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Destination: south of France

The glorious south of France is a popular holiday destination for its great weather, fantastic coastline and incredible mountains. Here are seven accounts of getting there without flying.

FlightFree UK
20 Sep 5 min read

Tom Barbour, Glasgow to the Alps

We were so pleased that we booked our half term ski trip by train (using loco2.com, now Rail Europe). It cost more than flying – over twice as much – but that’s more of a result of a lack of taxes on flying than the train company’s fault. It’s not a level playing field.

Travelling from Glasgow we had to go to London the night before, which added extra travel time and the cost of overnight accommodation. If you lived in London it would be a no-brainer. But I persuaded the kids that the travelling was part of the trip, which it is, and the train down from Scotland was quick and easy.

Tom Barbour visits the on-board cafe with his daughter

Initially the kids were put off by the thought of the long journey by train, and missing out on the perceived glamour of flying. But flying isn’t really that glamorous, with long check-in times at airports, and being crammed into a small seat. The train was fantastic: so much legroom, great café on board, no hassles and better customer service. You could see the countryside flash by at 270 kmh and we chatted to the French families sitting across the table from us. My daughter said afterwards, “The train was actually quite good..”, which counts as high praise from a teenager!

“The train was actually quite good..” – high praise from a teenager!

I’ve written to the Scottish Government asking that they look into supporting direct trains from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Paris. That would really open up non-flying travel opportunities for Scots. The Scottish Transport Minister did write back to me saying that one of the reasons that sleeper trains from Scotland to Paris and beyond were impractical was due to competition from ‘low cost airlines.’ A frustrating and ludicrous response given that airport tax is a devolved matter that the Scottish Government could change and therefore tip the balance in favour of the train. Hopefully they’ll be reviewing this. But as for the actual travel, I much preferred it over flying, not just because of the emission reduction, but because it was fun.

Ruth Hancock, Devon to Pyrenees

My partner and I go to the Pyrenees every summer for a walking holiday. From Devon it takes about three hours to get to London, then we go by Eurostar to Paris, Tarbes on the TGV then up into the hills by smaller trains and buses. For more remote road access we find hitching pretty quick. We find the public transport in France is well joined up, with the trains and buses all being run in synchronicity by SNCF.

The Pyrenees

We spend a couple of weeks backpacking, sometimes walking in and out of France and Spain a couple of times a day on the HRP (Haute Route Pyrenees) or using the GR 10 (French side route) or GR11 (Spanish side). We can do five or six nights wild camping, then drop down into a town for a shower at a campsite, a meal in a restaurant, and resupply with dry food for the next leg.

"The public transport in France is well joined up, with the trains and buses all being run in synchronicity by SNCF"

We always travel on the top deck of the TGV, which makes it more exciting because there are better views. There’s loads of advice from ‘The Man in Seat 61’ (seat61.com) – he’s called that because any seat beyond 60 is upstairs on the TGV. It’s a very useful site for planning trips, and gives really helpful walk-through instructions including how to change trains and where to buy your Metro tickets. Rome to Rio is another useful site, if you turn off the plane option, although I find their bus info less reliable.

We’re thinking about going to Morocco before too long, as apparently they have a good train system, and the Anti Atlas mountains would be nice for some mid-winter warmth.

Sandy Robertson, London to Juan les Pins

We travel to Juan Les Pins at least once a year as our family has a place there. We usually fly to Nice Côte d'Azur airport and hire a car but as a family we have been trying to reduce our impact on the planet, and our most recent step towards that goal has been to try to give up flying.

We thought about driving but our youngest daughter (6 months) really does not deal with driving well. Therefore we decided train would be best: I'm originally from Scotland but live in London, and in the past we have found the train up to Scotland to be great with a young family. The toddler can walk up and down the carriage and it means both parents are free to entertain. So we found the direct St Pancras-Marseille train and booked that.

