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Debt-hit Ireland offering better deal for tourists

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.

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

A few years ago, the trip could easily have cost 50 percent more, been harder to book, and been met with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that characterized boomtime Ireland. But today's property-bust Ireland 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 Tetterton, an executive at a website design firm. "And staying in a castle was just freaking awesome."

Ireland's long 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 Ripoff Republic."

No longer — or at least, not necessarily.

Prices are still alarmingly high in tourist hot spots, like 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 — among them 1 million Americans.

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 brand-new tourism minister, Leo Varadkar, himself 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, which was more severe than any U.S. housing market.

The previous government offered excessive tax breaks to property tycoons to build hotels with millions borrowed too easily from Dublin banks. Hotels sprung up like mushrooms, often in the middle of nowhere special, and sometimes amid urban decay — dubbed "Hanoi Hiltons" by Dublin wits.

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 risks 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."

Flynn, who is based in the southeast 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' B&Bs across Ireland for two for $860 (596 euros).

Flynn thinks admission to some attractions like museums and country estates are still "over the top," but dozens of U.S. tourists interviewed by The Associated Press recently said they 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 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, Wisconsin, who spent a week traveling with her two daughters through Ireland by tour bus as a 30th-birthday present for one of them.

"Experience-wise 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, realtor Lisa Gramann and firefighter Joe Pluta. Gramann, who planned their trip online with a $3,000 budget, deemed the Guinness gift shop "certainly a ripoff. But I'm crazy jet-lagged and just had my first pint, so I'm easy prey."

The brewery tour costs about $22 (15 euros), capped by a lone pint on a rooftop glass-walled bar that offers Dublin's best panoramic view.

They were renting a car and had booked a cottage in the County Clare village of Corofin, midway between Galway and Limerick. The cottage was a bargain at just $289 (200 euros) for the week, but they had time to stay only three nights before heading south to County Kerry.

Up in the rooftop bar, Microsoft engineer Tom McCleery had finished the tour and his pint, and was futilely trying to order a second. Nearby, another tourist evidently with a low Guinness tolerance was walking straight into one of the glass walls.

"This must be the only bar in Ireland where they charge you 15 euros for a pint and then won't sell you another," said the Seattle man, who was in Dublin tagging along with his girlfriend on business. He'd been in Dublin in 2007, when the Celtic Tiger was still roaring and the city brimmed with confidence.

This time, he said, the taxi driver regaled them with tales of economic woe while driving in from the airport, on topics from the record-high cost of gas to unprecedented competition from immigrants and other jobless folks joining the cabbie trade.

"He really gave us an earful on the way in," McCleery, adding that "if nothing else, taking a taxi ride in Dublin is probably the cheapest theater ticket in town."

For Kelly Tetterton and Peter Byrnes, their weeklong tour from Dublin to Wexford, Kilkenny to Cork, Galway and back featured a series of moments and moods that will linger in their minds for years to come.

On the first day, they drove northwest of Dublin to Newgrange, a prehistoric underground temple designed to catch the winter solstice sun for a few fleeting minutes each year. Inside, they stood in pitch blackness as a local soprano sang a haunting Celtic ballad. The guide switched on a distant 40-watt bulb that simulated the moment when the sun crawls down the narrow corridor to the central chamber.

The $22 (15 euro) family ticket, plus gas, was money well spent.

"It was touristy, but it gave you chills all the same. We didn't think anything could top that, and it was the first day," Tetterton said.

Four days later they were on the far side of the island in misty Connemara, near the village where John Ford's "The Quiet Man" was filmed 60 years ago, taking a "hawk walk" — two hours hiking through the woods with trained falcons and a falconer — for $94 (65 euros) a head.

"It was super-crazy expensive, and worth every penny," she said. "Walking through the woods of Ashford Castle with a hawk on your arm, waving them off, calling them back ... was genuinely fun and unique."

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If You Go...

IRELAND: Irish government's U.S. tourist discount site, http://bit.ly/5g7dYY

WALKING TOURS: Guinness podcast walking tours of Dublin, http://bit.ly/g4vN3A

IRELAND'S SCHOOL OF FALCONRY: Located at Ashford Castle, County Mayo, http://www.falconry.ie/. Videos: http://bit.ly/gYLpi1

DISCOUNT IRISH GOLF FEES: http://bit.ly/fkUk9H

TERRY FLYNN TOURS: http://www.terryflynntours.com. Suggested driving routes, http://bit.ly/epd9Sw