One Day in Ireland, this happened…
Booked. Booked. Booked.
We’d gone down the whole list and not a single Skellig Michael boat operator had an opening.
Tom and I looked at each other and I groaned. “I should have known! And I call myself a travel writer? Why did we wait so long to book this?!”
It was two weeks before our couples trip to Ireland and between chasing after a toddler, work, and finalizing the details of the trip, figuring out Skellig Michael kept getting pushed back and suddenly the trip had snuck upon us and was here.
And thanks to Star Wars, every boat that dropped passengers off at the island had been completely booked for months.
I tried to find solace in this fact – that even if I’d called immediately upon booking my summer flight to Ireland, the tours would have been full. But maybe we would have gotten lucky, I’d then think.
“Maybe I’m just not meant to see Skellig Michael,” I said sadly and a bit dramatically to Tom.
Skellig Michael is a massive rock starkly jutting out of the ocean off the coast of the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. It seems uninhabitable at first glance, yet Monks lived a hermit lifestyle on the island in beehive huts for centuries, among the many puffin birds who breed on the island ever year.
I first learned about Skellig Michael on my last trip to Ireland in 2013, but I had missed the boat season to travel there by just a week. (You can only visit it mid-May through the end of September.) I’d decided my next trip to Ireland would be in the summer so I could see it with my own eyes.
But then in 2015, a little movie called Star Wars came out. That last scene – yes, the one where you-know-who is found – was filmed at Skellig Michael. Suddenly, everyone wanted to go to Skellig Michael – and not because of the monks and the birds.
As I sat on our couch at home and bemoaned the fact that Star Wars ruined our chances of going to Skellig Michael, Tom said: “We’ll show up in the morning like the guy said. You never know.”
The “guy” was one of the few tour operators who didn’t immediately laugh at us for trying to book two weeks away and took pity on our plight so kindly offered us this advice: get there early on the morning you want to go to Skellig Michael; be there by 7 a.m. Be ready to get on a boat. Talk to the boat captains and let them know you’re there and ready to immediately board if there’s a no-show. Then, he had said, there’s a tiny chance you might get on a boat.
So that was our plan. We were going to be staying in Killarney and so would get up at 5 a.m. to do the drive to Portmagee (the departure point for boats to Skellig Michael) and figured if we didn’t get on a boat, we’d at least have beaten some of the traffic and continue on our way around the Ring of Kerry.
Then we got to Killarney and every single local person we mentioned this plan to looked at us like we were crazy and told us there was no way we’d get on a boat. At this point, I was pretty much like what is the point? Let’s just sleep in.
But Tom persevered. And so we woke up early – and this is what happened that led to us getting on a Skellig Michael boat without a reservation…
(If you’d like the nuts and bolts of how we did it without the narrative story of our exact experience, scroll to the bottom of this post to the Quick Tips section.)
How To Get on a Boat to Skellig Michael Without a Reservation
Arrive in Portmagee at 7:20. Because you were so sure this was probably a lost cause, you hit snooze a couple times and so arrive in Portmagee later than “the guy” recommended. This will prove to be a point of stress because two other groups equaling six people are in front of you. Figure you’re definitely not getting on a boat now. Wait anyway.
Meander over to the booth for the sail around the island boats (which don’t stop and let you walk around the island) to ask what your chances are of getting on a Skellig Michael boat without a reservation. “Ah, hard to say, you’ll be in the queue after those two groups” was about the best answer we received.
You respect the queue, which you’ll learn is a moot point anyway (more on that later).
Take your place in line on the narrow platform next to the dock.
Wait and make small talk with other waiters who arrived before you as no one else has come after you (the before 7 advice is legit). Other people waiting: a dad and his two kids who want to see the birds. You respect this. They are very nice. If anyone was going to beat you on this boat for getting up early, you are glad it is a bunch of nice bird lovers. The other group are three guys wearing Star Wars shirts — send them mind glares and think how you will not be pleased if a bunch of science fiction lovers get to go to Skellig Michael instead of you (conveniently forget the fact that you also love Star Wars).
