Simon Calder: London to Paris in the bad old days

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The Independent Online

Besides the art, architecture and ambience – oh, and the gastronomy – the appeal of Paris is that it is supremely easy to reach. You can fly from any of 16 airports across the UK to Charles de Gaulle airport, or take a bus from Victoria Coach Station for just £39 return. By far the biggest people-carrier, though, is Eurostar, which runs 18 trains a day each way from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. Judging from my trip last weekend, the company is filling most of them at handsome prices: I paid over three times the lowest Eurostar fare of £69 return. Yet compared with the dismal prospects on offer between the two cities 17 years ago, the 21st-century traveller aiming for the heart of French capital has few grounds for complaint.



A facade of unity

BEHIND THE PRICE WAR

Some people may have the erroneous impression that, until the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, we didn't much bother with the French capital. In fact, the busiest international air route in the world was from London to Paris. On an average day, 57 flights a day took off from Gatwick, Heathrow, London City or Stansted, destination Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. And who was doing the flying? Not easyJet, yet to be invented, nor Ryanair, which had yet to discover "Paris" in the shape of the breezy former Luftwaffe base on a hill near Beauvais.

Air France and British Airways were the main players. They chorused that the lowest weekend fare they could possibly charge was £108 return. And if you didn't book at least a fortnight in advance and stay away for a Saturday night, the fare trebled. Today you can pick up a return on BA for £103 with no restrictions on days or stays.

The national carriers were augmented by no fewer than 10 other airlines, who were obliged to maintain a façade of unity, pretending that they charged the same excessive fares, while engaging in a vicious price war.



So, who is the

cheapest NOW?

The cheapest one-way tickets were on Aerolineas Argentinas, whose jumbo jet hopped from Heathrow to Charles de Gaulle en route to Buenos Aires. One August I paid £55 for a flight – and received a return ticket showing a price of £139, with the inbound coupon torn out in case I tried to use it.

The Argentinian carrier also boasted of being the next best thing to Concorde, with a journey time from gate to gate of just 50 minutes (Air France allows as much as 90 minutes for the same trip.) I foolishly believed the assertion; the plane arrived an hour late, and I missed the last train to the Loire. This August, the lowest one-way fare from London to Paris on Eurostar is £39 – but if you are prepared to fly from Luton, easyJet will get you there for only £36.

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