Travelling by train is easier than you think
N.B. I originally imagined this as a Twitter thread, but as usual with me, once I started writing it out it rapidly got out of hand, so I decided to make it a post instead. I suspect I'm just more comfortable in a longer format...
This is a quick write-up of my experience of travelling internationally by train for a recent skiing trip to the French Alps. The trip was originally planned for January, and when I first looked, the train seemed way too hard – too many steps, too much faff, and far pricier. However, the trip was moved thanks to Omicron and the resulting French travel ban, meaning all the travel needed rebooking. As I started looking at flights, I realised how much I was begrudging flying, and how much I wanted to avoid yet another grim low-budget flight experience. So instead, I started to plan out the journey by train, and whilst it was more expensive and longer, I don't regret it! Here's how the journey ended up panning out along with some thoughts about the experience.
Travel as an experience
We were skiing in Tignes, in the midst of the French Alps. The two nearest cities for transport connections are Lyon and Grenoble, with most of the rest of the group flying into Grenoble and back from Lyon for pricing reasons. They were getting a group airport transfer to and from Tignes, so I decided to try and align with that, as the further into the Alps you get, the slower and more awkward the trains get. As a result, I was aiming to meet up with the main group at Grenoble on Saturday, and leave them in Lyon airport on the way back. As I live in Manchester, that meant a three stage trip – down to London first, then Eurostar through to Paris, before a TGV connection to the appropriate city (direct Eurostars to Lyon do exist, but didn't really align well with this trip).
My original plan was to travel down to London on Friday evening, stay over with a friend if possible, then grab a Eurostar first thing on Saturday, and rush to meet the others in Grenoble around 1pm. Unfortunately, when I looked, the Saturday morning Eurostar was extortionate, so it worked out cheaper to travel all the way through to Paris on the Friday, stay overnight, and get a TGV to Grenoble on Saturday morning. Fortunately, as I work for myself, I had the flexibility to pull this off, but it wouldn't have worked out for everyone.
The trip itself
I didn't know how much time to plan for transfers, so assumed the worst and left massive gaps between everything. As a result, I found myself departing bright and early on Friday morning, with a brisk cross-town walk to Piccadilly Station, where I got a standard Avanti West Coast service down to London in just over 2 hours. This was actually the only train that had any delays or changes across the whole trip – a week before, the train I was booked on was cancelled in a reshuffling of services, but with 5 trains an hour, I just grabbed the one before at no extra charge.
My trip as a whole involved a fair amount of walking, but this was partly by choice – I like walking and I'm a cheapskate where I can be. A wheelie suitcase was an essential, and mine stood up surprisingly well to a few miles of being dragged through all manner of streets across two countries! Anyhow, I digress...
Just over two hours later, and I was into London Euston. The train was pretty quiet, and I got some reading in along the way. The Eurostar website said to arrive 2 hours before my ~14:30 train, so I'd left 3, and with the train move I had 3.5 – definitely overkill in retrospect! However, I've been burned by vicious security queues at airports before (shakes fist at London Luton), so I leaned on the safe side. I had hopes of meeting a friend for lunch, but that fell through unfortunately.
The transfer from Euston to St Pancras is super simple – a 10-15 minute stroll through fairly quiet streets, and decently well signed along the way. As I was so early, I parked up in a coffee shop opposite the Google HQ at Kings Cross for some caffeine and more reading. Around 2 hours before, I ambled up to the Eurostar terminal, only to find they weren't even letting people in for another 15-20 minutes! Oh well, more reading time, I guess...
Once I got in, Eurostar departures seemed a little chaotic – you all pile into a big queue, which snakes through a bunch of stations – ticket scan, security, and British and French passport control one after the other. Despite the slightly messy nature of the system, it seemed to work, and the staff were good about getting anyone on earlier trains rushed through. All in, it took about 40 mins to go through everything, and security was pleasantly stress-free – no liquid requirements and less stringent security was very nice indeed, not to mention getting all the passport faff done in advance, so you can just walk straight off the train at the other end.
After another reading break in the departure lounge, I was onto the train, which was well set up for baggage – plenty of bag racks at the end of the carriage. There were lots of announcements about the train being busy, but I had two seats to myself, which gave me that bit of extra room. The journey through to Paris took about 2hrs 40mins, and I arrived around about 6pm.
