Wow! We survived our holiday. But we didn’t just survive, we had a lovely time. We went down to south-west France and had a great stay at Green Horizons, in Puivert. Puivert and London are about 1,600 kilometres apart and we decided to go by train.
My last flights were to and from Kenya in April 2012 and while there I attended a Quaker conference. Out of the conference came a call for eco-justice, which I couldn’t ignore. And it came only a year after British Quakers had announced their intention to be come low carbon sustainable communities.
So, together we had decided that not flying would be a good thing and we would aim to use a more economical means of travel.
There are probably several different means of travel to go to south-west France from London but there was only ever one option for us – the train.
Originally, we were going to book both ways from London via Lille but when we came to book our tickets on the Eurostar site, we couldn’t get a journey on the right day from London to Perpignan via Lille (though we could book the return journey that way). So we ended up booking via Paris. Later, we realised this gave us another problem as the train from Paris didn’t get us to Perpignan in time for the next part of our journey – a bus from Perpignan to Quillan. And there was no bus the next day.
Thankfully, having looked at hiring a car and car shares, our hosts said that they would pick us up from Carcassonne station if we could get there. So we bought more tickets, from Montpelier to Carcassonne.
The other disappointment from booking the journey was that somewhere in the process the website didn’t process my Eurostar Plus Points and I didn’t get the bonus points from this journey, which would have given us a useful free voucher. There was nowhere I could find on the website to complain about this and when I spoke to customer services at St Pancras station, they told me that it was my problem and there was nothing that they could do about it. (Update 4/7/13: Big thanks to the Eurostar Customer Care team who read this post and got my Plus Points for this journey added to my account, that’s really good.)
Last year, we went on holiday to Congenies, near Nimes, and two of us travelling took an Osprey travel bag and a rucksack each. This year, we took the same and added an 8-month old baby in an Ergo Baby sling, a travel cot (attached to the Osprey) and a Maclaren XT pushchair. Somehow, we had managed to reduce the amount of stuff we took for ourselves and combine all of our child’s kit into the same amount of luggage. And we just added the kid and 2 essential items. (Our hosts provided us with a cot at our destination, but we knew in advance that we preferred our one.)
So that’s all the background and then there were the journeys themselves. On the way down we went by overground, underground, Eurostar, metro, TGV, another TGV and by car. On the way home we went by car, bus, TGV, Eurostar, train and train. And here are my lessons learned from travelling by train from London to south-west France with a baby.
- First class travel is worth it if you book early
We booked to travel first class (standard premier in Eurostar) and the cost wasn’t very much more, especially on the return journey where it was only a few pounds more. We booked three months or so before our journey.
The benefits of travelling standard premier in Eurostar are that you get extra leg room, a meal and extra attention from staff. All of these were worth it to us on this journey. We were also lucky enough to be sat without anyone else around us, so we effectively had 6 seats to ourselves on both Eurostar journeys.
The extra leg room means that there is a bit of space for the kid to mess around on the floor (though bring plenty of wipes because those carpets aren’t as clean as they look). And we feel like we’re travelling comfortably (at 6 feet 6 tall, I can feel the benefit from the extra space).
The meal means that in the morning we don’t have to take so much food. The first time we travelled standard premier we didn’t know about the food, so we stocked up on yoghurt, pastries, juice and coffees at St Pancras station. And on the train we got yoghurt, pastries, juice and hot drinks – a double breakfast but hardly worth spending extra. On they way home, the evening meal between Lille and London was fairly miniscule but we knew it was coming and it was enough food, having snacked for much of the day.
The attention from the staff just makes the journey feel nicer. On both journeys the staff were everything we expect from Eurostar people – friendly, helpful and courteous. On the first journey, when the kid needed to be changed, my partner set off for the baby-change room. A moment later she came the other way with the staff member from our carriage, who gave her access to another room much closer to our seats where the kid could be changed in comfort. We didn’t know the room existed before, so presumably use of it is at the discretion of staff. It was a small touch, but most welcome.
- Carry as little stuff as possible
Getting around is so much easier when you travel light. Generally while on the move between transport, I had the kid in the sling on my front, a rucksack on my back and the Osprey with cot attached in one hand. My partner had a rucksack and the Maclaren XT to deal with. On the way back she also had a plastic bag with provisions in. We took enough clothing to last half the week and we did some washing while we were there. Our Green Horizons hosts gave us use of their washing machine so we didn’t have to handwash this time.
- Pack early, pack often
Except for food, we were 95% packed by the end of Thursday night and we left on Saturday morning. We had made a list a couple of weeks in advance and did a trial run the weekend before. This is a new departure for me – I’ve never really done much packing until the night before I travel.
- Plan food for the journey
We had some fun with this one – searching online for ideas about food for journeys with babies and for adults. Almost everything we found was based on travel on planes, which is roughly the same – you’re in a vehicle for several hours and food provided isn’t focussed on your baby.
