The Kid-Friendly Amsterdam That Your Teenager Won't Hate

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What comes to mind when you first think of Amsterdam? 

Windmills. Weed. Stroop Waffles. Tulips. Weed.

That’s what I thought. And so did my kid. 

The last time we went to Amsterdam, he told me it was pretty boring. He said that Amsterdam is only fun for adults because kids can’t do “adult things” and Amsterdam only has “adult things”. He actually did the air quotes.

But he’s not completely wrong.

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How to Score a Free Hotel From an Airline (or at Least a Free Tour)

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Whenever I am looking to book a ticket, one of the first websites I go to is Skyscanner. Often, this means that I will end up booking my ticket through a third party website. Which means I will sometimes have a long layover somewhere to help curb the costs. (I don’t know why this curbs costs, but whatever)

On our recent trip to Brussels, we had a 13-hour layover in Istanbul going there and a 23-hour layover coming back. That’s a looooooong time to be sitting in an airport when you don’t have lounge access. So once the ticket was confirmed, I began looking online to see if the airline or the airport offers a free hotel say.

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Our 2 Days in Brussels

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Brussels is one of those cities that you’ve heard about, but it never is really on your list of places to visit. At least this was true for me. With the exception of waffles and fries, I didn’t really know much about the European city. But when a flight deal calls, I come running!

I found a flight from Addis Ababa to Brussels for about $370 and saw I could catch a train to Paris and Amsterdam from the centralized location and booked it back in March. My experience flying Turkish Airlines back in February was pleasant, so I wasn’t worried about the experience. And the added long layovers were appealing as it would allow us to visit another city in the process.

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Brussels: A Food Tour

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We were in Brussels for only 2.5 days and I can’t tell you one landmark or historical site that we saw. Okay, that’s a lie. We actually saw quite a lot despite being completely focused on eating anything fried and delicious that we could get our hands on.

We took a City Sightseeing Bus and saw most of the city during one of the full days. We got off a couple times to explore the area and even stumbled upon a museum dedicated to musical instruments around the world. We paid the extra 2€ and got the audioguide where we were able to listen to the actual musical instruments being played.

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We Ended Up With a Free Tour of Istanbul and It Blew Our Minds!

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So, we are headed to Brussels and I noticed that my ticket had a 13-hour layover. I tried to get a free hotel from Turkish Airlines, but that didn’t work out. (More on that later) But we were offered a tour of Istanbul for free99! So we took it. I mean…what else were we gonna do in the airport for that long?

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How to: Milan and Rome in under a week

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If you read my previous post on how we went to Italy for under $2000, you would know that I promised you a real breakdown of the trip and how we enjoyed it. If you didn’t read it, go read it now so you can completely understand how much we packed into a week for really really really cheap. (Considering it was two of us and I travel with a human garbage disposal)

For the trip, I had to create an itinerary for us. When I travel alone I usually wing it, but with the boy, I have to plan and plan again because we will end up staying in the room and not seeing anything. I try to be flexible with everything and most often we don’t end up doing everything I plan for the day, or we get lost and lose time and end up seeing something completely different, but we’re really adaptable to whatever the Universe brings us so we usually just roll with it.

Here’s how our trip went:

Day 1:

We land in MXP and we catch a shuttle to central Milan. It’s important to know that the airport is far, far away from the city, so expect to ride for a good hour.

After arriving, we head to the train station and find out train in the nick of time. Well…it would have been if our train hadn’t been delayed. In addition to getting there right when Brexit hit, there was also a strike with the local train union. So trains were not running as scheduled and there were tons of people hot, sweaty, and bored sitting outside waiting for the train to finally show. We adapted, found food, and waited.

What I didn’t anticipate (and what TripAdvisor doesn’t tell you) is that when we needed to go to the restroom, we needed to pay 1 euro to do so. Each. I told the boy he better make sure he empties all four corners of his bladder because I was not paying for toilet use again.

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Seriously some bullshit.

The train eventually came and we high-tailed it to Rome. (Seriously, it was a bullet train and we got there in a little over 2 hours. Not bad) Our seats were those that have the table and you sit across from someone. I had seats where the boy and I were sitting across from one another, but for some reason, the people who were sitting near us wanted to switch seats. Whatevs. But what happened is that we ended up sitting the whole trip sitting across from them, not really talking (because the language barrier was real) and fighting for foot space. It was definitely an experience, but we were a little over it. Plus the wi-fi didn’t work, so there was that.

