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.

In general, we love travelling by train in France and don’t think you should worry too much. To summarize takeaways from this article:

Key Takeaways for Travellers Concerning French Train Strikes

Just know that:

So in short, please don’t let the possibility of train strikes prevent you from trying out the joys of the French train system. There is lots of gorgeous scenery, fast rides, and as we note elsewhere, options for cheap French train tickets.

Update History of This Article

This article was first published on March 15, 2019. It was updated on May 13, 2019. It was again updated on July 29, 2019. Updated with the latest strike on Nov. 29, 2019.

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

  • One general strike in France was held on March 19, 2019. Traffic on SNCF trains was not affected.
  • Eurostar (London to France fast trains) was heavily affected by the strike of the French Customs workers. Travel was officially not advised on Eurostar in March and April 2019.
  • There is a general strike scheduled beginning on December 5, 2019, and it will affect SNCF (national French) trains as well as RATP (regional Parisian trains). The effects on the SNCF trains will be announced on December 3 at the end of the work day for the December 5 trains, and from then on each day at about 5 pm the effects will be announced for the following day’s trains. One can at that point search in English for one’s own train by number and date for updated info. There is no announced end date for this strike, but the SNCF suggests1in French that traffic will be affected December 5-8. If you have tickets for those days, you can exchange or refund them without cost, as detailed below. For TER (regional) trains, check the links below.
  • As of November 27, 2019, it is not possible to buy TGV tickets for inOui, Ouigo, and Intercités trains for travel on December 5 to 8.

When the official SNCF railway workers vote for a strike day, their 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 day-prior announcements are made if your particular train route and time will be affected. Some “minimum service” always remains in place, but a large number of routes are canceled.

If a strike is called, 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 in case of strikes (including the international Eurostar, Thalys, and Lyria), you can check the English version of the SNCF status page here.

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

These local, or TER, trains, offer their updates 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. The info is 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 you can check the previous section and avoid travelling on strike dates if any have been announced. Otherwise, generally it is not very likely that your travel will be affected by strikes.

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. (This is the booking platform we prefer for France — it offers the same routes and route pricing as the SNCF, but without the SNCF’s poor customer service and lousy interface.) To take care of the refund or change on Trainline 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.

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 lost 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 French 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 the platforms Trainline or Omio. The later has a wide range of offerings across companies, the former offers better comparisons and combinations with train routes.

Carpooling websites

The rideshare company Blablacar also says that it sees increased use during French train 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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