Travel and Local Information
The following information is provided by our local host Christophe Grandsire-Koevets.
There is plenty of information available about Groningen and the Netherlands on the Internet, so I will focus on the very information you will need to spend a safe LCC in Groningen. For general information, I advise you to read the following links:
- General information about the Netherlands and Groningen.
- Travel information about the Netherlands and Groningen.
Here’s some general information you will want to know right now:
- The Netherlands are a typical West-European country: relatively safe, clean, with a high standard of living. Dutch people are well known for being some of the most tolerant people in Europe. This tradition of tolerance dates back to the 18th century, and is still very valid nowadays. Groningen is the largest town of the North of the country, with about 190,000 inhabitants. It’s also a university city, with an average of 50,000 students. And just like any other university city it has a very vibrant night life, with plenty of restaurants, bars, clubs and coffee shops.
- The currency is the Euro. Paper money and coins are still the main payment medium, although debit cards are also often used (but only Dutch debit cards work mostly). Credit cards can be used, but are not accepted everywhere. Mostly, hotels, restaurants, big fast-food chains and some department stores will accept them, but small bars and shops will not. Where credit cards are accepted, this will be usually true only of Visa and Mastercard cards. American Express cards are less commonly accepted, although most hotels should have no problem with them. If in doubt, just contact them and ask. ATMs are relatively easy to find, and will accept most debit cards from any European country, and most credit cards from about everywhere in the world. You should check with your bank about fees though, as those can be quite high. In any case, you should try to get some Euro paper money. You can normally do that at the airport on arrival at the available ATMs. Exchanging cash money should be possible at the local GWK Travelex agency, but they only accept a few currencies (US Dollars, English Pounds and Swiss Francs). It is easier to buy Euros in advance, for instance via Travelex. Be careful with your money though: pickpocketing happens a lot in airports and train stations, especially if you look like a tourist.
- The Netherlands are a member of the Schengen agreement. In practice, it means that citizens from the EU or an EFTA country (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) don’t require a visa to enter the territory. There is also a list of countries the citizens of which don’t require a visa for a short touristic stay. I’d still advise you to check yourself whether you need a visa or not.
- The official languages in the Netherlands are Dutch (spoken everywhere) and Frisian (spoken only in the province of Friesland). A vast majority of Dutch people do speak English at least at a conversational level though. This is especially true of employees of airports and railway stations. Be careful that outside of the big cities, most people don’t speak or hear English everyday, so while they may understand you (as long as you don’t speak Cockney or a local Texan dialect!), they may speak with a strong accent. Groningen has a big English-speaking community, so it should be no problem to get by there with only English (some of my foreign colleagues have been living in Groningen for 5 years and still don’t speak a word of Dutch!).
- Electricity in the Netherlands is 230V, 50Hz, as the rest of Europe. If you intend to bring a device that doesn't accept this kind of current, you will need a voltage converter. Plugs are of the standard European "two round pins" type. Assuming you need only a plug converter, those are easy enough to find (especially in shops at and around airports) and quite cheap. Here's an example. For more info on electricity and plugs in the Netherlands (with pictures), see this page.
Now I will focus on what you need to know to get to Groningen and stay there for the LCC.
Getting to the Netherlands
Depending on where you come from, there are various ways to get to the Netherlands.
Unless you are living in France, Belgium or Germany, the fastest and easiest way to travel to the Netherlands is by plane. The main Dutch airport is the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, one of the biggest European hubs. You can get there from most main airports in the world. Since there are so many airlines and airports that have flights to Amsterdam (direct or indirect), I cannot give you any specific advice as to which flight is the best option. It depends too much on your specific location and needs. Contact a local travel agency and/or airport and they should be able to help you organise a flight that fits your needs.
