Amsterdam Dos and Don’ts
We recently spent a week in Amsterdam before taking a river cruise through the Netherlands and Belgium; I will eventually post photos from the trip, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some possibly-useful tips for others travelling to Amsterdam and environs.
- DO tell your credit/debit card companies that you will be using your card in the Netherlands and when you’ll be there.
- DO get money from ATMs rather than buying it before you leave the US; there are ATMs at the airport and all over town and you’ll get a much better rate.
- DO expect to find some shops which only accept cards and will not accept cash.
- DON’T get the Travelex “Cash Passport” Chip and PIN card – the exchange rate is hideous and they demand your Social Security number.
- DO expect to be able to use your US credit card when you are dealing with people – even though the Dutch all have Chip and PIN cards, every credit card machine I saw in a shop could also accept a US magstripe card. 
- DON’T expect to use your US credit card if you’re dealing with an automated kiosk (such as the ticket machines for the railway)
- DON’T take the option of paying in US Dollars using your credit card. The rate is probably not as good as your card company will give, and if your card has a surcharge for international transactions, you’ll have to pay that surcharge even if the transaction is in US Dollars.
- DO carry a few Euros in change with you at all times for small purchases and toilets – many public toilets charge between 20–50 cents for access.
Getting into town from the airport
- DO take the train unless you’re staying far from the city center.
- DON’T wait until you’re at the airport to buy your train ticket.
- DO buy your train ticket in advance from Belgian Rail; print it at home and bring it with you.
- DO have Euro change in pocket if you need to buy your train ticket at the airport, or go to the ticket window if you need to use currency or a US credit card. The machines ONLY take change or PIN cards.
- DO buy Second Class tickets for this trip unless you have a lot of luggage or can’t manage four steps up or down stairs.
- DO know that the trains to Centraal Station leave from Schiphol platforms 1 and 2.
- DON’T get on a “FYRA” train at Schiphol – it will cost you! You want to get on an “IC” train. The trains are marked on the sides of the cars; both use the same platforms.
Getting around town
- DO walk if you can – the touristy part of Amsterdam is small, and everything of interest is within a 45-minute walk (mostly less). Take public transport only when you’re in a hurry.
- DO watch out for bicycles and motorbikes, especially when crossing a bike path (and every street has bike paths). Treat them as you would any other fast-moving dangerous vehicle.
- DON’T be surprised by motorbikes (or bicycles) on the sidewalk, either, though they are usually going slowly there.
- DON’T worry about having exact change on trams; the conductor gives change. I don’t know about busses.
- DO buy the iAmsterdam card.
- DON’T buy it at the VVV office at Centraal Station – there are long lines. If you must buy it there, use Line 6, not the “full-service” lines.
- DON’T pre-purchase the card over the Internet, which means picking up the card in person at the VVV office – in that same long line, of course.
- DO buy it at one of the other locations; if you plan to start with a canal tour, buy it at their counter (you’ll have to go there anyway to get the ticket that’s part of the pass).
- DO be strategic about the time of day that you activate the pass. It is valid for 24/48/72 hours, not 1/2/3 days. If you activate a 24-hour pass at 11am on Wednesday, you can use it all the rest of that day and then enter a museum before 11am on Thursday and stay there the whole day. This works best for major museums, like the Maritime Museum or the Van Gogh, of course. If you’re really hardcore, you could go to the Maritime Museum at 10am on the last day of your pass and get a ticket, immediately go to another nearby museum and see it, then return to the Maritime Museum because your ticket is good for the entire day.
- DO realize that the museum pass and the travel pass are completely separate after you buy them; you need not activate them at the same time (or even on the same day).
- DO realize that the discount offers in the booklet are valid even after your card expires (I think they go to the end of the year); you just need to bring the card and the booklet.
- DON’T plan to go to the Rijksmuseum or the Anne Frank House on the iAmsterdam card.
Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll
- DON’T be afraid of walking through the Red Light District (of course, be aware of your surroundings, just as you would anywhere else).
- DON’T take photos of “red rooms” or the women working in them.
- DON’T go to a coffeeshop for coffee.
Eating and drinking
- DO expect the inside of restaurants to be non-smoking (both kinds of smoke).
- DO expect a lot of [tobacco] smokers just outside of a restaurant.
- DON’T expect free refills on coffee.
- DON’T expect free tap water.
- DO expect service charges to be included in your bill; round up to the next Euro or two if you’re especially pleased. I ran into one restaurant where service was marked as “Not Included” on the bill and tipped about 10% – I have no idea if that was right or not.
- DON’T use your US cell carrier’s international data plan, even by accident. AT&T’s price is $20/megabyte; other carriers are similarly exorbitant.
- DO consider using iPhoneTrip.com if you have an unlocked device or are on AT&T. I paid $17/day for unlimited data anywhere in Europe and used about 50 megabytes/day, which would have cost $1000 on AT&T.
- DO look for “Free Wi-Fi” hotspots; many small restaurants offer free Wi-Fi. One near our hotel gave us the password when we stopped to look at their menu and told us the service was available 24/7. We wound up having breakfast there four times!
- DO look for free Wi-Fi from free-hotspot.com if you’re near a fast-food chain like McDonalds, Burger King, or Subway.
- DON’T expect to need to know much (if any) Dutch. All tourist-oriented businesses are completely English-friendly, and almost everyone in the Netherlands seems to speak and understand English.
- DO try to sound-out written Dutch if you need to figure out a sign; it looks unlike English, but I found it fairly easy.
- DO say “Dank U Well” (“thank you”).
I did find one ice cream shop which said it would only take PIN cards or change (no bills) – I don’t know if their machine would have taken a US card or not.