Getting around the Netherlands is rarely a problem: it’s a small country, and the longest journey you’re ever likely to make – say from Amsterdam to Maastricht – takes under three hours by train or car. Furthermore, the public transport system is exemplary, a fully integrated network of trains and buses that brings even the smallest of villages within easy reach, and at very reasonable prices too. Train and bus stations are almost always next door to each other, and several of the larger cities also have a tram network.
The best way of travelling around the Netherlands is by train. The system – one of the best in Europe – is largely, though not exclusively, operated by Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS; Dutch Railways; w ns.nl). NS trains are fast, mostly modern, frequent and very punctual; fares are relatively low; and the network of lines comprehensive. NS domestic services come in two types: the speedy Intercity for city-to-city connections; and the Stoptrein, (or Sprinter), which operates on local routes and stops pretty much everywhere.
Several other train companies operate long-distance/international, high-speed services across the Netherlands, principally Fyra (w fyra.com) and Thalys (w thalys.com), whose services connect Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and ICE trains linking Amsterdam with Utrecht and Arnhem. At larger train stations in the Netherlands, there are separate hi-speed train ticket desks (w nshispeed.nl).
Fares and tickets
Ordinary fares are calculated by the kilometre, diminishing proportionately the further you travel: for example, a standard one-way fares from Amsterdam to Maastricht costs €23.20, Rotterdam €13.60 and Leeuwarden €23. For a one-way ticket, ask for an enkele reis; a return trip is a retour. Same-day return tickets (dagretour) can knock between ten and forty percent off the price of two one-way tickets for the same journey, but returns are normally double the price of one-way tickets. First-class fares cost about eighty percent on top of the regular fare.
With any ticket, you’re free to stop off anywhere en route and continue your journey later that day, but you’re not allowed to backtrack. Timetables are online and mounds of information on special deals and discounts are available at all major train stations. Note that you are not allowed to buy a ticket on the train – travel without a ticket and you will be fined on the spot (€35).
NS offers a variety of discount tickets and deals, perhaps the most useful of which is the Dagkaart (Day Travel Card) for unlimited travel on any train in the system and costing just €47 in second-class; first-class is €80. There’s also the Weekendretour (Weekend Return), which costs the same as a day return, but you can spread your outward and return journeys over a weekend from Friday (7pm+) to Monday (4am) with an added day thrown in when there is a public holiday. A third possibility is the family-orientated Railrunner, which charges just €2.50 per journey for up to three children aged 4–11 travelling with an adult. Note also that the OV-Chipkaart can be used on the NS network. For further information on deals and discounts, consult w ns.nl.
With NS’s treintaxi scheme, rail passengers can be assured of a taxi to and/or from around thirty train stations in the NS network. The largest stations – Amsterdam Centraal and Den Haag CS, for example – are not part of the scheme and it only applies within the city limits of each participating station. To get to the station at the start of your journey, call the national treintaxi number t 0900 873 4682 (premium line, only within the Netherlands) at least half an hour in advance. On arrival at your local station, you can either book a treintaxi for your destination when you buy your ticket, or wait till you get there – and pay the taxi driver direct (for a small extra fee). The fixed-rate price per person per treintaxi ride is €4.80. Note that treintaxis are not the same as regular taxis – you may well, for instance, have to share with other people taking a similar route. The cabs are identifiable by a “treintaxi” sign on the roof and they have a separate rank – usually with summoning buttons – outside train stations.
Supplementing the train network are buses – run by a patchwork of local companies but again amazingly efficient and reaching into every rural nook and cranny. Ticketing is straightforward as the whole country is divided into public transport zones and you can either use your OV-chipkaart or pay the driver instead. Bear in mind also that in more remote rural areas some bus services only operate when passengers have made advance bookings: local timetables indicate where this applies. Regional bus timetable books, costing around €3, are sold at some train station bookshops and most VVVs, or you can plan your journey online at w 9292.nl.
Within major towns, urban public transport systems are extensive, inexpensive and frequent, which makes getting around straightforward and hassle-free; most bus and tram services run from 6am until about midnight and your OV-Chipkaart is valid on all services. Urban “Park and Ride” (or Transferium) schemes are commonplace.
