London to Barcelona, by train, in daylight hours

June 23rd, 2014 by J-P Leave a reply »

TGV, exterior We wrote back in February about the new TGV service from Paris to Barcelona. In early May, Kate and I had a chance to try it out. How was it?

In a word: great. We’ve been doing the journey London–Barcelona (well, Witney to Alcossebre) for a few years now, as my parents live out that way. Over a year ago, Kate blogged about the sleeper train options then available, and while we’ve always loved the sleeper, the TGV will now have an extra-special place in our hearts!

We still recommend Loco2 for booking trains, and The Man in Seat 61 for information about European rail in general, but specifically crossing Paris to make the connections. But there are other options, as we detailed previously, and hopefully the information below should also help to take some stress out of the journey for you, leaving the pleasure of the TGV behind.

(Witney to) London

Eurostar singles can be £35 per person, far enough in advance. Note that you need to plan to leave London early, to get the 2pm (Paris time) TGV. We opted to stay over in London with family, so as to comfortably make an 0830 Eurostar. Tracking back, you’d probably want to leave Witney on the first bus of the morning, at around 0545, to get an 0630 train and across London in good time for an 0800 check-in.

If you buy a “London International” train ticket from Oxford—you need to produce your Eurostar tickets at purchase and on demand during travel—then you’ll have at least some options if you miss a connection and it’s not your fault, under the international conditions of carriage (CIV). This ticket also includes an onward tube connection to anywhere in Zone 1: so Paddington to St Pancras, depositing you just below the Eurostar terminal and the signposting is pretty good up to the check-in desks.

Across Paris

You’ll need to change from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon (not Gare d’Austerlitz, where the sleeper is.) For this, you have to use the RER-D rather than the metro-5. They both leave from similar locations—under the GdN concourse—but the RER is a bit further to go, at both ends. Also, at GdL, you have to keep climbing, as it has several floors. Look for “Acces Grande Lignes”, and the station layout maps here might help.

Seat 61 is brilliant on this change. The best bit? A video of the 20-minute journey, edited down to 2 minutes. Follow his advice and it’s hard to go wrong.

In theory you can do this journey in 20-25 minutes. In practice, leave at least an hour: we left two hours, then had a drink in the Jazz Cafe (under the slightly-too-posh Train Bleu restaurant) and soaked up the atmosphere.

The TGV: Paris to Barcelona

TGV, interior The best bit! The TGVs are like double-decker Eurostars, with loads of space; from the top deck you get an amazing view: the foothills of the Alps around Dijon, the saltwater flats and bays near Narbonne, and the snowy Pyrenees overlooking Perpignan.

The journey was smooth and quiet, the carriages clean and comfortable, and the whole experience somewhat magical. At one point, near Carcassonne, we looked down from our windows to see a village square, peopled with old gentlemen playing petanque in the evening sun!

Single tickets on the TGV can be as cheap as EUR59, but note that the buffet car has a restricted choice of food. So pack snacks, books and water, and before you know it you’ll be in Spain! We left Paris just after 1400, and arrived in Barcelona Sants at 2040: six and a half hours.

Onward travel

At that time of night, there aren’t many local services still running. In the end we took the airport shuttle, where we met our long-suffering parents. It’s something we’re looking into so hopefully there’ll be another update later! If you’re willing to stay a night in Barcelona – no great hardship! – then local services to Benicarlo begin in earnest at 0930.

In total, our journey from door to door was about fourteen or fifteen hours. It sounds a lot compared to a plane flight but once you factor in getting to and from the airports, and going through security, and checking in well in advance, then the journey times start to become comparable. Certainly the train journey, if you leave plenty of time for connections, is much less stress on your body: the holiday starts at St Pancras!

And besides, compared to air travel, European rail is more civilized, welcoming and friendly. Security checks are minimal, packing requirements cursory. Stations and carriages are spacious, and you can get comfy if you’ve small children or mobility problems. You can bring your own food, and almost as much luggage as you can carry: in eight years I’ve never seen the limits enforced. And the lower environmental impact (perhaps 1/20 of flying’s CO2-equivalent emissions) makes journeys more sustainable, helping to secure a future for many more such trips.

Anyway, you should hopefully now have everything you need to plan your own trip. So have a pleasant journey: or is that bon voyage, or even buen viaje?

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