hate you and time services to leave Holyhead one minute after a ferry arrives.
-The ferry companies hate freeloading foot passengers without a car and restrict the services that you can use it on.
-National Rail and its website absolutely abhor you, confuses you with options and doesn’t present all the available choices.

Lets try to solve some of that, yeah? And show you the best ways to get around it.

Step one: Where am I?

There are three places to know: Holyhead, Dublin Port and Dún Laoghaire.

  • Holyhead = a pleasingly crap outpost on the island of Holy Island, off the coast of Anglesey and off the still-remote north coast of Wales. It’s a long way from most places but has always been important for getting to Ireland, especially so when Westminster still had to concern itself with uprisings and communication with the southern twenty-six counties. It’s quite appealing in a dusty backwater sort of way. Walk over the massive new bridge to the town centre if you’ve got time to spare. The train station is built into the ferry terminal so it’s a two minute walk undercover.
  • Dún Laoghaire is a nice settlement about thirty minutes from central Dublin on the cheap and efficient DART train.
  • Dublin Port is a twenty minute drive from central Dublin – about €14 in a taxi or €2.50 on one of the occassional and fairly unreliable buses that leave Busarus. (Click link for timetable).

Holyhead: Bargain Booze not pictured.

Step two: Whut? Multiple ferries?
Yeah. And you have to choose which ferry company you go with when buying the ticket. There’s two companies – Irish Ferries and Stena Line. Both operate a super-fast futuristic catarmaran-thingy service (under two hours for the crossing) and a slow big car ferry (over three hours).

A picture of a big super fast boat.

To confuse matters, there are some other services that don’t allow foot passengers. The only ones that you can use the SailRail ticket on are:

  • Stena Line: Their Stena ‘HSS’ boat goes from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead. Only one sailing in each direction each day. It’s pretty comfortable and docks next to the train station.
    Leaves Holyhead at 10:25 // Leaves Dún Laoghaire at 13:30.
    National Rail code (for when buying your ticket in UK) = “Dún Laoghaire”
  • Irish Ferries: They have a knock-off version of Stena’s HSS that runs from Dublin Port called ‘Jonathan Swift’ which wins points for literary references and an onboard literary display but you have to get a (free) bus from Holyhead station to the dock.
    Leaves Holyhead at 12:00*, 17:15 // Leaves Dublin Port at 08:45*, 14:30. (* = only runs in peak periods.)
    National Rail code = “Dublin Ferryport”.
  • Slower options. There’s also the slow car ferries that take over three hours which you’d only want to use if you can’t make anything else.
    • Irish Ferries car ferry to Dublin Port.
      Leaves Holyhead at 14:10, 02:40 // Leaves Dublin Port at 08:05, 20:55.
      National Rail code = “Dublin Ferryport”.
    • Stena Line car ferry to Dublin Port.
      Leaves Holyhead at 13:50 // Leaves Dublin Port at 08:20.
      National Rail code = “Dublin Port – Stena”.

Step three: Find the time, buy the thing.
You only really need to know some of this so you can use the confusing National Rail website and see all the options available.

National Rail, confusing the hell out of everybody.

Search as you would for any other rail ticket but with the destination being either Dublin Port or Dún Laoghaire, assuming you want the fast crossing. To see the full selection of services on any particular day check for both destinations and use the ‘First train of the day’ button to ensure you see the full choice. Remember that there’s no point in booking in advance since you don’t save anything and it just restricts you to your choice. Instead turn up on the day, do the journey, enjoy a few cans while reading a good book and arrive in Dublin without having been frisked by a butch member of airport security staff.

Step four: Tips and Tricks.
It’s the not the simplest system to understand but here are a few tips:
-Arriva Trains seem intent on scheduling trains to depart Holyhead about a minute after ferries arrive, leaving you with an unwelcome hour in the town. It’s worth checking when the trains depart Holyhead since it could be worth sprinting down to the platform, ignoring the itinerary that National Rail propose, as I did yesterday…

Hey look! A train ticket. This one is multi-lingual which makes it twice as good.

