Reflecting on my time in Netherlands and Belgium, I noted a few things that made it particularly easy to navigate and a few factors that could potentially make backpacking this region a bit more difficult.
Disclaimer: This list is far from all-encompassing in terms of factors that make a country accessible to travel. I am writing this from the perspective of a white, able-bodied, English speaking woman with an American passport. I am a part of the majority groups in race, sexuality, and religion of these nations. Except for the safety issues that often accompany being a woman traveling abroad, I did not encounter many barriers to travel that others sometime do, and I cannot provide much insight into some of these issues. I have tried to stick to the topics on which I feel I can share my experiences without extensive research, but I am not an expert and encourage everyone to research safety tips for your personal situations before visiting any region.
Both Netherlands and Belgium were on the higher end of the spending spectrum of places I’ve visited. It was easy to spend €15 or €20 on a sitdown lunch at a café or diner. While it’s definitely possible to eat a little cheaper, there weren’t a wide variety of cheap dining options outside of chain restaurants like McDonald’s. Hostels could easily get above €30 a night without providing a very comfortable stay, especially on weekends or with last minute booking. This region is definitely not where I would go if I were on a shoestring budget or trying to stretch my money a long way.
Ease of Navigation
Most of the streets in Netherlands and Belgium have easily visible street signs, and all the houses we stayed had detailed maps with major tourist sites listed so we did not have too many problems with navigation. It’s helpful to have Wi-Fi or an app like Maps me already downloaded in case Wi-Fi is off for extra navigational help, especially if you are directionally challenged like I am. Without maps, many of the street corners and buildings looked alike, so navigating by memory wasn’t always our most reliable method. Our biggest challenge was safely crossing streets – there are bike lane, trams, and cars all operating on the same roads so crossing can be tricky – check two or three times before you decide to go for it. Taxis were available from public transport centers, but were often hard to find once in the city, especially at night. On the whole, these countries were some of the easier to navigate or the ones I’ve visited, but they are not without their challenges. Planning ahead a bit can be well worth it.
As an English speaker, I found both Netherlands and Belgium pretty easy to navigate. Most people spoke English as well as Dutch, especially in restaurants, hotels, taxis, buses, etc. Usually most restaurants had an English menu, and some of the more famous, large museums had descriptions of exhibits in English as well. If you don’t speak Dutch or English, I think visiting these countries would be much harder, but there are very few instances, if any, where it was imperative to speak Dutch to get around or be understood.
Ability to Work (Wi-Fi/Internet Access)
Most of the hostels and hotels we stayed in had decent Wi-Fi. I was able to access and reply to emails without too much problem, but anything like a video chat or Skype call was unreliable. Most restaurants offered Wi-Fi with purchase of food or drink, and even some of the trains we took traveling between cities had Wi-Fi available that got the job done. I think it would be fairly easy to work remotely from the Netherlands and Belgium, provided you just need basic Internet access. However, I have T-mobile and have unlimited data in Netherlands and Belgium, but it didn’t work very well in most places , so I relied on Wi-Fi when we were dining or in our hotel as well. If you need to do conference calls, skyping, etc, you might want to test your connection before your big work meeting because it’s definitely not perfect.
Both Netherlands in Belgium stuck out to me as places that could be tricky to travel if you have a physical disability that makes walking challenging. There aren’t many handicapped friendly buildings, and a lot of the hotel rooms in hospital beds we booked were accessibly only after several flights of narrow and steep staircases, and bunk beds that didn’t always have steps to get to the top bunk. Most did not have an elevator unless it was much bigger and many of the major attractions were the same way, such as the castles or the Belgium Belfry tower which had 360 or so steps to get to the top.
The public transportation is pretty good, so it’s not impossible to get around minimal walking, but it’s definitely more expensive. Walking and biking or the preferred method of transportation for most Dutch people it seemed. Most of the bigger art museums and more modern sites, things like the Rijks or the MOCO museums had elevator access and would be much more accessible for those for whom walking is difficult.
On the whole, I felt very safe traveling around Netherlands and Belgium. Especially when in the major cities, even at night there are a lot of people around and it’s fairly well lit, so I didn’t feel unsafe. There was one night where we found ourselves walking through a much less populated, darker neighborhood to get back to our hostel, and a stranger got uncomfortably close bumping into Tahvi, even though we were the only people on the street. Fortunately, that was the only situation I can recall feeling nervous. As with anywhere else, use your common sense – don’t flash your valuables around, stay with a group if walking around alone at night if possible, and be careful with the nightlife as people in the red light district, particularly tourists, I can get a little rowdy and out of control.
Do you agree with my assessments, or have you had different experiences in the Netherlands and Belgium? Leave your comments below!