The Dutch are well-known for windmills, wooden shoes and tulips, but their home country of the Netherlands has much more to its story beyond these quaint cultural icons. The nation’s prime ocean location made trade by sea a natural choice of commerce. This offered access to the world enabling them to explore new lands including the Americas. Did you know what we now call New York City’s Manhatten used to be called New Amsterdam by Dutch settlers back in the early 1600s?!
I digress…The nation wasn’t only blessed to be on the ocean, but also possess numerous waterways throughout necessitating the creation of its well-known canals. Today, the Netherlands continues to attract millions with its interesting mix of picturesque countryside, the eclectic city of Amsterdam and the Hague’s International Court of Justice. 3 1/2 days in the Netherlands doesn’t do this place justice, but we’ll share how we made the most of the experience in this finite amount of time.
Netherlands by the Numbers
- Lodging – As we’ve shared in previous posts, $250 is our target per night rate. With the middle of August being high tourist season, we couldn’t find a location that met our aesthetic and price preferences in the city of Amsterdam. So we opted to stay 40 minutes outside the city.
- Transportation – The public rail system is top notch throughout Europe with the Netherlands being no exception, Unless you plan to stay in Amsterdam for the entire visit, you’ll need to consider the additional costs of leveraging trains or rental cars.
- Meals -Another basic rule of thumb for us is $50 per person for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We enjoy eating out when we travel so this cost can be reduced significantly if you plan to cook a few meals at our home away from home.
- Excursions – There are plenty of recreational activities to explore by land or water. Amsterdam alone has a host of museums, tours and other activities that could easily eat into this line item.
- Misc. Expenses – We always advise factoring in extra expense for souvenirs, toiletries and fees for exchanging currency. For visits to large cities, it may not hurt to bump up the budget a bit more in this area.
Bringing the Numbers to Life
Day 1/2 – Braving the Canals
We left the Brussels Midi/Audi train station mid-morning for our 2 hour ride to the Netherlands. The journey was smooth as we arrived to Amsterdaam Central station. It was probably the first time I’ve ever really been impressed with a train station. It is set against a large waterway on one side of the massive building and direct access to the heart of the city on the other side. Our original plans were to store suitcases at the station for a bit in order to tour the city, but all the storage lockers were taken. So we hopped on the next train direct to our AirBnB in the town of Alkmaar.
Our stop in Alkmaar first introduced us to the narrow brick roads with tight rows of brick townhomes on either side that is common through the cities. However, as Google Maps had us turn the corner towards the town’s center we came upon more modern, industrial architecture with (to our surprise) with bike racers zipping the through the streets. We just happened upon the last day of the 2019 UEC Road European Championships! After taking a pause to witness with other spectators, we walked the rest of way to our rental.
What we soon came upon was a story book scenario to which photos don’t really do justice. Our rental overlooked the main square with a small draw bridge leading towards an old 17th century cheese market weighing house (I’ll explain more…keep reading) that’s now been converted to a visitor’s center. The scene immediately gives you a sense of what life could have been like more than two centuries before. Dutch locals darted over the bridge and through the city navigating through the wandering tourists. Added bonus…our apartment resided directly above a Dutch candy store with a french fry shop just two doors down!
After settling in, we jumped on a canal boat tour through the city. While only an hour, it was one of the most exhilarating and semi-dangerous excursions we took on the whole Europe vacation. Many of the underpasses required everyone on the boat to duck their heads or risk injury. It became comical after the first couple passes leaving us with memories we won’t soon forget!
Alkmaar is full of eateries, clothing stores and other modern merchants offering an interesting blending of today’s luxuries with centuries old architecture. After everyone got a little shopping out of their system, we grabbed dinner and heading home to rest in prep for tomorrow.
Day 1 – Drenched in Amsterdam
For our first full day in the Netherlands, we hopped back on the train to Amsterdam. The weather wasn’t as accommodating as we would have liked with overcast skies that eventually led to rain in the late morning and early afternoon. As you could imagine, this dampened some of our kids enthusiasm for exploring and forced us to find indoor attractions. We waited too long to book Anne Frank house tickets, arrived too late for tickets to the Van Gogh museum and couldn’t bear the long lines at the Rijksmuseum. Our morning was not off to the greatest start.
So we went where any parents with 4 kids would go…the Heineken museum! We had actually heard this was a fun tour for the whole family and they were right. The tour takes you through the beer company’s history with high-tech immersive displays and interactive exhibits. The end of the tour offers a wealth of fun (Heineken branded of course) games from Playstation soccer to beer filling competitions. The adults get to enjoy a free sample of their world famous brew while the kids get a free soda. It was a perfect escape from the rain shower that decided to greet us on our way into the museum
The final excursion was a canal tour through the city. This was a lot less dangerous compared to our Alkmaar tour as the underpasses where well within regulation. It also was an audio guided with snacks which was perfect after a long day of battling the day’s intermittent rain and chill.
