Amsterdam - No Money for Food

Here is the story of how Blair and Dena almost ran out of money on their trip to Amsterdam.

The first thing you need to know is that we are credit card people. We put everything on AmEx in order to earn sky miles. It's the rare day when I'm walking around with more than .32 cents in my wallet. Blair is a little better--he usually carries a spare $20.

The Rick Steves guide book which was our bible on the trip made mention that thrifty Dutch merchants prefer cash over credit cards in order to save on transaction fees. Note the word "prefer." Not "won't accept" but just a gentle "prefer." Here is where our troubles began.

We took some cash with us but not much--maybe a couple hundred. For those unaware, the dollar happens to suck these days, so a couple hundred was really worth only a bit more than half that once we exchanged it. Still, we weren't worried. Every time we've travelled internationally in the past, we've used credit cards.

Well, that reality came to a screeching halt in Amsterdam. A train ride to see the famous tulip gardens really set us back when they didn't take credit cards and we'd already purchased our tickets for the garden online from home. (Mass transit not taking credit cards??? C'mon!) After a few meals, a book souvenir from the Anne Frank House (where their machine wasn't working and we had to pay cash) and a few museums that only took cash, guess what? Dena and Blair were br0ke. Our last day in Amsterdam we had the equivalent of about $30--and we had 3 days of vacation left.

So go to the ATM, right? Wrong. We didn't bring our debit card because we'd never had cause to use it on any prior trip. Call Visa and American Express? Did that too. Only since we've never had to make a withdrawal using either card before, we had no idea what our PIN might be. We called, only to be told they could mail us a new PIN--not helpful for our situation.

So we bucked up. Only ate at restaurants that took credit cards (more challenging than you might think). Found a grocery store that took Visa and bought snacks for the 3-hour train ride to Brussels, in case we couldn't afford snacks on the train. I was craving a waffle and ice-cream cone at the tulip gardens but guess what? Couldn't have them. Even peeing became a planned event, what with having to pay .50 cents every time.

It was a totally new experience for us who typically buy what we want and don't think much about it. Even going to museums became iffy, as we weren't sure if they would accept credit cards or not. (On the bright side, at the Van Gogh museum, they took credit cards but only for a minimum $25 purchase. Tickets didn't cover it, so we had to buy the audio tours to reach the minimum amount. We were griping about getting screwed, but turns out the audio tour absolutely made the museum come to life and was worth every penny.)

Dena at Grand Place, fretting about money...
Blair at Grand Place cafe where we had to pay cash for beer. (Click to enlarge image)
We also lost bucks on the Grand Place square in Brussels. We snagged a great outdoors seat from which to view the plaza, after seeing the AmEx sign on the door. We ordered 2 rather expensive beers and relaxed, only to find when the bill came that "our machine is broken." Frankly, we think the waitress was lying and just didn't want to bother with credit. But that sucked another $12 from our already low cash fund.

When we got to Brussels, we splurged $3 on one of the powdered waffles everyone was eating and that was so worth it! Finally, we went to Bruges on Sunday and there was a Visa office where we could make a cash advance. Whew! I knew I was tense about not having money, but didn't realize how tense until the crisis had passed and we were fine again. It was just unnerving, wondering if we'd have enough for whatever emergency might come up before we got home.

Lesson learned. Always, ALWAYS, take plenty of cash and a debit card.