The Netherlands’ well-organized and prompt transportation network makes it easy and enjoyable to get around this small European country. Since the Dutch speak very good English, you’re unlikely to encounter language barriers.
A vast network of rail lines crisscrosses the Netherlands, but in this watery nation train travel isn’t always the most direct means of traveling from Point A to Point B. (It’s tough to build railroad tracks through canals, marshes and North Sea inlets!) For some journeys, using the extensive ferry system or the modern roadways might make more sense. And if you can’t find a train or boat to take you where you want to go, rest assured that you will always find a bicycle close at hand.
Flying to the Netherlands
Chances are good that your flight to the Netherlands will take you to Schiphol Airport, about 15 minutes by train from central Amsterdam. The nation’s largest airport, Schiphol is also one of Europe’s most modern and ranks among the world’s greenest. Entertain yourself while you wait for your flight at more than 100 shops, a casino, a spa, a wide variety of restaurants and a branch of the Netherlands’ Rijksmuseum showcasing various old masters.
KLM is the Netherlands’ national carrier. A wide array of airlines fly into Schiphol from North American and European cities, including Delta, United, Air France, British Airways and European discounter EasyJet (among others).
Other airports in the Netherlands include Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Groningen and Maastrict Aachen.
The Netherlands by Train
The Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railway) maintains a rail system connecting nearly every town in the nation. This infrastructure and a reliably punctual rail schedule make it easy to get around.
High-Speed: Intercity Direct and NS Hispeed trains are the rail option to take if you are covering long distances and want to arrive at your destination as quickly as possible. Operating between Rotterdam, Amsterdam and other major cities on the continent, Europe’s high-speed trains vary in speed but may race along as fast as 350 kilometers/hour (220 mph).
Ticket prices on high-speed trains are based on how far you travel, whether you’re riding at peak travel times and whether you travel first or second class, but you can expect to pay about 50 percent more than you would for a similar express ticket. Whichever class you choose, most high-speed trains include a restaurant and dining car (food and drink carts on shorter journeys), air-conditioning and Internet access.
Night trains allow travelers to purchase couchettes for an additional fee; the price may be worth it when you consider you won’t have to book a hotel room. Reservations on high-speed trains are a good idea, especially at peak travel times and along popular routes.
Express: Express NS trains cover much of the rest of the Netherlands, crisscrossing regions and joining cities like Amsterdam with Utrecht, the Hague, Delft and Haarlem.
Local: The Netherlands’ local NS trains are its slowest, stopping at every station along the rails. They are also the least expensive and the best way to reach the country’s picturesque countryside. A bonus: This is where you’ll meet Dutch locals, most of whom speak very good English and would be happy to recommend their favorite places to visit.
Purchase tickets on Dutch trains from the NS Tickets and Service desk, book them online or get them from automated yellow and blue ticket machines (but be sure you’re using cash or a debit card — credit cards are only permissible at Schiphol and Amsterdam Central train stations). Tickets purchased from the service desk carry a small service charge.
Discounted tickets are always available for children. There is also a small discount on tickets purchased via an OV chip card, a preloaded card valid on NS trains and public transport.
The Netherlands by Bicycle
There may be no more quintessential means of getting around the Netherlands than the bicycle. The city of Amsterdam alone claims over 1 million bicycles.
There are more than 20,000 kilometers (12,400 miles) of bicycle paths in the Netherlands, and automobile drivers are accustomed to giving way to bikers. Combine that with a flat landscape, a mild climate and cities that are relatively close together, and you’ll discover that bicycling is not only a great way to engage in a typical Dutch activity; it’s also practical, inexpensive and fun.
Bicycle rentals are common in big city centers — ask the local tourist information office (VVV) for advice. Most train stations also rent bicycles either by the day or just briefly, to complete your journey from train to hotel. These short rentals are considered an extension of the public transportation system and can be paid for with the same OV chip card used to pay for buses and trams in Dutch cities.
Many of the bike paths traversing the Dutch countryside resemble narrow highways with white center lines, stop signs and other traffic warning signals. Signage along these bike paths will also provide directions to neighboring cities and attractions along with distance estimates.
Free bicycle racks are ubiquitous in the Netherlands. If the weather is poor, consider paying to park your ride in a secure, enclosed bicycle garage. Any accommodation with the sign Fietsers Welkom! (Cyclists Welcome!) promises secure storage for your bicycle. Wherever you choose to park your ride, always lock it up.
Ask for a brochure outlining dozens of scenic bicycle routes, available from bike rental agencies and from tourist information offices.
Cars and pedestrians must give right of way to bicyclists in the Netherlands. If you’re traveling on foot, watch out! That fast-moving bicycle is unlikely to stop for you.
Renting a Car in the Netherlands
International car rental agencies are widely available in the Netherlands including Enterprise, Avis, Hertz and Dollar, but you’ll usually find Holland’s most affordable cars at European rental giants Sixt and Europcar.
The highway system in the Netherlands resembles that of North America and the rest of Western Europe, although you won’t find any toll roads here. Some gas stations are entirely unattended, outfitted instead with automatic gas pumps. You’ll need a chip and PIN credit card to buy gas at these stations — which few American credit card companies offer.
Drivers must use a blue parking disk in cities where there are blue strips painted on the curb; you can get them from automobile clubs, the police department and tobacco shops. Parking is not allowed at curbs with black, yellow or white markings. Parking will be at a premium in Holland’s congested big cities. You may want to book a hotel that includes parking and leave your car there while you explore on foot or via public transportation.
Drunk driving laws are very strict in Holland — do not drink and drive. Auto infractions are subject to fines payable in cash on demand. Ask the police officer for a receipt.
Cars in the Netherlands are all well and good, but this is a country that loves its bicyclists. Beware that bicycles always have the right of way in Holland.
Ferrying Around the Netherlands
Traveling by ferry is frequently the fastest means of moving between Dutch cities given the Netherlands’ wealth of waterways. International travel is possible between the U.K. and the Netherlands with service to Rotterdam, Amsterdam and the Hook of Holland via companies like DFDS Seaways and Stena Line.
Within the Netherlands, Fast Flying Ferries link the suburban neighborhoods of Amsterdam and Rotterdam while the Waterbus transports riders between Rotterdam and Dordrecht. The big cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam also offer water taxi service through the cities’ canals, rivers and inlets. To island-hop through the northern Dutch Wadden Islands, catch Wagenborg Passagiersdiensten or Rederij Doeksen ferries from the mainland cities of Harlingen or Lauwersoog.
Note that some Dutch ferries are reserved exclusively for pedestrians and bicyclists.
–written by Amy S. Eckert