Travelers to Europe are largely free from coronavirus restrictions, but they may have to contend with another challenge: navigating disruptions as airline, railway and bus workers walk off the job over low wages and labor conditions.
That was the case on Feb. 17 after a full-day strike by airport employees across Germany halted airline operations countrywide, leading Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline, to cancel more than 1,300 flights. Some travelers were stranded overnight.
“People were tired and desperate,” said Kate Kennedy, 43, who was transiting through Frankfurt to London with her family when their flight home was canceled. She, her sister, their partners and four young children spent much of the day waiting for standby flights. Lufthansa was not much help, she said, adding, “It was such a shame to end a holiday like that.”
Travel experts are anticipating a busy travel season ahead, with bookings to many European destinations matching, and, in some cases, surpassing prepandemic numbers. But with high inflation continuing to pressure European workers who say they are underpaid and overworked, strikes are expected to hit industries from aviation to rail and urban metros.
“It’s going to be an uncertain environment and one that’s subject to a lot of disruption and inconvenience for travelers,” said Henry Harteveldt, the founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry research company based in the United States.
Here’s a look at how labor disruptions could affect travelers to Europe in the weeks and months ahead.
Who is striking and where?
Several European countries are expecting widespread industrial action in the coming months.
In Britain, Border Force staff are planning to strike on March 15, along with London Underground train drivers — part of an ongoing wave of rail strikes. In France, where anger over a plan to raise the country’s retirement age is growing, a planned mass strike on March 7 involving workers in several sectors — including the country’s national railway operator, SNCF — is expected to bring many operations to a halt. The disruptions to rail services, unions have signaled, could continue into March.
Air traffic controllers in Spain, deadlocked over pay negotiations, have already walked out on some Mondays in February, and are planning more actions for Tuesdays in March at some 16 Spanish airports. Swissport, a Zurich-based company that provides ground-handling services for several major airlines, has confirmed that its unionized employees in Spain are also planning to strike this month — a situation that could potentially extend into April. In Italy, baggage handlers, railway staff and some local public transport workers will also be striking throughout March, according to the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport.
And Ver.di, one union behind the strike in Germany, has said it is prepared to stage more walkouts if wage negotiations are not resolved.
How can I plan for a strike?
The first thing to do is to check whether your trip might coincide with a planned strike, travel experts say, and avoid traveling on those dates, if possible.
Labor Organizing and Union Drives
Strike notices are typically posted weeks in advance. Travelers should do their own research rather than wait for airlines or agents to share critical information, said Mr. Harteveldt, the travel analyst. “It’s definitely not an easy time to travel, and travelers have to really take the initiative to protect themselves,” he said.
That includes checking local news sites and setting alerts for strike dates. Some authorities, including in Italy, provide a calendar of national and regional strikes. Eurail B.V., a company that sells European rail passes, has a list of many anticipated disruptions by country.
Also, Mr. Harteveldt said, consider flying to your destination a few days before or after a planned strike if you’re traveling for a time-sensitive event like a wedding or a funeral. And make sure the airlines and your travel adviser, if you used one, have your up-to-date contact details in the event of last-minute changes. If that happens, be prepared to accept compromises and alternative routes to your final destination.
“If you’re coming over to Europe, I would try to book as early as you can,” said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for ABTA, a trade association for British travel agents.
Rob Stern, another travel agent, offers his clients some practical tips when traveling in places where labor disruptions are a strong possibility: Visit your most important attractions at the beginning of a city visit, avoid one-day trips, and book a backup travel option in advance if you can.
“Strikes can be alarming to travelers, but they don’t need to be stressful,” said Rick Steves, the travel writer and television host, adding that because strikes are generally announced in advance, flexible travelers can find alternatives. “Ask your hotelier, talk to locals, look for signs, check online and then adapt from there.”
What am I entitled to if my flight or train is delayed?
Under European Union rules, if an airline cancels or significantly delays a flight, travelers flying into, out of, or within the bloc (with some exceptions) have the right to either a refund or a replacement flight with the original airline or with a partner airline. Those rules also apply to travelers from Britain, even though it is no longer in the European Union.
You may be entitled to reimbursement for personal costs, such as food and accommodations, if you are delayed overnight. And if your flight is delayed for three hours or more, you may also claim further compensation of between 250 euros to 600 euros, or about $265 to $635, depending on the distance of the trip.
Airlines may not be obligated to pay compensation if there are extraordinary circumstances such as extreme weather conditions, or a strike by workers not related to the airline, such as air traffic controllers.
Many American travelers in Europe are unaware of their passenger rights, which include reimbursement for luggage gone astray as a result of labor actions, said Igor Mass, a founder of My Fly Right. The group, which is based in Germany, helps about 100,000 passengers in Europe each year prosecute airlines to get compensation for flight disruptions and lost luggage. Mr. Mass advises travelers to document any inconveniences: Make sure you have written confirmation of flight delays and hold onto receipts incurred during disruptions, so you can support your claims later.
Whether such claims are resolved quickly, however, depends on the airline. Airline call centers and travel agents may be swamped by customer requests if a strike affects operations, which could lead to long wait times to get assistance.
For flights that involve connections, Mr. Tipton suggests booking the trip as a single ticket, rather than as multiple flight bookings. Under European Union and British law, a single ticket protects customers by putting the responsibility on the airline to see the traveler through to their final destination. “If you miss the first leg, it’s the airline’s problem. They still have to get you on another flight back to the U.S.,” he said.
In the event of a strike, most European railway companies will offer refunds or a chance to rebook on a later train, but it is best to check the railway operator’s website for updates. For instance, Comboios de Portugal, which operates trains in Portugal, has travel alerts on its website with information on how to seek a refund in the event of a strike.
Should I get travel insurance?
If you own a credit card, check first to see if it comes with travel insurance that will cover labor disruptions.
“Find out what is covered, and if there is a financial limit or any other restrictions,” Mr. Harteveldt said. After that, he added, it’s up to the individual traveler to determine if any additional travel insurance will provide peace of mind.
Some travel insurance may “cover incidental expenses, like the hotel stay you have reserved in the next city you can’t get to in time,” Mr. Stern said.
If you decide to buy extra travel insurance, check the terms and conditions. Some, for example, may not offer coverage if strike dates have already been called by the time you buy the insurance.
Anything else to keep in mind?
Even if an industrial action disrupts your plans, it’s important to not become overly anxious about the outcome, Mr. Tipton said. “It’ll be an inconvenience rather than a disaster.”
And the event might add another perspective for tourists. “My favorite way to handle strikes is to view them as a cultural experience,” said Mr. Steves, recounting a visit to Marseille, France, during a strike. “I explored the markets, enjoyed photographing striking parents as children rode on their shoulders, and learned firsthand what labor action is all about.”
But the flight disruptions after the German airport workers’ strike earlier this month added more than a day of travel for Ms. Kennedy and her family, who said they waited six hours at the airport before they resigned themselves to staying in Frankfurt for the night. “The kids were broken,” she said. Displeased with the customer service she had received from Lufthansa, Ms. Kennedy said she is planning to seek compensation for the delay.
She also suggests keeping phone and device chargers in your hand luggage. “We would have really struggled without them.”
Despite her ordeal, she was not apprehensive about traveling again — she is already scheduling another trip during the Easter holidays to visit her sister in Denmark.
After her Frankfurt experience, she said, “I think I’d do a little bit more research around where I’m going and what the strike situation is there.”
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