A quiet Milan Central Station – by John Picken Photography (creative commons)
As much as I rhapsodize about train travel in Italy, it’s not without its problems. One of the issues that’s become the stuff of legend is the train strikes in Italy. Italians are up on the latest strike news – they speak the language and watch the news – but travelers can get caught in the middle of a strike without knowing what’s going on. No amount of pre-trip preparation will keep a transportation strike from happening while you’re in Italy, but knowing how to deal with it can save you loads of anguish.
Luckily for foreigners, the Italians don’t exactly keep their strike plans secret.
Italian Train Strikes are Scheduled in Advance
Yes, really. I know, right? It sounds crazy. It sounds like it would utterly defeat the purpose of a strike. And yet it’s true. There’s even a website that lists most transportation strikes in Italy for months ahead of time. It’s only available in Italian, but you can decipher enough of it to at least have a heads-up about whether you’ll cross paths with a strike and, if possible, change your plans accordingly.
The transportation strike tracking site is Commisione di Garanzia Sciopero (the word “sciopero” means “strike”). This post on my friend Madeline’s Italy Beyond the Obvious blog details how to read the site; here are the basics of what you’ll need to know.
- Look first at the “SETTORE” (sector) column for the word “TRASPORTI” (transport), which will indicate it’s impacting some form of transportation.
- Scan the “DATA” (date) column to see if any of them correspond to dates during your trip.
- Then look across at the “DOVE” (where) column to see if any of those strikes are impacting the place you’ll be on that date. Note that if you see the word “NAZIONALE” in that column, it means the whole country is affected.
- Finally, if you find a strike happening in the city you’ll be visiting, look at the “SCIOPERO” column to see precisely what transportation is on strike – it could be all trains, a certain station, just buses, or some combination of transportation. Click on the link in that column to get more details, including the duration of the strike (it could be anywhere from a few hours to a few days; they’re often 24 hours).
There’s a section on the Trenitalia site that “guarantees minimum transport services” even during strikes, which means even during a strike there are a few trains that continue to run during peak hours (6-9am and 6-9pm Monday-Saturday). As you can probably surmise, tickets on these trains are hot commodities – for Italians and travelers alike. If you book your trip well enough in advance and get one of these tickets, consider yourself very lucky.
In fact, I daresay that’s as good a reason as any to buy a lottery ticket.
What to Do if You’re in Italy During a Transportation Strike
First things first – in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC. As I said, when you look up strikes before your trip that gives you a chance to figure out alternate plans if need be. Some things to remember:
- Pay attention to the details of the strike information to find out exactly what’s impacted – it may not require a change in your plans at all. As Madeline from Italy Beyond the Obvious says, “Although the baggage handlers at Rome’s airport are going on strike, the rest of the airport will be working perfectly normally.” In a case like that, your flight won’t be canceled – although you’ll want to pack carry-on only, of course.
- Strike dates can change, so double-check the site again right before you leave home.
- Keep your plans flexible and be prepared to make changes on the fly if you run into an unexpected strike.
- No one is on-hand to help travelers who are stuck in the event of a strike – you’re on your own. The good news is that if you’re aware of a strike beforehand, you can shift your travel plans to avoid it. Stay an extra day in Florence or leave a day early – either way, you avoid that 24-hour train strike altogether.
- If it’s just a train strike, not a general transportation strike, then find out whether you can make the same trip by bus, or consider renting a car.
- You aren’t the only person who’ll be forced to make alternate plans. Tickets on buses or on the trains right before or after a scheduled strike will be mighty difficult to come by if you haven’t booked them well in advance (which you may be able to do if you found out about the strike online weeks ago).
The bottom line is that if you’re surprised by a strike and there aren’t viable transportation alternatives (or the tickets are all sold out), you’ll need to try to find a way to be patient, calmly consider all your options, and – most likely – enjoy another day where you are. You won’t be alone in this predicament. There are far worse problems to have. And this will all make for a really great story to tell when you get home.