If you like the idea of a relaxing, scenic journey from the UK to the Alps this winter, you are in good company.
Though the rail journey caters for travellers of all ilks heading to the likes of Geneva, Chambery or Annecy, every season it is most popular with thousands of skiers wishing to avoid being stuck in airport queues, cooped up on transfers or having to undertake long drives to reach the mountains.
Many trains to the Alps involve a combination of Eurostar from London to Paris Gare du Nord and then a TGV train from Paris Gare de Lyon to the Alps. To connect between these two Parisian stations, travellers must cross the city by Metro/RER or use a taxi.
The problem is that if you book these rail journeys online, you might be sold a ticket for a journey that allows too little time to make this Paris change – despite longer, more suitable connection times being available.
This issue occurs for a number of popular routes. For example, if you are headed from London to the popular Tarentaise valley, home to ski resorts such as Les Arcs, Val Thorens and Val d’Isere, you’ll be automatically offered a Eurostar train that leaves London St Pancras at 08:31, arriving Paris-Nord at 11:47, combined with a TGV that departs Paris at 12:45. This gives you only 58 minutes from train arrival at Paris-Nord to train departure at Paris-Lyon.
Taking the 07:52 Eurostar instead of the 08:31 would give a far more comfortable connection time of 88 minutes. However, none of the rail-booking websites such as Eurostar, Voyages SNCF, Loco2 or Trainline reveal this option to the traveller. This is because of the way that the online booking algorithm is set by the Resarail system, operated by a US-based company called Sabre on behalf of SNCF. As a result, many travellers unwittingly book these 58-minute connections or other even tighter Paris connections of 54 minutes. Google Maps says it could take up to 55 minutes by car.
Rail expert Mark Smith, founder of independent guide Seat61.com, believes this risks travellers facing a race against the clock to avoid missing their onward TGV connection. “I always tell people to allow an absolute minimum of 60 minutes between trains from Paris-Nord to Paris-Lyon,” he says. “Eurostar achieves over 90 per cent of its journeys within 15 minutes delay, but even this level of performance implies a missed connection on at least 1 in every 10 journeys, if not more - with all the stress and inconvenience that causes. For those unfamiliar with the Metro or who find there's a long queue for a taxi, this could rise to 1 in 5. Those simply aren't acceptable odds.”
Chris Woodbridge-Cox, UK managing director of ski-tour operator Peak Retreats, agrees. He says: “The whole point of travelling by train to the Alps is to have a relaxed and comfortable journey. Many of our clients are families, or groups of skiers who want to bring ski equipment. No one should have to hurry a connection in Paris if more suitable options are available.”
One way of getting around this problem is by booking the Eurostar and TGV legs separately online. However, by doing this you miss out on the cheaper composite ‘Connection fares’ – discounted ‘through fares’ created when two high-speed trains are booked on one ticket. Plus, if you then did miss your connection – for example due to a serious delay – you wouldn’t officially be covered by the CIV rules (regulations that govern rail passengers) which, in the event of such a delay, ensure that you can travel on the next available train free of charge.
Rail-booking websites Loco2 and Trainline.eu both agree that showing longer connections would benefit travellers. “The journey recommendations we show on our apps and websites are provided directly by the carriers,” says Victoria Biggs, communications director for Trainline. “We strongly believe in offering our customers as much choice as possible. If the carriers could provide us with this, we would welcome the opportunity to clearly display journeys with longer connection times, in order to provide our customers with a broader range of journey options.”
Loco2 is planning to highlight to travellers when alternative connections times may be available. “As a traveller I would personally prefer to take the risk of a delay than spend extra time waiting around,” says co-founder Jamie Andrews. “That said, I would of course welcome improvements to the routing algorithms so that customers can easily choose between more options. Loco2 is continuing to invest resources in improving this aspect of our technology so that customers can do more than simply accept whatever itinerary the rail companies offer. In the meantime, we show a clear warning for Paris transfers less than one hour. Although the official CIV rules state that you wouldn't be put on the next train without a Connection fare, in reality I've never heard of a passenger being refused onward travel in this case.”
In the meantime, if you find that you are being offered a short connection time when booking online, what can you do? Loco2 allows you to split journeys into two legs and choose whatever additional time you want to have in Paris, albeit without a Connection fare. The best option may be to book by phone instead. Eurostar has offered to waive it’s £10 telephone booking fee for travellers who want to choose a longer stopover time, while Voyages SNCF says that that it’s £8 telephone-booking fee can be waived at staff discretion.
A spokesperson for Voyages SNCF said: “SNCF aims at adapting continuously to clients’ requests and needs. Minimum times are set to suit a wide range of travellers. If someone is not confident in making the connection within the time allowed, they have the option to contact the call centre and to build their own itinerary.”
Eurostar advises that travellers concerned about having sufficient time to change train can book seats at the front of the Eurostar and, pre-book a taxi or buy tickets for the Metro or RER in advance at the on-board Eurostar café bar.
A Eurostar spokesperson said: “On the occasion that a train is delayed and the connection is missed, Eurostar customers are able to board the next available train at no extra cost. For those customers that would prefer a longer connection time, they may do so by calling the customer care team or their travel agent and are offered up to 24 hours between services with their through fare tickets.”
But could the algorithm be changed in order to give travellers more choice of length of connection time? Eurostar told Telegraph Travel: “We always monitor and adapt our services to reflect customer demand, so will certainly take your feedback on board.”