Updated: Oct 4
A travel day to my part-time home in Spain almost always includes a mixture of planes, trains, automobiles and public transportation. It's a long day. But, long days yield many options for types of travel, so we like to keep it fresh and do it differently every time we go abroad from the States.
Flying into the UK through Gatwick, it's very easy to take a direct (with stops) train to London St. Pancras, where the fun of riding Eurostar's underwater chunnel train begins. With destinations to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, the train can take a couple hours to nearly four hours, depending on the final destination.
For this trip, we took the London to Paris underwater train. Here's what it was like and what to expect.
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Booking and Seating
Book tickets directly on the Eurostar website at Eurostar.com.
Be aware that you may change and assign your seat for free at any time before boarding, so assign what you like early!
Considerations to make include:
Sitting facing the direction of travel or away from the direction of travel
Sitting at a table or in row seating
Sitting with companions
Also, if you are considering booking a free lap child, I strongly urge you to book that child a seat. We often travel by train in Spain and find that we get by with shorter trips and empty seats. In the case of Eurostar, the seats are almost always full or sold out, and wrangling a small child with strangers beside you will be no small feat. Book your child a seat, you won’t regret it.
Other booking considerations:
Bookings can be changed up to 7 days in advance of travel
Consider commute time to St. Pancras from your starting point (if it is London Gatwick, Stansted, Heathrow or otherwise), ensuring there is enough time for security and check-in
What to Expect at London St. Pancras
Upon arriving at St. Pancras station in central London, it was clear that finding a sit-down restaurant would be a bit of a challenge. Although part of the rush of people busily commuting this way and that, I only noticed cafe’s and quick service take-away places. Since we had several hours to kill, we stepped outside to find somewhere to eat.
Certainly with some research we could have found just about anything, since King’s Cross Station is directly adjacent, but instead our jet lagged bodies schlepped about 100 feet away to the nearest outdoor terrace restaurant, called GNH Bar.
A lovely open air area greeted us, along with a modest menu of things like sandwiches, cheese platters and of course, fish and chips. Being tourists in the UK for only a few hours, fish and chips were a must and they did not disappoint.
Having a moment to rest from the station chaos was welcomed, but we finished early and felt perhaps we could check in early.
Should you require snacks for the ride, there is a M+S (Marks and Spencer) convenience store next to the check-in lanes, perfect for a last minute food souvenir (I picked up some crumpets) and also for whatever you need on-board the train.
The Eurostar Check-In Process
About 1.5 hours early, we noticed that since the trains essentially leave hourly, we were unable to report for our train until the appropriate check-in window opened. This is typically about one hour before your train departure time.
Inside St. Pancras you will find signs for the International Trains, this is where you need to be. There you will see two lines - one for Paris, one for Brussels. There are many destinations with Eurostar, but these are the two primary/direct lines. Wait for the sign with your destination and travel time.
Note: If you are there early and wanting to board an earlier train, this is not possible for free. We waited at the customer service desk to learn our options, but were told that it would cost about 45 GBP per person to change the time. Keep this in mind.
Your best bet is to wait for your time to be called and line up. This begins the security and customs process.
Security and Customs
Frequently asked questions:
Can I bring liquids on board the Eurostar train?: Yes! Load up on snacks and drinks at the nearby M+S (Marks and Spencer) convenience store. Bring water, soda, alcohol, whatever you want.
Can I bring alcohol onboard the Eurostar train?: Yes! We got a great deal on 3 canned gin & tonics for 10 GBP. With seemingly no A/C on board, these cold beverages were a treat.
Do I need my passport to travel from London to Paris?: Yes! Bring your passport, same as you would at the airport.
How long should I plan for security and customs?: Plan for about 10-20 minutes to get through security and customs.
Are there facilities after going through security and customs?: Yes, you can find toilets, take-away meal and snack options, water filling stations and seating.
Expect to wait about 30 minutes or so in the waiting area, and you will have to fight for seating until the next train departs. 1-2 trains worth of people will be waiting in the lounge area at the same time, so expect it to be very crowded.
