(Editor’s note: You can read more here about NS options. You can see Stephen Heiner’s “The American in Paris” blog here.)
Whenever friends tell me that they are going away for at least a couple weeks, I often ask if I can housesit for them. The “yes” I got to the most recent use of this tactic was why I spent about three weeks in the Netherlands earlier this summer. Friends who had sold a house in Amsterdam and bought one in Utrecht took the time to celebrate this transition in their lives by taking a long road trip in Canada. I moved in to their old place a few hours after they boarded a flight from Schiphol Airport.
What’s NS Flex?
For those of you who have been in the Netherlands, you’ll know that the entire country allows you to travel using the OV-chipkaart. This handy little piece of plastic can be bought at most major train stations and is usually issued as “anonymous.” It’s blue and can be used (and charged up) by anyone and doesn’t have to be registered, though if you do register it, you can apply to get a lost one re-issued to you, with the credit that was on it.
In order to benefit from an NS Flex subscription, you can’t use an anonymous blue OV-chipkaart. You have to get one of the “fancy” gold ones, which will have your name and picture attached to it.
There are various NS Flex subscription levels to choose from, but the one that caught my eye was “Dal Vordeel” which is about five euros a month and provides a 40-percent discount on all your off-peak travel (off-peak is defined as midnight to 6:30 a.m., then between 9 a.m.–to-4 p.m., and then 6:30 p.m.–to–midnight as well as all day on weekends and public holidays.)
It’s hardly an inconvenience to travel during those hours and with fewer people, too!
Even better? There’s no charge at the point of use! You get an itemized bill at the end of the month, and then you’re auto-billed on your regular renewal date, which in my case would be around the middle of the month.
I planned to do quite a few excursions while I was on this trip, so you only needed to tell me that I could save 40 percent. Getting billed later was just a bonus.
Little did I know I would be paying with some time and bureaucratic irritation for this savings.
Why so Dutch?
I often tell people that one of the reasons I love to visit NL is the thoughtful and efficient urban design all throughout the country. Pedestrians, scooters, cars, bikes, cargo bikes, and delivery vehicles all swish about in a symphony of green wedges + well-maintained streets.
Rarely do you hear horns or see accidents.
Part of this, in my experience, has been that things “just work.” But that doesn’t mean the Dutch don’t have their idiosyncrasies.
I was walking with Dispatches founders Terry and Cheryl Boyd in Den Bosch on this trip and Terry noted, “the Dutch will see one tile on the ground that is a centimeter off and the whole street will need to get pulled up and re-done.” While I was able to laugh at this, I wasn’t laughing as what I thought would be an easy NS Flex procedure got progressively challenging.
Get your card
Despite being on the cutting edge of many technologies, there are stores in the Netherlands that won’t take your international debit or credit cards. Albert Heijn, easily one of the biggest grocery stores in the country, only takes Dutch chip cards.
Strangely, you can have your NS Flex subscription tied to a foreign bank account, but only AFTER you establish it with a Dutch bank account, which I didn’t have.
The three key components you need in order to get an NS Flex subscription are:
- a Dutch bank account
- a Dutch address
- a Dutch phone number
You’ll also want to upload a photo of yourself which will then be printed on the card, though the form was a bit fussy about the size of the photo and the amount of my face that was showing.
Despite being considered very international, with an easygoing reputation, the Dutch at times reveal themselves to be the inward-looking, conservative culture that they are by default, and their rigging their otherwise awesome train subscriptions to be only easy for those all-in on the Netherlands is one of the expressions of that conservatism.
Nevertheless, I was in possession of two of these three key components, and during the online process I registered my friend’s Dutch address (to receive my shiny new gold OV-chipkaart), used my friend’s Dutch phone number, and just needed a Dutch bank account to pay for my first month’s subscription.
Here I hit a wall and called customer service first, and after 30 minutes a friendly voice told me (in English) that despite his best efforts, I was going to need to use a Dutch account. Thankfully I had a willing friend who accepted a screen shot of the QR payment code that I sent over and paid the five euros with said Dutch account.
All I needed to do now was wait for my new gold card and I would be off to the races on my excursions out of Amsterdam (a city, by the way, I only love more on each visit, despite it getting progressively more touristed each time I go).
Give yourself time
If I had planned a bit better, I would have done all this the week before I arrived in the Netherlands, but since I had quite a bit of work I needed to catch up on, I had not planned any travel that first week anyway and figured it was okay if the card arrived the following week. But that assumed the card would arrive in five business days, which it didn’t.
That’s okay. The team replied on Twitter (sometimes faster, sometimes slower, than calling, I found out) that I could simply buy a ticket and then save the receipt and I would get the 40-percent credit back onto my account since my subscription was now active.
My first trip was to Utrecht and I did as was instructed and later on I gave the ticket info which credited back my friend who had paid the original five euro charge. Thankfully the following day the card arrived in time for my trip to Rotterdam and soon I was whipping in and out of train gates, always seeing the baffling charge of 0.00 as I scanned in and out.
I did make sure to switch to my French account a couple weeks after I had been using the card. That way I would get charged for all the trips at the end of the month, rather than my friend, though this couldn’t be done online and I had to wait on hold again to get this done manually.
I saved hundreds of euros on my trips during my stay, which included the aforementioned Utrecht, as well as Rotterdam, The Hague, Eindhoven, Den Bosch, and a trip up to a small town called Opperdoes to visit friends who had relocated from Paris late last year.
I then used Twitter (much easier than waiting on the phone) to communicate with the NS Flex team, letting them know I wanted to cancel my subscription. It turns out that was going to be a bit more of a hassle (involved me going to a machine and then would require me to go through the whole process again if I wanted to restart) so they simply switched me to NS Flex Basis, which has no monthly charge and can be used indefinitely.
Save yourself money (but maybe lose a bit of time)
So, there’s your recipe for saving hundreds of euros on your day trips and excursions if you’re in the Netherlands for more than a couple weeks.
Remember to use my lessons to your advantage:
- have a friend with a Dutch bank account to help you during the signup process
- try to do it at least a week, but not more than two (no need to start paying for your subscription before you really start using it), before you arrive
- be patient and remember that sometimes you’ll have to trade time for money in order to realize savings
When they returned, and in between their stories about the Canadian road trip, I did tease my Dutch friends about this lack of efficiency in what I consider to be a fairly efficient country, but this line of conversation actually opened up the door to enlighten me to even more inefficiencies I couldn’t have known about as a non-resident. That’s an article for a different time.
Needless to say, it’s always easiest to love a country when you’re only visiting for a few weeks, right?
Read more about train travel here.
Read more about NS trains here.