Some tips on travelling to Switzerland with skis, snowboards and other outsize items.
Given the trouble Laurel and Hardy had carrying a piano in ‘The Music Box’, you might think twice about attempting to bring one across Europe and up a vertical mile to a ski resort. Perhaps travelling with a traditional upright piano – an instrument that in Stan and Ollie’s hands turned into a weapon of mass destruction – would be ambitious. But what about carrying a modern digital piano?
It can be done, as I found out recently. Heaving the piano onto the luggage rack of Eurostar may have been a challenge, but wheeling it through the streets of Paris was a breeze, and gliding on the TGV through France and on Swiss trains surprisingly hassle-free. The only leg of the journey that nearly stumped me was the final one, up the mountainside from Le Châble to Verbier, when squeezing onto a gondola with my outsize luggage felt like playing a game of musical sardines. We made it into the resort, however – and thankfully the piano does still work.
The experience was also a pretext for doing some research into a more practical question: how easy is it to travel on public transport with bulky baggage such as skis or a snowboard, and what can you do to make your journey smoother?
Travelling with a piano is, surprisingly, a good way of finding out. A padded case for an 88-key digital piano is roughly the same size as a large wheeled snowboard bag (150 cm x 44cm x 23 cm). A packed piano, however, works out a lot heavier – around 28kg in all.
The ease of the journey depends a great deal on the quality, extent and reliability of the public transport system in your destination country – and in this respect, Switzerland is unrivalled. Most of the main ski resorts are served by train, the remainder by postal buses whose timetable is integrated with those of the railways.
Train journeys from the UK to Switzerland require a change of train – and station – in Paris. However, you do not necessarily need to cross the city. Eurostar trains arrive at the Gare du Nord, and a five-minute walk away is the Gare de l’Est, starting point for TGV Lyria services to Basel and Zürich – ideal for resorts in central and eastern Switzerland.
I also took this route with my piano. Normally the most direct journey to Verbier or any of the resorts of the Valais would be via Lausanne, but TGV trains depart from the Gare de Lyon, a two-stop trip from the Gare du Nord by RER. Instead, I travelled via Basel. Although this meant a longer journey, the cost within Switzerland need not be any higher, thanks to the fixed-price Swiss Transfer Ticket (see above).
Transporting bulky baggage on TGV trains and Swiss railways is fairly straightforward: all have storage areas, and as long as you can carry on the luggage yourself, and it doesn’t block the corridors, staff do not bother you.
The situation with Eurostar, however, is different. With the exception of the direct Eurostar ski train to France’s Three Valleys and nearby resorts, Eurostar does not permit passengers to carry items of luggage that are longer than 85 cm – which rules out most winter sports equipment.
Instead, you are officially advised to use Eurostar’s registered baggage service, and collect your equipment on arrival at Paris Gare du Nord. The catch is that your baggage may not travel on the same train; Eurostar only guarantees that your luggage is ready to collect in Paris within 24 hours of registration.
A couple of days before taking my train to the Alps, I visited St. Pancras for clarification. I spoke to several members of Eurostar staff, and they all said the same: that plenty of travellers turn up at check-in with ski and snowboard equipment, and carry it on board themselves. Staff did, however, suggest allowing plenty of extra time for check-in: turn up at the last minute for a train that is heavily booked, and you may not be allowed to carry on your bulky baggage with you.
Confused, I contacted the office responsible for dealing with registered luggage: EuroDespatch, located at the back of the station. A member of staff confirmed the official regulations. Why the 85cm rule, I asked? He said that long items of luggage potentially posed a safety risk, because of the high-voltage overhead cables. Gosh. Does that mean I could get electrocuted via my metal-rimmed spectacles, which must be about 1.60m off the platform?
I found the other reason he gave for not letting passengers carry ski bags on board more plausible. The bags can be used to carry ski poles, he said, which could be considered “a dangerous weapon”. Anyone who has been to a ski resort at half-term, and found themselves in a lift queue with boisterous French teenagers, knows the painful truth of that fact.
In the end, when it came to setting off with my piano, I decided to chance it, as many skiers and snowboarders do. I checked in early, and was waved through. As I was one of the first on the train, I easily found space on the overhead rack to put my piano – though heaving the 28kg case up there took practice.
The walk in Paris from Gare du Nord to Gare de l’Est took in a couple of pedestrian crossings, the odd kerb, and a short flight of steps – all manageable for an able-bodied traveller. Both the TGV and the Swiss trains had overhead racks with widely separated partitions where I could store the case, and only the gondola up to Verbier posed a serious logistical challenge.
So, the trip was a success. And now the piano is safely unpacked in my room, only one question remains. Where on earth am I going to keep it?
Travelling with heavy equipment
Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk) offers through tickets to Basel, Lausanne and other Swiss cities. A return from London to Lausanne costs from £150.
Planning a Swiss train journey
To plan a journey in Switzerland, use the online timetable (www.sbb.ch) and simply enter your time and place of arrival in Switzerland and your final destination to receive a detailed travel plan – including sectors by bus, cable car, gondola or boat, as necessary, and ticket prices.
Rather than buying a return ticket, it may be cheaper to buy a Swiss Travel System pass – but you need to order this in the UK. For a ski trip, the best deal is often the Swiss Transfer Ticket. This costs £79 return (2nd class), and is valid from any airport or border crossing to any resort; with an additional free Family Card, children up to age 15 accompanied by at least one parent travel free of charge (www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk). For more information about tickets of the Swiss Travel System, contact the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com).
Flying with heavy equipment
You can, of course, shorten the journey by flying. In terms of transporting ski or snowboard equipment to Switzerland, the best deal I have come across is from Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com), which will carry one piece of winter sports luggage free of charge on top of your normal baggage allowance (20kg in economy class).
Most other airlines charge extra. British Airways (08444 930 787; www.ba.com) offers a one-bag allowance of 23kg in Euro Traveller class; extra bags are charged at £28 per flight when booked online. Easyjet (www.easyjet.co.uk) charges for all bags. One bag checked into the hold on a flight to Geneva costs £18 return; each item of sports equipment costs £20 single.
- Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
- Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)