The misty mornings, the postcard-perfect views over almost every canal, the ease of getting around, the sensible and eco-friendly bicycle culture, the friendliness of every single person we met — these are just a few of the joys of travelling to one of my favourite European cities, Amsterdam!
Here are 6 simple steps that helped us save money by ‘living like a local’ while we were there for 8 days recently.
1. Rent an apartment instead of staying in a hotel. I did a web search on “short term apartments in Amsterdam” and the links that caught my eye were not the very expensive commercial ones. Instead, I was drawn to two very similar sites — Roomorama and AirBnB. After searching through the options on both sites for an arrival on a prime travel-booking date of New Year’s Eve, I chose Roomorama based on the variety of apartments still available and was very pleased with the apartment that we rented in the Jordaan area. Both sites contain a range of prices and neighbourhoods.
2. Cook your own meals in that apartment — and that means shopping for groceries!
Cracker aisle in Amsterdam grocery
Grocery shopping in Amsterdam
Just by getting out and walking around the neighbourhood on our first day, we quickly discovered that Albert Heijn grocery stores were scattered all over Amsterdam in every district.
The word “winkel” means shop, so the click-on link above takes you to a map of their shops both within Amsterdam and in other parts of the country.
Even when you are moving past the obvious and easy choices of fruit and vegetables, food looks pretty much the same all over Europe, North America, and Australia or New Zealand in spite of the name on the package being quite different.
Besides, it’s fun to pick up your winkelwagon (shopping cart) and put some items in there like unknown cheese varieties, milk or butter in many shades and sizes, or these crackers to the left with mystery names.
Home cooked dinner in Amsterdam
Here’s an example above of one of the delicious meals that we cooked in the apartment with locally sourced groceries.
3. Use public transport such as trams, trains, and buses.
Tram at Museumplein
OV-Chipkaart for Amsterdam
One of the nicest things about Amsterdam is the ease with which you can traverse the city by using a combination of trams and buses along with trains for the suburban trips. A sensible way to save money is to refrain from buying individual tickets for each journey and to instead purchase a multi-trip pass sold by GVB — the public transportation company.
After doing some online research, we decided to purchase an OV-Chipkaart which would allow us several days of travel on any of the trams or buses in Amsterdam. These durable plastic cards are the size of a credit card, are valid for 5 years, and are rechargeable with a credit card at ATM style machines scattered all over the city. These ‘hole in the wall’ recharge machines are usually located right next to a bank ATM.
There is a wonderful series of network maps and tourism site maps on the GVB website. Just click on the link to find them.
We purchased our cards at the GVB Ticket Office in the Tourist Information building at Stationsplein, directly opposite the huge Central Station. But they are also available from dispensing machines in places such as Schiphol Airport.
4. Buy a Museum Pass and save, save, save!
Most visitors to Amsterdam will be planning on a visit to one or more of the stunning museums here such as the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank House, the Stedelijk Museum, the Amsterdam Historisch Museum, and many more.
For the avid museum-goer, you can purchase the Museumkaart which is sold at the entry of most of the major museums for €39 plus a one-time €4.95 administration charge for issuing the card. We used our card at all 5 of the museums that I have just named and once you get past 3 admissions at an average of €15 each, the card has paid for itself. Our next two museum visits after that were essentially free.
You will receive another plastic card that is the size of a credit card and this one is valid for a full year. It certainly encourages you to come back for another visit during that 12 month period because the card covers over 400 museums, castles, and sites of significance all over the Netherlands, not just within Amsterdam.
5. Shop and eat where the locals do and avoid the streets where the tourists are.
Taking a break in a local cafe
Expresso at a Turkish cafe
Whether you are buying a croissant at a bakery, taking a break for lunch and a coffee, or stopping for a cocktail and some snacks, save yourself a lot of money and get off of the main tourist thoroughfares. Run away from cafes or restaurants where you see tourists with guidebooks on the table! Instead, seek out the neighbourhood cafes where the locals are reading their newspapers in the local language.
A perfect example of the shopping locally concept was the pastry run that my husband made one morning for croissants. He was up quite early on one of our first mornings in Amsterdam and he walked down to one of the main tourist streets and purchased four of them for €7. The following morning, after we had done a thorough perusal of our neighbourhood, he purchased four much nicer and much fresher croissants in our local bakery for €3.20 — a more than 50% savings.
You can apply that same principal to just about everything including the ubiquitous cup of coffee. Instead of paying €3.50 for an expresso or €3.90 for a far-too-milky latte, why not head down to the local Turkish cafe for a rich, fragrant, and strong cup of java at the budget friendly cost of €2.25 or less. Yum!
6. Sort out how to access money before you leave home.
Two of the fastest ways to burn up extra cash are by making too many visits to the ATM machine for cash whilst travelling and by using your credit card too liberally. A far better set of strategies are to
(a) have a few hundred euros with you upon arrival. We ordered this currency from our local bank in Australia and it was free of any transaction fees. Your own bank will almost always give you a much better exchange rate than those airport stands or street-side foreign exchange shops.
(b) keep your withdrawals to a minimum and take out more than you normally would back home. Your linked bank back home will most likely charge you a foreign ATM fee in addition to the foreign currency exchange fee. If you are withdrawing €100 at a time instead of €300-500, you will be paying an average of $8.50 in US or Australian dollars/£5.50 in British funds for each of those €100 withdrawals. So it is far more sensible to take a larger amount out each time.
(c) use a linked banking network. You will probably always be charged the currency exchange fee by your bank since they are simply passing on the cost of conversion to you. But what if you could find a way to bypass the on-average $5-or-more fee for using an overseas ATM machine that does not belong to your own bank? I made a point of opening an account in Australia with a bank that was a member of the Global Alliance. By using a bank that is associated with this international group of banks, I can access my money for FREE (not including the mandatory currency exchange fee) at banks throughout the world. Check with your own bank prior to departure to determine if they participate in such a network. Then you can use the same method to save you some money that you can happily spend on food or fun instead of fees!
(d) find out what it will cost you to use a credit card overseas for purchases. You certainly get the most accurate foreign exchange rate when you use credit cards, but they also attract rather a lot of fees with every purchase. On average, most banks charge a whopping 5% of the cost of the purchase for the ‘convenience factor’ of using your credit card abroad. And on top of that, you will also be charged a currency conversion fee. Save yourself the resultant shock when you check your online bank statement and be informed about your options and the costs involved before you depart on your trip.
Hundreds of euros can be saved by following the strategies that I have outlined above. By doing a bit of advanced planning, you can relax and spend your travel money where you want to spend it, not where you are forced to spend it.
NOTE: All prices were current at the time of writing in 2011.
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