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

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-11-11
PUBLISHED ON  2019-03-18

Your Train Guide

Mose Hayward

Hexagonal Rail Nut

The French railway company SNCF is particularly and infamously susceptible to strikes. Here’s a look at the probability of strikes affecting your travel, 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…

Key Takeaways for Travellers Concerning French Train Strikes

• Unless they’ve been specifically announced for your dates, the probability of French strikes affecting your travel is much lower than most people think.
• If there is a strike and you’ve used one of the better train booking platforms described below for your tickets, refunds are relatively easy.
• If you should have problems with train service, there are always less comfortable but serviceable bus and carpooling alternatives.
• Certain types of good travel insurance cover your expenses for travel plan changes in the case of train strikes (but note that many policies don’t).

More on all of this in the article below. But in short, unless there are scheduled strikes for the dates you’re thinking about traveling, 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.

How can I check for the latest info about upcoming French strikes affecting the SNCF and train travel?

Here are the top places to check when planning your trip so as to ensure your travel days don’t coincide with strikes. The sites are in English unless noted; for French sites if you don’t read French you can use Google Translate (or the Google translate extension).

What to do if French railway workers announce a strike on your travel days…

If a strike is not specifically announced in the sites just mentioned above, it is not very likely that your French train travel will be affected by strikes.

But if the worst does happen and there is a strike announced, 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.

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.

Since some service is maintained on strike days, you may well get to your destination anyway. But it can be trying, and the few trains that do run will be very crowded. If at all possible, reschedule or cancel your tickets and take another form of transport (Omio is a great way to search for all transport options in France, including both flights and buses at the same time).

It’s easy to exchange or cancel your ticket if you purchased it through Trainline. (This is the train booking platform that did best in our tests for France — it offers the same routes and route pricing as the SNCF, but without that website’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 SNCF Connect, 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. In 2023, strikes called (in French) have had to with the pending pension reform that raises the retirement age.

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 European 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, but in general it works well and has got us cheaply across France and other parts of Europe.

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. Omio searches for flights alongside buses and trains.

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