Tram, bus, metro, ferry, train - Amsterdam has no less than five different modes of public transit just to travel within the city. Understandably, visitors are sometimes intimidated by the panoply of options, not to mention the contradictory information about tickets that are out there. (The Netherlands adopted a new smart card for public transit in 2010; outdated sources will still refer to the former strippenkaarten, or "strip tickets".) While it can all seem rather intractable on the surface, these tools and tips can help any visitor reach his or her destination with a minimum of fuss.
Which Mode of Transport to Take
The GVB website contains a combined map of the tram, bus, metro and ferry networks, as well as a detailed map of the Central Station area and a special attractions map that indicates the routes to popular tourist destinations. If that proves to be information overload, just click over to 9292 and type in your departure and destination addresses; the website will calculate the route for you. (However, the site occasionally proposes some circuitous routes; if it's a complicated route with several transfers, you may want to double-check for accuracy on the GVB-provided maps.)
Some rules of thumb: the historic center relies primarily on trams for public transit; both trams and buses operate outside the center. The metro is most useful for rapid travel to and between points outside the center (as the center itself has only four metro stops: Central Station, Nieuwmarkt, Waterlooplein, and Weesperplein).
The trams and metro run from 6 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.; buses run 24 hours a day, but special bus lines (the pricier "Nachtnet") take over between 12:30 and 7:30 a.m. The five free GVB ferries whisk visitors to Amsterdam North, the vast city district north of the IJ River; the Dutch Railways (NS) train comes in handy for inter-city travel, especially to Schiphol Airport.
How to Buy Tickets
GVB relies on a smart card, the OV-chipkaart, for payment. There are two types of card that are most appropriate for visitors: the disposable card and the anonymous card. Both types can be purchased at GVB Tickets & Info point opposite Central Station; Maestro cardholders can also use the NS ticket automats inside the train station. (Few automats take coins; even fewer take bills!)
The disposable OV-chipkaart comes preloaded with "travel products", or subscriptions for unlimited travel for periods of one hour or one to seven days; afterward, the card cannot be reloaded. For visitors who are mobility impaired, or whose itinerary will often take them to the far reaches of Amsterdam, a one- to a seven-day card is a smart option. (Note that 24-hour cards are also available from tram and bus drivers and conductors.) The travel products are valid for use only within Amsterdam.
For visitors who expect to use public transit only sporadically, it can be worthwhile to purchase an anonymous OV-chipkaart; while the deposit for these cards is steep, the fare per trip is considerably less expensive than the one-hour unlimited cards above. After approximately four trips – say, to Museum Quarter and to the Sloten Windmill and back – it typically proves to be the more economical option.
These cards can be reloaded with credit or travel products.
Only one- to seven-day (not one-hour!) unlimited cards are valid on the Nachtnet, the special bus network that operates between 12:30 and 7:30 a.m.; other cardholders must purchase a one-way ticket from the GVB Tickets & Info point or ticket automats.
The GVB ferries to Amsterdam North are free; just hop on! Ferry schedules can be found on the GVB web site. And last but not least, Dutch Railways (NS) train tickets are available from the service counter and ticket automats at NS stations. As noted above, these automats accept Maestro credit cards, coins occasionally, and bills rarely. Anonymous OV-chipkaart holders who travel on credit (not travel products) can also use their cards with the NS; the cards must first be activated for train travel at an NS service desk or ticket automat.
Travelers can then check in and out at the electronic card readers in the station hall or on the platform. The NS website has its own route and fare calculator for national train travel.