As mentioned before, I decided to stay overnight in Paris, in a little hotel right by the Gare de Lyon – where my morning train was due to depart from. For some reason, I decided that I'd walk across central Paris, which in retrospect I wouldn't recommend. It's not the worst city to walk in, but on a damp winter's evening with a suitcase – it wasn't my best idea. To top it off, I got somewhat lost, so a 45 minute walk turned into an hour and a half! Still, once back on the right path I found my hotel without trouble, and took a welcome chance to relax and freshen up, before checking out the chaos in our skiing group chat, with everyone else panicking about having packed the right things for their flight the next morning!
The next day couldn't have been easier – a basic but tasty breakfast at the hotel, then I grabbed my bags and strolled around the corner to the station. The Gare de Lyon is a sizeable station, but fairly well signed, so I found my train without issue. At the gate there was a quick scan of my COVID pass and my ticket, and I was through and onboard! As with every train on the journey, the seat was decently sized, had a nice view, and was quiet, clean and comfortable. The TGV to Grenoble takes about three hours in all, though the last leg from Lyon to Grenoble is noticeably slower – this may be worth bearing in mind for other itineraries! There was something very enjoyable about the slow buildup as the train gradually ran through steadily more mountainous terrain on the approach to Grenoble – it felt more of an experience than simply dropping in on a plane.
Arriving in Grenoble, I felt impressively stress-free (I normally find travelling solo hard work), which was very pleasant. I met up with another member of our skiing group who'd been staying in town with a friend, and we had a coffee sitting out on the square by the station. In the end, my multi-stage train journey was all perfectly on time, but those travelling by air had absolute chaos queuing for passport control at Grenoble, with people backed up right onto the tarmac. Despite the length of travel, I definitely felt slightly smug at my choice of train at that point!
The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful – a long (4ish hours?) bus journey from Grenoble took us up into the mountains to the resort. Next time I might consider trying to get the train all the way to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, as the traffic on a Saturday in peak ski season was quite something. However, we got there in the end, to a nice cosy chalet, and more importantly, skiing!
Despite how late in the season we went, the snow was still pretty decent – a combination of luck and snow cannons I think. It definitely felt mild though, and everything turned to slush and moguls by the end of the week. Pesky climate change, rearing its head once again! Nevertheless, it was a very pleasant break away, and lots of skiing was had.
Time to return
My routing on the way back was much more straight-forward, taking the entire journey in a single day this time. As mentioned, almost everyone else was flying back from Lyon Airport, so I joined them on the transfer, leaving at a not-too-horrific 6:40am. Fortunately traffic on the way back was fairly reasonable, and we arrived at around 10am at the airport. We said our goodbyes, and I headed off to the first part of my journey – a tram! Whilst Lyon Airport does have a TGV station (Lyon Saint-Exupéry), my train was leaving from the city centre station, Lyon Part Dieu. Fortunately, Lyon has an express tram service from the airport straight in, called the Rhônexpress. It's a little pricey (~€15 for a one-way trip), but super convenient. I basically walked straight onto a tram about to leave, and found myself deposited right outside Part Dieu station well before 11am.
As I wasn't sure on timings, I'd once again left loads of time. The direct trains to Paris were hourly, so I had about an hour to wait for my TGV back to Paris. Part Dieu station isn't the most salubrious station, and extensive renovation work didn't help, but I just parked myself under a departures board and read until my train arrived. Once again, it was right on time, and sped me back to Paris in a comfortable 2 hours. There was a bit of confusion with an American tourist who had the wrong carriage, causing a chain of people in the wrong seats, but it was quickly resolved.
Once back in the capital, I had to get back across to the Gare du Nord. I had 60-90 minutes or so, but given my experience on the way out, I was not going to walk this time! Fortunately, it's fairly easy to get across the centre. Paris has a travel card system (Navigo Easy), but if you're just going for a single journey as I was, you can just get a single ticket – the t+ ticket covers a single journey on most if not all public transport in the centre of the city. I had to queue at a vending machine for about 10 minutes, but it was very easy to grab a ticket once there – it costs €1.90, pretty reasonable. If I was doing this semi-regularly, I'd probably get the Navigo Easy, which you can top up with a bunch of t+ journeys at once for simplicity. Then it was just finding the right line! That turned out to be RER line D.