Once we arrived in Rome, we took a taxi to the Airbnb and played the rest of the day by ear.  Which basically meant we found the wi-fi, turned on the AC and were sleep by 6pm.

Side note: The Airbnb was amazing. It was at this lady’s apartment, top floor and we were in the elephant room. It had a curio cabinet full of elephant knickknacks and photos. I was in heaven. But we were tired so we didn’t spend much time taking photos and gawking over the ambiance.

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End of day 1. Sponsored by jet lag™.

Day 2:

Buongiorno, Roma!

We woke up early and ate breakfast at our Airbnb. We walked to the Colosseum, which was about 20 minutes away, and arrived just in time. They opened at 10 and we got there a little before 9:30. It was perfect. We were able to clown around before it got too hot and see most of the Colosseum before the huge crowd (and the sun) hit.

We were able to walk around and take photos (or try to) without too many people being there. This was our attempt at using the self-timer. We got such a kick out of the people walking through the photos.

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After about an hour or so, we felt a bit claustrophobic and decided to leave and catch one of the big tour busses.

After grabbing a sightseeing bus, we first breezed past the many sights and took photos from above. We planned out our strategy and then got off the bus when we reached the Trevi Fountains. We took awkward photos throwing coins over our shoulder and got hustled to pay €10 for a Polaroid of us doing so. But it was cool.

Well…it was hot. We were so hot that we ended up disliking one another at this point. But it was a fun day. We packed a lot into this day. We saw the Forum, the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. We saw the many fountains that are all over Rome.

We even wandered into a restaurant filled with locals and ate the most amazing carbonara and lasagna and I even drank half a bottle of wine. The boy was excited because he got a bird that was trying to eat the bread from our table to finally fly into his hand.

Afterward, we (meaning I) tipsily wandered around the rest of the city until nightfall. In the evening, we found a gelato place that was packed and amazing to people watch. Too full from lunch, we ate our gelato and headed back to our room to take it down for the night.

Day 3:

No, we didn’t see the Pope. 

On this day, we were told that the Vatican was free on Sundays so we woke up early and made it there around 7:30. The line was already to the corner of the block. But it was fun standing there with all the tourists and getting into conversations about where we were from and the places we had traveled.

I’m kidding. I didn’t get into any conversations at all. I was tired and hot and played a game on my phone with the boy.

We got into the Vatican and it was amazing. We walked the gardens and toured the statues in the museum. We eventually made our way to the Sistine Chapel and I nervously snuck a photo of the famous ceiling.

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Why was I nervous, you ask? Because people were overtly taking photos and getting swiftly carried out. Security was even catching people sneaking photos and asking people to leave. One dude refused to leave and it almost got physical. I was sweating bullets. But I got my shot tho!

Afterward, we left and walked around Vatican City and saw St. Peter’s Basilica. It was really too hot at that point to stand in line to get inside so we just took photos outside of it and decided to wander. This is where the fun began.

We got lost trying to take the metro for a sense of adventure. We ended up in some random part of town and had to walk to find a taxi to take us back. The busses weren’t going back to the city and everyone knew it but us. Annoyed, hot, and irritable, but it wasn’t a complete loss of an afternoon.

After we got back to the room, the boy passed out and I washed and twisted my hair watching Sponge Bob in Italian. Walking around the city all day was exhausting.

I don’t remember eating a proper dinner that night. I just grabbed a snack from the shop downstairs and the boy slept until 5am. Jetlag is a beast.

Day 4:

We got up super duper early and walked to find the Piazza di Spagna. We had a ball taking detours and looking at the several fountains and castles along the way. When we got there we were kinda let down a bit. It had a gate around it and it was closed for renovations or something. Womp womp.

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I had this idea in my head that we would sit at the top and watch the sun rise and have this bonding moment between mother and son. That didn’t happen. It was still nice, we walked to a cafe afterward and ate pastries and drank coffee and hot chocolate. We still had our bonding moment, it just looked a bit different than we’d hoped.

