We flew from London to Rome and it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. It’s difficult to resist the lure of incredibly low prices on budget airlines but somehow we always forget how unpleasant it is: the long drive to the inconveniently located Stansted airport; the hassle of security; removing liquids, laptops and shoes; endless queues and waits in crowded hallways to board the plane, and then the cramped flight itself.
We didn’t want to face the same on the trip back from Italy to London, so we decided to take the train instead. We’ve been fans of train travel since our first Interrailing trip as teenagers, and a few years ago spent a leisurely month taking trains from London to Sicily. It’s such a wonderful way to travel in Europe: it’s comfortable and spacious, you can enjoy the scenery along the way, and you end up in the centre of cities rather than at some distant airport.
From Perugia (our starting point in Umbria) to London is a distance of 1750 km and around 14 hours of travel time. We knew taking the train would be more time consuming and expensive than flying but we decided it was worth it. You could get from Italy to London by train in a single day, but as we had four days we broke up the journey with stops in Milan and Paris. To make the long trip more comfortable we travelled first class (except on the Eurostar), which wasn’t much more expensive than standard class.
Day 1: Perugia to Florence
2 hrs 4 mins (09:53-11:57)
The first train of our trip was a regional train from Perugia to Florence. It was the most basic train we took but first class was empty and quiet and we had four seats to ourselves. Simon managed to work despite the lack of tables. Italy was in the midst of a relentless heatwave so we were glad of the cool air conditioning. The journey took us through the Umbrian and Tuscan countryside past olive groves, vineyards, fields of bright yellow sunflowers, and the terracotta roofs of hill towns.
Florence is one of our favourite cities in Italy so it was a shame we only had an hour there. Despite the heat we walked the ten minutes from the station for a glimpse of the glorious (if incredibly crowded) Duomo and a slice of pizza.
Day 1: Florence to Milan
1 hour 40 mins (13:00-14:40)
The fastest and fanciest trains in Italy are the Freccias and we took the Frecciarossa from Florence to Milan. Seats in business class were comfortable and wide with tables, power sockets, lots of luggage space overhead, and a free drink and snack. The scenery wasn’t the most exciting of the trip—lots of tunnels until Bologna and then flat countryside. The trip was over in no time though.
Milan was steaming hot so we were glad our apartment was near the Eataly food emporium—an air-conditioned haven for Italian food lovers where we browsed the supermarket aisles and enjoyed a gelato and coffee.
The Milan Expo offers evening tickets from 7-11pm for just €5 so we thought we’d take a look. It’s a huge site and there’s no way we could see it all in an evening so we wandered the pavilions without a plan. Some of the architecture was impressive, especially the beehive themed UK pavilion.
We were tempted to eat our way around the world but on our last night in Italy we chose the Eataly area which has dishes from 20 regions of Italy. It was fun choosing what to eat but the food was rather average.
Day 2: Milan to Paris
7 hours 26 mins (8:45-16:11)
You can take an overnight train on the long journey from Milan to Paris but we prefer to enjoy the scenery and sleep in a real bed, so we took the daytime TGV.
You can get some great deals on first class on the TGV—it only cost us £4 more than second class. Our carriage was full and disappointingly we had the seats next to each other going backwards with only a half window view, rather than the duo seats at the window with a table in-between. But the seats were wide and comfortable, with power sockets and large pull down tables. The seats also recline slightly without affecting the legroom of the person behind you.
There are no free drinks in first class and the shop/cafe is very expensive so we recommend stocking up with more than you think you’ll need before getting on the train.
As we stepped onto the train in Milan we left Italy and entered France before we even reached the border—the staff spoke French and the cafe served French classics. The joy of travelling by train in Europe is the seamless border crossings—the train didn’t stop at the border and we never had to show our passports. It was just as easy as travelling within a country.
Over seven hours on a train may seem a lot but the journey passed quickly and comfortably. I read books and watched a film, and Simon was incredibly productive the whole day—he finds it easy to focus on trains and made some major progress on his latest project. We could get up and walk around when we wanted and we enjoyed the views along the way—the lush rice fields of northern Italy and the mountains of the French Alps.
We could have continued on the same day to London but we decided to spend two nights in Paris staying with our friends.
Day 3: A Day in Paris
Two nights in Paris wasn’t enough but we did our best to enjoy it. I did a long run to the Louvre, we drank wine and ate cheese in the park, enjoyed croissants and thick hot chocolate at the fancy Angelina tea room, and walked endlessly through the beautiful streets.
Day 4: Paris to London
2 hours 17 mins (12:43-14:00)
We love the Eurostar! It’s amazing that in just over two hours you can get from Paris to London. There’s no reason ever to fly this route: the train is quicker, more comfortable, and takes you direct from city centre to city centre.
