Seriously. What is the best way? Most people would never consider driving, since it only takes a mere 1 hour and 20 minutes for the high-speed Thalys trains to coast between both cities. However, they also don’t live in either departure or arrival railway station either — so in reality it actually takes quite a bit longer than that. So what is the best way? Car or train? Let’s have a virtual race and find out!
From where to where?
Obviously we need a place to go to in Paris, and how more cliché can we get by picking the city’s most famous landmark: the Eiffel Tower! It’s most likely not everybody’s cup of tea — I have been to Paris countless times, and I’ve only once been close to it, without actually having climbed it. No other Parisian icon oozes more of “la vie en rose” though, and it also happens to be the most visited paid monument in the world.
And from where do we start? We’re setting off from Brussels, so let’s pretend we all live inside the city’s most famous stainless steel balls: the Atomium! Built to be featured on the World Expo of 1958, it’s still standing, and it’s arguably Brussels’ most recognisable building.
We also need some kind of time reference, so our virtual race starts at 9:00 in the morning.
Why don’t you fly?
Good point. From Brussels National Airport, the flight takes about one hour. Yet, with all the hassle of having to navigate through two international airports, it’s doubtful that a great deal of people will actually choose this option. Only Brussels Airlines seems to offer direct flights, and only two of those a day anyway (6:50 and 9:25). Return flights are at 7:30 and 8:45, so you’d be stuck in Paris for the night. Air travel definitely loses to car or train as far as flexibility is concerned, and who would ever choose to fly between Brussels and Paris?
It’s fair to say that this is probably the easiest to prepare — start the car, and drive. Once in Paris, we don’t want to leave our car in the middle of the street, so we’re aiming for a parking lot near the Eiffel Tower. There are several spots according to Google Maps, so let’s take the one with the shortest walking distance: Parking Quai Branly – Tour Eiffel.
Google Maps clocks the trip at 3 hours and 23 minutes, and experience from having made that trip by car quite a few times before, tells me that this is about right.
At the parking lot, let’s waste 10 minutes trying to find a free spot, and then walk 8 minutes to cover the last 600m. We have arrived at 12:38!
For this we need to go to Brussels-South Railway Station, and grab a Thalys high-speed train that goes all the way to Gare du Nord in Paris.
There are several options to go to the railway station, so let’s take a look at the car first.
Google Maps estimates it would take between 26 and 31 minutes (for distances ranging from 9.3km to 19.8km). Since we do need to take a train after this, let’s err on the side of caution, and take the full 31 minutes as suggested by our Google friends.
It takes about 10 minutes to find a parking spot and walk to the platform (if you use the VIP section of the parking), and about 5 minutes more if you use the standard parking and find yourself in one of the remote corners on the lowest floor. So 15 minutes it is.
Since we don’t want to arrive at the platform at the exact same time that our train departs, let’s add an extra margin of 10 minutes (which leaves enough time to go buy a coffee).
(Apparently, according to Google Maps, it takes about the same time to bike to the railway station — because it’s downhill. You would probably gain some time since you don’t need to formally park your bike, but I would dismiss this option since it will most likely rain. And your bicycle will probably be gone when you get back from Paris anyway.)
Obviously, we can also take train or subway from our “home” to the railway station.
The fastest we can ever make it by subway is in 31 minutes — that translates to an arrival time of 9:35 (because we need to walk from “home” to the subway station), to which we’ll add 2 minutes to get to the platform.
There is a train option as well — we would arrive at 9:42 plus the same 2 minutes to walk to the Thalys platform.
In reality, we could even have jogged (some of us anyway) since the earliest train we can realistically take, is the one at 10:13. There is a 9:13 train as well, but we can never make it this early to the railway station.
Safely aboard the 10:13 Thalys from Brussels to Paris, we will arrive at Gare du Nord at 11:44.
From this point on, we’ll have to split our race again. One of our clones will go to the Rue de Dunkerque exit, and hail an Uber, and the other clone will check out Paris’ mass transit system.
So let’s follow the Uber clone first.
It takes about 5 minutes to walk from the platform to the exit at Rue de Dunkerque, and savvy people will have an Uber waiting for them. As soon as you are within the boundaries of Gare du Nord (as your train pulls in), the Uber app will allow you to hail your car. So all you need to do is walk up to it, and get in. Let’s say we start driving at 11:50. According to the various options displayed by Google Maps, the trip will take between 23 and 31 minutes — so that’s 27 minutes on average. Exit the car as close to the Eiffel Tower as possible, and all that’s left is a 2 minute stroll.
And how about our mass transit clone?
According to Google Maps, again, two different trajectories can bring us to the base of the Eiffel Tower by 12:30. The first option involves taking two local trains (RER), which takes 31 minutes. The second option means using the subway, followed by a local train.
In the end, there really isn’t that much of a difference. The car takes us to the Eiffel Tower in 3 hours and 38 minutes, or by 12:38. The fastest train option (train, followed by an Uber ride) gets us there by 12:19, and the slowest train trajectory (train, followed by mass transit) does the same by 12:30.
So which one is best?
If you plan trips at least a month in advance, train fares are pretty reasonable. On the other hand, if you decide today that you need to be in Paris tomorrow, prices are pretty steep (284 EUR for a return ticket in Comfort 1). The rolling stock dates from the end of the last century, and to be really honest, it’s starting to show. The seat comfort is quite all right, but the interior of the trains looks dated, and there’s only one word good enough to describe the lavatories: shameful.
In our virtual race, the car is only a tad bit slower, but that obviously depends on where you live. You do have an endless amount of flexibility though, and really, driving in Paris is not as bad as it’s made out to be.
For my last couple of trips to Paris, I decided to go by train, because it’s what common sense dictates. Next time however, I’m throwing common sense out of the window, and I’ll have some fun driving!