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What to do if the rail strikes mean you can't get to the airport this weekend

·6 min read
travelling to airport during rail strike gatwick express strike heathrow holiday travel chaos - Getty
travelling to airport during rail strike gatwick express strike heathrow holiday travel chaos - Getty

As rail strikes continue this summer, anyone who has to travel in the UK on certain dates in August is likely to encounter major problems, whether they are travelling by train to a holiday on home soil or to catch a flight abroad. We have highlighted the biggest problem areas below, and provide a few solutions.

Which rail companies are striking and when?

RMT workers are due to strike again on August 20. Train operators involved in the RMT strikes include: Avanti West Coast, Chiltern Railways, Cross Country Trains, c2c, East Midlands Railway, Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, GTR (including Gatwick Express), LNER, Northern Trains, South Eastern, South Western Railway, Transpennine Express and West Midlands Trains.

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 services to reach them.

It's possible some companies will run trains on strike days, albeit at a very limited frequency. These services are likely to be busy. Airport coach services will be running, but demand is likely to be extremely high and seats may sell out. 

The Gatwick Express is set to be heavily impacted by the August strikes. Services will be affected by the industrial action on August 20, and warns that the days following each strike will also see disruption.

Meanwhile, the Heathrow Express says a full service will operate between 7:30 and 18:10 on Saturday August 20 but there will be no services before and after due to industrial action.

The Stansted Express has urged passengers to avoid travelling on its services on Saturday 20, Sunday 21 and Monday 29 August. It says there will be no direct Stansted Express trains because of strikes or essential engineering works.

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) will allow 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, however. During the last round of strikes, one reader 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).”

Taxi services are likely to be heavily booked – if you are expecting to use that option and you haven’t already got a reservation, do not delay. 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). If you book a hotel outside the immediate terminal 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 could 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.

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.

Reader Service: It's more important than ever to have holiday cancellation insurance. Learn how to get the right travel cover before you go.

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