Those who follow me on Twitter (@HansontheBike) got a pretty good impression of what I have been doing the last three weeks. Karen and I were in the Netherlands. I live in Canada and although on average I go back once a year, it is often for work, which means I can only add a day or two to my trip in the weekend.
We also go to other places in Europe, but we make sure we make a stop over in the Netherlands for 4 to 5 days. However, in all those 17 years I never went back for a proper stay. This year we decided it was time for a three week holiday in The Netherlands.
Figuring out the transportation system
I had to do some preparation, like figuring out the transport system. When I left in 1998, we still bought a ticket for the train, and another one for the bus and subway systems. A few years ago the Netherlands introduced a nationwide transit pass. It has caused a lot of confusion as things are perhaps clear for those who implement it, but not for those who all of a sudden had to use it.
Example: there is a personal OV card (OV chipkaart), so I thought that is a great idea to have. But it is not available for people without a Dutch bank account. The solution is an anonymous card, but in order to take the train, it needs to be loaded with at least 20 Euros, even if you go for a 5 Euro ride; with a family of four (each person needs an own card), that adds up. You don’t want to leave Holland with four passes in your pocket with Euros left on it. Also, the anonymous cards expire after a few years. So the one way paper ticket was reinvented after much complaining, but now with an embedded chip.
As the system is comprehensive, you have to check out to calculate your trip. People forget to check out and people forget to claim the money back after the card expires; no doubt you need a Dutch bank account to receive the money.
If you don’t have a personal OV chipkaart, you also can not get the temporary lucrative 25 Euro a month ‘dal-uren-kaart’, which gives you, plus three co-travellers 40% discount between 9 am and 4:30 pm and then after 6:30 pm (the off peak hours, or ‘valley hours’ as the Dutch call them). There are lots of options, I found it a bit frustrating to figure everything out, even though I speak Dutch. So I called the Dutch railways with questions. Wrong. I was supposed to call OV Chipkaart. Bummer, you can only call them from Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg. I did find a Twitter account though and communicated through Twitter. That worked fairly well. For the NS (Dutch railways), use @NS_online, for the OV Chipkaart, use @OVchipkaart). It is important to understand that OV Chipkaart organises the cards only (“The product”), the transportation providers like NS and bus companies offer the subscriptions, discounts etc (“The services”)
But how does the card of my co-traveller ‘know’ that it is travelling on a 40% discount? One has to turn to a machine at the station (where you download your orders into your card) and the co-traveller has to chose the co-travel option. Interestingly, it doesn’t ask for the card of the person who bought the daluren discount card to check if he actually has paid for the option. I guess the railways staff in the train kind of judges the situation.
How about bikes on the train?
You can take bikes on the train for 6 Euros a bike for a day pass. The trains seem to have set aside some places for bikes, mostly 3-4 max in one place at the entrance of the train car. You can also take the bike on the subways, but not on buses. Most stations are reasonably equipped with either bike troughs or an elevator. Oddly, the elevators we used were either somewhat gross (was that a puddle of pee?) and just ten cm too short for a convenience ride up (or down). The station in Haarlem (built in 1906-1908 in Art Nouveau Style) had wooden bike troughs; in Breda station the troughs were made of some granite that looked like marble, nicely integrated in the design of the brand new station.
OV Fiets You can also choose for the blue and yellow OV Fiets, a bike share system run by the Dutch railways. A subscription cost 10 euros a year. Renting a bike (one gear only) can be done with that same OV Pass, even with an anonymous pass. The cost per rental (24 hours valid) is only 3.15 Euros, which is really nothing.
Bikes are added and refurbished all the time and are now available at 250 locations. It is mostly designed for that famous last mile, from the train station to your office for example. Note: train stations conveniently stop in city centres. Nothing stops you though to take the bikes for a day to go for a ride through or even outside town.
Great system, once you ‘re inside it
All in all, once you have the system figured out, it is really a fantastic system. The train system in the Netherlands is basically an above ground subway system. You hardly hear the train when you sit inside. Many Intercities are doubledeckers. There was lots of space as it was holiday time (when a couple of million of Dutch are in Southern Europe on holidays). With trains leaving for certain directions in the entire country 2 to 3 times an hour and often more, you don’t have to plan much, just go to the train station (or check the 9292.nl website and app).
The Intercity system stops at the major cities, the Sprinter covers the stations in between the cities. (hub and spoke system). Many stations are multi modal: there are streetcars pulling in and out, there is a light rail system between The Hague and Rotterdam and buses serving the city and the surrounding villages.
Of all the trips we made by train, one was 20 minutes late (Light rail into The Hague) and one was 5 minutes late, the rest were on the dot. You have about 2 minutes to get on the train, which is a bit stressful as we found it sometimes hard to get the bike on the train. This is unnecessary though as there is still the person with the whistle who checks if no one is caught between the doors with a dress or a bike.
In combination with the train, we used our bikes all the time. We didn’t spend any time in a car. We stayed in the lovely small town of Haarlem and used the central station there (underground bike parking for 5000, another 2000 above ground) as well as the nearby Heemstede-Aerdenhout station (2000 bikes parked). It is also convenient to have wireless internet access in all trains, so you can catch up while travelling, without purchasing a data plan (but you will miss out of enjoying the landscape).
We visited Rotterdam, The Hague (Den Haag), Amsterdam, Breda (and cycled to Tilburg), Berkel and Rodenrijs and the Vecht area. The only bus we took was the bus back to Schiphol airport.
My friends in Holland joked that I now know more than many Dutch do. More about cycling in the Netherlands in my next blogs.