I don't think I would be alone when I say I have always considered the aeroplane the default option when travelling abroad: it is fast and it is convenient with only some minor drawbacks. Recently however I have experienced the Eurostar, the London to mainland train link that will take you under the Chunnel (Channel Tunnel) and directly to France, Belgium or the Netherlands. But how does it stack up? I am going to breakdown my experience with each, including a rough overview of times taken and at the end I will sum up how I think they compare
But first, the price...
I'm not really going to dig too deep into prices - in my particular instance the aeroplane was cheaper but that will not be true for all customers. First I generally fly budget for short-haul flights but I also fly from one of two airports within 30-50 miles of where I live. By comparison, London St Pancras, the primary Eurostar station, is roughly 140 miles away so it requires a substantial train journey on top - if I hadn't needed this extra train journey the prices for the Eurostar would have probably been cheaper. By the same logic: had I been flying from a London airport, the prior travel would have brought the price up to a similar level. Ultimately the price for the Eurostar will vary massively depending on whether you're local to a starting terminal and how far you need to travel after arrival. Although as a bonus you can get onwards travel covered by your Eurostar ticket in some instances, for example my ticket covered any station in Belgium after arriving at Brussels.
On the train
5am. We bundled up to protect us against the the cold as we waited for the bus - luckily they run early enough otherwise we would have needed a taxi. Unluckily, as often is the case in the UK, the first bus didn't show up. Due to meeting up with other people we have to grab an extra train before heading to London, but it happens to be the train that would continue on to London anyway. The longer haul trains operated by Virgin are comfortable and spacious enough, but you won't be checking any 20kg suitcases so anything you are taking on holiday needs to either fit on your lap, at your feet or on the overhead shelf. Luckily trains don't have the same restrictions on what you can keep at your feet so you can make it work - as I was only travelling for the weekend I packed everything into a 30L hiking bag and kept it at my feet the entire way.
Most modern train-stations have plenty of eateries and stores to grab a snack and a book/magazine for the journey, and unfortunately for us it will be necessary: the journey to London will take longer than the Eurostar itself.
Arriving in London we had a short walk to St Pancras station, another excellently equipped station to get what you need. Check in and security were a breeze, the queues flowed quickly and the checks were as simple as swiping a passport in the automated scanner and passing through a metal detector. Staff we're friendly and helpful, even as I forgot to remove my watch for the metal detector. The whole process was quick and we went from arrival to departure in under an hour.
The train was comfortable, clean and spacious. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the return journey as we found ourselves on
what I can only assume to be the original Eurostar train; this old beast
was noisy, cramped, dirty and hopefully soon for the scrapheap. The food offered on board was surprisingly good, and while not the cheapest it was only as expensive as what you would find on a plane. We chugged along while near major settlements but once in the countryside we really got up to some speed - admittedly not nowhere near as fast as a plane but plenty enough that the journey didn't feel too sluggish. The tunnel itself was a fun experience, the windows plunge to black just like any other tunnel but it just keeps on going and going - you get used to it quite quickly and roughly 20 minutes later you'll emerge in France. The route had a few stops a long the way but the stops aren't any longer than a typical train and before we knew it we were in Brussels.
For me, this is where the journey really took a turn for the worse. When we arrived a Brussels we headed to the Bruges platform, unfortunately so did everyone else as not only was a good portion of the traffic heading to Bruges, it was also the main train connection to Ghent. The Eurostar is a goliath train, according to Wikipedia it held 16 cars and they were mostly fully loaded - The train to Bruges? 4 cars, without air-conditioning or any real air flow. You don't have to have been there to understand just how uncomfortable it became. Every seat was taken, we were standing in the aisle along the full length of the train shoulder pressed to shoulder - we stayed this way until Ghent where most people were able to squeeze into seats as people departed and it finally began to cool down to a reasonable temperature.
GETTING TO LONDON: Time from the Midlands to London: 4 hours
~5:30am at the Bus stop to ~9:30am getting off the train in London
This is a little extreme for a few reasons. Firstly, the bus was quite late. Admittedly, buses are always late in Britain but I thought the lack of traffic at 5am might have fixed that, but no such luck. Plus, we had to make an extra stop to meet up with some of our party which included an extra stop at Birmingham New Street to grab food and goodies. You could potentially cut this down by taking a more direct train and grabbing a taxi rather than a bus.
EUROSTAR: Time from London to Brussels: 3 hours 30 minutes
~9:30am (GMT+1) Arriving at London getting to St Pancras, getting through security and travelling to Brussels at 14:00 (GMT+2)
This is about as quick as it can get: we got through security about as quickly as possible as soon as the gate opened and the train took about 2 and a half hours to get there. If you tried to cut getting through security as late as possible you might be able to shave 15 minutes off.
Extra Travel: Getting the train from the Eurostar to Bruges: 1 hour
This is worth factoring in, and won't necessarily apply to everyone, but unless the Eurostar goes exactly where you need it to go there might be a significant bit of extra travel involved that you will need to factor in.
On the Plane
My most recent flight happens to also have departed from Birmingham making for a fairly close comparison: the start to this journey would have either been a bus and a train or a taxi to reach our terminal. I say would have because we made the times align nicely so the taxi-of-dad was available and we were able to travel in comfort and style to the airport.
In order to make the process as simple as possible we did as many pre-check-ins as we could, had all of our documents sorted and ready and thanks to my Dad's experience with flying and this airport in particular, we knew where to be and what to do. We happened to be travelling with everyone's favourite budget airline: Ryanair, although I feel the experience didn't seem cheap, with a dedicated check in area we got the luggage away easily and headed through to security. The lines to the scanners flowed smoothly, staff were friendly and helpful and even had a laugh when I forgot to remove my watch (once again!) when passing through the metal detector: for which I earned myself a full body scan and a pat down, but all in good spirits and only added a couple of minutes to the journey. While the queue behind us slowly built up it never stopped moving and we were in there for less than 10 minutes. This gave us plenty of time to explore the shops, get some food and make our way to the gate.
