The train to Spain is better than the plane

August 19th, 2012 by Kate Griffin Leave a reply »

How do you lead a sustainable life and still travel to other countries? Aviation is often the elephant in the room: people who work very hard to reduce their carbon footprint are tempted to turn a blind eye when it comes to foreign travel, partly because it seems as if there’s no alternative. There often is – it’s just not as well-known as the flying option.

Most of my journeys abroad are to Spain, to visit my husband’s parents, and we always go by train. I’ve decided to blog about my own experience so that more people will understand what’s involved and realise it is a valid option.

How much does it cost to go to Spain by train?

When I tell people I’m travelling to Spain by train, the first question is always: “How much does it cost?” so I’ll deal with that first. A return journey from London to Barcelona usually costs us about £320 per person. You can often get the costs down to under £250 per person, but as ever it’s a trade-off between cost, convenience and comfort.

How do you do it?

There’s a sleeper train between Paris and Barcelona which leaves between 8pm and 9pm and arrives between 8am and 9am the following morning. To get to Paris in the first place, the Eurostar is your best bet. The Eurostar arrives in Paris at the Gare du Nord station and the sleeper leaves Paris from the Austerlitz station, so you will need to travel across Paris. We usually get the Metro, but it’s also possible to get a taxi.

My husband and I usually choose a Eurostar train that’s scheduled to arrive in Paris at least four hours before the sleeper train is due to leave. That means that if the Eurostar is late, we’ll probably still be in good time to catch the sleeper. But the Eurostar is usually on time, giving us a lovely free afternoon to wander around Paris before catching the train.

There is a place to leave luggage (for a small fee) at the Gare Austerlitz, so you can explore Paris without having to drag a heavy case. Then it’s just a question of heading back to the station, finding your room on the sleeper and watching the Paris skyline speed past the windows before going to sleep. When you wake up, you’ll be in a different country.

Booking

You can now book the whole London-Barcelona journey through a clever new website called Loco2. I’ve tried lots of different ways to book this particular journey and I think Loco2 is by far the easiest site I’ve used (although it’s still not perfect). However, Loco2 currently doesn’t let you specify how much time to leave between the two legs of the journey (London-Paris and Paris-Barcelona). For that reason, I tend to book the London-Paris bit directly through the Eurostar website, then use Loco2 just for the Paris-Barcelona sleeper.

I’ve written a detailed summary of all the different booking options for Paris-Barcelona but my take-home message from that is that Loco2 is probably the best, whether you’re booking London-Barcelona or just Paris-Barcelona.

How should I spend my night on the sleeper?

Unless you’re booking at the last minute, you’ll almost certainly get a choice of how you travel on the sleeper. The cheapest option is usually either a bed in a four-berth sleeper or a reclining seat.

We’ve tried the reclining seats once and it made for an uncomfortable night. You’re in a carriage with rows of these seats, so there isn’t much privacy or peace.

My husband and I usually book a two-berth sleeper, which means we get a whole room to ourselves. Last time we did this it cost us about £129 per person each way, so about £258 per person return.

The pricest option is usually the double sleeper with shower. When you book this, you get dinner and breakfast thrown in.

Sometimes it’s possible to book a single sleeper room, but these are expensive (the dreaded “single supplement” again) and tend to sell out quickly.

WARNING: some booking sites offer a “first-class” option which seems alluringly – suspiciously – cheap. This does NOT mean a cabin. FIRST-CLASS ACTUALLY MEANS A RECLINING SEAT. It’s incredibly misleading to describe the least comfortable option as “first-class”, but the only thing you as the customer can do about it is a) to remember what I’ve just told you and avoid being fooled into booking the wrong thing and b) complain to the booking sites until they change their terminology.

I’m on a budget. How can I do this more cheaply?

You can save cash by:

  • Booking in advance. Both London-Paris and Paris-Barcelona tickets can be bought about three months in advance of your journey.
  • Leaving London early on your outward journey. You might get a Eurostar for less than £35 if you’re prepared to get up at the crack of dawn for one that leaves around 8:30am. Then you’ll be hanging round in Paris for your sleeper – but is it really a hardship to have a few free hours in Paris?
  • Booking a “non-flexible” Eurostar ticket. These are always cheaper but the disadvantage is that you can’t get a refund or change it if you change your mind.
  • Going for the less luxurious sleeper options. These are usually a bed in a four-berth cabin (shared with strangers unless you’re booking with three friends) or a reclining seat. There’s less comfort and privacy, but it’s good to have those cheaper options if every penny counts.

How long does it take?

For me personally, it tends to involve a full 24 hours of travelling because we need to allow at least four hours to get to London Pancras in the first place. So we would usually leave our house in Witney some time after 8am on Day 1 and arrive in Barcelona before 9am on Day 2.  I should repeat that our 24-hour “journey” almost always involves a few hours of sightseeing in Paris as well as a night’s sleep!

Anything else I should know?

