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What can you do when KLM and its partner, Northwest Airlines, overbook your flight and bump you while an untrained gate agent spends half an hour checking you in? In our case, we could look forward to a 12-hour layover in Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport after being rerouted through Newark on our way to Venice the following day. So there was only one thing our family of five could do, short of booking rooms in the airport's hotel: spend a Saturday exploring Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is only 20 minutes from Schiphol by train, making it an easy excursion for anyone who has more than four or five hours between flights. So, after loading up on Dutch guilders at the exchange counter, we found a row of baggage lockers in the "D" concourse and stowed our carry-on gear.
Next, we left the airport terminal for Schiphol Plaza, which combines a railroad station with a shopping center. After saying Goede dag to the Dunkin' Donuts characters who were trolling the plaza, we headed for the railroad ticket counter and bought day return tickets to Amsterdam's Centraal Station. An escalator took us to Tracks 1 and 2 below the plaza, where a train was waiting.
The train trip took us through a suburban landscape that included office buildings, apartment complexes, private houses, and an occasional mini-farm with sheep or horses. After about 20 minutes, we arrived at Centraal Station and joined the crowd heading up the Damrak--a street lined with souvenir shops, travel agencies, pizza parlors, caf?, and other businesses catering to tourists.
If we hadn't been half-asleep from an overnight transatlantic flight, we might have bought tickets for the museum boat that circles the major canals every 30 minutes (45 minutes in winter) and allows stopovers at museums along the way.
Instead, we just wandered toward the Dam Square and eventually found ourselves at the Rembrandtplein, in the heart of the city's entertainment area. Nothing much was happening on a Saturday midday, but it was a pleasant spot for eating vlaamse frieten ("Flemish fries," a.k.a. French fries or chips) from a nearby vendor and taking shelter from the drizzle on the steps of a wooden bandshell.
To save money, buy your train ticket from a vending machine. (If you go to the counter, you'll pay a transaction fee in addition to the ticket price.)
My daughter wanted to visit Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht near the Westerkerk. One glance at the line of people outside quickly changed her mind, however--especially when she overheard someone remark that the waiting time was at least 30 minutes. (I couldn't help wondering how long the lines were in summer, during the main tourist season.)
Leaving Anne Frank to the mob of patient British and Dutch tourists, we wandered through the retail district and reflected on how busy it was compared to the typical American city on a Saturday afternoon.
We couldn't resist stopping at Magna Plaza, on the Dam Square opposite the Royal Palace. This handsome structure was built in 1899 as Amsterdam's central post office. Today, its arcaded interior has been converted into a shopping center.
The entire basement of the building is given over to a Virgin Megastore, which sells a large array of CDs, movies, video games, computer software. (We resisted the temptation to buy a horror exploitation flick called Blood Camp Thatcher for Thatcher, our 16-year-old son, figuring that the main character--"the evil Commandant Thatcher"--would be a less than stellar role model.)
By now, our energy and attention were beginning to flag after 24 hours without sleep. We decided to try a more passive form of sightseeing: an excursion on a Rederij Lovers Amsterdam tour boat.
We were chilled to the bone after the boat tour, and several of us were having trouble staying awake. So we headed back to Centraal Station, where we caught a train that stopped at Schiphol Airport on its way to points unknown. (By then, we were so groggy that our 16-year-old son fell asleep on the train. He had to be shaken awake when the train stopped at the airport, much to the amusement of the teenaged girls who were seated by him.)
At Schiphol Plaza, we bought drinks and chocolate in the supermarket near the airport entrance. (We resisted the temptation to try the hemp soda, a soft drink made with hemp extract.) We then entered the terminal and headed upstairs, where all three children--aged 12 to 20--took naps on the upholstered benches in a lounge by the restrooms and caf?restaurant.
Later, I dined on smoked herring from a seafood stand while the rest of the family ate at the multilingual, multi-currency McDonald's. Then it was time to retrieve backpacks and other carry-ons from the baggage lockers and fly to Marco Polo Airport for two weeks in a furnished apartment in Venice, Italy, another city famed for its canals.
Schipohl Sleeping Tips:
If you feel the urge to nap at Schiphol Airport, you have two options: the terminal hotel, which rents expensive rooms by the day or night, and the lounges. The best lounges are the ones upstairs, which are away from the main traffic patterns and have rows of long upholstered benches or couches that experienced Schiphol travelers use for naps.
A few hints on sleeping:
Don't nap on the benches unless you have a companion to watch your belongings.
Wrap something soft (such as your coat) around the metal armrest near your head, or you may hurt yourself when you wake and sit up.
Look respectable. I've never seen anyone hassled by police at Schiphol, but I have heard reports of snoozing travelers being rousted from the benches. If you look like a passenger rather than a transient, you're less likely to have a baton poked into your kidneys.