Now, although this is an overall experience rating rather than pure time spent, I will freely admit you could have done the pre-flight steps much quicker than we did. Using my Dad as an example, his frequent flying for business means he can typically get through this airport in under 45 minutes, but we opted to play it safe with 2 hours. For our return flight in Alicante, those two hours were more than necessary! As far as we could see only two desks were checking-in about 5 Ryanair flights and we absolutely crawled all the way through. Thankfully security was quick but all that left us with was time to grab a snack and get straight to the gate. So my take-away from all this is that unless you know your air-travel well, having those 2 or so hours in your back-pocket is an essential safety buffer.
The flight was a breeze, Ryanair's fleet is typically made up of newer planes and this was no exception - the plane was comfortable and the leg room was fine considering the price tag. That said, the air-conditioning was not working on the tarmac but that problem soon resolved itself once we were in the air. Checking our bags meant we didn't have to fight for overhead bin space and all we had to do was relax and pass the time. A few hours later we touched down in Alicante airport and went through the final passport check, where my passport refused to scan so an angry border agent had to check it the old fashioned way. Afterwards we would have needed a taxi but, much like at the British side we had family waiting to take us to our destination - something I will sorely miss in future travels! Both departure and return flights were roughly the same, although both the passport control and baggage claim on return at Birmingham International took longer than their Spanish counterparts.
Getting to the Airport: ~35 minutes
Taxi-of-Dad, time comparable to a regular taxi, heavily dependant on traffic
Getting to Alicante: 4 hours 45 minutes
12pm arriving at Birmingham Airport, getting through security, waiting for departure (2pm GMT+1) and flying there (Arrival 5:45 (GMT+2)
As mentioned above, this could be cut down massively if you're familiar with the airport and can race through security closer to departure. As we were less experienced with getting through this airport we gave ourselves plenty of time (and if you are we recommend doing so too).
Extra travel: 1 hour
Taxi-of-Grandad, same caveats as getting to the airport
Much like the Eurostar, we weren't flying directly to our destination so onwards travel was required
The stats I have included about travel times are not there for you to consider this a race: it isn't, and in terms of pure speed air travel will always be faster, especially if you clear the airport more efficiently than we did. Ultimately, as long as the train wasn't egregiously slower then it's the experience that matters in my eyes. I have to admit I found myself arguably more comfortable on the train, with our small party gathered around a table drinking and playing games it felt more like it was part of the overall adventure. Air travel often feels like a necessary evil, and while I wasn't particularly uncomfortable in the flight it was arguably something I'd rather sleep through even when in good company. As you can guess, you would travel much more comfortably with an aeroplane by not going for a budget line, or even springing for a First-Class class seat, but then you're suddenly paying a considerable amount more to travel.
Trains don't have the downsides of planes either, there is no turbulence, no sinking stomach G-force on take off and no hard drop on landing; while it is true that a good pilot can mitigate turbulence and improve landing, quality is just luck of the draw with who you get in the cockpit. I think when you really get down to it the train is a more comfortable, more relaxing mode of transport. Of course, this is limited to short-hauls onto the mainland, partially because the Eurostar does not go much further than The Netherlands or the south of France, but also because that speed difference would become painfully apparent on longer journeys - at a certain point the train would become the holiday itself, something like the trans-Siberian railway where a sleeper cabin would be required.
Comparing the two modes of transports side-by-side, I think its clear that I do lean towards the train as being the slightly more enjoyable option. However, I have mentioned several times that I'm ignoring the relative speed and just talking about my experiences, but my final conclusion cannot be made in a vacuum - it is time to bring the speed factor back in. The truth is, unless you live very close to a Eurostar terminal, you are going to be reliant on the local travel network to get you to the starting line. For the UK, this poses an unavoidable problem:
- Travelling by train? The UK rail network is not exactly quick, punctual or well maintained, and while it can be cheap(ish) to get there you will have to book far in advance and avoid peak times. Leave it until the last minute and expect to pay through of the nose. Pray you don't encounter leaves on the tracks or the wrong kind of snow.
- Travelling by car? You'll have to pay for the privilege to enter London (Congestion charge), grind to a halt on the M25, re-mortgage your house to pay for parking and hopefully find a car park where your car is safe while you're away. It would be pretty unlikely to get you there any faster than the train, and when you factor in those costs plus fuel it may not be much cheaper.
- Travelling by taxi? You'll hit all the same traffic as you would have driving yourself, while paying twice as much to do so. A Pre-booked taxi with a pre-agreed price may not be a bad idea as long as you live somewhere that offers such a service.
- Travelling by coach? Surprisingly, this is probably the most viable option. Of course you cannot pick your destination and you have the potential to hit traffic like the previous two options, but it's a very affordable option and the average suggested time is somewhere around the 2 hours 45 minutes mark. You won't have any luxuries but at least your wallet won't be bled dry.
You only need scan over these options to know that none are particularly fast, and most are considerably expensive. You might argue that travelling to the airport offers a similar challenge, but with 40 or so airports littered around the UK you almost certainly have a closer option - compare that with the 3 stops on offer for the Eurostar, which is less Stations than airports in London alone! This actually means if you happened to be somewhere fairly north in the UK, your best option to catch the Eurostar might actually be to fly to London first. With all that said, it seems likely that air-travel will win out for the time being, unless you happen to be one of the lucky ones in the South-East. Things like HS2 aim to resolve this issue, but with ballooning project costs and strong opposition I wouldn't expect a faster train-link to London anytime soon.