City Guide to Belgium, Part 1: Trains, Public Transportation and Lodging
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This is part one of a multiple part series in our City Guide to Belgium, where we visit Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels.
Our travels took us to Belgium and we couldn’t wait to see what the country was like. We’d just finished three days in Luxembourg and had 10 days scheduled in Belgium, before a flight and a train would take us to Faversham, United Kingdom for a house sit. We were staying in Brussels for the duration of our time in Belgium, but with so much time in the country, we were excited to fit in day trips to Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. And, if that wasn’t enough to make for a good time in Belgium, we were celebrating our 10 year anniversary!
We’ve been married for a few years, but we don’t put much emphasis on our wedding anniversary. The time we had together, before our wedding, to us, is just as important as the time after legalizing our commitment to each other. So, our 10 year anniversary is the anniversary of our full relationship. Don’t miss our musing on our wedding anniversary that clarifies this a bit more: Girl Meets Boy, Or Is It Boy Meets Girl?
We’ve found that our traveling and sightseeing in each place we visit takes considerably more resources than we expected it would. We want to visit a city and see as much of it as we can. To accomplish this, we put a lot of time into developing a personalized city guide, including all of the sights we want to see with details on hours, prices and descriptions. We also research city cards and passes to see if there’s a money saving deal on the sights we plan on seeing. We set aside time to review public transportation systems, including routes, vehicles and types of tickets. Finally, we find the best deal we can on lodging. We have a few tools in our toolbox, Cheap Alternatives to Hotels: Save Money On Lodging.
We don’t know how many times we’ve been in the midst of this planning and thought to ourselves how nice it would be to have the opportunity to speak to someone who’d already ‘been there and done that’. So, in a desire to help others in a similar situation, we want to share what we’ve experienced, what we’ve done, and what information we’ve gathered. Whether you live vicariously through us, or, your able to gather a few pointers on a city you’re soon visiting, we hope we can help.
Trains in Belgium (and in Luxembourg)
Our time in Belgium began with a train ride from Luxembourg City. We took an InterCity (IC) train that took us from Luxembourg City to Brussels for €42.40 each. This price will actually get you just about anywhere in Belgium and is good for the entire day. Meaning you can get on and off the train if you want to make a stop in a city the train passes through.
Once in Brussels, our hotel for the first few days was just outside of Brussels’ city lines, but located a few blocks from a train station. Our second hotel, for the last 6 days of our stay, was directly in city center. We planned our sightseeing accordingly. While staying at the hotel that was further out of the city center, we took our day trips to Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. Each city was an hour to hour-and-a-half train ride on InterCity trains. We purchased a return ticket that was valid for the duration of the day and would get us there and back. Once at our day trip destination, the cities were small enough that we were easily able to see everything we wanted to by foot. Additionally, the idea was that once we changed hotels to city center Brussels, we would be able to do our sightseeing by foot. This was mostly true, however we had a few destinations we wanted to see that were further out than we could walk. Without having done our usual thorough research of the city's public transportation system, we arrived in Brussels, but didn't know how to get from the train station to our hotel. Lesson learned!
- There’s no need to purchase your tickets in advance when traveling with InterCity trains. You can’t make seat reservations and you don’t save money by booking in advance. Just show up and purchase your ticket when you’re ready to go.
- Purchase your InterCity tickets from the automated ticket machines located at the train stations.
- Automated ticket machines accept credit cards. We use a Choice Rewards World MasterCard from First Tech Financial Credit Union that's not only chip and pin, but unlike most US cards, is pin priority (requiring a pin instead of a signature).
- Automated ticket machines can be changed to English.
- If you’re at a machine that isn’t touch screen, it may be the type of machine that has a round dial to make selections. This one threw us for a loop, because the dial isn't labeled in anyway and it doesn’t look like you can turn it, or use it to select options on screen, but you can.
