Travelling around Belgium is almost always easy: it’s a small country, and there’s an extremely well-organized – and reasonably priced – public transport system in which an extensive train network is supplemented by (and tied in with) a plethora of local bus services.
Belgium by train
The best way of getting around Belgium is by train. The system, operated by the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Belges/Belgische Spoorwegen (Belgian Railways; whttp://www.b-rail.be), is one of the best in Europe: trains are fast, frequent and very punctual; the network of lines is comprehensive; and fares are relatively low. For example, a standard, second-class ticket (billet ordinaire/gewone biljet) from Bruges to Arlon, one of the longest domestic train journeys you can make, costs just €19.40 one-way, whilst the forty-minute trip from Ghent to Brussels cost €7.50. Standard return tickets are twice the cost of a single, but same-day return tickets knock about ten percent off the price. First-class fares cost about fifty percent on top of the regular fare. There are substantial discounts for children and seniors (65+). With any ticket, you’re free to stop off anywhere en route and continue your journey later that day, but you’re not allowed to backtrack. Belgian Railways publishes a comprehensive and easy-to-use timetable (indicateur/spoorboekje), which is available for €11 at all major stations, as well as mounds of information on its various services, passes and fares. Note, however, that you are not allowed to buy a ticket with a foreign debit card and neither do automatic ticket machines accept foreign credit or debit cards.
Discount train tickets and deals
Belgian Railways offers a variety of discount tickets and deals. Some reward off-peak travelling, others offer substantial discounts if you are making the same journey on several occasions, but perhaps the most useful are the special weekend returns, which can knock up to fifty percent off the cost of regular travel. For further information, consult Belgian Railways’ website.
Belgium by bus
With so much of the country covered by the rail network, Belgian buses are mainly of use for travelling short distances, and wherever there’s a choice of transportation the train is quicker and not that much more expensive. Indeed, in most of Belgium buses essentially supplement the trains, with services radiating out from the train station and/or connecting different rail lines. That said, local buses are invaluable in some parts of rural Belgium, like the Botte de Hainaut and the Ardennes, where the train network fizzles out. Three bus companies provide nationwide coverage: De Lijn (whttp://www.delijn.be) in the Flemish-speaking areas; STIB (whttp://www.stib.be) in Brussels; and TEC (whttp://www.infotec.be) in Wallonia.
For the most part, driving around Belgium is pretty much what you would hope: smooth, easy and quick. Both countries have a good road network, with most of the major towns linked by some kind of motorway or dual carriageway, though snarl-ups are far from rare, especially in Belgium. That said, big-city driving, where congestion and one-way systems are the norm, is almost always problematic, particularly as drivers in Belgium are generally considered some of the most pugnacious in Europe. One problem peculiar to Belgium, however, is signage. In most cases the French and Flemish names are similar – or at least mutually recognizable – but in others they do not resemble each other at all (for some of the trickier examples). In Brussels and its environs, all the road signs are bilingual, but elsewhere it’s either French or Flemish and, as you cross Belgium’s language divide, the name you’ve been following on the road signs can simply disappear, with, for example, “Liège” suddenly transformed into “Luik”. Whatever you do, make sure you’ve got a good road map.
Rules of the road are straightforward: you drive on the right, and speed limits are 50kph in built-up areas, 90kph outside, 120kph on motorways; note that speed cameras are commonplace. Drivers and front-seat passengers are required by law to wear seatbelts, and penalties for drunk driving are always severe. Remember also that trams have right of way over any other vehicle, and that, unless indicated otherwise, motorists must give way to traffic merging from the right. There are no toll roads, and although fuel is expensive, at €1.40–1.50 per litre (diesel €1.17) in Belgium, slightly less in Luxembourg, the short distances involved mean this isn’t too much of an issue.
Most foreign driving licences are honoured in Belgium, including all EU, Australian, New Zealand, US, Canadian and South African ones. If you’re bringing your own car, you must have adequate insurance, preferably including coverage for legal costs, and it’s advisable to have an appropriate breakdown policy from your home motoring organization too.
Renting a car
All the major international car rental agencies are represented in Belgium. To rent a car, you’ll have to be 21 or over (and have been driving for at least a year), and you’ll need a credit card – though some local agencies will accept a hefty cash deposit instead. Rental charges are fairly high, beginning around €300 per week for unlimited mileage in the smallest vehicle, but include collision damage waiver and vehicle (but not personal) insurance. To cut costs, book in advance and online. If you go to a smaller, local company (of which there are many), you should proceed with care: in particular, check the policy for the excess applied to claims and ensure that it includes a collision damage waiver (applicable if an accident is your fault) as well as adequate levels of financial cover.
If you break down in a rented car, you’ll get roadside assistance from the particular repair company the rental firm has contracted. The same principle works with your own vehicle’s breakdown policy providing you have coverage abroad.
Cycling is something of a national passion in Belgium, and it’s also – given the short distances and largely flat terrain – a viable and fairly effortless way of getting around. That said, you do have to be selective: cycling in most of the big cities and on the majority of trunk roads – where separate cycle lanes are far from ubiquitous – is precarious, verging on the suicidal. On the other hand, once you’ve reached the countryside, there are dozens of clearly signposted cycle routes to follow – and local tourist offices will invariably have maps and route descriptions, which you can supplement with the relevant IGN (NGI) map. The logic of all this means that most Belgian cyclists – from Eddy Merckx lookalikes to families on an afternoon’s pedal – carry their bikes to their chosen cycling location by car or train (though not by bus – it’s not usually allowed). To aid the process, Belgian Railways transports bicycles with the minimum of fuss and at minimal cost.
If you haven’t brought your own bicycle, you can rent bikes from ten train stations nationwide (mostly in Flanders) and from a veritable host of local bike rental shops. Prices start at around €12 per day. There’s also the Train & Bike (Train & Vélo/Trein & Fiets) package, in which the price of a day-long excursion includes both a return train ticket and cycle rental. For a full list of train stations offering bike rental, consult the “useful tips” section of whttp://www.b-rail.be. It’s a good idea to reserve your bike ahead of time during the summer.