A holiday trip to Paris in December 2019 promised a week of easy delights: the Louvre, the Palace of Versailles, Christmas markets, and much more. As our departure date drew near, I attempted to buy online tickets to the Louvre. Every day was available except Christmas Day and December 5th, the day of our anticipated visit. Undaunted, I switched to the Versailles website. Again, every day but Christmas and December 5th were available.
Umm, what the heck was happening in Paris on December 5th?
I quickly turned to an expert. No, not the U.S. State Department website, where I had signed up for travel alerts and had heard nary a peep. I am referring to Google. The search revealed that unions in France were planning a transportation strike over pension reforms. The strike would begin five days after we arrived from California.
Let’s recap my findings:
- The transportation strike would be the largest in two decades.
- The unions were hoping to bring the entire country of France to a standstill.
- Although the strike would start on December 5th, it could last into the new year.
- Most trains and subways in the entire country would not be running.
- The air traffic controllers and ground crew were joining in, so flights home might be cancelled.
- Truck drivers announced they would block highways with their trucks.
- Tourist attractions would be closed.
The internet was filled with speculation and advice. Although strikes in Paris are common, locals advised tourists to think twice about coming to Paris during this particular strike. Everyone loves Paris, but no one wants to be held captive there. To quote the lyrics of the immortal Eagles song, Hotel California, ” You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”
At this point, I called my brother. We had an extra room in our rented Paris apartment, so I had lured him into his first international trip with the promise of an inexpensive adventure.
Me: “A paralyzing nationwide strike is happening in France this week.”
My brother: “What?”
Me: “Well, it appears that, starting December 5th, there will be no transportation, cancelled flights, and perhaps no tourist attractions. And, the people meant to protect us from potential violence, i.e., the police, will be participating.”
My brother: “What are you talking about?”
Me: “The situation may continue into the New Year.”
My brother: [Prolonged silence.] “What do we do?”
Me: “You either cancel your trip, take your chances with the strike, or spend A LOT of money changing your plans.”
My brother: “Will any of this be covered under my trip insurance?”
Me: “Nope. There is only talk of chaos and mayhem. Nothing has actually happened yet. So, any changes your make are on your own.”
My brother: “But I could get stuck in Paris if I don’t make changes now?”
Four days before our departure, we all changed our travel plans at great expense to leave France on December 4th—the day before the strike. We had work and childcare obligations that did not allow for a prolonged stay in France. My brother would head to London to visit friends, and my husband and I decided to visit Belgium for a few days. I bought both a train and a plane ticket to Belgium to cover all strike contingencies.
Our days in Paris were delightful, but punctuated with talk of the strikes. The news channels speculated endlessly on the strike impacts. The subway system broadcast steady warnings of transportation closures, and the railways reported that early stoppages would begin December 4th. Police ordered restaurants and shops on some Paris streets to close and board their windows. The American Embassy (finally) issued a travel warning, and our airlines sent e-mails offering to rebook our planned flights. The locals told us we were smart to leave early.
My brother had booked an 8:30 pm flight from Paris to London on December 4th. The strike now was set to begin early that evening. What would happen if the flight were cancelled? When he attempted to check in on December 3rd, the airline’s automated system reported that they couldn’t find the reservation. A customer service representative said he was stumped, and then hung up on us. Twice.
As this experience was beginning to feel like the start of a war movie, my brother turned to the trains. Almost every train from Paris to London was booked solid the afternoon of December 4th. He booked one of the last tickets. The following scene transpired at the train station.
My brother: “Why is my mobile ticket showing an error message?”
Eurostar Official: [Frowny face. Lots and lots of typing.]
Eurostar Official: “Ahh! [Smiles warmly and begins stamping a document to give to my brother.]
My brother: “So, am I OK to go on the train? I have a seat?”
Eurostar official: “Oh, no. You are on standby. This train is overbooked. All the trains are completely filled for days.”
As I departed Paris for Belgium, I left my brother behind not knowing if he would be trapped. Feeling incredibly stressed, I texted our sister. Her reply, “Relax. You aren’t leaving him behind with only a package of crackers in Somalia.” Clearly, she did not appreciate the drama of the situation. With twenty minutes to spare, my brother was allowed to board the train out of Paris.
From our cozy hotel room in Belgium, my husband and I watched the French news coverage of trip cancellations, hundreds of miles of traffic jams, tourist attraction closures, and protests. As I wrote in Scared to Travel? Go Anyway, modern travel is full of complications. The challenges for travelers are to remain flexible, make good decisions, and venture forth despite fear and setbacks. In hindsight, this trip was unexpectedly rewarding, because it tested our advanced travel skills and gave us the opportunity to discover a new love for Belgium.
More importantly, I learned about the politics and people of France far removed from the usual tourist experience. In our preparations for the strike, we studied the French pension systems and unions, reviewed complicated maps of transportations routes, and commiserated with locals on impending hardships. Weeks into the ongoing strikes, I continued to follow French news from my home in California. Travel can leave you feeling uncomfortable and defeated on the bad days. But, on the best days, travel creates a path towards empathy and an understanding of places far outside our borders and comfort zones.
To read more of our adventures in France, please see: