After months of working from home, today was my first business trip abroad. Working in a global role, I usually travel multiple times per month, but since mid March I have not performed any business travel. So today I was both excited and nervous as I eased into the travel game again, taking the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. As expected, it was a different experience to my previous journeys on Eurostar.
I originally took the decision to make this business trip in early July. I knew that I had an important business idea to present and I also had essential work that needed to be done in person, not over the internet. The second week of September seemed like a good time, as everyone would be back from their summer holidays. It also turned out that this second week of September was the date that Eurostar were going to resume the serving of food onboard their trains and would reopen their lounges at both London and Paris. It almost seemed like a sign and that it was meant to be.
Unfortunately, as time went on between July and September, more and more bad new was coming out of France and other European countries with regard to Covid-19 infection rates. Although the UK was by no means fully in control of its own infection rates, the UK government decided to impose home quarantine restrictions on most people arriving from France. Even though I now faced a 14-day home quarantine on my return for what was only a 4-day business trip, I decided to continue with my plans.
A couple of days before my train was due to depart, I got the dreaded email, “your train has been cancelled”. On clicking on the link I discovered that what was usually an almost hourly service between the two capital cities, was now only two trains per day. Fortunately I was able to rebook on to the second train of the day.
On arrival at St Pancras International I saw the reason why most of the trains had been cancelled. There were no queues to check-in or to go through security. The demand for the service was substantially below the levels I was used to. Even so, as I presented my boarding pass at the gate, it churned out a yellow ticket indicating that I had been moved to a different seat. It turned out this was to ensure that everyone was socially distanced while onboard.
After security I showed my passport to the UK border security officer (briefly removing my face mask that government guidelines now require) and was then directed around the e-gates (which were all closed) and to the French border police officers who did a manual check on my passport. As requested by Eurostar, I had also printed out a self-declaration stating that I did not have Covid, but I was not asked to present this to the border guards.
I then headed to the Business Premier lounge. This lounge is available to customers who are seated in Business Premier (1st class). However, if you have a UK or French issued American Express Platinum card then you also get access to this lounge. I usually travel on Eurostar in Standard Premier, which has the same seats as Business Premier and serves a light meal during the journey. Yet with the American Express Platinum card I am basically getting the same experience as a ticket that costs twice as much! I really like my American Express Platinum card, and love trying to maximise the benefits. They seem to like me too – earlier this year Amex invited me to their corporate box at Brighton football club.
Eurostar had stuck to their promise to re-open the lounge and I was pleasantly surprised to receive a free gift of a branded steel water bottle when I arrived. The lounge receptionist said it was part of their commitment to reduce plastic waste.
Inside the lounge the usual array of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were available. There was also a selection of crisps, although these had been put into individual portions to avoid people touching what they would not eat. There was less food than normal, but I was reminded that the normal meal services had now resumed onboard. So, I took a few cans of coke and sat down, opened my laptop and got down to some work while I waited for the train platform to be called. To ensure social distancing, every other seat in the lounge was marked with a sticker, although it was possible to sit on these seats if you were travelling in a party.
The usual scrum for the train when the platform is called was avoided by the announcer opening the gate for specific train carriages at a time. These started with the first three and last three carriages of the train, then moved towards the centre. I was one of the first to board as I had been put in train carriage 3. The total number of people in the carriage was about 7 people and we were very spread out.
About 15-minutes into the journey the train attendant offered a selection of two dishes. I chose a lovely looking chicken and cabbage dish. These dishes are always served as cold food. This is one of the main differences between Standard Premier and Business Premier (they have a different selection of hot food). However, the food is still nice in Standard Premier and certainly a lot better than the catering car that normal Standard customers need to use if they want food. In a sign of the Covid-19 times, the bread roll was presented in a sealed bag rather than being individually served. There was also an alcohol wipe. Thankfully, I was allowed to remove my face mask while eating, but I had to put in back on as soon as I had finished my coffee.
Power at the seat and strong WiFi allowed me to continue with my work for the rest of the journey. I had read in the newspapers that WiFi had been turned off due to Covid-19 restrictions, but that a backlash had forced Eurostar to turn it back on. Not quite sure of the truth in this, but it was working ok for me.
About 2 hours and 15 minutes after leaving London, I was now in Paris. The train was direct without any stops. Eurostar have announced that they will not be stopping at either Ebbsfleet or Ashford until at least 2022. Although that is very inconvenient for people who are used to using those stations, it does make for a slightly faster journey. It also means you know if there will be a spare seat from the moment the train leaves London.
All in all, the journey and experience was good. I did not like wearing a mask for such an extended period of time, but I understand the reasons for this. Hopefully as businesses and life returns to normal there will be an increase in Eurostar trains.