- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2011

DUBLIN | When Kelly Tetterton went online to research her family’s first big holiday escape from Chicago, her heart said Ireland. But her head worried it would involve too much hassle and money.

She got a pleasant surprise on both counts — and a weeklong vacation that earned rave reviews without breaking the bank.

Mrs. Tetterton, her husband, Peter, and children, Meredith and Alexander, found that their $5,000 budget stretched all the way to top-end seaside restaurants, a night in a five-star castle and even a walk through medieval woods with trained falcons at their beck and call. All was previewed easily on the Internet and confirmed by warm, welcoming hosts.

A few years ago, the trip easily could have cost 50 percent more, been harder to book and been accompanied by a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that characterized boom-time Ireland. However, Ireland’s property bust is the biggest financial disaster in Europe, a crisis that has hotel rates tumbling and the trip planner in a position of strength not seen in Ireland since the early 1990s.

“We were offered a thousand choices of where to stay. Peter and I narrowed each location down to two or three choices, expecting to find the best places booked up. But everything was available. And wherever we arrived, everybody was expecting us,” said Mrs. Tetterton, an executive at a website design firm. “And staying in a castle was just freaking awesome.”

Ireland long has been one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, particularly for Americans, some 40 million of whom have Irish heritage.

But as Ireland enjoyed unprecedented prosperity during its Celtic Tiger boom of 1994-2007, the tourist experience suffered. Particularly at the tail end of the Tiger, many tourists experienced sticker shock and agreed with acerbic locals that Ireland had become the “Rip-off Republic.”

No longer — or at least, not necessarily.

Prices are still alarmingly high in tourist hot spots such as the castle town of Kilkenny and the pub-crawl paradise of Galway, and plenty of restaurants throughout Ireland charge way too much for second-rate fare. But visitors who do their homework can travel for a hefty discount versus the record-setting tourist year of 2007, when 9 million visitors came — double the population of Ireland itself.

Those willing to haggle by email will fare even better. Don’t be shy. Ireland needs your business.

“We need to get the message out there that we’re not as expensive as we were. Because of our difficulties, things will be a little bit cheaper and visitors will get a better welcome than in the past. And we have really good hotels at a very low price,” said Ireland’s new tourism minister, Leo Varadkar, the Dublin-born son of an Indian immigrant.

The reason Ireland’s hotels tend to be so new and competitively priced — the cheapest in Western Europe, according to a March industry survey — is because of the nation’s spectacular property boom and bust.

The previous government offered excessive tax breaks to property tycoons to build hotels with millions of dollars borrowed too easily from Dublin banks. Hotels sprang up like mushrooms, often in the middle of nowhere special, and sometimes amid urban decay.

The property market has since imploded, with hotel speculators and banks in bankruptcy. More than 350 hotels now belong to the government and foreign banks, with below-market nightly room rates of about $71 to $114 (49 to 79 euros), even in the heart of Dublin.

This means opportunities for savvy travelers -and the risk of disappointment for those who simply look for the cheapest price. Some of the seized hotels have creepy locations, few customers and iffy service. Others are the market-leading bargains they claim to be.

Telling the difference is easier with help from one of Ireland’s established coach-tour operators, all of whom are engaged in a discount war. Tour buses are the cheapest way to cover the most ground without crashing into a hedge, sleeping sheep or another bus.

“Some of the bank-owned hotels are eerie. No service, no customers, just a rock-bottom price,” said Terry Flynn, who has operated his own travel company for 46 years. “I wouldn’t put my groups in any hotel or B&B I wouldn’t enjoy staying in myself. If you want a cheap value, fine, but it’s not my cup of tea.”

Mr. Flynn, who is based in the southeastern city of Waterford and has a U.S. office in Minneapolis, admits his bookings this year are “an absolute disaster.”

Increased competition for less trade has obliged him to cut package prices for self-drive tours and chaperoned bus tours. His latest website deal offers a rental car and six nights for two in B&Bs across Ireland for $860 (596 euros).

Mr. Flynn thinks admission to some attractions, such as museums and country estates, are still “over the top,” but dozens of U.S. tourists interviewed recently by the Associated Press said they had expected Ireland to be even more expensive — partly because of the exchange rate of the weak dollar against the euro.

“Prices aren’t much different than [in] downtown Chicago. But everything ends up 40, 50 percent more expensive right off the bat because of the exchange rate,” said Linda LeMaster of Muskego, Wis., who spent a week traveling through Ireland by tour bus with her two daughters as a 30th-birthday present for one of them.

“Experiencewise, it’s totally worth it. But if prices were any higher, you probably would have to think hard about coming unless you’re made of money,” she said, standing outside the Guinness brewery, a top Dublin attraction.

In Milwaukee, for example, beer can be had for $2 a pint on tap — a third the going rate in Dublin.

But her birthday-celebrating daughter, Laura, who wanted to see Ireland because the movie “P.S. I Love You” was partly set here, was not disappointed.

Ireland is just as beautiful in reality as it was in the film. Every time I look out the bus window, it looks like a postcard. It looks like ‘P.S. I Love You!’” she said as the group burst out in laughter.

Inside the brewery was another pair from Wisconsin, real estate agent Lisa Gramann and firefighter Joe Pluta. Miss Gramann, who planned their trip online with a $3,000 budget, deemed the Guinness gift shop “certainly a rip-off. But I’m crazy jet-lagged and just had my first pint, so I’m easy prey.”

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