Travel chaos on France’s fabled rail network reigned this week as unions began a series of two-day strikes that are scheduled to take place through the end of June. Compounded by simultaneous strikes by Air France workers, tourists experienced a difficult travel experience in and around Paris and other cities this week.
France’s SNCF rail authority said 86 percent of its trains were canceled nationwide on Wednesday (the second day of this week’s strike), with delays still expected as the rail line returns to normal operations. Almost no trains operated Wednesday between France and Italy, Spain or Switzerland, while about a dozen Eurostar trains to and from the U.K. were canceled.
This is a particularly busy travel time of year, as many European school systems are off for spring break. In a story published this week, the Associated Press reported that airline flight cancellations and a scarcity of trains and seats squeezed out tourists and commuters who struggled to get to their destinations.
The unions are striking to defy French President Emmanuel Macron's economic policies, which include eliminating lifetime benefits for certain rail employees.
One reporter interviewed a British tourist who expected to lose an entire vacation to Cannes that was to include a Eurostar component between London and Paris.
Next week’s strike dates are Apr. 8-9. The current published strike schedule includes back-to-back, two-day strikes generally every three days through June 18. Air France workers are scheduled to strike again on Apr. 10-11.
A list of the dates that the rail unions will be striking can be found here.
One travel agent's recommendations
Marissa Fontanini, who runs her own agency, Distinguished Travelers, in Cary, North Carolina, was in Paris in late March during a previous rail strike. Her experience gave her a firsthand understanding of what her clients might face this spring.
Fontanini’s train from Paris to Strasbourg, for the French Tourism Board’s International Rendez Vous En France conference, was canceled, and she had to wait six hours for a later departure. Fellow travelers chose other options, including taking a bus, or staying overnight for a train the next day.
“There were multiple rail employees throughout the station readily assisting passengers with their itineraries and answering questions. I didn’t have to exchange my ticket or get a new ticket reissued. And, while the wait was very long, it was reassuring to know that, in spite of the strike, trains were still running, albeit on limited schedules,” she said.
“As a travel professional, I knew I had to be prepared for anything, as this is a very volatile situation, not only for those living and working in France, but tourists as well.”
Fontanini is undaunted by her rail strike experience and is going back to France in late April. She also has a family of four traveling to London, Paris and Rome in the middle of the strike, with a Eurostar leg from London to Paris. “We’re discussing contingency plans, and they have travel insurance,” Fontanini said.
To assist clients with any anxiety, she strongly advises them to purchase travel insurance.
“There are many unknowns that we cannot plan ahead for. The peace of mind I had knowing that I would not incur additional personal expenses because of the strike was reassuring. Many travelers see travel protection as an unnecessary additional expense until they are faced with a travel emergency.”
And for clients less experienced traveling abroad, “working with a qualified agent can make the difference between a vacation nightmare and a mere hiccup in your travel plans,” she said.