Until recently, Schiphol had a good reputation for efficiency and cleanliness. Its reputation was tarnished recently when, as the pandemic waned, lines at security got longer and longer. It got so bad that many people who arrived at the airport well ahead of their flights still missed them as they shuffled their way through lines that extended out of the building and down the road. It took four hours to reach security.
But that’s not what this article is about. Things seem to be back under control. I recently passed through the airport again. I got there three and a half hours early out of fear of long security lines, but it only took me 15 minutes to get from the train station (which is right inside the airport) through security and passport control and into the departures hall. It would have taken longer if I’d had baggage to check. Still, if you get there early, you’ll have some time to kill at the airport.
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In this article I’ll take you through all the steps you’ll need to go through on the way from the entrance to the airplane. On the assumption that you’ll have time before checking in and/or after you go through security, I’ve included some tips about things to do while you wait.
Before you even go to your gate, if you have time, it’s worth taking a look at Schiphol Plaza, the public area before security. There’s not much to do other than shop, but things can be a bit cheaper there than in departures. If there’s anything you need to buy, it’s worth stopping there. Albert Hein, the grocery store, for example, emphasizes snacks and sandwiches and such, so if you want to take your own food on the flight, that’s the place to get it.
Go upstairs to Panorama Terrace if you prefer a cafeteria-style sit-down restaurant. It’s not the most atmospheric choice, but if you have kids, it’s got a children’s play area. What I like best up there, though, is that it’s a great place to watch the planes land and take off. You can go outside on the large rooftop terrace and see the planes without any glass between you and them, something that’s very unusual at airports these days. There’s also a real Fokker 100 airplane standing there on the terrace. You can go aboard and sit in the pilot’s seat or a passenger seat.
There’s one store in Schiphol Plaza that’s quite kid-friendly called Planes@Plaza. It sells all sorts of airplane-related products, and it even has a cockpit section of a plane that kids can see on the inside. They (and you!) can get up close to a set of landing gear and an engine – great for selfies.
Check-in and security
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport mismanaged its restart after the pandemic terribly. Expecting to be able to hire their workers back, they instead found that many had found better-paying jobs elsewhere. That meant they had to hire and train new people. Anyone who works in security at Schiphol has to be trained, but even before that they have to pass a government security clearance. It took time, and that’s when the four-hour lines happened that made the news internationally.
These days, the whole process goes quite smoothly and efficiently, especially when you consider that it’s one of the busiest airports – to be exact, the third busiest international airport in the world, according to the OAG.
Here are the steps you should take for check-in and security:
1. Check the monitors.
Your first step, when you arrive in the airport, should be to check the monitors at the entrances to the terminals – the terminals are all in one building. The monitor shows the scheduled time of departure, the destination, the flight number and airline, and the check-in counter and the gate for your flight. It’ll also show if it’s been delayed or cancelled.
Don’t panic if you don’t see your flight number and airline right away. So many flights are code-shared that the same flight can be listed under multiple airlines and flight numbers. Find the scheduled time on the monitor and wait – it’ll show all the code-sharing airlines one at a time.
2. Go upstairs to check in.
The entrance to Schiphol is on the arrivals level, while the check-in counters are upstairs. Before you go upstairs, see if you can check in at one of the machines you’ll see near the stairs and the escalators. Some airlines allow you to scan your passport into the machine and receive a printed boarding pass. Of course, if you’ve already checked in online, you’ll already have your boarding pass. If you can’t use the machine and haven’t checked in, you’ll need to go to a check-in desk upstairs.
Boarding pass, no luggage to check: If you have a boarding pass and don’t need to check any luggage, go upstairs and head straight to your gate. Pass through security and immigration to the departures hall. If you’ve arrived early and have extra time, stay downstairs and do your Schiphol Plaza shopping or enjoy the Panorama Terrace.
Here are some tips for traveling light so you don’t have to check bags.
Boarding pass, luggage to check in: If you have a boarding pass but also luggage to check, you’ll need to get in line at your airline’s desk upstairs, at the desk number you saw on the monitor. Some have separate lines for people who already have a boarding pass so that they can just drop off their luggage. KLM has machines that let you check your luggage in by yourself.
