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Celebrating Amsterdam’s best on a painter’s budget

Dutch master painter Rembrandt turns 400 this year. Though the celebrations are a big deal for Holland, the thought of an already pricey Europe mixed with the high demand that accompanies special events can quickly douse vacation hopes. However, with a few money-saving tricks, Amsterdam can be an affordable destination during any year.

What’s the deal?

Because of the falling dollar and rising airfare costs, Europe is far from a bargain these days. The overseas flight alone often serves as a vacation deal breaker. Luckily, Amsterdam’s role as an international gateway city, combined with offerings that help keep in-city spending down, can bring it back to the realm of possibility.

By booking and traveling at just the right time, I was able to see Rembrandt’s special happenings plus quite a few of Amsterdam’s classic attractions all for under $500. And if you like tulips and other bulb flowers like I do, you’ll be pleased to know that spring can be an ideal time to go.

NEXT >> Getting there

Getting there

I’ll be honest, just getting to Amsterdam for under $500, let alone having money left over for hotel and ground transportation, is not an easy feat. I also won’t pretend that it’s always possible from every departure city. I will promise, however, that Amsterdam is one of the cheapest European gateways to fly into from the U.S., often cheaper than London or Paris, and the cost-trimming strategies I’ve uncovered can help any Holland-bound traveler cut costs on their trip.

Knowing when to go

No matter what city you’re departing from, finding a low fare is all about timing. It’s no big secret that the off-season is the best time to go for the lowest prices, which are often at least 50 percent lower than in the summer peak season. For the Netherlands, that means October through March and potentially the beginning of April. The absolute cheapest stretch usually begins just after New Year’s and runs through early March, which is not coincidentally the coldest time.

Nevertheless, I traveled in late March, just as the weather started warming and the flowers began emerging, for one of the cheapest fares I’d seen. These same fares were valid through mid-April, which is ideal timing for tulips. If you can’t make it this spring and want to participate in this year’s Rembrandt festivities, which spill over to 2007, fall and winter provide the next window of opportunity for the lowest prices.

Four-hundredth anniversary or not, Amsterdam always has something to offer, including Rembrandt sights, so don’t rule out next spring either.

Knowing when to book

My nonstop, round-trip fare from Boston on KLM/Northwest cost $373, including taxes. I found similar fares from other eastern U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Atlanta. New York City had the absolute lowest fare at $303, while most other U.S. departure cities were priced between $50 and $300 more than mine.

For those finds, I started benchmarking fares about three months in advance. Orbitz.com proved to be a very helpful resource on two accounts: (1) it allows for flexible date searches for a 30-day period, making it easy to pinpoint which days offer the lowest fares, and (2) its DealDetector sent me instant email alerts whenever the fare dropped. (Other sites like Travelocity have similar services, but I appreciate Orbitz’ presentation of the full fare, including taxes and fees, upfront.)

Once I saw an ideal fare, I compared prices across multiple travel sites using BookingBuddy.com (a sister site of SmarterTravel.com), and ultimately booked directly with the airline to avoid third-party surcharges.

The best fares appeared about six to seven weeks in advance of travel and held steady for another three weeks before starting to climb. For much of the year, booking between one and two months in advance is a good rule of thumb. However, it’s best to look further out for summer high-season travel to ensure availability.

Understandably, not everyone can squeeze an Amsterdam trip under $500. But for those determined to pare down costs as much as possible, it could be advantageous to book a cheap flight to New York City and head across the Atlantic from there, which can save about $100. Just be sure to arrange flights for the same New York airport to maximize convenience, and book enough layover time in case your first flight is delayed.

NEXT >> Where to stay

Where to stay

Like any major city, Amsterdam has a wide range of hotel options from super luxe to bare bones. But like many travelers, my choices were more limited. The $127 remaining in my budget left little room for a hotel, much less a nice one. Still, I was able to find a place that was a cut above staying at a hostel.

My hotel

After much searching through Amsterdam’s glut of one- and two-star properties on Channels World of Hotels, a virtual central reservations system accounting for just about every hotel in the city, I finally settled on the Hotel Washington.

This small, two-star property fit my budget, had rooms available, and sat on a quiet residential street a few blocks from the Museumplein (Museum Quarter), where I knew I’d be spending a lot of time. It was far from fancy, but for an average of €68 (about $80 at the time of booking) per night for two, including breakfast and tax, I couldn’t protest. I also avoided a four-percent credit card surcharge by paying in cash, which saved money for my train fare.

