How to Visit Paris

How to Travel in Paris during the Strikes

June 1, 2016
How to / Survival Guide for the Paris transportation strike

Travelers:

Labor strikes are in full swing in France and your train has been cancelled.

Welcome to Paris!

You want to survive your trip to Paris during a transportation strike AND stay on budget? This article will help you have a relatively painless public transportation experience in Paris while the strikes are ongoing.

Trust me, it IS possible.

The big-budget option is to hop in a cab or get an Uber, and forget public transportation entirely.

For those of you who want to keep costs low, the article below is your Public Transportation Survival Guide during the Parisian Strikes.

–> For questions regarding air traffic control strikes, the best bet is to contact your airline directly. Please note that labor unions are not required to announce what services will/will not be available until 24 hours before the start-date. Therefore, your airline won’t have any details about June 3rd’s flights until June 2nd, and so on. If you like to plan ahead, like me, then put on your “I have infinite patience” hat and have a glass of Châteaux-Neuf-du-Pape to pass the time. It’s what the French do!

–> For a more general description of why the strikes are happening and such, please check out my article from March 2016: Strike Across France.

Good News!

There are STILL trains and buses and metros to be had in Paris.

The SNCF and the RATP and the other transportation groups in France are required to provide a minimum level of service during a strike, which means there could be half the number of trains as usual.

Fewer trains on each line, but still: Trains!

Basic tips for the Parisian metro and RER (local) trains:

  • Add more travel time to your schedule. On a normal day it takes about 2 minutes between each metro stop, or each RER stop, within the heart of Paris. Add 20 minutes to your travel time for trips within the city, and at least 30 minutes for trips in the suburbs of Paris.
  • Don’t travel at rush hour (7am-9:30am and 4:30pm-7pm). If you MUST travel with all of the commuters, add even more travel time than suggested above and don’t bring your luggage with you. Also, expect to stand for the whole trip and be totally squished between the hordes of other passengers.
How to / Survival Guide for the Paris transportation strike

These folks (and more!) were all crowded in the train at 9am.

  • Remain flexible and easy going. A good attitude and a smile can make any wait or ride infinitely more pleasant.
  • “Pardon” is the easy way to say excuse me or “I’m sorry” (for non-important apologies).
  • “C’est rien”or “Ce n’est pas grave” are ways to say it’s not a problem or it’s nothing. (If, for example, someone accidentally falls into you when the train lurches forward.)
  • Be attentive: Some metro and train doors do not open automatically, so if you are next to the door of a very crowded train car, when the car stops, be kind and open the door for the passengers behind you who may want to exit.
  • Also, stay to the right when standing still on escalators and moving walkways. It’s a simple courtesy to the speed-walkers that sneak up behind you!
  • Facial expressions are great non-verbal ways to express yourself and relate to your fellow passengers. Give your neighbor (who you are almost plastered against) a “look” that says “Well, isn’t this awkward? Better make the best of it!” and they will likely give you an understanding grin or eyebrow raise. North American facial expressions seem to be widely understood by the French. It’s probably thanks to the absurd amount of American movies and TV shows they consume!
  • If you need the exact RER train schedule, you should be able to click on links on this webpage to display PDFs of the local train schedules during strike days (the northbound train schedule is on a separate PDF than the southbound train schedule): http://www.ratp.fr/informer/trafic/trafic.php

Tricky Problems & Realistic Solutions

PROBLEM: RER B to Charles de Gaulle

During a strike, travel to and from Charles de Gaulle Airport on the RER B is more complicated than usual. The RER B normally travels all the way through Paris from north to south, stopping at all the stations in the heart of city. On strike days, northbound RER B trains and southbound RER B trains will not provide through service.

To make matters worse, at Gare du Nord, those northbound trains become SOUTHbound trains upon arrival (and vice versa)! So you’re transferring from a metro line and you think you’ve followed all the wall signs to the northbound track (to get to the Charles de Gaulle Airport, for example)… Surprise! The train is actually about to go south!

In addition, the TV screens with updated train arrival and departure times do not always sufficiently explain this crazy situation. This may be on purpose, because if they made it easy, then what’s the point of the strike in the first place, right?

Solution:

If you’ve taken the RER B into Paris (or you’re trying to go through Paris), get off at Gare du Nord find the right platform (voie) to continue your trip. (Read the next Problem/Solution for tips on finding that platform.)

If you are connecting from another metro station or walking in to Gare du Nord from outside the train station, DON’T trust the permanent signs that tell you which platform to go to. (Read the next Problem/Solution for tips on finding the correct platform.)