No boarding pass: If you don’t have a boarding pass, then you’ll have to get in line to check in at your airline’s counter. All you need is to have your passport ready.
Once you’ve checked yourself and your luggage in, follow the signs to your gate. They’ll take you to security.
3. Go through security.
Security lines can vary widely, from practically no wait at all to over an hour at particularly busy times of the year. What I appreciate, though, is that at the entrance to security, there’s a sign indicating how long the wait will be. It doesn’t make it any shorter, but it prepares you. Here are some tips for getting through security quickly.
- Don’t worry at Schiphol about taking your laptop out of your bag.
- You can carry liquids in containers up to 100 ml to a total of one liter. You can also carry a bigger plastic drink bottle with your drink in it. If your refillable bottle is metal, it has to be empty and you can refill it after security.
- Wear thin clothing, low shoes, and no belt. Otherwise you’ll have to take the belt and shoes off, as well as your jacket and any extra layers of clothing. All of that taking things off and putting them back on afterwards slows things down a lot.
- One thing to be aware of, though, is cheese. I often take Dutch cheese with me as gifts. The problem is that Gouda has the same density as plastic explosives! Don’t wrap your cheese gifts in wrapping paper; you’ll just end up having to unwrap them. Carry cheese in a separate plastic bag through security, then stick it in your hand luggage afterwards. That’ll make it quicker for the inspectors to take a look and wave you through. I’d suggest you don’t pack cheese in your checked luggage, though. Your bag is likely then to get opened by security in a back room somewhere. I’ve found that despite using supposedly TSA-approved locks, they get cut, or maybe the security people just don’t bother putting them back on. I’ve lost count of how many locks I’ve had to replace.
If your baggage gets pulled out for inspection at security, it’s usually because the person reading the images on their monitor can’t identify something. They’ll ask you to open your bag for them and they’ll find the thing they couldn’t identify. It’s happened to me quite a few times, and it’s usually something like my extra folding monitor or a mess of charger wires that they want to check out. While they’re at it, they’ll often swipe the luggage or items in it for something or other – it’s either looking for explosive residues or drug residues, I suspect. It never takes long.
4. Go to passport control.
The next step is passport control. All you need to do is show your passport and possibly answer a few questions about your plans, but generally, since you’re leaving the country rather than trying to enter it, they don’t really care much. Holders of certain passports can go through an automated system of gates. It’s not terribly quick – scanning your passport and then making you stand still while it photographs you slowly – but it’s generally quicker than going to one of the lines with a human in a booth. Choose the machine if you have the choice.
The Schiphol departure hall
After passport control you’ll arrive in the departure hall, which is actually four halls attached together. Of course, what Schiphol would most like you to do in the departure hall is shop and eat, and there’s plenty of opportunity to do both. There are a few other things to do too, but I’ll get to them later.
If you want to eat, there are a wide range of options in departures. Upstairs you’ll find various fast food outlets, but also a Jamie Oliver café. Downstairs, on the main floor, you’ll find a variety of cafes offering things like sandwiches, but also a decent Asian restaurant, for example, and “Grab and Go” outlets offering pre-packaged sandwiches and drinks.
As for drinks, you can enjoy anything from Starbucks to champagne.
If you want typical Dutch food, try the “Dutch Kitchen” for poffertjes (little puffy pancakes) or kibbeling (fried fish) or various warm or cold dishes. You can even eat at a table inside a massive “Delft” tea set.
Shopping has just as big a range. The duty-free shops have pretty much the same selection as duty-free shops around the world – big-name liquors, candies, perfumes, etc. – but Schiphol also offers some items packaged for tourists in the Netherlands, like chocolates wrapped up in Dutch themed paper, or stroopwafels in a metal tin.
You’ll see the usual range of upscale shops like Hermes and Gucci, but also some more down-to-earth gift shops. The airport is a good place to pick up very specific electronics: things you might need for your trip like power adapters and the like.
