Europe has a number of famous high speed trains but I would guess one of the less known is the Thalys. The train runs from Amsterdam in the north, through Brussels and on to Paris. Side lines can get you to the French Alps and to Cologne but the main route is back and forth between Paris and Amsterdam. I take this train only between Amsterdam Central or Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and Antwerp. The journey – all being well – should take around an hour from Antwerp to the airport and just a few minutes longer to Central Station.
I’ve taken the Thalys three times in the last two months and I’ve signed up now for a ‘Thalys Card’ and an online account so that I can book my own tickets. I travel this route for business and I’m not really supposed to do direct bookings but our UK-based travel agent can’t book the Thalys and if I use the agency in Belgium or the Netherlands, I get stung with a lot of additional charges. I made a case to the procurement person in charge of travel and she agreed that it was OK for an exception to be made so that I can now book directly on line.
Two of my journeys have been in so-called ‘Comfort Two’ on semi-flexible tickets and one was in ‘Comfort One’. I believe that cheaper tickets are available if you book a long time in advance but all my tickets have been booked just a few days before travel. The semi-flexible and Comfort One tickets both come with free onboard WiFi although you shouldn’t be surprised if the first time you use it, it takes you half the journey to work out what to do. There are instructions online and in Comfort Two you need a special code which is printed on your ticket. If you don’t qualify for free WiFi, I would suggest to think carefully before paying for it as the service is really rather rubbish.
In Comfort two the carriage is configured four seats across in two pairs similar to a plane but with the exception that some of the passengers will inevitably be going backwards. I’ve never yet managed to get seats together with a colleague although if the train's not too busy, people are quite flexible about moving around to let others sit together. However at peak times such as my last journey at 19.30 out of Antwerp, the train was very full and I sadly had to throw someone who didn’t have a seat reservation out of my seat so I could have a place.
In Comfort One you get a lot more space as well as a free meal and drinks with a hostess service. The legroom is much greater and the seats are configured three across with an individual seat on one side of the aisle and a pair on the other. Comfort One also offers you free newspapers and is altogether more like travelling business class. The one time I took this ticket type, it cost only about a third more than the Comfort Two ticket which seemed like good value even though I didn’t take the free meal, only indulging in a couple of coffees and a friendly chat with the hostess. The seats in Comfort One are larger versions of the red and purple seats you find elsewhere on the train. There are power points for charging your computer or phone and the WiFi didn’t seem to need a code in that class.
Comfort One also offers some extra goodies that weren’t relevant to me such as on-board taxi booking for Paris and Brussels and access to special lounges in Amsterdam, Schiphol and Rotterdam
Comfort Two can be a bit of a squeeze and on my last trip I had to sit from Antwerp to Rotterdam with my suitcase squeezed in front of me because there was nowhere left to put it. After Rotterdam I was able to get space on the luggage rack but the first half of my journey was rather uncomfortable. In this class there’s a trolley service selling food and vouchers for the WiFi for those whose ticket doesn’t include the service. There’s also a bar carriage somewhere in the middle of the train although I’ve not used it.
Prices are very variable depending on how long in advance you book and how much flexibility you need. If you are willing to commit to a particular train, a standard Amsterdam to Antwerp single could cost you 39 Euros whilst the same journey in semi-flex would be 70 Euros in Comfort Two or 74 in Comfort One. For a fully flexible ticket, you’ll pay 93 Euros in Comfort One. There are special fares for young people (under 26), the over 60s, under 12s, kids travelling with adults, people with mobility impairments and their carers and for groups. I’d love to say it’s complicated but compared to the trains in the UK it’s both cheap and much easier to understand. I recommend anyone thinking of taking a train in the UK to just hand over their credit card and give up hope.
My first two Thalys experiences were late. The first train was nearly an hour late which is pretty poor on a train journey that only lasts an hour. We got stuck behind a Fyra (the local not-quite-so-high-speed-train) which had broken down. The service was so bad on the Fyra that they’ve now withdrawn the service completely which is a shame as we’re now restricted to a Thalys only once every two hours.
As an alternative to flying, the Thalys is very nice and if you can get a Comfort One ticket at a good price – i.e. on a Semi-Flex fare where it’s barely more than Comfort Two – it’s well worth considering it as an alternative. A no-flex fare from Amsterdam to Paris booked well in advance could be as low as 35 Euros and once you’ve added in all the time to go to the airport, hang around getting security checked and standing in lines and then gone through the hassle of collecting your luggage and travelling into the city at the other end, the journey time of three hours and 20 minutes competes well with taking the plane.