Amsterdam is not an inexpensive city, and Belgium didn’t do my wallet many favors either.
To be fair, I didn’t make a huge effort to pinch pennies but checking my bank account on the tail end of the trip was a bit jarring. Reflecting on where I spent the most cash, I came up with six tips that might help anyone (read: me, who really needs to take my own advice) planning to visit these countries soon. Many of these steps probably apply to most place you’d travel but they particularly stood out during my ten days in these European cities.
1. BRING A WATER BOTTLE
The United States has spoiled me for free water, and I was surprised to find that tap water is not widely available in many restaurants (especially nicer sit-down restaurants). Water fountains are also pretty scarce. It’s crucial to stay hydrated when you’re travelling since you’re already pushing your body out of its comfort zone, but you can easily spend 10 euros a day on bottled water or small glass bottles of water in a restaurant if you aren’t careful.
I recommend carrying a water bottle everywhere and filling it up in your hotel or hostel before leaving for the day, or whenever you’re lucky enough to stumble across a water fountain. I spent 3 euros once in a McDonalds on a tap water and a trip to the bathroom, and while that’s hardly the most expensive purchase I made this trip, it was probably the least satisfying. In total, I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent somewhere in the ballpark of 30-40 euros on water and really wish I hadn’t lost my water bottle en route to Amsterdam so I could have spent that money on more cheese and Belgian chocolate instead.
**Edit: An Amsterdam local pointed out that bringing outside beverages to another restaurant is considered rude, and I completely agree. To clarify, this tip should be use when you’re exploring the city rather than saving money IN restaurants – so either drink you water before you go out for lunch, or be prepared to pay if they don’t offer free tap water.
2. USE THE FREE BATHROOMS WHEN YOU CAN
While any nice restaurant will have bathrooms for use, public parks and places like McDonalds often charge a small fee to use the restroom. While this typically costs less than a euro, it can be frustrating if you aren’t carrying change or are fundamentally against paying to perform your natural bodily functions. Use your free hostel bathrooms before you leave, and be sure you’re carrying a bit of change in case you’re desperate and can’t wait until you get back home.
3. BOOK YOUR ACCOMODATIONS EARLY
We made the mistake of waiting until a few days before to book rooms for our last days of the trip. When we finally got around to it, there were very few rooms available with enough beds for the three of us to stay in the same room, and we ended up paying prices higher than we’d seen for the same hostels even days before. Amsterdam and Belgium can be pretty full of tourists, especially during the summer season and weekends, and beds in a hostel are hot commodities. (This goes for transportation and popular attractions as well.) Book your rooms early and you will save quite a lot.
4. GET ACTIVE
Amsterdam, Brussels, Ghent, and Brugges were all very walkable cities. You’ll save lots on transportation if you’re willing to walk a few miles to get around. Plan ahead so you hit sites that are close together and you can minimize the walking, and if you really need to get transportation, try the trains and buses which are pretty inexpensive. A one-way ticket on the train runs about 2.90 euros which is much more reasonable and sometimes even faster than getting a taxi. If you know you’ll be using the transportation systems a lot and will be in a city for more than a few days, it can be worth looking into metro passes which can save you a few euros.
5. MINIMIZE ATM FEES
Check with your bank before you go to see if they charge transaction fees. Most banks will charge for withdrawing money from an ATM, but planning ahead can minimize the number of times you need to withdraw. My bank (Chase) charges me about $5 per withdrawal, and I try to take out as much as I am comfortable carrying around so that I only have to do it once or twice a trip. If you’re planning ahead for a trip further in the future, it may be worth looking into opening a bank account with a bank who doesn’t charge fees for international transactions, especially if you are a frequent traveler!
Another way to save a bit of money if travelling with friends is to have one person withdraw money for everyone, and then use a free money-exchange service like Venmo or Paypal to reimburse whoever withdrew that cash. That way, you’re only getting hit with one fee! For example, I would withdraw 200 euros, (100 for me and 100 for Tahvi), and then Tahvi would send 100 euros to me on Venmo, which I can transfer to my bank for free. This results in only 5 euros of transaction fees, instead of 10 euros if we’d both made separate transactions.
6. BRING YOUR STUDENT IDENTIFICATION
If you are a student or under 26, there are often discounts for transportation, museums, and other tourist attractions. Bring your student ID in your wallet and you can save a few euros in a host of locations.