Last week I escaped the Belgian grey skies by traveling to Marseille in the south of France. It’s pretty well connected by high speed trains, but often the aircraft tickets are way cheaper than an expensive TGV ticket. But the French railway company SNCF has a hidden gem: their low-cost high speed train OUIGO. It was for me a cheaper and better experience than a plane.
I booked my train two months in advance: 50 euros for a return ticket, more or less the same price as a regular low-cost airline fare. After reading some horror stories about this low-cost idea on wheels, I was somewhat septic. But my experience was rather good.
In 4,5 hours from Lille to Marseille
First of all: OUIGO runs only within France or Spain. Secondly: sometimes it connects big railway stations as Marseille Saint-Charles, sometimes really small ones as Tourcoing. And thirdly: book months in advance, as their ticket prices start at 10 euros.
I took the OUIGO train from the railway station Lille-Flandres near the French-Belgian border. A baby blue high speed train brought me in four and a half hours to Marseille Saint-Charles, in the heart of this Mediterranen city. The OUIGO trains are not as comfortable as regular French TGV trains, as their is no bar coach. But, if you pay a little bit more you can receive Wi-fi and power sockets on board. The chairs are purple and quiet comfortable for Belgian standards, but they are the same ones as in French all station services.
While enjoying my own brought food and book, the landscapes passed by my window. After a stop in Chessy Marne-la-Vallée (Eurodisney), our train called at Lyon-Saint-Exupéry (the airport) were the northern European rain stopped immediately. Springtime started at Avignon-TGV with some blue parts in the sky and some always green Mediterranean trees. After having called at Aix-en-Provence-TGV, the train entered Marseille.
The same overall time as taking a plane
And that was a magical moment. The last minutes people started talking with strangers. The persons from Marseille welcomed us in their town: “Welcome to springtime! I hope you enjoy our beautiful weather and city!” When I left the train, I had the impression of being in another culture. Persons were talking loudly with a Provençal singing accent and using hand gestures. Terraces were already full with people who were enjoying their pastis (a local anise flavoured spirit). And this in just 4 and a half hours from the Belgian border.
And now, let’s talk about the difference with an airline experience. I’ve the impression that you need exactly the same time by traveling by plane. Traveling to the airport, checking in, waiting, boarding, flying, taxiing, entering the Marseille airport and than traveling from this airport to the city center… I’m happy to have opted for the train instead.
It seems that traveling by train in Europe is better for the environment and the climate, which I agree. Personally I prefer the train instead of the plane when their is a good train connection.
An impressive low-cost high speed train network
And for my fellow Belgian travellers: how to get at the French OUIGO hubs? Lille has two OUIGO stations: Lille-Flandres and Tourcoing. Blablabus can bring you for 5 euros from Brussels-Midi station to Lille-Europe station in one hour and twenty minutes. It’s possible to travel cheap from Brussels to Lille by local trains and avoiding the high speed trains, as they’re is no low-cost high speed connection.
OUIGO departs as well at some stations in Paris. Paris is connected with Brussels by low-cost high speed train IZY. It uses in Belgium the high speed tracks, in French just the regular ones. The traject is two hours and a half, the price 19 euros. And numerous bus companies are driving between the Belgian and French capitals.
So, using the OUIGO network needs some creativity and good planning. But it can saves you a lot of money. For me personal speaking, their is no reason anymore to avoid the French national railway company!
Update August 2021: the French OUIGO network became even more impressive. It’s possible to go by OUIGO to Toulouse or even Quimper, Brittany. Since 2021 you can choose your seat in the train with the option “Choix de LA place”. This will cost you 7 euros. Since this year, OUIGO started in Spain a low cost service on wheels between Madrid and Barcelona, with stops in Zaragoza and Tarragona. Prices starting from € 9.