How the rail strike will open up a Pandora’s box of holiday hell

The National rail strike scheduled for June 21, 23 and 25, and the London Tube strike on June 21, are expected to cause major problems for anyone who has to travel in the UK – but just as badly affected will be travellers trying to get to and from the airport between now and Sunday. We have highlighted the biggest problem areas and done our best to answer the key questions and provide a few solutions.

© Getty rail strike holiday travel chaos – Getty

What happens if I’m struggling to get to the airport?

The biggest issue for those heading abroad will be travel to and from London’s airports, because such a high proportion of passengers use rail and Tube services to reach them. A few trains are expected to run between Stansted, Gatwick and Heathrow but, if strikes go ahead, services will be heavily reduced and you will need to check the hours and timings before travelling.

The Stansted Express says that “services running will only operate from 7.30am, with the last trains finishing their journeys by 6.30pm. There will be two trains an hour (one train an hour on Thursday, when train drivers are also on strike). There will be no services from the airport to Norwich and Cambridge.”

The Heathrow Express will be operating from Paddington, but with services reduced to 30-minute intervals and only between 07:30 and 18:30. Heathrow will also be hit by the Tube strike tomorrow (Tuesday 21), which means that options for getting to the airport from central London will be very limited. There are buses, but they are likely to be extremely busy. It’s also worth noting that no Tube services will run before 8am on Wednesday.

The Gatwick Express is not running on June 21, 23 and 25, but there are a few options with other train companies.

Airport coach services are generally running, but demand is extremely high and seats are likely to sell out. I couldn’t find any availability to Gatwick for tomorrow, for example. National Express says that it is “working hard to increase availability across all our services where possible,” but this is complicated by the fact that it is already committed to ferrying over 30,000 passengers to Glastonbury this week.

What if I have already bought a rail ticket?

If you have bought a rail ticket that you can’t use, some companies (the Stansted Express, for example) are allowing you to use it on a different day but, in all cases, you can opt to claim a refund through the website of the company from which you bought it. 

What problems face those driving to the airport?

The best option for many travellers will be to persuade a friend to drive you to the airport. You will normally have to pay a drop off fee (£5-£6 at Manchester for example), but you won’t have to pre-book. If you decide to drive yourself, it is essential to book parking at all airports in advance – not just to be sure of getting a space, but because the rates for turning up without a booking are much higher. At Luton charges vary from £30-£76.50 a day, depending on the proximity to the airport. 

Don’t expect even pre-booked rates to be cheap this week, however. One reader has just emailed to say: “I’ve just booked airport parking at Gatwick for Thursday-Sunday. Off to Norway; no real way of getting to the airport without driving. There doesn’t seem to be a problem with availability at this stage, but it’s expensive – £80 long stay, £157 short stay (for four days).” Meanwhile, Gatwick, for example, is explicitly warning people not to attempt to park without a prior booking during the rail strike. Taxi services are heavily booked – if you are expecting to use that option and you haven’t already got a reservation, do not delay a moment longer. Airport websites have contact numbers for advance booking.

Will staying at the airport help?

A possible option for some will be to book an airport hotel – either for the night before departure or if you are returning to the UK and can’t get home (see below). I did a search for airport hotels near Stansted for this evening on booking.com and there was still some availability – though if you wanted a hotel within walking distance of the terminal you would have to pay £220. If you book a hotel outside that area, make sure it offers a shuttle service.

What if I miss my flight?

If you miss your flight because you simply can’t get to the airport, then you may be able to claim at least some of the costs of rebooking under your travel insurance policy, depending on your individual circumstances. Not all offer such cover, but for example, leading broker, PJ Hayman (pjhayman.com) says the following about its Travel Plus policy: “As long as you didn’t know about the strikes when you booked the trip and insurance then if you were unable to get to the airport because of the strikes (ie. they hadn’t yet been announced), you may have a claim under the Missed Departure section.” The key rule with any policy is not to assume you are covered without carefully reading the schedule and, ideally, talking to your insurer.

What happens if I can’t get home?

This will be a big problem for many people. Your best bet is to persuade friends or family to rescue you. Hiring a car is likely to be an unattractive option because you are only travelling in one direction and – even if you managed to secure a booking – the cost of having the car collected and returned to the airport is likely to be extremely high. If you can arrange a taxi now, do so – certainly do not expect to be able to book a taxi on arrival. If you think you may have to stay overnight, it is also worth booking now, in case rooms at airport hotels sell out (see above).

Should I change my flights?

As a legacy of Covid, with some airlines (BA, for example) you may be entitled to change your flight booking right up until the time that check-in opens. If you are really struggling with getting to the airport, it might be worth rescheduling your trip altogether. If you have booked a package with a tour operator, talk to it about potential options.

What should I do if I have booked a holiday in the UK and can no longer get there?

While you will be able to get a refund for your rail ticket, the situation over accommodation bookings is more complicated. If you already have travel insurance which covers UK holidays you may have some cover, but otherwise your options will depend on the booking conditions, or the good will, of the hotel, Airbnb or cottage you have arranged. Your best bet is to contact the owner or the agent as soon as possible to discuss the situation, but ultimately you may have to pay cancellation charges.

Do you have a travel question relating to the rail strikes this week? Comment below to join the conversation

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