TVs will display platform numbers when it is time to board. Follow the signs to the platform boarding areas.
Your ticket should have a coach/car number and seat number. Find your car and get seated in a timely manner.
Expect about 10-15 minutes of boarding time before the train departs once the platform number is posted.
Onboard the Eurostar Train from London to Paris
Is there food onboard the Eurostar train?
Yes, there is a cafe car full of options. You can find alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages, snacks, even hot meals.
The cafe car is standing room only but is a great place to enjoy time away from your coach seat, and for large unimpeded views of the passing countryside.
For an idea of the menu and options, review the slideshow of photos below.
What are the seats like onboard the Eurostar train?
Standard seating is comfortable, but a little tight. We opted for the table seating, of which there are two tables per car. Seating four per table, we had five at ours because of our very wriggly three year old ‘lap child’.
Tables are narrow but can be extended per seat for added space. Hopefully you know your table mates, because those sitting across from each other will have knee-to-knee coziness. I overheard the neighboring table having to politely find the best arrangement for their knees so they wouldn’t knock each other regularly. A little awkward.
Seats face both front and backward, so if you are like me and feel a little nauseated by the idea of traveling backwards to the direction of travel, be sure to change your seating in advance for free to your liking. This can be done online by logging in with your confirmation number.
How are the toilets?
An odd question, perhaps, but something I always like to know. The facilities are quite spacious and clean enough.
There is not much issue with using the loo on a high speed train and unless you are not steady on your feet. There’s ample paper and such, so no worries about Always Packing Tissues there! ;-)
Can I Walk Freely Around the Train?
Yes, but certain classes are cut off from other classes. You’ll know because you’ll hit a dead end at the cafe car.
The only thing is, between each car there is basically a lock system, like in a channel, for pressurization or noise, I would assume. Simply approach the inner door connecting the cars and manually lift up on the handle, hard.
I found myself in a near panic when I couldn’t open one of the doors, sandwiched between two of these interior green doors and unable to get through. Just pull up hard if it doesn’t give right away.
Is There Air Conditioning or Heating?
Short answer is probably yes, but I have to say that even in September, the train was sweltering. With the sheer amount of people our car felt like a hot box. My advice? Bring cold beverages (we brought cold gin & tonic, yum) or get some air in the cafe car.
I found a cozy spot beside a blustering A/C vent and chilled out there for quite awhile.
Is it Scary Going Underwater?
Nope! You won’t even know you are underwater. The only indication of it will be a long bout of blackness. For about 10 or 15 minutes you will see only black out the windows, much like when you travel through any other tunnel in a train.
Rest assured that there is actually an ‘escape’ tunnel somewhere built down there as well, not that you will ever need it. My husband told me this - so don’t count on my retelling it properly, but my understanding is that when the chunnel (channel tunnel) was built, there were three tunnels made. One for cars, one for the train, and one as the emergency tunnel.
Just don’t watch Daylight, the 1996 movie about a fictional tunnel collapse, before you ride.
What Is It Like Arriving in Paris?
After a relatively uneventful ride (about 2.5 hours), arriving in Paris you can simply walk off the train. You have already cleared customs in London, so you’re good to go.
Stepping off the train, the terminal is straight forward, offering taxi and subway options. We selected to stay at a nearby hotel in the Paris Gare du Nord and 10th Arrondissement neighborhood, which was a wonderful option, especially for weary travelers.
Taking the Eurostar Train vs. Flying: Which is Better?
Personally, after a long day of traveling from the US, taking a train always feels like the better choice. Being outside in the fresh air, having the liberty to wander about, and having a little bit of wiggle room in my day is a great thing.
In airports you are constrained by what amenities are in the terminal or beyond a checkpoint, you will more than likely face strict bag rules, and undoubtedly delays. Trains are seemingly never late, unless you are fated to a rail strike, flooding, or downed log on a track (I've experienced all three!).
Then of course in airports and planes there’s the announcements, the waiting, the taxiing, the boarding and deplaning, etc and so forth. It’s all so routine.
Why not try something just a little different and take the chunnel train? We did, and we would do it again.