Eurostar is the easiest - and often the cheapest - way to get France, Belgium and the Netherlands directly from London. The train that has run beneath the English Channel since 1994, has come a long way since those early days when it only traveled to Brussels, Paris and Disneyland Paris. These days it's faster, offers direct services to many more destinations - including all the way to the South of France - and through connection with European rail networks can help you book travel to almost anywhere in Europe.And a big plus for Eurail pass holders, in 2018, at least six different kinds of Eurail passes now include the cost of Eurostar tickets too (you will have to book a Eurostar reservation up to 12 weeks in advance though).
Where Does Travel From?
Eurostar now has a wide variety of direct destinations from the UK through the Channel Tunnel. There's a choice of departure points too. You can leave from:
- the fabulous neo-Gothic St Pancras International Station
- Ebbsfleet International Station in Dartford, Kent, just beyond the Eastern edge of Greater London
- Ashford International Station in Kent, useful for passengers touring in the Southeast of England.
And Where Does It Go?
Most visitors know that Eurostar travels between the UK and Paris, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Direct destinations in France:
- Paris, Gare du Nord - 14 departures a day from London, starting at £29 each way, city center to city center in two hours and 15 minutes.
- Lille - ten departures a day to the capital of French Flanders, starting at £29 each way, in just an hour and a half.
- Calais - Calais Fréthun station is just 55 minutes from London St Pancras. There are three trains a day, starting at just £29 each way. Before Eurostar, Calais was the most popular ferry port because it was the shortest Channel crossing. As an introduction to France, this destination makes a great day trip from London. Have a French lunch, do some shopping, see the original of Rodin's Burghers of Calais, visit the Lace Museum and be back in London before 10 p.m.
- Disneyland Paris - One departure a day, each way for the two hour and forty minute trip, starting at £38 each way.
- Lyon, Avignon and Marseille - Between May and mid September, Eurostar runs direct trains from London - non-stop to Lyon and then on to these southern destinations. There are up to four direct trains each week during this period. At other times, the three southern cities are served by frequent daily services connecting (and changing trains) through Paris or Lille. Fares start at £49 each way.
- The Ski Trains - There are two direct trains a week, on Friday night and Saturday, to the heart of the French Alps between December and April (Friday night trains from January to April).The fare is £75 each way and in addition to the two bags per passenger allowance, skiers and snowboarders can take their sports equipment free. The Ski Trains stop at Moûtiers, Aime-la-Plagne and Bourg-Saint-Maurice, stations that are within easy reach (by coach or taxi) of the popular ski areas of Courchevel, La Plagne, Tignes, Meribel and Les Arcs. The return trains skip Aime-la-Plagne so you need to make your own way to one of the other two stations on the way back.
Direct destinations in The Netherlands: There are two daily direct trains to Amsterdam via Rotterdam. The new service launched in February 2018 and costs from £35 each way for either destination. The Rotterdam service takes a little over three hours and the journey to Amsterdam takes a further 41 minutes. This is an outbound only service from London. For the return journey, passengers have to take a Thalys train from Amsterdam Centraal or Rotterdam Centraal to Brussels Midi/ Zuid for passport checks before boarding Eurostar.
Direct Destinations in Belgium: Brussels and beyond - There are ten trips a day from St Pancras to Brussels Midi-Zuid station.
Fares start at £29 each way and the trip takes just over two hours - two hours and one minute, actually, but who's counting. You can change to local trains in Brussels - often just crossing the platform - to continue onward to Bruges, Antwerp or Ghent for £35.
Three Classes of Travel
Eurostar tickets care available as Standard, Standard Premier and Business Premier. The best fares are always available for Standard tickets which give you a fixed, bookable time of travel, reasonably comfortable seats, 2-for-1 entry to galleries and museums at your destination and a selection of snacks, drinks and meals you can buy from the buffet car (called Café Métropole).
For the Standard Premier ticket, which can cost two or three times the price of a Standard ticket you get a bit more space, a light meal and drinks service airline style at your seat, a free magazine.
We don't think either of the premium tickets are particularly good value options for what you get, considering the length of most journeys are less than three hours. We checked the price for a one way ticket to Paris for April 26, 2018 arriving at 10:17 a.m. A Standard ticket was £55, a Standard Premier was £149 and a Business Premier was £245.
