In September 2015, Mr à La Mode and I made our first solo trip abroad since 2008 and I was petrified of several things, including getting lost in the airport (as I had been told Schipol was horribly confusing). I had been dying to go to Amsterdam for years so when he won a substantial amount at the bookies, it pretty much paid for our trip.
I spent what seemed like an eternity researching our travel route, looking up hotels, checking street view and reviewing local establishments (I honestly don’t know why I bothered). I looked up how much things like water would cost, what to do if I lost my passport and even how to do the most basic of tasks like use a boarding pass phone app.
A few months down the line, I now see that all the silly things I worried about were just that. Silly. But, a nervous traveller or worrier cannot be talked out of being nervous and worrying, so I thought I’d deviate from my usual blog topics and write 10 tips about things you don’t need to be scared of and helpful hints for those who are easily perturbed.
1. Travelling with easyjet, BA or have an iPhone? Print off your boarding passes and download the app or use Passbook.
We flew with easyjet, and whilst I didn’t print off our boarding passes, we both downloaded the free app. It downloads your passes to your phone so even if you have no internet access, you can still retrieve them. It shows your gates, departure times and any other flight information. You can also check in up to a month before your departure date and I used it to pick and pay for our seats. It tracks your flights and allows you to book others at the same time.
When going to your gate and getting ready to board, you show the pass to the ticket person who will scan it with their little hand held device and let your through. It’s so much easier than the paper copy, which is good as a back up incase your phone dies (in which case they will take it off you at departure so it’s always best to charge before you leave and bring a charger with you as there are plug sockets available in the airport for you to charge any devices).
2. Pack light but for the season.
We went in September for 4 nights, when it was still fairly warm, but being so close to the water means there will always be a breeze. A co-worker went in October and said it was freezing, but brought layers which worked for her. I wore yoga pants, t-shirts and a hoody/cardigan throughout the week with a pair of Converse. I was warm day and night but did find that one afternoon when it got particularly breezy, I felt the slightest of chills. I would definitely recommend a pair of slightly worn trainers as too new or old, and you’ll end up with blisters. It is the most walkable city in Europe and the only people you’ll see wearing sandals or heels will be the tourists or prostitutes in the Red Light District.
I would also suggest taking a small cross-body bag to carry the essentials in and leaving any valuables in your hotel room safe. It’s a relatively safe city but as with any tourist dominated place you should be wary of pickpockets. Personally, I never once felt unsafe or like I had to guard my bag – which I usually feel visiting Liverpool. Amsterdam is a friendly place with lots of friendly people!
3. Schipol Airport is not as terrifying as people say.
Yes, its a huge airport but my god, is it efficient. Getting off the plane to getting on the train to Amsterdam Centraal took exactly 13 minutes. This included buying train tickets. Its incredibly easy to find your way around, there are tonnes of English signs and if you’re really stuck the staff are pleasant and helpful. For those of us with a digital passport, you can use the automatic booths. They look like round phone booths, just pop your passport into the machine and wait until it scans you. Then you’re good to go. If it doesn’t work, the staff will wave you through and check your passport manually. Mr à La Mode didn’t realise his passport wasn’t digital on arrival at Schipol and this was what they did for him.
4. The public transport is amazing and walking around is a breeze.
The only public transport we used was the train from Schipol to Centraal. The trains are every couple of minutes and the station staff will usually tell you when the next one is due. We spoke to a lovely attendant who explained which one to get – but this isn’t necessary as most of the timetables are in English and will show you every stop. If a train is due at 12.01pm, it will be there at 12.01pm, but don’t worry if you miss it as the next one will be along in a few minutes.
In the city centre itself, there is an eerily silent tram service, if you see tram lines then make sure you look around before crossing a road. It’s mostly used by locals as the city is so small you can get from one side to the other in less than an hour. We didn’t use the train, instead we grabbed a map from Centraal on our way out and used that to navigate our way around.
Amsterdam is a bike city. There are literally thousands of cyclists, we barely saw any cars during our break. As a tourist, I would recommend not getting a bike. Just don’t. So many bike tours caused jams and the locals to get angry. You haven’t heard Dutch rage until you heard the tinkle of a dozen tiny bicycle bells as they pass a trail of slow moving tourists. Simply keep an eye out when you’re crossing the road so they don’t plough into you – and if you see one coming then get out of their way – and you won’t have a problem. It’s more difficult than it sounds but after a few hours, its second nature.
Its impossible to get lost as the streets are in long blocks that end on bridges, allowing you to turn back onto another road that will bring you back the way you came – and allow you to see amazing parts of the city that get forgotten. Like the recently demolished graffiti building. They were knocking it down while we were there and I managed to get one good picture.
5. Worried about queuing for attractions? They have signs with the queue times listed.
The one attraction I HAD to see was the Anne Frank House. I’d read horror stories about people queueing for hours and hours just to get to the front door, only to be turned away as the museum was closing for the day. Honestly, I was really worried about it. I have back problems and stomach problems that flare up at any time. I didn’t want to spend hours waiting then my back give in and have to go lie down for an hour.
We got there at 8.45am, 15 minutes before opening expecting a small queue and found one that travelled around the corner and passed Westerkerk (which is definitely worth visiting, even just looking at the outside). We walked down the queue and several stands that read “Queue time is *** from this point”. At the end was a 3 hour mark and we decided to give up and come back the next day. At 3pm that afternoon, we walked back in that direction and saw the queue was at the 45 minute mark so we jumped in and was surprised to be walking through the museum doors not 20 minutes later. Definitely check the signs and take them with a pinch of salt. In the height of tourist season it will be more or less accurate but out of season, much quicker.
