by Jessica Infantino Trumble
Crossing the English Channel is easier than you may think thanks to Eurostar’s high-speed trains, which began service between the UK and Continental Europe more than 20 years ago. In general, trains are a quintessential part of European travel and can often be more reliable and economical than flying. So if you want to enjoy breakfast in London and lunch in Paris, the Eurostar is a good option to maximize your time while minimizing stress and hassle. Here’s what you need to know.
Eurostar tickets go on sale 120 days in advance and become more expensive the closer it gets to the departure date. So book early, or as soon as you know your travel plans, to ensure you can travel on the day you want at the best price. You can purchase tickets online through Eurostar’s website to print out at home or pick up at the station (select your country at the top of the page to pay in your currency), or you can book through third party sites like Rail Europe to have paper tickets shipped in advance of your trip. It’s important to note that there is an hour time difference between London and Paris, so keep that in mind when buying tickets.
The first Eurostar trains ran between Waterloo in South London and Gare du Nord in Paris.
However, today trains use London’s St. Pancras International following the completion of its £800 million renovation in 2007. Dating back to 1868, the station’s glass and steel train shed interior has been beautiful restored and passengers now have access to amenities ranging from free Wi-Fi to the longest champagne bar in Europe. There are also plans for Paris’ 150-year-old Gare du Nord, which first opened in 1864, to undergo a €48 million facelift in the future.
You need to check in for Eurostar trains at least 30 minutes in advance, but don’t worry it’s a much more low-key process than what you would experience at the airport. Lines are shorter, you don’t have to check your bags and you can leave your shoes on. At St. Pancras station there is plenty of signage directing you where to go. Scan your ticket at the automated check-in gates, quickly pass through x-ray screening and passport control and then sit back and relax in the lounge area. Once your track is announced (generally about 15 minutes before departure), make your way up to the escalators to the platform.
The journey between London and Paris takes less than 2 1/2 hours on the Eurostar, which reaches a top speed of 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). After you settle into your rather roomy seat (as compared to airline standards), gaze out the window and watch the English countryside give way to darkness as you enter the English Channel Tunnel (or the “Chunnel” for short). Surprisingly, this underwater part of the trip is only about 20 minutes. Note that not all trains are direct, so check the timetable carefully before making your reservation. You also have the choice between 3 classes – Standard, Standard Premier and Business Premier – the latter 2 of which offer more amenities like power outlets and regionally-inspired meals, so choose accordingly if this is important to you. All Eurostar trains are non-smoking and include 2 buffet cars with drinks and snacks for purchase regardless of class.
The biggest benefit over flying is that the Eurostar takes you from city center to city center, so you can hop off the train and hit the ground running. Taxis and public transportation are readily available at both train stations. In Paris, Gare du Nord is a major hub for regional RER lines (which connects to Charles de Gaulle airport) and D, metro lines 4 and 5, as well as several other suburban and high-speed trains heading north. St. Pancras in London connects with the King’s Cross St. Pancras Underground station (which serves the Circle, Hammersmith and City, Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly and Victoria tube lines) and several other train lines including both the Heathrow and Gatwick Express trains to the airport.
In addition to the London-Paris route, the Eurostar also has a train that takes you from London to the Brussels-Midi/Zuid station in about 2 hours with a stop in Lille, France along the way (again, don’t forget about the time zone difference). There is also a direct train from London to Disneyland Paris, perfect for a family daytrip with kids. On weekends in the winter, the Eurostar operates a weekly ski train to the French and Swiss Aps, and there are other seasonal trains to the South of France in the summer, with even more routes coming soon. And even though you’re likely to never run out of things to do in London and Paris (and yes, sitting in a café sipping your beverage of choice is a perfectly acceptable activity), the Eurostar can be your gateway to other parts of Europe. The sky, or rather the rail, is the limit.
Read more of Jessica’s travel tips for London, Paris, and Belgium on her blog Boarding Pass.