Tour-specific rail travel advice
For the 2021, 2022 and now 2023 season a page has been prepared for each tour giving information on travel times, costs and routes and where to buy tickets for train travel to that specific tour (also for bus, car and carshare). This can be found here. For other more general ideas, read on.
In recent years I've become an enthusiast for continental train travel. This not only gives me a warm (wrong word, really) feeling about doing my bit to limit climate change, but it's also a lot more pleasurable than flying or driving:
- more leg and elbow-room in the seats (though they run on the same gauge track as British ones, the carriages are substantially larger, and sometimes double-decker)
- often a fair number of empty seats allowing you to spread about a bit
- something actually to look at through the window
- opportunities to get up and walk to the buffet car
- no waiting for baggage
- few security hassles
- shorter connections
- possibility of popping out of the station to see a nearby church, or to get a decent meal at a local cafe on longer connections).
- if a delay means that you miss a connection, there's usually another train you can take in and hour or so, whereas there may only be one or two flights a day
This page gives a few hints and examples, to supplement the detailed information for different destinations that is available here. It also discusses a few potential issues and dismisses a couple of myths.
A recent (11 Dec 2019) article in the New Statesman also sings the praises of European rail travel.
Doesn't it take much longer and cost a lot more?
OK - trains don't go as fast as planes, but you avoid a lot of getting to and waiting around at airports, and the train usually takes you a lot closer to your destination, which makes the overall time more comparable.
Starting from London, and even from further afield, it's generally possible to get to the closer parts of the Alps comfortably in a day; one club member regularly gets from North Wales to a hotel at Sierre in the Rhone valley with an early start and late finish. And unless you're keen on spending 12-15 hours at the wheel, supported by intravenous coffee, it's difficult to get to the alps in a single day by car.
A couple of years ago I got an 0947 train home from the Argentiere meet and was in Sheffield by 11 that night, with 90-minute stopovers in Paris and London (plenty of time for meals).
On another occasion I had a delightful lunch at a pavement cafe opposite Grenoble station before wandering across the road ten minutes before my train was due, all the while exchanging texts with my touring colleagues, as they progressed from check-in queue to bag-drop queue to security queue to boarding queue, and I was on the tube at St Pancras only an hour or so later than they finally got out of the Manchester airport long-stay carpark.
Journey times by road, rail and bus are provided for each tour on the tour-specific travel pages.
www.bahn.co.uk gives you journey times from your nearest railway station in Britain through to any station in continental Europe, plus to bus stops in Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
Booked ahead, fares can be extremely competitively priced: €39 for Paris to Turin, for example, or €80 for Brussels to Innsbruck. Bear in mind too that you don't have to pay for your skis. For fares that cross Germany but start and finish in other countries (e.g. Belgium to Switzerland), some great fares are available at www.bahn.co.uk 4 months in advance. French railways SNCF puts cheap fares on sale 6 months in advance, as does Eurostar.
If you are going to travel moderately regularly by train in continental Europe, both SNCF and Germany Railways offer 25-30% discount cards available to all travellers at a cost of €40 to €50 a year.
What about more distant trips?
Of course it isn't always possible to get all the way to a resort in a day, especially if you're starting from further north. Splitting the journey over two days can make it more relaxing, and even give the opportunity to combine a ski trip with a brief city break.
Websites like hotels.com, booking.com and airbnb.co.uk can be used to find cheap accommodation close to stations - and it may be worth taking a local commuter train a short distance out of the more expensive centres to find somewhere more reasonably-priced.
Sleeper trains offer another option, combining accommodation with progress towards your destination, and getting you there first thing in the morning. Unfortunately neither the traditional Paris to Bourg St Maurice, nor the Paris to Munich sleeper service any longer operate, but there are sleepers from Paris to Italy and from Cologne to Innsbruck (in fact from Brussels to Innsbruck from January 2020).
