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What to Know About Traveling in Europe Amid Protests and Strikes

Travelers hoping to visit the Louvre Museum in Paris were in for a surprise on Monday: instead of the Mona Lisa, they saw a crowd of protestors blocking museum entrances amid ongoing protests by union workers sweeping the city. The protests are the latest disruptions for those traveling to Europe this spring, as aviation, railway, and bus workers continue to strike over poor pay, working conditions, and other government policies.

Travel experts advise international travelers to expect and prepare for the disruptions well in advance of a busy travel season in Europe. While it’s unlikely the strikes will wipe out your travel plans entirely, there are ways you can circumvent unexpected roadblocks—starting with checking if your flights, hotel reservations, and itineraries overlap with any planned industrial action.

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“The most important thing for travelers to pack when going to Europe this spring is their patience,” adds Michael Holtz, Founder, and CEO of SmartFlyer.

Where are the strikes happening and why?

Industrial action is expected to ripple across Europe on multiple days and in many countries.

The latest disruption for passengers occurred in France due to air traffic controller strikes, where workers have joined an unprecedented wave of industrial action against President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular reforms for pension, which will raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64. Additionally, tens of thousands of people are striking in various French cities as part of their workers’ unions, which includes train, metro and bus drivers.

European airlines have warned this may delay planes landing, taking off, or flying over French airspace. While French law dictates domestic flights must continue during strikes, international flights entering French airspace are not similarly protected. RyanAir, Europe’s biggest airline, is asking customers to sign a petition urging the European Commission to keep the skies open.

Read More: Protests Sweep France After Pension Reform Is Forced Through by Macron

In Germany, two of the country’s largest unions went on strike earlier this week to demand higher pay at airports, ports, railways, underground services, and buses, leading Lufthansa Airlines to ground its flights through March 28. The airline advised travelers via email not to go to the airport unless they have a confirmed booking for a flight. It also urged those who were planning to take a domestic flight to travel by train instead. More flight cancellations are expected this summer.

In the U.K., nearly a thousand border officers have striked on several occasions. At London’s Heathrow Airport Terminal 5, a 10-day strike over a pay dispute has been announced by security guards during the Easter holiday period beginning March 31, although Heathrow stated it will continue to be “open and operational” during this time.

Visitors to Italy are also advised to keep checking if strike announcements overlap with their travel dates as strikes are expected to disrupt transport across the country, with gas station workers taking to the streets to protest against the high prices of petrol. In Spain, 17 airports are affected, including Madrid, Barcelona and Tenerife, as ground staff working for Swissport Handling continue to strike over pay and working conditions until mid-April. (The planned action doesn’t impact major airlines like Ryanair or easyJet.)

How can you plan your travel during a strike?

In most cases, an agreement is usually reached before strike action goes ahead, which means that travelers can hopefully avoid disruptions, says Sean Tipton from the ABTA, a trade association for the U.K. travel industry.

“That said, some strikes will go ahead. So the next thing to do is to put an efficient contingency plan in place,” said Tipton.

After the warning strikes in Germany - Munich
Felix Hörhager—Getty ImagesAfter the warning strike in rail and air traffic, many passengers were on the move in Bavaria, Munich, on March 28, 2023.

Know all the details: Often, strike notices are posted weeks in advance. In most cases, the airlines or train operators will share critical information over email or text messages, but you should also do your own research on whether your trip might be affected by strike action. Check local news sites and airport authority websites as many will post a calendar of proposed strike action.

If possible, avoid dates when strike action is planned. But if traveling on those days is necessary, figure out alternate routes to reach your destination and take detours to avoid areas that may be impacted by the protests. Plan for your safety, too. For example, U.S. travelers can register for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to get current safety information and be contacted by the embassy in emergencies.

And finally, it’s always good travel discipline to have a backup plan, said Tipton. That can include figuring out alternate routes or means of travel; chalking up a different sightseeing itinerary; or planning what to do in instances where you may have to wait for the next available flight or train.

Usually, airlines or train operators are obligated to arrange alternatives for passengers affected by delays or cancellations. Being a member of frequent flyer clubs may enable you to access extra benefits like lounge access through your airlines. Experts also suggest packing everything in your hand luggage: “That way, you can avoid baggage control issues,” Tipton said.

What can you do if your flight or train is delayed or canceled?

In the worst-case scenario where your flight or train is canceled due to strike action, most airlines and train operators will arrange a replacement train or flight or issue a refund. In the instance of overnight transit, the airlines will also pay for your accommodation. You’ll likely have to purchase food or other necessary items, so Tipton advises keeping all your receipts so that you can claim reimbursements from your airlines.

Another hack from Tipton is to purchase a “through ticket” where possible, which means booking all flights to your destination in one go, rather than through multiple, separate bookings. By law, through tickets protect customers by ensuring customers reach their final destination despite unexpected changes or delays. “That’s a good protection if you’re flying long haul, and where your travel involves separate flights,” he said,

Holtz at SmartFlyer also recommends booking through a travel advisor, which can arm travelers with local fixers on the ground in case of disruptions or emergencies. “Even if you hit a snag on your way to a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Loire Valley and your agent is still sleeping, you’ve got a local contact who can step in to help,” he said.

Finally, think about taking out travel insurance. Some credit cards automatically entitle you to insurance that covers labor disruptions, but it’s helpful to check exactly what is covered and what the card’s limits may be. Then, you can determine if you need to purchase additional coverage. “You should always take out travel insurance,” said Tipton, because “without it, you could end up with potentially horrendous bills” in case of medical or other travel emergencies.

In every instance, Tipton says the most important thing is to be aware of your rights. “At the very least, you are entitled to ask for your money back if your flight was canceled,” he said. Travelers can read more about their rights under the European Union rules, which also apply to travelers from Britain (which is no longer part of the E.U.).

Other tips and tricks to make your travel smooth and enjoyable

Holtz says that post-pandemic, travel has adapted to become slower in all the best ways. This means that creating room for flexibility and spontaneity is key.

“By planning for a longer length of stay versus trying to combine too many things, you set yourself up not to be too stressed if the unexpected happens,” he said.

And Tipton’s last piece of advice might sound surprising: don’t over-prepare by arriving at the airport earlier than necessary. Last summer, travelers worried about lining up in long queues at U.K. airports arrived six or seven hours in advance, which in turn created more chaos.

“Suddenly, an airport that would’ve otherwise been empty became full. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Tipton warned.

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