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A Tale of Two Cities no - it's not a hairpiece, just a bad haircut                      back to TTN home page
by Joe Harkins
- Nov 18, 98

    By the time this week's column is published in local newspapers and replicated on Travel The Net's web site, I will have left the country. My departure was not in response to popular demand. This trip is the happy joining of work and pleasure. Depending on which particular day you are reading it, I will be in either Brussels or Amsterdam or some place between.

    This is the perfect season in which to enjoy both cities.
Yes, I know, Belgium and the Netherlands are glorious in the summer. That's one reason why I prefer them in November. Glorious too often translates as "crowded and expensive."

    By the time fall rolls around, Brussels and Amsterdam residents have recovered from the annual foreign-tourist onslaught and reverted to their normally well-ordered lives. It's that normalcy I enjoy so much. And the low prices.


    Brussels has all the charm and beauty of Paris, as well as the fine dining, but without the infamous rudeness of the City of Light's ethnocentric population.

    As for Amsterdam in the Fall? Well, what's a little rain? It keeps the canals full.

    While there will be rainy and cold days at this time of year, on others the equally likely mid-day sunshine often warms the outdoor seats of sidewalk cafes. City squares are free of the summertime rows of dinosaur-sized tour buses. You might say, Europe is Europe again.

    I took my own professional advice and used the Internet to plan the trip. If you have any doubts about the wisdom of my choice of travel dates, what I found may get your attention quicker than a Blue Light Special in aisle five.

    Using
Travelocity, I discovered that on November 1st, Sabena Belgian Airlines dropped its Newark to Brussels round-trip price to $369 (plus taxes). I like the way the Travelocity interface let's a user display and print a copy of the exact fare details that the reservation clerk has on the airline's computer monitor. I also found pricing for Delta, United and Continental that matched Sabena to the penny.

    I could have flown even cheaper.
City Bird, a relative newcomer who's getting high marks for good service in new aircraft, does it for $50 less. Their web site is a mess. It could use some design help and a little tweaking to make the page fit the screen. But, what the hey; I don't fly too good and they probably do.

    I chose Sabena because Brussels is their home base, meaning they probably will have the handiest gates at the terminal. Food, at least on the return leg, will be local.

    However,
Sabena's web site is "second generation," that is, it's from the long-ago era of oh, maybe a year or two ago. Back then, sites were expected to look good but had few functions. Now, some "third generation" web pages serve up seating charts, arrival-departure tracking, gate information, online reservations and other useful stuff. As a side-note, while seeking info on their services, it took me 15 minutes to find a link to Sabena's Public Relations Department's email address. When I departed three weeks later, I still hadn't a response to the question I'd sent to the home office.

   
Hotels-Belgium was the most helpful site for selecting a Brussels accommodation, primarily because it is so well focused. Proximity of a hotel to one of the city's major train stations was important to my inter-country travel plans. Nearness to Grand Place, the heart of Brussels and widely considered Europe's most beautiful city center, was another preference. Hotel Aristote is neatly placed between both the station and the plaza, roughly four to six short blocks from each.

    Time Out Magazine's
Amsterdam Guide is as comprehensive as the Official Amsterdam Guide web site and even better organized. From Time Out's list of moderate-price  hotels, I chose Hotel Agora, beautifully situated canal-side at the Flower Market and only a few hundred feet from one of A'dam's superb tram lines.

    Many accommodations in Brussels and Amsterdam offer the multi-night guest significantly lower rates, anywhere from 10% to 25% off tourist season single-night prices. I used email and fax to negotiate even deeper discounts for the five days each city was visited.

    So, what kind of deal did I get? Round trip airfare, 5 nights in Brussels and 4 nights in Amsterdam including a good breakfast each day, all taxes, total $1,480. Not impressed? That's probably because I failed to tell you, that was the total air/hotel cost for
two people. Of course, what was saved on those costs was promptly splurged in the excellent restaurants that abound in both cities.

    A Travel The Net column will report on the trip in the near future. Until then, here's a few additional interesting Internet resources for planning your own "best of times; worst of times."

Superb Belgian Chocolate

Belgium Guide

Another Belgian Guide

Belgian Castles

Belgian Trains

Amsterdam Airport Guide

Official Netherlands Guide

Netherlands Reservations Center

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