Saturday, September 18, 2021

How To Travel Around Belgium

EuropeBelgiumHow To Travel Around Belgium

Because the country is so small (300 km as the maximum distance), you can get anywhere in a few hours. Public transport is fast and convenient, and not too expensive. There are frequent train connections between the major cities and buses for shorter distances. A useful site is InfoTEC [www], which provides a door-to-door itinerary for the whole country, covering all forms of public transport (including train, bus, metro and tram).

A glance at the map suggests that Brussels is a good starting point for day trips to Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, Namur and Leuven. Antwerp is popular with those who want to be in a cosmopolitan place, and Ghent is high on the list for those who like a good mix of open provinciality. Liège is beautiful, but too close to Germany to be a good starting point for day trips. Mechelen is considered boring by tourists, but has a very good brand new youth hostel next to a train station with trains for everyone every 30 minutes.

For local tourism, especially in Flanders, there are many facilities for cycling. It is possible to rent bicycles practically everywhere. Mountain bikes are available in the Walloon countryside and rafting is popular along the border with Luxembourg.

By train

Most of Belgium is well served by rail, operated by SNCB (www), whose main lines run via Antwerp, Namur or Brussels. You arrive there by international trains. Both are accessible by train from Brussels airport or by bus from Antwerp or Charleroi airport. Transfers are very easy. Note that all ICE tickets and some Thalys tickets allow you to change trains for free on the same day with national trains to any other Belgian station. There are also Thalys trains from Paris directly to Ghent, Bruges and Ostend without having to change trains in Antwerp or Brussels. From London (via Eurostar) you have to change in Brussels for Antwerp, Leuven or Ghent, but for Bruges you can already change in Lille (France) without having to make the diversions via Brussels. In both Lille and Brussels, the staff is very helpful and ready to smile.

The trains are punctual and mostly modern and comfortable.

Normal Belgian rail fares compare favourably with those in Germany or the UK, without the need to book or reserve in advance. Second class fares are only 20 EUR for the longest domestic journeys, while first class costs 50% more. Trains can be very crowded at peak times and you may need a first class ticket to get a seat at these times. You can buy regular tickets online [www] or at stations, but not usually at travel agencies. If you want to buy a ticket on the train, you must tell the conductor and there will be a surcharge, unless the ticket office at the departure station is closed. At the station you can pay in cash or by credit card. Not buying a ticket can cost you up to 200 euros. Return tickets are 50% cheaper at weekends.

Normal tickets are sold for a specific day, so there is no additional validation when boarding the train.

The cheapest option if you are planning several train journeys is the Go-Pass [www], which entitles you to 10 single journeys in 2nd class (with change of trains if necessary) for €50. It is valid for one year and can be passed on without restrictions. The only problem is that you have to be under 26, but there is a more expensive version for older people, called “Rail Pass”. It costs 76 euros for 2nd class or 117 euros for 1st class. If you use these cards, make sure you have filled in the line before you board the train (actually: before you step onto the platform). The conductor can be very fussy if the pass is not filled in correctly. However, if you speak to the station staff before boarding the train, they will be happy to help you.

If you are attending an event or concert, check if your train journey is not already included in the ticket. For some mayor festivals and concerts, such as Rock Werchter, Pukkelpop or I Love Techno, the train ride is included in the ticket price. If you want to visit special places like theme parks or museums, ask for the ‘B excursions’ option. You can then buy your ticket and your train ticket at the station in one train. The price is always low, which usually means the normal entrance fee + 4-5 € just for the ride. The receptionist will surely give you the details.

The SNCB website offers a calendar [www] with information about delays and a fare calculator [www]. You can also find a map of Belgian railways and stations [www] and a more detailed but non-printable map [www].

Please note that train timetables usually change around 10 December. These changes are usually limited to the introduction of some new stations and the addition of some regular lines. No lines have been removed for a very long time.

By bus/tram

Buses cover the whole country, as do trams and the metro in the big cities. Most lines cover short distances, but it is possible to travel from city to city by bus. However, this mode of transport is much slower and only slightly cheaper than the train. There is also the Kusttram [www], which runs along most of the Flemish coast from France to the Netherlands and is worth a visit in summer.

