My family and I will be staying in Brussels for 5 days. We hope to take a day trip, via train, to both Paris and Amsterdam as well as day trips to Bruges and Ghent. My questions: (1) Is it better to do a rail pass or point-to-point tickets? (2) If rail pass, where is best site to purchase? (3) If rail pass, are reservations still required and is there an additional cost for seats? (4) If using a rail pass, is that valid for both the longer trips (P & A) as well as the local trips (B & G)? (5) By having a rail pass, is that valid on local transportation as well? Such as airport to hotel (which is near Brussel - Central) or between stations (Brussels-Midi, Central, Nord)? Thanks in advance for helping me navigate.... :-)
A rail pass is no use at all.
Tickets for Gent and Brugge (to use their Flemish spelling) can be bought at the railway station. They need no reservation and run several times per hour. Check at the website of the Belgian Railways their departure times. (Gent has two stations. The train from Brussels arrives at Gent-Sint Pieters, from where you can take the tram for the centre or else a 20-min walk.)
The high-speed Thalys train to Paris and Amsterdam needs a reservation and tickets are best bought some 2 or 3 months in advance to enjoy the substantial discount. The international website of the Belgian railways is probably the most user-friendly.
To do Brussels-Paris and Brussels-Amsterdam as day trips, you will really need to use the Thalys high speed trains. The reservation fee with a Eurail Pass is very expensive, almost as much as an advance purchased ticket.
What is the family make up? Ages? There are some mini-group deals on the Thalys.
For just Belgium, there are multi-ticket books available for inexpensive train travel. I think (but am not sure), that there is a supplement that has to be paid for the airport trains.
Thalys trains require a paid seat reservation of $25-35 each way, depending on distance and class of service, in addition to a rail pass. Reserving Thalys trains ahead is recommended, whether you use tickets or a pass, since the number of passholder places can be limited and the advance-purchase train tickets can be discounted (with limited number of seats at the lower prices).
The cheapest pass that you could use for this trip is the Eurail Benelux pass, starting at 3 days of 2nd-class travel for $139 per adult (assuming you book the 20% discounted rate by Dec. 30) or 4 days at $166. Kids aged 4-11 are free on the pass and youths aged 12-27 save just a few dollars. You do not need France covered on the pass. Rail passes are not valid on in-city buses, trams, or subways; only on trains between cities, such as the 4 daytrips you named.
By way of comparison, you can get tickets for 29 EUR each way Brussels-Paris when you book nonrefundable tickets far in advance, up to 4 months. That is currently equivalent to $35 US reservation fee with a Eurail pass.
Planning ahead saves money.
Thank you, all, for your advice. My husband actually booked point to point train tickets for both Paris and Amsterdam via AAA today. By the time I got to him, he was already done. Our trip is January 9th so, sadly, we didn't think ahead enough to get the best price but... for the money, we will still get to experience 3 cities!
For domestic travel in Belgium you can also use the Belgian Rail Pass, which offers ten one-way journeys on Belgian domestic trains (not including high-speed services between Brussels and Antwerp or Liege) for 77 euros and can be shared between multiple people (so eg if there are three of you, an out and back trip will use up six of the journeys).