If you need gifts for people at home, there are some very Dutch things you can pick up here in the airport. Cheese, for example. In the fall, you can buy tulip bulbs that are legal to import to the US.
What to do in Schiphol departures besides shopping and eating
What I usually do if I have a lot of spare time is go wait in one of Aspire lounges. I can do this with my Priority Pass, which I highly recommend.
Though the lounges aren’t particularly fancy, food and drink is always available, the seating is comfortable, and they have plugs for your electronics. Their wifi is good and, generally speaking, the atmosphere is quieter than in the main departure hall. I’ve heard that the airline lounges are generally more luxurious.
However, you don’t need a lounge to be able to relax. Here and there, you can find lounge chairs – the long kind where you can put your feet out and really stretch out. Here are some places I’ve noticed these lounge chairs:
- Find the museum shop and look in the area between the shop and the windows looking out on the runways.
- Follow the signs up the escalator toward lounges 40-41 and the E gates. Right near where you would normally take an elevator further up to the lounge is a quiet space filled with lounge chairs.
- Near the “airport library” there are quite a few lounge chairs as well.
There might be more I haven’t spotted yet, so keep your eyes open.
Get a massage or get your nails done
At Xpres Spa you can get a massage, a manicure or a pedicure. A cheaper kind of massage comes from using an automatic massage chair called Massage-O-Matic: drop in some cash and enjoy the automatic massage the chair offers.
One Xpres Spa is about halfway down the D-pier just before it splits into two wings of gates. Another is up the escalator opposite a travel bookstore and Starbucks, not far from the lift toward the British Airways lounge. And the third is down the end of the hall between gates F and G, next to a “We Love Holland” shop and opposite another Starbucks.
As for the Massage-O-Matic chairs, there are 11 of them scattered around Departures. Some are in the B, D, E and H piers on the way to the gates. The rest are distributed along the main hall.
Go to the library
I have to say that calling this a library is a bit of an exaggeration. But there are shelves with pretty coffee table books that you can enjoy while you relax in one of the comfy chairs nearby. There’s also a piano – but please don’t play it unless you are an accomplished player. You risk angering the people trying to relax nearby.
Meditate or pray
If you want a quiet place to think, meditate or pray, a non-denominational meditation room is near the entrance to Pier E.
Take your kids to the children’s play areas
There are three “Children’s Corners” in the departures hall. One is in Lounge 1 (a confusing term because it isn’t a lounge – it’s just an area of the airport) past the entrance to the D gates. Another is in Lounge 2 on the other side of the entrance to the D gates. The third is the other end of Departures in Lounge 3, past the F gates.
Go to a museum
The Rijksmuseum shop, opposite the “library” area, is an excellent art-themed gift shop. What many people don’t know is that it also has a tiny branch of the Rijksmuseum in it, and it’s entirely free. Walk into the museum shop and you’ll see the museum. It’s really just a single room with a handful of artworks, but you’ll likely have them all to yourself. Generally the artworks are chosen by theme; the exhibit I saw most recently was about 18th-century paintings of nature. One time I was lucky enough to see a wonderful Breugel there, and I had it all to myself, which meant I could stand there and study all the little details without bothering anyone.
Watch the clock
In the center area of the departures hall, a place that is mostly filled with tables from the various restaurants and cafés in the area, hangs an enormous clock. That’s to be expected in an airport, of course, but this is no ordinary clock. It’s a work of art.
It looks, at first glance, as if someone is up there repairing the clock. As you watch, it’ll soon becomes clear that something else entirely is happening. It looks as if a man is standing next to the clock. Every minute, he paints on a new minute hand, then wipes it off with a cloth and neatly paints it in again pointing to the next minute. Although the action repeats, each time slightly different, 60 times per hour – he has to repaint the hour hand from time to time as well – there’s something mesmerizing about the sight. I’ve found myself sitting and watching, finding it hard to tear myself away.
