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Ditto from me for Carol's advice. And I would actually fly back the day after you disembark in case the ship is late arriving. Better one night in a hotel than to miss the flight and end up a no-show. Difficult to resolve those when overseas.
I see that this flight is almost 11 hours long. You might consider a layover in Boston of New York, which cuts about 2 hours off the flight time
Also suggest, similar to what Carol said, that you pack a deck of cards, some books, crossword puzzles, sudoku, etc. as the on board entertainment does not always fill the voids.
Sorry, my laptop decided she didn't want to communicate. without a restart.
Your first international flight: the very best assistance would come from another cruise passenger who is also flying to IAH. Ask around during the cruise. Very important that you have plenty of time before your flight departs. Airports are rather pleasant places these days, with good food and shops to wander in, so don't worry about arriving too early. When you have plenty of time, situations that might panic someone else can be handled easily because you're calm and able to think clearly.
The best advice I can give you is what I remind my husband, every trip. Stop, take a deep breath, look around, absorb it all before acting. For example, when you enter an airport , it seems like sheer chaos. Step to the side, watch the action, figure out what's happening. One major difference in many European airports is withholding the gate number until shortly before the flight. There are monitors in huge waiting areas (usually conveniently located in the middle of a vast area of duty-free shops) which beam up your gate number when it's ready. Many Euro airports do not have the familiar airline logo to guide you to a checkin desk. Again, have a look around and you'll see signage that tells you where to check in, often each area has a letter. There will be monitors above the checkin desks with the name of the airline. Some airlines have time constraints on checking baggage ... you may have to wait with your luggage until they're ready for you. If you are not on a non-stop flight, be sure you understand exactly what happens to you and your luggage at your first US airport. Airline agents often do not have the time to give you personalized advice, so know what the procedure is before you check in. You can confirm everything with the agent, but it helps to have a knowledge base first.
The international formalities are straight-forward, just go along following the signage for customs and immigration and security. Have a look at AMS on the internet, there will be maps, lists of facilities, all kinds of useful information. English is used around the world, especially in aviation, but learning a few Dutch words like "gate, departures, restroom (often called a WC or water closet), security" and the most important ones: "please, thank you, excuse me, can you help me?" Always greet a person first, don't do the "ugly American" thing of barging up to someone and blurting out a question. I don't think you can possibly have too much knowledge before your first international flight.
I think you're doing a river cruise, one of life's most enjoyable experiences. Please don't hesitate to come back with questions ... we're always happy to get an international traveller on a smooth path.
AMS is a huge airport and can seem rather chaotic, especially since it is still under construction. You can download airport maps here. I recommend arriving at least 3 hours before departure.
If you fly coach, you will have to check your own bags using their machines that measure & weigh the bags. The first time I used them, I was a little flustered, but if you take that deep breath and just follow the instructions carefully, it's no problem. Keep in mind, unlike checking in with an agent, there is no arguing with the machines - the weight that shows is what counts. When I pack my bags, I make sure to stay at least 1-2 lbs under the allowed weight as a safe margin.
When you go through security, take out all electronics from your carry-on (including cameras). If you have a bunch of chargers & chords, take those out too. Fluids also, of course. But you won't have to take off your shoes.
Passport control may be an automatic reader or a manned border security booth, depending on the time of day.
If you fly an American carrier, there usually is an extra little interview (for Delta it takes place at "gate D-1") to placate the American DHS, with questions like "did you pack your own bag?" Upon "passing" the interview, you will get a little sticker on your passport and will be informed of your real departure gate. Sometimes there will be an additional security check at the departure gate (supposedly by random selection); if so, you will have to take off your shoes then and have your carry-ons inspected again.
Lots of shops and restaurants both before and after check-in. Distances to the gates can be substantial - if you have mobility issues, be sure to request assistance ahead of time.
Everyone at AMS speaks English. In fact, when I went to submit my claim to have my VAT refunded, the woman at the counter didn't even speak Dutch!
