The Ireland Travel Club: Meet Annie Stackpole & Grace Donaldson

Who is behind the creation of the Ireland Travel Club and what was your primary goal when you established it?
Annie and Grace, founders of the Ireland Travel Club. Photo courtesy of the Ireland Travel Club.

For us, Ireland Travel Club came about as an idea when we were looking at tours that were already out there, and we felt like the price and style of the tours didn’t suit us – and we weren’t 100% happy with any of them.

We saw so many tours that pack large groups on a coach all day and stop off at tourist stops and then get back on a bus.

We kept talking about what we would do if we were running it – and then we started to think that maybe we could do it!

We wanted to create something that suited our style of travel, which is using really localized guides for activities, staying centrally so you can easily come and go from your accommodation, and traveling with locals – whether it be a local train or simply being able to walk to the pub.

We wanted to create the tour that we would want to go on.

The more we talked about our ideas and how we would want to work them, the more excited we got to bring them to life. We wanted to bring authentic Ireland to people for an affordable price and make it a really great tour. So essentially, we just grew an idea we were excited about.

What is your background in the tourism industry?

For us, this has been a pretty natural progression into the industry over the past 12 years. Both of us have backgrounds living, studying, and working in different countries so the passion for travel was always there.
Annie and Grace seen here in Galway with guests, one of the stops on their Authentic Ireland tour. Photo courtesy of Ireland Travel Club.

Then after years of working in a more corporate environment, we knew we wanted a change and to follow what we were passionate about.

We started out booking holidays for friends and then private groups. Then we started to really want to grow our ideas for small group tours. We were lucky to have a lot of experience traveling, so we kind of picked out what worked and brought those aspects to our tours.

You say that your trips are a “completely unique style of travel.” What is it that makes them unique?

Our tours are off the beaten path from the typical tourist spots in Ireland and are focused on experiences. We still visit a lot of the must-see sites, but we approach them differently, and we spend more time in places that offer a true sense of Ireland.
The Cliffs of Moher coastal walk. Photo: Dimitry Anikin, Pexels.

Experiences are what stick with people long after they’ve returned home.

For example, when we visit the Cliffs of Moher, we have a local expert with us. We spend about 3 hours walking along some of the quietest and most beautiful parts of the cliffs.

During the walk, the local guide points out flora and fauna and is a real expert in the field. It’s a very different experience than being dropped off at the tourist center, rushing to get a photo, and then getting back on the bus. We want each activity to be memorable and immersive in Irish culture.

Over the years we’ve met a lot of really great local Irish guides, so we’ve partnered up with them and included them in our tours. So we’re bringing all of these small localized experiences into one tour, which is really unique.

Some local guides we might be with for only an hour, some we’re with all day, but all of these different people bring their unique insights and personalities to the tour.

When we’re on the farm we’re talking with the farmer directly and it’s a real working farm. These are the experiences that are hard for people to find and to book on their own, which is why people so often end up at the big tourist spots instead of these more authentic ones.
Kilkenny Castle is a stop along the Authentic Ireland tour. Photo courtesy of Ireland Travel Club.

We spend a couple of nights in each place and explore the countryside from there, so our travelers are able to explore each area a bit more than they would on a tour that goes from stop to stop.

We are also flexible in our schedule. So, let’s say you don’t really want to do the group activity for the day. We are more than happy to chat about what you are more interested in and to make those arrangements for you when possible.

Group size is also important to creating the style of the tour, so we limit our groups to 12.

Having a small group means you really get to know everyone and bond as one group. We’re not together every single moment, but it’s a great way to meet fellow travelers, especially if you’re a solo traveler.

Can you describe the tours you currently offer and what they typically cover?

a beautiful castle overlooking a lake The Ireland Travel Club
Kylemore Abbey in Co. Galway. Photo: George Munday for Tourism Ireland.

We currently run 2 tours. Our most popular and main tour is our Authentic Ireland tour, which runs for 8 full days.