We visited the Amsterdam Museum (fantastic art and history museum just behind Begjinhof Gardens in the centre) that was practically empty in the early afternoon, but we had seen it really busy first thing in the morning.
6. Fussy eater or bringing one along? There really is something for everyone!
Mr à La Mode is the fussiest of fussy eaters and not once did he struggle to find a meal. Everywhere you go there is an abundance of restaurants, cafes and snack stands offering everything from Argentinian steak to chip cones to falafel. The pancakes are something else in Amsterdam, especially poffertjes (small pancakes covered in icing sugar) which are something like €5 for 12 in most cafes or in the winter, the outdoor stands.
There are Nutella Ice Bakeries everywhere if you’re desperate for a sweet fix. They do millions of gorgeous treats including crepes, waffles, ice cream and macarons. The Kinder Bueno ice cream is their crowning glory. There are better macarons in one of the dozens of little local bakeries scattered about so I would not bother with trying more than one from Ice Bakery.
The Dutch also do hamburgers like no other. We stayed in a gorgeous little hotel called Hotel Teun with a downstairs cafe that did an amazing but small selection of burgers. We also tried Dutch-Indian cuisine which is stunning. The steak houses were definitely my favourite. I mean, look at this:
7. It’s nice to learn a few phrases but nearly everyone speaks English.
Literally everyone I knew who’d been to Amsterdam told me this and it was not a lie. There was only one person I came across that didn’t speak any English – a toilet attendant in MacDonalds (I only nipped in for a wee, don’t judge me) and even then I’d learned enough Dutch to communicate the bare minimum. Also, if you want to use the loos and aren’t buying anything it’ll cost you €2 for the privilege.
After 4 days, the only Dutch words I used were dank je (thank you) and alsjeblieft (please). The downside of no.2 is you end up dressing like a native and locals assume you’re also from the area. We popped into Hema (like a Dutch Matalan) for some sweets to bring home and the store advisor was talking away to me in rapid-fire Dutch and I was standing there like
Once she realised I was but a humble tourist she switched to English. Life saver. I was also accosted by a German guy looking for The Bulldog. See the face above. I wish I was better with languages.
8. Bring cash and a bank card – plus it’s not as expensive as you’ve heard.
Not only is it smart to have a back up incase you lose/spend all your money, some places only take cards. We sat down in a small cafe behind Dam Square and the waitress kindly informed us they only accepted cards. I’m assuming this is a growing trend as even supermarkets, such as Albert Hejin, had separate cash and card lines. All debits work abroad, but you may get charged extra for using a credit card.
We took roughly €450 for 4 nights/5 days including city tax which is 5% of the cost of your room. For us this was about €25 which we didn’t end up paying – I’m not sure why, I think the owner just forgot. We returned home with €50 which we changed into pounds and went to the carvery for tea straight after landing. The prices are pretty much the same as they are over here, it just feels different because we don’t see it as “real” money. My only suggestion would be to watch out for corner shops late at night, because they’ll charge you €5 for a 2l bottle of Coke.
Tipping is also not customary, a lot of places we visited gave us our money back until we told them to keep it. We just rounded up the bills most of the time and when we had a sit down meal, left them the few euros change.
9. Smoking weed and not sure what you want? Ask the vendor for advice.
Cannabis is legal in Amsterdam but only from licensed coffee shops. You’ll be able to tell the difference between weed coffee shops and normal cafes as they will reek of the stuff. Its a distinctive smell, you can’t miss it. The menus are generally expansive, especially in the most tourist driven ones such as The Bulldog or Popeyes. Prices range from a euro or two to €50 for specialist strains. If you’re very new to the stuff, ask the vendor for advice, they will be more than happy to help find what’s right for you. Don’t head for the strong stuff right away, even if you’re a seasoned smoker as the weed in Amsterdam is known for being very potent.
Thinking about a brownie instead? Either share it or save half for another time, as they are extremely strong. Never buy drugs from a street dealer. It’s illegal and you have no idea whats in them. Also, the pre-rolled joints are 90% tobacco, and not really worth it.
10. Last but not least, take a reliable travel buddy.
This should go without saying really, but it really is a necessity. Mr à La Mode is the best travel companion possible. He told me when I was being ridiculous, picked the hotel when I started fussing too much about amenities and the closeness to the city (which as it turns out, its pretty impossible to be far away) and kept hold of things like my passport when I began to get the jitters about losing it. He also has a great internal compass so we didn’t get lost.
If you’re a nervous flyer, you need someone who won’t tell you to stop panicking but will distract you. If you’re scared of heights (some of the houses are pretty tall, the stairs are super steep in Anne Frank Haus as well), they’ll keep you steady mentally and physically. I get antsy on trains and was convinced we would miss the stop back to Schipol (impossible as you are literally underneath the airport with huge signs everywhere) and he dragged me about – which was really what I needed. Basically, someone you trust not to get you lost, murdered or mugged.
Don’t forget to enjoy yourself! It’s an absolutely fantastic, beautiful city with so many things to do and see, and I hope these small tips will help my fellow worriers go forth with a few less concerns!