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Northern Belgium - Travel and visas
Citizens from 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.
Flanders is incredibly accessible. Bang in the middle of Europe and hugging the North Sea coastline, it can be reached by air, sea or land. It also helps that Brussels is a major international business hub and, as a result, transport links have increased to meet the demands of countless international commuters. Companies are battling to provide competitive fares and travellers can benefit from these price wars.
From the UK and Ireland
You can fly direct from London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh, and, in Ireland, direct from Dublin. Flights from the UK take about an hour; those from Ireland an hour and 40 minutes.
Brussels has two major airports: Brussels Airport Zaventem and Brussels South Charleroi Airport. Zaventem is 13km northeast of Brussels and served by most major airlines, including national carrier Brussels Airlines. Outer-lying Charleroi is 60km south of the city, or around an hour’s drive away, and serves budget airlines.
From the US and Canada
Direct flights from the US to Brussels are no longer hard to find, and there are also direct links from Canada. The most competitive rates start at just over US$300 for a week-long trip. Brussels Airlines (see above) serves Brussels from New York, Washington, DC and Toronto. Other companies flying direct to the Belgian capital include Air Canada from Montreal, United from New York, Chicago and Washington, DC; and Delta from New York and Atlanta. On average, flights from the east coast of the US and Canada to Brussels take around 7 hours.
Eurostar runs up to ten services a day from St Pancras International to Bruxelles Midi/Brussel Zuid; the journey time is about 2 hours. There are three classes of ticket: Standard; Standard Premier, which includes a light meal; and Business Premier, which you can change or cancel for free. The cheapest returns start at £58; standard singles can run as high as £170 if booked last-minute. You can buy an ‘Any Belgian Station’ ticket for a small supplement, which includes an onward journey within Belgium; high-speed trains such as Thalys aren’t included, and if you are heading to Brussels Airport Zaventem you’ll have to pay a €5.25 ‘Diabolo’ supplement each way either at a Belgian station or on board. They frequently run promotions combining rail travel and hotels, so check their website. For flexible travellers, Eurostar Snap, launched in 2016, offers discount rates as low as £50 return. You can specify the day of travel and whether you want to leave in the morning or afternoon; 48 hours before departure, you will get an email with your allocated train. It’s the luck of the draw so be prepared to travel at dawn or late; check their website for the latest promotions.
Travel by boat has been heavily eclipsed by the faster Eurostar and Eurotunnel services, but if you’re not in a rush, cross-Channel ferries can offer savings, especially for families. P&O runs services from Dover to Calais, and an overnight service from Hull to Zeebrugge (the only UK to Belgium crossing now), while DFDS Seaways sails from Dover to Calais and Dunkirk.
To reach Belgium from the UK by car, either take a car ferry or Eurotunnel. 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 couple of hours between 23.00 and 06.00. The journey takes 35 minutes, then from Calais it’s a 2-hour drive along the E40 to Brussels; De Panne is just 50 minutes away.
If you’re prepared to put in the bum-numbing hours, Eurolines, a division of National Express, offers daily departures from London Victoria coach station to Brussels and Antwerp. The journey takes 8½ hours, with fares from £30 return if booked well ahead. Cheaper still is German company Flixbus, launched in 2013 to rival state railway Deutsche Bahn. It connects London and Bruges twice a day, taking a mere 6 hours; it also has daily services to Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels, and is useful if you’re on a wider European jaunt, with direct links from Flanders to Paris, Amsterdam and beyond. UK–Belgium routes start from £9.99 for a single journey.
The public transport system in Flanders is exemplary. Trains and buses service every corner of the country and, what’s more, they nearly always arrive on time.
Belgian drivers get a lot of bad press and I’ve certainly seen evidence to back this up, but on the flipside, 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 see them 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. 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 excellent national railway company SNCBNMBS, with services starting at 05.00 and ending at midnight. Tickets may be bought online, or at the station; avoid the premium for buying them on board if you can. Fares are relatively low. Antwerp to Poperinge, for instance, which is one of the longest direct journeys in Flanders, costs €21 one way; Ghent to Brussels is €9. It’s worth planning trips for the weekend when return tickets are half-price (you must depart after 19.00 on Friday). Those under 26 can travel anywhere in Belgium except Brussels Airport Zaventem for €6.60 each way, while seniors (aged 65+) pay only €6.80 for a same-day return anywhere in Belgium, as long as they leave after 09.00 on weekdays. Up to four children under 12 also travel free when accompanied by an adult. Seats cannot be reserved. Most stations have coin-operated luggage lockers. Bicycles are allowed on trains; buy a one-trip card (€5) or day card (€8). Folding bikes are free.
By metro, tram and bus
All three are operated by De Lijn in Flanders and STIB-MIVB in Brussels. Tram systems operate in Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and on the Flemish coast. Unless you are heading to out-of-the-way attractions, or on a very tight budget, you will probably not need the bus, which works in harmony with the rail network. In all cases, you can buy tickets from dedicated kiosks, from automatic ticket machines or on board, though you will pay a premium for this. A day pass (dagpas) or multi-day pass is usually the cheapest option for travellers. Once on board, you will need to validate your ticket by punching it in the yellow machines situated at the front and by the doors.
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 €1.80/km within the Brussels Capital Region and €2.70 elsewhere.