I traveled with a bunch of buddies to Ireland last summer. Heading over, there were certain things I expected to be highlights. Things like the legendary golf courses, the friendly people, the rollicking pubs.
I never thought our driver would be one of my favorite parts of the trip.
It wasn't just that Dave Spillane got us everywhere on time, safely, in a clean bus, with zero hassle, though that was all wonderful. It was his personality. If you could have looked in on our trip at a random time during the week, you probably would've seen a 48-year-old Louis C.K. look-alike sharing a joke, telling a story from his nearly 20 years as a bus driver, or mercilessly needling his passengers—eight American guys doubled over in laughter. The decision to hire a driver on a golf trip is, on some level, economic. It takes an already expensive vacation and makes it that much pricier. We each paid $780 for a week of Dave's driving. We all pitched in on a tip for Dave at the end as well.
It would have been easy to spend a lot less. Our bus had room for 20 people, which gave us plenty of room to spread out. Eight golfers in a 12-seater would have cost about $480 each, says Sean Fenton, director of Enchanted Ireland Tours, which arranged our trip. Or say we'd brought 16 golfers and squeezed them into a 20-seat bus. The fee would be around $340 a person, Fenton says. How about driving ourselves? Doable—and probably a little life-threatening. We would have needed two minivans. With our golf clubs and a week's luggage, there's no way we all could have fit into one van, even a full-size one. So we'd be looking at a minimum of $1,000 for the rentals, plus another $550 to $600 for fuel and tolls. The total transportation cost would have been around $200 a man.
That's a decent savings, for sure. But my point, in case you can't tell, is that hiring a driver shouldn't be purely a dollars-and-cents decision.
You can't put a monetary value on never getting lost. On having caddies arranged and waiting for you at each course. On being able to booze it up and not worry about the ride back home. On being fed a steady stream of jokes unfit for publication.
You can't put a monetary value on finding out the difference between a good and lousy pour of Guinness. On seeing how to bet the horse races in a bookmaker's shop. On learning about Ireland, its history and its people from someone who truly cares about them.
There's an art to what Dave does—knowing what's an appropriately crude joke, for example, and what's going too far. I asked him if there were any taboo topics that bus drivers shouldn't touch. "Really there are only two that are off-limits: politics and religion," he said. Yet that's not strictly true. He talked about these topics as the trip wore on but mainly in response to our questions.
Dave knows his running commentary isn't going to be equally popular with every group. He recalls one group of tourists who started talking among themselves as soon as he opened his mouth. He'd go quiet, and they would, too. He got the picture soon enough. "If you don't want to hear me talk, that's all right," says Dave, who's married to Noreen, mother of their two teenagers. "You can just tell me you want it quiet. I know my job is to drive you."
A handful of the guys on my trip have been going to Ireland for more than a decade, and they always request Dave when booking the trip. The morning we arrived in Dublin, all of us groggy from our overnight flight, a few of the guys went rushing toward him in the baggage area. There was hugging and laughing and real excitement. Standing apart from them all, nursing my coffee, I was a little surprised to see this show of emotion. Next time we go, I won't be.