Best Places to Watch a Santorini Sunset

Best Places to Watch a Santorini Sunset

The Greek Island of Santorini is best known for its gorgeous sunsets. Just before the sun goes down every evening, the entire island ventures out to find a viewing location. When you visit the island, make sure you take the time to plan where to watch your Santorini sunset.

There are myriad towns along Santorini’s cliffs that provide a beautiful view of the sunset. However, everyone visiting the island tends to flock to Oia for the sunset. Forego the crowds and head to one of the locations below for an incredible Santorini sunset experience.

Santo Winery: Dinner and a Santorini Sunset View

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The most beautiful Santorini sunset experience I ever had was at Santo Winery. I arrived a half-hour before sunset and secured a table on the lower terrace flanked by Santorini’s infamous white concrete. Everyone around me was enjoying delicious-looking dinners of fresh-caught fish and homemade pasta. My travel companion and I ordered the sixteen-glass wine tasting experience so we wouldn’t miss a single flavor the winery had to offer. A jazz pianist accompanied by a live vocalist who sang smooth lounge music all evening, adding the perfect touch to the winery's environment.

As the night went on, the winery's guests prepared to watch the sun go down together. Santo Winery’s location midway down Santorini’s coastline makes it the best place from which to view a Santorini sunset. The elegant, relaxed atmosphere significantly enhances the experience.  If you make no other plans before arriving in Santorini, you should make a dinner reservation at Santo Winery about thirty minutes before sunset so that you too can have this magical experience.

Sailing on a Sunset Cruise

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There is nothing quite like a catamaran cruise around Santorini’s caldera. Many cruises are available each day. For a unique view of Santorini’s sunset select an afternoon cruise that includes a sunset from the water.

The cruise itself could include a hike on Santorini’s volcano, a swim in the volcano’s hot springs, a stop at the nearby island of Thirisia, or dinner and drinks provided onboard. All of these options will enhance your experience, but the best part of a Santorini cruise is the unrestricted view of the sunset while sailing on the water.

Santorini Sunset Down by the Water in Ammoudi Bay

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The town of Ammoudi Bay sits directly below Oia. You can reach it from by boat or taxi, or walk down the winding path from Oia. Viewing Santorini’s sunset from Ammoudi Bay gives you an unobstructed view of the sun setting over the water from Santorini’s northernmost point without having to fight through Oia’s crowds.  You could sit on the docks to take in the view or grab a table at one of the seaside restaurants. If you choose the restaurant you will enjoy the sunset along with a freshly-caught fish, homemade baklava, and a sip of ouzo.

An Oia Sunset without the Crowds

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Admittedly, you cannot leave Santorini without seeing the sunset from Oia. On my last trip to Santorini, I made the mistake of thinking you could arrive in town shortly before sunset, easily stroll over to any spot overlooking the caldera, and peacefully watch the sunset. I even thought I could grab a seat for dinner as a walk-in! I was incorrect in all these assumptions.

It seems like at least half the island is in Oia for the sunset each night. Tourists pack the streets making it difficult to get anywhere. Restaurants fill up with reservations made weeks in advance. Once you find a spot to stand, you’ll be jostled by passersby. Ultimately, you may not have the unrestricted view you were anticipating.

To avoid these problems make a dinner reservation in advance. The sunsets from Oia are breathtaking, and with a dinner reservation, you’ll enjoy this experience peacefully. Just remember to arrive in town early so you can arrive at your chosen restaurant stress-free!

All Santorini sunsets are stunning. Wherever you are when the sun goes down over the caldera, you will have a magnificent view. If you are able to make it to one of the best places to view the Santorini sunset your experience will only improve!

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Discover the best places around the island of Santorini from which to watch the sunset
Discover the best places around the island of Santorini from which to watch the sunset
Discover the best places around the island of Santorini from which to watch the sunset
Best Tips to Help You Afford to Travel in 2020

Best Tips to Help You Afford to Travel in 2020

Last night a business client asked whether I live in a cardboard box to afford all the traveling I do. That couldn't be farther from the truth. Instead, I’ve learned how to afford to travel by spending money efficiently. You don’t need to pinch pennies on your vacations to stay within a tiny budget while traveling. Learn the tips for affordable travel listed below to enjoy yourself on holiday while saving money for your next trip.

Looking for more advice to make travel easier? Check out How to Travel the Wold with Just a Carry-On Bag!

How to Book Affordable Flights

Flights are often the most financially prohibitive part of booking a vacation. Many people opt to drive or take a bus without considering the places to which they could fly because they think it will be cheaper. This not only limits you to a tiny corner of the world, it’s also not often true! Use the travel tips below to book cheap flights for your next vacation.

Be Flexible on Destination

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Being flexible on my destination last year brought me on a surprise trip to the Netherlands!

The easiest way to find cheap flights is to be flexible with your destination. Different locations are cheaper to visit at different times of the year based on their shifting shoulder seasons. For example, last year I spent months planning a vacation to Scotland without booking anything. The week before I was supposed to leave flight prices were triple the original price I had seen. Instead of sticking to my plan for thousands of dollars, I used Kayak’s Explore tool to see where I could fly cheaply and ended up in the Netherlands for a $450 roundtrip ticket! This tip will help you save money and discover new places you may not have otherwise considered.

Be Flexible on Dates

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Want amazing photos of places like Angkor Wat with no people in them? Visit during the off-season!

If your heart is set on visiting a particular destination, be willing to compromise on dates. Traveling on Tuesdays and Wednesdays is almost always cheaper than other days. If you are planning on a four-day weekend, consider traveling Saturday to Tuesday instead of Thursday to Sunday to take advantage of lower flight prices.

Being flexible in the season you travel can also save you a lot of money. Off seasons and shoulder seasons offer lower prices not just on flights but also on accommodations and tourist attractions. The cheapest and least crowded weeks I’ve found to travel anywhere in the world are the first week of September (which also incorporates Labor Day), the second week of February, and the first week of May. Of course, these weeks are difficult if you are a teacher or have children in school, but that is part of the reason they are ideal for everyone else.

Track Flights Using Incognito Mode

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Keeping an eye on the flights you wish to book for a few weeks or months is always a good idea. Many people use tools like Kayak Alerts or Hopper to track flights without having to manually look each day. If you won’t remember to check yourself these tools can be useful. However, I’ve had the best luck checking manually two or three times per week at different times.

The key to getting the best flight prices when you check sites manually is to use your browser’s Incognito Mode to check. On Google Chrome you can access this mode by selecting CTRL+SHIFT+N with the browser open. Incognito Mode removes the cookie and history tracker from your browser. Travel sites use cookies to keep track of trips you are keeping an eye on, such as flights from Boston to Asheville from April 23 through April 27. If you constantly search for a flight or hotel on certain dates, websites will learn you want to make that trip and will raise the price each time you search. Using Incognito Mode eliminates this issue and helps you find the best possible price.

Book Travel Last-Minute

Even if you choose to plan your trip mentally weeks in advance, booking flights within a month or week of travel will often yield great results. Airlines would rather fill seats cheaply than let them go empty, so prices will drop shortly before a plane takes off. This travel tip works best if you are able to be flexible on destination or dates. You can also rely on this method if you have a stomach for high-risk trip planning and are willing to forego a vacation if you can’t find the flight you want.

Sign Up for Frequent Flyer Programs

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You should always sign up for free loyalty programs; this is especially true for frequent flyer programs. There is no penalty for signing up with a frequent flyer program, but there are many perks to be gained. Immediately you may gain access to early boarding or preferred seat choices. You can also start to build up airline miles. Even if you only fly once per year or don’t use an airline very often, you should sign up for the frequent flyer program. You will be surprised how quickly the miles add up, and before you know it you’ll be booking award travel and taking free flights!

If you have a choice of airline within an alliance, do some research to see which miles have the best value. For example, when I flew to Greece on Lufthansa last year it would have made the most sense to sign up with United’s program in the Star Alliance alliance. Instead, I signed up with Avianca, even though I never fly them, because they have the best redemption program in the alliance.

A Note About Frequent Flyer Mile Expirations

One big misconception many people have with frequent flyer programs is the expiration of miles. You may have received notices from your airline that your miles were about to expire saying that you either had to book a flight or buy magazines to stop that from happening. When an airline says your miles are about to expire, what they mean is that you won’t be able to use them to book rewards travel while they are expired. Once you fly with that airline and earn miles again, even if it is years later, all your miles magically reappear! I have had this experience with every airline except Spirit: with Spirit Air, your miles will actually disappear once they expire. Don’t let the threat of expiration prevent you from earning miles!

Want more tips for cheap flights? Check out How to Travel with Just a Carry-On and my Spirit Airlines Review!

How to Find Affordable Travel Accommodations

Once you reach your destination, don’t spend all your money on a hotel you may not see for long. Use the following travel tips to help pick the best travel accommodation.

Consider the Type of Accommodation You Need for your Purposes

If you plan on traveling to a resort and spending your entire vacation on-property, then your accommodation should matter a lot. In cases like this, look for an all-inclusive property so you can truly enjoy your vacation without worrying about the prices of food, drinks, activities, and entertainment. Surprise bills after vacation is over are the worst!

For any vacation where you will not be spending the entire time at your hotel, consider whether it is worth paying top dollar for a five-star property. If you’re going to be out and about from dusk to dawn, then your priority should be a clean, quiet place to sleep and shower. Resort-style properties are nice, but they can be a waste of money if you don’t take advantage of all the amenities that they offer, which you are paying for with the hotel price.

Stay Outside City Center

Hotels and local accommodations will be significantly cheaper if you stay away from the popular tourist areas of a city. Public transportation and taxi systems are very efficient in most parts of the world, so you won’t lose too much vacation time by staying a few minutes away from the tourist sites. You may also see an area of a city you wouldn’t have otherwise visited! Such neighborhoods also provide a quiet respite from a busy day’s worth of activities while traveling.

Visit People rather than Locations and Stay with Friends

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I never would have had such a fun day at the Great Wall without my law school friend and local Chinese resident Dong leading the way!

Local residents undeniably make the best hosts! They know the top highlights to see, tourist traps to avoid, and the coolest off-the-beaten-path places to visit. If you are fortunate enough to stay with friends, it also helps eliminate a huge travel cost. I am not recommending taking advantage of casual acquaintances, but if you plan trips around visiting friends with whom you can stay, you will extend your travel budget, see new places, and connect with important people in your life all at the same time.

Additional Ways to Make Travel More Affordable in 2020

When you reach your destination there is still much more you can do to economize your trips and use your travel budget efficiently to help make travel affordable.

Maintain Your Eating Habits from Home

Vacations will often be an occasion for a special meal or two. You should definitely treat yourself during your trip! However, every meal doesn’t have to include a 3-course sit-down menu at a local restaurant. If you’re on the move in the morning, stop by the local bakery or grocery store to grab something to eat on the go. If your hotel offers free breakfast, take time to fill up there so you can skip lunch: this will also help you get the most out of your time on vacation. Staying in a cabin or AirBNB gives you the opportunity to visit a local grocery store and cook a few meals at your accommodation.

Quick casual meals in your destination are just as worthwhile to experience as the meals at fancy restaurants. Some of my favorite vacation meals have come from street vendors and innocuous-looking cafes. There’s nothing wrong with grabbing quick meals while sight-seeing so you can save time, money, and calories for a couple of big meals out during your trip.

