I have a lot to be thankful for this year. Family, friends, work I enjoy, fun projects to pursue. In particular, all of the opportunities I’ve had to travel, which is an outrageous privilege to enjoy in life.
This time last year, I lived in France and was about to visit Belgium for Christmas. That is more than a little amazing and humbling to think about, that I lived in a place I had only dreamed of visiting.
But even with a deep-seated gratitude and technology that talks to space at lightning speed, cell phones with infinite maps to store in pockets, and people who generally want to help out with things like directions and booking trains, jaunts don’t always run as smoothly as they could.
I took one train trip in Belgium, for a day trip from Brussels to Bruges, which I talk about here. Clearly, that makes me a locomotive expert when it comes to Belgian rail (sarcasm).
But I did learn a thing or two that come in handy when it comes to Belgian trains.
Trains in Belgium run just fine, or so it seems from my vast and storied experience (again, sarcasm). What does not run well, however, are the website and station ticket kiosks. At least for me. But technology and I don’t always get along, probably hindered further by the fact that I always try to do everything in French when I’m in French-speaking countries.
It’s been nearly a year since I was traveling in Belgium, so I went to have a look at the belgianrail.be site. I don’t remember how it looked before, but the design feels fancier now, so it may have been updated since I was wrestling with it in 2014.
Even so, there are an inordinate number of ticket options. Now, it seems like there’s a way to search for ticket types, which sounds great and helpful! But in fact…
The internet is nearly infinite in its capacity to help, yet sometimes it feels like we have to slog through an endless web of clinging options that overwhelm and irritate, forcing desperate searchers into throes of frustration in order to just find that one little thing they need.
At any rate, here are my tried and true tidbits of advice for the Belgian rail system, meant for moments when travel websites make you want to beat your head against the wall:
Talk to a Person
I try to avoid this whenever possible. I know, I know, I’m a scaredy cat traveler. Whenever an automated option is available, I take it. Except in this case. With ticket options like that, we thought it would cost at least 30 to 40 euro per person for the day trip. But right before I clicked purchase at the Brussels Midi ticket kiosk, I cancelled and went to talk to a real person.
Turns out, there was a Christmas travel special, so it was 11 euro per person round trip. Yowza, that’s a bit of a difference. I am so glad I asked!
Learn the Flemish Names for Destinations
I speak French pretty well, and I speak English, obviously.
But one language I definitely do not speak is Flemish. Turns out, a lot of people in Belgium only speak Flemish.
My ultimate goal is to speak every language in the world so I never have to feel rude for not speaking a language in a country. Unfortunately, that might be a slightly difficult goal to achieve.
As I may have mentioned before, not a ton of research happened before this trip. I knew that Belgium was a poly-lingual country, but I was going for a nice, uneducated, un-researched lackadaisical feeling on this trip. I stayed with family, so the small amount of time spent planning and researching I spent on how to get to the country. Insensitive travel technique, probably. But sometimes that’s how it happens.
That’s how I found myself on a Belgian commuter train coming from a Flemish-speaking part of the country without knowing what the Flemish word for Brussels was. It’s Brussel, for the record, but I did not hear a word that sounded familiar on the entire train trip.
I was certain we had gotten on the wrong train somehow, so I resorted to my time-tested tactic of trying to peer at our neighbors’ tickets, but their hands perfectly covered the destination, taunting me with near-information.
After peering out the window and trying to assess if we had seen any of this before, or heard the names of any of the stops that had been announced in French, English, and Flemish on the way over in the high-speed, modern train and were now only declared to dirty, crowded cars in the dulcet gargling of Flemish.
An hour of worrying and wondering later, we uneventfully descended at the correct stop.
But the moral of the overly-longwinded story is, don’t travel like I do, and learn the names of places in all the languages of a country you’re visiting. Also, take my previous advice and just ask a person.
Find Out What Routes are High Speed and Which are Locals
This seems like a no-brainer from Train Riding 101, but if you have a flexible ticket that lets you take any train you like, examine the schedule with some care to figure out which trains are which.
The local routes often are more scenic, which is great if you’re not on a tight timetable and traveling in the daylight, but if all you want is to get to a nice warm bed, it pays to get a high speed route with few stops. Which I didn’t, of course.
It only took an extra half hour, but at that point in the evening I was ready for the day to be at the tea and heater point in the evening, so it would have been a good thing to find out in advance.
Reading this over, this sounds pretty whiney for an awesome and ultimately smooth trip in a beautiful country. Which I don’t intend it to be. But hey, tone is hard.
Happy Trails and travel well!