[Here's a website with some good information about the issue I'm writing about below. I had done some quick research into public transport before my trip, but apparently not enough and I wish I had read this first! Keep in mind that this article is about using the trains outside of Amsterdam. At the Centraal Station in Amsterdam, we had no problems buying tickets for transport within the city at kiosks where we could use our credit cards or pay with bills.]
During our trip to Amsterdam, there was one absolutely aggravating issue: using the suburban trains to get into the city center. We stayed in Weesp, a suburb that was a short 17 minute train ride to the center. The town itself was adorable and our accommodations pretty much perfect. However, getting to Amsterdam put us into a rage.
Why is that? I've traveled plenty of other places and have never had such an issue. I've even been to Amsterdam before, in 2008 and had no problems then. This time, though, it was a frustrating experience (I'm getting grumpy all over again, just writing about it!).
It was awful because of the system for buying tickets. Imagine this: we've finally arrived to Weesp and have to pick up a friend at the Centraal station in Amsterdam. We are equipped with cash in the form of bills as well as our giro chip credit cards that work in Germany (but are from an American bank - with the chip, that's all that matters, at least in Germany). It's 11 p.m. but this shouldn't be a problem because of our cards and the cash, right?
Oh no, my friend, it was a major problem. Here's why: the train ticket machines would not accept bills! There were no change machines around. Okay, so then we tried our credit cards with the chip. We were denied; the machine only took Dutch PIN/Maestro/V-Pay. Cruuuuuud! It was also 11 at night and it's a suburb. What would be open to get change? Well, we lucked out: there was a small bike kiosk and the guy was kind enough to give us change. If it weren't open, we would have been hosed.
So, we get the change and try to buy a ticket. The whole thing was confusing; it appeared that we had to buy some sort of card for 7,50 euros. Ah, that seemed reasonable! My friend chose that option, thinking it was a travel card for the duration. It then told her that she had to put in 20 more euros. What the heck!? At that point, we were going to run late so she just put in the total amount, in change only. She wasn't happy about having to shove almost 30 euros' worth of coins into the machine, and I don't blame her at all.
We later found out how this worked (and it's still crummy, in my opinion): the card she got is called the OV-chipkaart. It's possible to either have an anonymous one (like what my friend bought) or one can buy a personal one with the owner's photo and lost card protection. The latter option is more likely for Dutch residents. The card itself is a non-refundable 7,50 euros and there must be an additional 20 euros of credit on it. If my friend wanted to turn in the card and get the remaining credit (less than 30 euros) off it, she would have been charged 2,50 euros for the "privilege." Oh, and if you don't have a Dutch bank card, you better as heck have a boat load of change to buy the dang card at the machine.
The other option we later found was the single-use cards, which were more reasonable. For 3,20 euros, I bought a one-way ticket from Weesp to Amsterdam Centraal. At the time, I had a printed ticket. I later found out that a few days after our trip ended, the system was changing over to single-use OV chip cards (enmalige chipkaart) and that there would be a 1 euro surcharge on each single-use card purchased.
The whole thing was entirely frustrating and the system is not at all friendly to people who are not going to be using transport very often (i.e. the hordes of visitors to Amsterdam). I think that the worst thing is the payment situation; the machines won't take most credit or debit cards and there are no change machines. If the train office or stores aren't open, how is one to get change to buy tickets? Many of the stores around the trains aren't always amenable to giving change, either; on our second day, we went to the convenience store in the train station in Weesp and they refused to give us our change from our purchase back all in coins. I understand that they need the change too, so it's extremely frustrating to have to scramble for coins to pay for train tickets.
The Netherlands are otherwise pretty cool, but buying train tickets outside of Amsterdam is an exercise in frustration.