Dutch natives are always surprised to hear me gush about the public transportation here. Compared to the outrageously expensive trains and irregular bus services in the US, public transportation (or OV, Openbaar Vervoer) in the Netherlands is a dream come true. It’s affordable, comfy, convenient, and will get you almost anywhere you want to go. The trains even have free wifi and snack vendors!
Finding your way around in a new country can be intimidating, but here are some tips and tricks for navigating public transportation in the Netherlands.
There are two main types of trains in the Netherlands: Intercity trains (also called Sneltreinen on non-NS operators) and Sprinters (also called Stoptreinen). Generally, Intercity trains only stop at stations which get a lot of traffic such as central stations, airports, business parks, and major suburbs. Zwolle is extremely well-connected with direct Intercity trains to Amsterdam Zuid, Schiphol Airport, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Groningen, and Leeuwarden. Sprinters, on the other hand, stop more frequently along their route at the smaller stations. The type of train you take doesn’t affect the price of your journey; the price is determined by where you check-in and check-out.
Schedules for all operators in and around Zwolle can be found on the NS website and on 9292. The NS mobile app (Reisplanner Xtra) is also very useful to have on your phone. Information about any disruptions are provided on the websites and app, along with an estimated delay time. If a disruption is expected to persist for a long time, operators may hire buses to help get you to your destination.
Buses and Trams
Sometimes buses will be the more convenient option, depending on where you’re headed. Zwolle is serviced by two kinds of buses: local buses which take you into and around the city (Stadslijnen) and regional buses that go to neighboring towns (Streeklijnen). Local buses are convenient when cycling isn’t an option. For example, I use local buses when it’s raining or when I need to take my cat to the vet. The cost of a local journey is usually just a couple of Euros. Zwolle has regional bus connections with cities like Apeldoorn, Deventer, Ommen, Coevorden, and Steenwijk. These buses are comparable to Sprinter trains but make more stops in residential areas. More information on the buses in Zwolle can be found on the website for Syntus Overijssel.
Zwolle doesn’t have a tram system, but cities like Amsterdam and The Hague do. They run just like local buses, providing quick transport to and around city centers.
If you plan to live in the Netherlands for an extended period, you might consider investing in a bike or fiets. ("When in Rome," right?) It’s a convenient way to get around the city since you won’t be beholden to a bus schedule and adds a bit of exercise to your commute. Cycling is safe thanks to the red-brown bike lanes but be sure that you know the proper hand signals before hitting the road. When you decide to buy a bike, it’s also recommended that you invest in quality bike locks (both a chain/ ‘U’ lock and wheel lock) to deter thieves.
If you’re not sure whether to invest in your own bike yet, many major stations, bus stops, and city centers have bikes for rent (OV-fiets). You must have a personal OV-chip card (see below) to rent an OV-fiets. One 24-hour rental period costs €3.85.
Paying for Public Transportation
Paying for travel in the Netherlands is very simple. If you’re going to live in the Netherlands and planning to make use of public transportation, it’s best to sign up for an OV-chip card. This is a re-loadable card that you can use to pay for all public transportation – trains, buses, trams – regardless of operator. You can link it directly to a bank account so that it automatically tops-up or you can manage the balance online and at OV terminals.
You can get either a personal or anonymous OV-chip card. Personal cards will display your name and photo and can only be used by you. Anonymous cards won’t bear a name or photo, so they can be used or shared by multiple people. Both a personal and anonymous card cost a one-off fee of €7.5. Both card types require a boarding fare (or instaptarief) when using public transportation. For most buses, metros, and trams the boarding fare is €4 while trains require a boarding fare of €20. The boarding fare for trains is discounted to €10 if you have a personal card paired with a subscription (abonnement).
If you’re going to travel a lot, you can also combine a personal OV-chip card with a subscription. Subscriptions allow you to take buses, trains, and trams for a discounted rate. The Dal Voordeel subscription, for example, allows you to travel with a 40% discount during off-peak hours and weekends. At €50 for one year (2nd class), this subscription pays for itself after a couple of trips using the discount. More information about OV-chip cards can be found here.
Single-use passes can also be purchased in advance online or directly from operators and ticket terminals. Throughout the year, retailers such as HEMA, Kruidvat, Albert Hein, and Blokker offer discounted train tickets valid for a specified period. You can find these sales (aanbiedingen) in stores and online.
Checking In and Out
Whether you have an OV-chip card or a paper/single use ticket, be sure to always check-in and check-out (inchecken / uitchecken). Most major train stations now have closed gates making it easy to remember. If you have to transfer to a different operator (for example, NS to Arriva), you must check-out of your current journey and check-in to the next one. Platforms servicing non-NS trains should have transfer terminals. When switching from one mode of transportation to another (so, from bus to train) you must check-out in between.