How to Handle Strikes in Europe

By Rick Steves

Across Europe, worker strikes are common, especially in summer...and especially in Italy, France, and Greece. Unions have tremendous power there, and labor disputes can cause huge disruptions across certain sectors, such as national rail networks, airlines, city transit, museums, gas stations — not to mention other industries (telecommunications, education, trucking) with a less direct impact on travelers.

The threat of a strike often alarms travelers on a tight itinerary, and many worry about getting stranded somewhere because of a strike. But in general, they're nothing to stress about.

Strikes are usually announced long in advance in stations and online. Look for signs saying sciopero (Italian), grève (French), apergia (or απεργία — Greek), Streik (German), or huelga (Spanish).

Though they may be more frequent in Europe than in the US, they also tend to be much shorter. Most rail strikes last just a day, or even just several hours.

If a rail or bus strike occurs on your travel day, head to the station anyway, where the few remaining station personnel can tell you the expected schedule. In theory, train service shuts down, but in reality, sporadic trains lumber down main-line tracks during most strikes (preserving "essential service"). You'll likely find a workable train or bus to your destination, though it may involve a wait (stay near the station). While it's usually possible to get a refund for reservations affected by a strike, there are no refunds for partially used rail passes.

Anticipate strikes — ask your hotelier, talk to locals, look for signs, check online — but don't feel bullied by them. I've spent every summer of my adult life dancing around these strikes, and still have encountered no major problem.

For the Back Door traveler, strikes can even be a cultural experience. On one visit to Marseille, I was surrounded by thousands of strikers marching through the streets. It was a festive occasion. The museums were closed, so I explored the markets and enjoyed photographing striking parents — children rode on their shoulders and learned first hand what labor action is all about.