“Don’t smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol,” came the voice on the PA as I stepped onto the bus. There was a slight air of school trip about it – though thankfully minus the potent egg sandwiches and quibbling children. I was boarding a Megabus – the blue-and-yellow coaches and double-deckers that transport budget travellers between cities in the UK and Europe.
I’d never considered Megabus-ing before. But a few weeks earlier, I’d stumbled across it while trying to book train tickets from Sheffield to London – tickets that were going to set me back £85 on less-than-ideal set trains (or £200, if I wanted flexibility). Desperation and a flashing ad had led me to the Megabus site, where something caught my eye: Paris for £35? I searched further. Minutes later I’d booked myself on a seven-day trip from Sheffield to Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and back to Sheffield – all for just £84.50, including ferry crossings and booking fees.
Given the low cost, I expected the worst. I had visions of long, arduous, cramped, smelly journeys; a solitary toilet blocked and overflowing; babies shrieking; the bus sitting motionless in traffic for hours. Boarding now, I was pleasantly surprised. The bus was clean, comfortable, acceptably spacious and well ventilated. Not bad for under £100. So far.
Four hours later I arrived in London. I had a three-hour break – enough time to meet friends for a few drinks – before setting off again for Dover, and then passport control, the ferry and France; when we drove off from the port it was 2am and I quickly fell asleep.
Six hours later, the tall buildings that line Amsterdam’s weaving canal network greeted me as I opened my eyes. I would be here for two nights and, continuing my thrifty theme, had opted for a hostel, which was nestled into a backstreet behind the Van Gogh Museum. I’d chosen the cheapest option, a bed in a six-person dorm; however, I was travelling off-season and in luck – I had it all to myself.
I spent the next two days ambling through Amsterdam’s streets and alleyways, stopping whenever the mood took me. I mooched around a Francis Bacon exhibition at the De Nieuwe Kerk, meandered alongside the canals and soaked up the atmosphere – variously bustling or tranquil, depending on which turn I took. I ate sublime (and cheap) African food and got taken by a local to In de Olofspoort, a traditional Dutch bar dating back to 1619 that specialises in homemade jenever, a rather lethal but tasty gin.
Time passed quickly, and soon it was time to catch the bus again, on to Brussels, just a few hours away...
To read this article in full, see issue 147 (June 2014) of Wanderlust - on sale here!