Nicholas Roe takes a front-row seat on a daytime coach service blazing a budget trail between the capitals.
Glancing round from my seat on Megabus, the new, ultra-cheap London-to-Paris coach, I find myself staring at the face of financial doom. Of the 50 seats in the vehicle standing on the forecourt of Victoria Coach Station, no fewer than 15 are empty - surely a sign that this brave new service to the Continent doesn't appeal to enough low-cost travellers to make it work?
A quick chat with Ian Mitchell, Megabus's representative at Victoria, put me right: "Some people don't bother to turn up because the fares are so cheap it doesn't seem to matter to them if they decide not to go," he says. That makes sense. With fares as low as £1 ($1.60), few are going to worry about wasting the price of a ticket if they don't feel like travelling on the day. Megabus still gets the money and the rest of us get a little bit more room.
Started last month as an extension to a domestic city-to-city coach service that has operated in Britain since 2003, Megabus sounds almost too good to be true: a smooth ride from London to Paris (and to Boulogne, Amsterdam and Brussels), with one-way fares from £1 to £40, depending on when you book. By the time I grab my online ticket, with 36 hours to spare before the journey, the cheapest available is a tenner, plus 50p booking fee. Still - Paris for £10.50? Bring it on!
Next thing, I'm standing in Victoria Coach Station in morning's cold light, climbing aboard and heading out at 9 o'clock for the romance of the open road.
Megabus is owned by Stagecoach, run by Sir Brian Souter, one of Britain's most colourful entrepreneurs. He funded his way through university and beyond by working as a humble bus conductor before buying two second-hand buses in 1980. Today, Stagecoach turns over £2 billion, so you take notice when this man promises that Megabus will deliver "a long-overdue shake-up to the overpriced European coach travel market".
The service offers "free wi-fi and toilets" and conditions aren't bad at all. Think of a fractionally-reclining airline seat, add a bit more padding with a slightly broader armrest, and you have the idea. My bag is at my feet but most are stashed in the hold. The toilet is clean and considerably bigger than the flying equivalent.
Eurolines, the coach service run by National Express, is offering £9 one-way London-to-Paris fares until June, which competes sharply with Megabus. Eurostar last month offered one-way seats for travel in May for £34.50.
It's two hours by road from London to Dover, where we catch the ferry for Calais with minimal fuss. Strolling around the ship for a little more than an hour makes for a nice change, then it's back on the bus and off to a scheduled stop at Boulogne, followed by a whizz along the A16, and around Amiens to the Porte Maillot coach stop on the edge of Paris. The stop is about eight miles (13 kilometres) from the centre, but still on the Metro, and 30-minutes from the Gare du Nord.