I love a good train journey. Whizzing through the countryside while you sit back, relax and take in the views beats driving, hands down. No risk of traffic along the way. No need to concentrate hard on what the other drivers are doing around you. Heck, you can even have a beer. What’s not to like?
Well. The UK railway network has had its fair share of issues over the last few years. Increasing prices year on year, overcrowded trains, strikes and cancellations, all of which have made train travel that little less appealing for me. On top of that, it’s generally cheaper to fly between UK airports than it is to travel across the country by train. How does that even make sense? A quick internet search tells me that the cheapest train ticket from London to Manchester would cost £127 return, where a British Airways return flight for the same dates would cost £89.64! There are deals to be had of course, but in general I don’t take the train as much as I used to for longer journeys. Which is a real shame.
This is why I love having the opportunity to use trains in different situations. I’ve taken many train journeys in Europe. The trains are comfortable and efficient, and most of all – the ticket prices are significantly cheaper than of those in the UK. I’d love to experience an overnight sleeper train experience. This almost happened in 2018 but things didn’t quite pan out – maybe this year eh? There are also some scenic railway journeys on my wish list, such as the Jungfrau Express in Switzerland. I think I may need a lottery win before I get on the Rocky Mountaineer or the Belmond Royal Scotsman.
For now though, my favourite railway journey is on the Eurostar from London to mainland Europe. Having been on Eurostar a few times now – to Paris, Disneyland Paris, Bruges and most recently Lille, I really enjoy the experience, but if you have a little bit of extra cash to splash out, the experience can be made that much better. So, let’s take a look at my tips on how to enhance the Eurostar experience.
What better way to start a trip than from one of the most spectacular buildings and stations in London. St. Pancras station and it’s magnificent red bricked fascia (now home to the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel) is my favourite building in the whole city. The curve of the building, the intricate details and beautiful gothic towers – it’s like something from a fairy tale. We stayed there once you know – saved up and splashed out for an overnight stay and it was absolutely wonderful. If you really want to start your Eurostar experience with a treat, then why not stay over? You can check out my article here.
If you are a little more sensible and choose not to stay over, then make your way to the station in plenty of time to enjoy exploring and admiring the building, before you have to check in.
The station interior is as impressive as the fascia with a large singe span arched roof constructed of a wrought iron framework and glass. Walking in from the hotel ground floor level into the upper concourse gives a great overview of the station interior and the beauty of the Barlow Shed, which houses the Eurostar terminal and main concourse.
Take a wander around the concourse and admire the details that have been added since the station was re-opened as St. Pancras International by the Queen in November 2007. One of the main features of the Grand Terrace is a large bronze statue, The Meeting Place. It features a couple locked in an embrace. It’s romantic and beautiful, although looking in closer detail around the pedestal of the statue, there is a slightly less romantic and amusing insight into typical modern day couple behaviour. Above the statue, the Dent Clock sits on the apex of Barlow Shed.
A more recent addition to this area of the station is Tracey Emin’s light sculpture – the words ‘I want my time with you’ in neon pink high above the platforms. Finally, take a couple of minutes to search out the statue of John Betjeman – the man responsible for saving the station and hotel building from demolition in the 1960’s. Thank the lord for John Betjeman.
If your super early, there are plenty of breakfast options around the upper concourse. There are also plenty on the lower concourse too, but from experience, it’s always more crowded down there given this is the location of the departure gates for all national and international trains. Carluccio’s is a popular spot, but if you want something a little more fancy then head to the Booking Office within the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel – a cathedral like space that’s comfortable and stylish. If you like stylish, then you can also head further down the concourse to Searcy’s Brasserie.
At this point be careful to keep an eye on the time and do not, I repeat DO NOT, miss the opportunity to stop off at the St. Pancras Champagne Bar out on the concourse. I state this clearly, because we had great ideas of doing this before our trip to Bruges, but breakfast took way longer than planned and we missed out. Not this time though, no way. The St. Pancras Champagne Bar is the longest champagne bar in Europe and is located right next to the Eurostar platforms, with panoramic views of the station. There is a large selection of champagnes and sparkling wines, including a wide selection by the glass. If you’ve got time for a couple of glasses each, you may as well just splash out on a bottle. You’re worth it!
