I’m officially celebrating my arrival in the Netherlands exactly three years ago this week! As someone who’s visited the Netherlands as a tourist and is now trying to assimilate by becoming fluent in Dutch, I have some useful travel tips for traveling in the Netherlands for you all that I hope will make your trip to the Netherlands a little more easy.
Your cards are often useless
We love cards here, but only one card: Maestro. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a Maestro debit card, you’re going to experience a lot of people refusing to take your money at smaller shops and even at major Dutch stores (such as the major Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn).
Credit cards are not popular here in the Netherlands and most people who have them rarely use them, in contrast with other countries. It is improving and some stores are actually going 100% cashless, however always have cash on you in case your card is not accepted.
What you need to do instead: carry cash. If you’re wondering where the nearest ATM near you is, search for ABN AMRO or ING. These are two of the biggest Dutch banks and most cities have many outdoor ATMs. Make sure there’s money in your bank account!
Most things close earlier here
If you need to do an errand, try to do it between 10am and 5-6pm. You’ll find some shops (e.g. avondwinkels) open until midnight for shopping after the grocery stories close (9/10-12). However, this is not Spain and most normal businesses are closed by 6pm. Luckily, Sundays here are far better than those in Belgium when a lot of things close the entire day, however many shops and museums close on Mondays.
You can get free water IF you know what to ask
Water is tricky. You CAN get free tap water, but you need to be very specific in sayingI’d like bronwater or tap water. This is not America, so when you receive said tap water, it will be in the smallest cup that you’ve ever seen in your life and there’s no refills unless you ask. (Maybe I’m always quite thirsty). Also, it’s not always ice cold.
The better move is to ask if you can have a pitcher of tap water (if you’re with a group), but you will not usually receive this. If you just say water, they’ll bring you a small bottle that is non-refillable and that you’ll be charged for. Sometimes, they outright refuse.
Toilets aren’t free except if you’re a man and always have cash
Besides the ones in restaurants and cafes, the toilets are never free unless you’re a man. Men get free urinals in many Dutch cities (although they still need to pay for the other kind). It feels really sexist to me. Why do men get free urinals in public while women must always pay for the toilet!? I recommend always having a little change to pay for the toilet. The toilet is usually somewhere between .50 cents and one euro. I sometimes just buy a coffee or soda to use the toilet at a cafe or McDonald’s as it’s often cleaner than some public toilets.
You generally need to tap in/out on public transit & trains
For some reason most of the trains and public transportation systems here in the Netherlands that I’ve encountered involve paying by distance. It’s great, however it means that you need to remember to tap in and out to ensure that you don’t invalidate your iAmsterdam card (or your OVchipkaart).
Tulip season is only about 6-8 weeks
The Dutch tulip season is only 6-8 weeks and it’s not 100% guaranteed. A lot of people email me asking if the tulips will be in bloom during their trip to the Netherlands. I find that mid-April is the safest time as it can be early some years (like with 2018) to see any blooms before that. Similarly, early May is really the end of it. If you want to see tulips during the rest of the year, consider going to the world’s largest flower warehouse (FloraHolland) or the Bloemenmarkt in Amsterdam to buy bulbs.
The Dutch trains
The Dutch trains are fantastic, so don’t be afraid to use them. It’s a little less than five euros for a ticket from Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam. If you really want to take a cab, consider taking the train to Amsterdam before picking up a cab by Centraal. You’ll end up saving a lot of money and you’re less likely to be ripped off by a cab as the taxis by Schiphol love ripping tourists off.
The Netherlands is small, so only twenty minutes can take you to a beautiful city nearby, such as Haarlem or Utrecht. If you need to buy your ticket, give yourself 5-10 minutes ahead as there can be a line for the machine and there might be a long walk to the track. Similarly, sometimes they are delays/cancellations, so give yourself extra time (20+ minutes) if it’s something important that you must be on time for.
Carry hand sanitizer and tissues
This is a subtle one that I’ve noticed…, but many people don’t wash their hands or briefly run the water over their hands. I suspect it’s true in winter because most Dutch public bathrooms only have cold taps, which isn’t always so nice in winter. Always carry hand sanitizer on you for your post-bathroom hand cleaning as I find that having working soap can be a hit/miss.