How to / Survival Guide for the Paris transportation strike

Always trust the signs for the platform number (“Voie 2” or “Voie M”) but at Gare du Nord, you must question the direction the train is going in – especially for RER B. This sign says the RER D is going towards Paris. The TV screens confirmed this is true: hurray!

PROBLEM: French-only Announcements

Depending on the station where you are, the overhead announcements in the metro and train stations could be as bad as 80% in French and 20% in other languages (English, German, Spanish, Chinese, etc.). Therefore, if you don’t speak French, it’s impossible to get all of the information if you only listen to the non-French announcements.

Some train stations are excellent about giving lots of information in English over the loudspeaker, but each station is unique.

Solution:

FIRST check the digital information screens (TVs) to see what platform (voie) your train will leave from. This information is reliable! Because the train lines in the Paris region do not have one possible destination – they all split and go in two different directions at some point outside the city limits – you must know the destination of the train (ie: southbound RER B trains might go to Massy or to Robinson) and look at a map of the RER B to check that your station stop will be passed along the route to that destination. For example, if I want to go to the Charles de Gaulle Airport, I shouldn’t take the RER B that’s going to Mitry-Clay, because although the train is going north toward the airport, it will at some point split off and take me away from the airport toward Mitry-Clay.

How to / Survival Guide for the Paris transportation strike

The lights on the sign tell you at which stations the next train will stop.

 

SECOND, talk to a human! Fear not, dear English-speakers, France is full of anglophones! Would you like a safe bet for identifying an anglophone among your fellow travelers? Look for someone under 45 who looks like a professional (they are not wearing sneakers). Or, look for seasoned travelers: you know, they have a suitcase and a briefcase, or they have a huge camera… Tourists generally speak more English than French!

At the big train stations, and especially at Gare du Nord, you’ll find staff in red SNCF jackets or vests, and they can surely help you. Otherwise, any agent at a metro or train ticket counter will speak English and be able to give you adequate directions.

How to / Survival Guide for the Paris transportation strike

The SNCF staff in red vests are super helpful and are all over Gare du Nord.

Here’s your polite request for help: “Pardon. Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais?” (Excuse me. Hello, do you speak English?) {If they say no, you’d say, “Ok, merci quand même.” (Ok, thank you all the same.)}

Want to try out your French? Here’s how you ask what platform to go to for your destination: “Pardon. Bonjour. C’est quelle voie pour aller à Denfert Rochereau?” (Excuse me. Hello. What platform should I go to to get to the Denfert Rochereau stop?” — insert the name of whatever your destination train station is.)

 

PROBLEM: French-only Written Information

Most of the signs are in French, and sometimes even the French people don’t read them. Once, I walked up to a bus stop, that clearly said “arrêt non-desservi” (No service at this stop) and there were 8 people waiting patiently for the bus. I immediately looked at my RATP iPhone app for another solution. As I was walking away, the bus arrived and after letting off his passengers, I heard the driver tell the people waiting that he would not accept new passengers. The bus stop really was out of service! Just like the sign had indicated.

Solution:

Here’s some essential vocabulary:

  • Arrêt non desservi” means that bus stop or train stop has absolutely no service. Go somewhere else and find another way.
  • Train retardé” means the train is late, but it’s coming.
  • Trafic perturbé” means you should expect delays.
  • Train sans arrêt” means the approaching train will not stop at that station (however, future trains will stop there). You could call this a “commuter train”: it skips some stations to help get passengers who’re coming from farther away get to their destination faster. You’ll just need to wait for the next train.
How to / Survival Guide for the Paris transportation strike

This sign uses “arrêt non desservi” several times. “Grève nationale reconductible” means “Ongoing national strikes.” “1 train sur 3” means there will be only 1/3 of the normally scheduled trains on that line.

Hopping a Train Outside of Paris

Go well in advance and in person to the train station you’ll leave from. Going a day in advance is probably a good idea. Ask a person at the ticket counter for instructions about your specific train or destination. Repeat these back to the agent to confirm you have fully understood. Misunderstandings are frequent when non-native English speakers speak in English, so be patient and take your time to ask all the questions you need in order to have the best information.

If it is very cumbersome to go to the train station (for whatever reason), you could ask your hotel desk attendant to make a call for you, or you could try the ticket desk at a station closer to your current location. The latter option is not a sure-fire bet, because there isn’t just one train company: local trains, regional trains and national trains operate differently.

How to / Survival Guide for the Paris transportation strike

You Can Survive the Paris Metro Strikes!

It’s totally possible to keep using public transportation during a strike in France, and with a few hints and French vocabulary words, you’re all set to have a relatively easy time on the RER and in the metro.

Bon voyage!

Transit Strikes

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