Thursday, 12 May 2011

Amsterdam: The trouble with train travel

The best cure for jet lag: getting 11 hours sleep.

So after waking up at noon, we went grocery shopping, to a CoOp sized store about 5 min walk away. Some interesting differences between grocery shopping here and at home:

  • The big store we go to doesn't sell stuff like foil and ziplocs. A smaller store we found does, but not the big one we go to.
  • Meats, lunch meats and cheeses are packaged in pretty small packages. This has advantages (easy to find small sizes when there's only 2 of us) and disadvantages (you have to buy lots of small packages). Given that we have a nice fridge but no freezer, buying bigger packages wouldn't add much value, though.
  • You weigh and obtain pricing stickers for your fruits and veggies yourself in the veggie section. The sticker is scanned at checkout.
  • Wine is generally cheap. There's lots of excellent wine for €5 and under. And you can get wine in grocery stores, of course. As I get better at it, I'll post difference in grocery prices.
On trains, trams, busses and stuff...

Our main goal today was to get some transit and train stuff under control. After months of research, I found the methodologies for travel in Holland confusing, with conflicting information all over the place. So we decided to go to the VVV Tourist Office at the Amsterdam Centraal train station to get help. That made it worse, as they didn't seem to know the basics. Then we went to the NS train office, and it didn't get any better. I'm still not an expert, but here's what I can now confirm with 100% certainty:
  1. There is a discount card that gets you 40% off train travel. It's called the "off peak discount pass" or the "Voordeelurenabonnement". It costs €55, and lots of guidebooks recommend getting one because it pays off quickly for people traveling around a lot. In order to buy one, you MUST have a Dutch bank account. This is not mentioned by Fromers, Fodor's, Lonely Planet or Let's Go. The VVV did not know this. The NS reps don't tell you this until you show up with the form. Accordingly, this card is basically useless for tourists, even long term stay ones like us.
  2. There is a card called the OV-Chipkart that you can use for both train travel and local transit (bus/tram/ferry) travel. In order to buy one, you MUST have a Dutch bank account. This is mentioned in several places, but not consistently so. This card is for residents, and as you use it they just get more money from your account to re-load it.
  3. There is a different OV-Chipkart that you can buy for €5 that is good only for most local transit systems in the country. This card can't be used on the trains. You have to re-load it, and no one can seem to tell me how to do this. There's a limited number of places you can buy the cards, and the GVB office at Amsterdam Centraal station is one of them. Anyone can use it, so it's a good card for travelers, but it gives you no discounts.
So the only way to travel by train is full fare, buying the tickets at the machines on the day of travel. Kinda sucks.

About those bikes...

They're everywhere, and there's a hell of a lot of them. Here, for instance, is the bike parking lot at the Centraal station.
From across the canal

Yes, it's a 3 level structure just for bikes

Three big levels

With lots of bikes on each level
And next to this bike parkade is the park where people who can't fit in the parkade park.
Mine's the 93rd bike on the left
No one wears helmets. They have their own dedicated lanes and traffic signals (but motor scooters can use the lanes). Women with very short skirts ride. Businessmen in suits ride. All the bikes are beat up and old and single gear and locked with huge chains and massive locks (apparently, bike theft is a huge business here).

We have been surprised by the lack of traffic in the centre area of the city where we live. We attribute it to the jam packed nature of every place you can park a bike. It's interesting that given the number of bikes, there just aren't that many dedicated places to park them, so they are parked everywhere and locked to everything. Cars are jammed in everywhere, too, including the odd car that really doesn't belong here.
The thing barely fits between the trees

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