Travelling from France to the UK isn’t quite as seamless as from Italy to France. You have to check-in for the Eurostar at least 30 minutes before departure and you need to pass through a passport check and luggage security scanners. It was quicker and easier than airport security though and you don’t have to worry about the size of your liquids.
When we arrived an hour in advance the Eurostar waiting area at Gare du Nord was very crowded as trains leave every 30 minutes in the busy summer holidays, so there were two trains worth of people waiting to board. Once the first train left we were able to get a seat.
Although we didn’t travel first class on the Eurostar it was a comfortable journey with lots of luggage storage above seats and large pull down tables. Power points are only available in carriages 5 and 14 so choose a seat in one of these if that’s important to you.
We arrived in London to torrential rain and were tempted to get straight back on the Eurostar to Paris!
How to Book a European Train Trip
My first stop when planning a train trip is always the excellent website The Man in Seat 61. There is lots of information about the best way to travel between Italy and England (and all European train routes) so I got a good idea of the best route to take. The website recommended booking the trip with Loco2, a new European train booking website started by two young entrepreneurs with a passion for train travel. Loco2 make booking trains across Europe easy as you can buy tickets on the French, Italian, and British railways all in one place. Best of all, it costs the same as booking direct.
We decided to book with Loco2 which was just as simple as they promised. You enter where you are travelling from and to and your dates and the site will suggest the best route.
You can also customise the search by adding a “via station” and stopover duration—very useful if you’d like to spend a night or two somewhere or have time for lunch along the way.
The only downside I found was that it tended to suggest overnight trains between Italy and France (as it’s the quicker option) which we didn’t want—it would be great to have a box you could tick to avoid overnight trains. If you do want to spend the night in cities along the way it’s probably easier to search for each leg of your journey separately and add it to the basket—you can pay all together.
Once you’ve decided on a route you can choose your fare (standard, first class, or any other options the train offers) and continue to the next screen. There you can choose your seating preferences but they aren’t guaranteed and we found we didn’t get the seats we wanted (the couple seats on the Freccia or TGV). If you want to select your exact seats then you’ll need to book direct with each train network.
On Loco2 you pay for your tickets in British pounds but they accept international credit cards so anyone can use the site. Payment by debit card is free; credit cards cost 2.5%.
You don’t need to get tickets posted (another advantage for nomads like us). Each network has different ticket collection methods so read the instructions Loco2 give you. For Perugia to Florence we had to collect our tickets in the station using a reference number, Florence to Milan was ticketless and we just showed the reference on our phone, and for the TGV we had to print the eticket.
We were impressed by the service and think Loco2 is the easiest way to book your train tickets between Italy and the UK.
The Eurostar is definitely the way to travel between London and Paris. There are 21 daily trains to choose from, the fastest journey time is just 2 hours 15 minutes, and fares start from £72 for a standard return. For more comfort, space, and included meals you can travel Standard Premier from £189 return, or Business Premier from £490 return.
When travelling on the Eurostar you can take advantage of their Eurostar 2 for 1 deal which gives you 2 for 1 entry to popular Paris museums such as the Musée d’Orsay and Les Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. All you have to do is show your Eurostar ticket.
You can buy tickets from eurostar.com, by calling 03448 224 777, or as part of a longer journey on Loco2.com.
I have written an article for Eurail.com with more information on taking the Eurostar between London and Paris.
How Much Does it Cost?
Standard class from Perugia to Paris would have cost £82.50 each, but Loco2 provided us with first class tickets, which cost £92 each. Our Paris to London tickets were provided by Eurostar but standard class tickets cost from £41.
The further in advance you book, and the more flexible you are with the day and time you travel, the lower the train fare will be. We booked about six weeks in advance and travelled in the July high season, so you could definitely find lower fares than these.
At a total cost of £133 each from Perugia to London the train seems a lot more expensive than the £50 Ryanair flight would have been, but once you include transport to and from airports, booking admin fees, and baggage charges if you don’t travel hand luggage only, the difference isn’t so great. We think the higher cost was worth it for a more enjoyable and civilised journey.
Would We Travel by Train between Italy and London Again?
We found the train journey much more pleasant and less tiring than being treated like cattle on a cramped low-cost airline. On the train we had space to move around, comfortable seats with plenty of legroom, and we could enjoy the scenery or work along the way. We didn’t have to worry about baggage allowances, the size of our liquids, or two hour check-in times. We got to visit Milan and Paris on route, and the journey was much more environmentally friendly. If we have a few extra days to spare we’ll definitely travel by train again.
We enjoyed the trip so much that in a few weeks we’re taking the train from London to Amsterdam (via Brussels on the Eurostar) rather than flying. It may be more expensive but we know it’ll be worth it.
Thank you to Loco2 and Eurostar who provided us with complimentary train tickets for this journey. We enjoyed it so much that we’ve chosen to travel to Amsterdam by train, which we’ll be paying for ourselves.
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