If you’re in the UK, especially in Scotland, there is an alternative. Groningen has its own airport, the Groningen Airport Eelde. It is mostly used for holiday charters, but also has a regular line to and from Aberdeen (with connections to flights from and to Manchester and Norwich). It won’t be cheaper than flying to Schiphol, but you will end up only 15km (~9.3 miles) from Groningen, which will save you the train or car trip. The only way to book this flight is via British Midland International (they are the only airline that provide this service). A two-way flight Aberdeen-Groningen in Economy class will cost about £275. From Manchester, it will be about £400, and from Norwich about £500. There is a drawback: BMI only provides this service during weekdays, so you cannot have your return flight on Sunday.
Note that this alternative is only attractive for people who can access one of those three airports (Aberdeen, Manchester, Norwich) easily. For anyone else, and especially for non-UK residents, it makes no sense to fly to the UK to use those flights. You will end up with a much more expensive trip than if you flew directly to the Amsterdam Airport.
If you live in France, Belgium, Germany or the South of the UK, taking the train to the Netherlands can be a valid alternative. There are now good high-speed train connections between the capitals of the different countries, and if you are a student they will be much cheaper than a plane ticket. The UK doesn’t have a direct connection to the Netherlands, but you can change from the Eurostar to a high-speed train in Brussels.
However, there are no direct international connections to Groningen, with the exception of a regional train from Leer in Germany, which runs every 2 hours (this train has connections to trains from Bremen, Hamburg and Hannover).
Still, if you check with your national railway company, they can probably arrange a full trip for you, with indications on how and where to switch trains. You can also book your trip via http://www.nshispeed.nl/en, where you’ll have even more choices than those which I’m describing here.
Maybe the cheapest, although not the most comfortable way to travel through Europe is by bus. Eurolines can bring you to Groningen, but the service is limited. It’s always worth a check though.
This alternative is only useful if you have enough time though: the trip by bus can easily be 3 to 6 times as long as the equivalent trip by train, depending on your location.
You can always drive to the Netherlands and Groningen. There are car ferry services between the UK and the Netherlands. See below on driving within the Netherlands.
Getting to Groningen
Assuming you found your way to Dutch ground, how do you get to Groningen?
Probably the easiest way to get to Groningen from elsewhere in the Netherlands is by train. Groningen has three train stations, but the only one that interests us here is the central station, called Station Groningen. The Dutch railway system works relatively well, and trains are usually on time.
In our case, you will probably come from Amsterdam Schiphol. The airport has got a railway station. You don’t need to look for it: as soon as you get out with your luggage, you’re basically in the train station.
Every 19 minutes after the hour there is a direct train from Schiphol to Groningen. The trip lasts about 2½ hours. Those trains ride during the day (the first one leaves at 06:19 in the morning, the last one at 23:19 in the evening). If you miss it and don’t want to wait an hour, every 49 minutes after the hour there is another train that goes from Schiphol and can be used to reach Groningen, but you need to change trains at Amersfoort. The change is easy: you just need to walk to the train on the other side of the platform, but it’s short, and can be tricky (sometimes the train you go in is actually two trains connected to each other until a certain point, and going in different directions afterwards. Only part of the train actually goes to Groningen, so you need to ask an employee in the train whether you’re in the right part. Don’t worry, you’ve got enough stops along the way to move from one train to the other on time). The trip is not longer than the direct trip, and those trains also ride only during the day (first one at 05:49 in the morning, last one at 22:49 in the evening). Yes, if you arrive in the middle of the night, you’re out of luck: the Netherlands don’t have night trains.
Both trains normally leave from platform 3 (but check in the station, the platform may change due to circumstances). The price of the ticket is not dependent on which train you take. A 2nd-class ticket is €23.00 (~$31.35), a 1st-class ticket is €39.10 (~$53.29). You needn’t buy a return ticket: you won’t get a better price. The differences between 2nd class and 1st class are slightly more comfortable seats and near security that you will have a sitting place (especially during rush hours, the 2nd class can be packed! Rush hours are in the morning from 07:00 to 10:00, and in the afternoon from 15:00 to 19:00, during weekdays). Those are the only differences; Dutch trains don’t sell drinks or anything in first class.
