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Airport and rail meltdowns: Tips if you’re headed to Europe this Christmas

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers.

Well, we got close, folks. However, it looks like a trouble-free year with only minor cancellations and delays for Christmas travel in Europe won’t be happening after all. 

As years in travel go, 2023 has been a tumultuous one. Not quite as unpredictable as the pandemic years, or perhaps as raucous as last year, when we all cautiously stepped back into “normal” travel mode. Still, it was eventful nonetheless.

This year, as travel frequency continued its noble quest toward pre-pandemic figures, our woes in Europe largely came from two core triggers: disgruntled workforces and Mother Nature. 

The latter, studiously applying herself across the vast gauntlet of meteorological events, brought us icy storms, gale-force winds, torrential downpours and sci-fi levels of dystopian heat. The former threw a dash of good old-fashioned discontent at some of the year’s busiest travel periods — across all sectors from air, rail and sea. 

And that’s without mentioning the freak COVID-19 outbreak that derailed U.K. air traffic control earlier this year. 

Despite all of this — and despite a recent volcanic eruption in Iceland (we all know how bad those can be) — everything seemed to begin to wind down for Christmas. All seemed, well, calm. 

Sure, there were still a few strikes on the horizon — security teams in Alicante, Spain; Iberia ground teams in Spain; potential rail dramatics in Germany; and public transport walkouts in Northern Ireland. Still, for the most part, things seemed OK. Even the notoriously stubborn U.K. rail unions had decided to calm down before Christmas. 

The festive season was starting to look very much like a clear runway, and it tasted delicious. But then, Thursday happened and plunged us right back into normalcy. 

The latest European airport and rail problems

It started with a slew of “last-minute” strikes by French workers, which took everyone by surprise and forced Eurostar to cancel 30 services between London, Paris and Brussels. As a result, the famed rail operator was forced to halt sales of tickets on its Friday services and add eight services between now and Christmas to ensure travelers could reach their festive destinations. 

While that was all unfolding, so too were the spectral claws of Storm Pia, stirring up gale-force 80 mph winds and many problems at European airports. 

As it seemingly always is, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) was hit the worst; it saw 265 cancellations and 341 delays. The effects of this seem to have run into Friday. It is currently counting 197 departure delays and 87 cancellations already at the time of writing.

Related: TPG’s guide to understanding EU261 flight compensation

London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR), the premier U.K. hub, was hit by around 32 cancellations and 378 delays, with a further 161 delays and counting Friday and 18 cancellations. Munich International Airport (MUC) and Frankfurt Airport (FRA) have also been among the worst hit, with continued impacts into Friday. 

Thankfully, the remnants of Storm Pia should have all but completely dissipated in time for Christmas Day. Still, if you’re traveling through Europe before the big day, especially if you’re flying, it would be wise to brace yourself for some disruptions. And for goodness sake, if you’re driving, please drive safely. 

Related: Ultimate guide to canceling a flight and getting a refund with major US airlines

Obviously, we can’t prevent a travel company’s staffing problems or weather-related airport meltdowns. However, you can take a few actions to “keep calm and carry on,” as the Brits like to say.

Certain strategies and planning techniques may improve your chances of getting where you want to go — or at least make cancellations easier to manage.

How to plan for airport chaos

suitcases all over airport

Strikes and weather are out of your control. However, there are certain actions you can take before your flight to prepare for potential airport chaos, flight cancellations and scheduling snafus.

Only bring carry-on bags

Airlines have had well-documented issues handling luggage in recent years, particularly with connecting flights to and around Europe. Checked bags may not arrive with you at your destination, and last-minute flight changes or reroutings may mean checked bags get lost.

To try to escape this problem, only travel with carry-on luggage, if possible. Bringing just a carry-on bag on your Europe trip also makes it more convenient to grab a replacement flight or make last-minute travel changes without worrying about checked bags.

Related: 7 steps to take when an airline loses your luggage

However, with many airlines’ cabins completely sold out and passengers competing for limited overhead luggage space, you may be forced to gate-check your carry-on, even after all your planning. TPG has some tips on the best way to keep your carry-on with you.

Related: 9 travel packing tips to save space in your luggage

Use direct flights to avoid troubled airports

Regardless of the airport, it’s typically best to avoid any unnecessary flights. The more connections you make, the more chances you’ll face cancellations or delays.

If it makes financial and timing sense, book direct flights. Those extra dollars may save you a lot of hassle.

Related: Your flight is canceled or delayed — here’s what you should do next

Leverage available travel tools

Staying up to date on your airline and flight status can help you predict and manage delays and cancellations. Use all the channels available to you: email notifications, text notifications, the airline’s app, airline and airport X (formerly known as Twitter) accounts.

“Be sure to download your airline’s phone app and make sure their contact information is updated and notifications turned on,” Limor Decter, travel adviser at Embark Beyond, said.

Decter advises his clients to check on flight status, weather and news — both where the flight originates and where it’s going — a day or two before departure. Should things go wrong, he advises using your travel agency for support, as agencies have direct access to airlines.

“We can often connect with the right people to rebook a flight that is canceled,” Decter explained.

Related: Check out these 4 great new Google trip-planning tools

Patience, persistence and politeness

airline worker giving boarding pass

Even the best-laid travel plans sometimes go awry through no fault of your own.

When this happens, think about packing the “three P’s”: patience, persistence and politeness. Traveling with these three items in your mental suitcase will better help you navigate your travels. It can also reduce stress levels.

Related: 6 tips for keeping your cool this summer as air travel melts down

Politeness is a powerful tool

Being polite to airline customer service representatives, whether in person or on the phone, is a nice thing to do, especially given the amount of stress they face.

It may also inspire them to take that extra step to help rescue your travel plans. There’s a great amount of discretion available to call center employees regarding how many options they research for your rebooking before they give up and leave you stranded at your destination.

Be persistent when rebooking

It pays for passengers to be proactive if they need to rebook a flight.

As anyone who has recently tried to change an itinerary knows, airline customer service phone wait times can be horrendous — sometimes measured in hours.

Try a multipronged approach to rebooking. Contact your travel agent if you used one, and check on the airline’s website, app and X feed. Consult with in-person representatives at the airport — both at the customer service center and with gate agents.

If you have airline lounge privileges, consider going there to talk to a customer service representative, as the line will likely be shorter.

Related: As more airlines ditch Twitter, here’s how to quickly reach an airline customer service agent

Bottom line

TPG recommends travelers planning any Europe trips stay connected to the latest news from airlines and airports.

When travel plans involve transiting through some of the busiest airports and destinations, try reducing your travel disruption risk by only packing carry-on suitcases and leveraging your airline or travel status to skip lines and upgrade cabins.

As always, in these unpredictable times, pack your patience to cope with the chaos.

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