The Good, the Bad, and the Bland: Transportation and handling finances in the Netherlands

Hello again, and happy new year (or gelukkig nieuw jaar, as they say in the Netherlands)! I thought I’d use this blog post to discuss some apps that I will be using to travel in the Netherlands, and also mention some other useful tips about the Dutch transportation system.

Firstly, Dutch society is highly modernized, and therefore a mobile phone is essential when traveling to and throughout the Netherlands. You have several options when choosing a mobile phone to use when studying abroad there: you can choose to take a cell phone purchased in your home country and simply purchase a new Dutch SIM card, to be inserted into your phone in place of the original SIM card, or you can purchase an entirely new Dutch cell phone once you get to the Netherlands. I have elected to take my American cell phone with me and buy a Dutch SIM card, but both are good options to consider. It is important to note that, since the European cell phone system is different from the American cell phone system, you will need a certain type of cell phone called a GSM (Global Service for Mobile) cell phone. This acronym refers to the type of system used in much of the world, including Europe. U.S. providers of this type of phone include T-Mobile and Cingular. Here’s a link that addresses the topic in greater detail: http://www.studyabroad.com/pages/sitecontent/parent_guide_cell.aspx.

Zijkant_trein_met_logo_NS
This is what an NS train looks like. The NS logo is visible on the side.

Whichever option you choose, having a cell phone that works while traveling and studying abroad is not only important for general safety and communication, but also for effective use of the Dutch transportation system. In Dutch train stations, physical signs showing arrival and departure times and stations are being phased out in favor of digital updates. These can be accessed on the NS Reisplanner app, a free app available from the Dutch national train system (NS stands for Nederlandse Spoorwegen, meaning Dutch Railways). This app is essential if you are considering traveling by train at any point during your stay in the Netherlands. You should also be aware that the Netherlands no longer uses paper train tickets; instead, they use a card called an OV Chipkaart, which looks similar to a debit card. It is somewhat similar to an Oyster Card, if you are familiar with the London Underground transportation system. More information about the OV Chipkaart can be found on the NS website: http://www.ns.nl/en/travellers/ov-chipkaart. Even Dutch people living in the Netherlands find their train system to be confusing, so try to be as prepared as possible!

Besides train travel, bus travel is also a relatively inexpensive way to travel when abroad. Megabus is one provider that serves many countries in Europe. If you are looking for a relatively inexpensive way to travel throughout Europe while studying abroad, Megabus is a good option: http://uk.megabus.com/#. If you would like to read the website in English and are looking to travel in Europe, I would suggest using the UK version of the site instead of the US version, as Megabus will otherwise automatically limit its search engine to locations within the United States. Busabout is also another good option, with a more flexible hop on/hop off system: http://www.busabout.com/.

Lastly, when studying abroad in the Netherlands, you have several options regarding finances. One option is to open a Dutch bank account, which is what I’ve elected to do. One thing worth noting is that much of Europe, including the Netherlands, uses cash more often than countries such as the United States. When traveling in Europe and living in the Netherlands you should always make sure you have cash on hand. Moreover, in the Netherlands, debit and credit cards have chips in them, so instead of swiping the card, you insert it into the machine. Many stores in the Netherlands do not accept credit cards at all. You can use your American cards in the Netherlands as long as they have chip cards in them–just make sure to notify your bank/provider that you will be traveling abroad, and where exactly you will be traveling. If you will be based in the Netherlands and plan to visit Germany and France, for instance, tell your bank that you will be visiting the Netherlands, Germany, and France. If your plans change and you add other countries to your itinerary, be sure to inform your bank of this; otherwise, they may (and likely will) shut down your card once they perceive potentially unauthorized activity (i.e., they believe someone must have stolen your information). Also, call your bank and ask them what the ATM fee will be for use abroad, and what the daily maximum withdrawal is from the ATM.

I hope this has been helpful to you. Thanks for reading and until next time!

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

Hello there! Since you’ve stumbled upon my blog, I may as well introduce myself. My name is Alexa, and I am a sophomore at the College of Charleston in scenic Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.A. In just five short weeks I will be jetting off to the Netherlands to spend a semester studying at the University of Groningen. This lovely blog (queue jazz hands) will be my attempt at chronicling my journey. Although studying abroad is an exciting experience for all who choose to embark on it, and will be for me as well, my circumstances are a little different. I am fortunate enough to be a dual citizen of both the United States and the Netherlands. Born in the U.S. to an American father and a Dutch mother, I lived in the Netherlands from ages five to eleven, thus spending many of my formative years there. For me, the choice to study abroad in Groningen was less about broadening my horizons–though I hope to do that as well–and more about reconnecting with one of my homes.

A little more about me: I’m nineteen years old, soon to be spending my twentieth birthday in the Netherlands! I love to read, write, and, naturally, travel. I’ve been to thirteen countries and speak two languages (Dutch and English). I am a true student of the world, as I am majoring in International Studies. My great loves include my past and present dogs, Oscar Wilde, Audrey Hepburn, anything Dickensian, hot tea, scintillating poetry, crêpes, Disney (I am a child of the nineties), and Paris. In my free time I enjoy playing board games with my friends and doing bad Jeremy Irons impressions. My goals for the future include learning to speak French fluently and watching the entirety of Gilmore Girls on Netflix.

This is me!
This is me!

As far as the logistics of my trip go: I will be flying from Charlotte, North Carolina to Amsterdam, which voyage will take approximately twelve hours, including one layover in Philadelphia. Once I arrive in Amsterdam, my Dutch family members will be there to pick me up–however, if you’re planning a similar trip, your best bet for travel throughout the Netherlands and much of Europe is usually the train. After spending a few days with my grandparents, I will be heading to Groningen for orientation. I will be living in one of the international student houses in Groningen, called Winschoterdiep, for the semester. It’s about a ten minute bike ride from the city center, where the university is located; I’m hoping for a nice sense of community and a new perspective from other international students. Some practical tips for traveling to/living in the Netherlands, speaking from a simultaneously Dutch and American perspective: firstly, get a bike. The Netherlands is the most cycle-friendly country in the world, with bicycles outnumbering people (though we have quite a few of those, too). Furthermore, the land is flat, making cycling easier, though you will often be riding against strong winds. Which brings me to the weather: when in doubt, dress warmly. The Dutch wind often comes from the North Sea or Russia and is therefore very cold. It also rains quite frequently. Basically, the same weather you hear about gracing England is the weather you can expect in the Netherlands. This means you need rainproof shoes, coats, and gloves. On the plus side, the reason the Dutch make such good cheese (Gouda, Edam) is that the rain makes for excellent grass which, in turn, leads to well-fed cows that produce high quality milk. As the Dutch football legend Johan Cruijff once said, elk nadeel heeft z’n voordeel, meaning “each downside has its upside.” Speaking of Dutch cheese, be sure to check out this great video for more information about Dutch cuisine: http://vimeo.com/110724667.

The University of Groningen, or Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in Dutch.
The University of Groningen, or Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in Dutch.

I better stop before this post turns into a one-dimensional list of travel tips. Exceedingly long story short: I’m excited for my semester in Groningen, and I hope you join me as I reconnect with my past, and hopefully make new connections for the future. Tot straks!