The Netherlands is an extraordinarily simple place to reach. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has copious air links worldwide, including many on low-cost European airlines, and the links on high-speed trains are especially good from France, Belgium and Germany. Other land options are user-friendly and the border crossings are nearly invisible thanks to the EU. There are also several ferry links with the UK and Scandinavia.
What’s more, once you get to the Netherlands the transport stays hassle-free. Most journeys by rail, car or bus are so short that you can reach most regional destinations before your next meal. And with a country as flat as this, getting around by bicycle is a dream.
The Netherlands is more than easy to get around. If you are sticking to the major cities and sights, you won’t need a car as the train and bus system blankets the country. Or you can do as the Dutch do and provide your power on a bike.
An excellent online information source, covering everything from bus and train connections to city metro lines, is www.9292ov.nl.
Renting a boat is a popular way to tour the many rivers, lakes and inland seas. Boats come in all shapes and sizes from canoes to motor boats to small sailing boats to large and historic former cargo sloops. Prices run the gamut and there are hundreds of rental firms throughout the country.
Buses are used for regional transport rather than for long distances, which are better travelled by train. They provide a vital service, especially in parts of the north and east, where trains are less frequent or nonexistent. The national strippenkaart is used on most regional buses. The fares are zone-based, but figure on roughly one strip for every five minutes of riding.
There is only one class of travel and passes exist for regions within provinces; drivers are well informed on such deals and can sell them on the spot. Reservations aren’t possible – and definitely not necessary – on either regional or municipal lines, most of which run quite frequently. For details about regional buses around the country, consult www.9292ov.nl or call the transport information service on 09009292 (calls cost €0.70 per minute).
One fare system covers the entire country, and comes in the form of the handy strippenkaart (strip card), the Netherlands’ universal tool of travel. It’s available from tobacco shops, post offices, train-station counters, many bookshops and newsagencies, and can be bought in denominations of two (€1.60), three (€2.40), 15 (€6.70) and 45 (€19.80) strips. Bus and tram drivers only sell two- and three-strip cards, so you’re better off hunting down the larger, more economical strip cards.
To validate your journey just jump on a tram, bus or metro and stamp off a number of strips depending on how many zones you plan to cross. The ticket is then valid on all buses, trams, metro systems and city trains for an hour or longer depending on the number of strips you’ve stamped. In most towns you punch two strips (one for the journey and one for the zone), with an additional strip for each additional zone.
In the central areas of cities and towns, you usually will only need to stamp two strips –the minimum fee. When riding on trams and metros it’s up to you to stamp your card, as fare dodgers can be fined on the spot. The machines are usually located on board trams and at the entrance to metro platforms.
The buses are more conventional, with drivers stamping the strips as you get on. More than one person can use a strippenkaart, and children and pensioners get reductions. Note that if you get caught without a properly stamped strip, playing the ignorant foreigner (the ‘doofus’ strategy) will guarantee that you get fined €30.
Note that plans are afoot to phase out the strippenkaart and replace with chip cards. At the time of research information was thin on the ground, but the cards will work like debit cards; money can be loaded onto them and then the cards can be used to validate travel on buses, trams and metros. For more information, consult a tourist office or train station ticketing office.
Dutch freeways are extensive but prone to congestion. Those around Amsterdam, the A4 south to Belgium and the A2 southeast to Maastricht are especially likely to be jammed at rush hours and during busy travel periods; a total length of 350km or more isn’t unheard of during the holiday season.
Smaller roads are usually well maintained, but the campaign to discourage car use throws up obstacles – you may find the road narrows to a single lane in sections, or an assortment of speed-bumps and other ‘traffic-calming schemes’.
Like much of Western Europe, petrol is very expensive and fluctuates on a regular basis. At the time of research it was about €1.40 per litre (about US$6.50 per gallon). Gasoline (petrol) is benzine in Dutch, while unleaded fuel is loodvrij. Leaded fuel is no longer sold in the Netherlands. Liquid petroleum gas can be purchased at petrol stations displaying LPG signs.
Petrol isn’t noticeably more or less expensive outside of towns. Cheaper fuel is generally available from cut-rate chains such as Tango or TinQ – just ask the locals.
The Netherlands is well covered for car hire. However, outside Amsterdam the car-hire companies can be in inconvenient locations if you’re arriving by train. You can look for local car-rental firms in telephone directories under the heading Autoverhuur. You must be at least 23 years of age to hire a car in the Netherlands. Some car-hire firms levy a small surcharge (€10 or so) for drivers under 25. Most will ask either for a deposit or a credit-card imprint as a guarantee of payment.
Collision damage waiver (CDW), an insurance policy which limits your financial liability for damage, is highly recommended when hiring a car. If you don’t take out this insurance, you’ll be liable for damages up to the full value of the vehicle.
