Festive getaway could be busiest in five years with 27m trips planned in the run-up to Christmas

Festive getaway could be busiest in five years with 27m trips planned in the run-up to Christmas
This Christmas could be 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.1

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 day 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 the junction for Gatwick Airport 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 2015.2

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 80 minutes on the same stretch the following day.

Best and worst times to travel this Christmas:

DateLeisure tripsBusiest timeQuietest timeHotspots
Mon 203.7m3pm - 6:30pmBefore 1pmM60 clockwise J7 to J18
Tue 213.7m4pm - 5pmBefore 8amM6 north J5 to J10a
Weds 223.7m12pm - 3pmAfter 5pmM40 south J11 to J9
Thurs 234.1m12pm to 4pmAfter 6pmM25 clockwise J7 to J16
Fri 245.3m11am to 2pmAfter 6pmA303 West Solstice Park to A36

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 help 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 meteorologist 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.”

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Guide to travelling by car this Christmas

How can I prepare my car for travel?

If you’ve been using your vehicle less than you would do normally, it is even more important for you to do necessary car checks. This can reduce the likelihood of a breakdown over the festive period. The RAC recommends you follow our FORCES guidance:

F is for FUEL - Ensure you have enough fuel for your journey. Cars use more fuel in heavy traffic and start/stop conditions which can be regular occurrences.

O is for OIL - To avoid engine damage and a potential breakdown, remember to check your oil level and top up when necessary

R is for RUBBER - Your tyres can tell you a lot about how your car is performing. If they aren’t wearing evenly, then tyre pressures may be mismatched or there could be a fault with the steering.

Check that all four tyres have at least 3mm of tread and are inflated to the correct pressure - this is vital to maintaining good grip in wet and even icy conditions.
For everything you need to know about how to check your tyres you can read our how to check your tyres advice complete with short video.
Also take a look at your wiper blades to ensure they're clearing the screen effectively and that the rubber has not perished

C is for COOLANT - Make sure it's topped up to your vehicle manufacturer's recommended levels and it contains the right amount of anti-freeze

E is for ELECTRICS - Check all of your lights are working correctly including your indicators, brake lights and fog lights - and replace any faulty bulbs or blown fuses

S is for SCREENWASH - Top-up your windscreen washer fluid by using a good quality screenwash which is effective at all temperatures.

What should I take in my vehicle if I am doing a long journey?

The most important thing is to be prepared for anything, including a breakdown so you should ensure you have:

  • A fully charged mobile phone – charge your phone up while you drive if you can, or consider taking a portable ‘power bank’ charger in case your battery runs low
  • Water or other hydrating drinks
  • A blanket or a coat that keeps you warm
  • Some food or snacks
  • A face covering for when you might need to stop and go into an indoor public space, or in case you break down
  • It’s worth taking items with you that will keep young passengers in the back seat entertained
  • Details of your breakdown provider

What key things should I do before I travel?

Planning your trip is just as important as the trip itself. We recommend the following:

  • Plan your journey with a map, a sat-nav or route planner to ensure you do not have any navigation problems on your journey. Did you know that RAC research shows that directions are often one of the biggest causes of arguments in the vehicle? If possible, plan your journey for when roads are likely to be quieter and remember that it’s important for your safety to take breaks on longer journeys
  • Let your hosts know when you’re setting out. It’s always worth letting those you’re visiting know when you’re leaving, and when you expect to arrive

The RAC has put together a comprehensive guide on preparing for driving in the winter, including how to avoid breakdowns. The MyRAC app, free to download for iOS and Android devices, also offers up-to-the-minute traffic information and smart route planning guidance.

1 About the data in this release: planned leisure trips based on RAC survey conducted 9-14 December 2021 by Ragdoll Research of drivers’ travel plans (sample size 1,400 UK motorists who are planning on driving across the surveyed period); congestion and road-specific information based on INRIX data. Globally, INRIX analyses 500 Terabytes of data from 300 million different sources covering over 5 million miles of road. The data used is the congested or uncongested status of every segment of road for every minute of the day
2 Excludes 2020 research – given widespread Covid restrictions that were introduced shortly before Christmas, research from 2020 is not reliable

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