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Low prices in the Low Countries on an Amsterdam holiday

SmarterTravel

Spring in Amsterdam calls to mind boat rides through the city’s canals, long walks through quaint streets, and of course, colorful beds of tulips. But you don’t have to skimp on fabulous meals and museums to fit a quintessentially European vacation into your budget. Although my boyfriend and I headed to Amsterdam for New Year’s during the low season, you can save on a journey in any season.

Getting there

I knew I wanted to get away this winter, preferably to someplace with a little romance, but I didn’t have a specific destination in mind. Instead, I decided to let price be my guide. I signed up for a “My Yahoo” account and used the site’s “Best Fares” tool to monitor the lowest prices on several Boston to Europe routes on Travelocity. I also checked SmarterTravel.com’s Europe air deals and last-minute airfare specials for airfare sales and to get a general idea of how prices were trending.

Around October, prices began to fall. I found fares from Boston to Amsterdam on United for $239, not including taxes and fees. My desired dates happened to be unavailable at the lowest prices, but were available on United for the slightly higher price of $260; taxes and fees added another $80 for a total cost of $340 per person. After I booked, fares on that route for late fall and winter never fell much below $220, so I was confident I had gotten a good deal.

If you are looking to travel during the shoulder or peak seasons, fares will most likely be higher. Good fares for spring and fall travel hover in the $400 to $500 range; Monday through Thursday flights often net better deals than weekend travel. Or, you could try vacation packages. Go-today offers a five-day Amsterdam escape, including air and four nights’ accommodations from $599, depending on your departure city.

Next, I needed to find a place to stay. I wanted an inn or hotel in a central location, yet away from the Old Center, which borders the Red Light district. (This area is one of the least expensive, but certain streets are seedier than others, and I didn’t want to take any chances.)

A Dutch friend recommended the Leidseplan and the Museum Quarter neighborhoods, and I started my search with her advice in mind. I used my guidebook, The Rough Guide to Amsterdam, to look up hotels in these areas that fit my budget (under 50 euros per person per night), then searched for availability online. I checked several websites, including HostelWorld.com (which lists budget hotels and guesthouses, not just hostels), the Amsterdam website, and Amsterdam HotSpots. Although these sites listed hotels in my desired locations and price range, rooms were already sold out for New Year’s; you’ll probably have better luck during nonholiday periods or by booking farther in advance.

I also considered using priceline, but reading about other travelers’ past experiences on biddingfortravel.com convinced me that blind booking was too risky; I might end up in a shabby room in an otherwise nice hotel or in an undesireable neighborhood.

Not finding much success with my online search, I went to the discussion forums on Lonely Planet’s website and searched for threads on Amsterdam accommodations. Some helpful comments directed me to Amsterdamby.com, where I found the Kooyk hotel. The budget hotel was in the recommended Leidseplan neighborhood, it fit my price range and included daily breakfast, and the photos showed clean, spacious rooms. The one possible drawback was that showers and bathrooms were down the hall, but having spent far too much time in hostels, I wasn’t bothered. I booked five nights for 70 euros per night for two people, for a total of 350 euros ($415). As it turned out, the hotel was in an ideal location and the room was large, but the showers had no hot water and the staff was not overly helpful. I would give it a middling rating at best.

Getting around

I never considered renting a car in Amsterdam. The compact city is ideally suited for walking, and an excellent tram and bus system leaves no tourist destination inaccessible. Plus, narrow streets with tight parking spots abutting canals make driving a challenge. As our hotel was centrally located and close to museums and restaurants, we happily walked everywhere. Even around New Year’s, the weather was never cold enough to force us off the streets. However, Amsterdam’s excellent tram system is a cheap and convenient way to travel around the city if you don’t always want to walk or are staying farther afield.

We did use public transportation a few times. To get from Schiphol Airport to downtown Amsterdam, we took the train for 3.10 euros ($3.70) per person. It was clean, fast, and dropped us off at Centraal Station, the major hub for the city’s transit system. At the station, we bought a 15-strip card for 6.20 euros ($7.35), which is valid on all buses, trams, and metros within Amsterdam. The two of us used the card to travel between the train station and the hotel with our luggage and for a ride to the concert hall when we were pressed for time.

Another money-saving option is the Amsterdam Pass, which provides unlimited use of the city’s public transit system, two free canal cruises, and free admittance to 26 museums. One-day passes cost 31 euros, two-day passes cost 41 euros, and three-day passes cost 51 euros. You’ll have to do the math to see if the pass makes economic sense for your trip itinerary. We decided not to buy it because we didn’t want to rush to see all the museums in two or three days.

In Amsterdam

One of the most fun and inexpensive things we did in Amsterdam was walk. The city is surrounded by rings of canals, which are crossed by picturesque bridges. The narrow, gabled houses that characterize the city turn many streets into postcard scenes, so it’s quite fun to get a little lost in the winding streets and stumble upon an unexpected boutique or garden. You can always follow a canal back to a main street if you lose your way. Most Dutch people speak excellent English so don’t hesitate to ask for directions. Also, no trip to Amsterdam is really complete without a visit to its famous Red Light District. Though not necessarily a family attraction, the area is well-populated and perfectly safe most times of day; if you’re curious about this infamous area, it costs nothing to wander through the district’s streets.

If your feet get tired or you wish to see the city from a different angle, consider a canal cruise. For six euros each, we explored Amsterdam by water via glass-topped boats.

Museum admissions can add up, but the wealth of culture in the city is well worth the price. The Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Anne Frank House were personal favorites. Note that the Rijksmuseum is currently undergoing a major renovation; the paintings and artifacts on display in the one wing open to the public are still quite impressive and merit a look. Children under 18 pay discounted admission, but most museums do not have student or senior prices. Again, if you plan to visit several museums in a short span of time, you can save money with the Amsterdam Pass.

The Netherlands might not be known for its cuisine, but Amsterdam has fabulous restaurants, and we ate quite well without breaking the bank. If you’re going to splurge, go for an Indonesian rice table, a meal composed of numerous small dishes and rice. Amsterdam is famous for its Indonesian food—Indonesia was once a Dutch colony—which caters to both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Another culinary must is the Dutch pancake, which is more like a gigantic crepe than an American pancake. I recommend The Pancake Bakery, down the street from the Anne Frank House; if you’re not ravenous, consider sharing with a friend. Cheese is also a lesser-known Dutch specialty, and we spent a delightful evening eating gourmet fondue in the romantic bar/restaurant Het Karbeel, an unexpected (and inexpensive) find one block from the Red Light District.

For meals that are lighter on the stomach and the wallet, pop into any of the numerous falafel joints for a quick, cheap meal. A few Italian restaurants on Korte and Lange Leidsedwarsstraat offer decent pizza and pasta for low prices. Or, to combine a light lunch with an authentic taste of Amsterdam, stop at one of the brown bars, the city’s traditional pubs, for a beer or coffee and sandwich. We enjoyed capping off a walk or museum tour by choosing an inviting bar at random and relaxing with a hot chocolate while writing postcards or planning our next Amsterdam adventure.

We never ventured beyond the city limits as winter isn’t the most scenic time of year in the Netherlands. However, if you’re after tulip fields and windmills when the weather calls for it, a day trip out of the city is in order. Trains leave from Centraal Station, and as distances are short in this small country, tickets are inexpensive.

My trip to Amsterdam was just what I had in mind—a combination of cultural and culinary experiences with a European flair and a laid-back, no-rush attitude. You, too, can save on a city vacation at a country pace if you apply these strategies to planning your next journey abroad.

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