Look for Free Local Events

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In Barbados, I stumbled upon this local horse race, which led to an unexpected afternoon of fun

Did you happen to visit an island on the night of its Fish Fry Festival? Have you ended up in Europe during the month-long Carnevale celebration? If you can find local events to attend during your trip you will save money on entertainment and experience a destination like the locals do. There’s no better way to learn about a new culture than to participate in events as you would if you lived in a place.

Research and Take Advantage of Discounts

Many museums in Europe are free or steeply discounted for individuals under 26 years old, students, and teachers. If you are a student or graduated recently, keep your student ID with you when you travel to get discounts at museums and landmarks. Cities and countries may also have a free museum day or time. All the government-owned museums in London are always free! Museums in France, including the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, are free for everyone on the first Sunday of each month. With just a little research you can find any similar opportunities of which to take advantage wherever you travel.

There’s no reason to limit or avoid travel because of a small travel budget. Just use the travel tips enumerated above and soon you too will be jet-setting around the world!

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Best 12 Travel Tips for Millennials to Afford Travel in 2020
Best 12 Travel Tips for Millennials to Afford Travel in 2020
Zaanse Schans: The Best Day Trip from Amsterdam

Zaanse Schans: The Best Day Trip from Amsterdam

A visit to the Dutch town of Zaanse Schans is the perfect day trip from Amsterdam. Just 40 minutes north of Amsterdam by train, Zaanse Schans offers a real-life view into historic Holland. Take time out of your trip to Amsterdam to discover Zaanse Schans, a village compiled in the 1960s with operating windmills, a cooperage, the original Albert Heijn Dutch grocery store, a clog shop, a cheese farm, and much more.

Looking for other day trips from Amsterdam? Head south and spend A Day in the Hague instead!

N.B. This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase using an affiliate link I receive a commission at no cost to you. Thank you!

What to Do in Zaanse Schans

You will need at least a half day to spend in Zaanse Schans. You could really find a full day’s worth of things to do in the town if you stop for lunch too. These are some highlights from the village and top tips from my recent visit to Zaanse Schans.

Zaanse Schans Windmills

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In the 1960s and 1970s, the Dutch relocated some of its nearby windmills to Zaanse Schans to create a historic Dutch village. The windmills are not just for show: they continue to grind crops and make products available for purchase throughout the country! Many of the windmills offer tours and exploration for a small fee. Others accept either the Zaanse Schans Card or the IAmsterdam Card for entry. Some of them are free to visit!

De Huisman

The first windmill you will come across in town is De Huisman. This windmill is free to enter. Customers are encouraged to purchase the windmill’s products in exchange. The windmill has been used over the years to grind different spices. Currently, it is used to make ground mustard. The interior of the windmill shows the history of the spice trade and spice creation in the Netherlands. My favorite part was the interactive exhibit where customers could blindly smell six common spices and guess which ones they were. I got four correct!

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De Kat

Farther down the path of windmills you will find De Kat. This windmill is currently used to grind chalk for paint. Multiple grinding wheels are operated from the same exterior sails. Different closed rooms grind different paint colors. They are kept separated so the colors do not mix. The best part of visiting this windmill is that you can climb to its upper levels. You can stay inside on the second level or continue to the outdoor platform. Though there is a barrier preventing visitors from getting too close to the moving sails outside, you can feel their power and see their enormity up close from this vantage point. The platform also offers a spectacular view of Zaanse Schans itself. Admission to the De Kat windmill costs €4.50.

Catharina Hoeve Cheese Shop

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Cheese lovers will be in love with Zaanse Schans’ cheese shop and farm! One of three cheese farms in The Netherlands contributing to the production of the popular Henry Willig cheese, the Catharina Hoeve shop provides a proper Dutch cheese-tasting experience. Visitors can see how the cheese is made in the front of the shop, and then taste free samples of all the varieties for sale. There are at least 30 kinds of cheese! When you have sampled all the cheese and selected which ones to purchase, you exit out the back of the store to the farm where the goats are kept that provide the milk to be made into cheese. This is a Zaanse Schans experience not to be missed.

Zaanse Schans Clog Shop

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Clogs are a traditional Dutch souvenir. Perhaps you envision the Dutch clomping in them through town or wearing them to a formal dance. Did you know that clogs are certified by the European Union as work-safety shoes? They readily protect your feet from being crushed or soaked and therefore used in industry and on farms. There are also everyday clogs and wedding clogs that are much fancier than the industrial clogs.

When you visit the Zaanse Schans clog shop you can see how clogs are made and try a pair on for yourself. Once you see how comfortable and easy to walk around in they are - I was very surprised! - you may want to buy a pair for yourself. A plain wooden pair costs about €20 and a painted pair costs about €40. I did not purchase any for myself but I enjoyed learning the history of clogs, seeing them made, and wandering around the shop. This experience was free.

Kuiperij and Wevershuis

As in most historical villages, Zaanse Schans has its own cooperage (Kuiperij) and weaver’s house (Wevershuis) to visit. These attractions cost €2 each for adults and €1 each for children but are free with either the IAmsterdam Card or the Zaanse Schans Museum Card.

Kuiperij Zaanse Schans

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The Zaanse Schans cooperage was founded in 1919 by Jaap Tiemstra. It moved to Zaanse Schans in the 1960s and closed its production to become a museum in the 1990s when steel barrels became favored over wooden barrels. The cooperage is available for visitors to view and explore. The docents are happy to provide demonstrations, explanations, and historical facts about the cooperage. For example, the docents explained that because the cooperage made wet barrels (for holding wet goods), it was the #1 provider of barrels for Amstel beer until steel barrels came into favor.

Wevershuis Zaanse Schans

The weaver’s house looks small and yet it was shared by two families when it was in operation! As the docents explain, fabric for sails was imperative for the Dutch to dress both their windmills and their ships. However, the materials were so cheap that sails did not produce a lot of income for the families making them. Even though weaving was a skilled craft, the families that occupied the weaver’s house were poor. When you visit the weaver’s house you will get a first-hand look at an old Dutch loom stil operational by the docent.

Logistics for your Visit

If you’re considering a visit to Zaanse Schans from Amsterdam, the following information will help you plan your trip.

How to Get to Zaanse Schans from Amsterdam

Zaanse Schans is a 40-minute car or train ride from Amsterdam. If you have a rental car anyway the drive looked pretty easy. Otherwise, getting to the village by train was simple to figure out. Trains to Zaanse Schans leave from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station frequently. The Zaanse Schans train station was small and unoccupied. It is likely it is mainly used for accessing the historic village of Zaanse Schans. When you disembark in the small station follow the signs and the other passengers to find the village. It is about a 15-minute walk from the station. Bicycles are available for rent at the train station if you prefer a quicker and more typical Dutch type of transportation.

Zaanse Schans Card

If you plan to spend a full day in Zaanse Schans and do not have an IAmsterdam Card, consider purchasing the Zaanse Schans Museum Card. While it is free to walk around the village of Zaanse Schans and some of its attractions are free, you will save money visiting the paid museums in town with the Zaanse Schans Card. For €15 for adults and €10 for children, you can see the Zaans Museum, the Zaan Time Museum, the Weaver’s House, the Cooperage, and the Jisper House for free, as well as receive discounts around town. If you intend to visit all these attractions the card will save you money.

Opening Times of Zaanse Schans

Zaanse Schans is an operational village. As you wander around, you will pass quaint houses that the residents live in. One girl working in the cheese shop told me that she will often be at home and have tourists bang on the exterior wall to see if the building is real. She said the residents don’t mind and she will usually bang back from inside, startling the tourists!

Given that Zaanse Schans is not just a historic town, but one people live in too, it is always open to wander around. Most of the shops and attractions, however, are open from about 8 AM to 6 PM in the summer and from 8:30 AM to 5 PM in the winter. If you choose to spend an evening in Zaanse Schans, the rest of the town outside the historic section has restaurants and pubs that you can spend time in once the historic town attractions shut down.

Zaanse Schans Weather

Admittedly I did not have the best weather when I visited Zaanse Schans. It was my last day in Amsterdam and I had really wanted to see the town, so even though it was raining when I woke up, I still ventured to the village. I could see the windmills across the water as I traversed the Juliana Bridge to reach the town, but the sky was grey and I am holding an umbrella in all my photos. Once the rain stopped, the wind picked up and the sky was still grey. Stories from other travelers to Zaanse Schans describe similar experiences. While this may not sound ideal, remember that most experiences in town are inside. The weather should not deter you from making the trip, just remember to bring your umbrella!

Where to Stay in Zaanse Schans

If you would like to stay overnight, there are a few options in the modern town of Zaanse Schans nearby. You can see all the options available for Zaanse Schans hotel accommodations here. There are also AirBNBs available at reasonable prices located on the river with great views of the windmills. Find a Zaanse Schans AirBNB and get $40 off your first booking with this link!

I loved my visit to Zaanse Schans. If you have additional questions please leave a comment or contact me!

Don't forget to also read about the Top 20 Things to Do in Amsterdam itself!

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Plan the BEST day trip to the Dutch historic village of Zaanse Schans from Amsterdam using the guide in this blog post. Learn how to visit real windmills, see how clogs are made, and sample fresh gouda cheese FOR FREE! #zaanseschans #amsterdam #holland #netherlands #windmills
Plan the BEST day trip to the Dutch historic village of Zaanse Schans from Amsterdam using the guide in this blog post. Learn how to visit real windmills, see how clogs are made, and sample fresh gouda cheese FOR FREE! #zaanseschans #amsterdam #holland #netherlands #windmills
Plan the BEST day trip to the Dutch historic village of Zaanse Schans from Amsterdam using the guide in this blog post. Learn how to visit real windmills, see how clogs are made, and sample fresh gouda cheese FOR FREE! #zaanseschans #amsterdam #holland #netherlands #windmills
Top 20 Things to do in Amsterdam

Top 20 Things to do in Amsterdam

When you think of things to do in Amsterdam, the stereotypical Red-Light District and pot-filled coffee houses may come to mind. However, there are dozens of things to do in Amsterdam that have nothing to do with either of these activities! Amsterdam is a multi-cultural city with a rich history that will appeal to many travelers. Whether you are interested in museums, food, shopping, culture, or spending time outside, you will find something to enjoy in the Netherlands’ capital city. I went to Amsterdam for the second time about a month ago: here are the top 20 best things to do in Amsterdam that I discovered during my visits.

Best Amsterdam Museums

If you want to visit Amsterdam's museums, purchase the I amsterdam City Card. Before visiting the city I researched the card and decided against buying it. However, once I was in The Netherlands, I realized I would save money with the 48 Hour I amsterdam pass. The card allowed me to visit museums I may have otherwise skipped because they were essentially free. You can purchase the card online or at the Rijksmuseum store once you are in the city. All of the museums recommended below, and many more, are included with the I amsterdam City Card.

1.   Rijksmuseum

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The Rijksmuseum is the most famous museum in Amsterdam. Its collection stretches a millennium from 1000 AD to the current era. Its most famous painting is Rembrandt's "The Night's Watch," and it maintains the largest collection of Rembrandt paintings in the world.

Some of the best things about the Rijksmuseum are the guides provided for the most famous pieces. They describe the background of each painting and help visitors appreciate details that may otherwise be passed over. For example, I learned "The Night's Watch” was named such centuries after it was painted because the canvas had become dirty, making it look as though Rembrandt intended to paint men gathering in the middle of the night. After restoration, it was clear that daylight shone through a window in the painting, but the name stuck.

