Budget travel – Amsterdam

Summary: Amsterdam may not be the first city to pop up on your wish list if you are looking for a budget destination, but the city has several great reasons to visit if you want to keep spending to a minimum.

For starters, the city has one of the best public transit systems in the world, and you’ll be close to a tram, bus, train or metro stop within walking distance almost anywhere in the city. Amsterdam also has an amazing (and affordable) selection of food from all over the world.

Getting in: Of course, the toughest part of picking Amsterdam as your budget destination is going to be getting there (assuming you are leaving from the US). European readers have quite a few more options, including low cost carriers, rail and even by sea, but from the US you are limited to just a couple of airlines, and none of them can be categorized as “low cost”. Your best bet is to keep an eye on an airfare prediction site like Farecast.

One thing to keep in mind is that Amsterdam is surrounded by several other European cities. If you manage to find a cheap flight to Dusseldorf, Brussels or even Paris, you can check the train prices to Amsterdam on the site of the Dutch International rail service. If you book far enough in advance, you’ll often find one way tickets for as low as €19.
The good news is that hotel prices in Amsterdam are almost always low, so you don’t have to plan your trip around affordable hotel availability. Just like any other major city in Europe, you’ll want to stay clear of Amsterdam during the high season of June through September.

Once you land at Schiphol Airport, a train ride to the downtown area costs just under €4 and ticket machines take all credit cards and their display can be switched to English. The train ride takes just 20 minutes. One word of advise when you are on the train – always keep a close eye on your luggage, and never open the train window for people standing outside who appear to want to ask you a question, pickpockets and luggage thieves are very active on this train line.

Where to Stay: Amsterdam is quite weird when it comes to hotels; You won’t find many chain hotels, but the city has 100′s of small independently operated hotels. Despite being one of the largest cities in Europe, Amsterdam has just one Hilton and one Starwood hotel (if you don’t count their locations at the airport).

Of course, this is actually a good thing for folks traveling on a budget. In Amsterdam you’ll find plenty of very affordable hotels, without having to settle for a hostel or other shared accommodation’s. All hotels in Amsterdam charge a 5% tourist tax, but their quoted prices include sales tax (just like all other published prices in Holland).

Some good examples of these cheap hotels are (all prices based upon a January stay):

  • The HEM hotel is located about 20 minutes from downtown and is a fair distance from most attractions. This modern 216 room hotel is surprisingly upscale considering rooms go for as little as €27 a night (prepaid rate), which includes your own bathroom, free Wi-Fi and breakfast.
  • The Art Gallery hotel – this 13 room hotel has one and two person room options, as well as several “deluxe” rooms. Sadly, deluxe does not offer a massive upgrade, it just means you get your own bathroom and shower. That said, a one person room (with a single bed) goes for just under €30 a night, which even includes breakfast. All rooms have their own TV as well as a coffeemaker. The hotel has free Wi-Fi access for all guests. One thing to keep in mind, is that the hotel will charge a 3% surcharge for all credit card payments, so it may be wise to reserve the room with a card, and pay for subsequent nights in cash.
  • Hostelboat Anna Maria II – Not only is Amsterdam one of the only cities in the world with 1000′s of house boats, it is also one of the only cities in the world with several house boat hostels. The Anna Maria II has 10 bunkbeds, and several shared bathrooms. Beds start at just €25 a night, but be sure to read the reviews as not everyone will actually fit in the cramped quarters. A list of other houseboats can be found here.

Thanks to its public transport system, you can stay almost anywhere within the city and its suburbs, and always be within 5 minutes of some form of transport. This also means you won’t have to bother with renting a car or spending extra money on a cab.

What to See: When you are in Amsterdam, you’d have a hard time not finding things to do. The city has some of the best museums in the world, as well as plenty of free attractions and of course some stunning architecture, both historical and modern.

