The Total Guide to Train Strikes in France: Ride Out the Aggravations

Is there anything more quintessentially French than strikes? Here's a look at what to know when planning your French train travel.

The French railway company SNCF is particularly and infamously susceptible to strikes. Here’s a look at the probability of strikes affecting your travel in 2019, how to plan your trip, and what to do if there’s a strike on your travel dates.

Update History of This Article

This article was first published on March 15, 2019.

Will SNCF workers strike in 2019, and what French trains will be affected?

When SNCF workers vote for a strike day, the union, La Fédération CGT, does not announce how strikes will affect French trains until the before the strike itself at the “end of the afternoon”.

When French train strikes happen, there is no telling until these announcements are made if your particular train route and time will be affected. Some “minimum service” remains in place, but a large number of routes are canceled.

We thus strongly suggest booking your French train tickets for any other day if possible. (Our choice for the cheapest French and especially European ticket booking is Trainline.)

To check the announced status of your long-distance train (including the international Eurostar, Thalys, and Lyria), you can check the English version of the SNCF status page here.

For the following trains, you’ll need to be able to read some French or else use Google Translate (or the Google translate extension).

For local, or TER, trains, you’ll need to track the info on the “horaires & trafic” section of the region of your train:

If you purchased Ouigo tickets, the Ouigo site doesn’t offer information on strikes and refers you instead to its French-only app. under “Infos en temps réel), which at last check only offers information for trains on the same day.

You can also check this independent site’s listing of upcoming French train strikes.

How can you avoid or prepare for eventual travel problems from train strikes?

Obviously, first and foremost you can check the resources mentioned in the previous section to ensure that you avoid travelling on strike dates if possible.

But of course things change, and you can always wind up with a ticket on a day in which SNCF workers decide to go on strike.

You will be eligible for a refund or exchange if your trip falls on a strike day, whether or not your particular train is cancelled due to a strike.

It’s easy to exchange or cancel your ticket if you purchased it through Trainline (the booking platform we prefer for France — it offers the same prices as the official SNCF site but without the later’s poor customer service and lousy interface). To take care of the refund or change head to the “upcoming trips” section in your account.

If you purchased your ticket from the official Oui.sncf, you’ll have to deal with them. Log in there and go to my bookings, then enter your booking reference and name, and follow the steps indicated for exchanges and cancellations.

Our second-favorite European train booking platform, Loco2, also offers easy changes and cancellations from within its website in case of strikes.

Why do French railway workers strike so much?

French railway employees, known as les cheminots, have guaranteed jobs for life and guaranteed pay raises along the way. Plus, they can retire in their early fifties if they so wish. So why complain?

One answer is that strikes are simply a part of the French character, and one of the key elements of ensuring that French workers have achieved and maintain favorable working conditions.

Another is that they are effective at getting attention. French rail strikes have the ability to cause quite a bit of chaos, as happened with the strikes in 2018 when workers were on strike for two out of every five days in the summer, for a total of 37 days of strikes. While parliament held relatively firm the French rail company SNCF approximately €800 million.

On top of this, the SNCF is badly in debt and things could get worse in 2020, when it will be forced open up to competition.

The motivation for the 2018 strikes was President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to modernize the SNCF, which strikers saw as an overall effort to weaken their labor union and a path towards the privatization of the celebrated, enormous French public sector.

Finally, do note that compared to their European friends, the French are not the most strike-prone people; they’re actually rather average in terms of number of strikes.

Does travel insurance cover lost hotel bookings and other expenses due to strikes?

Sometimes you’ve been planning and pining for your trip for quite some time and then a train strike happens.

Whether your particular travel insurance covers strikes or not depends on the details of your policy. One way that travel forum posters have noted that insurance companies weasel out of paying is by claiming that strikes are “civil disobedience”, which they specifically exclude from their policies.

One quality insurer whose travel insurance has covered French rail strikes (including 2018’s SNCF strikes) is AIG’s Travel Guard.

Note that you must sign up for the insurance before any strikes are announced (that is, before union members vote to go on strike) in order for it to pay out.

What are the alternatives to train travel in France in case of rail strikes?

No matter what, if your travel plans fall on the day of a railway strike, you’re going to be in for some aggravation as all other forms of travel become much more in demand and crowded. But it’s worth considering all of your options.

Do note that there can be traffic jams and delays on roadways on strike days due to the increased use of these alternatives, especially coming and leaving from Paris and other major cities.

Buses

Intercity buses have become increasingly popular in France, and bus companies are the big winners when the railway workers are on strike. During 2018’s strikes, the bus companies greatly increased their route offerings on strike days to help meet demand (and, of course, cash in).

You can search for your trip across various bus companies on Trainline or on Omio. The later has a wide range of offering across companies.

Carpooling websites

The rideshare company Blablacar also says that it sees increased use during strikes. We’ve had mixed success with this site, as on occasion our car rides have not materialized and left us stranded, but in general it works out.

Car rental

You can of course go on your own, though note that car rental prices tend to increase quite a bit during strikes. You can compare prices via the excellent Auto Europe.

Flying

Airport workers, air traffic controllers, and airline workers may also be on strike, and transportation to the airports can be rotten on strike days (e.g., airport trains cancelled). So check the status of the strike before going this route, but if flying is not affected then it can be an alternative for some routes in France. Expedia and Skyscanner offer good searches across multiple airlines, including budget airlines, that serve France.

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