Ski resorts by train

Thoughts about booking rail journeys to the Alps

Mon 28 June, 2021


Daniel Elkan

In the history of rail travel, there's probably never been a more difficult time to give advice about booking.

It was already complicated enough, pre-pandemic.  With the uncertaintly that covid has caused, it does it harder to judge what the best thing to do is, at this point anyway.

A bit of history/context/ranting

Train tickets have always been more complicated than they needed to be.  Different train operators all created their own ticket and booking systems.

However, until the internet came along, you couldn't buy a ticket directly without interacting with a person from a rail company (at the station, agency, or by phone).  Those people were experienced and a sophisticated booking system, and so they would help you find the best options. That was a good thing.

Once the internet arrived, train companies and ticket agencies could sell you tickets online.  When you do that, you don't interact with a person, you interact directly with a booking system.  Problem is, the booking system relies on algorithms.  And the algorithms can't cope with the complexities of the booking system, because they have to make it simple for you, the customer (where do you want to go from, to and when?). The result is though ticket-booking websites make things look easy, they often don't give you the options that are available, or that you might want (if only you were shown them).

Many travellers none the wiser to the fact that the system isn't really fit for purpose.

Then Covid came

The pandemic adds a huge layer of uncertaintly to any booking because it's difficult to predict what the situation will be like for international travel in six months from now.

Firstly, for skiers thinking about destinations on the direct Ski Train route, we still have no clue whether Eurostar will run the Ski Train. The company is getting back on its feet after receiving a bailout, and is putting more trains on. Normally, it would be early to mid July when it announces whether the Ski Train will go on sale. Eurostar may take more time to decide, waiting on restrictions to lift, and optimism to return.

Eurostar has put it's London - Paris, Lille and Brussels trains on sale for dates until the end April 2022. So there is the option to book that part of the journey already. The problem is, it has only put a few services on sale per day. Eurostar says that it will put more trains on if the demand is there. This is a bit chicken and egg, especially for skiers, because in winter, on Saturdays returning from Paris to London, Eurostar trains leave Paris too early for those travelling back from the Alps to connect with.

The normal advice for booking journeys... to book your whole journey (eg Eurostar to Paris, TGV to wherever you are going) in one go.  I.e. wait until all the trains that you required were on sale (rather than booking the Eurostar first)

This had several advantages:

1. You knew the schedule would work, because you could see all the train times connecting.
2. Sometimes, a Eurostar + TGV combined fare would be cheaper than booking separate elements.
3. If for any reason one leg of your journey was cancelled, then the whole part of that journey would become refundable, because it counts as one journey.

Since the pandemic

With the pandemic sprinkling uncertaintly on everything, it is even more advisable, in theory, to book your whole journey in one go.  Then, if covid restrictions render travel to France impossible, your onward TGV tickets, as well as your Eurostar tickets, would be refundable as it is all part of one journey.

There's an advantage, in terms of timetables too.  At the moment, the timetables that Eurostar is offering is a reduced version of what used to happen pre-pandemic. Fewer trains, meaning fewer possible connections. If, as we all hope, travel opens up and restrictions are loosened, then train companies will put on more trains to service the increased demand. 

Indeed, Eurostar says on it's website:

"As restrictions start to ease and customer demand increases, we’ll add more trains to our timetable. Because we’re running a reduced timetable, we’re confident that your train will run as planned."

If more trains are added, you might prefer to switch to an earlier or later train that wasn't originally available at the time of booking. Pre-pandemic, that would have been a pain. You'd likely have booked a non-flexible ticket for a specific train, and be penalised financially if you wanted to change your booking. However, Eurostar has made its tickets more flexible.  So that changes the picture a bit.

Now that Eurostar tickets have become more flexible

To help encourage people to book travel in times of relative uncertainty, Eurostar has made it's tickets more flexible.

Eurostar's coronavirus webpage says:

"We know that things can change at short notice right now. That’s why we’re giving our customers extra flexibility.
If you’d like to rearrange your trip, you have two options (Ts&Cs apply to both):

    Reschedule your trip for another date.
    Swap your ticket for an e-voucher, which you can use to rebook later in the year."

Be aware: the 'swap your ticket for an e-voucher' is only applicable to journeys before 30th September, and not for winter journeys. But the Eurostar website doesn't make that clear enough.  However, the rescheduling your ticket does cover winter.  This is what the Eurostar website says about it:

"How do flexible tickets work?

"If you’ve booked a trip but are no longer able to travel abroad, you can now exchange them online. Here’s how they work: 

    You can rearrange your trip without paying an exchange fee up to 7 full days before departure. You’ll only pay the difference in fare. 
    You can still change your booking within 7 days of your departure, but you’ll need to pay a £30 exchange fee for Standard tickets, plus any difference in fare."

That's all well and good, and useful. However, it's worth knowing that if you choose to book Eurostar's from London to Paris, and then it turns out you want to travel via Lille; or it turns out the Ski Train goes on sale, you won't be able to exchange your ticket.  Why? Because you can only exchange tickets that are to the same destination.  If your destination is Paris, you can exchange it for other tickets to Paris, but not to Lille, or Brussels, or Bourg St Maurice. The Eurostar website doesn't seem to mention this, but I phoned Eurostar Reservations and they told me.

