My husband and I will be traveling through Belgium/Netherlands next month. He has business in 3 different cities (Tilburg, Ghent & Oostende) so we will be moving around a lot. Since we'll only be in each city a for a night, we thought it would be a good idea to rent a car and drive from one location to the next. We are flying in and out of Brussels. We are planning 2 nights in Bruges as well. How is driving and parking in these cities? Thoughts on driving?
I like driving in Europe a lot. Lots of roundabouts and yield signs instead of traffic lights and stop signs. Usually you get a stick shift and people are better about keeping to the right on the freeways. The lanes are narrower and roads more curvy. It's pretty straightforward to get around now with GPS, but still more engaging to adjust to driving in a different culture.
I would imagine you would just park your car in each of the places you go, you wouldn't drive it around while you're in each town. At least that would be my experience in Brussels and Bruges, compact, walkable and not much parking.
Travelling between cities in the Netherlands and Belgium and staying just one night in each place: I would take the train. Tilburg with the train train to Gent (Ghent) needs about 2½ hours, Gent – Brugge (Bruges) ½ hour and Brugge to Oostende (Ostend) some 15 min. You can´t beat that with a car.
You can consider staying in Brugge instead of Oostende depending where your husband has to do business there. If it is near a coastal tram stop you will have an easy connection with Brugge as the tram stops also at the train station in Oostende.
If you stay for this 3 nights in Brugge and you want to explore the country side or like doing a daytrip to Ieper (Ypres) it is worth considering a car there. But for daytrips to other cities like Brussel(s) and Antwerp(en) only take the train, a car is not worth the expences and needs (likely way) more time to get there.
Agree with Wil.
But if you are determined to have a car, be aware that parking in Bruges/Brugge is difficult, narrow one way streets, very little available parking on the street, a blue/white parking regime that you should download and understand - I suggest you park either at the train station or underground at 't-Zand.
Gent - parking is now particularly difficult since the changes in the centre, and there is still ongoing construction. I used to say that parking under Vrijtag Markt (unless you are there on a Friday) but now suggest a park and ride. Street parking is now nearly impossible unless you get well out of town.
Oostende has a number of parking areas but if you park near the coast on a windy day the rental company may not like the paint job.
Tilburg, I don't know.
I have written elsewhere here of the interesting driving habits of many Belgian drivers. If you need detail, ask.
A car is a reasonable option for traveling from one city to the next, but won't be much use within the cities themselves.
The Brussels ring is one of the most congested arteries in Europe. If possible, I would avoid driving it on your first day- the airport is just off the ring, so if you drive right off the plane, you can't avoid it.
As noted, there is little to no parking within the inner ring of Brugge. The train station has more than enough spaces, though. You can also possibly park on the street along the ring. A car is useless within the old city.
There are enough parking garages within the more modern parts of Gent, not much in the area of interest to tourists.
Parking is easy to find in Tilburg and Oostende.
We plan on parking the car at the hotel and leaving it there for the day until we check out and go to the next city. And since the cost of the vehicle is being taken care through his business, we thought this would be the most economical way for us both to travel. We are spending the last 2 nights in Bruges and just leaving the car parked in the garage while we explore the city before heading back to Brussels.
Make sure the hotel actually does have guest parking. It isn't 100% guaranteed in European cities.
Yes, I agree with those who said car travel isn't great within the cities. But that being said, my husband and I have done driving trips through Belgium, Germany, France, Spain and Portugal, and while city driving can be harrowing (and we often find hotels outside the city and take public transportation into the historic districts) we think it is a wonderful way to get to see so much more of a country. We definitely have gotten to places that were off the usual tourist track, which we love. Once we did a one-week trip through a few German cities by train, but we decided that hefting those bags on and off the trains didn't work as well for us. (Maybe for much younger folks.) Anyway, our experience of driving in Europe has been very positive--although we never would go without taking our GPS along. (We buy the necessary chip for our own Garmin and take that along with us.) Also, I truly believe that drivers in Europe, although many do drive very fast, are better drivers than we are here in the US. Just figure out the rules of the road (i.e., never pass anyone on the right, and certainly don't live in the outer lane unless you are keeping your speed up) and you should be fine. I should say, of course, that our driving trips in Scotland, England, and Ireland were a little more hair-raising because of driving on the other side of the road (particularly nerve-wracking on roundabouts and in making left-hand turns.) But for the continent, we wouldn't consider anything else. We're off to Italy in September!
If he's been to Europe on business before, he knows that he may get a Standard Transmission no matter what was reserved. In Belgium, I've found that the indoor garage parking stalls and aisles are so narrow that it's wise to take the smallest car you can fit your stuff in. Does he have a Chip and PIN card to buy gas at unattended gas stations? Even at BRU, many are often unattended.
You haven't mentioned using the car to visit smaller or more remote cities. Will you? ( As others have mentioned, Belgium has superb local rail service. Students even use it daily for school.) Just don't imagine that you're going to have time to explore exotic places without research. There are an awful lot of boring, recently-built suburbs in Belgium.
I happen to have been to Gent and Oostende on the train. I have also driven from Trier (Germany) to BRU, with nights in Lanaken and Leuven. I can tell you that driving in old city centers (like Antwerp, Leuven, and Gent) with one-way streets and narrow curves, is no All-American pleasure. Sure, it's convenient for seeing two or three small medieval centers or small attractions in one day (say, Tongeren, Bokrijk, Diest .) But the fact is that all those places are also well-served by train.
My wife's company used to provide a car in Belgium. She liked to stay in Antwerp because the business location near Turnhout was so banal. But the drive each morning was like commuting from Saratoga Springs to Albany. No pleasure.