The Winter of Discontent is upon us! Regardless of your feelings about the various strikes taking place in December – and new ones are being announced even as I write this – transport is particularly badly affected.

If you’re planning on traveling to see friends or family over the festive season – or taking a Winter break – you’ll need to be very, very prepared. So here’s my guide to your rights. Top takeaway tip – have a back up plan.


Train travel has been under onslaught for quite some time, even before this current wave of industrial action. Now, with national strikes affecting well over half of the rail network we can expect considerable chaos. In fact the current advice from Network Rail is not to travel at all on and around strike days.

If you’ve paid for advance tickets or passes, then you should be able to get a refund, but how that process works depends on the individual rail companies, who have all the details on their websites.

You are entitled to a fee-free change or refund from the original retailer of your ticket’.  However, looking at the T&Cs on some train websites, they say they will only pay out if you can’t travel or are delayed when taking these alternative services. Put your claim in regardless.

If you do manage to get on a train then ‘delay repay’ compensation could kick in if you don’t arrive on time. But you’ll need to apply to the train operator in most cases. I’ve been hearing that some cheeky train firms are claiming people have ‘arrived’ on time when they’ve been stuck outside their destination for hours. This is ridiculous – make a complaint if this happens to you.

Airlines and airports

Two different strikes could affect you if you’re planning on jumping on a plane in the coming month. Baggage handlers are planning industrial action which could have an impact on your luggage – so travel light or pack what you can in to your carry-on bag.

But much worse news is the announcement that Border Force staff are striking which could lead to extreme disruption. This is because of the ‘knock on impact’ of passengers having to wait much longer to go through passport checks. As top TV travel expert Simon Calder says, this could lead to people being left on planes to avoid overcrowding, which leads to delays with the next set of passengers taking off, which leads to… well, you get the picture.

If you cancel your flights now you probably won’t get a refund, though you might be able to move the flight to a different date when no strike is planed if you are lucky.

On top of all of this, even if your flight is cancelled or delayed, it’s likely that you won’t get compensation. That’s because the law that governs flight compensation only kicks in when the problem is ‘within the control of the airline’. So if airline staff go on strike, then you are covered. But if airport staff, border control employees or air traffic control walk out, chances are you won’t be.

This is where a good travel insurance policy comes into play. However, a study by Which? earlier this year found that 40% of policies did not cover strike action. So check before you buy.

On the road

If you can’t drive, the trains are out and internal flights are all booked, then you have one option – a national bus or coach service. So far, coach travel still seems to be an option, so a savvy traveller might want to snap up a ticket, just in case. If you don’t need it though, do your fellow travellers a Christmas favour and cancel your booking as soon as you can to free up your space.

If you are driving, fit a friend in if you can – car sharing will be big this year! And with the roads likely to be far busier than usual, pack lots of blankets, drinks, heat pads and phone charges. Good luck to us all!

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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