Day 5: Leaving London for Brussels, Amsterdam, and a Rental Car

Day 5 started with getting up early.  Fly to Brussels, pick up the rental car, and drive to Amsterdam.  We left the apartment at 7:44 London time, and considering we were in Central Time just a couple of days prior, it felt like we were getting up at midnight.  Nevertheless, the early sunrise did a good job of hiding just how early it was–we re-packed our bags and headed out for a short ride on the DLR, and transferred to the Underground.

Note: This post was mostly written over a month ago.  Life has been busy, so it’s just now getting finished.  Hopefully I’ll get the rest of the trip posted in the next couple of weeks.

Missed the beginning of the trip? Start here.

Getting to Heathrow

We knew Heathrow was a bit of a haul from the East London apartment where we’d stayed.  Once we were on the Underground, it was an hour and 15 minutes.  Fortunately it was early, as the forecast high was over 90 degrees, and these things aren’t air conditioned.  We arrived at 9:22, and quickly made our way through security. 

European airports are definitely different in layout from what you’ll find in the states.  Where we generally have groups of gates owned/leased by an airline, and gate assignments well in advance, gates there are more of a shared resource.  Waiting areas are generally centralized, and gate assignments are posted essentially when the plane arrives.  You hang out at the center of the terminal with all of the shopping and restaurants, with a time listed for your flight as to when the gate assignment will be posted.  Once that’s up, and the flight is ready to board, you’ll see “Go to gate”, your indication that it’s time to start walking.  It’s a different approach for sure, but in a lot of ways, it just makes sense.

Flight to Brussels

While waiting, we got some airport food for breakfast, eventually boarded the Brussels Air flight (about 30 minutes late), and got comfortable for a fairly quick flight over to Brussels. Unlike the simple bag of pretzels, cookies, or the like on most US domestic flights, Brussels Air fed us what amounted to lunch, even though the flight was barely an hour long.


In all of my flying, the landing was the smoothest I’ve ever experienced.  Once on the ground, we went through the passport check, this time with no line at all, and not so much as a single question about our travel plans. 

After a stroll through the airport to the rental car counter, we had a bit of a wait.  There were three people at the counter getting help from three agents. 

Rental Car

Two of them were younger guys seemingly from the Middle East, trying to rent a luxury car.  I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but basically they were too young to rent that particular class.  Their continued pleas that they had the money to pay for any damage fell on the ears of clerks that had no workaround, and they wouldn’t settle for anything less than flashy.

Another guy, obviously American, presented himself as a frequent international traveler, and regular car renter, but had a thousand questions about everything from all of the fuel service options to directions to how to modify the rental if he wouldn’t be back on schedule.  Meanwhile, I’m standing in line and Andrew is working to find a hotel for the evening.  Almost 30 minutes later, it was my turn. 

We got the paperwork squared away in about 2 minutes, and headed to the garage to get the keys to an Opel Grandland X.  Before you ask what that is, it’s the replacement for the Opel Antara, sold to fleets in the United States as the Chevrolet Captiva.  If that still doesn’t sound familar, the Captiva was the Vue before being rebadged when Saturn got the ax.  In otherwords, a comfy, new crossover, with a diesel engine and a manual transmission.  It would have had 130 hp, and 220 ft-lbs under the hood–weak by American standards, but pretty good for a European rental car.

Last Minute Switch

Off to pick up the keys? Not so fast.  On arriving at the rental car booth in the parking deck, we learn that our vehicle had been returned damaged and they couldn’t rent it to us.  We were offered a Renault Megane, which was two car classes up from where we were, with an automatic.  Ugh.  The alternative was a subcompact, so I reluctantly agreed.  It was a nice enough hatchback, and plenty comfortable for the two of us. 

Leaving the airport and merging onto the motorway, with its 120 km/h (75 mph) speed limit, I put my foot down to see what it could do.  And it didn’t.  It was refined and composed, and even relaxed at highway speeds, but took its sweet time getting there.  Flooring it from an 80 mph cruise didn’t even get you a downshift from the six-speed automatic.  It was just leisurely low-rpm torque even when you tried to get up and go quickly.  In fact, a lot like the big diesel in the Grey Ghost.

Despite its anemic powerplant, the Megane was plenty comfortable at cruising speed with its adjustable suspension and configurable gauge cluster.  

After finding the “Eco” button and changing to “Sport” mode, it was a little bit more responsive under foot, but no more powerful.  We never did figure out how to get it to default to sport mode, but it became a habit as much as hitting the button to start the engine.  It was necessary, as Eco mode also reduced the fan speed for the air conditioning, and it was hot.  We’d later look up the specs on this car–it had a very malaise 110 horsepower for moving this 3,100 lb car.

Lodging in Amsterdam

While I was driving, Andrew did a commendable job as navigator.  During that time, we were trying to decide if we wanted to spend a night in Amsterdam.  We had talked about staying on the outskirts of town, or possibly near The Hague, and doing some other touristy stuff along the coast of Holland.  But we eventually settled on a night in Amsterdam, and booked a room at a hotel on the south side of town.

The drive there was about 130 miles, and I was trying to make up for some of the delays getting going.  While waiting around for the rental car, we saw there was a canal parade that afternoon.  We needed to get to the hotel, drop off the car, and catch a streetcar/tram into downtown.  Our average travel speed door-to-door was just under 70 mph, but it still wasn’t quite fast enough.

We made it to the hotel without issue, but then found that we couldn’t buy passes at the stop where we would catch the tram.  We ended up walking to a hotel a couple of blocks away to buy them–24 hour all-you-can-ride passes were €7.50, or just under $9.  Back to the tram stop, and we were on our way.

Touring Amsterdam

We arrived in downtown Amsterdam after a short ride, and unlike the Underground in London, we rode at surface level taking in the sights during the ride.  That of course meant a slower pace, stopping for traffic lights and the crowds of bicycles and pedestrians that regularly spilled into the tram’s path.

Aftermath of the canal parade we arrived too late to see.

Our plan was simple: see the sights, people-watch, and eat good food.  We meandered around, found a good place for dinner, and returned to our hotel to get into warmer clothes for the evening.

Remember that tram pass? Well, in changing from shorts to long pants, my wallet and phone stayed with me, but the tram pass stayed in the front pocket of my shorts.  We turned a pretty simple commute back to downtown into an adventure.  Yes, we walked from the tram stop back to the hotel, grabbed my pass, and in the process missed the last ride to downtown from that stop.

No big deal, there was another stop maybe half a mile away.  We enjoyed a nice walk through a residential area to a bus stop adjacent to a roundabout.  But we found the roundabout under construction, unable to handle any traffic.  Plan C?  Walk another half a mile to a different stop.  We eventually made it, but admittedly a little more tired than planned.  It was an enjoyable, relaxed evening that ended back at the hotel a little after midnight.

Today 125 mi 221 mi 35.2 mi 2.7 mi
Total 646 mi 3,814 mi 91.8 mi 20.6 mi


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