Train Travel to the alps vs Plane Travel

Train Travel to the Alps
Photo by Barthelemy de Mazenodon Unsplash
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Writer: Chris Thompson

For the past 20 years I’ve regularly traveled to and from the Alps. This has mostly been for business and has generally involved flying into Geneva, primarily with easyJet out of Gatwick. I currently work from Annecy for a few days each month as part of my role for OVO Network, the chalet rental platform specialising in the Northern French Alps. The Alpine commute remains a key part of my life.

Short haul flying is rarely a joyous experience and, like many people, I’m increasingly conscious of my carbon footprint. For my January and February trips I decided to mix things up a little to compare plane travel with the train. Time for a bit of a Train Travel to the Alps experiment.

Whilst I wasn’t heading for a ski resort, I think the comparison remains relevant for leisure travellers assessing their travel options. Resorts such as La Clusaz, Morzine or Flaine would have broadly similar tmings.

My aim was to compare timings, cost, carbon emissions and the general comfort/hassle factor.

To the Alps by Plane – Sunday 8th Jan

I chose to fly from Southampton Airport, which is an atypical airport experience. It’s a very compact terminal and, based on the few times I’ve used it, incredibly user friendly.

Over the winter months easyJet flies from Southampton to Geneva on Sundays and Thursdays, making it a good option for those of us on a direct train line to Southampton Airport Parkway.

I left home at 12.45 and my train pulled into Southampton Airport Parkway at 13:47. This is fairly representative of my usual travel time to the airport; Heathrow generally takes me around 45 minutes and Gatwick about 70 minutes.

Where Southampton triumphs is its size and relative lack of crowds. I was through customs (and had run the gauntlet of the now obligatory duty free corridor) within 10 minutes of getting off the train. Try that at Gatwick on a Sunday!

I celebrated with a beer at the relaxed and welcoming bar, something I’ve never been tempted to do at a big airport ‘Spoons. The £6 pint slightly dampened my enthusiasm, but I don’t get out much; a treat is a treat!

Boarding was at 1550, five minutes after the scheduled flight departure time. Fault lay with “a completely overloaded Geneva”, a common ski season occurrence. Now the charter terminal at Geneva is closed I can’t see that problem getting better any time soon.

We pushed back at 16:05 and were in the air at 16:15; it’s hard to imagine those kinds of timings from boarding to take off at Gatwick or Heathrow. The flight was probably around 70% full and was a late middle aged ski express … I fitted right in!

After an uneventful flight we landed in Geneva at 1835, about 20 minutes late. Customs was quick and, with hand luggage only, I was swiftly through and into the arrivals hall. Baggage reclaim would have slowed me down. Geneva rarely runs like a Swiss clock on a winter weekend (and as someone who was an Airport Rep there in the mid ‘90s never has!).

The final leg of my journey to Annecy was by BlaBlaCar Bus, a good low cost option that links many towns and cities in France and beyond. Timings aren’t regular so it’s not always a predictable or dependable option, but when it works it’s great.

The bus departed at 20:00 (bang on time) and arrived into Annecy 15 minutes early at 20:35. I was in my apartment at 21:00 having had a quick “demi” at a nearby bar while I waited for one of the team from La Conciergerie du Lac to deliver the keys.

Timing: 7hrs 15 mins door to door
Cost: Train £16.00, Plane £67.48, Bus £8.90 – TOTAL £92.38

return From the Alps by Train – Thurs 12th Jan

I left the OVO Network office in central Annecy at 12:10 and strolled to the station. I was on board at 12:20 and the train left as scheduled at 12:30. 20 minutes from desk to on the move was an encouraging start.

The carriage was uncrowded (although it filled up a little at subsequent stops), comfortable and had plenty of legroom. I had my own powerpoint and the WiFi, whilst not blazing fast, was fine for my needs. I managed to get about three hours of work done, broken up by a bit of staring blankly out of the window at rural France.

We pulled into Gare du Lyon at 16:47 as scheduled. The trip across Paris to Gare du Nord is pretty straightforward (RER Line D for two stops), although I do find the big subterranean Paris stations quite hard to navigate. An old metro ticket I’d found in my “man drawer” before the trip proved to still be valid – result.

I was back above ground at Gare du Nord 20 minutes later and, with time to spare, decided to grab some food before checking in for the Eurostar. I knew from experience that there is little space and few food options once you are through customs.

At 17:20 I checked in and boarding started at 17:45 for an on time departure at 18:13.

Looking back I remember the original Eurostar carriages as being far more plush than the current standard class ones. I’m not sure when they changed. It’s now definitely more akin to a UK commuter train than the comfort of the TGV. My ability to relax or work was in line with the easyJet experience. You can upgrade to “Premium”, but it’s a big price difference.

My relaxation was slightly hampered by my discovery that I’d left my ear buds on the TGV. I continually fail to acknowledge there is no point in me buying decent headphones; I will always lose them. Weirdly I’ve never lost a cheap pair.

We got into Kings Cross at exactly 19:30, as expected. I was on the tube by 1945. I scraped onto the 20:09 from Waterloo for the ropiest part of the journey; a packed SWT commuter train where I had to stand for the first 30 minutes.

I was back in my home town at 20:50 and elected to walk home (20 minutes) as I had spent so much of the day sitting doing nothing.

Timing: 10 hours door to door
Cost: TGV+Eurostar £145.00, Metro £1.70, Tube £2.50, UK Train £16.00 – TOTAL £165.20

In Summary

So … the train cost £72.82 more and took 2hrs 45 minutes longer. Surely it’s a clear cut win for flying that rules out train travel to the Alps?

I don’t think it’s that simple.

Cost

Outside of the winter months I would have to travel to Heathrow or Gatwick. There is no easy way of me doing that that doesn’t involve either a taxi or driving plus airport parking. Either would quickly wipe out the price difference and the latter is rarely an option; we are a one car family (and desperately trying to stay that way).

In fact on this return journey if flying I would have had to go into Gatwick or Heathrow as the Southampton return leg was at a time I couldn’t have made work. The alternative flight would have been more than my outward leg and I would almost certainly have had to book a cab – a minimum of £75.

Timing

In terms of timing, again it’s not a clear cut victory. It depends a little on whether you want or need to work. I reckon the plane allows at most two productive hours en-route, one in the airport and one in the air. Using the train however gives at least five hours of productive time, probably more.

Crossing both Paris and London is a bit of a hassle, but I’d probably take it over the standard airport experience. My perspective on that would almost certainly change if I had more luggage and/or children in tow (although a taxi across Paris is a practical and cost effective option for a group).

Environmental impact

Another factor we have to consider is the environmental impact of the two journeys.

I’ve used the calculator at Eco Passenger for my calculations. I know methodologies vary, but I’m after a guide and this seems more or less in line with other data I’ve seen.

Journey out by plane – 130.4kg Co2
Journey back by train – 21.6kg Co2

So, by this calculation carbon emissions are more than 500% higher by plane. Energy use, NO2 emissions and other detrimental impacts are also higher.

What Next?

I’ve already booked the same routes and timings for my next trip in February, for the moment train travel to the Alps remains on the cards.

The big question will then be whether or not to go 100% train travel to the Alps in the future. For a four to five day trip it’s not an entirely straightforward decision. I need to be at work in Annecy first thing on a Monday morning; the decider may be how much of my Sunday I’m prepared to lose.

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