You’ve just arrived in the Netherlands and are about to board a train for the first time. But wait! Do you have a ticket? And have you tapped in with it? Dutch trains are a minefield with some pretty expensive mines ready to explode if you get things wrong. So here is our ultimate guide to taking a train in the Netherlands for the first time, with everything you need to know about OV Chipcards, train conductors and rush hour.
So, let’s start at the very beginning. You land in Schiphol, make your way to the plaza, and start figuring out which train to take. First things first, it’s time to get a ticket. You’ll spot the machines easily: they’re yellow and blue. Here, you can buy a ticket, or top up your OV chipkaart.
Taking a train in the Netherlands: what to watch out for with tickets
If you’re just in the Netherlands for a holiday, you likely won’t want to buy an OV chipkaart. You’ll be using tickets instead. There are a couple of things you should know before you do this. First of all, if you’re looking to save some money, consider buying tickets online rather than at the machines in the station. You’ll save a euro per ticket, which can definitely add up if you’re taking the train frequently while you’re here.
Whether you go with a physical or digital ticket, you need to check in. This might seem counterintuitive- after all, these tickets are single use, right? The thing is, checking in puts a timestamp on when you took the train. Otherwise, you could reuse the same ticket forever, basically. So, if you don’t check in at the machines that lead onto the platform, you don’t have a valid ticket in your hand, and you will be fined by the ticket conductor if you’re caught.
Trains in the Netherlands: your ticket will be checked
There is a strong chance that you will be caught if you don’t have a valid ticket. Almost every time I take a train in the Netherlands, my OV or ticket is checked. There are no exceptions made if you’re a tourist and were confused about how the trains in the Netherlands work: you will be fined if you don’t have a valid ticket. Fines are usually 50 euros, which is quite a chunk of money for anyone. You will spot the train conductors in advance, as they do not wear casual clothes, but rather the uniform of the NS (red and navy).
You, smugly waving your ticket at the NS conductor.
What is an OV chipkaart?
If you’re familiar with the London Underground, an OV chipkaart is basically an Oyster card. It measures how far you travel, and charges you based on that, which eliminates you buying a ticket for every journey. Now, in order for this to work, you need to check in and check out at the beginning and end of every journey. Some stations have barriers which physically remind you of this requirement, but other, especially smaller ones, do not. Even if there is no barrier, you still absolutely have to check in and out.
What happens if you check in, but forget to check out? You’ll be charged 10 euros automatically, which is a pretty pricey mistake. You can get this money back by going to an OV store in the larger stations, but that’s a bit of a palaver, so much better to get into the habit of checking in and checking out automatically. The way I taught myself to do this was simply to always have my OV chipkaart in my hand. You can’t forget to check out with the card reminding you in your hand- or at least doing this will reduce the frequency of the mistake happening.
The most annoying part of taking a train in the Netherlands: the twenty euro limit on your OV chipkaart
If I had to name the most annoying part of taking a train in the Netherlands, this would be it. If you’re using an OV chipkaart, then the balance on your card needs to be at least 20 euros before you can step on board a train (thankfully, for trams and busses which you access with the same card, the necessary balance is a lot lower- 4 euros). The idea behind this rule is that you’ll never end up checking out at the other end of your journey with a negative balance on your OV.
That seems reasonable, right? Except if you’re doing a ten minute commute from Leiden to The Hague every day, and EVERY DAY you have to bring your balance back up to 20 euros, despite the journey only costing under 4 euros. It’s frustrating, to say the least. But there is a solution: a personal OV chipkaart!
Taking a train in the Netherlands: what is a personal OV chipkaart?
If you’re living in the Netherlands long enough to have a fixed address, then you absolutely have to invest in a personal OV chipkaart. You have to request this from ovchipkaart.nl, and it has your name, date of birth and picture on it. There are two massive advantages to having this sort of card: first of all, you can eliminate the topping-up palaver: this card can just be linked to your bank account. Every time your card needs a top up, it happens automatically. Brilliant!
The second advantage of having a personal OV is that you can buy yourself an annual discount. For 50 euros or thereabouts, you can nab a 40 percent discount on train travel outside of rush hour: this has been SO worth it for me as a frequent traveller. If you’re going somewhere by train more than twice a week, this discount is a must.
Rush hour: when not to take a train in the Netherlands
Rush hour in the Netherlands occurs each morning between 06:30 and 09:00, and every evening between 16:00 and 18:30. So, the times when everyone working a job with regular hours will want to commute. It makes sense, but it is a pain to pay those extra few euros when you want to travel at a convenient time.
Trains in the Netherlands: how do I find out where I’m going?
Figuring out which train to take to get to where you want to go is always a struggle in the beginning. What I’d recommend if you’re here for a short amount of time is using the NS app or website. It’ll show you the fastest way to get to where you want to go at the time you want to get there, and will also let you know which platform the train is departing from. That cuts out the confused staring at screens for twenty minutes, by which time you’ve missed the train you wanted to take in the first place.
You, a Victorian, refusing to use the NS app.
But, if you do want to do it the old fashioned way, then the screens showing train departures are of course your best bet. These will display the time of departure, as well as the final destination of the train in question. If you’re heading to a place that is not the final destination- for example, if you’re travelling from The Hague to Leiden- then you need to look at the smaller writing underneath the final destination, which will list all the stops the train will make on its journey. And, of course, you can always just ask the information desk: they’re always happy to help lost and confused tourists.
Cheaper options for taking a train in the Netherlands
Trains in the Netherlands are expensive, there’s no doubt about it. There are some ways to make it cheaper on yourself: we have an extensive article about ways to pinch pennies when travelling by train in the Netherlands. The main ones are buying a day ticket (dagkaart), especially when they’re on sale (travelling anywhere in the Netherlands for 15 euros is a pretty good deal). These tickets are available at Kruidvat, usually, but they do sell out pretty fast. Otherwise, try to travel with a Dutchie who has a discount card- they can transfer their 40 percent discount to you if you travel together. Other good options include travelling with a group.
What is this NS that everyone keeps talking about?
If you’re taking the train in the Netherlands, it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll hear these two letters: NS. In fact, I’ve used the name of the Dutch railway operation company several times already in this article. The NS is the company that runs the trains in the Netherlands, to put it simply. They’ve made some pretty cool innovations in recent months, including beginning to test self driving trains. They’re also almost always on time, despite how often Dutchies complain about them.
Did we miss anything? Any exciting tips for taking a train in the Netherlands? Let us know in the comments below.
Feature image: Source: Skitterphoto/Pexels.