Tickets are bought from vending machines. Those are very recognisable blue and yellow booths that normally stand in groups of three or four. You use them via a touchscreen (There’s an online demo of the graphical interface, if you want to check it out. I advise it: the interface is not what I would call obvious). They only accept Dutch debit cards and credit cards that feature a chip and PIN (only Visa and Mastercard). They don’t accept cash. If you can’t use them you need to find a manned locket (those sport the same colours and the title “Tickets & Service”) and pay in cash. I advise you not to try your luck and ride without ticket: conductors control tickets on all trips, and the fine for travelling without a ticket is very high.
There is basically no national bus network, so this option is only possible if you arrived via the Groningen Airport. In that case it’s easy: take Bus 2 direction Groningen. There’s one every half hour: at 17 minutes over the hour, and 47 minutes over the hour. It will bring you to the central station of Groningen. You can pay the trip cash to the driver (it should be about €3 to €4). If you want to make use of the bus more often during the weekend, read below.
Renting a car is a possible, if expensive, alternative. Not only is renting the car itself expensive, but gas is expensive as well, generally between €1.40 and €1.60 the litre (I’ll leave the conversion to $ per gallon to my American readers, as well as the gasps of surprise [n.b. ~$7.23-$8.25 per gallon]). Otherwise, driving in the Netherlands is not difficult: the roads are in very good condition, there is a good highway network, and directions are well indicated. GPS maps for the Netherlands are normally very accurate. There are no tolls either. There are only two difficulties:
- Driving in town can be a stressful experience, especially in big towns like Amsterdam, where the roads can be quite narrow and packed with cars. In Groningen the roads are normally easy to follow, as long as you stay in the periphery of the town.
- During rush hours, nearly everyday the West of the Netherlands is basically paralysed with gigantic traffic jams. Normally a drive from Schiphol to Groningen lasts less than 2 hours. During rush hours that time can easily double.
Driving in the Netherlands is on the right side of the road. Speed limits are 120km/hr (~75mph) on highways (but many segments of highway, especially around towns, are limited to 100km/hr [~62mph]), 100km/hr (~62mph) on motorways, 80km/hr (~50mph) outside of urban areas (some rural areas have 60km/hr [~37mph] instead, but it’s indicated) and 50km/hr (~31mph) in towns. Residential areas often restrict car speed down to 30km/hr (~19mph).
If you still want to rent a car, just contact me and I’ll try to find a good deal for you.
Getting around in Groningen
Now you’ve arrived in Groningen. How do you get to your hotel or to the conference?
Groningen has an extensive bus system, centred around the central station. You can’t miss the buses: they stop in front of the main entrance of the station. See below on how to reach the conference centre by bus.
In Groningen, you can pay the bus trip directly to the bus driver, but this gets expensive very quickly. The cheaper solution is to buy a “strippenkaart” (please read the link; it has all the info you need to know about those, including costs). You can get them at almost any shop within the railway station.
Travelling by car within Groningen is possible but not recommended: you can’t park anywhere for free (except possibly at your hotel and definitely at the conference centre), and parking can be expensive (about €1 to €2 per hour [~$1.36-$2.72 per hour]). In many areas parking is also limited to 1 hour or less. If you come to Groningen by car, I advise that you leave your car at your hotel’s parking place (or the conference centre’s) and use another means of travel while you’re here.
A very Dutch mode of transport is the bike. Cycle paths are clearly marked and very widespread, and going from anywhere in Groningen to the centre of town takes at most 20 minutes. Bikes are everywhere, as most students use them to travel within town. Bicycles are available for rent in many places, including a facility in the central station. Renting a bike is cheap, usually about €5 (~$6.81) per day, although you also need to leave a guarantee of €40 (~$54.53) that you get back on restitution. There are GPS devices out there for bikes, but I don’t know whether you can rent them as well. One thing to be careful of is bike theft, which is rampant everywhere in the Netherlands. Only park your bike in protected areas or with a strong lock (there are various guarded bike parking areas in Groningen. If you rent your bike, those are often usable for free).
