Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 are two international high speed train companies in Europe that were both launched in the 1990s and are owned by a consortium including SNCF Voyageurs – part of the national state-owned railway company in France. The two companies have their own identities, but they have more in common that you might think. Both companies serve cross-border services across four countries and have three classes of accommodation onboard, for example.
It was announced in 2022 that the companies would be merged into one and eventually the Thalys brand would disappear in favour of the Eurostar brand. It has been widely reported that this merger would mean improved scheduling, ticketing and the same loyalty programme.
But while these companies are separate from each other, what are the current service levels like in the most premium class on both trains? Having taken a trip recently in Eurostar Business Premier from London to Brussels and another trip in Thalys Premium from Brussels to Cologne, both journeys of around two hours, this is what I discovered.
Both Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 have two types of trains in their fleet all capable of operating up to 300 kilometres per hour. The most common types of train for each company, and the newest, is the e320 for Eurostar and the PKBA for Thalys which are pictured below. These Eurostar trains have sixteen carriages, while these Thalys trains have eight carriages – with two sets sometimes coupled together to make sixteen carriages.
Eurostar 🔵 trains run through the Channel Tunnel, connecting the United Kingdom (UK) with France, Belgium and the Netherlands; while Thalys 🔴 trains connect France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The only market that is served by both Eurostar and Thalys is Brussels to Amsterdam, although availability is often limited / non-existent with Eurostar for this journey and no fares exist at all available for Business Premier – only for Standard and Standard Premier classes.
At the Station
What is the security process like for each operator?
For Eurostar 🔵, Business Premier is only available for trips to and from the UK. Passengers travelling to/from the UK are required to go through luggage and passport control at the departure station. Ordinarily this means arriving to check-in at the station less no later than 30 minutes before departure, however, for Business Premier tickets customers are able to check-in up to 10 minutes before departure through its own dedicated check-in area.
This process was a complete breeze compared to when travelling in Standard and Standard Premier class check-in which is impacted by often long queues.
For Thalys 🔴 , irrespective of travel class there are the same checks in place at some stations. At Paris Gare du Nord baggage is scanned on the platform; while in Belgium, random baggage and personal security checks whilst entering the platform area in stations. On my journey from Brussels I was able to walk straight through to the platform.
A perk of travelling in the most premium class of both operators is the complimentary lounge access at most of the Eurostar and Thalys stations.
Eurostar 🔵 offers its own lounge at London St Pancras, Bruxelles-Midi and Paris Gare du Nord stations following the check-in procedures, while offering access to the NS International lounge at Amsterdam Centraal and Rotterdam Centraal before check-in.
Pictured below is the lounge at London St Pancras, offering complimentary alcoholic and soft drinks and snacks, UK and French newspapers and magazines, and comfortable seating allowing for a space to relax and work prior to the journey. There are two floors with the stairs accessing the more relaxing, quieter upper floor, on the far left hand side on entry.
There was a good range of drinks on offer, but no meals – only snacks. It did appear that croissants were available upon request, however, on this visit it was a struggle to flag any staff down to ask as they were in the midst of changing shifts. We appeared to be too early for the cocktail bar that was closed as of 12pm when we accessed the lounge.
Thalys 🔴 offers its own lounge in Brussels and Paris, but a short walk from Bruxelles-Midi and Paris Gare du Nord station buildings in both cases. Pictured below is the lounge in Brussels. The Thalys Lounge & More is a quiet and warm place to wait or work for your train but really that’s it – the catering offering is very limited with only a coffee machine, tea and water available. I’m really not sure what they were thinking when they added “& more” to the end of its name.
Thalys customers are also able to access the NS International lounges at Amsterdam Centraal and Rotterdam Centraal.
Seating in the most premium class on both Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 trains is in a 2+1 configuration with a mixture of tables for one, two and four travellers available. Seat reclining is possible on both services and a table – specifically a seat back tray table on solo and this is a fixed table or tray table. Power sockets are available at every seat with complimentary WiFi. Thalys trains have more padded seating than Eurostar, which I did find more comfortable.
Both operators require customers to make a seat reservation which is automatically assigned at booking for no further charge. Eurostar has functionality online and in its app to select a specific seat online after booking which is very welcome if you would like to book a table for your party size. You are unable to select your own seat booking online with Thalys.
Food and Drink
Now for the most exciting part (for me anyway) – the onboard catering. Both operators provide catering straight to your seat, included in the ticket price, and in a similar form of an airline style tray meal.
On Eurostar 🔵 lunch and dinner services are those that depart after 10:15. On departure, a welcome drink is offered including champagne, wine, beer, a small range of spirits and soft drinks. Shortly after departure, the meal service commences where customers are provided with a cold starter, a bread roll, the option of a hot, cold or salad main course and dessert with bottled water and a second drink from the same trolley as previously. On departures after 17:15 a cheese course is also included.
Tea and coffee is then served with the option of a top-up. No further drinks were offered, but there is an opportunity to ask for another cold drink when the meal trays are cleared away which I’ve always found the staff to be happy to provide. Eurostar does cater for special dietary requirements (including gluten and dairy free) which needs to be ordered in advance via the Manage My Booking part of the website or app.
On Thalys 🔴 a similar tray meal is provided on trains designated as lunch and evening meal in the timetable. This includes wine, beer and soft drinks, a salad starter, a cold main course and dessert as pictured below. This is served with tea/coffee with an option of herbal teas. For services departing between meal times, the full meal is not served – only a complimentary snack is provided which is shown as ‘Café Gourmet’ in the timetable.
Both meals are pictured below. The presentation of both wasn’t amazing for a premium class of travel, but I found the taste to be good in both cases.
Booking and Fares
The most premium class of travel on both operators includes flexibility – so you are able to amend or cancel free of charge right up to the last minute.
Eurostar 🔵 Business Premier fares are one fixed cost – they don’t vary in price according to demand as Standard and Standard Premier fares do.
Thalys 🔴 Premium fares do vary according to demand as per their Standard and Comfort classes.
|Eurostar Journeys||One Way||Return|
|London to Paris||£276 (93p per mile)|
|£490 (82p per mile)|
|London to Brussels||£276 (£1.22 per mile)|
|£490 (£1.08 per mile)|
|London to Amsterdam (direct)||£299 (91p per mile)|
|£520 (79p per mile)|
|Thalys Journeys||One Way||Return|
|Amsterdam to Paris||from 145,00€ (40p per mile)||from 290,00€ (40p per mile)|
|Amsterdam to Brussels||from 100,00€ (68p per mile)||from 200,00€ (68p per mile)|
|Brussels to Cologne||from 72,00€ (45p per mile)||from 142,00€ (45p per mile)|
Assuming tickets are purchased online, both operators offer mobile ticketing for travel on their services producing a barcode that can be downloaded to your device such as an Apple Wallet. Otherwise there is the ability to print your ticket on an A4 piece of paper or collect at the station on departure. It is, however, not possible to print the online Thalys ticket at stations in Belgium, and print at stations in the Netherlands a fee is charged.
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Both Eurostar 🔵 and Thalys 🔴 have a number of similarities in their service provisions including in the range of seating options, flexible ticketing and onboard catering appearance. The key differences where, I believe, Eurostar fairs better is in the booking experience and in lounge comforts but the ticket costs are higher by comparison. However, Thalys trains have more comfortable seating on the train and the availability of some cheaper fares that give pricing as low as 40p per mile. Between the two I would choose Eurostar.
When the merge is completed, and the two operators are standardised in their offerings, it will be interesting to see which are retained and what will be new. The potential to offer more destinations from the two portfolios can only be a good thing.
This article was first published in November 2022