With the advent of smart cards and “open payment systems”, some might be wondering how long it will be before individual transit fare cards for each city are replaced by a single card that can be used anywhere. In the Netherlands, that day came over 35 years ago. Six years earlier, the the government standardized transit rates (as opposed to letting individual cities set their own rates). When the “strippenkaart” (literally meaning strip ticket) was introduced in October of 1980, a single ticket could be used on pretty much any non-NS transit vehicle in the entire country. You just had it stamped by the driver or conductor or at a validator for the number of zones you were going to travel. When you ran out of strips, you had to get a new ticket. This was the system that was in place when I was in the Netherlands for the first time in 2008, and I used my strippenkaart throughout the country during the four days I was there.
However, even during that visit, things were starting to change. The country was starting to move to smart card technology and began to gradually introduce the OV-chipkaart over the span of several years. An initial beta test of the technology was conducted on the Rotterdam Metro in 2005, and the OV-chipkaart was the only fare media valid on that system by the time I was there in 2008. By mid-2010, all Rotterdam and Amsterdam fares were paid with OV-chipkaart, and the strippenkaart was phased out incrementally in the rest of the country by November 2011.
Since the Dutch national tariff system is still zone based, passengers must not only tap their OV-chipkaart at the start of a journey, but also when they exit a vehicle. If transferring, they must tap in again on the second vehicle and the card calculates the appropriate fare. However, in order to ensure that travelers have enough money on their card for a long trip, a minimum of 4 EUR (4.42 USD at the time of this writing) is required to board a bus, tram, or metro and 20 EUR (22.12 USD) is required for a trip on NS, and one cannot board if only a lesser amount is available on the card. It also costs 7.50 EUR (8.29 USD) just to purchase the card itself, which is more expensive than most other places that require you to purchase your transit card. By comparison, Smartrip in Washington, DC is 2 USD, a Metrocard in New York City is 1 USD, an Oyster in London is 3 GBP (3.,97 USD), an anonymous Rav-Kav in Israel is 5 NIS (1.29 USD), and a personalized Rav-Kav is issued at no cost.
The old strippenkaart were not valid on Dutch railway trains (Nederlandse Spoorwegen), however the OV-chipkaart is now valid on NS and paper tickets are no longer available for travel within the Netherlands (paper tickets are required for international travel). Like with the buses and trams, one must tap in and tap out at the start and end of a train journey.
In theory, the idea of a nationwide farecard is a nice idea, and I think such things will become more common as time goes on. However, for someone only spending a few days in the Netherlands, the OV-chipkaart has a high upfront cost, requires high balances in order to be valid on all modes and especially intercity trains (a bit of an issue for those hoping to have a zero balance after traveling to Schiphol Airport at the end of a trip), and finding out about tourist passes is difficult. I’m impressed at the Netherlands’s ability to set up a nationwide ticketing system in the 1980s and the fact that they updated it to be a smart card system in recent years, but the ease of use, especially for visitors, could be improved. However, as “open payment systems” that allow the use of credit cards or smartphones as fare media become more widespread, perhaps the upfront costs for tourists can be eliminated as those technologies are introduced.