How to Handle Strikes in Europe

In Italy, look for signs warning of a “sciopero,” usually posted at least a few days in advance.
By Rick Steves

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 can affect rail service, transit, taxis, and museum openings anywhere in Europe (especially in Italy). They’re usually announced long in advance. In train stations, 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 last just a day, or even just several hours.

Anticipate strikes — ask your hotelier, talk to locals, look for signs, check online — but don’t feel bullied by them. In theory, train service shuts down during rail strikes, but in reality, sporadic trains lumber down main-line tracks during most strikes (preserving “essential service”).

If a rail or bus strike occurs on your travel day, check the national railway website — special strike schedules are generally posted. Otherwise, head to the station, where the few remaining station personnel can tell you the expected schedule. You’ll likely find a workable train or bus to your destination, though it may involve a wait. While it’s usually possible to get a refund for reservations affected by a strike, there are no refunds for partially used rail passes.

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.