News of the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike has generated headlines (and memes) for two weeks amid the breakdown in negotiations between the screenwriters’ labor union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
Labor disputes are also afoot in another major sector — travel.
“From individual airlines and pilots to rail networks and passport offices, strikes can unfold across various industries, leading to significant vacation disruptions,” said Cody Candee, founder and CEO of the luggage storage and travel company Bounce. “Such strikes typically take place as a result of industry disputes across factors, including pensions, pay, job security and working conditions.”
In recent months, we’ve seen these exact scenarios unfold as rail workers, pilots, passport office employees and others in the travel world have taken action in pursuit of fair labor policies. And, as we enter the peak tourism season of summer, countless travelers likely will experience the impact firsthand.
“Strikes can disrupt vacation travel in several ways,” said Michael Ballard, director of intelligence at the international security firm Global Guardian. “Airport staff, including air traffic controllers, security personnel and baggage handlers, can go on strike, leading to canceled flights, delays with baggage handling and security lines, and lost luggage.”
Airline pilots also may strike, which means planes cannot fly, Ballard noted. Similarly, there might be mass cancellations of railway and metro services when transit operators walk out.
“Anti-pension reform protests in France in 2023 led to widespread strikes across labor sectors, including in public transportation,” Ballard explained. “As a result, many people who use rail, subway, metro or bus services to get to work or otherwise move around were forced to travel by automobile during the strike, leading to significantly increased traffic in Paris and other French cities.”
Strikes often are accompanied by protests, which can require tourists to further change their plans, Ballard said.
“Many holidaymakers have already been affected by travel-related strike action this year, with flight delays, train cancellations, and extensive passport renewal times becoming more frequent,” Candee said. “With this in mind, it pays to be prepared if your plans are impacted.”
Below, experts explain how exactly to be prepared and what to do if a strike occurs during a planned trip:
Find out what you can in advance.
“The good news is that strikes are generally announced in advance and are usually limited to a finite time period,” said Zach Griff, senior reporter at The Points Guy.
Although snap strikes may occur, more often there’s a fair bit of planning and communication ahead of time. For example, the British and Irish trade union Unite announced in April that Heathrow Airport staff walkouts were scheduled for May 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10, and May 25, 26 and 27. This gave travelers the opportunity to adjust their itineraries.
“If a strike is planned when you’re scheduled to travel, many airlines will offer flexible rebooking policies to let you voluntarily change your plans to avoid any possible disruptions,” Griff explained. “If you’re traveling with a major airline, you’ll likely have the option of rerouting through a different airport or flying at a different day or time to avoid a strike.”
Pointing to the recent passport office strikes in the U.K., Candee recommended advance planning for those whose documents are expired or about to be.
“To avoid any issues associated with passport office strikes, make sure to apply for a passport well in advance of your trip,” Candee said. “Currently, the U.K. Home Office is working toward a 10-week time scale for general passport renewals. However, this figure could increase as a result of strikes.”
Build flexibility into your itinerary.
“Plan flexible itineraries, book flexible fares, and take advantage of bookings sites that allow you to make multiple bookings for options that you can cancel at the last minute,” said Julian Moro, senior vice president and regional security director at International SOS.
Indeed, many hotels and rental car companies allow free cancellation until 24 hours before a reservation, so you could book accommodations in more than one destination if you’re worried about anything impacting a long-awaited vacation. For event-related trips like a destination wedding, try to build in extra travel days and options to account for delays.
“If you absolutely must travel during a strike, arrive even earlier than you normally would and be prepared for possible disruptions to your journey,” Griff advised. “Flying with major airlines is also a great way to prepare for a possible strike. These mega-carriers typically offer multiple daily flights to a given destination from an assortment of hubs, so you’ll likely have a higher chance of avoiding disruptions with these carriers.“
Have backup plans.
“Have a backup plan on how to get to your destination, whether that means taking a car instead of traveling by rail, or a secondary airport to fly into/out of if a strike is planned during your vacation,” Ballard said.
Taking the time to determine alternative transportation options in advance is incredibly useful, should the primary option disappear.
“Understand the driving license requirements for driving in countries in your itinerary in case you need to drive one or more parts,” Moro said. “Know where your ride-sharing apps do and don’t work, download any authorized local equivalents in jurisdictions in which ride-sharing is assessed as a legitimate and safe alternative to taxis.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help figuring out these backup options.