This is another point in time to be careful. It’s lovely in the champagne bar. They have little ‘Press for Champagne’ buttons at the table so you could get totally carried away, but please don’t as you need to allow plenty of time to check in for your Eurostar train and get through security. Check in closes 30 minutes before departure (unless you are travelling Business Premier), but on peak periods it can take a while to get through security. Leave plenty of time – remember the whole idea of this is for it not to be stressful!
International Departures are on the lower concourse of the station and once through security the departure lounge offers some facilities for passengers, if you’ve allowed yourself time to hang around. There is a bar, a small duty free shop, a Pret and a WH Smith, as well as toilets. If you are travelling Business Class then there is also a Business Lounge that looks lovely. There’s a considerable amount of seating, but if there happens to be a few trains leaving in close proximity you may be looking for some floor space, or wanting to use your suitcase as a chair.
Once it’s time to board, head to the correct gate and up the escalators to the platforms.
On-board the Eurostar trains there are three travel classes – Standard, Standard Premier and Business Premier. Here’s a little run down on the what’s included in each class of ticket, information taken from the Eurostar website.
For most of my Eurostar journeys I have travelled in Standard Class, mainly due to the fact that being generally such a short journey, I didn’t see the value in upgrading. However, on our most recent trip I agreed to an upgrade to Standard Premier (only outbound mind you – have to keep an eye on those spends) when my other half reminded me how despite it only being a short journey, when your surrounded on your outbound journey by a school trip heading to France first thing in the morning, it’s not exactly relaxing. Ok, I know that’s unlikely to be a regular thing, but it was enough to sway my opinion this once!
My first impression of the Standard Premier carriage was that it was really spacious. Whereby the Standard class carriages have two rows of seats either side of the aisle, the Standard Premier (and Business Premier) have rows of two seats to one side, and single seats to the other, creating a lot more space. With a mix of twos and fours (with tables) to one side, and the single two seaters with table opposite, the aisle is wide and the seats have a significant amount of legroom.
As we were on a lunchtime train outbound, our meal served at the seat was an airline style tray which included a cold chicken salad, bread roll, and dessert. There were also other options available. This was accompanied by wine, beer or a soft drink and followed up with tea, coffee or more booze if this was your preference. The food was tasty and the service was friendly and efficient.
The return journey from Lille was in Standard Class. Perhaps I regretted this a little bit after spending a couple of hours in the cold and draughty Lille International station before being called through to the departure lounge. In all fairness the standard class carriage is perfectly comfortable, although compared to the Standard Premier is does feel rather cramped and there is far less legroom.
The downside of Standard Class is the lack of at seat service. The buffet cars – Café Metropole are situated towards the centre of the (very long) Eurostar trains and have a selection of hot and cold sandwiches and snacks, as well as hot and cold drinks. My top tip here is to get there early, as my visit was fairly unsuccessful with a limited variety of food available. It’s also worth noting that Eurostar trains travel at quite a speed (up to 186 mph) so it’s quite a challenge wandering through a number of carriages with steaming hot drinks with the trains rocking back and forth.
There is plenty of luggage space on the trains at the ends of the carriages, and overhead at the seats. You’ll be unlucky to struggle to find space for your items. We boarded our return train in Lille, which was already quite full and we had no problems. All seats have power points available, with a mix of UK three pin and European two pin plugs.
Eurostar have regular seat sales – there barely seems to be a time when you can’t get some kind of reduced ticket prices. The minimum ticket prices offered in these sales is £29 one way, which I think is an absolute bargain. We booked our December trip to Lille back in September and the return journey per person was £112.00, travelling outbound in Standard Premier and inbound in Standard. Doing a quick search on the most recent sale, for a randomly selected weekday, the cheapest one way ticket to Lille from St. Pancras is £36.00 in Standard, £70.00 in Standard Premier and £245.00 in Business Premier. You can see why I wasn’t too keen to upgrade to the Business Premier seats – it’s a huge step, although I wouldn’t have minded spending some time checking out the Business Lounge – for the purpose of this article of course!
Eurostar tickets can be booked directly on their website here.
So, there are my tips on how to enhance the Eurostar experience, if you have a little bit of spare cash to throw at it. Have you ever travelled Eurostar and what where your thoughts?
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