We ended up planning our meals so that we adults had breakfast on Eurostar and we brought chopped up fruit for the kid. For lunch we adults had sandwiches and 9bars and the kid had an Ella’s kitchen sachet and more fruit and vegetable sticks. And in the evening the kid had more of the same and we brought large couscous and roast vegetable salad.
It was enough food for us and we brought far too much roast vegetables and couscous salad, which eventually lasted us until Monday night. The extra weight probably wasn’t worth it but we had just filled a tub to the top thinking that the tub would be useful during the week. It wasn’t particularly.
We hadn’t asked for a meal on arrival, but we were given Spanish omelette with rice and vegetables. Again, it was our friends at Green Horizons getting it just right. In future, we will make sure that we’re certain of a meal at our destination.
On the way home we decided to travel light and get a meal in Perpignan, where we would have 3 hours to wait between arriving on a bus and leaving on a TGV. We hadn’t really thought this through and we ended up spending 20 euros in a small foodstore on all sorts of snacks, then bought a lunch at an unfriendly café near the station where they refused to give us tap water but gave jugs of it to a French group on another table. So we snacked a lot on the train and the kid had more Ella’s kitchen, plus some fruit and vegetable sticks. He was probably sick of cucumber and pear by the end of the day.
Our biggest hit from our internet search was sunshine bites. Made with dried mango and ground cashews, they were a refreshing hit throughout the journey and they lasted into the holiday as a special treat too.
- A baby doesn’t need much stuff
No, really. An 8-month old baby doesn’t need loads of stuff. All they need is the usual contents of the change bag with extra of some things such as nappies, wipes and spare clothes. We packed some bibs, a couple of toys and books and that was it. Then there’s the sling, the pushchair and the cot, but these are all manageable items if the rest of your luggage doesn’t become unwieldy.
In the TGV the kid played in our footwell a lot, was on our laps some of the time or was crawling up and down the aisle. He played with cases, particularly locks and with a little French girl on the TGV from Paris to Montpelier.
Later in the holiday we were up a mountain, having our lunch in a village, which was also accessible by car. Some other walkers came by, looked at us, and asked if we had come up by car. We hadn’t. We only had one bag between us (the change bag) and they had a bag each plus all sorts of gear hanging off them.
- Paris Metro is easy
Okay, it is easy if you’re well-prepared (see above) and if you do everything you can to be prepared for the journey. So, we bought our metro tickets at St Pancras at the Eurostar desk in the departures lounge (£15 for 10, we only needed two, but we’re offering the rest to friends) and we knew exactly where to go.
When you get off the train in Paris, the route is simple to get to Gare de Lyon. Walk to the front of the Eurostar, turn left onto the main concourse. Go straight on towards the end of the concourse, then bear left. You can go down a level quite early on or at the end of the concourse. Once you’ve done your second left, you’re down a level and there are ticket machines here, which are much less busy than any earlier ones. Through this ticket hall, go to the barrier and on the right are the double door barriers for use by people requiring wide gates. Go down the escalators and take the left of the platform for a train RER D to Melun or Malesherbes. Paris Gare de Lyon is only 3 stops.
- Changing at Lille is even easier
At Lille, when you change from TGV to Eurostar, you go up a level, then head towards the north end of the station. At least, I presume it’s the north end as it is the front end of a northbound train! You go through passport control and ticket checks as well as security. There’s only a snacks machine if you want something to eat or drink in the Eurostar lounge so be prepared if you’re going to have a long wait. In our experience (twice), we’ve gone straight through and all the staff have been super-friendly.
- TGVs are great
The upstairs of each double decker TGV train has seats next to the luggage racks that are much nicer than any between-carriage seats that I’ve come across before. This meant that I could take the kid out to one of these seats and as he squawked himself to sleep we weren’t disturbing anyone else and it felt easier to let him be noisy.
The single decker TGVs are less good in the extra seating respect but they do have great overhead space – two good-sized racks. It makes me realise just how badly we are treated in the UK when we have to us a Virgin pendolino train and some of the other newer trains.
- In Eurostar standard class, get a seat near the change rooms
Cars 1 and 18 in standard class are nearest to the baby-change rooms. They have more seats in groups of 4 than in other cars and some don’t have tables.
- Helpful websites
If I’m travelling somewhere that I haven’t been before, I sometimes use flickr or google images to look up the place and familiarise myself with it. This can be particularly helpful on a train ride if you want to have a feel for what a place looks like before you get there – a bit like memorising a map. I found this useful for having a look at stations like Montpellier and I found out that it was quite a small station.
I’ve also found seat61.com website useful for help with information about travelling by train.
So there are my top 10 lessons learned from travelling by train from London to south-west France and back. Do you have any other tips?