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Flanders - Travel and visas
Citizens from the UK, Ireland, EU countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US do not require a visa to enter Belgium and are permitted to stay for 90 days, as long as you have three months left on your passport. If your country does not appear in this list, then you must apply for a visa. Along with your completed application form you will need to submit: your passport (preferably valid for at least six months), two recent passport photos, return travel tickets, proof of adequate travel insurance and possibly proof of sufficient financial subsistence for the duration of your trip (eg: a bank statement). Currently a short-stay visa costs €61. Applications can take up to three or four weeks to be processed, so be sure to apply well in advance.
EU nationals who plan to stay for over 90 days need to apply for a residence permit from the local town hall, within eight days of arrival. You will need to submit a valid passport, three passport-sized photos, and proof of financial independence (eg: bank statement), and pay a small commune tax charge. You may also be asked to provide your birth certificate and allow them to take your fingerprints. After that, the local police will visit you to ensure you live at the address noted, then a residence permit, valid for five months, will be granted. This will be renewed every month until proof of employment is provided; you will then be issued with a five-year permanent identity card. Non-EU nationals face a longer process. You must apply for a temporary residence permit (Autorisation de Séjour Provisoire/Voorlopige Verblijfsvergunning) from the consulate or embassy posted in your country of origin, before you leave.
Flanders is incredibly accessible. Bang in the middle of Europe and cuddling the North Sea coastline, it can be reached by air, sea or land. It also helps that Brussels is now the second largest international business city in the world and, as a result, transport links have increased to meet the demands of countless international commuters. Companies are in a constant battle to provide competitive fares and travellers can benefit from these price wars.
From the UK and Ireland
In the UK, you can fly direct from London, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh, and, in Ireland, direct from Cork and Dublin. Flights from the UK take about an hour; those from Ireland an hour and a half.
Brussels has two major airports: the central Brussels-National (www.brusselsairport.be) — also known as Zaventem — and the outer lying Brussels-Charleroi (www.charleroi-airport.com). Brussels-National is located 13km northeast of Brussels in the small town of Zaventem. It serves most major airlines, including the national carrier Brussels Airlines. Charleroi is 60km south of the city, about an hour’s drive away, and serves budget airlines.
From the rest of the world
Unfortunately, there are no direct flights to Belgium from Australia or New Zealand. The easiest and cheapest option is to fly into another European capital and catch a connecting flight from there. Those travelling from Australia will benefit from cheaper tickets by flying via southeast Asia, while flying over North America is the best option for those travelling from New Zealand. Flights from Australia and New Zealand to the UK take approximately 20 hours.
Travel by boat has been heavily eclipsed by the faster Eurostar and Eurotunnel services, but if you’re not in a rush you can benefit from huge savings offered by the cross-Channel ferries – families especially.
This high-speed car train runs from Folkestone to Calais 24 hours a day, with up to four departures an hour during the day and every hour between midnight and 06.00. The journey takes 35 minutes, then from Calais it’s a two-hour drive along the E40 to Brussels. Standard fares for motorists and motorcyclists start from around £150 return. Travellers on a weekend break should ask about the Short Stay Saver fares. Taking an overnight train will cut the price of your ticket in half.
From the UK
Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) Eurostar run up to nine services a day from Kings Cross St Pancras International to Bruxelles-Midi/Brussels-Zuid; journey time one hour and 50 minutes. Tickets range from around £400 for a fully flexible business-class weekend return to £80 for a non-flexible weekend return. They frequently run weekend-break promotions combining rail travel and hotel accommodation, so check their website. Remember that your Eurostar ticket also includes an onward journey to any Belgian station, so if you are travelling on to Gent or Antwerp there’s no need to purchase another ticket when you arrive in Brussels. Also, travellers with Inter-Rail and Eurail passes qualify for discounts when booking tickets on Eurostar.
Deutsche Bahn (www.bahn.de) Eurostar is set to lose its monopoly of the Channel Tunnel in December 2012: German rail company Deutsche Bahn are in the testing stages of high-speed routes from London to Frankfurt and Amsterdam, stopping in Brussels on the way. The journey time from London to Brussels is estimated at three hours, with three daily departures (morning, noon and afternoon) scheduled. Visit their website for up-to-date details.