In the cities, a normal ticket for an area never costs more than 2 euros, and there are different tickets available. Note that local transport is provided by different companies: STIB/MIVB in Brussels [www], DeLijn in Flanders and TEC in Wallonia, and outside Brussels they do not accept tickets from others. Tickets are cheaper when bought from ATMs.

Most tourists will not need the bus companies as it is much easier to take the train between cities and walk. Only Brussels and Antwerp have a metro, but even there you can walk. The historic centre of Brussels is only about 300 metres by 400 metres. Antwerp is much bigger, but a ride in a horse-drawn carriage gives a better overview than the metro.

By car

Belgium has a dense network of modern, toll-free motorways, but some secondary roads in Wallonia are poorly maintained. Signage is always in the national language only, except in Brussels, where it is bilingual. As many Belgian cities have very different names in Dutch and French, this can lead to confusion. For example, Mons in French is Bergen in Dutch; Antwerp is Antwerp in Dutch and Anvers in French; Liège in French is Luik in Dutch and Liège in German, and so on. This even applies to cities outside Belgium; if you are driving on a Flemish motorway, you may see signs indicating Rijsel, which is the French city of Lille, or Aken, which is the German city of Aachen. Exits are marked with the word “Uit” (exit) in the Flemish area, “Sortie” in the Walloon area and “Ausfahrt” in the German-speaking area.

Drivers in Belgium should also observe the rule “Right of way from the right”. At level crossings, traffic coming from the right has the right of way, unless signs or markings on the road indicate otherwise. Such intersections are more likely to be found in urban and suburban areas. Observant visitors will notice many cars with bumps on the right! Drive defensively and your car will not suffer the same fate.

In Belgium, motorway signs are notoriously impractical, especially on secondary roads. There is no uniformity in layout and colour, many are in poor condition, inconveniently placed or simply missing. A good road map (Michelin, De Rouck, Falk) or GPS system is recommended.

Car rental

Some rental cars are equipped with a satellite navigation system, but it is advisable to ask for this when booking. This is probably the most reliable way to get from point A to point B in Belgium. You will be able to discover some of the Belgian sights, flat as they may be, but the architecture of the cities is to be admired. You will be pleasantly surprised at how clean the towns and villages of Belgium are. Drive by on any given afternoon and you will see people tending to the road in front of their houses – a real backward village community.

Speed traps are often set up along the roads, and drink-driving is punishable by severe penalties even for small amounts, e.g. a fine of 125 euros on the spot at 0.05% and 0.08%. From this amount of alcohol in the body, you risk up to 6 months in prison and the loss of your driving licence for 5 years.

By thumb

The best place for hitchhikers. Just ask for a lift! Cardboard signs with city names can really help you get a quick lift.

  • Coming from Brussels: Heading south (e.g. Namur), get off at the “Delta” metro station.

Nearby you will find a large park and ride and a bus stop. If you hitchhike near the bus stop, you should be able to make a tour in less than 5 minutes during traffic hours.

  • In the direction of Ghent/Bruges: Good location near the “Basilix” shopping centre in Berchem-ste-Agathe. You can get there by bus N°87.

Another contact point in the north-east is in Anderlecht, near the Erasmus/Erasmus hospital (Erasmus/Erasmus metro station).

  • Direction Liège/Hasselt: Take the Pre-Metro to the “Diamant” station in Schaerbeek. When you leave the station, you should see a lot of cars leaving directly below you. Just walk and follow the signs “E40”. You should arrive at a small street that leads to a road that joins the E40 (cars come out of a tunnel at this point). At this point, hitchhike on the hard shoulder, in the area of the tunnel. Cars should still be driving slowly at this point and see that you are visible to them, so it is not that dangerous.
  • When you leave Louvain-la-Neuve (university) in the direction of Brussels (north) or Namur (south), you will be at the roundabout next to the exit/entrance “8a”, near the signs “Louvain la Neuve-centre”. A fast approach is guaranteed. Avoid exit 7 or 9, as they are much less frequented.