Amsterdam is NOT like the rest of the Netherlands
This is a big one. As a naive Eurorailer, I visited Amsterdam for three days. I came back home telling everyone that I had been to the Netherlands. The best analogy that I have is that you’re visiting only Chicago and you say that you’ve seen America. I love Amsterdam, but the city center has been lost to mass tourism and hen parties. This is not the case in other Dutch cities that you can see on a day trip from Amsterdam, including the Hague and Utrecht.
The thing is that the Netherlands is a small country with a lot of interesting regions and they’re also way cheaper to travel in. In these cities, including my own home city of The Hague, the beautiful and historic city centers are for everyone, but especially people who live in the city. You’ll get more of a sense of history and Dutch culture here too!
Phelm (or the Dutch language)
I kid, but as someone working at learning Dutch, people are always impressed when I say a Dutch word properly. (Sometimes I stutter too.) As a foreigner, Dutch is hard as mastering the hard-G (or the soft-G) is tough to nail. I’d say that it’s closest to the ch sound in Hebrew. If you want to truly impress a Dutchie, figure out how to say Scheveningen.
Some hacks to the Dutch language…
- G = Phelm (Goed = ChG-ood)
- J = Y sound (Job = Yob)
- Sch = Sk with a little phelm (Schiphol = Skiphol)
- W = V (Water = Vater)
Diversity in the Netherlands
Skip rijsttafel and head to a toko for more authentic food
Many people don’t know much about Dutch colonialism, but the Dutch had major colonies in Surinam (in South America), Indonesia, and some of the Caribbean islands. Although slavery was outlawed in the 1800s, there were institutionalized plantations in Indonesia among other less savory practices. In Surinam, many people are descended from slaves that were brought to Surinam before the ban as well as the indentured servants who were brought from Java (Indonesia) and India later.
What is a toko!? A toko is a shop that focuses on Asian food, generally Indonesian food. Many tokos in the Netherlands (including Amsterdam) sell really good Indonesian (or Surinamese-Javanese) food that is usually cooked by someone’s mom. It’s good authentic stuff and it’s often cheap. If you’re interested in trying Indonesian food, definitely consider going to your local toko (ask your host or the staff at the hotel for their picks) as it probably has better food than your fancy Indonesian rijsttafel that is three times the cost.
Many of people immigrated to the Netherlands before both countries became independent, so don’t be surprised if there’s more diversity in the Netherlands you realized at first. At minimum, stop for Surinamese roti or stop into your local toko for some delicious Indonesian food!
Racism in the Netherlands
I’ve been asked a few times by friends who are women of color (WOC) about racism in the Netherlands. I’m white, however one of my good friends (hi M.) is half-Surinamese. Discrimination against minorities occurs in the Netherlands. People might mistake you for potentially living here, so you might be addressed in Dutch if you’re of African, Middle-Eastern, or Asian descent.
A WOC that visited me felt she was treated with a lot of respect here, more so than in the United States. She was surprised that she felt at home and safe. What really surprised her was that she didn’t feel like she stood out so much as a WOC, which she didn’t expect from traveling in Europe.
The part that you really need to be aware of as a POC is that the public domain tends to be better than in the US (for instance), however the private domain is when people may share their opinion about minorities or foreigners. The Netherlands is liberal, but it may not be as politically correct as you might think.
… We have to talk about it. If you’re visiting the Netherlands in November or early December, you’ll be visiting just in time for Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is more popular than Christmas here and it’s celebrated on December 5th. It’s based on a real person, but the story today goes that this figure lives in Spain and comes to the Benelux region to give good children presents once a year. With him, come his helpers and the helpers are called Zwarte Pieten.
Technically, the helpers are supposed to be Moorish. At some point, people dressing up as Zwarte Piet started wearing blackface as well as other accessories, such as big hoop earrings, red lipstick, etc.
This is a huge fight in the public domain here in the Netherlands and starting a discussion about Zwarte Piet in public is not something I’d recommend without some caution. A lot of people are not comfortable saying their opinion on it publicly although some people are happy to bring it up. It can be touchy although I’ve had a lot of Dutch friends bring it up just to tell me that they’re not okay with it as some of them worry about the perception of the Netherlands to foreigners as a result of this. That said, my own opinion is that the traditional costume makes me uncomfortable, mostly because I’m American and blackface is never okay to me.
Every year, the debate continues as some people insist that it is a children’s holiday that is a tradition while others say that it’s racist. Many cities are banning blackface Zwarte Pieten trying out a “sooty” Piet, a rainbow Piet, or even just using the minion costumes from Despicable Me. I don’t think that it’s fair to brush it under the table as the Zwarte Piet discussion is discussed a lot throughout fall and you might encounter Zwarte Piet decorations.