Sandy and family on their travels

The queue for the Eurostar was a bit of a crush but we were through passport control relatively quickly – much easier than at an airport. It was very comfortable on the Eurostar even though we didn’t get a table seat, and it’s lovely to be able to walk to the cafe car. Changing at Marseille was easy, and we boarded a spacious and air conditioned Thello train. It’s a great way to travel and our toddler loves it, and it still feels like a bit of an adventure as well.

"It’s a great way to travel and our toddler loves it, and it still feels like a bit of an adventure as well."

The Eurostar return for two adults and two under-fours (including child seat for toddler which made it much more comfortable but isn’t required) was £398. It cost us £8.60 to get to St Pancras, and a further £117.06 for the Marseille-Juan Les Pins return. Total £523.66 return – which would have been cheaper had I remembered to book earlier!

Eve Hart, Lancashire to Avignon

We live in Ramsbottom, a small town in the very north of Greater Manchester. It’s 944 miles from Avignon in the South of France, but our family holiday there by train was the most successful ever.

Travelling with three children is stressful. We usually travel by car, and it always goes the same way: there is shouting, occasional throwing of things, and the person who didn’t go for a wee at the services needs us to stop again just as soon as we’ve got going. And then there was the year we were stuck in a massive traffic jam on the way to Caen and missed the ferry. Never again, we said through gritted teeth. But whilst the Lake District (a tolerable 90 minutes from home) offers a fab weekend away, we did want the chance of good weather, a pool and a new place to explore, so we checked out our options via train.

"Our family holiday to the South of France by train was the most successful ever."

The south of France, accessible via Eurostar, seemed to offer everything we were looking for. We found a gîte (holiday home) with a shared pool on a family friendly farm, with the promise of medieval towns, canals and rivers and lots and lots of castles to explore. And whilst the weather can never truly be guaranteed, during the school summer holidays it was usual to find temperatures in the high 20s. We were sold, even if it did seem a very long way away.

As it was, travelling overland cost less than the flights would have done, but did require some organisation. I booked our Eurostar tickets as soon as they went on sale (you can set an alert), and our tickets on the West Coast Mainline from Manchester to London cost just £50 with a Family Railcard.

"Travelling overland cost less than the flights would have done, but did require some organisation."

The seats on the Eurostar were large and comfortable, and with a table between us we could play cards or do craft activities. The children could get up and down and go to the loo as many times as they wanted. Despite the channel tunnel not being the experience our five year old had hoped for, there was lots to look at and everyone was remarkably happy. We’d spent far less than we would have done on five flights, and we’d had an adventure!

Eve Hart and family in Avignon

It’s only 27 miles from Ramsbottom to Manchester Airport and whilst we could still have seen the amazing Roman Pont du Gard, jumped in the pool, climbed up to Cathar Castles and paddled in the Herault river, we didn’t want to fly when there was an exciting alternative on offer. We so enjoyed our family time en route to France, and even with cancellations and delays on the way home, we’d certainly do it again.

Rob Hughes, London to Carcassonne

We’re going to a wedding near Carcassonne, and didn’t want to fly because “Flying burns more oil!” says Lola (age 4). It looks like a nice place, so we thought we’d make a holiday of it.

Carcasonne
Carcasonne

We’ve taken a fair few flights as a family (we lived in Zambia for two years), but are now trying to do all family holidays by ground travel only. So far, we’ve been by train/boat/bike to Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Isle of Man, Scotland (day and night trains) and Spain.

I want the government to actually stop ignoring the climate crisis. While I know our personal choices are only a small gesture (especially when flying is often cheaper), it feels better to be practicing what we preach. And in many ways it’s a much nicer way to travel.

"Our personal choices are only a small gesture but it feels better to be practicing what we preach."

We’re taking the sleeper train down through France because the TGV after the Eurostar in one day would be quite a long sedentary day. This way, we get to have a couple of hours on the train, dinner in Paris, then sleep while we travel south. Luca (age 6) says the best part of taking a sleeper train is “Staying up late!”

