Highlife Under the Channel

photo: eurostar at gare du nord

Eurostar: Mode d'Emploi

by Tracy Turner

London:- Thursday, 9. July 1998:- The easiest - and classiest - way to travel between Paris, London and Brussels is by Eurostar. If you're short on time and won't miss seeing the white cliffs of Dover, Eurostar trains glide under the English Channel, getting you from A to B in about three hours.

The gray, midnight blue and yellow trains make the journey an experience in itself - the futuristic French-designed trains include thoughtful features such as footrests, coathooks and groovy drink-holders on every table, and the multilingual staff wear sharp Pierre Balmain navy suits - complete with women's pillbox hats.

However, whizzing through the Kent and Norman countryside at 297 kph, some passengers will be enjoying their Eurostar experience more than others. So that Metropole readers don't get left in the dark, here are my top ten tips for terrific tripping from city centre to centre ville:

Check Your Coach Number - Your ticket will show both a seat and a coach - car - assignment. Remember that Eurostar trainsphoto: eurostar are a quarter-mile long, with 18 coaches! There are different platform entrances depending on your coach assignment; just follow the signs to the escalator leading to your coach.

With no fresh photos of Waterloo, Gare du Nord will have to do.

This will get you on the train sooner - so you can nab key overhead luggage storage space. If you've got lots of bags or kids in tow, or have special mobility needs, all stations have elevators - an easier option.

Just Say No to First Class - Just in case you might actually be tempted - no, no, NO! - it's not worth the extra expense. The British media recently whipped up a tempest in a teapot over Eurostar's so-called 'First Class' service.

Every Eurostar train actually has three classes: 'Standard' -which is Economy, 'First,' then 'Premium First' - which are the top-notch, ultra-luxurious seats. Unless you're on business and will be working or conducting a business meeting throughout the journey, the much more expensive tickets in First or Premium First probably aren't for you.

Meal service is provided on the train. It's on china in Premium First, on plastic plates in First; but picnicking is the ideal way around overpriced train nibbles, and you get to choose your own plates to bring.

Make It a Movable Feast - Since the buffet coach is both expensive and crowded, my friends and I have a tradition of bringing our own special 'movable feast' by including goodies from Eurostar's three countries; Belgium, Britain and France.

While watching the Normandy sunset we've eaten sausage rolls with Belgian ale, or savory mini quiches and sparkling mineral water. Morning trains mean croissants, blackcurrant jam, and 'bucks fizz,' which is Champagne and orange juice, of course.

My favorite picnic feast is dinner - of Scottish smoked salmon, a selection of cheese, grapes and bread, copious Champagne and bundles of Belgian chocolates.

Extravagant, yes; but easily assembled from your nearby Monoprix or Sainsbury's supermarket, and cheaper than a restaurant meal. Your group will be the envy of your entire carriage, perhaps costing you some popularity points.

The Importance of Coffee - After such epicurean delights, you'll want a nice cup of coffee or tea. Resist the temptation to stand in line in the buffet - a trolley will come down the aisle of your Standard Class coach and serve you at your seat. Civilized.

Request a Table Seat - When reserving tickets from America, request a table seat in Standard Class - your request will be noted but Eurail cannot guarantee seat assignment.

Tables seat four people and have slightly more legroom, and lots more room to spread out your picnic! Unless you're traveling during Eastertime, Christmastime or August, advance bookings have a good chance of getting a table.

Families traveling with children can request seats in the family coach, the half-carriage dedicated to parents tripping with small children.

If you reserve tickets within Europe, seat assignment can be confirmed right when you buy your ticket.

The Perils of the Smoking Coach - Get out the gas masks. Unless you really want to smoke, do not sit in the designated smoking carriage. The smoking car's air circulation seems to be the only design fault of the $40-million Eurostar trains - just pass through the smokers' zone, and your clothes and hair will smell of Gitanes.

Have Passports At the Ready - Non-Europeans will have to fill out a form and show their passports on London-bound trains, because Eurostar, until recently, was a popular entry route for political refugees andphoto: speed train window asylum-seekers. Paris and Brussels-bound train passengers will have passport checks before boarding.

Eurostar is thinking of testing this fake window, for use while in the Chunnel.

All in all, Eurostar security checks have a much lower hassle factor than do airports. Just be sure to arrive at the station with plenty of time to spare; I usually aim to get to Waterloo International at least 45 minutes before departure.

Do the Bakerloo/RER - After a smooth trip, lulled by Eurostar's electric hum - then plunged into the noisy melee of Waterloo International or Gare du Nord - I've seen fellow American passengers stricken with fear upon arrival.

The complimentary Eurostar magazines have helpful public transportation articles for all three destinations, but here are two special notes for Paris and London arrivals: The RER is the fastest way to get across Paris; normal métro tickets are good for destinations in the center of town.

Because of the extreme delay in opening London's Jubilee Line extension, the Northern Line - nicknamed the Misery Line - there is a reason why it's the only black line - is choked with tourists. If possible, avoid it and take the brown Bakerloo Line to the center of town instead - its newer trains run more frequently, with fewer delays.

Transit Ticket Blues - You and 700 of your closest Eurostar friends have all arrived at the same time and want to take the Tube or métro. The result? Extremely long ticket-window lines.

Waterloo International has plenty of machines - which accept pound notes - and several ticket windows with 'unfailingly helpful' Underground staff.

However, Gare du Nord has recently changed its métro entrance layout - with usually only one or two ticket windows open.

Don't be a lemming - you can actually buy a carnet containing ten Paris métro tickets at Waterloo before you leave. Or, at Gare du Nord, keep following the métro-RER signs - passing rightphoto: gare du nord by the ticket-window line - to the actual subway entry, where there are several coin-operated machines - which also accept notes and even credit cards. There are some ticket windows there too.

Weight of the World - Tons of bags and kids and kilos of etc.? If you didn't pack light, take a taxi. Porters are free at Gare du Nord and cost five pounds at Waterloo.

This is a photo of the 'free' porters at Gare du Nord.

Traveling overground in a taxi is a great introduction to your new and sadly, temporary home - with express delivery straight to your hotel or B & B.

European subways have been intentionally designed with myriads of stairs and escalators to make navigation with hard suitcases a real trial; duffel bags, backpacks and strong legs are Extremement Necessaire for easy European exploring!

Tracy Turner©1998
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