  • Heineken ExperienceThe Heineken Experience is the home of the famous green bottled beer. This former factory has been transformed into a 4 level exhibition about Heineken, and shows the history of their products and explains the production process. At the end of the tour, you can enjoy two free cold and fresh drinks at the World bar. Admission to the museum is €15. Younger visitors will be thrilled to hear that the Dutch can legally sell alcohol to anyone over 16.
  • Rijksmuseum – The Rijks Museum is the Dutch national museum and houses some of the most important Dutch art in the world. Works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals are on display here. The museum is currently being renovated, but the most popular exhibits are still on display in the Philips wing of the complex. Admission is €10 per person.
  • Hortus BotanicusThe Hortus Botanicus is one of the oldest botanic gardens in the world. Several of the gardens are outdoors, but the indoor greenhouse is perfect if the weather does not cooperate. Admission to Hortus is €7 per person.
  • Bike rental – As soon as you arrive in Amsterdam, you’ll notice that the primary mode of transportation for many people is the bike. In fact, most of Amsterdam has dedicated bike paths, bike traffic lights and bike storage facilities almost everywhere you go. The only thing more popular than the bike, is bike theft. If you do rent a bike, always be sure to lock it, and never ignore the optional bike insurance. Bike rentals will run you about €10 a day with an additional €4 for insurance. When possible, use one of the many secured bike facilities in the downtown area.
  • FloraHolland Aalsmeer flower auction – If you have ever purchased a bunch of flowers at the local store, then chances are they passed through the Aalsmeer flower auction. This facility is the largest plant and flower export location in the world. If you find yourself awake early in the morning, you can make your way to Aalsmeer (just outside Schiphol airport). Admission is free.
  • The Red Light district – No visit to Amsterdam is complete without a stroll through the famous Red Light District. It is not an attraction I’d consider walking through with kids, but if you are on your own, or with adults, it is quite an eye opening experience. In the “RLD”, you’ll encounter the working women behind their windows, waiting for customers, as well as numerous sex shops, sex clubs and many bars and restaurants. I’d highly recommend staying clear of these bars, as they tend to mainly cater for tourists and other visitors who don’t mind overpriced food and beverages.
  • Gassan Diamond Tour – As one of the diamond capitals of the world, Amsterdam has quite a few diamond attractions. One of the most popular (and free) attractions, is the Gassan Diamond Tour. Gassan is a fully operational diamond factory and the tour gives you a behind the scenes look at how they transform rough diamonds into jewel quality rocks.
  • Central Amsterdam LibraryThe Central Amsterdam library is conveniently located close to the main train station. This 6 floor facility offers plenty to do for members and non member guests. It may even be a great place to start your trip as the 6th floor offers a fantastic view of the city skyline. The library is open daily from 10am till 10 pm.
  • Festivals and events – There is one thing Amsterdam is very good at; festivals. There are several major events that take place in the city. Koninginnedag is the national Dutch celebration for the birthday of the Queen (in fact, the day is the birthday of the previous Queen). Queens day is a totally insane celebration day, and a national holiday. The Amsterdam Gay Pride parade is one of the largest in the world, and the 2009 event is being held from July 31st – August 2nd 2009.
  • Shopping in Amsterdam – the city center of Amsterdam is full of souvenir stores, department stores and almost every other kind of store under the sun. As with most downtown stores, many of these shops cater for tourists, and have their goods priced as such. For a more authentic shopping experience, you may want to grab a tram and head towards the Waterlooplein market where you’ll find everything from second hand clothes to cheese, nuts and fruit.
  • VondelparkMost big cities in the world have at least one large park, and Amsterdam is no different. The Vondelpark is a large park with everything from wooded areas to public lakes, an outdoor theater and several public bathrooms. Many parts of the park are accessible by bike, so if you have rented a bike, I highly recommend taking it for a spin the park. During the summer months, you’ll always find something fun going on in the park.

If you plan to visit more than 3 or 4 attractions in Amsterdam, you may be better off with the Amsterdam Tourist Agency “I Amsterdam Card“. This all-in-one card offers free museum and attraction admission, free public transit usage as well as a free trip on one of the many canal boats in the city. The card starts at €33 per day, up tp €53 for a 3 day card. Make sure you run the numbers, and purchase the card as soon as you arrive at the train station.

Where to eat: When it comes to food, Amsterdam won’t disappoint. The city offers food from every corner of the world. Of course, like any major city, you’ll also find your fair share of restaurants that cater mainly to tourists. Avoid any restaurant that offers a tourist meal, as it is almost always overpriced.

The city has all the major US fast food chains scattered throughout the shopping district, but if you want some authentic Dutch fast food, then head on over to a Snack Bar for “patat met” (fries with mayo) and a “Kroket” (meat filled fried roll). At most of these snack bars, you’ll be able to get yourself a totally unhealthy, yet filling meal for about €4. If you prefer to put your own lunch together, check out a local grocery store (Albert Heijn is the most popular chain), this is especially convenient if you want some cheap beer and a sandwich. A six pack of beer, a loaf of bread and some fresh Gouda will run you about €10

Some other budget friendly places to eat are:

  • Skek – Skek is a fairly new restaurant in Amsterdam and is operated by one of the largest student bodies in the country. Food is served from early morning till late in the evening, and is a mix of traditional Dutch food and world cuisine. Their dinner menu offers a three course meal for about €18, but you’ll be able to get a decent lunch for as little as €3. Most beverages (including beer) are just €2. Students get a 33% discount on the entire menu. The restaurant also offers free wireless internet access.
  • De Keuken van 1870 – “The Kitchen of 1870″ is another very affordable restaurant. For just €7.50, you can order from their daily changing menu lineup, and lunch starts at a reasonable €4.
  • Albert Cuyp Market – The Albert Cuyp market is held Monday through Saturday from 9 till 6, and offers almost 250 stalls selling anything from cheap CD’s to all kinds of food. Admission to the market is of course free, and you should be able to grab a very filling bite to eat for just a couple of Euros.

Other things to do include hopping on a train to visit other parts of the country. The Netherlands is small enough that you can reach 90% of the country by train within an hour. Around Amsterdam you’ll find cities like Haarlem, Volendam (a traditional Dutch fishing village) and The Hague (the goverment capital of the country).