- Lastly, if you’re lost, or stuck and are having trouble finding someone who knows English, and is willing to be helpful and explain things, we suggest finding your nearest Starbucks. This tip hasn’t failed us yet, and Brussels was no exception. We went to an information desk and two ticket desks that were manned by people who either didn’t know sufficient English and/or weren’t very friendly and helpful. After 30 minutes or more of trying to figure out how metro tickets worked, compared to bus and train tickets, we went to plan B and diverted to a nearby Starbucks. The barista spoke English well and was happy to help us. He explained how to purchase tickets, where to get them, and that we could make transfers on a ticket (our original question).
Brussels Public Transportation
Because of the way we planned, we thought we didn’t need to worry much about public transportation beyond the InterCity train system. Even within the city, the trains would get us from Brussels North (Nord), to Brussels Central (Centraal), and to Brussels South (Midi). However, Brussels also has an extensive metro, tram, and bus system. Once we started sightseeing in Brussels, we realized that we wanted to see a few things that were beyond walking distances. We regretted not having done our usual public transportation research ahead of time, but we learned on the go. We ended up using both buses and trams on one of our days of sightseeing in Brussels, as well as getting to the airport.
Public transportation is run by STIB-MIVB.
Two general types of tickets are available:
- Contactless Tickets - Contactless tickets are paper tickets that can be purchased on board the bus (at a premium) or at automated machines located at trams and metro stations. The types of contactless tickets available are limited, but sufficient for most visitors.
- STIB-MIVB Single Fare – Good for a single journey, and valid on the entire STIB network (except for Airport lines). It includes transfers and is good for one hour.
- STIP-MIVB 24H – Good for unlimited journeys, and valid on the entire STIB network (except for Airport lines). It includes transfers and is good for 24 hours.
- Airport Line – Similar to a Single Fare, but also valid to use to and from the airport.
- Combi-Train – Valid in combination with a same-day train ticket from SNCB. Good for the full day of travel on the entire STIB network, except for Airport lines.
- MOBIB tickets - MOBIB tickets are for frequent travelers. The MOBIB card itself costs €5, and is a reusable top-off card that allows various ticket types to be purchased and loaded onto the MOBIB card. If you choose to buy the MOBIB card, you’ll have several other ticket types available for purchase:
- Single Fare Jump – Good for a single journey, and valid on the entire STIB network (except for Airport lines). It includes transfers and is good for one hour.
- Return Trip Jump – Good for two journeys, and valid on the entire STIB network (except for Airport lines). It includes transfers and the return trip must be used within 24 hours of the first trip.
- Jump 24H, 48H, 72H – Good for unlimited journeys, and valid on the entire STIB network (except for Airport lines). It includes transfers and is good for 24 hours, 48 hours or 72 hours, depending on the option purchased.
- 5 or 10 Journeys Jump – A pack of 5 or 10 single fare jump tickets.
- Single Fare & 10 Journeys Bus Airport – Similar to a Single Fare Jump, but also valid to use to and from the airport. It can be bought as a single ticket, or a 10 ticket pack.
Before purchasing, the benefits of a MOBIB card should outweigh the €5 cost of the card. At the time of our visit, tickets loaded onto the MOBIB card were the same price as the equivalent contactless tickets. Therefore, the benefit of the MOBIB card would be realized in savings on the 48 and 72 hour Jump tickets. We did the math, and it would take 5 days of unlimited travel tickets to make the MOBIB card worth the €5 purchase, (a Jump 72H plus a Jump 48H saves €0.50 when compared to five Jump 24H tickets; taking into account the €5 MOBIB card cost.) In our case, because we weren’t in Brussels very long, and we didn’t have a need for a type of ticket that was exclusive to the MOBIB card, we stuck with contactless tickets.
Tickets can be purchased at automated machines located at tram and metro stations. You can also purchase tickets on board a bus from the driver, however, you’ll pay a premium to do so. Don’t forget to validate your ticket when boarding the bus or tram, or before boarding the metro.
