Inevitably, hotel accommodation is one of the major expenses you’ll incur on a trip to Belgium– indeed, if you’re after a degree of comfort, it’s going to be the costliest item by far. There are budget alternatives, however, beginning with the no-frills end of the hotel market and B&Bs – though note these are effectively rented rooms in private houses rather than the British-style bed-and-breakfast. Even more of a bargain are the youth hostels, be they Hostelling International-affiliated or “unofficial” (private) ones, which are located in the larger cities and/or main tourist spots of both countries.
Advance booking is recommended everywhere, but most tourist offices do operate an on-the-spot reservation service for same-night accommodation, either free or at minimal charge.
Across Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, a common Benelux standard is used to classify all those hotels, guesthouses (auberges/gasthofs) and motels that are recognized and licensed by the appropriate government agency. In Belgium, there are three such licensing agencies – one each for Brussels and the French- and Flemish-speaking regions. The Benelux standard grades establishments within general categories – from one-star to five-star – and the appropriate number of stars is displayed outside all licensed premises on a blue permit shield; places that fail to obtain a licence are not allowed a shield. The classification system is, by necessity, measured against easily identifiable criteria – lifts, toilets, room service, etc – rather than aesthetics, specific location or even cost. Consequently, they only provide a general guide to both quality and prices: a poky room in a three-star hotel in a mediocre part of Bruges may, for instance, cost more than a comfortable room in a four-star hotel in the centre of a less popular town. That said, one- and two-star places are frequently rudimentary (incidentally, hotel foyers can be deceptively plush compared with the rooms beyond) and, in general, you only begin to hit the real comfort zone at three stars. Prices fluctuate wildly with demand and not necessarily with the season – indeed summertime is bargain time in Brussels. Typically, the stated price includes breakfast.
In recent years, the number of Belgian B&Bs (chambres d’hôtes/gastenkamers) has increased rapidly, though “B&B” is perhaps something of a misnomer as guests rarely have much contact with their hosts – it’s more like a rented room in a private house. The average B&B in Belgium works out at €50–80 per double per night, a tad more in Brussels and Bruges. The only common snag is that many B&Bs are inconveniently situated far from the respective town or city centre – be sure to check out the location before you accept a room. Note too that as the owners don’t usually live on the premises, access often has to be arranged beforehand. In most places, the tourist office has a list of local B&Bs, which it will issue to visitors, but in the more popular destinations – for instance Bruges and Ghent – B&Bs are publicized alongside hotels.
Wherever the arrangements are more formalized – again as in Bruges – the B&B premises are inspected and awarded stars in accordance with the Benelux standard.
If you’re travelling on a tight budget, a hostel is likely to be your accommodation of choice, whether you’re youthful or not. They can often be extremely good value, and offer clean and comfortable dorm beds as well as a choice of rooms (doubles and sometimes singles) at rock-bottom prices. Both city and country locations can get very full between June and September, when you should book in advance. If you’re planning on spending some nights in HI-affiliate hostels, it makes sense to join your home HI organization before you leave in order to avoid paying surcharges.
Belgium has around thirty HI-affiliated hostels (auberges de jeunesse/jeugdherbergen) operated by two separate organizations, Vlaamse Jeugdherbergen (www.vjh.be), covering the Flemish region, and Les Auberges de Jeunesse de Wallonie (www.laj.be) for Wallonia. Both run hostels in Brussels. Dorm beds cost about €16 per person per night including breakfast; there are no age restrictions. Accommodation is usually in small dormitories, though most hostels have single- and double-bedded rooms in which prices rise to €18–20 per person per night. Meals are often available and in some hostels there are self-catering facilities too. Most Belgian hostels accept online bookings.
Camping is a popular pastime in Belgium and there are literally hundreds of campsites to choose from, anything from a field with a few pitches through to extensive complexes with all mod cons. The country’s campsites are regulated by two governmental agencies – one for Flanders and one for Wallonia – and each produces its own camping booklets and operates a website: www.camping.be for Flanders, www.campingbelgique.be for Wallonia. Many Belgian campsites are situated with the motorist in mind, occupying key locations beside main roads, and they are all classified within the Benelux one- to five-star matrix. The majority are one- and two-star establishments, for which a family of two adults, two children, a car and a tent can expect to pay between €15 and €30 per night.
In Belgium, the tourist authorities coordinate farm and rural holidays, ranging from family accommodation in a farmhouse to the renting of rural apartments and country dwellings. In Wallonia and Luxembourg, there are also gîtes d’étapes – dormitory-style lodgings situated in relatively remote parts of the country – which can house anywhere between ten and one hundred people per establishment. You can often choose to rent just part of the gîte d’étape or stay on a bed-and-breakfast basis. Some of the larger gîtes d’étapes (or gîtes de groupes) cater for large groups only, accepting bookings for a minimum of 25 people.
In all cases, advance booking is essential and prices, naturally enough, vary widely depending on the quality of accommodation, the length of stay and the season. As examples, a high-season (mid-June to Aug), week-long booking of a pleasantly situated and comfortable farmhouse for four adults and three children might cost you in the region of €350–450, whereas a ten-person gîte d’étape might cost €300–400. For further details, check out www.hoevetoerisme.be for Flanders and www.gitesdewallonie.net for Wallonia.