The M gates
The departure hall I’ve described above is not accessible if your flight departs from one of the M gates. This is where some of the budget airlines leave from, and has much less to offer. There’s food and one single shop, and that’s pretty much all. You can’t get to the main international departure hall from M.
Because there’s so little to do, I’d recommend waiting a bit longer before going through security – it’s a separate security from the other gates. Explore Schiphol Plaza instead. Make sure to check with your budget airline, though, about when they close their gate. They’re famous for being very strict, so if you get through security too late, you’ll miss your flight. But getting there two hours ahead of your flight just means you’ll be bored.
I can give you one tip, though: once you’re through security, don’t just wait in the main waiting area of the M gates. If you walk into the hallway leading to the gates – they’re all in a long line here – you’ll find some comfortable lounge chairs. Just keep checking the monitors because at the M gates they don’t tell you which actual gate your flight leaves from until fairly last minute.
FAQs about Schiphol
Is Schiphol wheelchair accessible?
Yes, accessibility is very good at Schiphol. Anywhere there are stairways or escalators, there’s also an elevator option. If you’re going to need help with, for example, security, or getting to your gate, contact the airline or the airport ahead of time and you can get an aide to accompany you. However, if you’re flying one of the budget airlines like Ryanair or Easyjet, there is no jetway – only a stairway to board the plane, so avoid the cheapie airlines.
Is there luggage storage at Schiphol?
Yes, there is. Go to the basement between Arrivals 1 and 2 and you’ll find it there. It’ll cost you, but if you have a long enough layover to leave the airport, it’s worth it.
How do I get to Amsterdam from the airport?
Public transportation is the best and cheapest way to get to Amsterdam city center. There is a train station right in the airport. Just follow the signs, and you’ll see a big open hall. At one end, right near a Starbucks, is the ticket booth. Go there if you need to get information from an actual person. If not, there are big yellow machines you can use to buy tickets. The trains are downstairs, so just look on the monitors (or ask at the ticket booth) which track you need and go down the corresponding escalator or elevator.
If you buy a ticket from a machine, choose today’s date. That way, you don’t have to worry about scanning in or out of the train. Otherwise, buy a ticket with the date unspecified, but then you’ll need to remember to scan it at one of the small yellow scanners near the track entrances before you descend to the track.
If you’re aiming for the historical center of Amsterdam, you don’t want the train to Amsterdam-Zuid; you want Amsterdam Centraal. It takes about 20 minutes to get there.
How early should I arrive at Schiphol Airport?
Your best rule of thumb is to find out when your airline’s check-in desk opens and to be at the airport by then. A more general guide is to arrive 1.5-2 hours early for flights within the Schengen area and 3 hours early for flights outside Schengen. However, it is wise to check the Schiphol website for its estimate of how busy the airport is going to be.
How do I find out where I should check in and where my gate is?
When you arrive at the airport on the train, go up the escalators from track level to the ground floor. If you’re arriving by bus or car, you’ll likely be dropped off on the arrivals level. Follow the signs for arrivals/departures 1, 2 or 3 – don’t worry if you don’t know which terminal you need. They’re all connected so you can walk from one to the other. At the point between the train station area and the terminals, you’ll see monitors hanging from the ceiling. They list all the flights going out that day. The monitors say both where you should check in and what gate the flight will leave from, if that’s known yet.
The check-in counters, baggage check-in and the entrances to the gates are upstairs. If you need to check luggage, go to the check-in desk listed on the monitor. There are usually lines, but not too bad.
How big is Amsterdam Schiphol Airport?
According to Schiphol, the airport accommodated over 6 million passengers in August 2023, with over 41,000 flight movements, just to give an idea of how busy it is.
Despite that, it’s a fairly easy airport to get around. There are three terminals, but they’re all attached together. You may have to walk quite a long way if your gate is far out at the end of one of the piers, but you won’t have to get on a train or other transportation to travel from terminal to terminal, like in some airports. It’s all under one roof.
If you’re leaving on one of the budget airlines, you’ll either have to walk across the tarmac to your plane and climb the stairs to it, or you’ll be taken by bus out to where the plane is parked, again climbing the stairs to board.