2.   Oude Kerk

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The oldest building in Amsterdam is Oude Kerk or Old Church. Built in 1390, Oude Kerk sits on a canal in the Puritan Quarter of De Wallen, which is the Red-Light District. Ironic, right? While the church certainly stands out in the area, its structure is less imposing from the outside as you would expect from its size. I easily missed it the first time I walked by.

Stepping into the Oude Kerk's interior took my breath away. I was completely in awe. This is far from the first European church I've visited, but its vast space was nothing like I'd seen before. Not only is the interior large but it is almost completely empty. The center does not have pews, just a few chairs behind a wall facing a pulpit. There is a small music room off to the side with a piano available for playing that fills the entire space. Even if you’ve seen your fill of European churches, Oude Kerk is not to be missed.

3. Rembrandthuis

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These "box beds" were so small because people in Rembrandts' era slept sitting half-upright: they believed if you fell asleep lying down all the blood would rush to your head and you would die! Sounds uncomfortable to me.

Rembrandt was once a wealthy inhabitant of Amsterdam’s city center. He had a multi-story house sitting on one of the canals that he lived in and used as a painting studio. Unfortunately, he went bankrupt and all of his things were sold to pay off his creditors. Visitors to Amsterdam can visit Rembrandt’s house to learn how he lived and see his living quarters, but most of the things in the house are replicas of items he may have owned, as his real items are lost to history.

4. Van Gogh Museum

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Van Gogh is another famous Dutch artist whose work is featured in Amsterdam. Visit the Van Gogh Museum to see his famous “Sunflowers” still life and his self-portrait, both painted in the late 1800s when he lived in the South of France. Though you may have seen recreations of these and other Van Gogh paintings before, viewing them in person in the museum brings them to life. Visitors can see how much the colors he used pop off the canvas and can study the details in the paintings that you can’t see in a photo or recreation.

5. Resistance Museum

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The story of World War II for The Netherlands is much different from that of many other European countries. In May 1940 the Nazis leveled Rotterdam in a bombing campaign. They threatened to do the same to Amsterdam and other Dutch cities. As a result, Dutch Queen Wilhelmina surrendered to prevent additional destruction and loss of life and fled to the UK. The Nazis invaded and took over the country.

The Resistance Museum tells stories of various Dutch citizens during the war. It describes how the Nazis initially treated most of the Dutch well because of their shared Germanic roots. The museum includes stories of Dutch citizens who thought Nazi rule was the new normal and joined their ranks, citizens who tried to mind their own business during this time, and citizens who supported the underground resistance efforts. The matter-of-fact inclusion of all these stories provides an in-depth look at life in The Netherlands during World War II.

6. Tulip Museum

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A visit to The Netherlands wouldn’t be complete without learning about its famed flower, the tulip! If you have the chance, get out into the country and experience the tulip fields for yourself. For a shorter trip, check out Amsterdam's Tulip Museum.

Admittedly this is a museum I wouldn’t have visited if I had to pay for it separately. I’m glad it was included in the I amsterdam City Card because it was fascinating to learn about the history of the tulip.

Did you know tulips are natively from Central Asia? Tulips were brought to The Netherlands by travelers from the Ottoman Empire. It was considered a flower of royalty because of its rarity. Tulip Mania in the 1600s caused tulip bulb prices to skyrocket. Unfortunately, tulip bulbs multiply themselves underground during the winter to create many more tulips. This quickly decreased their rarity and caused the tulip speculation bubble to burst. I never would have learned any of this without a visit to Amsterdam’s Tulip Museum!

7. Our Lord in the Attic Museum

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The Netherlands is considered a country of tolerance and diversity since its founding in the 1500s. At that time the Dutch proclaimed the principle of freedom of belief. A fantastic principle in theory, in practice the Dutch said “you are free to believe what you want. However, we support Protestant Christianity, so if you’d like to believe anything else, please hide it from public sight.” Catholics were specifically targeted because the Catholic Spanish that had colonized The Netherlands had just been kicked out of the country.

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; our lord in the attic

This intolerance led to the creation of churches in the attics of otherwise residential-looking buildings. Our Lord in the Attic Museum is one such church. When you visit, you can see how the residents lived on the first two floors and then enter the church on the third level. The top three levels were cut away to create balconies highlighting the altar and two-story organ in the back of the church. This museum is worth a visit for its unique disposition and place in Dutch history.

Top Outdoor Activities in Amsterdam

Regardless when you visit Amsterdam, plan on spending some time outside. In typical European fashion, al fresco dining is available year-round. Many of the best areas to explore are outside.

8. Canal Cruise

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; canals; canal cruise

Canals at night from the water

You cannot visit Amsterdam without seeing its canals! Amsterdam is one of seven cities known as the Venice of the North due to its many canals. The best way to experience the canals is from the water itself. Canal cruises are available near the Centraal Station and the Rijksmuseum starting at 10 euros. A canal cruise is also included in your I amsterdam City Card for free! You can choose to spend an hour learning about the history of the city and the canals as your boat meanders through the watery paths around the city, or upgrade your experience with a wine and cheese cruise. I recommend an evening or sunset cruise as the water is even more beautiful with all the city lights reflecting on it.

9. A'DAM Tower

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; adam tower

The A’DAM Tower is a new attraction situated across the harbor from the Centraal Station. You can reach it using the free ferry that crosses the harbor every five minutes. The tower itself is a mecca of art and science innovation with many start-ups using office space throughout the building. The top two floors of A’DAM Tower are accessible to visitors. You can eat lunch or dinner in the tower’s dining room while enjoying the views of Amsterdam, or check out one of the rooftop bars. There is one inside the second floor from the top and one actually on the roof. If you are daring, you can take the opportunity to ride on an outdoor swing that sends you over the edge of the tower above the harbor! Whichever option you choose, make sure you spend some time walking around the rooftop for the best views of the city.

10. Dam Square

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; dam square

A visit to Amsterdam would not be complete without a walk through Dam Square. This is where you will find Dutch residents relaxing together and tourists watching the street performers pretending to be statues and making giant bubbles.

11. Vondelpark

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; vondelpark

Vondelpark is located outside the canal rings in the Western part of the city. At 120 acres you could spend an entire day getting lost in this park! I especially loved taking morning runs through the park during my first visit to Amsterdam. As you wander through Vondelpark’s tree-lined pedestrian routes you forget that you are in a city where buildings are built almost on top of one another. If you want to escape the city and spend some time in nature during your visit to Amsterdam, head for Vondelpark.

12. Red-Light District

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; de wallen; red-light district

You may be intrigued by stories of the Red-Light District and want to see the area for yourself. You may instead have no interest in the area but might still happen upon it accidentally. The Red-Light District, also called De Wallen, occupies streets in the city center that are also full of cannabis shops, cheese shops, and fry vendors. The women in the windows rent out rooms for an afternoon or evening and then try to entice passersby to join them for a fee.

It is pretty awkward to walk by the windows as the women move seductively and try to make eye contact to catch customers. I did not see anyone take them up on the offer while I was in Amsterdam, and tried to avert my eyes from the buildings in that area. Early in the day there aren’t many windows filled so you can use that opportunity to look inside the rooms through the window if you are curious. Note that you absolutely cannot take pictures of the women in this area, as most of their family and friends do not know they are prostitutes: there are stories that tourists who have tried to do so have had the women come out of their windows and throw the cameras in the canals!

Read more about human trafficking in The Netherlands and how to combat it here: https://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/member-states-0/Netherlands_en.

13. Rembrandtsplein

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; rembrandtsplein

Though many roads in Amsterdam are narrow due to the canals, there are also a few open plazas, throughout the city, called pleins, where residents and tourists alike gather. Rembrandtsplein is one such plaza. The area is pretty chill, attracting a more mature clientele than the nearby Leidseplein. The plaza is surrounded by bars and restaurants open late into the night. This is the perfect place to relax and enjoy a meal or drink outside while watching people wander by after a long day exploring the city.

14. Leidseplein

If Rembrandtsplein sounds too laid back for you, head over to Leidseplein instead. Leidseplein is the plaza with all the young energy. Many students and young travelers take over this area at night participating in pub crawls or looking for a place to dance. As revelers move between establishments, they spend some time in the plaza itself. If you are looking for an exciting night out while in Amsterdam, you definitely want to be in Leidseplein.

15. Shopping in Jordaan or the Nine Streets

You can find typical souvenir shops all over Amsterdam. For more authentic goods, such as real Delft Pottery or maritime antiques, check out the Nine Streets in the Jordaan area of the city. This quiet area is great for wandering around when you want to get away from the excitement of downtown. You can peruse the shops at your leisure and make a few purchases of high-quality items to bring back and remember your trip by.

Find the Best Food and Drink in Amsterdam

16. House of Bols

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; bols; bols genever; house of bols

Everyone has heard of Amsterdam’s Heineken Brewery, but have you considered visiting the House of Bols? Bols Genever has been made in Amsterdam since 1575. It was the precursor to British gin. You probably have seen its unique bottles filled with colorful liquids at your local bar or liquor store. Visit the House of Bols to learn about the history and current production of the genever, then enjoy two cocktails at the bar at the end of your visit. Even if you’re not a gin fan you should still visit the House of Bols: unlike gin, Bols liqueurs come in over 45 flavors and make delicious cocktails for every taste!

17. Pannenkoeken

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; pannenkoek; pannenkoeken

The most traditional Dutch breakfast is the Dutch pancake. A cross between an American pancake and a French crepe, Dutch pancakes are wide and flat with fillings mixed into them. You can try them savory or sweet. I recommend a fruit and Nutella combination. Any pancake house in the city will suffice for trying pannenkoeken, but I am particularly fond of the Carousel Pancake House by the Rijksmuseum.

18. Dinner in De Pijp

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; seafood bar; de pijp

Get away from Amsterdam’s touristy city-center for dinner and pick a restaurant in the trendy De Pijp neighborhood. The restaurants in this area will give you a more authentic experience. They are frequented by locals, not tourists. The atmosphere is very posh and you will get a great meal for your money! The Seafood Bar, in particular, is a beautiful establishment with high-quality seafood where you can take your time eating and enjoying your meal.

19. Coffee or a Drink at a Sidewalk Café

I have a confession: on my first trip to Amsterdam many years ago, I was naive. I thought that you could only buy cannabis at coffee shops. It did not occur to me that you could also get coffee, so I spent three days without caffeine. Last month, I made sure to enjoy at least one cup of coffee per day while in Amsterdam. The best way to enjoy Dutch coffee is sitting at a sidewalk café by a canal. You can order a cappuccino, latte, or espresso inside at the bar and then relax and watch the city’s lively scenery pass by before continuing with your city adventure.

20. Argentinian Steakhouse

amsterdam; netherlands; holland; top 20; argentinian steakhouse

For no apparent reason, Argentinian steakhouses are a big deal in The Netherlands, particularly in Amsterdam! I must have seen at least five on one road, and they were all over the country. The only satisfactory explanation I received was that the Dutch like high-quality meat and steak-and-potatoes is an easy meal to make. This is the most common meal at the steakhouses. Due to the abundance of Argentinian steakhouses in the city, I had to have dinner here one night. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip! The steak was flavorful and perfectly cooked, the salad was light and refreshing, and I couldn’t say no to a glass of Argentinian Malbec wine. It may seem odd to eat South American food while in Europe, but if you’re looking for a great meal, stop by an Argentinian steakhouse in Amsterdam.

