Ski resorts by train

Travelski Express - the new Eurostar Ski Train

Wed 15 September, 2021


Daniel Elkan

As you might have already heard, against all expectation, the Eurostar Ski Train will run this winter season. But it’s not going to be Eurostar running it.

For months, Eurostar was privately telling skiers that the train was cancelled and publicly saying that a decision had not been made.  Secretly, behind the scenes, Compagnie des Alps (CDA), which operates the ski lifts in many French ski resorts, was negotiating with Eurostar about chartering the train. The Ski Train is going to be marketed by a French tour operator called Travelski, which is owned by CDA and the Ski Train rebranded as the ‘Travelski Express’.

On Friday a small announcement was made in the French media, and yesterday I learned more at a special press event about the new service, where I met the Travelski’s CEO, Guillaume de Marcillac.

I’ll tell you all that I know so far and, for what it’s worth, some thoughts.

Why has this happened?
As you’ll know, when the Ski Train was cancelled last year, I co-founded the Save The Ski Train campaign. French ski resorts, mayors and politicians tried to lobby Eurostar to continue to run the train this season.  Eurostar, in tough financial waters due to the pandemic, wasn’t going to run it.  It seems that CDA spotted an opportunity to both keep the Ski Train running, and to grow its share of the UK ski market.

Tickets – only as part of a Travelski package
The only way to buy tickets for the Travelski Express is as part of a Travelski package with train, accommodation, transfer and a seven-day ski pass all included. Tickets can’t be purchased independently. Nor can you book rail-ski packages for the Travelski Express with other ski tour operators.  However, Travelski is planning to talk to some UK ski travel agencies about selling these packages on Travelski’s behalf.

Travelski says: “Travelski Express packages will be bookable online and via our call-centre later in September and the packages will be fully ABTA bonded for the peace of mind of our customers.”

The downside of this is that other ski tour operators and independent accommodation providers, for now at least, are shut out of the picture. Previously all of the ski industry could promote the Ski Train; for other tour operators and accommodation providers to do so now, could actually damage their business to do so, because they could lose clients to Travelski.  That’s a weird and counterproductive situation.

Obviously, in a season that it still relatively uncertain by normal standards, CDA/Travelski were taking a financial risk by chartering the train themselves. The way that they can make this work financially is to ensure that skiers buying tickets are purchasing accommodation and ski pass with Travelski.  Fair enough. Did Travelski need to insist that all the seats are booked this way? Not being privy to train hire costs, profit margins etc, I can only speculate that there might have been a different, more egalitarian way that still delivered them a tidy grab of skier market share. If Travelski had decided to leave a proportion of seats for independent skiers, or tour operators, then that would mean that the whole ski industry could still get behind the train. Perhaps this wasn’t commercially viable for them — I don’t know.

Only six ski resorts
Here’s the second surprise: you can only take the Travelski Express to six ski resorts.

On paper, this sounds bonkers.  The Ski Train accesses train stations in the Tarentaise that serve 14 major ski resorts.  But Travelski is only offering packages to six of them.  And if you don’t book a Travelski package, you can’t get on the train.

The six resorts you can have a Travelski Express holiday are: La Plagne, Les Arcs (including Peisey-Vallandry), Les Menuires, Méribel, Tignes and Val d’Isère.  It is unclear yet as to whether accommodation in Saint Martin de Belleville, which is twinned with Les Menuires, will be included.

These are the ones you can’t: Couchevel, Doucy, La Rosière, La Tania, Sainte Foy, Val Thorens and Valmorel.

De Marcillac (CEO of Travelski), told me that the reason for choosing only six resorts is partly an operational necessity. “We have put a lot of money, energy and effort to make this direct train service to the French Alps possible this winter. We want to offer a high-level of service and need to combine this with operational efficiency, including being able to offer transfers that take guests directly from the train to their accommodation.  For that reason, we’ve limited our offer to the six CDA resorts for this winter. But this still benefits the entire Alpine ecosystem, and we envisage expanding the range of resorts in future seasons.”

That’s understandable.  Trying to offer seamless transfers to too many resorts in the first year, would be a huge logistical challenge.

Personally, I still think Travelski could leave some seats separate of packages, so that skiers can access other resorts, and arrange their own transfers to do so.  I’ll be suggesting this, but Travelski has no doubt considered this and decided against it.

 One Ski Train service, not two.

In previous years, Eurostar ran two ski trains: a daytime service and an overnight service (for which combinations of daytime or overnight were possible).

This coming winter, the Travelski Express is only one train.

It will run every week, outbound from St Pancras overnight on Fridays. Back from the Alps, daytime on Saturdays.

Dates and timetable
The first outbound departure has not been decided yet.
It will either be on on Friday 24th December 2021, returning on Saturday 1st January 2022, or possibly a week earlier, with the return on Sunday 26th December. Discussions are ongoing.

