Train travel is often overlooked when it comes to crossing countries. But when the alternative is being cattle-herded through provincial airports onto budget airlines, we think the trains are worthy of consideration.
France has invested heavily in its transport infrastructure; it’s a country with the space to do it without the planning resistance which has halted progress in smaller countries like the UK.
The combination of space, investment and great French engineering has made France’s train network easy and pleasurable travel.
France’s High-Speed Trains (TGV – Trains de Grand Vitesse) hurtle out of Paris in all directions to all its major and minor cities, gathering speeds of up to 200mph (320kmph).
If you are arriving from the UK, the Eurostar will take you to Paris in comfort and speed. If you are coming from elsewhere in the north of Europe, there are plenty of high speed connections to Paris.
On the TGV and other high-speed rail services, you’re not strapped into your seat for half-the journey. You have ample leg room. There’s plenty of opportunity to stretch your legs during a walk up and down the train. You can take your refreshments in the restaurant car. Nobody will attempt to sell you a scratch card. They won’t blast screechy tannoys at you. They won’t take out your knees with a heavy-duty trolley full of perfume while you’re making your way to the toilet. Finally, no-one asks you to take off your coat, shoes, belt, or take everything out of your carefully-packed bags before you get on board.
Inevitably, you will have to negotiate a few train changes along the way; but we still believe it’s a more comfortable and refreshing way to travel.
If you plan it right, you can even have a decent evening meal in Paris and sleep overnight on the way down to Toulouse.
It’s not for everyone; but if you weren’t tempted and weren’t hacked off with flying in Europe, you’d be looking at our information on Flying to the Pyrenees instead, wouldn’t you?
Train travel to the Pyrenees: The quickest route
To complete the journey within a day if you’re coming from northern Europe or the UK, the best train to catch is the 12:25 TGV from Paris, Gare d’Austerlitz. This midday train should give you enough time to catch your connecting service from your home town.
The 12:25 TGV from Paris arrives in Toulouse Matabiau at 17:46, leaving you plenty of time to catch an evening train into the Pyrenees.
If you want or need greater flexibility and independence, you can hire a car from Toulouse train station. There are several operators within the train station itself. They are:
A sample journey using the 12:25 Paris to Toulouse service
- Start and end towns: Leicester to Bagneres de Luchon
- Distance: 850 miles
- Total travel time: 16 hours
- Departure time: 05:53
- Arrival time: 21:06
- Cost: £200 return
- Leave Leicester 05:53, arrive London St Pancras 07:08
- Leave St Pancras on the 07:55 Eurostar to arrive at Paris Gare du Nord at 11:17
- Transfer to Paris Gare d’Austerlitz by taxi/RER (20 minutes)
- Take the 12:25 TGV from Paris Gare d’Austerlitz
- Arrive at Toulouse Matabiau at 17:46
- Leave Toulouse Matabiau on the 19:10 RER train
- Arrive in Montrejeau at 20:36. Transfer onto the 21:06 SNCF coach to Luchon
- Arrive Bagneres De Luchon 21:51
The night train: get a decent night’s sleep
We think the greatest advantage to train travel is the possibility of getting a full night’s sleep on the sleeper train (Intercité de Nuit) from Paris to Toulouse.
Here’s how you do it for the most civilised journey to the Pyrenees:
- Take the 16:22 Eurostar service from London St Pancras to the Gare du Nord
- Arrive at Paris Gare du Nord at 19:47
- Take a taxi from the Gard du Nord to the Gare D’Austerlitz
- Go for an evening meal in a nearby Parisian restaurant
- Catch the 22:53 night train (Intercité de Nuit) from Paris Gare D’Austerlitz to Toulouse Matabiau train station
- Get a decent night’s sleep in a choice of private cabins for four, women-only cabins, shared cabins for six or the cheapest option – reclining chairs in darkened, quiet carriages
- Arrive in Toulouse Matabiau train station at 06:42
- Breakfast in Toulouse
- Take the first train to your resort in the Pyrenees or hire a car from Toulouse train station (about 2 hours, depending on where you’re heading).
