Travelling to Europe, and in particular to the Eurozone is expensive. It is difficult to visit Europe on a budget, but it can be done. Even though the Eurozone does have one currency, costs vary from country to country. Here are my top tips for Budget travel in Belgium:-
Ryanair flies from Edinburgh and Manchester to Brussels Charleroi with fares starting from £13 one way, although bear in mind that Charleroi is actually about 60km away from Brussels. I’m not usually a fan of Ryanair due to their hefty additional charges, e.g. for baggage, check in etc. however fares that low are hard to ignore.
It is also possible to fly into Brussels International, with fares starting from £40, or Antwerp with fares from £54.
As I was going during the peak summer period and booked fairly late before travelling, the low fares above were not available. The cheapest flights I found were £174 return. A good alternative is the Eurostar, which cost £109 return and takes you into the centre of Brussels.
It is also possible to get the ferry to to Belgium for anyone who wants to take their car. There is a direct route into Belgium from Hull to Zeebrugge. Alternatively, you can take the Dover to Calais ferry and then drive into Belgium. Bruges is about a 90 minute drive from Calais.
Public transport in Brussels is relatively cheap. The flat fare for a single journey on the bus or metro seems to always be €1.30. If travelling by bus, buy your tickets before you board if you can, as the fare jumps to €2 if you buy your ticket from the driver. We did find the public transport a little but confusing to work out, but everyone in Belgium is really friendly – if in doubt, ask.
Belgium has an extensive train network. Everywhere seems very well connected and the train journeys are relatively short. If you will be travelling a lot by train, consider purchasing a 10 journey rail pass for €76. You can check the usual fare on Rail Europe to make sure that you will be making a saving.
The best way to save money on transport is to walk! All of the cities and towns we visited have very compact centres and are easily walkable. Walking around is also a great way to get to know a new place and soak up the atmosphere. It can also lead to coming across things you had not expected…
…like the comic book art which adorned random walls all over Brussels.
Don’t automatically assume that a hostel will be the cheapest option for accommodation. It quite often will be, but that is not a given, especially when travelling to Europe. For those willing to stay in a dorm room with a shared bathroom, hostels in Brussels start at around £16 per person per night. For anyone who is looking for a private room with a private bathroom, hostels become a much more expensive option.
Jim and I stayed in the Novotel Centre Tour Noire for the first 3 nights in Brussels. For this, we had a large room in a 3/4* hotel with all the usual amenities, e.g. en suite bathroom, TV, mini bar, free wifi etc. This cost £22.50 each per night. The hotel was immaculate, it had without a doubt the best shower I have ever used and it was fantastically located, near lots of bars and restaurants and about a 15 minute walk to the Grand Place.
The downside was that it was soulless – we could literally have been in any city on earth. However, I was pleasantly surprised that this kind of hotel could still be a really good budget option.
When it comes to accommodation in Belgium, timing is key. Business people and bureaucrats travel to Brussels during the working week, pushing up hotel prices. At the weekend, people from all over Europe flock to Bruges for long weekends, again pushing up prices. So the best way to visit Belgium on a budget is to go to Brussels at the weekend and Bruges during the week,
Trying to eat out on a Budget is what we struggled with the most in Belgium. There are huge numbers of restaurants offering cuisines from all around the world, however their prices all seem to be fairly consistent at around €18 to €25 for a main course. There is absolutely no way that Jim & I could afford those kind of prices all week, but we did find a few ways to cut costs:-
1. Eat picnics
Whenever we could find a supermarket, we would have a picnic for lunch. For about €12, we would get fresh bread, ham, cheese, crisps, fruit, chocolate and drinks. We would then eat outdoors, enjoying the beautiful views.
2. Eat frites
This is perhaps not the most healthy advice, but it is a cheap option. Belgium claims to have invented the french frie, and the fries are good. We did find in Belgium that portion sizes are very generous and frites are no exception to this. A portion of frites is very filling alone, but most fritteurs will also have other options on the menu.
3. Eat snacks
This might be a bit of a confusing one, because there are a lot of different snacks in Belgium. Whenever you order a beer, it will come with a little pot of snacks, such as peanuts or crisps. Then you can order bar snacks, e.g. plates of cheese, olives, bread and meats. Although we intended to give it a go, we never actually got round to trying these as a substitute for a main meal, but the portions seemed to be very generous. Finally, what we did do was order from the snacks menu. Most bars and restaurants seemed to have a snacks menu, which would offer things such as pastas and omelettes. I think the idea behind it is that it will be a light meal, but the portion sizes are huge and is definitely sufficient for a full meal.
What about beer and chocolate?
They are not cheap. Beer is served in 25cl or 33cl measures, and we ordered beers in the €3 to €5 range. It is a lot of money for a pretty small measure, but drinking beer in Belgium is not like drinking beer in the UK. The beers are a lot stronger for a start, and it is all about drinking slowly, having good conversation and appreciating the beer. We wanted the full experience of drinking in bars with extensive menus, expert staff and a different glass for every beer. However, it is possible to buy everything we tried from supermarkets, usually for less than €2.
As for chocolate, all of the chocolate shops are beautiful, elegant and mouthwateringly tempting. They are also very expensive. There are no real budget options in the chocolate shops, where bars are sold for around €6. We looked longingly but did not touch. The chocolate element of the beer and chocolate holiday for us came from the supermarket. We ate a lot of the Galler chocolate bars (which were very big, came in a lot of different flavours and were absolutely delicious altough very rich) which cost around €1.35 per bar.
Belgium CAN be done on a budget
Belgium is one of the more budget friendly places I have visited in Europe, and definitely compares favourably to Italy where we spent a week earlier this year. The only thing we struggled with was eating out on a budget, but even that was manageable. Given that Belgium is in the Eurozone and is the capital of the European Union there is probably a misconception about how expensive it actually is. I was pleasantly surprised, particularly with the accommodation costs. Belgium is such a friendly, welcoming country, which is packed with charming towns, stunning medieval architecture and beautiful canals that it is definitely worth visiting, and it is a realistic option for the budget traveller.