Learn the dad and his kids stayed 20 minutes up the road. Think how that was a good idea because they were able to get to the dock at 6:45 a.m. without having to wake up before dawn. Smart bird lovers.
Suddenly think to ask husband how much cash he has.
“20 Euros,” he replies.
“We need cash for this if we actually get on a boat.”
“They don’t take credit cards?”
“They are old men in fishing boats! No, they don’t take credit cards!”
Husband runs to sail-around-boat booth and learns nearest ATM is twenty minutes away. He drives away to get cash. Decide you’ll throw yourself into the icy water in despair if you can actually get on a boat but can’t because you forgot to communicate about cash.
Notice it’s getting more crowded on the platform. You and the bird-loving Dad sidle your way onto the dock right next to the gate before you’re lost among the crowd. You want the boat captains to remember you’re there!
Chat with Star Wars YouTube vlogger who just arrived and who says she booked six months ago and this was the soonest she could get in. Note she is from Ireland and wonder why she didn’t try a no-reservation wait to get on a boat. Sigh that maybe this really is pointless.
Despite expected pointlessness, continue to smile sweetly at every boat captain that walks by. Several of them ask how many you have. “Two but can be one,” you respond. “My husband says he doesn’t mind waiting and drinking in the pub.”
Hear the guy to your right start laughing. “That’s great!” He chortles. Start chatting with guy who is there with his wife and daughter also without a reservation, but they have just arrived at 9 a.m.
Also, realize this means you could have arrived at 9 a.m. and had the same spot in queue. Then sigh upon realizing 6:45 a.m. would still have been better.
Watch boat captain walk by and talk to first group. “How many?” “Three.” “C’mon.” And suddenly nice dad and kids are whisked through the coveted gate.
A few minutes later another boat captain walks by. “How many?” he asks Star Wars group spokesperson. “Three.” Boat captain nods, but doesn’t escort them through the gate.
Call husband. “Where are you? People are actually making it through the gate!” Husband is back with cash, but looking for parking since sleepy little Portmagee is suddenly busy with all the people arriving who actually do have reservations for Skellig Michael.
Boat captain #2 suddenly appears again and whisks in the Star Wars lovers.
Bemoan the fact that the snooze button was ever invented.
Step 10 aka How many times you can embarrass yourself in 15 minutes
Husband returns. You wait an agonizing 10 minutes together wondering if another boat captain will whisk you away, too. Husband leaves again to the bathroom. Shortly after, another boat captain appears.
“How many?” the weathered, gray-haired man asks in a heavy, hard-to-understand accent.
“Two!” you respond excitedly. This is it, you think, we’re getting on!
Old man frowns and looks at guy next to you. “I have three spots. How many?” He directs the question to the man this time.
You stare confused, wondering what is happening. Didn’t he say three spots? So meaning he can fit two? Why is he passing you by? There’s a queue!
“Three,”’ the man answers, but says so uncertainly as he glances at you.
Old man beckons for the three of them to come. Husband is just coming back from bathroom and watching all this in confusion.
“But wait, it you have three spots, why can’t you fit us two?” you ask, gesturing to yourself and husband. “We were here first and have been waiting much longer.”
Old man shakes his head and says something hard to decipher, but once again sounds like three spots is the problem.
You wonder, is this a money thing to make sure he fills the boat and makes his quota for the day?
“Oh, I can pay for three spots,” you offer.
Old man looks immediately angry and begins muttering at you and walking away.
Another boat captain appears. “He has twelve spots so he has to take three.” He explains while he begins ushering the three people next to me through the gate.
The three 9 a.m. arrivals pass you sheepishly, but in their defense, did try to defer, so you aren’t mad at them. Just the process.
Husband is apparently a better communicator with Old Irish Men because he understood everything the old man said and he was mad you were trying to bribe him with money and take a spot away from someone.
“I wasn’t trying to bribe him! I was just trying to understand if the problem was he needed to make the money from three spots!”
“But he’d still have the room, so you’d be taking the spot away from someone.”