If you rely on your credit card for cover, take time to review the terms and conditions. In the event of an accident you may be required to pay for repairs out of your own pocket and reclaim the sum from the credit-card company later, a procedure that can be fraught with problems.
Note that at most car-rental firms, CDW does not cover the first €500 to €1000 of damages incurred, but an excess cover package, for around €10 to €20 per day, is normally available to cover this amount.
Dutch trains are efficient, fast and comfortable – most of the time. Trains are frequent and serve domestic destinations at regular intervals, sometimes five or six times an hour. Short-term visitors may be fortunate, but overall the network has been plagued by poor punctuality in recent years. Rush-hour periods around the Randstad seem to notch up the most delays. The situation may be improving, if only because NS (national inquiries 09009292, international inquiries 09009296; www.ns.nl) has little choice: its profitability is linked to its on-time rates. Some rural lines have been hived off to combination train-and-bus operators who coordinate schedules across the region.
Many stations across the country have electronic left-luggage lockers, which cost around €4 for 24 hours. The majority, inconveniently, are bank-card operated; Amsterdam’s Centraal Station lockers are still coin operated, however.
The longest train journey in the Netherlands (Maastricht–Groningen) takes about 4½ hours, but the majority of trips are far shorter. Trains have 1st-class sections, but these are often little different from the 2nd-class areas and, given the short journeys, not worth the extra cost.
Trains can be an all-stops stoptrein, a faster sneltrein (fast train, indicated with an S) or an even faster Intercity (IC). Intercity Express (ICE) trains travel between Amsterdam and Cologne and only stop in Utrecht and Arnhem; they’re quite fast (a 10-minute saving to Arnhem), but you pay a €2 supplement at the counter or ticket machine, or €4 on board the train.
The high-speed Thalys only stops at Amsterdam, Schiphol, Den Haag and Rotterdam before going on to Antwerp, Brussels and Paris (or Luxembourg). It requires a special ticket, available at the international ticket counters.
There are several train passes for people living both inside and outside the Netherlands. These can all be purchased in Europe or in the Netherlands, with the exception of the Holland Rail Pass; generally, you’ll need to show your passport. The websites www.international-rail.com, www.raileurope.co.uk and www.raileurope.com offer online purchases.
The Voordeelurenabonnement (Off-Peak Discount Pass) is a great way to save money if you’re going to be seeing the country by train. It costs €55, is valid for one year and provides a 40% discount on train travel on weekdays after 9am, as well as at weekends and on public holidays. The discount also applies to up to three people travelling with you on the same trip. The card is available at train-station counters.
The Eurodomino Pass allows three to eight days’ unlimited travel during a one-month period in one of 25 European and North African countries. For the Netherlands, the three-day pass costs UK£43/32 adult/under 26 in 2nd class and about 50% more in 1st class. The five-day version runs UK£69/53 adult/under 26 and roughly two-thirds more for 1st class.
Another option is the Holland Rail Pass, which allows you unlimited travel for any three (1st/2nd class UK£73/49) or five (1st/2nd class UK£118/79) days within one month. There are no reductions for youths or seniors.
If your trip will encompass all three Low Countries then the Benelux Pass is useful, as it covers Belgium and Luxembourg in addition to the Netherlands. The pass is good for any five days in one month and includes a substantial Eurostar discount if you are travelling from the UK. In 2nd class it costs UK£129/97 adult/under 26. A 1st-class version costs UK£193 (there’s no age discount).
An Inter-Rail Pass is good for people who can show they have lived in Europe for at least six months. A 2nd-class pass covering the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France costs UK£215/145 adult/under 26 for 16 days’ unlimited travel.
Outside Europe the Eurailpass is heavily marketed. Good for 18 countries, it’s more than overkill if you’re just visiting the Netherlands or even the Benelux region. A 15-day pass costs US$394 for those under 26 in 2nd class (the only class available); adults pay US$605 in 1st class (again, the only option). You can buy these at travel agents or Europe Rail (www.europerail.com), an international sales arm of the French railways.
More than 100 train stations offer an excellent treintaxi (train taxi) service that takes you to/from the station within a limited area. The cost per person per ride is €4.20 at a train-station counter or ticketing machine, or €5 direct from the driver. The service operates daily from 7am (from 8am Sunday and public holidays) till the last train. There’s usually a special call box outside near the normal taxi rank.
These are special taxis and it’s a shared service – the driver determines the route and the ride might take a bit longer than with a normal taxi, but the price is certainly right. Ask the counter operator or taxi driver for a pamphlet listing all participating stations and the relevant phone numbers for bookings. There’s also a central information number; call 09008734682 (calls cost €0.35 per minute).