For the most part, driving round the Netherlands is pretty much what you would expect: smooth, easy and quick. The country has a uniformly good road network, with most of the major towns linked by some kind of motorway or dual carriageway, though snarl-ups and jams are far from rare. Rules of the road are straightforward: you drive on the right, and speed limits are 50kph in built-up areas, 80kph outside, 120kph on motorways – though some motorways have a speed limit of 100kph, indicated by small yellow signs on the side of the road. Drivers and front-seat passengers are required by law to wear seat belts, and penalties for drunk driving are severe. There are no toll roads, and although fuel is expensive, at around €1.85 per litre (diesel €1.50), the short distances mean this isn’t too much of an issue.
Most foreign driving licences are honoured in the Netherlands, including all EU, US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand ones. If you’re bringing your own car, you must have adequate insurance, preferably including coverage for legal costs, and it’s advisable to have an appropriate breakdown policy from your home motoring organization too.
Renting a car
All the major international car rental agencies are represented in the Netherlands. To rent a car, you’ll have to be 21 or over (and have been driving for at least a year), and you’ll need a credit card – though some local agencies will accept a hefty cash deposit instead. Rental charges are fairly high, beginning around €250 per week for unlimited mileage in the smallest vehicle, but include collision damage waiver and vehicle (but not personal) insurance. To cut costs, watch for special deals offered by the bigger companies. If you go to a smaller, local company (of which there are many), you should proceed with care: in particular, check the policy for the excess applied to claims and ensure that it includes a collision damage waiver (applicable if an accident is your fault) as well as adequate levels of financial cover. If you break down in a rented car, you’ll get roadside assistance from the particular repair company the rental firm has contracted. The same principle works with your own vehicle’s breakdown policy providing you have coverage abroad.
One great way to see the Netherlands, whether you’re a keen cyclist or an idle pedaller, is to travel by bike (fiets). Cycle-touring can be a short cut into Dutch culture and you can reach parts of the country – its beaches, forests and moorland – that might otherwise be (relatively) inaccessible. The mostly flat landscape makes travelling by bike an almost effortless pursuit, although you can find yourself battling against a headwind or swallowed up in a shoal of cyclists commuting to work.
The short distances involved make it possible to see most of the country with relative ease, using the nationwide system of well-marked cycle paths: a circular blue sign with a white bicycle on it indicates an obligatory cycle lane, separate from car traffic. Red lettering on signposts gives distances for fairly direct routes; lettering in green denotes a more scenic (and lengthy) mosey. Long-distance (LF) routes weave through the cities and countryside, often linking up to local historic loops and scenic trails.
The Dutch as a nation are celebrated touring cyclists, and bookshops are packed with cycling books and maps; however, for all but the longest trips the maps and route advice provided by most tourist offices are fine. If you’re looking for a place to stay after a day in the saddle, the best advice is to visit a member of the Vrienden op de Fiets.
You can rent a bike from most NS train stations for €7.50 a day, plus a deposit of anywhere between €50 and €150 depending on the model. Most bikes are single-speed, though there are some 3-speeds to be had, and even mountain bikes in the hillier south. You’ll also need some form of ID. The snag is that cycles must be returned to the station from which they were rented, making onward hops by rented bike impossible. Most bike shops – of which there are many – rent bicycles out for around the same amount, and they may be more flexible on deposits: some may accept a passport in lieu of cash. In all cases, advance reservations are advised.
Taking your bike on an NS train is allowed – and the bike carriages have a clear cycle symbol on the outside. You’ll need to buy a flat-rate ticket (dagkaart fiets; €6) for your bike, which is valid for the whole day. Space can be limited, despite the variety of ingeniously folding bikes favoured by locals, and because of this you won’t be allowed on with your bike during the morning and evening rush hours (6.30–9am & 5.30–6pm), except in July and August.
Note that in the larger cities in particular, but really anywhere, you should never, ever, leave your bike unlocked, even for a few minutes – bike stealing is a big deal in the Netherlands. Almost all train stations have somewhere you can store your bike safely for less than a euro.
A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website