Do I need a tour operator when planning my golf trip to Scotland or Ireland?
This is a common -- albeit loaded -- question that has a variety of responses depending on what type of trip you're looking for, what budget you have and how flexible you are.
Yes, the Internet can help anyone plan a trip anywhere in the world these days. But Scotland and Ireland remain old fashioned in many areas.
I've narrowed this age-old conundrum down the best I can using these criteria:
Use a tour operator for your Scotland or Ireland golf trip if ...
It's your first time planning a golf trip. This is especially true if it's your first time abroad in general, as the little differences between North America and the Old World can add up to one big headache. For me, navigating the roads my first trip to Scotland was a nightmare. I showed up more than an hour late for a few tee times. In northwest Ireland, I didn't realize a ferry could cut down my drive time to Ballyliffin by more than an hour. I really should have requested a little more help setting up my itineraries.
You're part of a big group. If you're bringing more than a foursome, the economy of scale is probably going to bring the price down per person, especially if you have a savvy tour operator who knows which hotels and golf courses offer group incentives.
You are very picky about which courses you want to play. If you have an idea in your mind of which courses you want to play and the list isn't debatable, you better leave it to the experts to secure those tee times. This is particularly true if you're trying to play a course that's difficult to access like the Old Course at St. Andrews, Muirfield or Royal County Down.
You plan on covering a lot of ground. Operators are well versed in logistics and the most convenient way to get from Point A to Point B (not to mention a great pub along the way). Particularly in Ireland, getting from one county to the next isn't always easy, and the courses are often a little more spread out than on Scotland's coast. They may even arrange a helicopter or speedboat to traverse over the many lochs, like from Turnberry to Machrihanish.
You're going during the Ryder Cup, Scottish Open, Irish Open, Open Championship or other big event. Scotland and Ireland are small countries, and when a big event comes (sporting or otherwise), the tremors can be felt throughout. Hotels are particularly at a premium, as well as car hires and coaches. Tour operators often secure their transportation and rooms well in advance to serve their clients accordingly.
You waited until the last minute and it's high season. If it's just a few weeks out and you've got nothing but the flight booked, you better call a tour operator who knows which courses and hotels have the best chance of availability. The last thing you want to do is book a hotel in the Highlands before realizing Royal Dornoch is already booked solid.
Video: Matt Ginella on whether you should use a tour operator in Scotland
Self-plan your golf trip to Ireland or Scotland if ...
You enjoy self-planning travel. For many travelers, half of the fun is the research beforehand. With more courses offering online tee times and more small B&B's offering online booking as well, it's certainly doable with a little savvy. Just a reminder: When you go to book the rental car, "full-size" in the U.K. is not like "full-size" in the U.S.
You're on a tight budget. Tour operators normally specialize in offering the best of Scotland and Ireland golf courses and resorts. Some of the more modern courses and hotels give them wholesale rates so they can sell competitively priced packages, but others don't. If you're fine with bargain accommodations and sniffing around for good tee-time deals, online might be the way to go.
You have some flexibility in your plans. If one golf club is closed or full, chances are there is a great, lesser known course down the road that will be fun too. The more you go to the British Isles and Ireland, the more you realize that's half the fun. Some of the more traditional clubs are more stringent on when they offer "off the street" availability at their clubs, especially on weekends when club competitions utilize much of their prime space.
You're taking the family or golf isn't the sole purpose of your visit. If you're going to be seeing the country's other sites -- like castles, countrysides and cities -- and you just want to play a round or two, you can probably set that up yourself.
This isn't a once-in-a-lifetime trip. For most golfers, the chance to play golf here comes once in a lifetime. Personally, I've been to Scotland and Ireland enough times that I'd like to think that if I ever decided to bring a group of my own, I'd know the lay of the land enough to be my own tour operator.
But I can safely say my first self-planned golf trips to Scotland and Ireland had their logistical hiccups. Had I brought some friends along for the ride who had used their hard-earned cash and vacation days for the journey, I would have had stink eyes fixated in my direction more strongly than if I were a sandbagger.