In March, I excitedly agreed to a home exchange with a family in Amsterdam for a summer vacation. Pleased with the prospect of two weeks in Europe with no lodging costs, I was shocked to discover that a direct flight to Schiphol in August would cost me close to $1,500. Multiplied by four, my economical vacation began to seem a lot less economical.
The comparative airfare search engine Kayak yielded a cheaper way to reach my vacation destination: Fly Aer Lingus with a stopover in Dublin, for less than $1,000. Since my husband is of Irish descent and none of us had been to Ireland, we decided to spend the last three days of our vacation in the city before flying home.
Our stopover in Dublin not only saved us money, but turned out to be a highlight of the trip. In fact, if ticket prices are the same next summer, I might consider spending my entire break exploring the Emerald Isle.
In the spirit of penny pinching, I used accumulated credit card reward points to book a room at the Westin Dublin (thewestindublin.com), an imposing former bank building steps from Trinity College and Grafton Street shopping. But if I hadn't had these points, I might have considered staying at Trinity itself, where a variety of reasonably priced dormitory room combinations are available to tourists from late May to mid-September (from 58 euros a night for a single or 78 euros for a double, including breakfast; tcd.ie/accommodation). Figure about $1.29 for each euro.
I discovered this on a tour of the college, where my ticket included entrance to the college's Old Library and the Book of Kells exhibit. It was well worth the 10 euro charge (a ticket to the Book of Kells alone costs 9 euros) to follow a posh-sounding Trinity student in a Harry Potter-style academic robe as he described the colorful traditions of the place.
MUSEUMS & SIGHTS
But better culture bargains abound in Dublin, where entrance to all museums, including the National Gallery, the National Museum of Ireland and Trinity's Douglas Hyde Gallery, is free. After fighting my way to a clear view of the Book of Kells only to be hurried along by a security guard so the next tourist could get a look, it was a pleasure to walk into the Chester Beatty Library at Dublin Castle without paying a cent (cbl.ie). In this lesser-known location, I could examine the enormous collection of rare books and illuminated manuscripts in near solitude for as long as I liked.
The most exciting deal in town: A visit to the National Library's Geneaology Advisory Service, where specialists are available to help foreign visitors trace their Irish ancestors (nli.ie). Learning from the librarian that my husband's surname, Bishop, is actually English, my older daughter speculated that the family must have participated in the Norman invasion and thus she must be distantly related to the Queen. The information was free, the conclusion priceless.
Our trip to Dublin wouldn't have been complete without an evening at one of its legendary theaters. We were lucky enough to catch a stylish and exceedingly well-acted production of Oscar Wilde's "A Woman of No Importance" at the Gate. Used to Broadway prices, the 35 euro ticket seemed like the deal of the century. (Although tickets to Monday evening shows and Saturday matinees can be had for 25 euros.)
I had sworn to limit my spending, but the lure of Grafton Street proved irresistible to my two teenagers. Wallets stuffed with baby-sitting cash, they dragged me to Topshop (topshop.com), a three-story paradise of jeggings and bedazzled pullovers at the end of the street and across from picturesque St. Stephen's Green. Maybe because of the sluggish Irish economy, the Dublin branch of the British chain (unlike the chaotic London and Manhattan stores) was almost as quiet as the Chester Beatty.
With no heiresses to attend to, the store's lovely personal shopper swooped in and whisked us to a private dressing room, ushered me into an armchair, and plied me with macaroons and bottled water when she wasn't fetching a denim vest for one or the other of the children. We couldn't have asked for better service if we had been billionaires shopping at Harrods -- although the bill was not any more than what we would have spent on a back-to-school trip to Abercrombie.
My favorite Dublin restaurants proudly served dishes with top-quality, locally sourced ingredients. From casual tea rooms to sophisticated bistros, prices compared favorably to similar meals I've had recently in the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium. My three favorites:
Irish breakfast at Avoca Cafe (11-13 Suffolk St., avoca.ie): It was half the price of the Westin's rendition. The restaurant, with its charmingly mismatched crockery, tables and chairs, sits on the top floor of a small department store stocking the company's Irish woolens. After I devoured mountains of expertly prepared organic eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages, bacon and a couple of slices of Avoca's famous seeded brown bread, I bought a gray wool cape and received my 12 percent VAT (value-added tax) refund then and there, without filling out any paperwork, when the clerk issued me a FexCo Horizon Card.
Prix-fixe dinner at The Winding Star (40 Lower Ormond Quay, winding-stair.com): The pre-theater dinner deal at The Winding Stair (named after a Yeats poem and upstairs from a very Irish, very literary bookshop) was a steal at 27 euros for two courses and a glass of wine. I opted for the vegetarian choices, including a simple but spectacular appetizer of marinated Gold River Farm courgette (zucchini) ribbons with Toonsbridge Dairy mozzarella cheese.
Prix-fixe lunch at The Pig's Ear (4 Nassau St., thepigsear.ie): Every bite of my three-course, 19.95 euro prix-fixe lunch at this spot overlooking the Trinity playing fields was delicious, but the warm chocolate tart was one of the best desserts I've ever eaten. Somehow, it managed to hold its shape on the plate, although the entire slice had the same texture, temperature and rich flavor as the very center of a molten chocolate cake.
IF YOU SHOP
Most retail goods and services in Ireland have Value Added Taxes (VAT) of up to 23 percent built into the price -- but Americans can shop tax-free. Tourists used to collect their VAT refunds by filling out papers by mail upon their return home, but now we can simply pay less at the register by showing a FexCo Horizon Card to a cashier along with a credit card or cash. Get a card by asking for one at a participating retailer in Dublin.