Anarchy Getting to the UK….or, The Chunnel of Love

To date, all my travel by train (save for 48 hour hell trip from Dallas to LA) has been pretty uneventful. Getting from The Hague to London, however, was sort of a nightmare.

It started on Thursday when I was planning on leaving Amsterdam and going to London with a stop in The Hague to meet up with Guido, who runs the Happy Hotelier blog and a really, really nice small hotel in The Hague. I figured I have lunch with him, see the sites in the Hague then move on to London.

At no time in my rail travels have I ever had any issues getting tickets or getting a train. A most you have wait an hour, but usually the entire experience is pretty straightforward. When I checked on the price of a ticket to London from The Hague they quoted me a price of €260, which is about $360. Screw that. Discount airlines are plentiful and cheap from Amsterdam to London, so I ended up staying that night in Guido’s hotel.

Researching tickets I found that I could get a ticket to London by train for €100 less if I purchased it online, and when factoring in the taxes and fees, it was close to the same price as getting a discount airline on Friday. Factor in not needing to take a train/bus from Gatwick and the train was probably the better deal. Plus, I also wanted the experience of going through the Chunnel, so I went with the train.

I purchased the train ticket on the EuroStar website from The Hague to London and was given a 6 character code to claim my tickets at the station. Sounded easy enough. I’d have a 50 minute layover in Brussels but the whole thing didn’t sound any more difficult than any other train trip I’ve taken.

Fast forward to Friday. Guido takes me to the train station and I find out that the Dutch system can’t print out tickets which were reserved on the French (Eurostar) website because they have a 7 character code and the French use a 6 character code. Basically, they are letting someone sell tickets on their trains that they cannot process. The guy at the counter just shrugged and told us to talk to the conductor on the train.

It turns out the train going to Brussels was late, so Guido just suggested I take the next train (which was also late) so I have a chance to get to Brussels in time (which turned out to be the right choice). He talked to the train agents for me and I got on board the train….along with everyone else who was waiting for next train. There were no seats available to I had to stand from The Hague to Rotterdam and then had to sit on a small folding seat the rest of the way in the car reserved for bicycles.

When I got to Brussels my 50 minute layover didn’t seem so leisurely anymore. I ran to the ticket counter to get my London ticket, waited in line for 15 minutes to be told to go to another place to get my ticket. I run over to the other counter and (surprise!) they managed to print out my London ticket AND my Brussels ticket with no problem. Of course the Brussels ticket was totally useless as I was already in Brussels, but I guess it is the thought that counts.

Once I had the ticket in hand, I I ran to the train to find out that there was a whole passport/security procedure I had to go through. I didn’t think about it, but I guess it makes sense. It was sort of like going through it at an airport, but it was all done in a very small area and much more efficiently. I got stamped out of the Schengen zone, stamped into the UK and made it to the train with 5 minutes to spare.

I guess the lesson I learned from this is to treat the London to France train more like a flight than a train ride. Don’t show up at the last minute like you can on a train, plan time to go through customs and security, and book ahead of time. In fact, other than the novelty of going under the English Channel, it is probably easier to just avoid the whole thing and just take a cheap flight. If you can get a cheap train ticket, the connivence of showing up in the middle of the city is nice, but might not be worth it if you have to pay full fare.