Simon Calder: London to Paris in the bad old days

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The Independent Travel

Today, we celebrate Paris, the city that will be en fête this week as 14 July, Bastille Day, approaches. For the first time, the Independent Traveller is devoted to a single destination: the capital of the most popular nation in the world (in tourist numbers, at least), and our top foreign city-break choice.

Besides the art, architecture and ambiance – 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. 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. That's a total of 27,000 seats a day between the two capitals. 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 cities 17 years ago, the 21st-century traveller aiming for the heart of the French capital has few grounds for complaint. The London-Paris link is an excellent prism to look at the bad old days of travel, when companies contrived to keep fares high.

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, there was an enormous hunger to travel there: the busiest international air route in the world was from London to Paris.

On an average day, 57 flights took off from Gatwick, Heathrow, London City or Stansted, destination Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. And who was doing the flying? Not easyJet, which had 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 in northern France.

Air France and British Airways were the main players. They chorused that the lowest fare they could possibly charge for a weekend trip was £108 return. If you didn't book at least a fortnight in advance and stay away a Saturday night, the fare trebled. Today, even though fuel costs have gone through the roof, you can pick up a return flight 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.

The more exotic the airline, the greater the subterfuge and the lower the fare. The cheapest one-way tickets cost £55 on Aerolineas Argentinas, whose Jumbo jet hopped from Heathrow to Charles de Gaulle en route to Buenos Aires. The Argentines also boasted of being the fastest: a journey time from departure gate at LHR to arrival gate at CDG for just 50 minutes (Air France allows as much as 90 minutes for the same trip). I believed the assertion; the plane arrived an hour late, and I missed the last train to the Loire.

Aerolineas Argentinas no longer flies from London to Paris, but easyJet will get you there from Luton this summer for as little as £36. These are the good new days of travel.

Cheap travel, not chic travel

The downward pressure on fares has reverberated beyond the trains and planes: pre-Eurostar, the price of a London-Paris return trip on a Eurolines bus was £52, one-third higher than today's price. Free Wi-Fi, which wasn't on offer in 1994, is also included in your £39 fare.

At that price, you can understand why London-Paris competitors such as Eurocity Express have failed to get back on the road as planned this summer. A shame, given that firm's touching choice of terminal at Paris. None of the overblown flourishes of Charles de Gaulle airport or Gare du Nord: it was 83 rue de Maubeuge, the address of an employment agency named Assistance Interim. At least the sadly jobless staff did not have to wander far to look for work.

While the Eurolines budget bus rolls on, options for elegant travel to Paris are dwindling. Until 2007, you could take a train to the seaside Art Deco airport at Shoreham in Sussex, take a nine-seater to Caen and travel by train to Paris St-Lazare in time to dine at the Brasserie de l'Europe. Yet, while elegant journeys have gone out of style, the French capital remains très chic.