The metro felt like an endless descent into the bowels of the city, at least 3 escalators down to a slightly dingey platform below the main station. The train took about 10 minutes to arrive (I believe they're every 20 minutes or so), but was plenty roomy (double deck underground train are new to me), and just two stops took me right where I needed to be. Fair warning, Paris Gare du Nord is also a maze, with the metro dumping you out into a large underground shopping arcade. I did eventually find my way out to the concourse proper, at which point the signs for Eurostar were easy to find.
Once again, they were not letting people even queue up until around 1hr 45m before departure, so I loitered for a while, before being shunted into a queue for my train. We basically just stood around for another 15-30 minutes as they processed the prior departures. I didn't really mind, having spent a bunch of time sitting on busses and trains earlier, but I imagine it would've been grim for anyone who struggles with standing for a decent period of time. Then it was onto the Eurostar processing chain – ticket, passport controls, then security. The setup in Paris feels quite strange, having been wrapped in and around the pillars and arches of the old station building, but it made a nice bit of novelty. Once again, the whole procedure went fairly quickly, and security once again was a breeze – I could get used to this!
There's not much to say about the journey back – I was fairly tired by that point, and curled up with a book for the 2hr 40min trip. Once again, it was bang on time, getting in around 18:40. A short stroll back to Euston, and only one leg left to go! At this point, I felt like I'd spent my whole day in train stations, so I was keen to just get home. I had quite a wait until my booked train, but as I had an open return, I hopped on the one before, and even got a seat in the quiet carriage. Once back home, it was but a 20 minute walk back across central Manchester to home, food and relaxation! I got back in just before 10pm, making for a solid 15 and a half hours of travelling.
Summary and Thoughts
Overall, I was impressed. It's the first time I've travelled internationally in two years, and with COVID regulations and more, I expected the many stages to be a nightmare. Instead, it was really smooth! The only train that was changed was the first leg, Manchester to London, and given the regular service, that proved no issue. Every other train was right on time, no delays, slowdowns or other issues. I may've gotten lucky – it's hard to tell with just one experience.
Overall, the journey was definitely longer than by plane, but not by as much as you might think. Most of my skiing group travelled from London Heathrow, so had maybe an hour by train to the airport, then 1.5-2 hours in the airport. The flight was around 1 hour 35 mins, and then 1-1.5 hours of security hell and 45 minutes by bus to the centre of Grenoble. In contrast, I had a 2 hour train to London, a 15 minute walk to St Pancras, 40 minutes in security, then 2hrs 40 to Paris, an hour across Paris, then 3 hours to Grenoble. So maybe 7.5 hours versus 6 hours on the London-Grenoble stage, plus a couple of hours up to Manchester. Definitely not unreasonable, and from the sounds of the securities woes at the airport, considerably less stressful! The journey was so much simpler, with most legs involving just walking up, scanning a ticket then hopping on board. The seats are bigger, there's WiFi, I had access to all my bags throughout, and nice views of the countryside on the way. I also got to catch up on lots of reading, though I wasn't expecting to go through nearly 3 books in just a couple of days of travelling!
It was decidedly more expensive, with flights coming to around £250, and my elaborate journey coming to nearly double. However, I would note that I had to book fairly late (2-3 weeks ahead), and trains tend to be significantly cheaper a couple of months in advance. That being said, trains are (sadly) still more expensive, something that really needs to change if people are to be incentivised to shift away from flying. There's also the faff of timetabling the whole malarky, which especially if trying to align with other people is somewhat involved.
As I mentioned throughout, I was super safe with transfer times, as I didn't know what to expect at any stage. However, now I've done it once, I suspect everything could be compressed down way more. The transfer from Euston to St Pancras is about a 15 minute walk, and from what I saw, even with added COVID faff, security for Eurostar was only around 40 minutes. 60-75 minutes would seem a eminently reasonable margin, and you can cut it more if you go for the fancy tickets. The transfer in Paris is quick (maybe 15-20 minutes) if you time the trains correctly and have tickets, but trains are roughly every 20 minutes. Given I had to queue for 10 minutes or so to grab a ticket, an hour is safest. Alternatively, you may be able to get a direct Eurostar service, depending on your final destination. I'm hoping I might be able to do another trip to Europe later this year, and I can try this method again, and see how reliable things are.
In summary, train is definitely more involved than flying, but it is very doable, and makes the journey both less stressful and more of an experience than flying. Even with all the luggage involved with skiing, it was a pretty pleasant experience!