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As per the answers to Travelling by train in mainland Europe, will I save money by booking my tickets early?, you should normally book your Eurostar tickets in advance, ideally a few months out (especially for popular trains).

Despite that, there's something a little different when it comes to the 30 minute trip between Lille and Brussels. These are the prices for 4 days time: enter image description here

It's basically the same thing whichever day I pick - normally only one train offers any class other than standard, the rest only offer non-flexible tickets at an apparently fixed price.

Given that, is it possible to just turn up at Brussels station a bit more than 30 minutes out from the train I end up wanting, buy a ticket for this price and travel? Or do I still need to book online in advance (for one specific train since there's almost no flexible ones) to get this £24 price?

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(For those wondering why the Eurostar, there's currently only 1-2 Thalys trips per day between Brussels and Lille, normal Intercity trains seem to be almost the same price and take 3 times as long. TGV looks to be slightly cheaper on a special weekend fare, and just as quick, but there are more+later Eurostars than TGVs on the day I want to travel)

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If the goal is just to travel from Brussels to Lille, note that Eurostar is not the only way to go. You may check out TGV and Thalys, as well as regular intercity trains. –  DavLink May 13 at 15:53
    
Sadly there's currently only 1-2 Thalys trains per day each way from Lille, and an IC train takes a lot longer. TGV can be an option, but there seems to be more Eurostar departures than TGV ones –  Gagravarr May 13 at 16:18
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3 Answers 3

The Belgian Eurostar website suggests that there are in fact only two prices and one class (compare that with tickets to London, where the price quoted is only a minimum “à partir de”).

Note that the Brussels/Lille link has been contentious, with commuters and local politicians in Belgium and France wanting easy access and Eurostar and the UK authorities lukewarm to the idea over concerns that people could board the train with a ticket to Lille and continue to London without proper documentation. Consequently, the specific conditions (passport check or not, which trains and classes are available, single ticket or commuter's season ticket) have changed over the years.

I don't know all the details but the unusual pricing seems to result from this. Quoting the conditions of carriage:

For security and border control reasons, any booking for travel from Brussels to Lille or Calais is available in Standard class only and limited to coach 18. During your journey between Brussels and Lille or Calais, movements to and from this coach will be controlled. You must cooperate with our on-board staff and agents, as well as security and border control authorities in the stations in relation to these requirements.

So you can't buy a standard or business premier ticket or even get a seat anywhere else than in carriage 18. You also have to show up at another entrance (“Terminal intra-Schengen”).

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My screenshot implies that on at least one train, you can buy a business premier ticket, though I've no idea how that works with the restrictions you've quoted... –  Gagravarr May 13 at 16:23
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@Gagravarr Based on searches on various other websites (SNCB Europe, NS Hispeed, Bahn.de), this train seems to be a Thalys, introduced in April. There is no direct Eurostar to London between 08:52 and 10:56. –  Relaxed May 13 at 18:35
    
That's a bit sneaky of them if so, since it isn't labelled as such! –  Gagravarr May 13 at 22:01
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TL;DR - These appear to only be bookable on the website, and must be booked more than 1.5 days before departure, but are a fixed amount as shown in the screenshot

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These tickets are a little bit special, in many ways, and seem to be rather difficult to actually book. The prices are given on the Eurostar Belgian website (but not most of the other Eurostar sites!), and are €25 / £24 for a non-flexible ticket.

If you look on the Eurostar website before mid afternoon two days before travel (exact time TBC), you will be able to see and book these tickets. For travel on a Thursday, that would mean booking no later than mid afternoon Tuesday. After that, including during the evening 2 days before, they all vanish from the Eurostar website, and only the Thalys tickets remain. (The website will also only offer non-flexible tickets, despite the ticket options website stating that semi-flexible tickets should exist too)

You might think you could book these by phone, but I would advise against even trying... I rang the Eurostar UK booking line, who initially denied they even had trains running between Brussels and Lille, instead attempting to convince me that I was confused! They then changed their mind and said the trains ran, but you couldn't buy a ticket. When I pointed out their website sold them, they said that was a mistake, and it shouldn't. They point blank refused to believe they sold tickets for their own trains on this route, and told me to try ringing SNCF to buy them (seriously!)

SNCF unsurprisingly said to ask Eurostar, and offered my tickets instead on the TGV 30 minutes before I wanted to travel. Next up was Eurostar Belgium, who suggested I tried their website, or tried ringing the UK. They said tickets did exist, but that the Belgian call centre wasn't allowed to sell them.

Finally, I headed to the Railteam booking office in Brussels, just by the Eurostar checkin. They said that they are not allowed to sell Brussels to Lille Eurostar tickets, only Brussels to the UK ones. They said that the tickets can only be booked online, only on the Eurostar website, and only until "some point" two days before travel. (They happily sold me a TGV ticket to get to Lille)

So, verdict seems to be:

  • In person - no
  • On the phone - no
  • Online - yes, but only until late afternoon 2 days before travel

Quite why Eurostar are so strange about these tickets I don't know, and quite why the Eurostar booking teams are so useless about them I don't know either, but if you really want to book these tickets despite Eurostar's best efforts to persuade you otherwise then online is your only option

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Other answers have detailed what is going on with these tickets, let me explain why.

These tickets are strange because of the so-called "Lille Loophole".

Passengers from Brussels to Lille are making an cross-border intra-Schengen journey and therefore do not have to show their passport to travel. This means that people who are not entitled to travel to the UK could board this train. Prior to the changes in 2013, they could also purchase a Lille-London ticket for the same seat, stay on the train and then enter the UK without passing UK border control.

The result of this was that UK Borders Agency, in 2011, started conducting passport checks on all passengers disembarking from Brussels-Lille trains (ie all Brussels trains) which was an inconvenience for cross-tunnel passengers - which is the majority of passengers on those trains. Brussels-Lille (and Brussels-Calais) passengers are the only passengers on Eurostar that don't pass through the tunnel, and Eurostar wanted to refuse to carry them, but the Belgian and French governments wouldn't permit them to do that (it would force them to run more TGV and/or Thalys trains to provide a replacement service).

Eventually the compromise was reached in 2013 that Brussels-Lille passengers are all held in a single, separate carriage and that carriage is cleared out at Lille to ensure that passengers can't stay on the train to the UK. If you want to break the journey in Lille, you have to buy separate tickets, leave the platform and pass through security and immigration controls before boarding your train to the UK - which will certainly be a different train, as there's no way you can do all of that in the time that a train spends at the platform.

Tickets in the opposite direction (ie Lille-Brussels or Calais-Brussels) are perfectly normal tickets, as there is no worry about passengers remaining on the train. This means that you can travel first class (only Standard Premier, not Business Premier) from Lille to Brussels but not the reverse - this is why you will sometimes see first-class tickets for this route listed; you can go first class in one direction but not the other.

Note that Eurostar cannot be used for domestic journeys, ie Calais-Lille, Ashford-London, Ashford-Ebbsfleet and Ebbsfleet-London.

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If you're wondering why you can't travel Business Premier from Lille to Brussels, the only benefits of BP over SP are a cooked meal and fast-tracking through security/immigration/customs. On Lille-Brussels, there isn't time to cook a meal, and there's no security, immigration or customs to pass through, so there is only one first-class level of service, and therefore only one first-class fare. –  Richard Gadsden yesterday
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