Overall it’s much simpler than flying – less faff with liquids and scanners, and (today at least) check in was really quick and easy.

Bryony (mum): Timings are important, so it’s nice to chose a train that fits with mealtimes (it’s a good way to pass an hour on the train). We also bring along some games/activities for the train.

You have to make the journey part of the holiday, rather than something to endure like flying. It’s a different mindset. With that, Luca and I are off to the buffet car to get a drink…

Deborah Tomkins, Bristol to Nice

I was attending a conference at the A Rocha centre of Les Courmettes, about a half hour bus ride from Nice, up in the mountains.

The journey was surprisingly easy: train from Bristol to London, underground, Eurostar to Paris, Metro, night train to Nice, then bus and coach to the conference venue. It sounds hectic and stressful, I expect, to those who’ve never done it, but it’s far less so than airports! It was more expensive than a Bristol-Nice return flight, but at £42.50 for the outward sleeper train and £31 for the return, it was miles cheaper than a hotel!

I would definitely recommend overnight train travel – I’ve done this probably about 8 times over the years. It’s so much less hassle than arriving early at an airport and having to wait for hours. I also feel extremely safe. You can walk around if you need to. There’s usually a dining car for a reasonable meal, and you save on a hotel fee. Some overnight trains have showers, although I have never bothered to take one. Depending on your budget and the train line, you either share with strangers, or you can have a smaller first-class cabin. I have done both. When travelling with a child we have been put in a two berth cabin for safety and privacy.

"I would definitely recommend overnight train travel. It’s so much less hassle than arriving early at an airport and having to wait for hours."

We arrived in Nice very early in the morning as the sun was rising. It was amazing to wake up to the mountains and the sea. Some of the other people attending the conference had taken the same train and we found a cafe for breakfast in Nice old town, then parked ourselves on the beach for a couple of hours with our baggage while we waited for the bus transfer.

My family and friends were astonished that I travelled in this way. It would have taken less than two hours from Bristol airport (plus the waiting around, of course, and travel to and from both airports), and they clearly couldn’t understand why I would waste time travelling. But as well as the carbon emissions being so much lower, I have found that slow travel is a great way to get a feel of a place and the people, and to get a sense of how far away somewhere really is. There’s a world of difference between Bristol and Nice, and the difference unfolded gradually.

Steve Masters, Newbury to Hendaye

A friend and I had decided to take on a cycling challenge: Raid Pyrenean, a 450-mile ride across the mountains from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean. The challenge is to do it in less than 100 hours.

There were a variety of options for getting to the start line in Hendaye and as I needed a holiday I figured cycling down would be a nice way to do it.

From Newbury (West Berkshire) I cycled to Portsmouth to get the ferry to Cherbourg, which was the most cost-effective way of crossing the Channel. Over the next ten days I cycled south through France, between 45 and 97 miles per day, camping several times but also staying in B&Bs and with friends.

After walking, cycling is the purest form of travel. I do a lot of thinking on the bike, and it is also at times meditative. Riding a touring bike is about finding a steady, modest pace. The landscape across France is extremely varied, from the rolling hills of Normandy to the flat western coastline in the Vendée region, and the vineyards around Bordeaux which give way to the vast forests north of the Gascogne. No other form of transport combines the speed and intimacy of the landscape like cycling.

"No other form of transport combines the speed and intimacy of the landscape like cycling."

In Hendaye I rented an apartment for a week to rest before the mountain challenge. After finishing on the Mediterranean coast (459 miles completed in 86 hours!) I was dropped off in mid France and spent a week in a rented house with some friends. From there I took the train to Paris, another to Caen, then cycled to the overnight ferry back to the UK.

For tips on travelling by train across Europe, see our blogs here and here.

RailEurope, Trainline and Eurostar will all sell tickets for these journeys, though the cheapest prices might be found through Ouigo (SNCF).

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