Peter Morrison  /  AP
People stroll across a bridge over the river Liffey in central Dublin, Ireland. The country has long been one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, particularly for Americans, some 40 million of whom have Irish heritage.
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updated 4/12/2011 3:46:16 PM ET 2011-04-12T19:46:16

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 that 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.

Tourist spots stay spendy
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.

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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.

Careful of big bargains
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, Wis., 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.

Not the land of cheap beer
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.

Tough tales from locals
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."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: A European tour

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  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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