Lodging in Brussels: From Budget to Luxury
Our first four nights in Belgium were at the Ibis Budget in south Brussels. This wasn’t our first stay at an Ibis property, however, it was the first time we’d be staying at an Ibis that was branded “Budget”. It was certainly the most budget of hotels that we’d stayed in to date. The room was snug, fitting in a small desk and stool next to the double bed. In the main room was the bathroom sink and mirror. A stall door separated the toilet from the main room, and a frosted door separated the main room from the shower. This is only a minor inconvenience. Although, it’s worth noting that it could be an issue if you’re sharing a room with a light sleeper. When someone is using the restroom, shower or sink, there’s no separation for dampening of noise. Furthermore, the lights were on motion sensors, so opening the toilet stall door turned on a light that illuminated the room. Similarly, turning on the shower light also turned on the sink and mirror light that were in the main room.
Relative to other hotels in the city, this was a good deal for us. It’s certainly not inexpensive, especially when compared to hotels in other parts of Europe. However, we found a great deal on the Ibis website, three nights for the price of two. When calculating in the full price of the fourth night, we saved 25% off our total stay.
Four Points Sheraton Brussels
At an average of €120 a night for a 'classic' room, this isn’t a hotel we’d usually consider booking. However, a few things factored into this stay:
- This Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) property was running an offer for two free nights when you stayed four. That’s a 33% savings on each night.
- Hotels and Airbnb’s in city center during our visit averaged €80 to €100 a night. Use our Airbnb link and get $40 off your first stay!
- In addition, we’d previously asked SPG to status match our Hilton Gold status. They declined, but offered us a status match challenge. If we completed nine paid nights within three months, they would give us SPG Gold status. Additionally, if we completed 18 paid nights in three months, they would increase our status to SPG Platinum status. Not only does status at SPG properties give great benefits, but also many other hotel reward programs will status match. So getting Platinum with SPG means reciprocal status with Marriott, and the possibility of matching with Club Carlson, Best Western and Hilton.
- We were celebrating our 10 year anniversary. Sergio let the hotel know in advance and they welcomed us with a sign in the lobby and an upgrade to a suite. The room was beautiful, and they had rose petals on the bed and in the hot bath.
We stayed six nights and were in city center. We saved time and money, since we were able to walk everywhere and not use public transportation, but for one day. All six of our nights counted towards our SPG Status Challenge because each night was considered a paid night. Rather than give us two nights free, they discounted each night 33%.
We completed the Gold Status Challenge with eight nights in Istanbul, which also earned us five additional nights towards the Platinum Status Challenge. Finally, we completed the last four nights needed for Platinum in Cairo, Egypt. When we took into account the cost we’d have paid for accommodation at another hotel each night and the discounts we received through SPG property offers, the price we paid for Platinum Status at SPG was minimal. Especially when the cost per night in Istanbul and Cairo was roughly $45, without taxes and fees. We also paid for our stay with our SPG credit card, earning even more SPG points.
Tip: When Staying at an SPG Property
For additional SPG points, at the time of booking your hotel make sure you say yes to the ‘Make a Green Choice’ program. The Green Choice program defers your room service for the length of your stay and for choosing to do so, SPG awards you 250-500 bonus points per night, (excluding the day you check-in and out, and every third day). Also, keep in mind that even if you say yes to the Make a Green Choice program and later require things like clean towels, more toiletries, or emptying of your trash, all you have to do is call the front desk and your requests won’t interfere with your aforementioned choice. We value SPG points at a minimum of 2.5 CPP (cents per point), effectively further reducing your out of pocket cost for the room by $6.25-$12.50 per night.
Stay Tuned for Our Sightseeing Adventures and Itineraries
This is only the beginning of our City Guide to Belgium. Stay tuned for our next post with our adventures and sightseeing itinerary for Bruges. Soon to come are sightseeing itineraries for Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels. And finally, we'll share our experiencing of Belgium chocolate and waffles in Brussels!