Outside the City

Take a Day Trip!

A weekend in Amsterdam is the ideal length. After that, unless you plan on visiting every single museum available on the I amsterdam City Card, you may run out of exciting things to do. Luckily, The Netherlands is a small country with many cities close together. They are all easily accessible with the cheap Dutch train system. Use your time in Amsterdam to take day trips to places like The Hague, Rotterdam, and Zaanse Schans!

Learn more about what to do in these cities here:

A Day in The Hague

Zaanse Schans

Notes on a couple of Amsterdam's top attractions not on this list: Anne Frank House and Heineken Brewery

If you’re wondering why two of Amsterdam’s most famous attractions, the Anne Frank House and the Heineken Brewery, are not on this list, it is not for lack of trying. I failed to visit these places on both of my trips to Amsterdam, and I do not want to recommend places I haven’t seen for myself.

The Anne Frank House used to have visitors stand outside for hours waiting to gain access. The museum has since updated its method for granting tickets. 80% of the tickets available for each day are released online two months in advance. The remaining 20% of tickets are released online at 9 AM the day of the visit. If you plan a trip to Amsterdam less than two months in advance your only option is to try and buy tickets at 9 AM. However, you will need to log on to the ticketing website around 8 AM. I learned this by the last day and was still unable to obtain a ticket before they were sold out. I have heard it is much easier to get tickets two months in advance. If you want to visit the Anne Frank House, be prepared to be diligent in obtaining tickets online!

The Heineken Brewery is easier to gain access to. The only catch is you must show up more than two hours before it closes. On my last day in the city, I noted the brewery closed at 7:30 PM, so I planned to do some shopping and then visit around 6:30 PM. Unfortunately, I needed to arrive by 5:30 PM in order to gain access. I was disappointed I could not visit the brewery and will put it on my list first-thing the next time I am in Amsterdam.

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Find the top 20 best things to do in Amsterdam, capital city of The Netherlands, in this post!
Find the top 20 best things to do in Amsterdam, capital city of The Netherlands, in this post!
ETIAS: The New European Travel Requirement for Americans

ETIAS: The New European Travel Requirement for Americans

BREAKING NEWS: you will soon need a visa to visit Europe!

Actually, despite all the recent news headlines, this is not quite true.

The truth is the European Union ("EU") is creating a new travel authorization security system for travelers arriving from its sixty visa-waiver countries. The system will be implemented in 2021. It will require proof of pre-approved travel authorization. Though this system is not a new visa, it means there are some immigration changes you'll want to know about.

N.B. While part of this post addresses legal requirements, nothing written here should be construed as legal advice. The information in this post is accurate at the time of publication. For the most up-to-date information, please see the government websites at the bottom of this post.

Current Status of European Travel for Americans

Visa Waiver Program for Americans

The US has agreed to Visa Waiver Programs ("VWPs") with 25 of the 26 Schengen Area member states, with Poland being the exception. It also has a VWP with the UK, Ireland, Andorra, Monaco, and San Marino. This means that citizens of these European countries can enter the US visa-free. American citizens may do the same when arriving in any of these countries.

For more information on VWPs, see the "What is a Visa?" section below.

Travel within the Schengen Area

One of the major commitments of the EU is the free movement of people. The current system almost reflects this ideal. Instead of the free movement within the EU, there is free movement within the Schengen Area. The EU consists of 28 (soon to be 27) European member states, while the Schengen Area has 26 slightly different member states. Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland are not EU members but they are Schengen Area members.

The 26 Schengen Area member states are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. If you are an American citizen entering Europe through any of these countries you do not need a visa.

Once a traveler arrives in a Schengen country, he or she may travel between the other Schengen countries for up to 90 days without encountering immigration authorities. This is true for both visa-free travelers and travelers with a formal, pre-approved Schengen visa. It is comparable to when a foreign visitor enters the US at New York's Laguardia airport and goes through immigration there but then takes a road trip through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois to reach Chicago without encountering any additional immigration stops.

This visa-free travel situation and free movement within the Schengen Area will not change with the new EU travel authorization system.

European Travel Information and Authorization System

On September 14, 2016, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered a speech advocating for an increased European security system. He said "We need to know who is crossing in our borders. This way we will know who is travelling to Europe before they even get here". Two months later, the European Commission proposed a new travel authorization system called the European Travel Information and Authorization System ("ETIAS").

Origin of ETIAS

On July 5, 2018, the European Parliament adopted ETIAS in agreement with the European Commission. The adopted law permits the establishment of the ETIAS under the purview of the newly-strengthened eu-LISA security agency. The Parliament has tasked eu-LISA with making ETIAS operational by the end of 2021. Many news outlets are reporting that the system will be in place by January 1, 2021.

What is ETIAS?

The European Commission is emphatic that "the ETIAS authorization is not a visa." After many false news reports this past week about a new EU visa, the EU Ambassador to the US, Stavros Lambrinidis, posted on Twitter that "[n]either the #ESTA nor the future #ETIAS (EU equivalent) are visas. They carry out pre-travel screening for travellers benefiting from visa-free access."

ETIAS is a pre-travel authorization program designed to reduce immigration procedures and wait times, as well as help improve the security of the EU. It pre-screens travelers for security, health, and migration risks. The system will allow the EU to keep track of visitors from countries that otherwise do not need a visa to enter the Schengen Area. The European Commission believes the system will be affordable, simple, and fast. It will allow cross-checking of EU information systems and provide clear rules for refusals with an appeals process.

Potential travelers will have to submit a short online application and pay an application fee of 7 euros. The EU estimates that 95% of applicants will receive an approval by email within minutes of submitting the application. Once a traveler receives an ETIAS travel approval, they can travel freely to and from the Schengen Area using that approval for up to three years. The approval is connected to your passport, so if your passport expires before the three-year authorization expires you will have to re-apply.

What this Means for Americans, Brits, Australians, and Other Visa-Free Country Travelers

The ETIAS travel authorization will be required for visa-free travelers, which will likely include UK citizens post-Brexit. Travelers that are entering Europe visa-free for tourism, business, or just in transit to another region will need an ETIAS authorization. This means if you have a flight from New York to Dubai with a connection in Frankfurt, you will need an ETIAS authorization even if you never intend to leave the Frankfurt airport.

If you are coming from a country that requires a formal Schengen visa, you will not need to apply for an ETIAS travel authorization. If you are a dual citizen with citizenship in a Schengen Area country, you will not need ETIAS authorization if you enter Europe using your European passport.

Using your ETIAS Authorization

When the ETIAS system enters into effect, travelers will need to receive authorization prior to arriving in Europe. When you first use your authorization, you will have to enter the Schengen Area through the country you indicate in your application. If you enter through a different Schengen country the authorization will be invalid and you will be denied entry. Note that most travelers pass through European immigration at their port of arrival. For example, a traveler flying from Boston to Rome with a connection in Madrid usually enters Europe in Spain, not Italy. After your initial use of the authorization, you may enter through any Schengen country you would like using your valid authorization.

N.B. the ETIAS authorization will not be required for travel to UK, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, or the former Yugoslav countries (except Slovenia) until they join the Schengen Area.

After receiving your authorization and using it to enter the Schengen Area for the first time, travel to and from the EU will be no different than it is today until your authorization or passport expires, at which time you will need to reapply. This means ETIAS will be a slight inconvenience for those of us traveling from visa-free countries the first time we go to Europe, but otherwise will not change our travels very much.

How to Apply for an ETIAS Authorization

Once the system goes live, citizens of visa-free travel countries will be able to apply online. The application will include questions about basic biographical information, such as your full name, country of residence, date of birth, and similar information about your parents. It will also ask questions related to health, security, and migration, such as drug use, terrorism links, travel to conflict areas, past EU travel, criminal history, and employment history. No biometric data like finger prints will be required, though it will be beneficial to apply with a biometric passport.

After completing the online application form you will provide an email address and pay by credit or debit card. When payment is received, your information will automatically be cross-checked against security databases including Interpol and Eurpol. If there are no "hits," you should receive your authorization by email within minutes of applying.

ETIAS; schengen; application; immigration

ETIAS Application Process; graphic source: https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/etias/

How Far in Advance Should You Apply

Though most applications are expected to be approved within minutes, the length of the refusal process means you should apply at least five weeks before your travel will take place. Carriers will not allow a passenger to board their transportation to Europe without proof of authorization. Even if you are certain you will receive travel authorization mistakes and false hits can happen. You may need the full five weeks to clear up any issues and receive valid authorization.

What to do If You're Refused an Authorization

If your information produces a hit on one of the information security databases, you will receive an email stating your application has been refused. At this point, your application will be manually reviewed by ETIAS staff and additional documentation may be requested. You will have 96 hours to provide the requested documentation. The national authority of the Schengen Area country to which you apply then has four weeks to make a decision on your authorization. The European Commission assures travelers that an appeals process will be available for individuals who are refused authorization after the manual review.

How ETIAS Authorization is Different from a Visa

The EU has made it clear that an ETIAS authorization is not a visa. It is the European equivalent to the current ESTA authorization required by the US for travelers taking advantage of a Visa Waiver Program. ETIAS authorizations will facilitate immigration procedures upon arrival in Europe because the cross-checking of individuals against international security databases will have been done ahead of time.

What is a Visa?

A visa is "an endorsement issued by an authorized representative of a country and marked in a passport, permitting the passport holder to enter, travel through, or reside in that country for a specified amount of time for the purpose of tourism, education, employment, etc". Visas may be granted before travel, with a permanent visa stuck to a page in your passport. Others are received upon arrival at a country's border. Some countries have implemented Visa Waiver Programs ("VWPs"). Regardless of the type of visa, foreign travelers must be pre-approved for travel by through one of these three methods.

Formal Pre-Approved Visa

When you think of a visa, you probably think of the fancy certificate stuck to a page in your passport. Maybe you received one when you studied abroad in college. Perhaps you are one of the fortunate travelers to have a ten-year, multi-entry tourism visa for China. You may have opted to obtain a pre-approved visa before traveling to a country like Vietnam.

vietnam visa; etias; immigration; travel authorization

Pre-approved visas require a lengthy and costly application process. Applicants fill out a multi-page application with biographical, financial, and travel information. The applicant then sends a paper copy of the application to the relevant consulate along with passport photos, his or her passport, and the application fee. Application fees range from $20 USD to hundreds of dollars depending on the country and type of visa requested. Sometimes applicants have to appear in-person at the consulate to receive the visa and collect their passport. If you live in a major city this may only require a few hours off work. Alternatively, imagine living in Alaska and having to appear in person at a consulate in San Francisco!

Formal, pre-approved visas are the most difficult to obtain. They are usually required in reciprocity. If the US requires citizens of a country to obtain a formal visa before visiting, US citizens will have to receive a formal visa before traveling to that country as well.

Visa on Arrival

You may have previously received a visa on arrival and not even known it! Visas on arrival look similar to entry stamps received under VWPs. The difference is visa-on-arrival stamps lay out the visa requirements and restrictions for the traveler in the stamp. The stamps are often accompanied by payment of an entry or exit fee. You must also fill out a paper with your travel details and provide it to immigration officials upon arrival. This paper is cross-checked with another similar paper turned over when you leave the country.

ireland visa; etias; immigration; travel authorization

Example of visa requirements included in a visa stamp

Countries implementing visa on arrival programs do not have bilateral treaties with your country of citizenship to provide visa-free travel. They have nevertheless decided not to require the process of applying for a visa before traveling to their country.

