Jer picked a trip to Amsterdam, Netherlands and Bruges, Belgium for his big milestone birthday this year. Lisa and Jeanne had been on the same trip (in reverse order) about 10 years ago, so they took the lead in planning. The trip was in the works since early in the year, so it was surprising when it was suddenly time for the six of us to leave for Europe for our adventure!
We all planned to travel standby for this trip, so it was important to have plans, backup plans and backup to the backup plans. Originally we mapped it out to all meet in Amsterdam on Saturday morning with Col and I traveling on United via Houston and the rest of the gang on Delta via either Seattle or Boston. I started watching the flights several weeks in advance and everything was looking good up until days before our flights. I’m not sure if UA had a fare sale, but suddenly the flight from Houston was overbooked. Time to implement the backup plan. Unfortunately, the backup plan was a no-go, as flights into Amsterdam from the rest of United’s hubs were all full or nearly full. Wow…it was time for the backup to the backup plan!
Flights into London were wide open from Washington D.C., so the new plan involved Col and I leaving a day early, flying to London, taking an overnight ferry from the U.K. to Holland and a train into Amsterdam to meet the others. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t actually excited about this backup to the backup plan. I’m a sucker for new travel experiences.
We left early on Thursday and made the drive to Vegas. We easily scored Economy + seats in the exit row of a legacy UA 757 for the flight to D.C. Our flight was pleasant and uneventful, and we had time to grab lunch once we landed and made our way to the United Club to utilize my newly purchased membership. I pulled out the iPad to check on our flight and noticed an earlier flight that previously did not look like an option for us was boarding and still had two United Business seats available after all the standbys had been cleared. We quickly changed our records and ran out of the club to the adjacent gate where the flight was in final boarding. The agent smiled as we walked up to the counter and commented, “I have a feeling you’ve got your eyes on those last two Business seats.” I laughed and told her how we’d moved from the much later flight while she printed our boarding passes and told us to have a nice flight. I love when the non-rev gods smile upon us!
We boarded the legacy UA 777 and took our seats. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to sit together, but since we planned to sleep on the flight over the Atlantic that really didn’t matter. We departed on time and after reaching our cruise altitude, dinner was served. The meal was actually quite good, and after a couple glasses of wine I converted my seat to the fully flat bed and quickly fell asleep. The flight over is just over seven hours, so by the time you eat and have your service cleared you can really only get about three hours of sleep before the arrival meal and preparations start. I took the offered Euro style breakfast, but didn’t eat much of it since I was still groggy. We landed and made what seemed like a mile trek to the queues for entry into the U.K. We were given priority cards because of our Business class seating, so we quickly cleared Immigration and breezed through Customs.
We had a long day ahead of us, so we had planned to grab a room at the Yotel in T4 to shower, change and maybe take a cat nap. Sadly, there was nothing available, so we made the trek over to the on-property Hilton where we were charged 20 GBP each to use the health club showers. It was a rip-off, but we needed the refreshing to make it through the day. From there we hopped on the tube and took it to the Liverpool Street station (with a stop at King’s Cross Station to appease Col’s Harry Potter love) where we purchased our rail and sail tickets to Holland. The tickets include rail passage in the UK to the coast, ferry passage over the North Sea and train passage to any final destination in Holland. The cost was about 125 Euro per person. We had all day before our train to the coast, so we stored our bags and set off on a day of exploring. We’d been to London already this year, so we wanted to see something different. We chose to head over to Greenwich to the Old Royal Naval College and Royal Observatory.
We stopped for lunch on the walk from the tram station and enjoyed some really good burgers and a couple beers at Gourmet Burger Kitchen. Fortunately, the only time it really rained was during our lunch while we were safely inside. After lunch we walked through Greenwich, checking out the Cutty Sark on our way to the Academy. We wandered the Academy grounds, taking in the main hall and the chapel before heading to the Observatory and the Prime Meridian. At this point we were pretty beat from all our travel and lack of sleep, so the long slog up the hill to the Observatory was a challenge. We made it to the top and were treated to an amazing view of London in the distance.
