Over the past week, passengers travelling from Paris to London via Eurostar over the past week have had long wait times of up to 6 hours at Gare du Nord due to French Customs staff working to rule.
Why are French customs staff working-to-rule?
Simple answer is, no-one’s quite sure as to the exact reasoning behind this, though there are two main theories – understaffing in the event of a no-deal Brexit and pay/working conditions. In reality, I suspect it’s a mix of the two. This article by France24 outlines these possible reasons in much more detail.
Avoiding Eurostar from Paris – the options!
This, for me, raises a more interesting question though which is what I’m going to unpack further in this article – let’s just assume for a minute that these strikes continued indefinitely and people started getting fed up with the queues only getting longer, how would you get from Paris to London avoiding the queues at short notice?
A Lille diversion…
The obvious first choice at the moment is to go via Lille to London – essentially the exact same route the Eurostar takes but with the first leg via TGV. There are regular TGV services leaving Paris to Lille through the day, roughly once an hour, at around £25-£30 one-way in advance looking at (the excellent) Loco2, even if booked the night before departure – reasonable if Eurostar will accept the original ticket for onward travel. At the time of publishing this article, Eurostar weren’t officially passing tickets, but there have been some success stories of people trying this route and not having any issues.
But what if Eurostar wasn’t running at all, or the queues in Lille mimicked those of the Paris services currently? Interestingly, the latter may soon become relevant, Eurostar are worried about overcrowding at Lille which is why they haven’t yet officially sanctioned Paris customers to travel this way- the only way Lille is coping is due to the low number of passengers relative to Paris.
Well, I’d fly – what a silly question!
You might think that flying from one of Paris’ two main international airports would be the obvious choice here, but – with the Eurostar disrupted – everyone would have the same idea! For example, let’s have a look at availability for Paris – London flights for tomorrow (I’m writing this at around 7pm on 19th March, looking at any Paris – London flights available tomorrow, 20th March):
That’s right – a total of 3 flights available between any London airport and Paris tomorrow, starting at £143 one way – not cheap, especially when you have to add bags on top of that. When you consider that most Eurostar travellers pay well under £100 (some as low as £30-40) one way, including a bag, that’s a significant uplift in cost for most. To put that into context, on a random weekday in June, Skyscanner offers me around 30 flights starting from £26 one way.
It’s worth noting here that due to the dominance of Eurostar on the London-Paris route, a majority of airlines have cut back on their flights, as they were having a hard time filling the planes with people/cargo to the point at which the flight becomes profitable for the airline. As such, direct Paris-London flights are significantly lower in number than even just a few years ago.
So, direct flights are out – could I fly indirect?
Good question! Not really viable on the French side – you’d have to go a long way south or east (Probably to Lyon or by crossing the border into Belgium/Germany and flying from there) to get to a non-Paris airport with direct rail links to the capital and flights to the UK.
However! What is well worth looking at is flying from Paris to a regional UK airport then taking a rail connection to London or your final destination. With tomorrow (20th March) again used as an example here, a quick look gets me a flight to Southampton for 2 people at £56 each, far lower than the £150+ per person quoted for London flights.
A rail-air single from Southampton Airport to London Waterloo is a fixed price of £34 – so even factoring in bags, you’re probably looking at a total per-person cost of under £120 – a good £40 saving on flying direct and only a couple of hours longer to London vs a direct flight (possibly the same time or less if you live in the west or south of the UK!). Prices to get into London from other regional UK airports such as Birmingham or Southend are likely to be similar (or less in some cases), so these may be good options too.
All the flights are fully booked, even to other UK airports! What now?
The UK is an island nation – so without using Eurostar or an aircraft, the only way of getting there as someone without a car is by using a ferry to get you across the English Channel. From Paris, by far the most sensible route is via TGV/TER (regional train) to Calais, then a hop over the water to Dover and onwards to London.
From Paris, direct trains run every couple of hours to Calais Ville, with trains tomorrow currently available for around £30 via Loco2 – it’s a short taxi ride to the ferry port. You can then board a Calais-Dover P&O Ferries service, for a fixed short-notice cost of £30 per person, to Dover, followed by another short taxi ride to Dover Priory station for a train into London. The train Dover-London will set you back around another £25, or £33 if you want to take a high-speed train and save yourself an hour or so in journey time.
The downside of this route is, of course, the time it takes – it’ll probably take you the best part of a day to get home and with a total cost of around £110 once you factor in the taxi fares to/from the ports so not much of a cost saving vs flying in some cases- though it may make more sense than flying anyway if you happen to live on the Kent coast, with the bonus of being able to see a lot more of France, albeit at 300km/h!
Which is best?
At the moment, if you don’t want to join the hours-long queues at Gare du Nord, I’d probably suggest going via TGV to Lille and arguing your case. I haven’t yet heard of anyone being turned away with a Paris-London ticket (and have heard of a few successes!), though officially this isn’t permitted. Worst case, you could just hop on another TGV to Calais from Lille and continue via the ferry option.
Otherwise, if speed is of the essence over everything else, or you’re lucky enough to have travel insurance that covers the additional cost with a minimal excess, flying is a no-brainer. But for most people (unless you’ve got a fairly high premium, you’re likely to have a hefty excess) I’d probably say the first thing to look at is flying into a regional airport – I used Southampton in the above example as it was the best by far that I could find today specifically, but I’ve also seen last minute cheap fares in the past into Birmingham and Southend, for example.
Unless you’ve got a particular sense of adventure, have lots of time on your hands for the journey (I do find travelling by land less stressful sometimes, plus you could stop and have a wander round Calais on route, for example!), or you simply don’t like flying, I’d consider the train/ferry combination to be a last resort, though not particularly unpleasant! (The Club Lounge upgrade on P&O’s newer cross-Channel ferries – £12 at the time of writing – is well worth it in my opinion, by the way…)
What would you do?
I’d be interested to hear in the comments which route you would take (or indeed, perhaps have taken!) – or indeed if there’s any I’ve missed! It’d also be great to hear thoughts from anyone who’s been caught up in the current disruption.