Day 2 – Knee Deep in Dairy
We focused on exploring the city of Alkmaar and its surrounding area offering a slower pace with a lot more sunshine. The day was perfect so we decided to rent bikes and head towards the beach about 9 miles away. The Netherlands is made for pedal travel so the locals prefer this method of cheap, environmentally friendly transportation. Things were going well until half way en route yours truly gets a flat tire! With our limited (aka no) Dutch language skills, we found a nice lady who pointed us in the direction of a bike shop. 3 hours and $50 bucks later we made our way back to the rental shop just before it closed.
The saving grace for our day was witnessing Alkmaar’s Cheese Market taking place every week beginning in late March to end of September. The town became a major player in the cheese game back in the 1600s with their weighing house constructed to help support the dairy merchants. People dress in traditional Dutch garb bringing thousands of pounds of wheel-shaded cheese into the market square where it is weighed and assessed by judges.
The event draws locals and tourists every summer with vendors selling various versions of Dutch cheeses such as Gouda. As you might expect, we enjoyed one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches experiences of our lives which helped make up for one of the worst biking trips ever.
Day 3 – Exploring Our Roots
For our final day in the Netherlands, we decided to visit the home of my wife’s great grandparents 2 1/2 hours south in the town of Yerseke. Traveling that far my public transit is too costly for 6 people so I rented a vehicle. As you can imagine, finding a minivan on short notice is not easy in Europe so our best option was an Audi station wagon that technically seats 5. Thankfully, our 4 kids were troopers and endured the 5 hour roundtrip experience in a backseat made for 3.
Yerseke is right on an estuary connected to the sea thus making the seafood trade (or aquaculture) its long-time industry. My wife’s family made their living in the oyster trade and it was fun to search through the town for old buildings where they sold their goods as well as view the oyster pits. We also visited the local church they attended getting a bit of history from the volunteer historian. The building sustained major damage at the the early stages of World War II during was what called the Battle of Zeeland in 1940, but was restored after the war in 1948.
After an extensive, self-guided family history scanveger hunt through Yerseke, we took the long journey back to Alkmaar with cramped, but still happy kids in the backseat.
Ideas for Taming Your Large Family Travel Budget
- Lodging – Well, we decided to go over our daily budget by more than $100 for a couple reasons. The first was we had underspent on the first half of our trip. The second was we really wanted a 3 bedroom apartment with space to roam as well as reside in town with plenty of activity.
- Transportation – We still managed to stay under budget by $20 per day despite numerous roundtrips on the interrail between Alkmaar and Amsterdam. Renting a car was a really cost effective option not only for our day trip to Yerseke, but also for taking us to the airport versus calling an Uber.
- Meals – We indulged in some nice breakfasts at the local cafe a couple times as well as a variety of sit down dinners. However, lunch was on the move during most of our visit making grab faster and low cost dining options helped us stay on budget in this area as well.
- Excursions – Getting to the last leg of our Europe trip meant having minimal credit card rewards points to leverage. We were only able to save a portion off our Amsterdam river cruise, but chose a number of other lower cost attractions.
- Misc. Expenses – While we stayed under budget, we got hit with numerous foreign transaction fees for withdrawing euros from ATMs. I’m always concerned about holding a lot of cash on hand due to pickpocketing. However, next time I will plan more effectively in order to avoid some of these expenses for future trips. Traveling guru Rick Steves has the best advice on how to plan for currency exchange in this article.
Another financial tidbit relates to the use of credit cards in the Netherlands. We ran into a number of scenarios where they wouldn’t take our American Express so using our Visa credit card came in handy. In Yerseke, the restaurant we eat in for lunch wouldn’t accept either of our major cards so I had to go searching for an ATM. So I’d advise having cash and two credit cards on the ready at all times.
Special Note on Car Rentals
Limits in Size & Transmission
Simple enough I thought. We booked a nice minivan for our East Coast trip a few years ago so this would be no problem. However, most major rental companies don’t fill their fleets the same in Europe as in the US. Larger vehicles like minivans are tougher to come by especially with automatic transmission.
There we were excited to visit the land of my wife’s people with no stick shift drivers in the family and not enough seats. So we did what any responsible parent would do…just jammed four kids in the back of an Audi station wagon!
While not our kids favorite option, the 5 hour roundtrip in the luxury station wagon was well worth it and certainly a funny memory we talk about often.
Plan Ahead for Everyone’s Comfort
Some words to the wise for those of you who may not want to suffer the same fate as we did when renting a car in Europe…
- If you can’t drive shift, perform your search and book at least one month before you go. Spontaneity is nice, grouchy claustrophobic children are not.
- If you have a travel rewards credit card, perform a search through their program as they will have more options across multiple brands.
- When you find an option, first check if signing up for the rental car company’s membership will offer you discounts. You don’t have to pay a fee or be required to book a certain number of rentals to become a member.
Quick Visual Trip Through Amsterdam
Despite some of the challenges with weather and biking mishaps, the Netherlands had way more upside than down. Check out the video below for a quick perspective of Amsterdam through my son’s eyes: