You may have worked out by now that I’m a little bit in love with train journeys. If I allowed myself to have favourites, then surely the Eurostar would be among them. It takes me quickly and easily to some of my favourite places. There are no worries whatsoever about baggage restrictions, nor the bustling unpleasantness that can be some airports at rush hour. Welcome to the easy route between London and the rest of Europe.
Eurostar: Channeling Through
The origins of Eurostar can be traced back decades, in fact to 1986 when I held a newly-minted degree and my first proper job. Construction began in 1988, and the first test train traveled through the tunnels in 1993. In November 1994, passenger services began out of London Waterloo to Paris Gare du Nord and Brussels Midi. Ashford International was later added to the UK side, then Ebbsfleet International, the latter now seeing more stopping trains.
In 2007, and following a lot of renovation work, London’s Eurostar terminal switched to St Pancras. This is right next door to Kings Cross station, and a mere trundle of a case from Euston. So if you are approaching the Eurostar from the North or the Midlands in the UK, your connection to the service is now much quicker.
Why Take the Eurostar?
In addition to the factors of comfort and hassle, Eurostar has some demonstrable advantages over the airlines. On average, over 91% of Eurostar trains arrive at their destination on time or no more than 15 minutes late. Competing airlines manage up to 70% on time arrivals.
From central London to central Paris, the Eurostar is actually quicker than flying, and to my mind both more comfortable and more convenient. Over the years of Eurostar’s operations, the percentage of the market taken by its services between these destinations has increased to over two thirds.
Although there is no wifi yet on the older Eurostar trains, the ability to pick up your normal connections for the majority of the journey is a big bonus. Add seats with decent sized tray tables or actual tables in the groups of four, and you’ve got the ability to work or play to your heart’s content.
Eurostar’s New Kit
The new trains – the e320s – are sleeker, faster and larger. They have a top speed of 200 miles/320 kilometers an hour, which shaves 15 minutes off travel time. London to Brussels now takes just under two hours and London to Paris just over two.
With 10.4 million passengers taking the Eurostar in 2014, there was a need for increased capacity particularly over the weekend. The new trains take 900 passengers as opposed to the 750 capacity on the older services. Every train is therefore carrying the equivalent of two 747s of passengers. And in modern parlance, even more than the A380. But the thing is that you really don’t notice all those other people on Eurostar, save for brief moments at boarding call.
With all the criticism of ever-decreasing airline seat space, I was somewhat amused to read that the new Eurostar trains had been criticised for having such wide seats that you slide around on the journey. Such a problem…
Eurostar: Choosing Your ticket
Bookings for Eurostar tickets open between 138 and 190 days before departure. They are priced by demand and availability, so cheaper tickets will sell out first. If you have set dates, in mind, get booking as soon as you can.
Tickets to every destination come in three varieties: Standard, Standard Premier and Business Premier. Here’s what you get for your money:
- Standard – economy seat
- Standard Premier – business seat, a light meal and drinks on the train, complimentary magazines
- Business Premier – as standard premier plus a three course meal on the train designed by Chef Raymond Blanc, newspapers, late check-in (10 minutes), fully flexible tickets, use of the business class lounge at the station with free wifi, drinks and snacks, extra baggage allowance, taxi booking service
On new trains, all passengers get free wifi and onboard entertainment streamed to your phone, tablet or laptop. There are UK and continental power sockets. Standard Premier and Business Premier customers also get individual reading lights and USB sockets.
Standard and Standard Premier tickets can be changed before departure. There’s a flat fee of £30/40 Euros for Standard or £40/50 Euros for Standard Premier per person per journey leg. Travelers will also need to pay any difference in price for the new journey at the time of the change; no refunds are given if this is lower. All Business Premier tickets are exchangeable or refundable for no fee.
You’ll find all the Eurostar timetables here.
Eurostar: Booking Your Ticket
Tickets are handled through the Eurostar website. It’s necessary to book in advance, and, as is the case with most train fares, prices rise the closer you get to the departure date. So book as soon as you can. Returns to Brussels or Paris start from £58 with single journeys from £44. Note that there is a credit card fee of £3 per transaction, but no charge for using a debit card.
The Eurostar website will take you through the booking process and allocate you a seat. You can change that seat allocation to one which meets your preferences. On my next trip, as I’m traveling alone, I’ve treated myself to a posher seat. I’ve also selected a single airline seat, meaning that I won’t be sharing my immediate space with anyone else and can work undisturbed. You’ll find the detailed Eurostar seating plan here. This is prepared for travel agents, and gives the layouts for each type of train operating on the route.
Eurostar: Getting Your Tickets
You can arrange to have your tickets sent through to you by post or collect them at the departure station from the machines there. I now print mine at home, which gives me a QR code that I just show to the scanner panel at the ticket gates on arrival.
If there are any issues with your tickets, for example if you have had to change your reservation, then assistance counters at all the stations can reprint your tickets for you. This has happened to us at Ebbsfleet International before when faced with humongous motorway delays. On that occasion, staff were both efficient and helpful, and had us re-booked on a later train and re-ticketed in no time at all.
Eurostar: preparing to travel
There are left luggage lockers at London St Pancras, Brussels Midi, Paris Gare du Nord and Lille Europe. This is pretty useful on your day of departure. If I’m staying somewhere there are no luggage facilities, like an Airbnb, I’ll usually trundle my bag to the lockers in the morning, then enjoy my day unencumbered.
There is no weight limit for your luggage. There are also no restrictions on liquids. The Eurostar website cites bags up to 85cm long as being acceptable.
Business Premier tickets allow you three pieces of luggage plus a personal item such as a briefcase, laptop bag or handbag, and all other tickets qualify you for two bags plus a personal item.
The Eurostar website has a list of banned or restricted items, most of which are exactly as you would imagine. Be aware that the amount of alcohol you can bring is restricted on normal trains. It may be banned altogether on night trains and trains heading to sporting events.
If you need extra assistance, this can be booked through the Eurostar website. You’ll need to arrive 60 minutes before the train departs, instead of the normal 30 minutes. There is a wheelchair user fare, and a discounted rate for a companion. Accredited guide and assistance dogs are welcomed on board, but not emotional support animals.
If you are traveling in Standard Premier or Business Premier, you can book a meal that is suitable for specific food allergies or dietary needs. These include halal, kosher, vegetarian, vegan, diabetic-friendly, gluten and dairy free options Choose the Manage A Booking option online to make your choices. There are also meal choices for children in the train buffet.
Eurostar: The Trains
There are three classes of travel on Eurostar: Business Premier, Standard Premier and Standard. The first two classes of travel use carriages on the train that offer two seats on one side of the aisle, and one on the other side. Standard travel carriages have two seats either side of the aisle. This should give you an idea of the space differential.
In all classes, the seats are a mixture of table groups: four seats facing two by two and some two seats facing each other in Premier accommodation. There are also a number of airline style seats, with either two seats or one seat facing the back of the seat in front. So you can select according to your travel preferences and level of sociability.
You need to arrive at the station boarding area a mere 30 minutes before the train is due. It’s just 10 minutes in advance if you hold a Business Premier ticket. You’ll scan or present your ticket at the ticket barrier and then go through passport control. It might make sense to be a bit earlier if you are travelling at peak times.
Passengers wait in a lounge area until boarding for the train is called. At this point, train passengers are normally directed through two gateways to join the train according to the carriage in which you are seated. So be sure to remember your carriage number.
At the route terminals, you’ll find the train on the platform. At intermediate stations, you will normally have platform access before the train arrives. as the stopping time is brief. Along the platforms, there are signs or markings indicating where each carriage is positioned. It’s easy to find your spot to join the train.
There are large spaces for luggage at each end of every carriage. In addition, two overhead luggage racks run the full length of each side of the carriage. The top section will take most hand luggage sized bags, while the one below will take smaller bags and your coat.
Eurostar: On the Way
Once you’ve found your seat, sit back and relax. The train will get up to full speed pretty fast, and you’ll enjoy the city and countryside flashing by. It’s worth noting that if the train makes intermediate station calls, then the empty seats you find around you will most likely fill up. So by all means grab more space while you can, but be prepared to move back to your booked seat before the next station call. Trains normally operate at close to full capacity in my experience.
If you are apprehensive about the undersea portion of the journey, try not to be concerned. At night, it’s actually rather difficult to tell that you are in the tunnel. If it wasn’t for the tunnel lights at regular intervals, and the slight change in pressure when you enter or leave the tunnel you would never know you were there. The tunnel itself is also only a very small part of the journey: around 20 minutes of the two hours you’ll be on board.
So if you’re in standard accommodation, which we normally are, go and collect a coffee from the buffet. My husband highly recommends the cheese and ham toastie, which does smell particularly good. Crank up your laptop, open your book, and just let the world go by.
Your security checks are all done before you board the train. Once you arrive at your destination, you just walk off the train and either take your connection or leave the station.
Eurostar: London St Pancras
St Pancras was vastly upgraded just before the Eurostar service moved here from Waterloo. Now it’s a surprisingly calm space, set out in gallery form with shops and facilities over two floors. Here you’ll find plenty of options for a last minute meal or to stock up on necessities you forgot.
If your journey is a celebration, then you could start as you mean to go on by raising a glass in Europe’s longest champagne bar. Situated on the upper level, its 96 meters of counter are separated from the Eurostar trains by a glass screen.
Don’t forget to look up at the spectacular glass and steel train shed. The Victorian Gothic station was opened in 1868. The train shed itself has been renovated to the original sky blue colour. The original station clock was found languishing in a Nottinghamshire garden, and was carefully reproduced by Dent, its original manufacturer. The reproduction is now placed next to St Pancras’s iconic statue, The Meeting Place by Paul Day, which depicts two lovers embracing.
You’ll be pleased to know that there is free wifi throughout St Pancras (unlike Gare du Nord or Midi).
Eurostar: Brussels Midi
Midi is a rather more hectic station than St Pancras. The Eurostar terminal area has been upgraded, and for sometime was relocated in a distant corner at the back of the station. You’ll spot it easily now, as it’s draped in a whole lot of iconic London symbols, such as the tube logo and a guardsman sporting a bearskin.
The main concourse at Midi is at the lower level, with trains being accessed via escalators or stairs to the platforms above. As you enter the station with the Eurostar counter to your right, you’ll find most of the station’s shopping and dining facilities to the left. If you can spot a rather charming giraffe enjoying the offerings of a cafe bar, that’s the side on which the shops are located. Further along the concourse to the right are both left luggage lockers of varying sizes and a left luggage counter.
Midi has a surprising range of places in which to spend your last Euros before returning to the UK. There are the usual suspects, such has Neuhaus chocolates and other gift stores. Surprisingly, there are other more unusual places such as a shop stocking organic and allergen friendly groceries. So you can grab your gluten free supplies at Midi. There’s also a branch of Exki in the outer station concourse for some healthy grub.
Your Eurostar ticket allows you free onward travel to other Brussels stations: Central, Nord and Luxemburg (near the EU Parliament). If you’re connecting to Central, it’s an easy five minute journey with frequent services. Otherwise, it’s roughly a twenty minute walk to Grand Place.
Eurostar: Paris Gare du Nord
This is reputed to be the busiest station in Europe and possibly the busiest in the world except for Japan, so brace yourself. The station facade is of a similar age to St Pancras. Statues on the roofline commemorate the cities served by the Chemin de Fer du Nord, with Paris herself depicted as the large central figure.
Opposite all that architectural glory, you’ll find the Brasserie Terminus Nord, where previous travelers have enjoyed their dejeuner for close on a century. If you’ve got time to spare, you could try this rather than dining at the station.
At Gare du Nord, to reach the Eurostar platform, you have to cross the first floor balcony. You’ll find luggage lockers downstairs if you are dropping off your bags for the day.
Eurostar: Other Destinations and Connections
Few new destinations have been added to the service since Eurostar opened. This is partly due to security requirements at the boarding stations, requiring a secure access area for trains. You can currently join the train at Lille Europe, Calais or Disneyland Paris in addition to the main station termini, plus Ashford International and Ebbsfleet International in the UK.
Eurostar: Final Facts
- The Channel Tunnel undersea section is the longest anywhere in the world
- It’s the second longest rail tunnel in the world
- It holds the British train speed record of 208 miles an hour. Hold onto your coffee between St Pancras and the tunnel.
- The tunnel itself is 31.4 miles or 50.5 kilometers long. It takes about 20 minutes to transit.
- The speed limit in the tunnel is 100 miles/160 kilometers an hour for safety reasons. 186 miles/300 kilometers an hour is the normal speed limit outside the tunnel.
- There are 16 weekday London to Paris services and 18 on Fridays and 7 between London and Brussels. There are a further 4 services a week to Disneyland Paris, with more in school holidays.
The Day We Caught The Train
If you’d like to explore more train journeys with us, why not check out the overnight sleeper to the Scottish Highlands here. And for more outstanding beauty, but in the day, take the Settle Carlisle train from the Yorkshire Dales to the Scottish Borders.