  • When you’re crossing Paris on the Metro, you’ll need Line 5. I would allow at least an hour for this part of the journey.
  • If you book a bed in a four-berth cabin, you’ll be allocated one with people of the same sex. Unfortunately, this also means that if a mixed-sex couple are travelling together and both want beds in a four-berth cabin, they will be allocated separate cabins. But if you buy four tickets for a four-berth cabin in the same booking – in other words, if you book out the whole cabin – you can have whatever mixture of genders you like. (If you think that’s confusing, pointless or discriminatory, please take it up with the train companies!)
  • Almost all the train staff on the sleeper service, whether they’re French or Spanish, speak at least some English.
  • If you’ve booked a two-berth room, this will have two chairs in it when you board the train. As night-time approaches, train staff come round and put away the chairs and pull the bunk beds down from the wall. They’ll do the same thing in reverse in the morning. You don’t have to work out how to do it yourself.
  • There is no extra charge for baggage. The only real limit on your luggage is how much you can carry and how much you can squeeze into the space available.
  • There are security procedures for train travellers but these will be quite relaxed compared to what air travellers are used to.
  • If you’ve splashed out on a double sleeper room with shower, I mentioned above that you get dinner free with this. You also get a free half-bottle of wine each! I’ve done this once and perhaps I’m easily impressed, but speeding through Paris at night with a glass of wine in my hand made me feel very special indeed.

This post was edited on 7th January 2013 to reflect the fact that you can now book London-Barcelona as one journey if you wish and to include a link to a more recent post detailing booking options.

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5 comments

  1. Dale Hoyland says:

    Thank you for such an interesting article; with such detail and I love your personal experiences, thoughts and comments thrown in. I think I might actually, one day, follow this course as it’s really got me thinking… I’ve only ever once taken a plane anywhere due to the carbon-cost (and that was a field-trip as part of my MSc course at university). When I visited Rome and Venice in Italy a couple of years ago, I took my car over in order to avoid the plane. We drove down through France, over the Swiss Alps with lots of blockages as I went in avalanche season, with a car-train through the last mountain, emerging in beautiful Italy. This meant lots of opportunity for sight-seeing along the way, camping out in deep snow on the Alps, and hiking whenever we felt like it – things that would all have been lost by plane.

    But this was a lot of driving, therefore emissions (although hopefully better then flying, as there were four passengers in the car), and time. Going by train seems a good future option to try if I have a particular destination in mine, now that you’ve convinced me that it can be done, with a little planning!

    More experiences of great eco-travel options like this would be appreciated, and I may be in touch in the future Kate for further tips if this goes ahead…
    Thanks so much again :)

    • J-P says:

      Good luck! I would really go for it if I were you; the “two-bed cabin, no ensuite” option is a good compromise between comfort/wanting to do it again versus carbon footprint/cost. And even if you don’t go first class, you can go to the restaurant and drink red wine while Paris recedes behind you.

      Don’t be surprised if you’re nervous booking it. I would say: Kate and I have done this same Spanish trip maybe eight or ten times, to visit family. The first time we booked it was nervewracking, and so you shouldn’t worry if you’re nervous too. But every time it gets easier, and Loco2 definitely improved the experience this time round, and were really great to deal with. It has now tipped into being really exciting fun every time.

      If you want more quantitative information, here’s our itinerary from 2010. This could have been (and in some ways was) one of our worst journeys – we started it on the very weekend of the pre-Christmas snowpocalypse. But the 4h20 wait in Paris completely, totally saved our bacon, and in the end we got to Barcelona fine, snowpocalypse or no snowpocalypse.

      If you’re going any time of year outside winter, then you’re probably fine making that Paris connection tighter – the M5 from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz (direction Place d’Italie) is around nine, and can take as little as twenty-five minutes. On a recent work trip, we took thirty people across Paris and managed it in a slightly nervous 35-40 minutes.

    • Kate Griffin says:

      Thanks for your positive comments, Dale. I was already thinking of doing some follow-up posts with extra info and now you’ve encouraged me!

  2. peter.lefort says:

    Thanks for this Kate! I’ve just had to buy my tickets to Barcelona for November, and this was invaluable. Very excited about it now, and I’ve given myself plenty of breathing space in Paris and Barcelona.

    • J-P says:

      Brilliant. Glad Kate started a trend. I would say that seat61.com and Loco2 between them do let you book routes *other* than to Barcelona… :)

      If you’re stuck in Paris, on the way out, and you’re after something straightforward to do and some good vegetarian food, I recommend:

      * Leave your luggage at Gare d’Austerlitz as suggested, so it’s right near your train
      * From the left luggage, go away from the station and cross into the Jardin des Plantes.
      * Stroll through the Jardin to the opposite corner, through the leafy bit round a small hillock
      * Then take the Rue Lacepede up the hill to the Place de la Contrescarpe.

      There you’ll find a beautiful fountain in a little cobbled square, and loads of Lebanese / Greek / Turkish restaurants serving falafel, hummous and salad-based amazingness.

      If you’ve got some time, I would spend it there; maybe go down the Rue Monge if there’s a market on and buy some cherries for the sleeper!

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