Day Trip to Belgium

I’ve just got back from a day trip to Belgium, Brussels to be precise. I went over on business, alongside one of our sales guys, as our company is joining in with a EU funded project looking at RFID solutions, and this was the kick off meeting.

As you may have gathered from the end of my posting yesterday, this was all organised pretty last minute in terms of the flights, so the cheapest flights I could get where a premium economy ticket going out, and the slightly cheaper (well about £4 cheaper) restricted business ticket on the way back.

This was the first time I’d flown on the BMI premium economy ticket, and considering that it is more expensive than a restricted business ticket, if you don’t need the flexibility in the ticket, I’d rather go for the cheaper business ticket. From the point of view of travel perks, the only perk you get over and above regular economy on a short-haul flight is that you can get into the business lounge. However that proved to be a mixed blessing this morning anyway. Firstly the whole of the air conditioning system throughout Terminal 1 seemed to be having problems, so the BMI lounge had a couple of portable air conditioners, and some fans, but really was just generally warm and muggy. Coupled with that, the lounge is above one of the gates, which is fine if you could access all of the BMI gates – but you can’t. My flight was on a totally different pier, and when I left the lounge to go to catch my flight I was directed through flight connections – apparently the only way to get to the other pier is to spend another ten minutes waiting around to have your bags searched again, because the security staff won’t allow you back into the departures hall to get to the right pier.

Anyway, onto the premium economy experience on the plane. BMI is not not providing any food, or any drinks for free to economy passengers. It’s still complimentary for business passengers, but they charge anyone in the economy cabin, even if you’re paying for the premium economy ticket. The drinks and food aren’t exactly cheap either – what I’d describe as captive market pricing, so you’re looking at £1.50 for a cup of tea. Now fine, if you’re opting for the cheapest fare possible, you expect them to squeeze every extra penny out of you, but bear in mind that my premium economy ticket cost more than someone sat in the business class cabin on a restricted ticket was paying.

The scheduled journey time from Heathrow to Brussels is about an hour, it transpires that about half of this time is actually to cover the sitting around at Heathrow, as the flight itself only took 35 minutes. Coming back you are in the air for 50 minutes, the difference in time being the time you are stacked waiting to land at Heathrow. When I arrived at Brussels I had a couple of hours to kill waiting for my colleague to arrive on his flight from Birmingham. Frustratingly thanks to a massive thunderstorm at Birmingham airport, his flight was late arriving.

Having said that, Brussels airport is not too bad as a place to have to sit around and wait. According to a couple of signs it won a competition as the best airport in Europe a couple of years ago – certainly it is a nice manageable size, and quite easy to find a quiet spot to sit down.

Once my colleague arrived, we had the choice of how we were going to get into the city. Taxis from airports are always expensive, and Brussels is no exception, apparently the fare is around €30 to get in to the city. Having said that, unlike our own Heathrow Express, which costs the best part of £1 a minute for the journey, the Belgian equivalent is just as quick, but considerably cheaper. It cost just €11 for the two return tickets into the city.

The nearest station to the meeting was the Central station, which according to the city map I had printed out was under 1km from the hotel. It was also incidentally, 1 stop on the Brussels Metro. As we had a good half-hour to go, we thought we’d walk, I had the city map, so it wasn’t too much of a problem. Unfortunately, since I initially thought we’d come out of a different exit than the one we actually used, we actually ended up going the slightly scenic route, having gone about five minutes walk in the wrong direction, however we made it to the meeting on time.

After the meeting, after getting lost earlier, we decided to give the metro a try, which even at rush hour proved to not be too much of a problem. The metro is relatively modern – at least compared to a lot of what we have in London, and was quick and clean. Interestingly, whilst London is now filled with ticket barriers, there aren’t any on the Brussels system. You can buy your ticket, and there are machines to validate it, but ultimately there is nothing to stop you just walking on to the train without paying. I’m not sure whether they don’t have a problem with fare dodging, or whether they just aren’t bothered, but certainly everybody seems to be trusted. After our go on the Metro, we even managed to get on a train back at Brussels Central going to the airport too!

Anyway, on the way back, I was on a restricted business ticket, so I got a little bit more space, but more than that a very nice snack meal and drinks – and if I’d paid a little bit more I could have been sat two rows behind in the packed economy cabin…

So the one final question, was whether it was a better choice to fly rather than take the Eurostar, which was what I was going to do before my colleague had to come down from Birmingham. To be honest, although getting to Waterloo is pretty tedious, and indeed the whole process will get even more so when the Eurostar services relocate next year, the journey time is pretty comparable once you’ve factored in all the sitting around. Granted the actual travel time flying is less than half of the Eurostar, that doesn’t factor in all the waiting time all the way through the process going through the airports. We’ll have to see if we have to go for another meeting in Brussels, but I’ll certainly give the Eurostar a good look next time around.

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