The hotel’s main drawbacks were a creaky climb up several staircases to get to my room, and a shared bathroom. At worst, it was a little dingy and musty. Among its positives, however, were a few Old World details such as Delft wall hangings and antique furniture in the common areas; hot showers, which I’m told aren’t always easy to come by at lower-end Amsterdam hotels; an in-room sink; and free Wi-Fi. My room also came with a small brass chandelier, high ceilings, and a balcony for an added European touch. When I arrived, I noticed some staff bringing in new mattresses, so maybe improvements are on the horizon.

Judging from what I’ve heard about similar-priced hotels, the Hotel Washington seems pretty standard if not a small notch up. Still, I got what I paid for.

Other affordable hotel options

For something uniquely Dutch that’s still affordable, I’d suggest staying in a houseboat that’s available for rent. Only 2,500 of these floating residential barges are permitted in town, so you’ll experience a piece of Amsterdam that even few city dwellers do.

Houseboats tend to be centrally located, equipped with kitchens, and furnished in all things IKEA. Just be warned that tourists floating by on canal boats will likely mistake you for a local, so just smile and pretend you’re Dutch. Also, swans and ducks might swim up to your window, so keep some breadcrumbs on hand. Houseboats generally cost between €100 and €200 (about $120 to $240) per night, but like vacation rentals, the price per person goes down the larger the group.

Owners typically list their properties on private websites such as Houseboat Hotel, Phildutch.net, and House-Boat Amsterdam. For more like these, do a Google search for Amsterdam Houseboat.

NEXT >> Getting around

Getting around

Getting around Amsterdam, and throughout the Netherlands for that matter, is considerably easier than most places I’ve been. The punctual and frequent trains from Schiphol Airport quelled any transfer anxiety I had after my overnight flight. The short ride to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station was a simple three-step process: Buy a ticket at the airport train station, board the train and ride for about 15 minutes, and then disembark right in the heart of the city. The ride cost me about $5.

Once in town, walking and public transportation are the best ways to get around. Many also ride bicycles, which are available for rent just outside the train station (something I sadly didn’t get a chance to do). Taxis are available as well, but are expensive and unnecessary since the main tourist area is relatively compact.

I went the way of the pedestrian, which didn’t cost me a thing. For my three tour days, I divided the city into one section per day—Museumplein, Centrum, and Jordaan—allowing me to see pretty much everything.

For getting around more quickly, public transportation costs very little. Trams, which ride on rails above ground, go to the most relevant places and allow riders to take in the city’s hustle and bustle along the way. Single-ride tram tickets cost €1.60 each. For frequent travel on trams, subways, and buses, it’s more economical to purchase a Strippen Card that allows for travel within and even out of the city limits. The card is divided into zones that cost a certain number of “strips” per ride. A card with 15 strips costs €6.50, while one with 45 strips costs €19.20.

For day trips from Amsterdam, intercity and local trains are fast, frequent, and connect to just about everywhere within the Netherlands and beyond. Where trains don’t go directly, buses fill in the gaps, most departing from Centraal Station. On the trains, you have a choice of first or second class, with the latter being the cheaper. First class seems to offer little advantage by way of comfort, so it’s best all around to stick with second.

NEXT >> Affordable activities

Affordable activities

Purists who want to keep a strict budget will take to Amsterdam’s abundance of free activities, including famous homes, churches, canal bridges, and markets. For those willing to spend more, the I amsterdam Card covers most major attractions and can save a great deal on admissions. Consolidate your activities within one or two days to save the most.

Most Rembrandt sights require admission, but there are a few free ones along the way. To see some on the cheap, Amsterdam Tourism is sponsoring a Rembrandt walking tour for €3.

With hopes to explore as much as possible, I focused on three basic areas, each with a mix of free and affordable activities.

Museumplein

Museumplein (Museum Quarter) is Amsterdam’s cultural center and holds its main museums, art galleries, and concert halls. It’s also close to many pleasant residential streets with small hotels, boutiques, and the city’s largest public park.

Teeming with ponds, arched bridges, and people strolling and riding their bicycle, Vondelpark is the city’s premier urban oasis and is free of charge. Café Vertigo, located in the Film Museum (€2) at the park’s edge, provides pleasant patio seating overlooking the grounds or gourmet picnic lunches to go.

This year is all about Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum, which displays a year-round collection of masterpieces from Holland’s Golden Age. Also, rotating exhibits throughout the year reflect solely on the Dutch master, including this spring’s “Really Rembrandt?,” which explores the dilemmas art historians face in determining a Rembrandt’s authenticity. Not only does the Van Gogh Museum present works from the artist of its name, but it too puts Rembrandt into the spotlight this year. One exhibit compares the life and works of Van Gogh and Rembrandt, while another matches up Rembrandt and Italian master Caravaggio. (Each museum costs €10 without the card; special exhibits may be extra.)