I was disappointed to find it cost 7 GBP each to actually stand on the historical Prime Meridian, but since that was our mission of the day we grudgingly paid it and waited in line like idiot tourists to snap a photo standing on the line.
We left Greenwich and made the trip back to Liverpool Street where we realized we still had a couple hours to kill before our train. We wandered out of the station and found our way back to St. Paul’s Cathedral, a sight we’d only briefly seen last time due to the lateness of the day. As with most churches in the UK, it cost upwards of 15 GBP to see the inside of the cathedral, so we passed and made our way back to the station on our weary feet. We grabbed our luggage from storage (9 GBP for each item for 24 hours of safekeeping) and waited for the board to update with our train’s track number. Once it showed up, we hurried to the platform and boarded, happy to be off our feet for the couple hour ride to the port.
We arrived at the port and proceeded to registration to check in for our passage. The reception staff for Stena Line exhibited what we’ve come to know as typical Brit…coldness. Being tired and worn out from so much travel I wasn’t much in the mood to deal with the rudeness, but I pushed through, paying for an upgrade to our cabin. We waited about 15 minutes in the reception area where we had a beer, and then got in line to board. The boarding process was very slow, as there was only one employee handling all the check in work and checking passports. Passengers were noticeably frustrated as the line inched along.
Passengers board starting at 8:30 PM, and the ferry leaves for Holland just before midnight, arriving at 7:45 AM (one hour time change), so there is plenty of time on board to enjoy the facilities. We dropped our bags in our cabin and headed down to get dinner. Options are either a cafeteria style service (3-10 Euro per person depending on what you get) or a fairly fancy sit-down restaurant in a special area of the ferry (20-40 Euro per person). There is also a bar with light snacks toward the rear of the deck. We chose the quicker, cheaper option with mixed results. I guess it was what one would expect from a ship cafeteria. We headed up to our cabin to shower and sleep after our long journey. For those not looking to sleep on the passage over the North Sea, the ferry offered a casino and movie theater.
Our upgraded cabin was very nicely appointed. A large bed was framed by a huge window overlooking the sea, although it was dark so we couldn’t see much. The bathroom was clean and modern and had a really nice rainfall shower. A fully stocked mini-bar included complimentary beer, wine, champagne, water and snacks. We showered and dropped into bed, exhausted from two days of constant travel with only a nap. Whether the sea was rough or smooth, I have no idea. I slept soundly, until….
I had overheard someone on the train talking about it. So, I should have been prepared. But even someone completely prepared for it can’t help but be shocked out of bed when Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is blasted into your cabin at full volume. Col and I both jumped out of bed disoriented and completely baffled as to why this music was blaring. I even scrambled looking for a radio alarm to turn off. The music is piped into each cabin at 6:00 AM in order to ensure everyone is awake, packed and ready to go before the ferry docks. Since more than half the passengers on board have cars below deck, the line is adamant that everyone be ready to move their vehicles off the ferry and not slow anything down.
We got ready, packed up and headed down to the main deck for coffee and chocolate croissants before grabbing our bags and making our way off the ferry. While the UK is not part of the Schengen Area, Immigration into Holland was very quick and pretty lax. One line for EU passport holders moved without stopping, and I never saw anyone actually show a passport. The line for non-EU passport holders was nearly as fast, held up only for the time it took for the official to find a place to stamp our passports. He didn’t even look at the passports other than to stamp them, so it didn’t appear that it was an actual passport check. The nice thing is…we got a nice Holland stamp with a ship instead of a plane!
We left the ferry terminal and headed to the train platform to board our train for Amsterdam. It was finally time to meet up with the rest of the gang for our adventure. It was hard to believe our trip hadn’t really even started yet!