I agree with Christina. I'd take advantage of flying between 2 major international airports and book a nonstop flight. That way there won't be an issue with connection time and any delays won't have as much of an impact. You're also much less likely to have issues with delayed or lost luggage.
Thanks to all of your answers. Would anyone care to suggest which airline you have used from Amsterdam to Houston? We will definitely fly to Tampa, Florida the day before our cruise starts. But we will be flying back into Houston our home base. It is just the getting back from Amsterdam I am concerned with, as a 6 hour flight from Alaska pushed all my negative buttons. I have had to cancel this cruise before and I am determined to do it this time!
Your statement about a prior cancellation reminded me to recommend that you speak with a travel insurance broker before booking your trip (see this Elliott Article). They know what to ask (that you and I don't) in order to steer you toward the right coverage for your needs.
I don't know how far you are staying from the airport - Schiphol airport I am assuming, but if you are planning to take public transit it is wise to take small delays into account. As Lizzie1492 says Schiphol is a big airport and there are plenty ways to amuse oneself there if you are there early. I see Carol Phillips suggests a flight leaving at 1 pm or later, but be careful as these are peak hours at Schiphol, anything after early morning really - be sure to be there 3 hours before departure (as is firmly recommended for all intercontinental flights from that airport really).
Not all airlines will have the baggage machines that Lizzie1492 describes, so you may encounter the traditional counters depending on the airline you end up going with, though I personally love them. I know that KLM/AirFrance uses them.
Timing is really the biggest issue in flying from Amsterdam. Public transit sometimes has delays, generally no more than 30 min though. The airport is big and I really recommend checking in and especially going through security as soon as you can because the ques there can get long; that way you can find a spot to relax near your departure gate without additional stress. Note that there are school holidays in the Netherlands in the first week of May, until the 6th, so it may get busier than normal at the airport.
Bluejeanlady -- one thing I would urge you to do is book directly with the operating carrier -- for that route, there seem to be two options -- United and KLM. Different partners will sell seats as a code share (ie Delta on KLM, Lufthansa on United) but usually one can only get early seat assignments (yes the paid type) when purchasing the tickets from the operating carrier -- code share tickets often are not eligible. Also be certain to look at the fares and not purchase a "light" or "basic" ticket that does not allow check in luggage if you want to check in a piece. Do not purchase from an online travel agency as it adds an extra layer of complication.
Book a nonstop if at all possible. That is my best advice. The less plane changes, the less the headaches that can possibly occur. Also, to reiterate what others have said: book directly with the carrier of your choice. Do not try looking for that "deal" or using a shady website to save money. It almost never ends up paying off in the end. If you are on cruise boards, be wary of those saying that they got a deal on flights. I am sure they did. With 5 extra stops, 2 hotel stays, and checking/re-checking luggage. The old adage is true, you can save time or money, but not both.
Cruise lines usually sell/include 'transfers' from the ship to the airport. That's often a good worry-free move, but be careful about exactly what time that transfer will get you to AMS vs your flight departure. I don't know if you would be less concerned if you transfer to the airport for a flight that day, or spend that final night in an airport hotel and fly home the next day.
I prefer to take that final day of my vacation getting off the ship, settling into a hotel, maybe take a train into 'town' for some sightseeing and a nice dinner. I'm relaxed and ready for my flight the next morning. If AMS has a hotel literally connected to the airport you can just load your luggage on a cart and push it over to the checkin area. It's simple and worry-free.
Which airline? Most travellers prefer non-US-based airlines for better comfort and service, but it's a personal choice. My colleagues have given you all the 'dos and don'ts' of booking the air. If nobody else mentioned it, always book flights yourself (or with a real travel agent) and never let the cruise line take care of that. I'm always astonished at the stories I hear from other cruisers regarding their air arrangements ... terrible flight times, too many connections, too little time to make those connections ... the list is endless.