Acknowledge this makes sense…sort of…but point out that the spot was also taken away from you as a result of that logic. Husband agrees. You two are once again communicating and on same wavelength.
But it is a landlocked wavelength.
Stare longingly at the boats and flip flop between embarrassment (over being “that American” who said the wrong thing and was apparently trying to fling money at locals and feel like a horrible person despite it all being a misunderstanding) and despair (over the fact that boats are starting to leave the harbor and you are likely not going to be on one of them because you are a group of two instead of three).
Stare longingly at the remaining boats some more through the grates of the gate as if your lover is lost at sea.
Longing stares get interrupted by thirty-something blonde man.
“How many?” He asks you.
“Two?” You respond as a question, hoping it’s the right answer.
“I can fit you.”
Stare at husband in disbelief than giddily back at blonde man, who is already pointing out the boat before walking back toward the parking lot. Wonder who this amazing blonde man / prophet speaker is and decide he is a gift from the Ring of Kerry gods.
Realize you have not gone to the bathroom in over three hours and drank a large coffee in that time.
Run down to boat first to make sure they know you’re coming.
“We made it. We’re here! Do I have time to go to the bathroom?” you ask the old man at the helm.
He looks at you startled. “I’m not sure. I’m not working on this boat.”
You realize he is wearing a life jacket and standing next to his grandson. Obviously not the boat captain. Now you’re the stupid American who thinks every old man is a Skellig Michael boat captain. Still, you’re too elated to be on the boat to care.
“Oh, of course! I know! Sorry, I’m just excited to be here!” You try to cover your misstep. “Who is the captain?”
He points back toward the parking lot to the blonde man.
Oh, of course. Feeling stupid yet still giddy (this is why people shouldn’t wake up at 5 a.m.), you run back to the man and ask if you can use the bathroom.
Blonde man continues to be nice and says yes and you realize you were holding your breath because you were worried he’d say: “No, stupid American, if you didn’t already go to the bathroom, no boat for you!”
Forget Seinfeld references when you dash out of the bathroom and realize you haven’t eaten all morning because you assumed a café would be open while you waited for the boats.
Dash to the nearby convenience store and buy a couple bags of mixed nuts.
Dash back past the Blonde Man. “I’m back,” you exclaim excitedly. Blonde Man looks uninterested.
Get back to husband on boat and thrust food at him. “Oh, I already bought some snack bars when I got cash,” he said and proffers them out of his coat.
Decide you and husband really need to learn to communicate better while traveling together.
But who cares? Because you are on boat. Realize you left all your warm clothes in car and it’s probably going to be freezing on boat.
Ask husband “Do you think I have time to go to car? Where are you parked?” right when Blonde Man comes strolling up onto boat. Debate asking him if you have time but then decide against it as visions of Seinfeld and “No Boat for You!” come back into your head.
Sit down and rationalize you can just steal non-communicating husband’s coat.
Step 11 aka You are on a boat!
Worry the whole way to island that you can’t be this lucky and something is likely going to happen so you can’t actually dock and get off the boat at the island. Worry despite the fact that the sun is miraculously coming out and you’re not cold at all and OMG is that really the sun coming out? Is it going to actually be sunny while you’re at Skellig Michael? How lucky can you be today, really?
Pretty damn lucky you realize when the boat does dock and you begin walking up the stairs with all the stark beauty surrounding you. Feel happy that husband is there with you to experience it and very glad that he is not drinking Guinness back in Portmagee.
Step 12 aka Bask in no-reservation Skellig Michael wonderment!
See other no-reservation groups on island.
“You made it, yay!” Dad w/ Bird Loving Kids is happy and takes picture of you.
“You made it, yay!” Late Dad w/ Wife + Daughter says with relief. Apologize to Late Dad w/ Wife + Daughter for trying to bribe (apparently?) your way in front of them (even if you were there first).
He brushes away your apology and says it was fine, you were there first and they were so worried you wouldn’t get on, too, but it was all so confusing!
Yes, confusing! You agree.