Eurostar's planned timetable

For winter, Eurostar has put tickets on sale for a reduced service from London to Paris, with just two or three trains per day.  But as mentioned above, Eurostar has stated that it will add more trains as restrictions ease. Currently, for example:

Saturday 8th January - London to Paris
Dep St Pancras 07:52, arr Paris-Nord 11:17
Dep St Pancras 12:24, arr Paris-Nord 15:47
Dep St Pancras 16:22, arr Paris-Nord 19:47

Saturday 12th February - London to Paris
Dep St Pancras 07:52, arr Paris-Nord 11:17
Dep St Pancras 12:24, arr Paris-Nord 15:47

The 07:52 train is going to be a good one to get to combine with onward TGV services to many different destinations. One would hope that Eurostar will be putting a 09:22 train on in due course too, to add capacity.  And hopefully more in addition to that. But one can only wait and see.

Saturday 15th January - Paris to London
Dep Paris-Nord 09:03, arr St Pancras 10:39
Dep Paris-Nord 13:03, arr St Pancras 14:39

Saturday 19th February - Paris to London
Dep Paris-Nord 09:03, arr St Pancras 10:39
Dep Paris-Nord 13:03, arr St Pancras 14:39

Nothing coming back later, which is annoying.  Most TGVs from the Alps arrive back into Paris at 13:00 or 14:00.  So as it stands, you'd need to stopover in Paris and then get a Eurostar back on the Sunday.

Oddly, though, on Sundays Eurostar does include a later train:

Sunday 16th January - Paris to London
Dep Paris-Nord 13:03, arr St Pancras 14:39
Dep Paris-Nord 17:03, arr St Pancras 18:30

Sunday 20th February - Paris to London
Dep Paris-Nord 13:03, arr St Pancras 14:39
Dep Paris-Nord 17:03, arr St Pancras 18:30

Should you book Eurostar tickets now?

The upside to booking now is that you will have some tickets in the bag already, at lower prices than you would otherwise have paid if you waited. Four points, of which it's good to be aware:

1. If you then book TGV tickets at a later date (once those go on sale) and then your Eurostar is cancelled, or travel to France is not allowed, you will not be able to get a refund on your TGV tickets, because the TGV tickets will count as a separate journey, not one that from a passenger rights point of view is connected inextricably with your Eurostar journey. However, TGV tickets are also more flexible than they used to be, so there may be more leeway.

2. If the TGV timetable means that you need to switch to a different Eurostar, you'll be able to do this, subject to availability and paying any difference in price.

3. If the TGV cancelled you would be refunded for your TGV tickets (by whomever you booked them with) but you'd need to then convert your Eurostar tickets to a voucher (because if your Eurostar is still running, you are not eligible for a refund for your Eurostar tickets).

4. Eurostar's flexible ticket system is currently only in place for journeys up until September. Eurostar Reservations staff have told me that it is expected to be extended to cover winter too, but that isn't guaranteed yet.

Is it a no-win gamble, in terms of pricing?

Yes.  If you switch to a different train, or date,  and tickets for the train you switch to are more expensive, you'll pay the difference between the two fares.  But if tickets for the train you've switched to are cheaper, you won't get any money back.

What are rail-booking agents doing?

I spoke to Trainseurope, one of the rail-booking agents that Snowcarbon recommends to independent travellers.  Fas Mohammed, of Trainseurope, told me:

"We are booking Eurostar first and I see Eurostar has opened booking up to April '22, and as soon as TGV available we can book the TGV's separately.  Currently, Eurostar is only operating 2/3 trains a day on Paris Route and one train to Lille.  This may soon change once lockdown restrictions fully lifted. I have booked some of the groups for early next year for the eurostar, and waiting for TGV to open.  My advice will be to get cheaper fares book eurostar first and wait for TGV, as Eurostar tickets are quite flexible now, if France did not allow us due to pandemic then tickets can be exchanged at later date or get an evoucher for future travel."

How can you find out if Eurostar adds new trains?

For Paris, Lille and Brussels, if Eurostar sticks some extra trains on, you'll be unlikely to hear about it, because they aren't going to announce the addition of a few services.  Obviously, the Ski Train, you would hear about as that will be a big announcement.  For journeys via Paris etc, we at Snowcarbon will monitor things and make an announcement on the blog if we notice anything significant.

In conclusion - what to do?

If you want to get your rail travel sorted ahead of time and try to get the best fares, particularly for peak dates, you could book your Eurostar portion now. If I was booking for a group of friends or family, I'd probably do this through a rail-booking agent like Trainseurope, as they make it easy. But you could this online yourself too, of course. What I wouldn't do is book any tickets that you wouldn't be happy keeping, because there's no point booking a ticket that you know you'll want to swap to a different time or date.  Better to wait, in that case, for the right trains to go on sale.