During a recent trip to England, I surprised my girls with a trip to Paris on the Eurostar, using the Chunnel to reach France by train.
What Is The Chunnel?
The desire to link England and France by train goes back more than a hundred years, though the development of the tunnel also called the “Chunnel” (Channel+Tunnel) opened on May 6th, 1994. The train tunnel linking British and French cities runs beneath the English Channel and begins near Dover, England, and returns to the surface near Calais, France. The train tunnel runs as deep as 250 feet under the surface and 115 feet under the seabed at its deepest points; it’s the longest underwater tunnel in the world.
Boring machines that built the three-track rail tunnel offer freight and passenger traffic as well as a service tunnel. High-speed train service allows Eurostar trains to make quick work of transiting between London and Brussels or Paris, reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour (though rail traffic is engineered to reach 140 MPH.)
During our annual trip to Manchester, England we were to depart from Brussels for our journey home. However, my daughter has been talking about Paris for months and when I saw the opportunity to add the stop to our trip home, I couldn’t pass it up. We had tickets to depart Europe from Brussels but a one-night stop in Paris would make their day.
We spent our time in Manchester and had to make our way down to London before ultimately departing for the continent. On the train, I gave them both a notebook with details of our trip on the train and they were both elated to return to Paris, even if it was just for one night.
Before my wife and I were married, I had traveled some including a trip I worked two jobs in high school to pay for that included a segment on the Chunnel. I hadn’t been back in more than 20 years, and this was my wife and daughter’s first time on the Eurostar. They were intrigued by the concept and it was another new experience.
Getting to St. Pancras Station
International rail departures from the UK depart from London St. Pancras Station (across from and sharing an underground walkways and metro station with King’s Cross station). One inconvenience of traveling the Eurostar from outside of London is that arrivals from elsewhere in the country nearly uniformly arrive at Euston station, a half mile away. That distance is a short 10-15 minute walk for a spritely solo traveler with a single rollaboard carry-on, but for a family with two weeks worth of luggage and a child – it’s a far longer distance.
We quickly got into a cab and made our way to the nearby station where we made our way to international departures. Though it seems obvious now, I had forgotten that there would be an extensive line, a check-in process, security, and transiting customs to officially enter France on British soil.
Check-In, Security, Customs, and Boarding
Business Class passengers have a quick and easy check-in process, and while it didn’t make sense for us to book it ($600 for our family of three vs $200), for a solo trip I would likely insist on it to avoid the crowds. Luckily, in Europe, families are prioritized and we were pulled out of the line and put through a check-in that was much quicker than the rest of the line but I wouldn’t risk it in the future and our transit time was tight.
Once our tickets were scanned, security and x-ray machines were immediately awaiting us. There is not ample room for the security process given the current requirements and the amount of technology each passenger carries. One passenger behind us in line said, “it’s worse than the airport.” Like him, I never thought I’d be lauding airport security for efficiency but here we are.
The boarding area for the Eurostar is rather impressive, especially for rail-deprived Americans. Though on the first floor of the station, there’s a surprising amount of light in the seating area. All-glass elevated moving walkways lead travelers to their train platform one level above, departures for Brussels and Paris were across from each other. We grabbed some sandwiches from Pret-A-Manger for the (just over) two-hour ride and boarded the train.
The Eurostar from London to Paris
We boarded the train with our extensive luggage though luckily there was plenty of space for our things. Seating in coach was 2×2, windows were large though my eight-year-old daughter had hoped she’d have more of an aquarium view when we went under the water.
I made my way to the dining car for some better views and while I can’t speak to the food offered onboard, I do recommend getting up for a walk-around and a better view. Wifi was provided on board but the signal was weak and inconsistent, our phones worked better.
Other than the novelty of taking the Chunnel specifically, the journey was utilitarian. It could have been any train anywhere in the world and that was somewhat disappointing.
Arrival into Paris Gare du Nord
The station was under construction in Paris and we arrived just after 6 pm. As the platform had construction taking place leaving the station took an extended amount of time. Signage suggested the station would be under construction until 2024. Barbed wire fences at the top of the partition made it feel more like a war zone than the city of lights.
We didn’t want to fuss with Uber at the train station with all of our luggage, we bolted for a cab. One of the first pieces of advice I give travelers to Bangkok is that if a driver tells you the price to your destination in advance or doesn’t start a meter, they are breaking the law and you should get out of the cab. We loaded our things into a cab in Paris and he told us an astronomical rate for the 8-mile drive to our hotel (€60 – a nice even number) then began finger-punching his meter until the rate had started so escalate quickly. I pulled up Uber before we were a block away and pointed to the screen.
“It’s €18 on Uber.” He began getting a little testy, as I expected he would, and stated that we had four people (we had three but frankly, our luggage could have counted as a person.) I pointed to the screen where it clearly shows up to four people for the €18 rate and we pulled over.
We emptied our things, he went to the back of the queue to rip off someone else while our Uber driver arrived, helpful, pleasant, and without incident off to our hotel (review upcoming, not this one.) Uber exists because of taxi drivers like that. Word to the wise: consult Uber and compare before taking a cab and if you take a cab, make sure they use the meter without the adjustments to the rate.
I surprised my wife and daughter with a trip to Paris on the Eurostar through the Chunnel. The experience was just ok outside of the novelty but it was great to add another travel experience to our repertoire.
What do you think? Have you taken the Eurostar before? How was your experience?