12 June 2015 by David Warne
Eurostar will be celebrating its 21st birthday in 2015 and with brand new trains due later that year it may seem an odd time to be reviewing what has become such a familiar travel option for so many. However, with new direct routes to Lyon and Marseilles recently launched and the growing popularity of rail travel to (and within) Europe showing no sign of slowing, I decided to travel in Eurostar's premium cabins to evaluate whether it is worth leisure travellers splashing out to upgrade.
Aside from its standard carriages Eurostar offers two upgraded cabin options:
Business Premier is Eurostar's top cabin and, as the name suggests, it is aimed squarely at the premium business traveller, offering lounge access, upgraded seating onboard, fully flexible tickets, a three-course Raymond Blanc designed hot meal service and various other frills. While some benefits - such as fully flexible tickets - aren't necessarily of interest to all leisure travellers, most of the other services could be.
Standard Premier is the 'in between' cabin, offering the same seating as in Business Premier and a complimentary light meal service but without lounge access and some of the other frills.
I opted to travel out to Paris in Business Premier and return in Standard Premier to experience and compare both cabins in one trip. Like many leisure travellers I travelled with a companion, so was seeing the premium cabins from the perspective of two people travelling together.
We travelled over a busy bank holiday weekend and, predictably, there were heavy queues at check-in, so we were essentially seeing the Eurostar facilities at St Pancras at full stretch. I was immediately glad I had booked Business Premier, as I was able to take advantage of the dedicated 'fast track' facility, where queues were significantly shorter. After passing through the automated check-in gates and a short queue for French immigration we arrived at the Business Premier Lounge in around 10 minutes, not bad considering the volume of travellers.
The St Pancras Business Premier Lounge is on two levels. The ground floor was extremely busy - a feeling compounded by the long thin shape - but upstairs there were a number of free seats and a much more relaxed atmosphere. We had time to enjoy a glass of sparkling wine from the Loire Valley and a bowl of olives with a newspaper before being called for boarding around half an hour prior to departure. Other options in the lounge included draft Leffe beer, a selection of red and white wines, some spirits, a range of hot and soft drinks and light snacks.
As we embarked a Eurostar steward offered all Business Premier travellers the chance to pre-book a taxi for arrival at Paris Gare du Nord, a neat service for business travellers but equally useful for leisure travellers.
Once onboard I was struck not only by how much additional space there is compared to Standard class but also the range of different seating configurations available. We sat in a pair of seats facing one another, single seat across a table, which is ideal for two travellers wishing to enjoy a conversation over the meal service. Elsewhere there are different combinations of seat layouts ranging from a cluster of four around a table to two seats facing in the same direction looking into the back of the seats in front - a good option for two leisure travellers wishing to watch the same film together on an iPad or laptop (with headphones, of course).
Once underway, the meal service commenced around 15 minutes into the journey. A tray was delivered to each seat containing the starter - a tasty tandoori-style chicken salad - a desert and a small cheese platter. A choice of complimentary aperitif was also offered, along with mini bottles of wine to accompany the meal.
I opted for a glass of Heidsieck Monopole champagne, which was refilled a couple of times during the journey. There was a wait of around half an hour for the main course, a piping-hot salmon and leek dish with a rich cheese sauce. Although portions seemed modest I felt surprisingly full after the desert and cheeses.
As we were travelling on an evening departure the hot meal service was very welcome and turned the journey into an occasion. The meal was served at a relatively leisurely pace - possibly the result of a fully booked carriage; while this might not have suited every business traveller I rather enjoyed the fact that the meal and drinks service took up the majority of the journey. Indeed, soon after the trays had been cleared away we started to decelerate as we entered the Paris suburbs.
On arrival at the Gare du Nord our pre-booked taxi was waiting for us, the driver meeting us from the train with our names on a board. One thing to note is that the taxis start their meter from the moment they come to collect passengers from the train, so by the time we boarded we had already clocked up around 10 euros, but we still felt the service was extremely convenient.
We returned home a few days later in Standard Premier. No lounge access is offered with Standard Premier and as the general facilities at the Gare Du Nord don't quite match the rather pleasant experience that St Pancras offers so we arrived close to the departure time. I did manage to get a sneak view of the Business Premier Lounge in passing and it seemed more spacious than its London counterpart, with a similar choice of drinks and light snacks.
On this journey we opted for two adjacent seats facing the same way, looking at the back of the seats in front. These seats offer plenty of space and arguably more legroom than in the seats where travellers face each other.
Our mid-afternoon Standard Premier meal was a surprisingly good three-course affair. Whilst lacking Business Premier's hot main course - and all served at once on a single tray - there was still enough to satisfy anyone who had not eaten lunch prior to boarding. Similarly, there is a reduced bar service but complimentary wine with the meal was still offered, which is a nice touch.
Even though Eurostar's brand new trains arrive later this year my overwhelming impression is that the existing Business Premier and Standard Premier cabins hold up remarkably well considering their 20 years of service. And whilst there is the odd sign of ageing in places the seats are still very comfortable in the premium cabins and many will find the greater space alone is worth the additional cost of upgrading to Standard Premier - which, at the time of writing was as low £22 extra each way, depending on what prices are available in each cabin.
Whether Business Premier, with its £245 each-way price tag, will appeal to every leisure traveller is perhaps less clear. When travelling on an early morning service, for example, the full Business Premier offering might not necessarily be as worthwhile for a leisure traveller but I was convinced of the value on an evening departure; with time to enjoy all the facilities, the full meal service and a few glasses of champagne the trip becomes an occasion to enjoy as part of any holiday, rather than just a journey before a holiday.
Eurostar now offers direct services to Lyon and Marseilles, as well as more frequent direct Avignon services. Trains on these routes offer Standard and Standard Premier cabins. Business Premier is only available on services to Paris, Lille and Brussels.