This tour departs from Dublin and heads west to Galway. Some of the highlights include a sheepdog demonstration, a visit to Kylemore Abbey, exploring the Connemara Mountains, the village of Cong and Ashford Castle, and the amazing local pubs in the area.

a village surrounded by green fields The Ireland Travel Club
The village of Doolin in County Clare. Photo: Getty Images.

From there, we head to Doolin and the Aran Islands, and the Cliffs of Moher. Then it’s off to the Rock of Cashel and Kilkenny and from there it's east to a farm in the Wicklow Mountains where we have tea and scones before heading to Glendalough. Then it’s back to Dublin for departure. It goes quickly – but it’s a really great taste of Ireland.

We also run a Backpacker Tour which has a similar itinerary, but uses more basic accommodations and is geared towards travelers 18-29.

Are your tours suitable for a particular age group or open to all?

Our Authentic Ireland Tour is suitable for anyone over 18. We’ve found it’s more about the type of traveler rather than a specific age range – and all are welcome.

a mountain and lake The Ireland Travel Club
The Killary Fjord in Co. Galway, a stop on the Ireland Travel Club Authentic Ireland tour. Photo: Arthur Ilkow for Tourism Ireland.

We’ve found that the ages really vary, and it’s been really fun to have the mix. The Backpacker tour is specifically for ages 18-29.

Do you lead the tours yourself or do you collaborate with local tour guides?

Both! We act as “tour leaders” and travel with the group, but we’re really there to facilitate the tour and bring it all together. We’re with the group every step of the way so we can take care of the not-so-fun parts, like knowing where to catch the train and sorting out tickets. This way, travelers can focus on relaxing and having fun.

Each stop typically has a local Irish guide or expert, and we leave it to the locals to show off the country. Using local guides and local businesses is really important to us.

What is a typical day like on one of your tours?

people running on grass The Ireland Travel Club
Learning how to hurl while in Kilkenny is just one of the authentic experiences that the Ireland Travel Club offers. Photo courtesy of Fennell Photography for Failte Ireland.

Every day is so different, so this is a tough one!

No two days are the same, and we try to alternate active days with more leisurely days, as we know people are on holiday. Each day is filled with activity, but no day is rushed.

Each day travelers are interacting with the local Irish and learn something new – like how to hurl in Kilkenny or how to train a sheepdog in Connemara.

The tour leader will usually fill in extras in the day depending on the interests of the group, so we might suggest a walk to watch the sunset or a trip to a great local pub – just depending on the interests of the group.

What countries do your customers generally come from and why do you think they choose Ireland Travel Club as the one to guide them across Ireland?

The largest majority of our travelers are coming from the U.S. So many people in the States share the Irish heritage and cultural ties so it’s the main market for us.

We think overall people are starting to look more at authentic travel – fewer people want to sit on a coach bus all day – or to be stuck with a large group. People are valuing genuine experiences. We think (and hope) the authenticity we offer comes through in everything we do!

What do you think people are generally looking for from a tour operator in Ireland these days?
A smattering of images from the Ireland Travel Club Instagram page. All photos courtesy of Ireland Travel Club.

We feel people want a personalized experience and access to the people they work with.  We’re really interactive and involved, whether it be chatting with travelers on our Instagram page, or doing live videos so they can travel along with us even when they’re back at home.

As far as the tour itself, we’ve found a real shift where people are really wanting to have authentic experiences and wanting to use a more sustainable tour company.

Readers of Ireland on a Budget are naturally concerned about budget when planning a trip to Ireland. Would you say that Ireland Travel Club is budget-friendly?

Absolutely! We think you’d be hard-pressed to find a tour that gives better value to travelers.

We have included so many guides and activities that it’s a really amazing deal. Being price-conscious has been a big part of our business plan and one of our goals when we started out.

We don’t stay in luxury hotels, but instead local hotels that are clean and safe. Our Backpacker Tour is even more affordable, but both offer really great value.

How can readers of Ireland on a Budget find out more?

You can get onto our website. There we have some FAQs and a lot of information about the tours. We’re also active on our various social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest – so you can get in touch or follow along on any of these!

Read More: How to Plan Your First Trip to Ireland