Visa Waiver Programs

Visa Waiver Programs ("VWPs") allow citizens of participating countries to enjoy visa-free travel to other participating countries. VWPs are established with bilateral treaties allowing reciprocal treatment for citizens of each country involved. There are thirty-eight countries currently participating in the US VWP, including most EU and Schengen Area member states.

Traveling to a VWP country requires nothing beyond speaking with an immigration officer upon arrival. By virtue of being a citizen of a participating country, you may enter another participant country without a visa as a tourist or business person. If you plan to study or work in a foreign country then you will probably need to apply for a visa.

When you arrive at a visa-free country, you will likely receive a stamp in your passport showing port of entry into the country. This stamp is not a visa. It is proof that you entered the country legally. Most immigration authorities will check for this stamp when you leave the country.

german visa; etias; immigration; travel authorization

Port of Entry/Exit Stamp

The ETIAS Difference

ETIAS does not provide automatic immigration authorization as a visa does. It also does not lay out requirements and restrictions for travelers to follow as visas do. It is merely a first-step authorization for traveling to or through Europe. Visitors with a valid authorization may still be denied entry by immigration officials for other immigration-related reasons. ETIAS authorization merely proves to carriers like airlines and to European immigration officials that you do not pose a security, health, or migration threat to Europe. This is only the first step in being allowed to enter Europe, which is currently done when you arrive at the border. Starting in 2021, this check will be completed ahead of time. I'm hopeful this will mean shorter immigration lines at European airports once the program is in place!

For more information, see the following websites used to write this article:

http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-4367_en.htm

https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/etias/

https://www.cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/visa-waiver-program

https://www.etiasvisa.com

12 March 2019: This post has been updated for clarity, and to add information about travelers transiting through Europe.

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Do Americans need a visa to visit Europe or the EU? No! Find out the truth about the new ETIAS authorization and how to get one in this article.
Do Americans need a visa to visit Europe or the EU? No! Find out the truth about the new ETIAS authorization and how to get one in this article.
My Favorite Way to Spend A Day in The Hague

My Favorite Way to Spend A Day in The Hague

On a recent trip to Amsterdam, my friend Erin and I spent a day in The Hague (Den Haag). I had only wanted to see the Peace Palace in the city before continuing on to Rotterdam for the afternoon. However, after spending most of the day in The Hague there I completely fell in love with the city and cannot wait to return!

Looking for more day trip ideas from Amsterdam? Check out this Day Trip to Zaanse Schans!

Getting to The Hague via Public Transportation

Train

spend a day in the hague; den haag; the hague; netherlands; amsterdam; train station

The most common way to get to The Hague is by train. The trip from Amsterdam's southern station, Amsterdam Zuid, is only about 40 minutes and costs 12 €. Traveling from the Amsterdam Centraal station takes longer and is slightly more expensive. The Hague is one of the main cities in The Netherlands, so there are also trains from Rotterdam, Utrecht, and other small Dutch towns. All trains arrive at the main station Den Haag Centraal, from which you can easily hop on a tram to city center.

Plane

The Hague is easily accessible from Amsterdam's Schipol Airport. The Schipol train station connected to the airport has trains heading South away from Amsterdam. You can reach the Den Haag Centraal station in about 30 minutes from Schipol Airport.

There is also a smaller airport servicing The Hague and Rotterdam (airport code RTM). It is accessible by either train or subway from the Den Haag Centraal train station. It has direct flights from cities including Salzburg, Pisa, Geneva, London City, and Alicante, but you should be able to find a flight with one connection from anywhere in Europe to reach the RTM airport. If you are traveling from outside Europe, your cheapest and easiest option is probably to fly into Schipol Airport and take the train.

Subway

I was surprised to see Den Haag Centraal as a stop on Rotterdam's metro. The northern line on Rotterdam's subway system runs through its central train station, continues north through RTM airport and terminates at The Hague's central station. If you plan to spend a day in The Hague coming from Rotterdam this transportation method is also an option.

The Peace Palace

spend a day in the hague; den haag; the hague; netherlands; peace palace

As a scholar of International Law I have always dreamed of visiting The Hague. It is home to some of the most important international legal institutions in the world. Its city nickname is The City of Peace and Justice.

Though there are many peace-oriented buildings in The Hague, the most beautiful is the Peace Palace. Built in 1913 after two peace conferences in the city led by Russia's Czar Nicholas II, the Peace Palace is the current meeting place of the International Court of Justice ("ICJ," the legal body of the United Nations) and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It also houses a library of international law.

Visitors to the Peace Palace can explore its visitor's center and museum any day of the week. As the Palace itself hosts an active court and learning center guided tours are only available on certain weekends. The visitor's center has a free guided audio tour that lasts for about a half hour that is worth listening to. If you are determined to go in the building itself and wander the gardens on the grounds, check its opening days before planning your travel.

spend a day in the hague; den haag; the hague; netherlands; peace palace

A map of the world outside the visitor's center: the map is made of the world "welcome" written in each country's native language!

Alternatively, if you are interested in listening to a session of the ICJ, you may arrive at the building 30 minutes before proceedings begin to be let in to watch. Note that this admission does not include a tour of the building or access to the gardens, just the opportunity to watch the Court in session.

Lunch at Zee Op Tafel

After leaving the Peace Palace, Erin and I wandered through Archipelbuurt neighborhood making our way North. We were not hungry, but the sidewalk cafes looked so cute and the smells wafting from each one smelled amazing! We returned to this area later for lunch.

Any of the restaurants would have been great, but Zee Op Tafel had the best smells so we opted to eat there. Zee Op Tafel features a fish market in the front of the store with a small restaurant in back. Being in a seaside town we had to try the fish! I ordered fried mackerel and Erin had fried cod (or more correctly, the Lekkerbek and the Kibbeling).

spend a day in the hague; den haag; the hague; netherlands; zee op tafel

This meal contained some of the freshest fish I've had in my life! It was all crisp, clean, well-cooked, and with a pleasing distinct flavor that was not overly fishy. The side salad I ordered with it was refreshing. The waitstaff was friendly and attentive, rounding out the positive experience. I'm sure any restaurant in the neighborhood would have been equally pleasing, but Zee Op Tafel is one to which I would gladly return.

Madurodam

spend a day in the hague; den haag; the hague; netherlands; madurodam

One attraction often noted in connection with The Hague is Madurodam. Madurodam is a miniature version of buildings and highlights in The Netherlands. It features most of the major cities and their landmarks like Dam Square in Amsterdam, the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, and The Hague's own Peace Palace. It also portrays a port with container ships and Schipol Airport with model planes from various airlines.

Origin of Madurodam

Madurodam is named after George Maduro. Born in Curaçao in 1916, George was a Dutch law student who was conscripted into the Dutch army at the start of World War II. When the Nazis arrived in The Netherlands in 1940, George helped prevent them from completely occupying The Hague. He was later captured by the Nazis, held as a prisoner of war, and ultimately died in a concentration camp. He is a decorated Dutch war hero. His parents created Madurodam in his honor. It is intended to be the happiest war memorial in the world.

Visiting Madurodam

spend a day in the hague; den haag; the hague; netherlands; madurodam

Madurodam is open every day of the year. Opening times are season-dependent. The entrance fee is 19,50 € for adults. Most of the park is outside, so I would pick a nice day to visit.

Madurodam has many interactive activities. You can use a miniature crane to load containers onto a ship or practice your soccer skills alongside the national team of The Netherlands. You can learn about The Netherlands' history with a 4D video experience. Did you know The Netherlands only became independent in the 1500s, and got its freedom from the Spanish with a Revolution? I didn't until I visited Madurodam!

Other Attractions for Spending Your Day in The Hague

There were so many things in the city I was unable to see and do during my  visit! As you are planning your visit to The Hague I recommend looking into the following things as well:

How do you plan to spend your day in The Hague?

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How to Spend a Day in The Hague, Netherlands.
How to Spend a Day in The Hague, Netherlands.
How to Spend a Day in The Hague, Netherlands.
Meeting French President Nicholas Sarkozy

Meeting French President Nicholas Sarkozy

I met French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Nice, France, in May 2010.

For the final weekend of my semester abroad, I took a short trip to the French Riviera. I had not planned on meeting President Sarkozy. I did not anticipate that my final European vacation that year would bring me face-to-face with the French president. My dad and I were unaware that we would be in the same city as Sarkozy. We did not have any intention of attempting to meet him. Nevertheless, as the city of Nice got ready to celebrate its 150th anniversary of uniting with France we found ourselves shaking hands with President Sarkozy himself.

Want to read about another one of my crazy adventures? Click here to learn about The Time I Tried to Go to Nicaragua!

A Weekend in the French Riviera

I studied abroad in Strasbourg, France, in the Spring of 2010. At the end of the term I had about a week of free time before flying back to the States. My dad flew over to France to help me carry back the extra items that I had picked up during my semester. Because of his help, he got to pick the destination of my final vacation. Though I had already been to the French Riviera twice that year, my dad really wanted to return to Nice, France, so we flew down for one last weekend.

Nice

The weekend began in downtown Nice. We rented bikes and rode along the shoreline on the Promenade des Anglais. It was a beautiful beach day, but the beaches in Nice are made of small rocks rather than sand! I tried to lay out in the sun, but it was too uncomfortable having just a towel between me and the rocks.

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For dinner, my dad and I found the best outdoor restaurant area I've ever been to. Tucked away in the Old Town on Place Charles Félix were dozens of outdoor seating venues. Awnings, tables, and chairs available for patrons to sit at once they had selected their restaurant for the evening lined the pedestrian road. The menus all looked so good; we knew we wouldn't go wrong whichever place we picked. The fresh seafood from the Mediterranean Sea and  produce from the fields of Provence did not disappoint.

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Cannes

During this trip to the French Riviera, I was determined to visit Nice's neighboring city Cannes for the first time. The train ride down the coast took less than an hour. We saw gorgeous views of the sea the entire way. Once in Cannes, the open air buses were a great way to see the city quickly. After my dad and I took our tour, we walked down a few side streets with stores offering everything from cheap souvenirs to luxury products, like tiny earrings for over 5,000 euros! We ended our excursion with a drink at a seaside resort lounge before taking the train back to Nice.

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Typical side street in Cannes

Eze

In the opposite direction from Nice is the medieval city of Eze. Perched high on a hill overlooking the water, visitors can hike up to the castle and enjoy the views along the way, or take the less strenuous route to the top with public buses or taxis. My dad and I chose to hike up. Once we reached the fortress we meandered through the tiny streets that were home to the Romans, Moors, Greeks, Italians, and French over the past 4000 years (though the current fortress was built in 1388). There were many shops, restaurants, and hotels available for tourists mixed in with the houses residents still live in today.

 

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The hike up to Eze!

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Views from a resting spot on the hike

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Medieval City of Eze

Official Happenings in the City

All weekend my dad and I noticed an excitement that had not been present on previous trips to the French Riviera. Official-looking cars drove around town with the flags of various Francophone African nations sticking out from them. We also noticed a giant structure covered in a cloth and a giant French flag in the Parc Esplanade George Pompidou that was not there before.

A few inquiries to shop owners told us the official-looking cars held African leaders attending the 25th Africa-France Summit that weekend. As a scholar of international studies, I hoped to see some history in action or at least a famous African president after hearing this.