Centrum

The city center, located within the canal ring, owns some of Amsterdam’s biggest historical and architectural focal points, as well as the infamous Red Light District. Free sights include the narrow house at 22 Oude Hoogstraat (at only 2.02 by 6 meters), famous Skinny Bridge, Bridge of 15 Bridges, and floating flower market. I particularly enjoyed a shopping area called Spui, where I saw and heard a colorful barrel organ and explored the Begijnhof, a beautiful square serving as a housing sanctuary for women since at least the 14th century.

Of the attractions charging admission, Oude Kerk (Old Church) has a few points of interest such as the gravesite of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, and amusing bench carvings illustrating proverbs on the vices of man (€4.50 without the card). The Amsterdam History Museum chronicles the city’s history and features a small Rembrandt exhibition (€6 without the card).

Jordaan

Near the Anne Frank House (€7.50), the Jordaan is a fashionable artists’ neighborhood loaded with cafés, shops, and galleries. Free highlights include the narrowest facade in the world at one meter wide, the Tulip Museum, and historical Westerkerk where Rembrandt was buried in 1669.

My favorite discovery was a pocket of organic food sellers, starting with Noordermarkt on Saturdays, where organic farmers and artisans bring their biologische cheeses, produce, and bread products. Less than a half block away, specialty grocer Delicious Foods (24 Westerstraat) sells bulk dry goods, fresh breads, and hot apple pastries. The nearby De Vrije Vork café makes excellent sandwiches for €3 or €4 and juice drinks with all-natural ingredients.

NEXT >> A note on dining

A note on dining

Amsterdam’s selection of eateries is varied and of notable quality, well surpassing my expectations. On the most affordable end are classic cafés, perfect for coffee or lighter fare; “brown cafés” named for their tobacco-stained walls and wood paneling rather than the amber-colored pilsners they serve; tea shops offering hot drinks and light snacks; and the infamous “coffee shops,” which serve less coffee and more “herbal refreshment” than the tea shops do. There are also many affordable full-service restaurants, ethnic eateries representing all nationalities, and Dutch-style pancake joints. Here are my picks:

  • $ Cobra Cafe (Museumplein): This artsy, modern lunch spot, just footsteps from the Rijksmuseum, serves up modestly portioned dishes like chicken pita with tzatziki for around €5 to €8. Save 15 percent off the whole menu with a Rijksmuseum ticket stub.
  • $ Restaurant – Café In de Waag (Nieuwmarkt): Located in the oldest city gate from the 15th century (also an amphitheatre for medical students where Rembrandt sketched), this haven for tourists and locals alike honors its medieval past with tall candles on every table, while rendering itself hip with Wi-Fi and organic food items. Sandwiches cost between €5 and €8; save 25 percent with the I amsterdam Card.
  • $ De Carrousel (near the Heineken Brewery): Donut-like poffertjes and pannenkoeken are sweet or savory pancakes that are more like pizzas made from crèpe batter, and are the closest you can come to Dutch fast food. Shaped like a carousel, this gritty but friendly eat-in stand dishes them out for €4 to €8.
  • $$ Aphrodite (Leidseplein). Serving well-prepared Greek cuisine, Aphrodite has an inviting atmosphere that mirrors the attitude of its cordial staff. Sizable portions of lamb kabobs and other Greek specialties come with sides of grains and vegetables for around €14, less for smaller plates.
  • $$$ Puri Mas (Leidseplein): There’s a strong Indonesian influence on the dining scene due to Holland’s colonization during the spice trade. Puri Mas presents a full buffet-style rijsttafels, or rice table, for around €20. No fewer than 10 dishes were placed in front of me, including satay, chicken curry, and an array of vegetable sides and toppings.
  • $$$ Royal Café de Kroon (Rembrandtplein): If outlandish decor, plasma TVs, and thumping techno music aren’t enough to draw you in, the trendy but innovative dishes might. Expect offerings like vegetarian gorgonzola ravioli, salad greens with nuts and sunflower seeds, and paté paired with walnut bread. Entrées range from €15 to €19.

For more Amsterdam vacation ideas, read about my day trips to Keukenhof, Aalsmeer Flower Auction, and Delft.

Amsterdam might not be your average affordable escape destination, but like the Dutch painters who reused canvases to save money, you too can cut a few corners and still revel in all the city has to offer, from inexpensive dining options to celebrations of its masters.

For more tips and money-saving strategies in Amsterdam, visit the SmarterTravel.com Amsterdam Travel Guide.

For my next column, I’ll be across the border in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, exploring wine and summer theater, all for under $500. I’m always on the lookout for new destination ideas. If there’s a place you’d like me to explore, please email me at advice@smartertravel.com.

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