From France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
Thalys (www.thalys.com) runs services from Paris, Cologne and Amsterdam to Bruxelles Midi/Brussels Zuid. Over 28 trains a day depart from Paris Nord or Charles De Gaulle Airport; the journey takes 85 minutes. From Paris, trains also run to the following railway stations: Antwerp-Berchem, Brugge, Gent-Sint-Pieters and Oostende. Journeys from Cologne and Amsterdam take two hours 30 minutes.
All tickets must be bought before boarding, but booking in advance allows you to benefit from the discounted ‘No-Flex’ and ‘Smoove’ fares. Special discounts also apply to students, seniors and children. Bicycles are allowed, but they must be collapsible.
Trains from Luxembourg to Brussels depart every hour. The journey takes three hours and tickets don’t need to be bought in advance.
If you’re prepared to put in the bum-numbing hours, Eurolines (www.eurolines.co.uk), a division of National Express, operate four daily departures from London’s Victoria coach station to Brussels and Brugge. The journey takes approximately eight or nine hours, but coaches are fairly comfortable with reclining chairs, videos and onboard toilet. All buses use the Dover–Calais ferry route to cross the Channel. Fares are around £70 return, plus a £4 booking fee.
The public transport system in Flanders is exemplary. Trains and buses service every nook and cranny of the country and, what’s more, they nearly always arrive on time.
Belgian drivers get a lot of bad press. However, tales of drivers flashing their lights to move you out of the way and acceleration speeds that would leave Michael Schumacher breathless, shouldn’t put you off. The Belgian highways are some of the best in Europe, are toll-free and, until energy-saving measures were put into place, so well lit at night that you could apparently see the network from space. Naturally, you will encounter some common irks, which include getting stuck in traffic jams during the summer exodus for the coast and driving in cities riddled with one-way systems. Then of course there are the road signs that switch from one language to another (see table below). However, with a little preparation and bravado, travelling by car will give you the freedom to drive off track and discover sights, or that special restaurant, that would otherwise pass you by as you stare out of the window of the train.
Trains are operated by the national railway company SNCB-NMBS (02 528 28 28; www.b-rail.be) with services starting at 05.00 and ending at 23.00. Tickets may be bought online, or at the station before departure. As a last resort you can also buy them on board from the ticket inspectors kitted out in smart uniform and Postman-Pat cap. Fares start from €7.50 for a standard second-class return ticket, and travel at weekends is half price. First-class fares tend to be double the price of a standard. Students receive discounts, as do seniors (aged 65+), who pay only €4 for a return ticket anywhere in Belgium as long as they travel after 09.00. Children under 12 also travel free after 09.00. Seats cannot be reserved. Most stations have coin-operated luggage lockers. Bicycles are allowed on trains providing you buy a a one-trip card (€5) or a one-day card (€8).
By metro, tram and bus
All three are operated by De Lijn (www.delijn.be) in Flanders and STIB (www.stib.be) in Brussels. Tram systems operate in Brussels, Gent and Antwerp. Trams have right of way over any other vehicle and work much like a bus service, ie: a hop-on, hop-off affair where tickets can be bought from the driver. Most fares cost €2 and allow you to get on and off as many times as you like within a one-hour period. Tickets should be validated by punching them in the yellow machines situated at the front and centre of the carriage. Alternatively, day passes (dagpas) cost €3, or books of ten journeys (rittenkaart) can be bought from De Lijn kiosks, newsagents and selected shops. Trams stop on request only when the blue button is pressed.
The bus services works in harmony with the rail network, offering access to towns and villages otherwise inaccessible by train. All timetables are available online and tickets can be bought on board from the driver, but they will not accept notes larger than €20.
Stands can be found outside most railway stations, airports and hotel entrances; drivers rarely do random street pick ups. Fares are based on a meter; they begin with a fixed charge of €2.40 at the start of the journey (this increases at night) and are then calculated at around €1.35/km. Tips are included, but a little extra is always appreciated.