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Fun facts about traveling in Europe amid protests and strikes

TRavels hoping to visit the Louvre Museum in Paris were in for a surprise Monday: instead of the Mona Lisa, they saw crowds of protesters blocking museum entrances amid ongoing protests by union workers who swept the city. The protests are the latest disruption for those traveling to Europe this spring, as airline, rail and bus workers continue to strike over poor wages, working conditions and other government policies.

Travel experts are advising international travelers to anticipate and prepare for disruptions ahead of a busy travel season in Europe. While the strikes are unlikely to completely scupper your travel plans, there are ways to avoid unexpected roadblocks – starting with checking if your flights, hotel reservations and travel itineraries overlap with planned labor disputes.

“The most important thing for travelers heading to Europe this spring is patience,” added Michael Holtz, founder and CEO of SmartFlyer.

Where are the strikes taking place and why?

Industrial action is expected to erupt over several days and in many countries across Europe.

The latest disruption to passengers has come in France due to air traffic controllers’ strikes, where workers have joined an unprecedented wave of industrial action against President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular pension reform, which will raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Thousands of people are on strike in various French cities as part of their workers’ unions, which include train, metro and bus drivers.

European airlines have warned that this could delay landing, takeoff or flight over French airspace. While French law requires domestic flights to continue during strikes, international flights entering French airspace are not similarly protected. RyanAir, Europe’s largest airline, is asking customers to sign a petition calling on the European Commission to keep the airspace open.

Continue reading: Protests sweep France after Macron pushes through pension reform

In Germany, two of the country’s biggest unions went on strike earlier this week to demand higher wages at airports, ports, railways, subways and buses, prompting Lufthansa to halt its flights until March 28. The airline advised travelers via email not to go to the airport unless they had a confirmed booking on a flight. It also urged those planning a domestic flight to travel by train instead. More flight cancellations are expected this summer.

In the UK, nearly a thousand border guards have gone on multiple strikes. At London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5, security guards have announced a 10-day strike over a wage dispute over the Easter holiday period from March 31, although Heathrow said it will remain “open and operational” during this period.

Visitors to Italy are also advised to keep checking for strike announcements clashing with their travel dates, as strikes are expected to disrupt transport across the country and petrol station workers to take to the streets to protest high fuel prices. In Spain, 17 airports have been affected, including Madrid, Barcelona and Tenerife, as Swissport Handling ground staff went on strike over pay and working conditions until mid-April. (The proposed action will not affect major airlines such as Ryanair or easyJet.)

How can you plan your trip during a strike?

In most cases, an agreement is usually reached before strikes take place, meaning travelers can hopefully avoid disruption, says Sean Tipton of ABTA, a trade association for the UK travel industry.

“Nevertheless, some strikes will take place. So the next thing we need to do is put in place an efficient contingency plan,” Tipton said.

After the warning strike in rail and air transport, many passengers were on the move in Bavaria, Munich on March 28th, 2023.

Felix Hörhager – Getty Images

Knowing all the details: Strike announcements are often posted weeks in advance. In most cases, the airlines or train operators share important information via email or SMS, but you should also do your own research to see if your journey could be affected by strikes. Check local news sites and airport authority websites as many post a calendar of proposed strike action.

If possible, avoid dates when strikes are planned. But if it is necessary to travel on these days, find alternative routes to reach your destination and make detours to avoid areas that could be affected by the protests. Plan for your safety too. For example, U.S. travelers can enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive up-to-date safety information and be contacted by the embassy in the event of an emergency.

And finally, it’s always good travel discipline to have a backup plan, Tipton said. This may include finding alternative routes or means of travel; create another sightseeing route; or plan what to do if you may have to wait for the next available flight or train.

As a rule, airlines or train operators are obliged to organize alternatives for passengers affected by delays or cancellations. As a frequent flyer club member, you may be able to access additional benefits such as lounge access through your airlines. Experts also advise packing everything in your hand luggage: “This way you can avoid problems with luggage inspection,” says Tipton.

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

In the worst case, if your flight or train is canceled due to strikes, most airlines and train operators will organize a replacement train or flight or issue a refund. In the case of an overnight transit, the airlines also pay for your accommodation. You’ll likely need to buy groceries or other necessary items, so Tipton advises keeping any receipts so you can claim refunds from your airlines.

Another trick Tipton uses is to buy a “through ticket” whenever possible, meaning you book all the flights to your destination at once rather than making multiple separate bookings. By law, through tickets protect customers by ensuring customers reach their final destination despite unexpected changes or delays. “It’s good protection if you’re flying long-haul and your trip involves multiple flights,” he said.

SmartFlyer’s Holtz also recommends booking through a travel advisor, who can arm travelers with local fixers in the event of disruptions or emergencies. “Even if you hit an obstacle on your way to a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Loire Valley and your agent is still asleep, you have a local contact who can help you,” he said.

Finally, consider purchasing travel insurance. Some credit cards automatically entitle you to insurance that covers work stoppages, but it’s helpful to check exactly what’s covered and what the card’s limits are. Then you can determine if you need to purchase additional coverage. “You should always have travel insurance,” Tipton said, because “without it, you could end up with potentially horrendous bills in the event of a medical or other travel emergency.”

In any case, Tipton says the most important thing is to be aware of your rights. “At least you have the right to claim your money back if your flight has been cancelled,” he said. Travelers can learn more about their rights under European Union regulations, which also apply to travelers from the UK (which is no longer part of the EU).

More tips and tricks to make your trip smooth and enjoyable

Holtz says post-pandemic travel has adapted in the best way to slow down. Therefore, it is important to create space for flexibility and spontaneity.

“By planning for a longer length of stay instead of trying to combine too many things, you prepare yourself not to get too stressed when the unexpected happens,” he said.

And Tipton’s final piece of advice might come as a surprise: don’t prepare yourself too well by arriving at the airport earlier than necessary. Last summer, travelers worried about queuing at UK airports arrived six or seven hours in advance, causing even more chaos.

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

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