Sunday, 15 May 2011

More train adventures, and how OV-Chipkarts actually work

Every day I learn something new about public transit in Holland.

Before leaving Canada, I downloaded an app for my iPhone called 9292OV Pro. This app, produced by all the public transit operators in Holland, enables point to point routing and costing info to get around Holland. I've used it a lot to plan what we want to do.

Saturday, we wanted to take the train and bus to Keukenhof, bus to Leiden, and bus and train back to Amsterdam, all planned on 9292OV Pro and the 9292OV website. As I posed a few days ago, to do this we wanted what is called an "anonymous OV-Chipkart" for the bus portions of the trip. We got to Amsterdam Centraal at 8:30 AM Saturday to find the GVB transit office closed, making it somewhat difficult to buy the needed card. Nice GVB people told us we could get cards from machines in the basement of the station, and sure enough, we found machines that sold OV-Chipkarts and took Visa. We bought cards (they cost €7.50, and we were led to understand by reading various guidebooks that money this was embedded in the card and could be used for travel), plus put an extra €10 on them. Ready for traveling, we headed to the trains.

We bought train tickets to Schiphol Airport, and once there hopped on the #58 bus for the 20 min ride to Keukenhof, swiping our new cards to get on and off. Once done at Keukenhof, we hopped the #54 bus for the 25 min ride to Leiden, swiping as we went on and off. It was when the basketball game was done at 11 PM that we ran into trouble.

We swiped out OV-Chipkarts to get on the bus and the machine said our €17.50 cards were already empty. In fact, they were not just empty, we each owed €0.71. Now, 9292OV Pro told me that the two bus trips we had already taken should cost only €7.31. Hmmn...

A very nice lady who was also at the game tried to help us re-load the cards while on the bus; no dice (the machines on the busses do not take Visa; I was pretty confident of that before we started trying, but we tried anyway). So we paid our €2 cash fare each and were on our way.

At the Leiden train station -- a main, big, multi track station -- at 11:30 PM on a Saturday, the NS office is closed and you have to buy your train tickets through machines. No issue, we thought; we use the machines all the time in Amsterdam. But we could not find one that took plastic. Our payment choices were:
  1. a Dutch issued Debit Card,
  2. that OV-Chipkart I mentioned that you can't buy unless you have a Dutch bank account,
  3. something called Maestro (a specialized MasterCard that I have never heard of), or:
  4. cash (and only in coins, and we needed €16 to get home).
We found some NS guys heading off duty who told us:
  1. There was no train ticket machine in the Leiden station that took plastic;
  2. It is rate to find a train ticket machine that takes plastic at all, ever;
  3. There was also no change machine in the Leiden station.

We begged the guy in the only store open to let us buy €20 in change. He note the store policy not to give change, but took pity on stranded tourists (and it apparently happened a lot).

This morning, we went to the GVB office to enquire about why our cards were empty. She pulled up our travel records and were amazed at what we were charged for the Keukenhof-Leiden trip, a 25 min trip that cost €6.52. All transit in Holland costs €0.79 to get on plus €0.11/km. That means we travelled 52 km. In 25 min. Meaning we travelled at an an average speed of 124 km/hr. On a city bus. Because she didn't believe this any more than we did, she gave us a claim form we could try to use to get our fares back. The form, of course, is in Dutch only.

She told us the OV-Chipkart fee of €7.50 bought you nothing in terms of travel. It's what the card costs.

She also told us that the way the OV-Chipkarts work is as follows:
  1. When you board, €4 is "deducted" from the amount on your card.
  2. If you get off before you have used €4 of travel, the amount is "returned" to your account.
  3. You are allowed only to go "in arrears" and owe money on your card once. The second time, the card is no good at all.
If you don't have €4 in credit on your card, you can't board. So an OV Chipkart actually costs you €7.50 for the card, and €4 for the money on your account that you can never use.

She also mentioned that the only ways you can re-load an OV-Chipkart using Visa or Mastercard is in the GVB office at Amsterdam Centraal or in the machines we coincidentally found in the basement of Amsterdam Centraal.

Key messages:
  1. Carry a LOT of change if you intend on buying train tickets outside of Amsterdam;
  2. Do not count on buying tickets, train or bus/tram, via plastic of any kind. In Amsterdam, sure, but elsewhere it's unlikely;
  3. Only buy the OV-Chipkart if you are willing to toss €11.50 goodbye;
  4. Look into the Maestro product before you get here. In Canada, apparently BMO is associated with Maestro.
And NONE of the above is correctly described in any of the guidebooks: not Let's Go, not Lonely Planet, not Fodor's, not Rough Guide and not Fromer's. In the current land of global information sharing, this amazes me.

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