There is a direct overnight Eurostar ski train from St Pancras to Bourg St Maurice, but it has just ordinary Eurostar carriages, with no couchettes (and non-reclining seats) and if that hasn't put you off enough, there's no alcohol allowed either! Better to take the direct daytime ski train (winter Saturdays only) or change in Paris.
Luggage and Security
One advantage of train travel is that there are no hidden charges for bags, skis etc - you just keep your luggage with you all the time (though there are rather expensive ways of getting it transferred to your final destination). A lot of continental trains have special ski racks and if not, a ski bag generally fits quite well on the overhead racks, though you might need to shuffle a couple of other passengers' bags about a bit if you're not the first to board.
There are generally no security checks except for Eurostar, and even those are a lot less hassly than the airports - you just shove everything through the X-ray machine, and pick it up the other side, before passport control. No rules about 100ml of liquid, and I've even seen people taking through cups of coffee bought before security. You do both lots of passport control at the departure station, so you can just get off the train at the other end and go (useful for tight connections).
Is there a problem with ice-axes and crampons?
In 2022 the Eagles, Alpine Club, BMC and Mountaineering Scotland wrote to Eurostar to change its policy on ice axes and crampons, which up until then were listed under prohibited sports equipment. As a result, Eurostar now request that "any passenger carrying this kind of equipment makes themselves known to a member of the Eurostar team in the station on arrival so that they can ensure the smooth passage through the security/baggage check".
Eurostar have issued briefings and updates on this matter to their security teams but a copy of the 2022 clarification is attached, in case members wished to access and show a positive statement from Eurostar confirming that ice axes and mountaineering equipment are allowed for travel.
Getting Across Paris
One deterrent to train travel is the need to change stations in Paris. Eurostar arrives at Gare du Nord, while trains to the French (and western Swiss) Alps go from Gare de Lyon. The transfer is actually pretty simple - just two stops on the RER underground train, and frankly it takes less time than getting between terminals at some airports. The wonderful Man in Seat 61 even has a video showing you how to do it. A good trick is to buy RER tickets on the Eurostar (in the buffet car) so you don't have to fight with the coin machines in Paris - get one for the return journey too. It's a good idea to visit the buffet car early, as they sometimes run out of tickets. (It seems that they're going to be phasing these tickets out in summer 2020, replacing them with a pay-as-you-go Oyster card type system).
One member has reported that TGVs from Geneva (and probably other places) to Paris are sometimes delayed, so it may be an idea not to book the shortest possible connection for the Eurostar - if booking using RailEurope you can specify a stop-off time in Paris so that it selects an appropriate connection. And if everything runs on schedule, you've got time for an extra glass of wine with your dinner.
Trains to Germany go from Gare de l'Est, which is five or ten minutes walk from Gare du Nord - the street between them (rue des deux Gares) has a several cafes and restaurants, and is thus a good stop-off point.
The station transfer problem is solved altogether if you go via Brussels, where everything happens at Midi (otherwise known as Zuid) station. Similarly, changing at Lille (which many, though not all Eurostar trains stop at) and by-passing Paris avoids the problem - some of the onward trains at Lille go from Lille's "other" station, Lille Flandres, which is a 5-minute walk - the Man in Seat 61 has all the details.
This website has a guide to low carbon travel for 2023 ski tour destinations. The Man in Seat 61 website is an absolute goldmine of information about train travel almost anywhere in the world, and the Rome2Rio website also has information about connecting bus routes etc.
I've found the RailEurope (formerly loco2) website generally pretty good for booking trains (including Eurostar), though unfortunately they've just introduced a booking fee, so other options like the relevant national operators may be slightly cheaper, if less simple and convenient.
It can sometimes be an idea to do a bit of "trial and error" using different options for stations to change at, in order to find the cheapest fares. Continental train tickets usually go on sale between 2 and 4 months in advance (the man in seat 61 has more detaied information), and if you subscribe to the RailEurope website, they send you useful (and not too frequent) e-mails telling you when booking is about to open for some popular routes.
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