Flying to the Alps, or taking the ski train? Snow comparison.

Taking the ski train to Les Arcs wasn’t quite the romance of rail travel that I’d had in mind, but I have to say I’m instantly hooked. We chose the rail option this winter because we want to fly less for environmental reasons, but I wasn’t expecting the other benefits that came with catching a train from London St Pancras to the French Alps.
With teens in school I’m still tied to half-term travel, and the crowds and high prices that inevitably accompany this mad-busy week in February. But I figured that between the chaos at Gatwick and the crowds queuing for the Eurostar there wouldn’t be much in it. I was right and the queue for security at London St Pancras was full of confused people who seemed to have left all common sense at home, heading towards the scanners with their keys and phone in their pockets while their kids wandered off in the opposite direction. Just as you find at the airport, but the queue for the train was of course shorter, and the atmosphere not quite as noisy.

No baggage restrictions

Once you’re through security you can be on the train pretty much immediately, with no lengthy walks to your gate. Before you can relax into your seats though, there is the not-so-small matter of getting your luggage stowed. There is a lot of space on the train but there is also an awful lot of luggage to put away too. Many travelers bring all their skis, boots and kitchen sinks with them. Another big advantage of traveling by train, of course, is that you don’t face the draconian weight restrictions that the airlines impose, which help them to recoup some of the money you saved by buying a cheap flight. Though that does mean some people relax and pack for every eventuality.
You might be going in the same direction but the ski train is an entirely different experience to the normal Eurostar service between London and Paris. For one thing it’s older rolling stock, and for another it’s alcohol-free. Presumably the reason is there have been some issues on these alpine services in the past, but by the time we’d pulled out of London my desire for a glass of red was forgotten in the excitement of the journey ahead.
Exciting, I say, not romantic. This is a fantastic way to access French ski resorts but it’s certainly not luxurious. There were children sleeping in the aisles and the luggage racks, and the slow pace through the tunnel seemed to go on and on. What’s more, that rolling French countryside was hidden away as both outbound and inbound journeys were overnight.
We were seated upright the whole way, with little opportunity to recline. A small pack containing a blanket, sleep mask and ear plugs, and an inflatable neck pillow was provided and came in very useful, but don’t expect to get a great deal of sleep unless you find it easy to drop off on an economy flight.
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Extra time on the slopes

But quite frankly I can happily live with wrestling my luggage into the racks, a bit of discomfort, and getting by on soft drinks for one night, when there are so many other advantages to going by train. The big positive for me was that we arrived in Moutier station early on Saturday morning having got a bit of sleep. A short taxi ride up the mountain followed, and we were clipping into our skis by 10am. That was the big ‘wow’ moment for us – this makes a lot of sense.
And here’s the other benefit we got by heading off to the Alps by rail: not only did we get an extra two days skiing than if we’d flown, but we got two Saturdays – traditionally the quietest day of the week, when everyone else is transferring in or out – to enjoy the slopes crowd-free.
The journey back to London at the end of the week was even easier, and we slept far better having skied our socks off. A 10pm train gave us plenty of time for a full day on the mountain and a last Savoyarde dinner (with a glass of red wine!) before our taxi took us to the station.
So, the ski train. Don’t expect luxury or romance. Do expect convenience, ease and extra time on the slopes, as well as avoiding the worst of the infernal airport crowds. And it’s much more environmentally friendly too.
Eurostar runs its ski train service between mid-December and early April between St Pancras International in London and Bourg St Maurice, from where you can easily access world-class resorts including Les Arcs, Val d’Isere, Tignes, La Plagne and Courchevel. Outside of school vacations, prices are much the same as flying. Find the ski train timetable on the Eurostar website.
Photo credits: [Page banner: dmytrok] [St Pancras: alh1] [Train carriage: sbamueller] [Ski lift: Tim Williamson]