Finish validating each other’s American feelings and then feel glad that old man didn’t let you “bribe” him so this nice family could make it on, too.
See 1/3 of Star Wars group practically on ground from seasickness (or something) and feel bad you were sending them mind glares earlier.
Decide you’ll be a Zen traveler from now on who has nary a worry in the world – after all, it all worked out didn’t it? You made it! You are on Skellig Michael!
(Realize after a bird poops on you and your husband neglects to tell you that you have bird poop on your cheek – ahem, communication – that you are not destined to be a Zen traveler. But that’s ok. Because you still made it to Skellig Michael! Cue more pictures.)
Quick Tips for Getting to Skellig Michael Without a Reservation
So there you have it! How to get to Skellig Michael without a reservation. Of course, we could have just been very lucky the day we were there, but still – 11 of us got on without a reservation! So that right there makes me think you shouldn’t listen to naysayers and it’s worth a try if it’s your dream to visit Skellig Michael and it’s all booked up already. And for those of you who like your tips without the dramatic story thrown in 😉 here are the main takeaways we got for how to achieve getting to Skellig Michael without a reservation.
- Get there before 7 a.m. to increase your chances of being first in the queue.
- Be ready! Have cash, food, and clothing with you. This would have been easier to grab if we’d kept our original parking spot, but even so, don’t require a run back to your car to get your stuff. Be ready when there’s a boat captain waiting to whisk you through the doors.
- Make yourself known, but do respect the queue. But also don’t feel bad if you get the chance to go in front of someone who was there first if your group number is more appealing. Apparently that’s just the way it works. (Do #1 and you don’t need to worry about any potential awkwardness from jumping the queue, though you may need to quietly grit your teeth if someone is selected before you.)
- Or don’t quietly grit your teeth, but then be subject to Step 10 above where you feel like a horrible person!
- Going along with #3, be willing to split your group or join together with others if needed. Another reason to be chatty and get to know the other people without reservations waiting. Even if your group is split up on the boat, you all end up in the same place and can wait for each other at the start of the staircase. Just remember that if you split up and you get on the first boat available, there is no guarantee your travel partner(s) will get onto another one.
- One more tip to do before you leave for your trip: One of the other passengers on our boat said he called all the numbers for the Skellig Michael boats every day for three weeks before arriving in Ireland asking if there was space (hoping for cancellations) and a few days prior our boat captain said he had space. So, try that tactic, too, and maybe you won’t need to get up at the break of dawn on your vacation!
Also, one more thing I wanted to mention is what happens if you do have a reservation, but the day you are scheduled to go has weather that makes it dangerous for the boats to leave the shore and dock at Skellig Michael (to my understanding this happens many times throughout most summers).
Before leaving for our trip, I read a number of blog posts about Skellig Michael that were written before Star Wars Episode VII came out that said if you have a reservation, and the weather is bad, your reservation will simply be moved to the following day. Followed by a recommendation to give yourself a few days around the Portmagee area due to this.
Well, with every day being fully booked now and weather being unpredictable, I didn’t understand how this could still be. I asked our boat captain before we got off the boat if that’s what still happened and he said very emphatically that you do not get moved to the next day and that was never a guaranteed thing. So in other words, depending on weather, you still might not make it to the island even with a reservation and may need to apply the above tactics on another day. However, I would think if you were reserved for one day and you show up the next day and that boat captain has room, he would move you ahead of the “queue,” so best to ask whoever you book with what their protocol is for such a situation.
Lastly, Skellig Michael was seriously one of the coolest places I have seen on my travels. It’s worth building your trip to Ireland around it — and then hoping, hoping, hoping the weather cooperates.
Heading to Ireland soon? You also may enjoy reading:
One Day in Dublin
One Day in Limerick
One Day in Killarney
What to See in Ireland’s Mid-West (Cliffs of Moher and Much More)
The Ring of Kerry Restaurant You Can’t Miss
Foynes Maritime Museum and How to Make an Irish Coffee
Pin these Skellig Michael tips to read again later!