Those were my thoughts when I first found out that the railroad workers would be staging a massive transit strike during precisely the time I had planned my trip to France. There were at first temporary thoughts of well, maybe it will be ok, followed by crap…I need to do something. I need to change my plans.
I had pre-booked train tickets from Paris to Annecy, from Annecy to Strasbourg, and from Strasbourg back to Paris on France’s high-speed TGV trains in preparation of my grand French adventure, so my first step was to email Rail Europe, who I had booked the tickets through, to inquire about whether or not my trains were due to be traveled. I received a reply several hours later that informed me that yes, my trains would certainly be canceled. I had the option at this point to either cancel my trains for a full refund, or to reschedule my trains for other, non-strike days. Since I had other plans and activities booked in the various cities as well as pre-reserved Airbnbs with strict cancellation policies, I decided that switching up the days I would be in each city would not only end up with me losing several hundred dollars, but that it would also cause more disruption than I cared to deal with. So, trains were off the agenda.
At this point, however, I had to find new means of getting around the country. My research turned back several options…I could use the Rideshare service BlaBlaCar, which pairs people driving around Europe with people who need a ride, I could book passage with Flixbus, a long-distance bus service with routes all over Europe, or I could pull out the wallet and splurge on a rental car.
I considered BlaBlaCar and Flixbus for a while, but as the schedules I would be able to travel on weren’t exactly ideal, I ultimately decided my best option would be to rent a car. Yes, it would also be the most expensive option, but ultimately it would give me the most freedom and flexibility, and so I found myself booking an economy car with Europcar for my trip. I opted not to rent the car in Paris, instead choosing to walk or take taxis around town because having a car in Paris really seems like more trouble than it’s worth. I was right in this assumption, by the way, and my two feet were more than sufficient to get me everywhere I wanted to go, coupled with the Metro on non-strike days, a few taxi rides sprinkled in there for good measure, and one bus tour to go to Versailles. I had originally planned to just take public transit to Versailles, but since I wanted to go on a strike day, I thought…whatever…the tourist bus was an option, so I took it.
When you rent a car in France (as a non-European), there are several things you should consider. While driving is on the same side of the road as in the United States and Canada, there are a few other rules of the road that are different and should be studied up on ahead of time. The other thing that my fellow foreigners should be aware of is that road tolls can get expensive and fuel is also fairly expensive. To prepare, we made sure to carry plenty of Euros with us when heading on long road journeys just in case we encountered any problems with our American credit cards having trouble. This turned out to be smart as well, because the toll booth machines had problems with our credit cards indeed (we tried it, just in case). Bring cash. You’ll be fine.
Another thing foreigners should be aware of is that if they want to cross the border into Switzerland at all and drive on the roads, it is required to have a Vignette sticker for their car that can be purchased at the border. Since the quickest way from Annecy to Strasbourg was actually driving directly through Switzerland we decided to go this route. As a result, I also ordered some Swiss Francs from my bank ahead of my trip so we would have them for the Vignette, any surprise road tolls (surprise! there weren’t any), and of course fuel as we passed through the country. Turns out I had to buy the Vignette in Euros, not Francs…whoops! But the Francs came in handy for buying fuel as well as snacks, a delicious smoothie, and some ice cream while we were in Switzerland, so whatever. It was fine. We only crossed at the border near Annecy/Geneva, so I can’t say if all the Swiss Vignette buying booths take Francs or Euros, but the one I stopped at certainly took Euros.
It was a lot of work preparing for all of this at the last minute, as we had only learned of the strike a couple weeks before we were due to depart for our trip. Another looming cloud over our heads was the fact that Air France was also doing rolling strikes leading up to our journey as well as after our journey, but thankfully (mercifully) they didn’t announce a strike for the days we were due to travel. Phew!
Switching from trains to a rental car was at first not ideal for us as it represented an extra layer of complication, and definitely a bit more expense (not to mention constantly having to find and pay for parking while we were there, except in Annecy, where our lovely local friends knew the best places to park for free, and our lovely Strasbourg Airbnb host did lead us to a parking structure where we could pay to park for the duration of our stay), but on the other hand, it did open up some new experiences that we otherwise would not have had.
We were able to book a champagne tour in the town of Reims as we would be passing straight through it on our journey from Strasbourg back to Paris. It allowed us to stop in the adorable Medieval villages of Auxerre and Beaune along the route from Paris to Annecy, and of course it allowed us to pass through beautiful Switzerland and stop several times along the way on our way from Annecy to Strasbourg. It also facilitated day trips around the areas we were staying and kept us mobile and flexible during such a huge transit strike when we might have otherwise been restricted from doing and seeing the things we wanted to. Yes, it was a pain in the butt. Road rules, road tolls, finding parking, paying for parking, finding gas stations, paying for gas, worrying about where to put the stupid car…these were all a considerable headache during the trip, not to mention we had to drive and deal with roads instead of nodding off on the TGV at high speed as we had originally planned, but it did allow for new and rich experiences as well, and after all…isn’t that what travel is all about?
I’m not going to say the rail strike wasn’t a headache, because it was. Oh, it was…but it was also the cause of new opportunities and new experiences. I wouldn’t exactly recommend you try to go to traveling in the midst of a massive transit strike (maybe, you know…wait a few months, but I will certainly say that if you already have a trip scheduled during one, you should just adapt and go for it anyway. We ended up having a great time and added some interesting and enriching experiences to the trip. Yeah, parking was a pain in the butt at times. Yeah, driving sucks more than just sitting on a train, reading a book, and watching the world go by, but it was interesting, and there was also something to the freedom of being able to stop when we wanted to stop, and explore when we wanted to explore. And there’s something to that as well.