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Gathering of official-looking African leaders on the Promenade des Anglais

The new structure covered in cloth was a monument constructed for the 150th anniversary of the unification of the country of Nice with the rest of France. It would be unveiled the following day. My dad and I made note of this, but had no affirmative plans to attend the unveiling ceremony.

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Covered structure

Meeting President Sarkozy

Little did I know we would be both meeting a famous president - though not an African one - and attending the unification celebration.

Preparing for the President's Arrival

Around 3:00 PM in the afternoon on May 31, 2010, my dad and I were walking along the Promenade des Anglais in search of some gelato. It was a beautiful day with many tourists in town, with all the shops and restaurants open for business. Or so we thought. As we walked, I realized that all the storefronts on the Promenade des Anglais were suddenly closing in the middle of this beautiful day.

We approached a gelato shop as the owner was wheeling his sidewalk freezer filed with ice cream inside. I asked him in French "what is going on?" and he urgently replied "Le Président!" Uncertain to what he meant, and suddenly questioning my ability to understand French, I asked "what do you mean the President?" to which he replied "Le Président vient!" ("The President is coming!"). Still confused, thinking maybe he meant one of the African presidents, I asked whether we could still get two cones of gelato.

Though the owner did not look pleased at our request, he served us two large cones of gelato. We took our ice cream cones and walked back down the Promenade. A large crowd had formed in the area by the Parc Esplanade George Pompidou.

Entering the Secure, Ticketed Area

Traffic on the promenade was halted and a large enclosed area set up on the road facing away from the Mediterranean Sea. Two policemen stood at the entrance to the area checking bags. As my dad and I approached, I handed my dad my gelato cone and opened my bag for the bag check. Seeing I had no restricted items, the police waved us through into the gated area.

We made our way up to the front of the crowd awaiting the arrival of some president. We could see the large covered structure in the park and the road in front of the structure from our vantage point in the second row. As I looked around to get a sense of what was going on and when it might begin, I noticed that everyone else around was very well dressed. Though it was a hot spring day, the women around us were wearing dresses and the men all had pants. In contrast, I had a tank top on over my bathing suit and my dad was in a t-shirt and shorts. We also were not holding the pamphlets or tickets everyone else had.

We clearly did not belong in that area. It was also clear that something important and exciting was happening, so we were not about to leave. In any event, the policemen had let us into the area despite our dress and lack of tickets. We waited in anticipation for whatever was going to happen next.

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Media photo from Nice Cote Azur showing the crowds along the Promenade awaiting the ceremony

Arrival of French Ministers, including President Sarkozy

We waited a while before anything happened. After about 30 minutes of standing around an official-looking car drove down the Promenade des Anglais. It stopped right in front of us and a few French ministers got out, including then-Minister of Finance and current head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde! The officials walked towards the crowd right where we were standing. They shook hands and took pictures with the attendees in our area! I used my best French accent to say Bonjour to Christine Lagarde as I shook her hand, for fear of being found out and ejected before the event began.

A few more cars arrived with French officials who also greeted the crowds upon their arrivals. About fifteen minutes later, an even nicer car drove down the Promenade des Anglais with a large police escort around it. The crowd roared. The anticipation for the guest was high. The car stopped right in front of where I was standing, and out stepped President Nicholas Sarkozy!

As the other officials had done, President Sarkozy came over to the crowd in the gated area, walking directly towards my dad and me. I scrambled forward to shake his hand. Though he will never know my name, who I am, or even that I had been there, I was still very excited for my first meeting with a foreign leader. In my haste to get through the crowd to the front row I got some beautiful pictures of the trees in front of us instead of the President himself. I will never forget this memory.

Anniversary Celebration for Nice's Unification with France

When Sarkozy joined the celebration, the French national anthem played and the local children's choir sang. Local dance troupes performed traditional dances. A few prominent officials, including the Mayor of Nice, gave speeches. Finally, the cloth was removed from the giant structure to reveal nine giant rust-colored columns. Neuf Lignes Obliques or "nine leaning lines" symbolizes the nine valleys of the Country of Nice, which united with the rest of France in 1860.

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Media photo from Nice Cote Azur showing President Sarkozy, the Mayor of France, and other officials at the ceremony

The celebration was an interesting diversion during my third trip to Nice in as many months. Though I had wanted to experience a new country on my final trip in France, nothing could have topped being part of French history with Nice's celebration and my meeting President Sarkozy!

If you're planning a trip to Nice and wondering where to stay, I highly recommend the Hotel Suisse right on the water!

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I accidentally met then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy during my last trip to Nice! Find out how, as well as other details about the French Riviera, in my blog post.
How to Visit the Great Wall of China

How to Visit the Great Wall of China

Visiting the Great Wall of China is one of the most popular day trips you can take from Beijing. If you travel halfway across the world to China's capital city, you should make time for a trip to one of its most famous landmarks, the Great Wall. I was not sure what to expect during my visit. I was awed and impressed by the Great Wall and had a fun day exploring the area. A visit to the Great Wall of China is not to be missed!

For more great stories about adventures in Asia, read these articles about What to Expect on your Ha Long Bay Cruise and How to Visit Angkor Wat!

Note that this page includes affiliate links: this means if you make a purchase using the link I receive some compensation at no additional cost to you. Thank you!

A Brief History of the Great Wall of China

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Construction

The Qin Dynasty began building the Great Wall sometime between 221 and 206 BC. The Ming Dynasty, who ruled from 1368 to 1664 AD, completed the wall during their reign. Though its building spanned millennial, the wall you see today was built mostly by the Ming Dynasty. Few remnants of what was built by previous dynasties still exist. When the wall was no longer needed to protect China from the Hun invaders from the North - and it is unlikely it ever offered protection to begin with - it fell into disrepair. Restoration efforts in the 1980s brought the wall back to the state in which we see it today. In 1987, UNESCO declared the Great Wall a World Heritage Site.

Facts

The Great Wall of China is between 13,170 km and 21,196 km long. It contains many sections, with some looking like your typical Great Wall photos and others like mounds of dirt. The main tourist area near Bejing has ten sections. The most famous sections for tourists are Badaling and Mutianyu. There are many tours available to choose from that bring tourists from Beijing to visit the Wall. Alternatively, you may embark on your own adventure to visit the Great Wall using public transportation or a private driver.

Deciding which Section to Visit

There are many sections to choose from when visiting the Great Wall from Beijing. Most visitors find themselves choosing between Badaling and Mutianyu.

Badaling is the most famous section likely because it is easiest to get to from Beijing. This also makes it the one most tourists visit, meaning it is often very crowded. For this reason I do not recommend visiting the Badaling section if the others are accessible to you.

The Mutianyu section, on the other hand, is not yet overrun with tourists. In fact when I visited on a beautiful day in September there was almost no one there! It contains a quiet village at the bottom of the wall, a chair lift up to the top, well-preserved stone walkways, and a toboggan slide down.

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Getting to the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is about an hour North of Beijing by car and two to three hours by public transportation. Visiting the Wall will take at least half a day. Once you decide which section of the Wall to visit, the easiest way to determine how to get there is to use the Rome2Rio website, which provides directions between any two places in the world, including Beijing and the Great Wall.

Badaling

Rome2Rio identifies many options of transport between Beijing and Badaling. The easiest way to reach the Badaling section of the Great Wall is to take the Beijing subway to the Huangtudian Railway Station. From here you can board a train that will take you directly to Badaling. This trip is the easiest and most direct way to visit the Great Wall from Beijing, which is why so many tourists opt for it.

Mutianyu

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My experience getting to Mutianyu was slightly different. I was fortunate to have my friend Dong as a local guide. I met Dong in law school in the United States. She grew up in Southern China and lived in Beijing. Dong asked me to meet her at the Dongzhimen bus station around 8:30 AM the day of our visit to the Great Wall. We planned to take a public bus all the way to the Great Wall for about $3 USD with just one transfer.

Travel by Local Bus

The ride out of the city provided a unique perspective on life in urban China. We traveled through smaller cities around Beijing using both highways and local roads. From the looks of things around us we could have been driving through somewhere in the United States: it would have looked the same except for the Mandarin writing on the signs.

The bus made multiple local stops in the different towns as we approached the wall. Looking around at the other passengers, it was clear this was transportation used mostly by locals rather than tourists. My dad, who was along with us, and I were the only non-Chinese people on the bus. We clearly stuck out as foreign tourists.

Transfer to Private Car or Taxi

At one stop, a man from outside saw us on the bus, boarded the bus through a back door, and approached us speaking broken English. Not knowing what he wanted, I tried to ignore him and pretend I spoke another language. Dong was sitting behind my dad and I, and we heard her speak Mandarin with the man. Suddenly she told us to get off the bus and quickly. I had no idea what was going on. Were we in danger?

To my surprise, as we left the bus we followed the man and got in his car! It turns out he was a taxi driver. It had been obvious to him that two white people on the local bus in that area were trying to visit the Great Wall. Had we remained on the bus it would have taken another half hour to reach the Great Wall. With our new taxi driver we were just a five minute drive away from the entrance.

Visiting the Wall

A visit to the Great Wall of China includes much more than just wandering around an elevated stone path for a few minutes. At most sections you will find a small village, information about the Wall, and transport up to and back from the landmark.

Reaching the Wall

In the Mutianyu section visitors purchase access to the wall at the main entrance. Your ticket includes a chair lift ride up and either a chair lift or a toboggan ride down. We all opted for the toboggan ride ticket seeing as that was one of the main reasons I had chosen to visit this particular section of the wall.

The chair lift from the village to the top of the wall took about ten minutes. As an avid skier, I had been on many chair lifts before. I sat back and enjoyed the views of the surrounding Chinese countryside during the trip up. If you are not accustomed to riding on chair lifts, make sure you lower and raise the safety bar at the appropriate times (there are signs), sit all the way back in the seat, and don't rock the chair! If fear of heights is an issue, just watch the chair in front of you. There will be plenty of time to take in views of the area from the top of the wall itself.

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"Climbing" the Wall

The night before our visit to the Great Wall, Dong took my dad and I out to dinner. When we discussed our adventure planned for the next day, she kept talking about "climbing" the Wall. I kept imagining us having to climb up the side of the wall from the ground! I was very pleased, though slightly confused, when I selected the chair lift option at the entrance and learned we would be dropped off on top of the wall.

The climb to which Dong was referring occurs once you are on the wall. Because it was built many centuries ago, the architecture of the wall is imperfect. Additionally, the expanse across which it stretches is marked by rolling hills. These factors mean visitors must exert some effort  to hike along the wall between the watch towers. At various points you travel up or down along the paths on top of the wall following the hills. In some areas there are stairs to climb. Other areas are not well kept and are tricky to navigate. The stairs are not always evenly spaced. I thought this was a result of bad technology or architecture at the time, but this was often done on purpose to throw off intruders trying to run up and down the wall.

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If you are not expecting an active hike, you can still visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. The chair lift drop off was intentionally set at a part of the Wall that is flat and well-maintained in almost perfect condition. If you are able to travel further and make the hike you will be well-rewarded with the natural beauty of the surrounding area, the uniqueness of each historic watch tower, and the thinning out of crowds as you travel further from the entrance point.