We went back to the Airbnb and packed to make the 9am train. We learned from our previous experience and picked seats that didn’t have a table, to get more leg room and not have to stare at people for 2 hours. I took a nap, the boy did whatever he does when I nap.

Hello Milan. 

We take a taxi to our hotel, the DaVinci Hotel, and on the ride we realize that it is a bit far outside of the city. No wonder it was so cheap 🙂 The taxi wasn’t too bad, but more than I budgeted for that day, and ended up being 16 euro. Made it to the hotel around 1 and checked in. The hotel is amazing and full of all this art and amazing colors. It was really fun walking around playing with everything and taking photos. Our room was really nice as well. Really swanky.

But.

The restaurant closed at 2. As did most of the restaurants in the area until about 7. So our only option for lunch was Mickey D’s. Which was about a 2k walk from where the hotel was located. Like, walking through an apartment complex, walk down the side of the freeway, past bushes and shit. It was crazy. And BLAZING! But, you could get beer with your filet-o-fish, so all was forgiven.

We chilled in the room and explored the grounds and then got dinner at the restaurant that evening after a nap. It wasn’t too bad, just really vague and not worth the 15 euro. But there was wine, so all was forgiven.

(Can you tell I’m easy to forgive when liquor is involved? Judge me not)

Day 5:

The chickens.

Roosters, actually. I was awaken at 3am by confused roosters. Wondering where they were and where they came from, and more importantly, WHY THE HELL WHERE THEY CROWING AT 3 F%#&$^@ING AM!?! I felt like I was in an episode of Sex and the City.

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Two roosters and a pigeon.

Seriously. I was cranky as hell the next day and talked to the front desk people like “so…what’s up with the roosters?” and they looked at me like “what roosters?” I just walked away.

We had breakfast in the hotel and caught the train to Milan Central to get tickets to the sightseeing bus. Or we already had them. I can’t remember. But we decided to do the tour because it would get us around the city to the main sights without wasting time doing things we don’t want to. We were able to see quite a bit.

The tour we went on passed through all the must-see spots, but then also took you to the fashion district and more historical areas of Milan. We like these also because you get to learn the history and sometimes entertaining facts about the city and take awesome photos without actually having to walk around all day in the sweltering heat. As a bonus, most busses were offering free wi-fi while onboard.

The boy was really excited to learn about DaVinci and his inventions so one of the first stops we went to was the Leonardo3 Museum. We got to look at some of his creations, build our own, and see how his famous painting, The Last Supper, as been restored over the years. Afterward, we went to get gelato and splurged on lunch. We had some extra money from previous days, so we decided to go all out.

Was it worth it? Eh. It’s whatever. The gelato was bomb tho!

The rest of the day was a blur. We were all over the place and eventually got bored on the bus and wandered a bit until we found ourselves back at the train depot. We walked around a bit more around that neighbourhood and I got more gelato and I got my nails done. This was before 7, so we were very limited when we got hungry.

We were able to walk around some more and see the mean streets of Milan before heading back to the hotel for the evening.

Day 6:

Our flight was at 10am, so we were up and ready to eat breakfast when they opened at 6am. We scarfed down all we could and rushed out to meet the taxi. I even burned my tongue trying to gulp down coffee in a hurry. Bad idea. Ran back to Milan Centrale and caught our bus to the airport just in time. I was nervous because we needed to be there around 8am at the latest to avoid any issues with Etihad (they be trippin sometimes, you know). All was well. We had a great flight home and made it back just in time for our jet lag to be in reverse.

Impressions, reflections, and observations

The trip was good, overall. Love, love, LOVED the food in Rome. The history and just the overall feel of Rome was one of our favorites. The pasta, the wine, the gelato…ummm.

But.

Rome is dirty as shit. I mean, Philly is grimy and disgusting at times, but Rome was just gross. Not at all what we were expecting. Milan was okay and a little better with the filth, but still gross. And everybody smoked. EVERY-WHERE. So that’s another thing we had to get used to as well.

Graffiti. Didn’t expect that much of it either. And not in that eclectic, street art, kinda way, either. It was straight up Beat Street, Ramon looking for the white train, 80s style graffiti. It was cool. It was just EVERYWHERE.

