France: getting there and getting around
Saturday 21 February 2009
Sea and Tunnel
From east to west – in terms of destination ports in France – the options are as follows:
Norfolkline (0870 870 1020; norfolkline.com) sails from Dover to Dunkirk.
SeaFrance (0871 702 1902; seafrance.com) and P&O Ferries (0871 222 3300; poferries.com) compete between Dover and Calais.
A company called Euroferries (euroferries.co.uk) is planning to launch a fast link from Ramsgate to Boulogne in the spring, but few details are available.
LD Lines (0870 428 4335; ldlines.co.uk) sails from Dover to both Boulogne and Dieppe.
From Folkestone, Eurotunnel (08705 353535; eurotunnel.com) operates frequent car-carrying shuttles to Calais.
Transmanche Ferries (0800 917 1201; transmancheferries.com) sails between Newhaven and Dieppe. LD Lines links both Newhaven and Portsmouth with Le Havre.
Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0737; brittanyferries.com) sails from Portsmouth to Caen, Cherbourg and St-Malo, and from Plymouth to Roscoff. Condor Ferries (0845 609 1024; condorferries.co.uk) sails from Poole and Weymouth to St-Malo, with journey times as short as four hours 30 minutes.
Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) returns to its full schedule from Monday. The fastest trains from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord take 2 hours 15 minutes. The operator also serves Calais (Frethun), Lille (Europe) and Marne-la-Vallée (Disneyland Paris). There is a weekends-only ski train to Bourg-St-Maurice in the French Alps, and a summer-only Saturday service from London to Avignon.
You can buy through-tickets to a wide range of French stations. The easiest connections are at Lille and Marne-la-Vallée, but a much wider range is available if you change trains – and terminals – in Paris.
The lowest fare for Calais and Lille is £55, and for Paris £59, but these need to be booked well in advance. Prices for connecting services depend on distance, but start at around £99 for destinations such as Bordeaux and Avignon.
Despite the downturn in aviation, there remains a formidable range of services from UK airports to many destinations in France. The widest range is from the London area, but regional services continue to expand. This summer Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) starts flights from Leeds Bradford International to the town of Albert, serving the battlefields of the Somme.
Many services are summer-only, with links commencing some time between late March and early May.
The strongest competition, and so the keenest fares, tend to be between the UK regional airports and Paris, and between London and key airports beyond Paris such as Nice, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse and Bordeaux.
Two excellent sources of information about routes and the airlines that serve them are the website Skyscanner.net and, in print, the OAG Pocket Flight Guide (see oag.com for details).
The train remains the easiest way to cover long distances in France. The high-speed TGV network is centred on Paris, with the three-hour link to Marseille the main artery of the network. But there are also plenty of region-to-region services, including direct links from Lille to Strasbourg, Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux.
On many long-distance services – including all TGVs, and “classic” trains that are branded Teoz.
If you plan lots of travel by train in France, the best deals are the rail passes issued by agencies such as Rail Europe (0844 848 4069; raileurope.co.uk). These offer a certain number of days of travel within a particular time period, for example three days in a month for around £174 in second class, £235 in first.
For less extensive travelling, the standard advice applies: book French domestic trains ahead (for example on the website tgv.co.uk) and try to travel on less busy services.
The leading pan-European firms include Avis (0844 581 8181; avis.co.uk), Budget (0844 581 9998; budget.co.uk), Europcar (0870 607 5000; europcar. co.uk) and Hertz (0870 844 88 44; hertz.co.uk). The choice is augmented by brokers such as easyCar (08710 500444; easycar. com) and Holiday Autos (0870 400 4468; holidayautos.co.uk).
Thanks to the expansion of low-cost aviation in France, flights offer a competitive alternative to trains - especially on routes where the train is relatively slow, for instance Paris-Nice and Paris-Toulouse. Check airfrance.co.uk and its main rival, easyJet, for the best range of fares.
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