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Descending the Wall

One of the most unique features of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is its toboggan ride to the bottom. Though you have the option to return to the village by chair lift, complete your visit by taking the toboggan down. Even Michelle Obama chose this option during her visit! Each rider rides in their own toboggan with a handle to hold onto that also contains a break. You use the break to control your own speed. The track looks like a metal luge or skeleton racing track traveling through the woods from the wall back to the village. The ride down takes five to ten minutes depending on your chosen speed. All three of us visiting the Wall that day took advantage of this option.

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bejing; great wall; china; visit the great wall of china

Mutianyu Village

Complete your visit to the Great Wall by exploring the shops and eating in the restaurants in the Mutianyu Village. Though the area may seem touristy, we had delicious authentic food served to us in a village restaurant, and then bought a few trinkets by which to remember our visit.

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At the end of our time in Mutianyu, we met our taxi driver - who had waited for us the whole time! - who took us back to one of the main bus stops in the area where we boarded our public transportation back to Beijing.

I highly recommend selecting the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall to visit. Regardless of which section you choose, make sure to add this day trip to any itinerary of a visit to Beijing.

Planning a trip to Beijing and looking for a great hotel? Check out the options here: Beijing City Hotels.

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Learn how to visit the Great Wall of China with my travel tips and advice!
Learn how to visit the Great Wall of China with my travel tips and advice!
Learn how to visit the Great Wall of China with my travel tips and advice!
My Experience with Spirit Airlines

My Experience with Spirit Airlines

Thinking of flying Spirit Airlines? Then this review is for you!

Last month I took my first flight on Spirit Airlines, an American "ultra-low-cost" or budget airline. I am not a stranger to budget airlines. When I lived in Europe, I took dozens of flights on airlines including RyanAir and EasyJet. I also used budget airlines to travel around Asia. However, my experience on Spirit was my first with an American budget airline.

*N.B. this article contains affiliate links. That means that if you make a purchase after clicking one of these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

Booking

Pricing

Being a budget airline means you the passenger get a really cheap base-price ticket on Spirit, but then have to pay for any and all extras that may typically be included by a mainstream airline. This is true of most budget airlines: for anyone that has flown on RyanAir, perhaps you remember the flight attendants selling lottery tickets during the flight to increase revenue. I'm glad Spirit doesn't try that, but I've heard rumors they may start charging a fee to use the lavatories.

If you are willing to forego or pay for flight extras, Spirit Airlines is worth the low price. Many people falsely believe that budget airlines lack safety features that mainstream airlines provide. They do not. All airlines operating at U.S. airports must pass the exact same safety tests. Airlines cannot cut corners on safety for price savings. Instead, they pay lower airport "rental" fees which means they will be last priority for take-off if there is a delay, for baggage claim after a flight, and for other similar operations. There is no need to be more concerned about safety when flying on a budget airline such as Spirit Airlines than you would be on any mainstream airline.

Purchasing Flights

My experience purchasing flights on Spirit Airlines was as easy as with any other airline. I needed two seats on round-trip flights from Hartford, Connecticut (BDL) to Orlando, Florida (MCO). When I searched for one seat, the price was $409 USD, but when I searched for two seats, the price was $472 USD each!

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Knowing this, I booked the two seats separately for an average price of $440 USD. The next cheapest flight for my itinerary on a mainstream airline was over $600 USD, so the savings were significant. The purchases were made smoothly. I did not experience any glitches with the website or issues with the purchasing process.

The BAG Decision

Most travelers in America are used to being charged extra for a checked bag, while being allowed to bring a personal item and a carry-on into the aircraft cabin for free. Spirit Airlines only allows one personal item for free. You must pay for your carry-on item in addition to any checked bags. The fees for these bags are much higher than mainstream airlines as well.

The one upside to Spirit's baggage policy is that the personal item allowance is very generous at 18 in. x 14 in. x 8 in. My standard long-weekend Longchamp travel bag is 17.75 in x 13.75 in x 9 in, with soft sides. With a little squishing I could get it to qualify as a personal item on Spirit and avoid the baggage fees. This is true of many small backpacks and large tote bags or purses. If you are going on a short trip to a warm locale, you may not need to pay for any bags on Spirit.

Check out my post on How to Travel the World with One Carry-On to get more tips on packing light for any vacation!

Spirit charges different bag fees depending on the flight you book. Their website offers a bag fee calculator for your specific flight. For the Hartford to Orlando flight, a carry-on selected during booking would cost $32 per passenger, and a checked bag would cost $37 per bag. My travel companion and I decided to purchase one checked bag to share and no carry-on bags. The price to check a bag or carry it on increases at each process point until you board the plane, so it is beneficial to decide early. I've heard stories of Spirit Airlines charging almost $100 for a carry-on when the passenger decided she needed it as she was boarding the plane!

 

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Bag checkers near the boarding gate

 

Check-In

Online

Online check-in for Spirit begins 24 hours before the flight departs. This is typical for most American airlines. When I travel, I almost always check-in online and use a mobile ticket. When I do this, I sometimes get worried about losing my Internet connection just as I reach the front of the security line, so I save my mobile boarding pass to my Apple wallet, take a screenshot of it, use the airline's app, and make sure the email is loaded. I assumed I would do the same for my mobile boarding pass with Spirit Airlines.

My travel companion always prefers printed hard-copy boarding passes, so he printed his out. I did not. On the drive to the airport, I tried to pull my boarding pass up on my iPhone. The emailed boarding pass would not show the QR code (similar to a barcode on paper boarding passes). I checked online and found that this is a common error with the Gmail app. I tried to open the boarding pass using Gmail on the Safari web-browsing app but had the same issue. Forwarding the boarding pass to my ancient Yahoo! email account did not help either. The Spirit app was completely defunct so that wasn't an option either. It was starting to look like I was out of options.

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This is all my boarding pass on my phone looked like: not very helpful.

At the Airport

At this point I was worried I'd have to pay a hefty fee to have a Spirit agent print my boarding pass for me. I saw a number of Spirit check-in kiosks in the arrivals terminal, so I gave one of them a try just in case. As with all mainstream airline kiosks, I pulled up my reservation and printed my boarding pass for free! I used this same method on my return flight from Orlando to Hartford, and it was once again free.

I highly recommend printing your Spirit boarding pass before arriving at the airport just in case, but know that you should be able to obtain one for free at an airport kiosk if necessary. Either way, you probably will not be able to use the mobile boarding pass option.

Dropping off the checked bag was a breeze. There is a 40 lb weight limit. Our bag was weighed for both flights, and I saw one woman trying to readjust her belongings to make the limit, so it is enforced.

Boarding

The boarding process was a bit of a fiasco. I have no idea how we left on time. My travel companion and I were in Zone 2. When we arrived at the gate, we  had at least five minutes before boarding began. Despite this, the entire plane of passengers was crowded around the boarding lane. The agent at the desk was simultaneously telling them to move back and trying to handle pre-flight issues. Nobody would listen to her. I understand if you are a Zone 1 passenger milling around the lane entrance, but there were too many people for that to be the case.

When boarding began, the standard "passengers flying with small children and those who need extra help boarding" were invited on the plane first followed by military personnel. Seeing as Spirit does not have a "First Class" section, Zone 2 was called shortly after these passengers. My companion and I made our way through the sea of passengers surrounding the boarding lanes to get on the plane.

On the Flight

The three-hour flight experience was reasonably pleasant.

BIG Front Seats

I was planning to sit in a normal economy seat. I booked a ticket for an (unassigned) economy seat. However, over Christmas dinner a well-traveled family member recommended upgrading to the BIG Front Seats. I was hesitant, seeing as I was flying Spirit Airlines in an attempt to save money, but my travel companion convinced me the upgrade was worthwhile. He was right!

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We paid $55 per person per flight for the upgrade. This was the price quoted us after booking the flight but before check-in. I expected seats similar to "Premium economy" on mainstream airlines. This would provide another 2" or 3" of pitch and 2" of width on the seat. Instead, we were treated to large, comfortable First Class type seats. Yes, they looked old, worn, and a little dirty, and no they did not recline, but for $55 I couldn't complain. Plus, every other economy seat on the plane also had those attributes. I have yet to sit in the economy section of a Spirit Airlines flight, but this review from The Points Guy explains that the BIG Front Seat is worth the upgrade.

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My travel companion - my dad - and I enjoying our BIG Front Seats!

Refreshments

Spirit offers refreshments for purchase on their flights. These include the standard non-alcoholic beverages that are free on mainstream airlines. The menu offerings and prices look similar to what's available on mainstream airlines. Though $3 for a can of Coke seems expensive, knowing they have a monopoly in the sky Spirit could have charged $10 for that same can of Coke and people probably would have purchased it.

Being aware of this issue, my travel companion and I purchased sandwiches in the airport to bring on board with us. I also made sure to fill up my water bottle, since even water was not free on Spirit. My travel companion purchased one soda on the flight using his credit card. He was given the entire can plus a plastic cup with ice in which to pour his drink.

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In-Flight Experience

As a "no-frills" airline, Spirit provides no in-flight entertainment. There are no seat-back multimedia screens. A flight tracker is not available. The flight attendant does not play a 20-year-old classic film for the entire plane using drop-down screens. There isn't even a ten-song rotation on an obscure airline radio station to plug in and listen to. It's how I imagine flying in the 1970s may have been.

This is not a problem so long as you are prepared for it. In my purse I brought my iPhone for music, my iPad for a offline games (both charged ahead of time, since there are no in-seat charging ports on Spirit's flights), an eBook on my iPad and a hardcover book. I also had my Harry Potter coloring book and set of 50 colored pencils in case the plane hit bad turbulence and I needed a distraction. I was determined to keep myself occupied on the flight. It turned out not to be an issue because I fell asleep within a half hour of take-off and awoke as we were making our descent. Had that not happened, I am sure all the items I brought with me for entertainment would have kept me busy for hours, or at least the three hour duration of the flight.

Looking for more must-have travel items? Check out my post on 15 Luxury Travel Essentials!

Baggage Claim

Baggage claim was the worst part of my Spirit Airlines experience. I never check bags, so I don't usually have to deal with baggage claim. I did not know what to expect for timing of retrieving our bag. Because of its low airport "rental" fees, there are only two Spirit baggage claim carousels at Orlando International Airport. Bags from all of the incoming Spirit flights arrive on the same two carousels. You never know when the new set of bags is from your flight.

It took over an hour from the time my travel companion and I left the aircraft to the time we retrieved our bag. To me, that was an unreasonable amount of time. When time is money, you should compare the cost-savings of checking a bag with the time-cost of standing in an airport's baggage claim area. It may not be worth it.

Our bag arrived with our flight and everything was in one piece, so it could have been worse. It was not the best start to the vacation, though, and something that could have easily been avoided with a carry-on.

Spirit Airlines Review Conclusion

I was not deterred by the minor hiccups during my first Spirit Airlines experience. As I normally do, I signed up for a frequent flyer number with Spirit. I intend to fly them again soon. I will be testing the personal item versus carry-on strategy and hopefully will not have to pay $100 at the gate to bring my bag with me! Regardless I don't think I would check a bag again. So long as you know what you are getting into, are aware of the rules that could cost you extra money, and are willing to pay for all extras, flying Spirit Airlines is a great deal.

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My first experience flying with Spirit Airlines, a low-cost American airline
My first experience flying with Spirit Airlines, a low-cost American airline
New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part II

New Years Eve in Orlando 2019 – Part II

Check out Part I here!