The last outbound departure is confirmed to be on Friday 8th April 2022, returning on Saturday 16th April 2022.

The timetable is the same as previous Eurostar Ski Train times:

Outbound on Fridays
Depart         London St Pancras         19:45
Arrive         Moutiers             05:32
Arrive         Bourg St Maurice         06:16

Return on Saturdays
Depart        Bourg St Maurice        09:34
Depart        Moutiers                      10:14
Arrive        London St Pancras        16:34

The Travelski Express won’t call at Ashford International this season, because Eurostar has closed the station for winter 2021-22.  It also won’t stop at Aime la Plagne, but transfers to La Plagne ski resort will be arranged from Moutiers station instead.

When do tickets (packages) go on sale?
Travelski Express packages go on sale ‘by the end of September’, according to the company. I will of course keep you posted about this, along with any other important news.
(The best way to be the first to know is by signing up for Snowcarbon’s newsletter. A sign-up form is on every page of the Snowcarbon website)

Eurostar vouchers
Eurostar vouchers from ski-train journeys cancelled in March and April 2020, won’t be redeemable on the Travelski Express. However, I have good news about how you can exchange Eurostar vouchers for a cash refund, if you wish.  I will write more about this in a separate newsletter and blog, later today.

Up all night?
Like with the Eurostar Ski Train, there will be no bunk beds available on the Travelski Express. Therefore, you have to try to sleep in a sitting up position, or on the shoulder of your friend. Some people find this fine. Some people don’t manage to sleep so well. I once tried sleeping flat in the middle of the corridor, but the vibration of the engine and the instinctive fear of someone stepping on me made this unsuccessful. On a subsequent occasion a friend’s shoulder, padded by a ski jacked, worked OK for me. On the overnight train, booze is banned. On the daytime service booze is allowed.

The end of the Eurostar Ski Train as we know it?
De Marcillac says: “If this season is a success, this could help re-ignite Eurostar to offer their own normal ticket-only ski trains, with Travelski Express continuing to offer special trains.”
Let’s hope so.  We need way more than one ski-train service to cope with demand, and to turn ski holidays more sustainable.

Some thoughts
1. For this coming season, therefore, there is only one ski-train service, the Travelski Express. That’s a 50% reduction in seating capacity from a normal year, but viewed in isolation, its certainly better than no ski train at all. Glass half full. However, how all these factors play out will be more complex.

2. You can only to book the Travelski Express with Travelski. Travelski are a relatively unknown tour operator in the UK. The company says that it is recruiting, so that it can develop a UK customer-service base. Let’s hope that customer service is excellent. Travelski says that it wants to offer good-value packages with quality accommodation.  Much of this accommodation is what you would find available with other tour operators, rather than bespoke, unknown properties.  It doesn’t offer catered chalets, however. This and the limited numbe of resorts really does reduce options compared to normal years.

3. You have to travel outbound overnight. Some skiers love the overnight service, but some don't.  I've never spoken to anyone who doesn't like the daytime service. With only one train, the services, for operational reasons, have to be combined.  At the press conference yesterday, I suggested that running the service in reverse order (daytime outbound, back overnight) would be a better experience for many skiers.  Beginners would be able to take advantage of an extra day at the end of the holiday, when they've had lessons and gained confidence. The overnight train is easier on the way back, because you are probably full of French food and probably wine, knackered from your day on the slopes, more satisfied and less excited. Also, no need to take the afternoon off work on the Friday in order to make the train if you are coming from outside of London, as many people do.

4. Indirect journeys play a huge role in getting skier to the Alps.  On a normal winter Saturday (pre-pandemic) I would sometimes go down to St Pancras, get a coffee and talk to skiers about where they were going and how they were getting there. Loads were travelling indirectly, either to Ski Train destinations, but via Paris. Or to other destinations not accessed by the Ski Train.  Eurostar need to confirm more London – Paris, Lille and Brussels trains, in time for when TGV trains go on sale in October, so that skiers have more possibilities – both for the Tarentaise and for other parts of the French Alps, and Switzerland, Italy and Austria. It’s important that resorts and politicians in the Alps continue to lobby Eurostar and SNCF to offer and co-ordinate convenient indirect journeys for skiers. At Snowcarbon we will of course be helping you to find out about best options both with Travelski Express, and indirect services.

6. The new Travelski Express is very different in terms how it’s marketed, and is limited to six destinations. But its existence does at least mean there is a Ski Train where none was going to happen this season. This is the first international charter train paid for by ski resorts. We are in new, unchartered waters, if you pardon the pun.  

7. Let’s hope that it evolves in a way that is good for skiers and the ski industry, whose strength and attractiveness is in its diversity of providers and options.

I can’t think of anything more to add now, but please do contact me with any thoughts or questions – I’d love to hear your views.

I’ve put this newsletter on the Snowcarbon blog.

Other articles about the Travelski service are on the excellent Ski Flight Free and Planet Ski.