Advantages Speed, comfort, catering, customer service
Disadvantages Pricing, Online booking facilities, Limited network
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|How well does it cater for disabled people?|
Having been staffed on a French client project over the last 18 months, I've travelled extensively on Eurostar between London and Paris (minimum weekly), as well as completed the odd trip to Brussels and Lille. Generally, I'd always aim to travel Eurostar rather than fly, because I live in central London, and instead of 40 mins to get to Heathrow, I can make it to Waterloo in 10 mins instead.My first comments relate to ticket pricing. Even in advance of the pricing structure changes in 2003, the amount charged for standard fares (Mon to Fri returns whether leisure or business class) were idiotic in comparison to even the main non low-cost airlines. At one stage I was being quoted over £200 pounds for a standard return, which was double the flight price. I may need to get up a bit earlier to get to Heathrow, but at least I'd get more leg-room in BA economy traveller than I would in standard class on the Eurostar for half the price.
But there's a nice way around this for people regularly travelling to France over a prolonged period. Those booking leisure tickets over the weekends have this option anyway. The trick is to book your tickets in reverse to take advantage of leisure fares coming in from the French side. So instead of booking London to Paris Monday to Friday, book Paris to London Friday to Monday. Makes a massive difference. For the same price (give or take 20 quid), you can get a seat in the first class (not premium first) carriages, where not only does the leg-room double, but seemingly, so does the seat size. Some shorter carriages are also available, and are generally quieter. You get your free business reading material (ok, so sometimes this includes the Daily Mail, but we'll glide over that point). Your meal is served to you by the extraordinarily polite customer service reps (and let's face it, the uniforms are much better than the airlines have come up with). The only time I've seen a rep on the verge of losing her rag with a customer was to someone who, frankly, should have had a bung put in his mouth anyway. And before you think 'yeah it's easy to recommend upgrading if you aren't paying for the ticket', I can categorically tell you that I was convinced enough to pay for it out of my own pocket when travelling for leisure.I have to say that although I prefer to book everything online as a rule, I soon realized that I was more likely to get exactly what I wanted if I called up the customer service line. These days, if you're booking non-business class tickets, you're more likely to be shuffled into the 'cattle' phone queuing system, but the response times were usually pretty good anyway, and you still got what you wanted. Need a seat around a table of 4? Want to travel backwards? Looking for a quiet carriage? Want to be booked in a high-numbered seat, where it's less likely to be crowded? You can get this - it's all done quickly, with the minimum of fuss, and you can collect your tickets in advance from the machines at the London end, or from the pretty efficient service desk at the French end.
Becoming a carte blanche member is relatively easy, and the Eurostar frequent traveller programme does seem to be more generous than say, British Airways (who'll do anything not to give you member points instead of the new miles). It's worth using the Paris members departure lounge, because that's where you'll find the funky seating, free nuts 'n' stuff. Don't eat too much because the food you get with any first class ticket is better than airline equivalents, and you will pretty much finish it all, esp if you've been on the run.I've no comment on the Waterloo lounge, as I've tended to check in, pass security and run onto the train via Costa Coffee. I believe the lounges are also available for use by premium first ticket holders whether they're frequent traveller members or not.
Now, if Eurostar need to pay more attention sooner rather than later, it's in getting the trains refurbished, because some are looking pretty old/scraggy to me. The effects of this are more noticeable in standard, because the colour scheme is a paler one, so you get to see every single stain that hasn't come out of the carpets and seating, etc. Nevertheless, even carpets and seating in first are looking increasingly worn, and the whole effect doesn't create the greatest impression when people are forking out a couple of hundred quid a pop.The next most irritating thing is getting through security. Paris used to be absolutely dreadful, because the queue used to worm its way back to the entry gates within seconds. This has been completely rearranged, so people don't immediately run into each other, but it still seems to take an age. London now has a bigger problem during pre-board rushes, where the security screening takes place around 5 metres away from the security gates, so people end up half in and half out of the departure lounge fairly rapidly. Yet, there's a massive gap between the x-ray machines and the French passport control booths.
If Eurostar could extend its service to more locations, or hook up more conveniently to other destinations, this is something I'd increasingly look to use as an alternative to air travel for holidays in Europe too. Currently, travelling to Geneva for ski-ing, say, is still too long/too much of a faff, but it would be so much easier not to see my baggage torn to death by the airporate baggage handlers, when I can dump it on the train myself. I found travelling by rail far less tiring than air (no variations in altitude/dehydration to deal with or the amount of walking around terminals) for comparable travel times.At the moment, I think Eurostar is a standard of service all the UK train companies should be looking towards, and that can't be a bad a thing. God, if we ever see that, I may begin to think that I'm dreaming. It probably struggles for custom because most people in the country are so depressed on normal trains, they've no idea what they're missing. Mind you, if Eurostar could persuade the track authorities to upgrade the mainlines up to Scotland to run the trains on, that wouldn't be a bad place to start, would it?
By the way, buying tickets to start in France is usually slightly cheaper because you also benefit from the French government subsidy for rail.
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