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Routes: The Eurostar train zips you from downtown London through the "Chunnel" to downtown Paris (15+/day) or Brussels (10/day) in 2.5 hours, faster and easier than flying. Main train stations are London St. Pancras, Paris Nord, and Brussels Midi/Zuid. Some departures also stop at Ebbsfleet, Ashford, Calais, or Lille. London — Amsterdam by rail takes 5 - 6 hours between city centers, with connection to a local train (not Eurostar) in Brussels. To compare London — Amsterdam flights, see www.easyjet.com.
Bonus Rides: Eurostar tickets between London and Brussels can include travel to/from Any Belgian Station or Any Dutch Station for a few dollars more, if you choose that option at the time of purchase. Just show the Eurostar ticket when boarding the connecting train(s) within 24 hours of the Brussels Eurostar arrival or departure (but not valid on Thalys express trains). You can also connect free to/from Ebbsfleet and Ashford on the Southeastern Railway network (around Kent) and on Fastrack bus links between Ebbsfleet and local stations nearby.
Security: Check-in is required 30 minutes before departure for security screening. Carry-on luggage is limited to two large bags and a small day bag per person. Bags must be tagged with your name and address. Smoking, animals except guide dogs, and dangerous materials are not allowed. Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. Kids under 4 are free when they share your seat.
Classes: Eurostar's three classes of service are Standard (second), Standard Premier (first), and Business Premier. I choose Standard class to save money. Standard Premier costs about 50% more (no youth or senior discount) and gets you a little more leg and elbow room, a newspaper, a small meal, and power plugs at seats. Business Premier class is only for serious business travelers willing to spend $400 one way. A wide range of fares is sold for each class of seating (just like with the airlines).
Reserved Tickets: Unlike most trains in Western Europe, Eurostar is not covered by rail passes and always requires a separate, reserved train ticket. If you're ready to commit to a travel date and time, you may book some tickets up to 9 months in advance, but more commonly starting 6 months out. There's no deadline to purchase but the lowest fares sell out first.
Fares: A one-way, full-fare ticket (with no restrictions on refundability) runs about $400 first-class and $300 second-class. Prices can be much cheaper for early purchasers, round-trip travelers, children under 12, youths under 26, seniors 60 or older, and rail pass holders (all with refund restrictions). Within each discount category, multiple fares exist (figure $60–160 for second-class, one-way), the number of seats available at each rate is limited, and the early bird gets the best price. To see the best rates available when you're ready to buy, simply start the buying process.
Roundtrip vs. Open Jaws: Roundtrip discounts require travel between the same pair of cities in both directions (e.g., Paris-London-Paris). Open-jaw travel (e.g., Paris-London-Brussels) must be booked as two one-way train tickets.
Refunds: Unless you pay full fare (about $300 one way in standard class), Eurostar tickets are not refundable. Some fares allow you to exchange your ticket once before departure (for a new date or time in the same direction of travel), but others do not. If allowed, you'll pay the difference between the original ticket price and the fares available on the date of exchange and may also pay a fee. Be sure of your plans before you buy a ticket.
Agents: You can order e-tickets through www.eurostar.com or Rail Europe and print tickets at home or pick them up at your departure station. You can also order by phone with a European agent: London 011-44-8705-186-186, Paris 011-33-8-92-35-35-39, Brussels 011-32-2-528-28-28. To take a car through the Chunnel, visit www.eurotunnel.com. Rick Steves' Europe does not sell Eurostar tickets.
The rail pass holder discount ticket is available to travelers carrying any rail pass that covers one end of the Eurostar route (Britain, France, or Belgium). This trip does not use one of your counted travel days on a flexipass. Class of service for this trip (first or standard) need not match your rail pass. Rail pass holder discount tickets for Eurostar are sold in the US through the same agents who book rail pass holder reservations. They are also available in local currency (starting about £50 or €75) at select European locations including Eurostar departure stations and Euraide offices (Munich Hbf and Berlin Hbf stations), and by phone to the European numbers above, but not on the Eurostar web site. The rail pass holder fare is often the best rate for adults age 26+. Those who qualify for youth/senior/child discounts should test different options to find the best rates before ordering a Eurostar ticket.
The old-fashioned way of crossing the Channel is cheaper than Eurostar, but twice as complicated and time-consuming. It may be a good option if you're traveling on the fly and haven't booked Eurostar train tickets in advance.
Dover–Calais is served by P&O Ferries (tel. 0870-600-0613, www.posl.com) for about £30 - £40 each way, travel time 70 – 90 minutes.
Travel Harwich–Hoek van Holland by Stena Line for $60-$100, 7 hours or overnight (tel. 0870-570-7070, www.stenaline.co.uk).
Brittany Ferries serve Poole–Cherbourg, Portsmouth-Cherbourg, and Portsmouth-Ouistreham, starting at about £40 one-way (tel. 0871-244-0744, www.brittanyferries.co.uk).
DFDS Seaways runs overnight services daily from Newcastle to Amsterdam (tel. 0871-522-9955, www.dfdsseaways.com).
All phone numbers in UK. Search and book these ferries and more at www.aferry.co.uk. £1 = about $1.60.
Bus/ferry combo: from London to Paris, Brussels, or Amsterdam, full fare is £40 one-way, £60 roundtrip; special offers as low as £15; 8 hours to Paris or Brussels; 10-12 hours to Amsterdam on Eurolines (tel. 0871-781-8181, www.eurolines.co.uk).