Getting Around Belgium

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Getting Around Belgium

Being such a small country (300 km as its maximum distance), you can get anywhere in a couple of hours. Public transport is fast and comfortable, and not too expensive. Between larger cities, there are frequent train connections, with buses covering smaller distances. A useful site is InfoTEC, which has a door-to-door routeplanner for the whole country, covering all forms of public transport (including train, bus, subway and tram).

A look on the map may suggest that Brussels is a good starting point to explore Antwerp, Ghent, Brugge, Namur and Leuven on day trips. Antwerp is popular among those who want to be in a cosmopolitan place, and Ghent is tops with those who like a good mix of open-minded provincialism. Liège is beautiful, but too close to Germany to be a good base 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 to everywhere else every 30 mins.

To do some local sightseeing, especially in Flanders, a lot of infrastructure is available for cycling. Bikes can be rented virtually everywhere. In the country side of Wallonia, mountainbikes are available, and rafting is popular along the border with Luxembourg.

By Train

Most of Belgium is well connected by train, run by NMBS (SNCB in French) with most of the main routes passing through Antwerp, Namur or Brussels. This is where you'll arrive on international trains, and both can be reached by train from Brussels airport or by coach from Antwerp or Charleroi airport. Transfers are very easy. Note that all ICE and some Thalys tickets allow free same-day transfers by domestic trains to any other Belgian station. Also, there are Thalys trains from Paris directly to Ghent, Brugge and Oostende with no need to switch trains in Antwerp or Brussels. From London (by Eurostar) you need to switch in Brussels for Antwerp, Leuven or Ghent, but for Brugge, you can already switch in Lille (France) with no need to make the detour via Brussels. Both in Lille and Brussels the staff are very helpful and willing to smile.

The trains are punctual and mostly modern and comfortable.

Normal fares on Belgian trains are cheap compared to Germany or the UK, with no need nor a possibility to prebook or reserve. 2nd class fares don't go much higher than €20 for the longest domestic trips, and 1st class costs 50% extra. Trains can get very full during the rush hours, so you might need a 1st class ticket to get a seat at those times. You can buy normal tickets online or in stations, but not usually in travel agencies. If you want to buy a ticket on the train, you have to warn the train conductor and a supplement will be charged, unless ticket offices in the departure station are closed. In the train station, you can pay with cash or credit card. Not buying a ticket can cost you up to €200. Return tickets are 50% cheaper at the weekend.

Normal tickets are sold for a designated day, so there is no extra validation when you step on a train.

The cheapest option if you're planning several train trips is a Go Pass, which gives you 10 single 2nd class trips (including train changes if necessary) for €50. It's valid for a year and can be shared with or given to other people without any restrictions. The only problem is you have to be younger than 26, but there's a more expensive version for older people called a Rail Pass. This costs €76 for 2nd class or €117 for 1st. When using these passes make sure you have filled in the line before you get on the train (strictly speaking: before you enter the platform). The train conductor can be very picky when the pass is not correctly filled in. However, if you address train station staff before boarding, they will be glad to help you.

The NMBS website has a searchable timetable with delay information, and a fare calculator. You can also find a map of Belgian railroads and stations and another one, more detailed, but not printable.

Please note that train schedules usually change around December 10. Those changes are usually limited to introducing a few new train stations and adding a few regular lines. No lines have been discontinued in a very long time.

By Bus / Tram

Buses cover the whole country, along with trams and metro in the big cities. Most routes cover short distances, but it is possible to go from city to city by bus. However, this is much slower and only slightly cheaper than taking a train. There is also the Kusttram, running along almost the whole Flemish seaside from France to the Netherlands - definitely worth a trip in the summer.

Within cities, a normal ticket for one zone never costs more than €2.00, and there are various travelcards available. Note that local transport is provided by different companies: STIB/MIVB in Brussels, De Lijn in Flanders and TEC in Wallonia, and, outside Brussels, they don't accept each others' tickets. Tickets are cheaper when bought at ticket machines.

Most tourists will not need the bus companies, as it is much more user-friendly to take trains between cities and go on foot inside them. Only Brussels and Antwerp have a subway, but, even there, you can make your way around on foot. The historic center of Brussels is only about 300 by 400 m long. Antwerp is much bigger, but a ride on a horse-pulled coach gives a better view than the subway.

By Car

Belgium has a dense network of modern toll-free motorways, but some secondary roads in Wallonia are poorly maintained. Signs are always in the local language only, except in Brussels, where they're bilingual. As many cities in Belgium have quite different names in Dutch and French, this can cause confusion. For example, Mons in French is Bergen in Dutch; Antwerp is called Antwerpen in Dutch and Anvers in French; Liège in French is Luik in Dutch and Lüttich in German, and so on. This even applies to cities outside Belgium; driving along a Flemish motorway, you may see signs for Rijsel, which is the French city of Lille or Aken, which is the German city of Aachen. Exits will be marked with the word 'Uit' (out) in Flemish areas, 'Sortie' in French areas and 'Ausfahrt' in German-speaking ones.

Drivers in Belgium should also be aware of the "priority from the right" rule. At road crossings, traffic coming from the right has the right of way unless otherwise indicated by signs or pavement markings. You're most likely to encounter such crossings in urban and suburban areas.

In Belgium the motorway signs are notoriously inconvenient, especially on secondary roads. There is no uniformity in layout and color, many are in bad state, placed in an awkward position or simply missing. A good roadmap (Michelin, De Rouck, Falk) or a GPS system is recommended.

Car Hire

Some hire cars come equipped with sat nav but it's a good idea to request this when you book your car. It's probably the most reliable way to get from A to B in Belgium. This way you will get to see some of the sites of Belgium, as flat as it may be, but architecture in the towns is something to be admired. You will be pleasantly surprised at just how clean the towns and villages of Belgium are. Drive through on any afternoon and you will see people caring for the street in front of their homes - a real, backdated village community feel.

Speed traps are positioned along roads frequently and drink driving of only small amounts comes with serious penalties, such as 125 Euros on the spot fine for 0.05 per cent and 0.08 per cent. Over that amount of alcohol in your system and you face anything up to 6 months imprisonment and loss of driving licence for 5 years.

By Thumb

The best place for hitchhikers. Just ask for a lift! Having cardboard signs with towns' names on it can really help to get a quick lift.

  • Leaving Brussels: Heading South (e.g. Namur) get to the underground station named 'Delta'.

Next to it you have a huge 'park and ride' and a bus stop. Hitchhiking near the bus stop should get you a ride in less than 5 minutes during traffic hours.

  • Heading to Ghent/Bruges: Good spot near the Shopping Mall called 'Basilix' in Berchem-ste-Agathe. You can reach this place with the bus N°87.

An alternative spot to go to the north is in Anderlecht, near the Hospital Erasme/Erasmus (Metro station Erasme / Erasmus.)

  • Heading to Liège/Hasselt: Take the pre-metro to the station 'Diamant' in Schaarbeek. When leaving the station you should see a lot of outgoing cars just below you. Just walk and follow the roadsigns mentioning 'E40'. You should arrive in a small street giving access to a road joigning the E40 (the cars are leaving a tunnel at this point). Just hitchhike on the emergency lane at this point, in the portion near the tunnel. Cars should still be riding slowly at this point and see you are visible to them, so it's not that dangerous.
  • Leaving Louvain-la-Neuve (University) to Brussels (north) or to Namur (south), stand at the roundabout next to exit/entrance "8a" near to "Louvain la Neuve-centre" road signs. Quick lift guaranteed. Avoid exit 7 or 9, since they have far less traffic.

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