The cost of travelling to the Pyrenees by train is not unreasonable. We found a return ticket from Nottingham to Bagneres De Luchon for €150 per person. In another search, we found a way of getting a family of four from Nottingham to Bagneres De Luchon for the Christmas holiday for around €950. This incorporated the sleeper train from Paris to Luchon, with a private cabin for all four people.
It seems that wherever you are in the world, train ticketing systems are designed to be outsmarted.
France’s train company SNCF is no different. It has come up with a wide range of ticket options, discount cards and ways to reduce the cost of train travel. At first glance, they can look confounding. Actually, there’s a lovely French logic and egalitarian essence to them.
SNCF’s representative in the UK, Rail Europe, shows you how the ticketing and discounts work.
Plan your train journey to the Pyrenees
If you are travelling from the UK, there are five legs to the journey:
- From your local train station to London St Pancras
- From St Pancras to Paris Gare Du Nord via Eurostar
- From Paris Gare Du Nord to Paris Gare Austerlitz via underground (RER) or taxi
- From Paris Gare Austerlitz to Toulouse Matabiau via TGV or Intercité
- From Toulouse Matabiau to your Pyrenees resort via TER* (regional railways)
*Local services into the Pyrenees can involve a further change onto a SNCF coach, which have replaced the trains at certain times of day to retain the frequency of connections into the mountains while reducing railway operating costs.
There is no system (yet) for booking a ticket straight from your closest train station through to your destination in the Pyrenees.
You will have to talk to a minimum of two and a maximum of four train ticketing operatives to book your train journey to the Pyrenees. Don’t let this put you off; it can be as simple as you want to make it. Read on to find the booking system that suits you best.
RAIL EUROPE If you live in the UK and want someone to do the research, planning and booking for you, the best people to call are Rail Europe. They are SNCF’s operative in the UK. They also operate the English version of SNCF’s website. They offer tickets from London to train stations in and around the Pyrenees. They may not be able to get you the best prices or the travel options you want but they will do it all for you and send the tickets straight to your door. If you live outside London, they cannot add your connecting service to London.
EUROSTAR can book you a journey from your home town all the way to Toulouse. However, they have very limited flexibility on the UK train prices. A sample search from Nottingham to Toulouse returned a total return journey price of £331. The London to Toulouse leg of this was £119, while the Nottingham to London leg was £212. This 90-mile-journey should cost around £45. Tickets are released 90 days in advance. Eurostar advise you to book as far in advance as you can to get their best prices.
SNCF If you speak French, you want more flexibility, the lowest price and you want to by-pass the availability issue, it’s worth looking at SNCF’s site to book the Paris to the Pyrenees leg of the journey. A Christmas journey we were told was not possible via a conversation with call centre operatives at Eurostar and Rail Europe was entirely possible by going through SNCF French version website.
The Trainline By far the cheapest way to buy UK journey legs. However, if your only option to London St Pancras is by train, check you can get the connecting train you want before you book the rest of the journey.
1: Go straight to the source to get the times and prices that suit you
- The Trainline for the journey from your closest railway station to London
- Eurostar for the journey from London to Toulouse
- SNCF for the journey from Toulouse into the Pyrenees
2: Go via the middle man for booking simplicity but with fewer options and higher costs
- The Trainline for the journey from your closest railway station to London
- Rail Europe for the journey from London to the Pyrenees
3: Go French for booking simplicity but higher UK costs
- Eurostar for the journey from your closest station to Paris
- SNCF for the journey from Paris to the Pyrenees
4: The English Way for booking simplicity but with fewer options
Important booking notes
- At St Pancras International you have to check in at least 30 minutes before your Eurostar departure.
- Eurostar advise a minimum 60 minutes transfer time in Paris between the Eurostar and TGV. If you’re booking a through-ticket with them, they won’t sell you a ticket where the transfer time is any less