The weather is a crapshoot of rain and clouds. Your weather app is probably useless.
I didn’t move here for the weather. For some reason, the weather forecast is notably unreliable, so I usually only depend on the weather for the next 1-2 hours–then check again later in the day. If you are going to do something outdoors, be prepared for the rain or just clouds. Disappointing, but don’t let it ruin your day. Don’t plan too far in advance and bring a good raincoat.
Tipping is not required, but nice
A lot of waiters LOVE foreigners as they don’t know whether to tip or not. It’s typically that when you pay for most things, you don’t need to tip and it’s not horrible behavior if you don’t do so. That said, it’s nice to tip 10% (which is fairly standard) if you feel the service is really good. Luckily, staff here receives a good base wage. You usually tip for food.
Solo female travel in the Netherlands is easier than you may realize
I was a bit nervous about traveling solo in the Netherlands some years ago, however after a few years living here, I feel like I can safely say that the Netherlands is a great place for women taking their first solo trip as it’s easy to navigate on your own, there’s a good network of hostels, and most people won’t bother you. Sexual harassment still happens, but I find that it’s better than many European countries I’ve traveled in (especially southern European). (When you pass construction workers, I find that they usually wish you a good morning rather than catcalling you.) More importantly, I feel safe walking alone late at night.
Do not walk in the bike lane
How many times must we discuss this one? Typically, you have the road, a red thing that looks like a sidewalk and then the sidewalk. You can guess that the red bit is the bike path. When crossing the bike path, be careful as not all bikers will stop for you. Look for the white striped lines, which is the official place to cross the street. Both bikes and cars should stop for you.
If you rent a bike, may the odds be ever in your favor not to crash it or have it stolen
Bike theft is big business here, so make sure that your bike is locked up properly with two locks and to something stable, especially overnight. Tourist bikes aren’t usually targeted, but it’s also possible that your bike gets towed away by the city government if you leave it somewhere you shouldn’t be parking your bike. Also, be sure to signal. (More about how to ride a bike in the Netherlands here.)
Dutchies are nice, but the customer is NOT always right and you should always go to the front to pay
The customer is NOT always right. Sometimes, you’re just wrong and you’re told that you’re wrong. However, the worst for me is receiving food with cheese inside of it when I specifically said no cheese. (I’m lactose intolerant and the pills don’t work for me.) In some cases, the server would try to tell me that it was fine and I’d survive. That’s not really their decision and I’ve had to fight to get the food replaced without cheese as I ordered it. (At this point, I find explaining that I have an allergy is far more efficient.) That said, 90% of the customer service that you’ll deal with as a tourist is fine as those working in the service industry tend to love tourists as they actually tip well.
It’s always best to go up to the front to pay. Something that is good/bad about the Netherlands is that service gives you time to breathe, but sometimes it’s nearly impossible to get your server back if you want to order more food or pay. The fastest (and easiest) way is to just walk to the front to explain you want to pay or just flag them down as they’re passing your table.
Basically everyone speaks English
The Netherlands has one of the highest proficiency levels in English in the world and many Dutchies actually do their university courses in English. If you go to the movies here, most English language movies are shown in English with Dutch subtitles.
If you’re in a major city, you’ll have no problems at all as basically everyone speaks English and many people in Amsterdam have native English person radar. I really enjoy tiny Dutch towns that are super far off the beaten path and even there, people understand English even if they aren’t comfortable speaking it back. I promise that you’ll get by without a problem although a Dankjewel (thank you!) can’t hurt.
Distance is relative
You might think that two hours is not that much time to travel somewhere. Distance here in the Netherlands, mostly because the Netherlands is small, is relative. It takes 2.5 hours to drive across the Netherlands total. An hour is far or enough so that someone might say that they can’t meet you as they’re in another city. (Cough, guilty.)
Directness is a big thing here. I am a fairly blunt person, so I feel like it works. Some English expressions don’t really go over well here as people don’t really do the beating around the bush. If you want to ask something, just ask. I realize in many places, that would be rude without a preface, but here it’s normal. With this comes service with a sense of humor. I personally like it and I appreciate that people are straightforward and honest with you…and that you can have a laugh.
I hope that you enjoyed these travel tips for the Netherlands and that your trip to the Netherlands goes off flawlessly!