The centre of Groningen is actually rather compact, and if you don’t mind walking you can get from about anywhere to the centre of town within 30 to 40 minutes. The railway station itself is about 10 minutes from the centre (passing by the Groninger Museum, which is an experience in itself), and from there most restaurants can be reached with no more than a 15-minute walk. The conference centre itself is slightly away from the centre of town, about 20-25 minutes on foot.
The Conference Centre
The place where the LCC will take place is called the Infrahuis. The address is Leonard Springerlaan 1, in Groningen. You can follow these directions to get there on foot from the railway station, and those directions if you’re by car. You can also easily get there by bus: take Bus 6 direction Hoornsemeer, or Bus 16 direction Corpus den Hoorn, and stop at the 3rd stop (Martini Plaza/Auto Century). Martini Plaza is a big theatre complex, so it’s easy to recognise. Once there, walk back a few metres and you’ll see the entrance of the Infrahuis on your left.
The Infrahuis has a large parking place which is made available for us for free for the duration of the conference (including the Friday afternoon before the conference). You can park your car there for convenience.
Staying in Groningen
Of course, it's nice to know where the conference will be held, but you are not going to sleep in the conference room, are you? No, you'll want a place to stay in Groningen. You're in luck then, as I've secured a deal with the Mercure Hotel Groningen Martiniplaza, which is just at a 5-min walk from the Infrahuis.
The address of the hotel is Expositielaan 7 in Groningen. It is a 157-room 4-star hotel with parking space for 60 cars. It has all the modern facilities someone expects from a modern hotel, including free Wireless Internet in the rooms (see this page for more info). Given that it's basically next to the Infrahuis, the directions I gave in the previous section on how to reach the Infrahuis from the railway station are also valid to reach the hotel itself. Like the Infrahuis, it is not located directly next to the city centre, but it's still only 20 minutes away on foot.
With the Language Creation Conference deal, you can book a single room for the duration of the conference (2 nights, from Friday to Saturday and from Saturday to Sunday) for €85.00 (~$114.84, €42.50 [~$57.42] per night), or a double room for the same duration for €95.00 (~$128.34, €47.50 [~$64.17] per night). The price is including breakfast, but excluding tourist tax, which is €3.30 (~$4.46) per person per night. The deal is also valid if you book a room for more nights, but only the nights from Friday to Saturday and from Saturday to Sunday will enjoy the special price (the hotel itself is not very expensive in any case, with normal rates ranging from €70 to €110 per night [~$94.57 to ~$148.61]).
Instructions on how to book a room using the LCC deal will be sent to you by e-mail when you register for the conference (or sometime thereafter if you already registered before I arranged the deal!). If for some reason you don't want to use the deal, or you want to stay for a while longer but at another hotel (more centrally located for instance), here are a few alternatives:
- Hotels.nl is the cheapest and quickest way to search and book a hotel in the Netherlands. It features no booking fees and always shows the cheapest fares of the hotels, including generic special offers. The site is available in various languages, and is very straightforward: just type in the place where you want to stay and the dates, and it will give you a list of hotels, from the cheapest to the most expensive. There's plenty of info about those hotels available on the site, including distance to the centre of town and to the railway station. Booking a room is easy to do and paying for it can be done by credit card.
- Bud Gett Hostels is a way to sleep in a clean bed for a low cost. It doesn't have single rooms, but a range of rooms for 2 to 10 people, as well as dormitories where you can book a single bed for €20 (~$27) per night.
- As Sai asked me, I'm adding here the Couch Surfing option. There are about 300 active couchsurf hosts in Groningen, and as long as you select someone with good references things should go well.