Monday, July 12, 2010

Channel hopping: a case study

I've been a bit of a Eurostar whore lately; the details aren't important, except the one that has me in Paris on a Friday, which seems like too good of an opportunity to waste. I've booked a ticket for the man to come out and join me, then we'll both travel back together on Sunday evening.

It's a common complain that flights are cheaper than train travel in Europe, and that's sometimes indisputably true but not always. Quite often, the opportunity cost even out with a slightly larger cost, but sometimes the base fare is actually comparable.

Take for example this ticket I just bought for 4:55pm train from London to Paris on a Friday evening in October. The eurostar fare was £50

A quick search on skyscanner revealed the cheapest fare for a similar flight would be £25. On one hand, that's only a difference of £25, which isn't a huge deal, but it's also 50% cheaper. But that's just the base fare for the flight. To check a bag (which might not be necessary for a weekend, but for some would be) is an additional £9. And then the "booking charges". Paying by a visa debit card adds £3.50; paying by a credit card adds £8. Let's say for the sake of the extra insurance paying by credit card pays, I decide to use it for my dodgy flight, and I'm not a super duper one bag packer, so I need to check a suitcase. Now I'm paying £41.99 which isn't looking so hot against the £50 fare, especially considering all of the stress and environmental guilt that goes along with flying.

But wait! There's more!

To get to St Pancras, it's a stroll down from my office, or a £1 bus fare from home. It will cost the man a little bit more to get there directly from work: £1.80 tube fare. Shocking. To get to the airport at Luton, however, the train also leaves from St Pancras... and we all know how reasonable train fares in the UK are. Transport to the airport is an additional £11.90, on top of the tube fare. So now the flight costs £55.69 versus £51.80 for the train.

And of course, the train spits you out in central Paris. You might need a €1.60 metro fare to get to your destination. By contrast RER fare from CDG airport to central Paris is €8.40. So now the flight is costing an additional £3.89 and €6.8. Not a huge difference, but it's certainly not working out cheaper. You might break even by not checking a bag.

But at least you'll save time by flying, right?

Au contraire. Eurostar recommends arriving 45 min prior to depart, which means getting to St Pancras by 4:10 for a 4:55pm train. For a 7pm flight, Easyjet recommends arriving 2 hours ahead of time. A train leaves St Pancras for Luton at 4:30 arriving just after 5. Then of course there is the 50 minute RER journey at the other end of the flight. The flight arrives at 9:20 pm; the train arrives at 8:20pm. So while you'd need to be at St Pancras 20 minutes later to catch your flight, you'd arrive in central Paris nearly two hours after the train has arrived. You save about an hour and a half by taking the train versus flying.

The Eurostar is faster, cheaper, emissions free, and for most people, much more enjoyable. I can't think of a better way to get from London to Paris, except perhaps cycling (I hear that is pretty fun too.)

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