We did have a good time, but I’m not too sure we will be back. If we do return to Italy again, we may explore Florence or maybe go back to Rome for spaghetti carbonara.

Seriously. The food was THAT good.

I should note that while we were there, I felt like we had some encounters with racism and discrimination. Once when we went to get gelato, we were waiting our turn to order and once my number came up, I approached the counter to order. The guy saw me and hesitated. So I waited and watched him look at another guy to see if he would finish up so he can help me instead of him. He didn’t so the guy walked over to take my order. He was rather impatient and was a jerk when I mispronounced the flavors in Italian and refused to speak English.

This was a bit shocking because while I was waiting, I observed him playing and joking with other foreigners when they made mistakes and even smiled at a few of them. But me, not so much. In talking about this with someone else about the issues, they cited the “immigration issues”, saying that might be the cause of the turmoil. Nah, son. Italy has a long history of that foolishness and even still doesn’t make it right.

Even our hotel staff were a bit…not-as-courteous as they were with guests that were a little less melanin blessed. It’s whatever. And crazy because in all my travels this was my first time really have any encounters like this. Eh well.

Anyway, if you go, I would say pay that extra bit to stay closer to the city. The taxi ride was not necessarily worth the difference. Depending on how long you say (we only stayed 2 nights) you might want to see if the 20 euro difference can be met at another hotel. Plus it affords you more options in that food drought that happens between lunch and dinner. We were not near any restaurants or grocery stores, so we were kinda assed out when we were starving around 3pm.

I would do more research before I go again, as well. This trip was really last-minute and I didn’t do a lot. Which is really crazy how I lucked out on not spending so much. But we learned a lot of tricks by talking with out Airbnb host. As much as I don’t like interacting with people I don’t know, she was really helpful with telling us where to do, what to see, and how much you should spend when you get there.

Also, I know I paid more for my train tickets than I should have. Because I booked them really close to my departure date, I know I could have gotten them for cheaper than $156 each way. (Calm down, this was for both of us). Regardless, my entire weeks trip still came up to less than $2000.

Don’t believe me? Check the receipts.

Have you gone to Italy before? How did you like it? What tips would you give me if we decide to go next time?

Our week in Italy and how we did it for under $2000!

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As you know, I’m constantly trying to save money when I travel. From flight glitches to Groupon, I’m always in search of a way to make my money stretch. I’m constantly telling people that traveling with kids is not expensive and doesn’t have to be limited to the continental United States when you’re on a budget. That’s why I HAVE to share how we went on a family vacation to Rome and Milan for $1950.69.

You heard me. Less than $2000 for two people. Flights, food, EVERYTHING!

Here’s how I did it:

Transportation

One day I was minding my own business and I get an email from secret flying.com telling me that there was a flight deal from Tokyo to Milan for $309 roundtrip. 309 US Dollars to get there and back!

Say whaaaaaa?

I played around with the dates and realized that I could make something happen. The only thing was, it was on Momondo.com’s Italian site. I tried to change the language, but that changed the pricing. So what did I do? I opened that bad boy on Google Chrome and let the website translate it for me and booked that flight deal quick, fast, and in a hurry!

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I don’t know what any of this says, but it translate to me as FLIGHT DEAL!!!

I was so hype. I had never been to Italy and the boy had never been to Europe. It was a win-win for the both of us. What was even better was that it came with a 24 hour layover in Abu Dhabi!! Another place neither of us have been. The boy was so excited and I was hype to visit another UAE city.

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The thing was, I only had a few weeks to prepare for the trip. The deal was for the end of June and I had to work out the details and what to do in a few weeks AND finish up with work. But I’m a superhero, so it was no big deal.

Because I’m a geographic opportunist, there was no way that we would come all the way to Italy and NOT see the Colosseum. It’s one of the Great Wonders of the World and the boy and I are on a mission to see all of them at some point in our lifetime. So, I looked up train tickets from Milan to Rome and worked out the itinerary. The train tickets ended up being 312 euro for both of us, round trip. I could have possibly found these cheaper, but I waited until the last-minute to buy them, I didn’t purchase them as a roundtrip ticket, and purchased the tickets the day or two before. Rookie mistake, I know. I’ll learn one day.