The treintaxi service is handy for reaching places far from stations that don’t have frequent bus services. Unfortunately, some major stations (Amsterdam CS, Den Haag CS or HS, Rotterdam CS) are excluded.
For national trains, simply turn up at the station: you’ll rarely have to wait more than an hour for a train to anywhere. Services along the major routes stop around midnight (often much earlier on minor routes), but there are night trains once an hour in both directions along the Utrecht–Amsterdam–Schiphol–Leiden–Den Haag–Delft–Rotterdam route. Intercityboekje (€2) is a handy small booklet listing the schedules of all IC trains, with an excellent map of the entire system.
In stations, schedules are posted by route. Figure out where you’re going and look up the schedule and track numbers. One annoyance: trip duration and arrival time information aren’t included on the station schedules, so you’ll have to ask staff.
Several companies offer tours of the Netherlands aboard luxury riverboats. Aimed at older and well-heeled travellers, these tours are more like cruises than actual sightseeing tours.
Cycletours Holland (020-521 84 90; www.cycletours.com; Buiksloterweg 7A, Amsterdam) Conducts short tours of up to a week by bicycle and canal barge. Tours average eight days and cost around €640 (cabin with shared shower and toilet).
Hat Tours (0299-690 771; www.hat-tours.com; Venediën 26-I, 1441 AK Purmerend) Offers similar tours to Cycletours Holland and appeals to cyclists and nature lovers.
Holland River Line (026-445 80 08; www.hollandriverline.nl; Teldersstraat 9, 68 42 CT Arnhem) Cruise in style with one of the biggest operators, with lazy trips along Dutch rivers into Belgium and Germany.
Lowlands Travel (06-2334 2046; www.lowlandstravel.nl; Korvelplein 176, 5025 JX Tilburg) Down-to-earth nature- and culture-oriented holidays, lasting from three days to a week for groups of two to eight people, mostly outdoorsy types aged 20 to 40.
Ferries connect the mainland with the five Frisian Islands. Other ferries span the Westerschelde in the south of Zeeland, providing a link between the southwestern expanse of the country and Belgium. These are popular with people using the Zeebrugge ferry terminal and run frequently year-round. There is also a frequent ferry service on the IJsselmeer linking Enkhuizen with Stavoren and Urk. You’ll also find a few small river ferries providing crossings on remote stretches of the IJssel and other rivers.
With a country as small as the Netherlands (the longest train journey, between Groningen and Maastricht, takes 4¼ hours), there is no need to fly anywhere. There is however the occasional flight from Amsterdam Schiphol to Eindhoven, and a number of daily flights between Amsterdam and Maastricht. They’re chiefly used by business passengers transferring to international flights at Schiphol, and flights are quite expensive.
Any Dutch town you visit is liable to be blanketed with bicycle paths. They’re either on the streets or in the form of smooth off-road routes. In many cases the fastest way to get around is by bike.
The Netherlands is extremely bike-friendly and a fiets (bicycle) is the way to go; once you’re in the country you can pedal almost everywhere on 20,000km of dedicated bicycle paths. Everything is wonderfully flat, but that also means powerful wind.
The ANWB publishes cycling maps for each province, and tourist offices always have numerous routes and suggestions. Major roads have separate bike lanes, and, except for motorways, there’s virtually nowhere bicycles can’t go. That said, in places such as the Delta region and along the coast you’ll often need muscles to combat the North Sea headwinds.
Over 100 stations throughout the country have bicycle facilities for hire, protected parking, repair and sales.
Bicycles are prohibited on trains during the weekday rush hours (6.30am to 9am and 4.30pm to 6pm), except for the Hoek van Holland boat train. There are no restrictions on holidays, at weekends or during July and August.
You may bring your bicycle onto any train as long as there is room; a day passfor bikes (€6) is valid in the entire country regardless of the distance involved. There are no fees for collapsible bikes so long as they can be considered hand luggage. Some trains such as the single-level Intercity carriages have very limited space. However, on popular stretches there’s often a special bicycle carriage that increases capacity. If your planned train has no room for your bike, you’ll have to wait for the next train.
Although about 85% of the population owns bikes, and there are more bikes than people, bikes are also abundantly available for hire. In most cases you’ll need to show your passport and leave an imprint of your credit card or a deposit (around €25 to €100). Private operators and train station hire shops (called Rijwiel) charge €4 to €7 per day, and €25 to €35 per week; rental in Amsterdam is around 30% higher.
Your basic used bicycle (no gears, with coaster brakes, maybe a bit rickety) can be bought for around €50 to €75 from bicycle shops or the classified ads. Count on paying €100 or more for a reliable two-wheeler with gears. Stolen bikes are available on the street for as little as €15, but it’s highly illegal and the cash usually goes straight into a junkie’s arm. Good new models start at around €200 on sale, but top-of-the-line brands can cost €1000 or more.