For the Business Premier Ticket you get a lot more leg room, a open ticket to travel whenever you please - as long as you arrive within 10 minutes of boarding time - and a guaranteed seat on all services expect those from the Netherlands. You also get a meal designed by British celebrity chef Raymond Blanc. Unless you are really traveling on business, in which case being able to travel whenever you like may be important, consider whether spending as much as £200 more for a two hour and 15 minute trip to Paris is really worth it.
How to Buy Eurostar Tickets
The best way to buy Eurostar tickets is directly from the company, online. You can buy the tickets up to four months in advance. The website is multi-national. Pick your language and desired currency from the drop down menu on the website and then order tickets before you leave home. Plan to buy your tickets as far in advance as possible because the best, promotional fares sell out very quickly. By visiting the official website, you can also check out the special sales and other offers the company runs often.
Checking in and Traveling on Eurostar
Checking in to Eurostar is similar to checking in for a flight but the security element is a bit less onerous. You need to arrive half an hour before your scheduled departure time. You don't have to worry about carrying gels and liquids on board, but there are some surprising things you cannot take into the train carriages - toy guns, kitchen knives, defensive aerosols, anything that security thinks could be used as a weapon. If you are concerned about that wonderful set of Parisian chef's knives you'd like to buy to take home, it's probably a good idea to read about Prohibited and Restricted Items first. It will tell you what can be taken as carry-on and what will require advance permission to be packed away in a hold.
The Eurostar luggage allowance is pretty generous. You can carry two pieces of luggage, plus a small piece of hand luggage - a handbag, a briefcase or a computer case, perhaps. There are overhead luggage racks and larger luggage areas between some of the seats and at the end of the cars. Your luggage will remain relatively safe throughout the trip because people tend to stay in their assigned seats for most of the journey and there are no multiple stops with people getting on and off before most destinations.
Documents To Carry
Besides your ticket, you will need your passport. On your return from the EU to the UK, you will need to fill out an arrivals card. Their are stacks of them, and sometimes pens as well, near the check in areas of the European stations. Just in case, have your own pen - with black ink - available. And, if you wear glasses, you may want to have them, or your smart phone flashlight, handy in Gare du Nord. The lighting near the Eurostar check-in is stylishly dim and atmospheric but it can be difficult to read the small print on the arrivals cards
What's the Eurostar Like Onboard?
If you've traveled by train in Western Europe before, there won't be any surprises for you.
The trains are clean, modern, and run on time. The seats are comfortable, and you'll have access to both power sockets and the internet if you want to get online (thought the internet connections are slow and can be unreliable when the train reaches its maximum speed of 300 kilometers per hour. If you've heard that you can smoke in a smoker's car, forget it. The days when the French smoked everywhere are long gone and just like most public spaces in the US, the UK and around Europe, there is no smoking on Eurostar.
How Does Eurostar Compare to Other Ways to Cross the English Channel?
If you are unencumbered with pets and a passel of children, there is no better way to get to Paris and the other cities Eurostar serves. Air fares are comparable - both the higher fares and the budget airline fares, depending upon which class of ticket you buy. But Eurostar drops you right in a city center station. After that you can use local transportation of local taxis for a short journey to your hotel. If you fly, you will land a substantial distance from the center of town. Then you'll have to spend extra time and money on a train or taxi to get to your destination.
On the other hand, if you are traveling with several children, Eurostar costs can start to mount up. And, if you are traveling with the family pet, Eurostar is off limits.
You have two further options.
1. Take a ferry to Europe. The cheapest way is to go as a foot or cycle passenger. You can always rent a car on the other side of the channel. If you're traveling with a big family or a pet, or both, you can take your rental car across on the ferry - check about insurances with the rental company first. Most ferry fares include up to 9 passengers in one vehicle and you can take your pet.
2. Another approach is to take the Le Shuttle, sometimes wrongly called The Chunnel. This is a car transporter train. You drive your own car aboard a train in the UK or France and are transported throug the tunnel on a train. Then you drive off about 20 minutes later and you are in another country. Passport control, customs, and Pet Passport paperwork are taken care of before you drive onto Le Shuttle, so once you've gone through you can just be on your way.
And by the way, if you're hoping that you will see a lot of interesting scenery from Eurostar, sorry to disappoint you. Once that train reaches its speed of 300k (and they usually announced when it does) all you can see from the windows is a blur.