-You can buy a train ticket from anywhere in the UK to Dublin on the day of departure for £29. If you were, say, stuck in some south coast hell-hole such as Plymouth and needed to get to the North-West that day then buy a ticket to Dublin and get off at Crewe/Chester. There’s not much they can do to stop you and you’ve probably just saved a load of money.
-The tickets (at least on the Irish side) are handwritten, pretty complicated and valid for a month. So you can break the journey, stop off somewhere fun for a drink and finish your journey later.
-The tickets are a fixed price of €44/£29. Except that the exchange rate has changed and €44 is much more than £29. Get around this by buying your return journey while in Britain. (You can do this at any station in the country except Holyhead.)

Bloody hell, British Rail is complicated. And Ryanair are still cheaper if you’re don’t mind the inconvenience and book a few weeks in advance. But the ROMANCE OF THE BOAT is quite something, huh. And you meet interesting people – I once got talking to a Dutch martial arts instructor who had been teaching self-defence to farmers in Galway. He lectured me on his view that the future of international relations relied on abandoning existing states and reconstituting the world around massive corporations so your passport would say “Citizen of McDonalds” or something. In turn I bought him a pint of mild and tried to explain the subtleties of English regional brewing.

NB: You can also ‘SailRail’ between Belfast/Larne in the north and Fishguard/Rosslare in the south. Don’t know anything about them. And you can also buy a through ticket to any Irish station (eg. Manchester > Cork) although the Irish leg is often very expensive, on slow trains and most certainly not flat rate.

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6 Responses to How to: Take the train to Ireland

  1. deadwomble says:

    thats great information, from experience too, not all the seemingly redundant info the official sites publish, thanks

  2. This is quality stuff. As an erstwhile Ireland to England and vice-versa traveller, I would have loved this info. Well done, sir.

  3. Gansosalvaje says:

    Just did this from Crewe to Dublin Ferryport and back. I echo the comments about the train connections. Take a timetable with you and check all of the trains, not just the suggested ones.

    Last Wednesday, I got into Holyhead at 16:30 and just made the 16:36 to Chester instead of the suggested 17:21. I had to position myself by the door of the bus to make sure I was off first and, luckily, my luggage was there on the carousel. If I had not been on my own, I would not have made it. Note you do have to check luggage as if you were in the airport but it is much more relaxed than being at an airport and there is stacks of leg room on the boat. Also, the scenery is lovely along the North Wales coast.

    Highly recommended.

  4. pajama1lama says:

    Many thanks for the explanations by author and comments of readers.
    This very helpful insight.
    I recently purchased Sail Rail tickets for 4 adult foot passengers, from Dublin to Manchester, and then found myself dismayed that I could not identify the route that we will follow. No train numbers, so not sure what line we’ll be following. Looking on Google Earth, seems like the line loops along Conwy Bay, Colwyn Bay, crosses River Dee and enters Chester. Anyone know if this is correct?
    Also wondering if one can interrupt the journey and resume on the same ticket. Our journey is a few months from now, in summer 2013.
    Many thanks for being here with a very good post!!

    • phoedan says:

      Yep, the train goes through Menai (over the Britiannia bridge, views of Menai brigde, by Stephenson + Telford respectively), Conwy (pretty castle, another of Telford’s), Colwyn Bay, Rhyl (yuck!). I travel from the north west through Dublin often, and I am pretty sure that my rail tickets get stamped with the date, so it may be possible to spend a few hours extra where you change at Crewe or Chester (I’d recommend NOT Crewe, Chester is a bit of a tourist destination) but I’m pretty sure the small print says that the whole journey must be taken on the one day, unless you run out of train connections by midnight (happens often in the winter with cancelled ferries and the trains companies’ hatred of passengers not having trains wait 15 mins for the evening boats making us wait in the cold for 3 hours..). I suppose that if the conductor doesn’t get around to stamping your ticket b4 Conwy for example, you could maybe spend an hour or two sightseeing + hop back on + no-one would be any the wiser. But I suggest that you check that you can get out of the station without showing your ticket (ask a passenger?) + that there definitely is another train for you to catch because some stations seem to have very few trains stop at them.
      Enjoy your trip!

  5. gjkljlkajlgas says:

    Also try searching for communications to “Dublin Connolly” on the British websites. This brings up several of the different ferry companies in one search.

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