Eurotrip 2014, Part 16: Long Road to Amsterdam

July 11, 2014: Today was the beginning of my ill-fated, three-day trip to Amsterdam and Bruges—to call it a disappointment would be an understatement. Before getting into it, however, I want to first state that the tour company, International Friends, was very attentive to my complaints and issued me a partial refund. It should also be noted that the three-day Scotland tour I took with the same company on the previous weekend was phenomenal, so I would feel comfortable using them again; I’ll just chalk the Amsterdam tour up to an outlier for an otherwise reliable tour company. That being said, I feel it is my responsibility to write about my experience without sugarcoating it…

As I mentioned above, I had an amazing tour of Scotland with this company the week before (it was my favorite part of the entire two-week trip). Because of that experience, I was expecting this tour to be just as wonderful. It would quickly become apparent, however, that this tour would not live up to those expectations. The biggest difference, as far as I could tell, was that the Scotland tour was professionally handled by an engaged and competent guide, while the Amsterdam tour was mismanaged by a disengaged guide and an incompetent bus driver.

We were late for everything on the entire trip, which gave us little time to actually enjoy anything on the itinerary, culminating in the disappointment of only getting two hours to spend in Bruges, which had been the biggest selling point of this tour for me, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Things got off to a bad start when the bus was 30 minutes late picking us up at our location in London. The bus driver did not seem to know where he was going for most of the trip. He repeatedly made wrong turns throughout the weekend, including pulling into the wrong ferry in the wrong town on the way back to London. According to the tour company, the bus driver was given an itinerary for the trip but did not appear to read or refer to it (the drivers for these tours are not affiliated with the tour company but are hired out from a third party, and there was an apparent personality clash between the driver and the guide).

Eventually we reached the ferry in Dover and waited to board. I was stunned at the size of the ferry—it was massive enough to hold big buses and tractor-trailers. Once on the boat I was afforded a much better look at the white cliffs than I got earlier in the week, though it was raining so the pics below are not the clearest.

The inside of the ferry was like being on a cruise ship: they had dining, shopping, gambling, etc. I started getting a bit seasick at one point. Normally I would just step outside and I would be fine since it’s only inside ships that I start feeling the motion sickness, but all of the smokers were out on the deck, so I stayed inside.

After exiting the ferry in Calais, France, we sat in a major traffic jam, which led to our extremely late arrival in Amsterdam, 12 hours after we first departed. I don’t know if the traffic jam could have been avoided by a more experienced bus driver, but it’s worth noting that one of my fellow tour members observed the bus driver making several wrong turns during this drive, which likely contributed to our hitting the freeway during rush hour.

On the way, we stopped for a 45-minute lunch break that I could have done without, but it was apparently a legal rest period that the driver had to take. I wasn’t able to eat anything at the rest stop (or even use the paid bathroom) because I did not have any euros yet and the rest stop did not have an ATM, so I waited on the bus.

Eventually we arrived in Amsterdam, but we were so late that the city walking tour was canceled (and never rescheduled), checking into our hotel was skipped, and we went directly to the boat cruise. Here are some photos from the cruise:

We were not able to check into our hotel until 9 p.m. While we were waiting to check in, we discovered that our guide had sent two girls to the wrong hotel–the two girls did not have a firm enough grasp of English to understand that they were supposed to depart the bus with the guide in the city center and walk to the hostel, so they ended up taking the long ride with those of us who chose the three-star hotel. The guide was forced to send a cab to our hotel to pick them up after we discovered this error. This problem could have been averted if she had bothered to take a simple head count, as guides usually do (later, in Bruges, instead of taking a head count she just asked if everyone was off the bus. I thought, “Take a head count, then you’ll know!”).

Anyway, the guide scheduled the optional Red Light District walking tour for 9:30. This left no time for those of us in the three-star hotel to eat dinner because the hotel was so far outside the city center (per the company’s web site, we were supposed to have a hotel in the city center, which they apologized for not being able to secure). So we had a choice: take the Red Light District walking tour or eat dinner. I chose to eat in the hotel (since I hadn’t been able to eat lunch), so I missed the tour, but I figured I could see the Red Light District on my own the following day.

After dinner I decided to call it a night. In the morning we were scheduled to visit Zaanse Schans, a touristy village featuring historic windmills and other buildings, but since I had not yet had any opportunity to actually see Amsterdam, I chose to skip this tour and instead spend my only full day in Amsterdam exploring the city, which will be covered in the next installment.

View more of my photos from Amsterdam and Bruges.

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