Total costs: $983.90 

Lodging

I found an awesome Airbnb in Rome that was walking distance from the Colosseum, near transit, and close to restaurants and parks. I was sold! It was only $307 for the three nights. It came with free wi-fi, they had stuff in the kitchen for us to make breakfast and coffee each morning, and the hosts were amazing and informative. They gave us maps to find our way around the city, asked us about our plans and offered suggestions. They even told us that the Vatican is free on Sundays to save us money!

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The hotel I booked in Milan ended up being a bust in a lot of ways. It was cute and eclectic, but had some issues. After arriving we found out that it is really far from the city and even farther from restaurants, so we were stuck with eating at the hotel (which wasn’t really that good) or walking to McDonald’s (which we ended up doing). But, for $76 for two nights, we couldn’t really complain. I found this deal on Hotels.com and had a credit from my hotel stays in Thailand that gave me a $56.86 credit. With taxes and everything, it came up to $86.16 with the fee they charged at the hotel once we got there. (they only charged us 10 euro instead of the 20 for some reason)

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Total costs: $393.16

Budget for activities, food, and incidentals

Before I left, I set a budget of ¥10,000 a day (we live in Japan…) and I would only exchange that amount in cash when I got there. It’s also important to note that when we arrived in Milan, Brexit just happened, so the exchange places were not allowing any exchange of Euro or British Pounds until they figured out what was going to happen. I was able to use an ATM when we first arrived and then found a bank that would allow me to do so later when we got to Rome.

Because of my budget, I kept an intense account of what I spent, where, and how much I had left at the end of each day. Most often I had money left over for the next day that helped us splurge on a fancy lunch in Milan.

What I ended up spending for that entire time was $573.63 (according to the current exchange rate). For all of that, we took taxis and rode the metro, we ate huge lunches but small dinners and breakfasts, we saw the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine Hill all included in one fee, and the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum for free. We also rode the big bus tour to see more of the city and get off at the stops that interested us. We even capitalized on student discounts by using my good old ID from grad school (it also helps that my melanin keeps me looking young).

Itinerary

I’ll detail the itinerary in another post, but here is generally what we did each day so you can get an idea of how much we did and saw during our time in Rome and Milan. We definitely packed a lot into the schedule, but because of jet lag we didn’t see and do as much as we had hoped. It was still a pretty awesome time.

Day 1:

  • Landed in Milan, took a shuttle bus to the city center
  • Bullet train to Rome
  • No sightseeing this day, completely exhausted from travel

Day 2:

  • The Colosseum
  • Roman Forum
  • Palatine Hill
  • Trevi Fountain
  • Sightseeing bus tour to optimize our time and sights for the day
  • Amazing lunch of carbonara, lasagna, and wine
  • Refreshing gelato in the evening

Day 3:

  • Breakfast at a local cafe
  • Vatican City
  • Vatican Gardens and Museum
  • Sistine Chapel
  • St. Peter’s Basilica & Square
  • Metro adventure where we got lost (more on that later)

Day 4:

  • Breakfast at a local cafe
  • Piazza di Spagna
  • Train to Milan
  • Lunch at McDonald’s (more on why that was later)

Day 5:

  • Breakfast at hotel
  • Metro to center city Milan
  • Sightseeing bus to optimize sights
  • Castello
  • Santa Maria delle Grazie
  • Milan Cathedral
  • Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
  • DaVinci Museum
  • (probably more, but that day was a blur)

Day 6:

  • Breakfast at the hotel
  • Metro to center city Milan
  • Bus to airport
  • Flight back to Tokyo

 

Budget Breakdown

Transportation: $983.90

Lodging: $393.16

Food, Activities, Souvenirs, Miscellaneous: $573.63

We ended up spending less than our anticipated ¥10,000 per day budget (roughly $95). It was sometimes challenging to stick with the budget, but I did it. I am really proud of myself to sticking to the budget and we had an amazing time.

I hope this gives you an idea of how I travel on a budget with the boy and still manage to have an amazing time. I’m not loaded with cash or have a sugar daddy financing these trips. With a little planning, budgeting, and preparation, you can travel like this too.

What are some tips you have for saving money while traveling? Let me know in the comments!