Are there hotels at the airport?
Yes, there are several. Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel and Conference Center and Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol are right across the street from the airport. They’re not cheap, but none of the hotels in Amsterdam are cheap. I haven’t stayed at either of these, but they’re both four-star hotels from good hotel chains.
The Yotelair Amsterdam Schiphol – Transit Hotel inside the terminal is a good choice if you have only carry-on luggage and you’ve got an early flight. To stay there, you check in to your flight online, then go through security to reach the hotel inside the departures hall. It’s a pod hotel of sorts – not half-height like in Japan but nevertheless extremely small and without windows. If you’re not claustrophobic it’s comfortable enough and clean, and when you’re not sleeping you can wander the departures hall as much as you want. I reviewed it some years ago here.
If you’re taking a budget flight from Gate M and stay in the Yotel, you’ll end up going through security twice: first you’ll have to go through it to get to the hotel, then again in the morning you’ll exit the departure hall and then go through security again to get to Gate M.
Another option is the citizenM Schiphol Airport, which is a short walk away from the terminal. It’s a very trendy hotel with self-service check-in, huge beds, and shower and toilet in odd space-age cylinders with fancy lighting. Nevertheless, it’s a comfortable night’s sleep and makes an early departure far easier.
There are many other hotels that call themselves things like Hotel X Schiphol Airport that aren’t actually at Schiphol. They’re often distinctly cheaper, but you can’t walk to them. Make sure to check whether the hotel you’re considering has shuttle service, which is generally free or cheap, to avoid having to take a taxi. Also, if you have an early flight out, check how early their shuttle starts in the morning. If your flight is at 8 in the morning and their shuttle doesn’t leave till 8, you’ll have to take a taxi. You can find these hotels by zooming out on the map below:
Can I sleep in Schiphol Airport Amsterdam?
If you have an overnight layover, see the section above about hotels at the airport to find an actual bed to sleep in. Otherwise, see the section further above about where you can rest within the airport. There are several places where you can find comfortable lounge chairs.
If I have a long layover at Schiphol Amsterdam, can I leave and do some sightseeing?
First things first: are you even allowed to leave the airport? Do you need a visa? If you’re an EU citizen, you’re fine. Otherwise, you’ll need to check out what the requirements are ahead of time.
If you are allowed to leave, then the decision depends on a) the length of your layover and b) your comfort level with risk.
Before leaving the airport, consider all the ramifications. Depending on where your flight originates, you might have to go through passport control, which can mean a long wait. Remember that it’s not just your fellow passengers joining the lines there. It’s also the passengers of several flights that landed before yours and the ones that landed after yours. I’ve had to wait as much as an hour at immigration.
Next is luggage pickup. Often the walk to your flight’s assigned carousel is long, but on the other hand because it took so long to get through immigration you don’t end up waiting very long once you get there. Then again, you might.
Assuming your luggage is checked through to your destination, you don’t have to wait for luggage at all. In that case, you can head right for customs and the exit. If it’s not, you should expect some delay before you get your luggage.
Next you’ll walk through customs. Choose the green route unless you have something you want to declare to customs. You might still get pulled out for a spot-check, though. If that happens it’ll add time to your exit from the airport.
Once you pass through customs and you’re released into the publicly-accessible part of the airport, either you need to head to the airport’s basement level to put your luggage in a locker, or you’ll walk to the train station, which is right inside the airport. Buy a train ticket – make sure to buy a round-trip ticket! – at the ticket booth (more time waiting in line) or at a yellow machine (much quicker). Read the monitors to figure out what track you need, then go downstairs to wait for a train to Amsterdam Central station. These generally run quite often and take about 20 minutes.
So we’re at, potentially, two and a half hours to get to the city.
Then you also have to keep in mind getting back to the airport. You’ll take the train for 20 minutes, then have to go through security again. Remember that, if it’s busy, it can take as much as an hour these days.