“You can reach out to your travel agent if you have one to determine alternative means of travel and accommodations or contact the businesses that are going on strike to determine an alternate plan of attack,” Moro said.
Keep up with the latest news.
“While you’re traveling, be sure to stay up to date on the local news and sign up for travel alerts from your airline,” Griff advised.
That way you can take action as soon as possible.
“While most strikes are planned in advance, some can happen unexpectedly,” Ballard said. “Like bad weather, try not to let the inconvenience of a labor strike ruin your vacation. Stay informed. Maintain communication with your airline, travel agent, and hotel.”
Security consultants like Global Guardian offer pre-travel intelligence reports and access to real-time travel alerts as well, Ballard said. You can also discuss an evacuation plan in the event unrest escalates and prompts a “Do Not Travel Advisory” from the U.S. State Department ― as recently happened in Sudan.
“Monitor official and unofficial local sources,” Moro said. “Understand where and when in your itinerary strike action could be prevalent.”
Know your refund rights.
“When your flight to, from or within the U.S. is canceled or significantly delayed, you’re entitled to a full refund,” Griff said. “If a strike disrupts your trip, you may have better luck rebooking with a different airline than the one you originally booked, especially if you were planning to fly a smaller carrier. If that’s the case, remember that you’ll get your money back from your original carrier, even if it takes a few weeks.”
The laws around refunds have changed over time and can vary, depending on where your travels take you.
“For example, under European law EC 261, travelers are eligible for up to $700 per person in airline compensation for avoidable flight disruptions, including delays over three hours, cancellations or denied boarding due to overbooking,” explained Tomasz Pawliszyn, CEO of the passenger rights service AirHelp. “The exact same rule applies in the U.K. with UK261 regulation.”
These laws require airlines to compensate passengers for flight disruptions that are considered the responsibility of the carrier, Pawliszyn said.
“That includes any disruptions due to airline staff strikes — anything involving the employees of the airline carrier, including pilots, cabin crew, airline engineers, and other employees working directly under the airline,” Pawliszyn said. “However, you are not entitled to compensation if the strikes are outside of the airline’s control. Strikes by airport security staff, baggage handlers, and air traffic controller staff are considered extraordinary circumstances.”
Checking your rights as a passenger is worth the time. AirHelp’s free eligibility checker is one tool for passengers to determine whether they’re entitled to compensation. Don’t be afraid to seek help if anything is unclear.
“Contact your travel agent, tour operator or airline and see if you are able to reschedule your booking or claim compensation,” Candee said.
Consider travel insurance.
The unforeseen challenges and general uncertainty of the pandemic led many to invest in travel insurance. While potential COVID-related disruptions are a common motivation, Candee noted that strikes could also be a good reason.
“Although travel insurance can’t help to prevent vacation disruptions, it can help to avoid leaving you out of pocket later down the line,” he said. “It’s a good idea to purchase travel insurance as soon as you’ve booked your trip. A travel insurance policy won’t cover you for strike action if you buy it after the strike has been announced.“
As always, make sure to read the fine print when purchasing travel insurance.
“Note that not all travel insurance policies cover claims related to strikes, though, so take the time to check your policy documents carefully to ensure that you are definitely covered,” Candee said.
Try to avoid hot areas.
“It is important not to automatically conflate strikes with demonstrations, albeit they can be both,” Moro explained.
He recommended avoiding the immediate vicinity of demonstrations when you can if you’re not from the area.
“It may be possible to visit the desired location early in the morning before the demonstration forms,” Moro explained. “Select modes of transport and accommodation options that are less likely to be impacted.”
Some demonstrations may escalate, as well. He noted that response from authorities might include the use of tear gas, which may have short- and long-term health effects.
“Do not select hotels within proximity of potential flashpoints,” Moro said. “Teargas can travel a considerable distance and make remaining in affected nearby hotels very uncomfortable.”
Pack comfortable shoes.
Comfy footwear options are a must on vacation for a number of reasons, and you should add potential demonstrations and labor disruptions to that list.
“It’s a smart idea to wear comfortable shoes when there is an anticipated strike,” Moro said. “It could be a long walk back to your hotel if you can’t find alternative travel accommodations.”