The Secret Cevennes - articles by Samantha David
Train -v- Plane
Seduced several years ago by the advent of cheap airfares to London, we happily abandoned all thought of taking the train. But the allure of cheap air tickets has been somewhat tarnished by the increasing security resulting from the terrorist threat; I'm sick of not being able to take a bottle of wine to the UK and of having my shampoo confiscated at the airport. There are added irritations too in the shape of endless shuffling queues and petty bureaucrats counting my handbag as a piece of luggage.
So when we went to London last month, we took the train from Montpellier and changed at Lille. There was no hanging about for 2-3 hours before the flight. We arrived at the station 20 minutes before the train was due, drank a coffee and got on the train.
Journey time from Montpellier to Lille was around 5 hours, just time for a large leisurely picnic and a proper siesta. Changing trains was easy because at Lille it's simply a matter of changing platforms and the journey through the tunnel to St Pancras takes less than two hours.
In theory you can do it half an hour faster if you change at Paris but that means changing from the Gare de Lyon to the Gare du Nord which is like the girl with the curl: if it all goes smoothly you shoot through on the tube and the RER laughing all the way, but if it goes egg-shaped (strikes, security delays, queues for tube tickets) or you hit Paris in rush hour it could be high stress and a taxi is expensive.
In Lille you have to put your stuff through an x-ray machine but the security people aren't picking on every little thing. They certainly weren't interested in my wine box of my body lotion and as for the penknife in the pocket of my wax jacket, they casually ignored it. (I'd forgotten it was even in there to be honest, and was only reminded at the Hindu Temple in Neasden when they made me hand it over to security for the duration of my visit.)
The downside of the Lille connection is - and there's no way you can ignore this one - boarding the Disneyland Express and being suffocated by outsize Mickey balloons and kiddie sick. I daresay careful planning could avoid the worst of this; a midday train or a late evening one would probably feature fewer Little Angels and of course things must be better during the school term.
On the up side however, the staff are endlessly fore-bearing and the trains run on time. In fact I rather hoped our train would get stuck in the tunnel because popular mythology has it that if you're delayed, EuroStar hand out free tickets for another trip another time. But sadly we arrived bang on time at the new St Pancras terminal, and the return journey was just as easy in spite of having acquired two more large bags, filled with books.
The spiral car park in Montpellier, just down the road from the station, offers a special daily rate to rail travellers and this used to be 3 euros a day. (You have to show your rail ticket and pay when you arrive at the car park, by the way. They make a huge fuss if you try to do it the other way around.) Disappointingly however, their special daily rate has now risen to 5 euros a day and there's no saying it'll stop there. So if you have any good tips for cheaper long-term car parking in Montpellier do let me know.
Overall however, the train comes out of a cost comparison very well. Prices change all the time but by booking ahead, travelling off-peak and playing with dates it is possible to get a return train ticket for under £100 which, once you factor in transfer costs to and from Central London and Gatwick/Luton/wherever, makes it a financially attractive option - especially if you're travelling with kids.
There's also the possibility of organising a free stop-over in Paris or Lille, which certainly isn't possible with the plane. Also of course, when you go by train there are no hidden charges for skipping the queue, for having a seat near the door, for taking big luggage, or for paying by credit card.
Last but not least, I cannot be the only person in the world to suffer the odd qualm about flying. I'm not flight-phobic and the sight of a tail fin doesn't spoil my day, but stepping onto a plane does ramp up the stress rate; terrorist bombs aside, what if it does get a wing caught in a cloud?
So next time we go back to the UK, rather than diving headfirst into a low cost airline seat, I think we'll be looking very closely at the train.
Next column will be uploaded around 1st June.
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