Belgium's compact size makes it easy on travelers. The roads are excellent (though often busy), and the comprehensive rail net is one of Europe's best.
All major tourist destinations in Belgium can be done easily in a day trip by train from Brussels, on the network of the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Belges/SNCB, or NMBS in Dutch (tel. 02/528-28-28; www.b-rail.be). Antwerp is just 29 minutes away; Ghent, 32 minutes; Namur, 40 minutes; Bruges, 55 minutes; and Liège, 60 minutes. These times are by the fast InterCity (IC) trains; InterRegio (IR) trains are somewhat slower; Local (L) trains are the network's tortoises, stopping at every station on the way.
If all or most of your travel will be by train, a good investment is a Rail Pass, good for 10 single journeys anywhere on the network, except stations at international borders, within a month of it being issued. It costs 71€ ($114) in second class and 109€ ($174) in first class.
Another option is the discounted weekend ticket, valid from 7pm on Friday to midnight on Sunday (this may be extended during long weekends associated with national holidays). Even if you make only 1 or 2 day trips by rail, be sure to inquire about Minitrips -- 1-day excursion tickets to major sightseeing destinations at discount prices. Reduced-rate tickets and passes are available for seniors, children, and young adults.
Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Liège, and other important cities and towns have excellent local bus service. Express InterCity bus service is not available, though you can go by bus between cities with the aid of some complicated timetable and route planning -- expect this to be slow and to require transfers at intermediate points. Regional buses serve every area of Belgium, from whichever is the nearest city or large town. In general, the only part of the country where it makes sense to plan on going by bus instead of by train is the Ardennes, which has few rail lines.
Fares and schedules are available from STIB (tel. 070/23-20-00; www.stib.be) for Brussels and De Lijn (tel. 070/22-02-00; www.delijn.be) for Flanders. TEC (www.infotec.be), which operates bus service in Wallonia, has six separate area phone numbers to call for information; you'll find these listed on the website and in the appropriate chapters of this book.
Driving conditions are excellent in Belgium, with lighted highways at night. Belgian drivers, though, are not as excellent. They're notoriously fast and aggressive and have clocked some of the worst road-accident statistics in Europe, so drive with care.
Rentals -- Rental cars are available from Hertz (tel. 800/654-3001 in the U.S., and tel. 02/717-32-01 in Belgium; www.hertz.be), Avis (tel. 800/331-2112 in the U.S., and tel. 070/22-30-01 in Belgium; www.avis.be), Budget (tel. 02/712-08-40; www.budget.be), and Europcar (tel. 02/522-95-37; www.europcar.be). All four companies have desks at Brussels Airport, and rental offices (or agencies) in Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, and Liège, among other places. Expect to pay from 60€ ($96) a day, and 75€ ($120) for a weekend, including insurance and other charges, and for unlimited mileage.
Driving Rules -- To drive in Belgium, U.S. citizens need only a valid passport, a U.S. driver's license, and a valid auto registration. The minimum age for drivers is 18. On highways, speed limits are 70kmph (43 mph) minimum, 120kmph (74 mph) maximum; in all cities and urban areas, the maximum speed limit is 50kmph (31 mph). Lower limits might be posted. Seat belts must be worn in both the front seats and in the back.
An important driving rule to be aware of is the priorité de droite (priority from the right), which makes it perfectly legal most of the time to pull out from a side road to the right of the flow of traffic. That means, of course, that you must keep a sharp eye on the side roads to your right.
Road Maps -- Tourist offices provide excellent city, regional, and country maps. Michelin map nos. 213 and 214 cover the country; they are detailed and reliable, and are available from bookstores, news vendors, some supermarkets, and other outlets.
Breakdowns/Assistance -- A 24-hour nationwide emergency road service is offered by Touring Secours (tel. 070/34-47-77; www.touring.be).
Driven Crazy -- The behavior of many Belgian car drivers could easily be described as "hoglike," a moderate term employed because finding the pertinent adjective would tax even the considerable powers of the English language as an instrument of personal abuse.
Part of the blame attaches to the priorité de droite (priority from the right) traffic rule, whereby in some cases (not always), traffic from the right has the right of way. You won't believe how this plays at multiple-road intersections, particularly since many Belgians will give up their priorité under no known circumstances, cost what it might. Be ready to stop instantly at all such intersections. Note: Poles with orange diamond signs, which you see mostly on main roads, mean that the right of way lies with traffic already on the road, so if you are on one of these you don't have to stop.
At rotaries, traffic entering the rotary has the right of way over traffic already on it, unless STOP lines on the road indicate otherwise. This system has caused so much mayhem it's being changed at some accident hotspots and obvious danger zones. Not everyone knows about the changes or acts according to them, so stay alert.
Hoglike driver behavior is extended to pedestrians. Don't expect cars to stop for you just because you're crossing at a black-and-white pedestrian crossing. Only in recent years have drivers been obliged legally to stop at these, and many don't seem to have received or understood the message yet.
Main rail stations, and some minor ones, have bicycles for rent. If you travel by train and would like to have a trusty steed awaiting you when you arrive, use the Belgian Railways Train + Vélo/Trein + Fiets (Train + Bicycle) formula to reserve a bike at the same time you buy your ticket.
Life in the Slow Lane
A network of special walking, cycling, and horseback-riding routes in Wallonia provides a healthy alternative to touring by car, and links scenic, off-the-beaten-track parts of the region. RAVeL (Résau Autonome des Voies Lentes/Independent Slow Routes Network) has given new life to old ways by employing disused rail and tram routes, river and canal towpaths, and other minor paths, connected by purpose-built sections. Four main RAVeL routes and a web of secondary ones crisscross the region. Guides with maps are available from local tourist offices.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.