This Christmas could see the busiest getaway on the roads in five years, with an estimated 27m trips by car to see friends and family between today and Christmas Eve, a study by the RAC and INRIX shows.
With many schools in England and Wales breaking up today, the RAC’s figures suggest there will be an extended getaway in the run-up to Christmas, with an average of 4.1m such journeys taking place every day next week, culminating in most leisure journeys by car – some 5.3m – taking place on Christmas Eve, which the RAC has dubbed ‘Frantic Festive Friday’.
Thursday 23rd is expected to be next busiest with around 4.1m leisure trips taken as drivers criss-cross the country to spend Christmas with those close to them. Drivers are advised to set off early or postpone their trips until after dark to avoid the worst of the traffic.
Given Covid travel restrictions are expected to be much less strict this year compared to last, the figures indicate that drivers are keen to make the most of the Christmas and New Year period to see friends and loved ones, but it’s still the case that one in 10 drivers (10%) don’t plan on travelling by car at all over Christmas because of the pandemic. The rapidly developing situation with infections of the Omicron variant could, however, still curtail the country’s Christmas celebrations.
Both the RAC and transportation analytics specialists INRIX believe there is likely to be less pre-Christmas congestion than in a ‘typical’ non-Covid year, with the ‘work from home’ guidance leading to far fewer commuters on the roads. Nonetheless, INRIX data shows that drivers are likely to face festive delays on the clockwise M60 near Manchester, the southbound M40 in Oxfordshire and the northern and western sections of the M25. The single worst queue before Christmas is expected on the M25 between Gatwick and the junction for the M40 on Thursday afternoon.
Looking ahead to traffic over the Christmas break itself, the RAC’s research indicates that Christmas Day, Boxing Day and the Monday bank holiday could all turn out to be busier than normal for leisure trips this year – with around 4.5m journeys a day by car taken to see friends and family, compared to the average of around 3.5m for the same period since 2015.** INRIX also predicts some lengthy jams – delays of more than 45 minutes on the clockwise M25 between Gatwick and the M40 on Boxing Day, and of nearly an hour and a half on the same stretch the following day.
RAC Breakdown spokesperson Rod Dennis said: “Despite the increasing prevalence of the Omicron Covid variant, our research shows that the vast majority of drivers are still determined to do Christmas properly this year – in sharp contrast to 12 months ago. We’re expecting the biggest Christmas getaway for five years, including a ‘Frantic Festive Friday’ on Christmas Eve. But with overall traffic volumes in the run-up to the big day set to be down slightly on normal given the current ‘work from home’ guidance, there’s reason to hope there won’t be too many queues as millions get away to see friends and family.
“As well as adding to the traffic jams, just a single breakdown has the potential to ruin Christmas which is why we’re urging drivers to make sure their vehicles are ‘road ready’ before they set out. Spending a few minutes checking that tyres are in good condition and are properly inflated, and ensuring oil, coolant and screenwash levels are all correct can dramatically reduce the chances of running into problems – as our patrols will testify, it’s always time well spent.
“Our figures this year also point to more drivers using the roads between Christmas Day and New Year for leisure trips than normal – perhaps to make up for the fact that last Christmas was such a write-off for so many people. Popular days for travel are often busy days for breakdowns, so following our advice to avoid a breakdown in the first place is arguably more important than ever this year. But, for anyone who still runs into trouble, our expert local patrols will be working incredibly hard throughout the festive period to keep them moving.”
INRIX transportation analyst Bob Pishue said: “With kids out of school and many Brits taking extended time off for the holidays, drivers can expect moderate delays around the UK, but heavier congestion on motorways in and out of the cities. Leaving later in the day is recommended, as roads will begin to clog up during the early afternoon.”
National Highways customer service director Melanie Clarke said: “We don’t want roadworks to spoil Christmas so we’re doing everything we can to make journeys as smooth as possible; that’s why we’re keeping almost 98% of the road network we manage free from roadworks.
“Our dedicated control room teams and traffic officer patrols are geared up to help those travelling over the Christmas and we’re expecting Thursday 23 December to be one of the busier days in the lead up to the festive period.
“We know from experience that peak travel times can vary in the run-up to Christmas, so we’re encouraging drivers to check traffic conditions before heading out to help keep traffic flowing.”
Met Office forecaster and presenter Alex Deakin said: “Weather in the UK in the run up to Christmas looks more grey than white. High pressure, and therefore dry weather, will dominate but it will also remain mostly overcast. Fog is likely to be the biggest hazard on the roads and at this time of year it can take all day to clear so it won’t just be a morning problem.
“There are signs of a shift around the Christmas weekend to something a little wetter but it’s too early to say more than that at the moment. Tune into our updated RAC forecast next week to find out what you need to know for any trips you’re making. And stay up-to-date with the Met Office forecasts online or download our weather App for the weather at your fingertips.”