So it seems to me that you need at least four hours to get to central Amsterdam and back again in time to catch your next flight. And you need to keep in mind that the gate often closes well before the flight is actually scheduled to leave. If you tend to be nervous about cutting things close, like I am, I’d leave more like six hours. And that’s without actually seeing anything once you’re in the city.
This is where your comfort level with risk comes in. Mine is very low. If you have a short layover of six hours or so, and you feel confident about cutting it close for catching your next flight, then you could take the risk. In that case, though, you wouldn’t have much time to see much.
If your layover is closer to six hours long than ten, stick with sights near Amsterdam Centraal Station. The Museum Ons Lieve Heer op Solder or Body Worlds or the Maritime Museum are all quite nearby the station. So is the very child-friendly NEMO: a science museum in a remarkable building. Or take a walk to see the nearer parts of the canals of Amsterdam. Dam Square, home to the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church, which is not new and not a church anymore), is only a bit further. Another option is to take a free ferry across the IJ river right from the train station to the A’Dam Lookout. There, you can enjoy the view of the city. You can also take a ride on the “Over the Edge” swing, if you dare.
Another option – especially if you’re traveling with a family or friends group – is to book a private tour right from the airport for the length of your layover.
If you have a longer layover – say, ten hours – you can venture further from the train station. You’ll have plenty of time to take a canal cruise to see Amsterdam’s UNESCO World Heritage canals and the hundreds of historical rowhouses lining the canals. You could visit the Van Gogh Museum or the Rijksmuseum outside the canal ring in the Museum Quarter. Or tour the Anne Frank House (but only if you’ve reserved ahead of time).
I’m assuming, by the way, that it’s a daytime layover. If it’s an overnight stay, remember that the trains run less often and little will be open besides clubs. You could sign up for a nighttime tour of one sort or another. If it was me, I’d get some sleep instead.
Whatever you decide to do, bring a battery pack for your phone so you can keep it charged. Many restaurants and businesses have wifi, but having a sim that works in the Netherlands would be even better. It’s a good idea to set an alarm for when you should head back to Amsterdam Central Station to catch a train to the airport. Amsterdam has so much to do and see that you could easily lose track of time.
If you have a long layover and want to see a number of popular sights in Amsterdam, it might be most economical to use a GoCity Pass, which will get you deep discounts.
Don’t even think about going into the city to try one of Amsterdam’s famous “coffee shops”! Smelling of marijuana or acting stoned or drunk could very easily get you barred from your next flight. Many countries, after all, aren’t nearly as tolerant as the Netherlands.
Do I need euros in cash?
No, generally you don’t. It’s very rare that businesses won’t accept a bank card or debit card. Not all businesses will accept credit cards, and if they do, they’re more likely to take Visa or Mastercard than American Express.
Is Schiphol Airport open 24 hours a day?
Yes, though the businesses close by late evening at 21:00 or 22:00 for the most part.
What is the Schiphol Airport code?
My travel recommendations
- Skyscanner is where I always start my flight searches.
- Booking.com is the company I use most for finding accommodations. If you prefer, Expedia offers more or less the same.
- Discover Cars offers an easy way to compare prices from all of the major car-rental companies in one place.
- Use Viator or GetYourGuide to find walking tours, day tours, airport pickups, city cards, tickets and whatever else you need at your destination.
- Bookmundi is great when you’re looking for a longer tour of a few days to a few weeks, private or with a group, pretty much anywhere in the world. Lots of different tour companies list their tours here, so you can comparison shop.
Other travel-related items
- Get a Priority Pass if you fly a lot so that you can use airport lounges while you wait for flights. Plan your visits around meals and/or drink times and it’s definitely worth the investment!
- I’m a fan of SCOTTeVEST’s jackets and vests because when I wear one, I don’t have to carry a handbag. I feel like all my stuff is safer when I travel because it’s in inside pockets close to my body.
- Airalo is an e-sim card. You buy it through an app and activate it when you need it. I tried it on my trip to Thailand and it worked just like any other sim card, but without my having to fuss with physical cards.
- I use ExpressVPN on my phone and laptop when I travel. It keeps me safe from hackers when I use public or hotel wifi.