Epcot on New Years Eve Day

The main purpose of going to Orlando was to spend New Years Eve at Epcot. I think my love for world travel draws me to Epcot more than the other Disney parks. It features miniature cities (called pavilions) from eleven countries as a main attractions. While I also love Magic Kingdom and enjoy visiting Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, if I had to pick just one park to visit it would be Epcot every time.

The lack of crowds at Epcot early in the morning surprised me. I took a picture of the iconic Spaceship Earth from the center of the park with no people in the picture! Unfortunately, when my dad and I tried to go on the Test Track ride, we learned where all the people were: waiting in line for the rides. The line for Test Track was four hours long, and the single riders line was two hours long. At that point I realized I would only get to go on one ride at Epcot that day. I chose the new "Frozen" ride.

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Norway

The "Frozen" ride is one of the most popular rides in the park. As a fan of the "Frozen" movie - and as a Norwegian - I was excited to go on the ride. The line was forty-five minutes long. Guests in line wander through the castle, a village, and Oaken's Trading Post. Once on the ride, riders see scenes and hear songs from "Frozen."

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The ride was fun, but it was exactly the same ride as the Viking one that had previously been in its location! Having been on this ride multiple times before I was disappointed there was absolutely nothing new about it. Even the boats we rode in were the same Viking boats. The only difference was the wait time: the "Frozen" theme draws a crowd whereas I walked right onto the Viking ride every time before. If you are a huge fan of "Frozen" or have never been on the Viking boat ride, then a line less than one hour long is worth waiting in. If you are expecting something drastically new and different, don't wait in line.

China

Whenever my dad and I visit China, or "China," we end up doing things we didn't plan to. In Beijing, we accidentally saw Mao's embalmed body. In Epcot's China, we accidentally watched a 13 minute 360-degree film about the country.

China is one of many world showcase countries I've visited in real life since the last time I was at Epcot. It was neat to see reconstructions of real Chinese buildings I had seen recently in Epcot's showcase. One such building was the Temple of Heaven structure. In Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is a park with a circular structure surrounded by a concrete plaza. Many people take photos in the plaza but no one is allowed to enter the structure. You can look inside to see an altar but the entrance is locked.

At Epcot, the Temple of Heaven structure is open. My dad and I walked in, passed the exhibits, and made our way through the building. We expected to find shops that we could walk through and exit on the other side. Instead, we ended up in a giant circular theatre. There were about 50 people already inside leaning on banisters in the center of the room. We soon realized what we had walked into, but not quickly enough. The exit doors started closing just as we were about to leave. We were stuck: we would be watching the film about China.

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When you go to Epcot, if you have a strong interest in China or a familiarity with the country you may want to watch the film. It is only 13 minutes long and the effects of being in a 360-degree theatre are pretty cool. It was also interesting to see Beijing represented in the film after having traveled there. However, if your intent for visiting Epcot is to enjoy the Disney-related elements, perhaps a documentary on a foreign country is not the best way to spend your time.

Japan

My dad and I were hungry for lunch when we arrived at Japan's pavilion, even though it was only 11:00 AM. I heard that the restaurants on the second floor of Japan's pavilion were phenomenal and wanted to check them out. All dining reservations in Epcot that day were fully booked months in advance. Our only opportunity to try Japan's restaurants was to arrive when they opened.

We were luckily immediately seated in Tokyo Dining at a table next to a window overlooking the World Showcase Lagoon. From our table, we could see each of the country pavilions and Future World. We could also see and hear the Japanese percussion show performed across the way on the Pagoda's platform. The food was good too! Not wanting a heavy meal, we each ordered a miso soup, followed by panko-crusted shrimp for my dad and a large spicy-crunchy maki roll for me. I would recommend either dish for lunch. The portions were large enough to fill us up for the rest of our day at the park.

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View from Tokyo Dining

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; japan; sushi

Maki Lunch

Morocco

The final country I want to highlight for you is Morocco, though I recommend visiting all eleven country pavilions. I have not yet been to real Morocco so I cannot compare the pavilion to the country itself. Nevertheless, I feel confident in its authenticity. When the Kingdom of Morocco learned Epcot planned to include its country as a pavilion, it funded and oversaw the construction of the entire area. To this day, the Moroccan government pays for and oversees upkeep and restoration. The next time you visit Epcot, keep this in mind as you wonder at the mosaics and visit the souks in Morocco's pavilion.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; morocco

Fountain in Morocco

Secret Passageway - The International Gateway

My best tip for Epcot is to use the International Gateway entrance and exit. Located between the France and England pavilions, and a short walk from the Disney Yacht Club Resort, this entrance is not well-known so few people use it.

If you are using Disney transportation or taking a ride share, get dropped off at the Disney Yacht Club. Walk through the lobby to the beach and then go left up the path. Stay left as you go over the bridge and you will soon find yourself at Epcot's back entrance. There are ticket booths available if you need to purchase your park ticket. The best part: no lines!

More important than a quick entrance is a less-crowded exit at the end of the night, which was especially important on New Years Eve! One of my only stressors for this vacation was how my dad and I were going to get back to our off-property hotel after midnight. I had heard horror stories about exiting the park through the main gate, hours-long waits to board Disney's monorail, and traffic jams that turned Google Maps from red to purple. This "secret" exit away from the park's main gate was one key in having an enjoyable end to the night.

Disney Springs

To avoid staying at Epcot for 15 hours and relying on the different fast food areas within the park for dinner (as there were no reservations available), my dad and I went back to the hotel for a few hours in the afternoon to enjoy the resort pool and then went to Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) for dinner.

Disney Springs was bustling at night! There were many people heading to dinner or settling in to enjoy the New Years festivities. Live bands were setting up on various stages for performances later in the evening. As we walked by some of the bands after dinner, it seemed like it would be a fun evening. I can only imagine what the midnight celebration was like!

The Boathouse Restaurant

OpenTable's list of the 100 Most Scenic Restaurants in the USA included Disney Springs' The Boathouse. I did not realize the restaurant was part of the Disney complex at first when I saw the list. As I was considering where to make dinner reservations for New Years Eve, the recommendation on the list convinced me to make a reservation at this restaurant. I'm so glad I did! Not only did the reservations fill up entirely before we arrived in Orlando, but its scenic views were matched only by the quality of the food. Both were incredible! My dad and I sat at a table on a dock over the water. As a Northerner, this was my first time enjoying New Years Eve dinner outside, and in a tank top no less!

As we were enjoying the fresh warm rolls covered in honey-butter, a car drove by. This caught my attention since we were surrounded by water. My dad was enthralled: he had not seen an amphicar in over half a century! Apparently these cars, similar to the duck boats, were a fad in the 1960s. They can drive on land but are also watertight with a propeller that allows them to function as boats. Rides were $125 for about 10 minutes so we did not take a ride, but it was fascinating to watch the cars float by as we were eating.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; dinner; boathouse; disney springs

Dinner on the water!

Epcot for New Years Eve

After dinner we took a Disney bus back to Epcot for the New Years Eve festivities. Using our newly-discovered secret entrance at the Yacht Club Resort, we were thrust into the party as we entered the park in the World Showcase. The world pavilions had transformed from quaint villages during the day to party scenes at night.

DJs and Dance Parties

England hosted a Queen cover band that led the crowd in a "Bohemian Rhapsody" singalong. Italy featured a DJ leading a proper European rave. When we snaked through this crowd I was immediately transported back to the clubs I encountered during my times studying abroad. The atmosphere was very authentic. China had a more varied musical selection. Its main attraction was a colorful electronic dragon that spewed steam and fire over the heads of the dancers. A live funk band  played at America's stage. People were dancing in the area in front of stage while many more weary revelers rested their legs in the amphitheater seating while watching the entertainment.

epcot; new years; new years eve; orlando; china

Chinese Party and Dragon

There were two dance parties at the entrance to Future World. One was a Silent Groove. Participants took headphones provided by the prak and listened to music played by the DJs. If you did not have headphones you could not hear the music or the DJ's commentary. I did not participate but it was fun watching for a while.

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Silent Groove

My favorite dance party was the main party in front of Spaceship Earth. The DJ got into the groove playing the best music and feeling the crowd. After spending some time wandering around the world showcase, I loved watching this DJ in his element dancing to the music along with thousands of strangers.

Midnight Celebration

My dad and I stayed at the main dance party until 11:40 PM. We then went back to the World Showcase in search of champagne and a place to watch the special New Years Illuminations show. Of course the best champagne was in France. After making our purchases, we watched the Epcot globe light up the lagoon with pictures from around the world.

At five minutes to midnight there was a special presentation for each World Showcase country that had already celebrated the New Year. Each country was recognized individually with fireworks shot off from its pavilion in the colors of the country's flag. The group of us watching from France cheered extra loud when it was France's turn! Disney timed the celebration perfectly: after going through the eight previous countries, we had a 10-second countdown for the USA, Mexico, and Canada. As midnight struck, the largest fireworks finale I've ever seen went off! It was an amazing New Years celebration.

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Exiting the Park

Ten minutes after midnight everyone headed for the park exits. My dad and I had strategically placed ourselves next to the International Gateway exit and left quickly with thousands of people. The night before, an Uber driver left us behind because I ordered the ride too quickly, anticipating traffic at Universal Studios' pick up. Hoping to avoid the same fate, I waited until we were back on the Yacht Club property to order an Uber. There were none available in the area! One driver finally accepted the ride only to cancel when he saw we were 20 minutes away.

Our brilliant exit strategy was failing. I had not accounted for the supply and demand problem with ride shares just after midnight on New Years Eve. We also weren't the only ones who planned to make our exit by Uber from the Disney Yacht Club. About 50 other people were also waiting in front of the hotel for rides. I was exhausted from two days of constant walking and was getting deflated about our chances for getting home at a reasonable time. I looked to the curb for a space to sit down.

The Kindest Strangers Ever

I must have looked pretty weary because a man offered me his curb seat, insisting he would rather stand anyway. After sitting I explained the Uber situation to my dad. The now-standing man's wife, who was sitting next to me, asked in which direction we were headed. I named our hotel, not knowing in which direction it was. The couple immediately offered to share their Uber with us! The woman had ordered an Uber about twenty minutes prior on the walk from the park and their ride was almost at the resort. I assumed their hotel was near ours. Considering that our chances of getting a ride in the next few hours were almost nothing, my dad and I took the couple up on their offer.

Due to a few international glitches (her Canadian Uber and Venmo apps would not recognize my American phone number), we had to pay the couple in cash for our part of the ride. I'm hoping our contribution was sufficient because the couple was staying about 5 minutes away, just outside Disney park limits, whereas my dad and I rode in the Uber for another twenty minutes. Without a communication method, though, I had no way of knowing. As the couple left the Uber, I thanked them profusely (again). They said they were just building karma for the New Year and were happy to help. I can only imagine how long we would have been stranded at the Disney Yacht Club Resort had these kind strangers not offered to share their ride with us.

Saying Thank You

Though I've tried, I have no way of getting in touch with the couple again. The woman, Maureen, gave me her business card in case anything went wrong during the rest of the Uber ride. I am posting her business website here as a small thank you: if you have the ability and interest in patronizing her, please do so! Magnolia and Vine - Maureen's website.

Overall the trip was a success! I had a great time and would definitely visit Orlando for New Years Eve weekend again. I would reconsider being in a park at midnight as I think the celebration at Disney Springs would have been just as good, but I loved every second of the vacation.

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Guide to Epcot, Orlando, for New Years Eve
Guide to Epcot, Orlando, for New Years Eve
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