When the concept of creating a tunnel under the English Channel was first proposed, skeptics questioned how two countries (England and France) that had been at war for hundreds of years could cooperate long enough to build it, let alone sustain its operation.
Linking England, France and Belgium, the Chunnel (a combination of channel and tunnel) was completed in 1994 and is 31 miles of tunnel beneath the English Channel connecting Britain with continental Europe via high speed rail. All in all, the trip from the southern tip of England to the continental mainland via the Chunnel takes 20 minutes making trans-European travel faster, easier and more affordable. The trip from London to Paris now takes only two hours and 35 minutes, London to Brussels is two hours 15 minutes and London to Marne-la-Vallee (Paris Disneyland) is two hours. Over the next five years, the Eurostar train network (www.eurostar.com) plans to extend its tracks to connect with Italy and Spain.
Traveling on the Eurostar is a step up from regular European trains. Their state of the art locomotives also come with high levels of customer service, gourmet meals and attention to detail. Each train has up to 15 customer service attendants in easily recognizable uniforms. All speak fluent English, which can be helpful when you're traveling in a foreign country. Every Eurostar train is totally nonsmoking (a welcome break from the smoky trains of the rest of Europe) and three kinds of seating are available -- Premium First, First class and Standard class. Although Standard class is extremely comfortable and offers snack and buffet food services, the other two classes are obviously more luxurious. First class includes wide, reclining seats, a complimentary newspaper and complimentary gourmet meals and snacks including wine. You can even order a special meal in advance when purchasing your ticket. Premium First Class features all of these perks plus access to executive lounges at Paris's Gare du Nord Station and London's Waterloo Station. It also provides travelers with a complimentary taxi transfer in Paris or London.
Unlike the often mandatory two-hour in advance check-in you experience when departing from most major airports, check-in and boarding on the Eurostar is a simpler and quicker process, but no less security conscious. In line with security enhancements, Eurostar passengers must check-in a minimum of 30 minutes prior to departure. Premium First and First class ticket holders may check in up to 20 minutes before departure.
Trains between London and Paris and vice versa operate approximately every hour and depending on your departure date and advance purchase, prices start as low as $90 for a one-way fare in standard class. Considering that a taxi to Heathrow airport from the center of London can cost you in excess of $100, it's not a bad deal. The price does go up to $900 for a round-trip ticket in Premium First Class though.
If under 26 years of age, you are eligible to purchase the Eurostar Youth Flexi-Pass, which is an open ticket in case you are not exactly sure when you want to take your train trip. The pass must be bought in North America and it includes a one-way fare, Standard class ticket valid for travel between London and Paris or London and Brussels. It is exchangeable from two months before the date of travel to 72 hours before the selected time of travel and is valid until December 31, 2005. The cost of $75 plus you can take out optional rail insurance (Rail Protection Plan) for an additional $10.
In the US, you can purchase your Eurostar tickets directly through Rail Europe (800/EUROSTAR; www.raileurope.com).