There’s a great scene in National Lampoon’s European Vacation where Clark Griswold ends up caught in a roundabout near Lambeth Bridge in London.  Unable to merge into traffic, he drives his family around for hours, happily exclaiming “Look kids – Big Ben!  Parliament!”, determined to enjoy himself despite being bewildered by the country he finds himself in.

Cruise passengers and travellers to Europe this summer might find themselves in something of a similar situation – but without the laughter or whimsical soundtrack.  This adventure doesn’t star Chevy Chase, but you – the average passenger.  This year has presented more than its fair share of hurdles to clear in order to make sure you get to experience all the magic and beauty of the Old World, and part of that starts with being prepared.  Here’s what you should know about travel to Europe if you’re headed out in the next few weeks.

British Airways
If you’re scheduled to fly out on a BA flight, you should check your flight status online with British Airways.  Unite, the union representing cabin crew for the airline, has pledged to continue striking up until at least June 9th.  While as many as 70% of long-haul flights are still operating, that number drops to 55% for short haul flights – meaning if you are connecting through London Heathrow, you may find yourself taking an extended tour of the new Terminal 5 if your inter-Europe connection is cancelled. 

How long will this last?  Hopefully not much longer.  The seven-day strike in March alone cost BA an estimated $63 Million US in lost revenue, not even taking into account the cost of the airspace shutdown as a result of the volcanic eruption in Iceland the next month. 

If your flight is cancelled, your best bet is to try to work with BA directly or through your travel agent.  If they can’t put you on another British Airways flight, they may be able to find you space on one of their codeshare partners (British Airways is part of the Oneworld Alliance, which includes American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Finnair, to mention a few.)

Taking a page from Greece’s playbook, the several unions in this beautiful country have launched the biggest strike in decades after rejecting offers of a 3.3% wage increase plus extra funds to help close the gender inequality gap when it comes to pay for men and women.  This affected Grand Princess, which was actually able to dock alongside in Oslo before receiving word that the longshoremen and even the ship’s Norwegian pilot could end up on strike by the end of the day.  Faced with the possibility there would be no one to untie the ship at the end of the day, and no local pilot to guide her out of Oslo harbour, Grand Princess left the capital city and sailed directly for Southampton, England. 

In the end, an all-out strike was averted as unions were able to come to an agreement.  However, the situation remains fluid until all parties have signed agreements stating they’ve agreed to the terms presented to them. 

Furious over austerity measures like wage freezes and reduced benefits that have come as a result of this sun-washed country’s near bankruptcy have infuriated the average Greek citizen, resulting in sometimes deadly protests against the government that got them into this mess.  In many cases though, it’s not the government that has suffered, but everyday Greeks and tourists.  Last month, Pullmantur’s Zenith was due to embark passengers in the port of Piraeus, near Athens, and found themselves at the mercy of Greek longshoremen, who prevented passengers from boarding the ship. 

Yesterday, a 24-hour strike paralyzed the port again, trapping dozens of ferries as well as three cruise ships.  Only three of the five ships scheduled to arrive at Piraeus actually showed up, and of those three, passengers were prevented from embarking or disembarking.

Zenith was scheduled to arrive in Greece yesterday, but Pullmantur and the crew of Zenith have decided they’ve had enough: the ship bypassed Piraeus on Monday, and officials from the line have warned Greek authorities they may not return to Greece for the foreseeable future due to their actions on April 26th.  The ship instead sailed for Malta.

It seems their actions were echoed by many shopkeepers, tour operators, and and other workers showed up at the port bearing red roses for passengers and chanting “hands off tourists.”

This beautiful little country made an enormous splash on the world scene when its Eyjafjallajokull volcano started spewing ash and lava in March of this year.  By April 14th, it had entered its second – and largest eruption phase, choking Northern European skies with an ash cloud that rose over nine kilometers (30,000 feet) in the air.  European airspace closed from Iceland as far south as Barcelona and Rome in what was the largest aviation shutdown since the Second World War, and resulted in stranded air passengers around the world. 

While the volcanic activity has largely calmed down almost two months later, some scientists are still warning that the much larger volcano that neighbours Eyjafjallajokull – Katla – is at high risk of erupting in the near future.  In fact, the three eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull in the past thousand years have triggered eruptions from Katla.  It has been showing signs of increasing activity for the past eleven years, and the last eruption in 1918 extended the coastline by five kilometers due to flood deposits from the volcano. 

So what happens if Katla erupts before – or during – your flights to or from Europe?  If you purchased insurance before April 13, 2010, good news: you’re covered for that or any subsequent eruptions.  If you purchased insurance after April 13, 2010, bad news: the Icelandic volcanoes are considered “known events” now – meaning your insurance won’t pay up if your flights are grounded and you miss your cruise.  At best, you’d be eligible for a refund from your airline, but not your cruise line, hotels, transfers, or any excursions purchased if their cancellation policies prohibit that. 

What can you do to be prepared?  It wouldn’t be unwise to consider making note of various rail, bus, or ferry companies in the country you’re destined to travel to; that way, should you find yourself in Europe but unable to get to your final destination, you stand a fighting chance of being able to arrive by train, bus or ferry. 

Europe is one of the most rewarding destinations to visit; the more you can be prepared and forewarned, the more likely it is you will get to enjoy all the charms of The Old World.


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