Thanks to the full range of strikes over the holiday season, Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas lyrics have never been more prescient. “Top to toe in line, oh I have red lights all around…”
The AA’s grim prophecy for December 23 and 24 is that there will be 45 million cars on major roads, leading to widespread traffic jams. Add to that the fact that this is the first Covid-free Christmas in three years, so more people are likely to travel.
Meanwhile, Border Force officers, railway workers and National Highway staff are all set to go on strike next week, leading the AA to issue an amber traffic alert and warn of a “perfect storm” for motorists.
Another 600,000-900,000 passengers will normally travel by train on the Friday before Christmas, when December 25 falls on a weekend. But the RMT strikes put an end to that.
Trains will be canceled or severely disrupted from December 24-27, and while there is no planned strike on Friday the 23rd, services are still expected to be impacted due to a huge increase in demand. Many of those extra passengers will be taking off.
“With all these factors coming together and the way Christmas falls, it potentially could be the greatest Christmas holiday ever,” Edmund King, president of the AA, told the Telegraph. “In a couple of days you have National Highway officials on strike and dealing with signage on the highways. If you don’t have signs of delays and collisions, that could lead to more congestion.”
In the face of all this, Chris Rea’s melodious optimism might seem a little out of reach (especially if you have kids, pets or relatives in tow). Here’s how to come home not only safe and sound, but with your presents wrapped and your sanity intact.
Time your trip
If possible, drivers should travel early this week rather than waiting for the weekend rush.
“We expect there to be 17 million journeys on Friday and Saturday, and traffic forecasts show that it will be at its peak between 10am and 6pm on Friday and between 10am and 4pm on Saturday,” says Sean Sidley, AA Road Patrol Officer and AA’s Patrol of the Year. “Go as early as possible to try and avoid getting caught.”
While traffic will be at its worst during the day on Friday the 23rd, Sidley suggests leaving as long as possible on your trip rather than waiting to depart after the 6pm peak.
Unsurprisingly, I recommend the AA’s route planning app as the best way to plan your trip. It lets you bypass accidents, tolls or highways and offers regular traffic updates (if not up to the second).
RAC offers a similar app and online route planner, but Simon Williams, a spokesperson for the RAC, also suggests “old-fashioned route planning.” “Look at the map and see if there’s an alternate route you could take to avoid possible grab points.”
If you can’t travel early in the week, Williams suggests leaving early on Christmas morning. “You would have a reasonable chance of a good trip without trucks and commuter traffic.”
Stock up on your car
Provided there’s room in the trunk after filling it with gifts, pets and the Christmas turkey, there are other essentials to stock up on a long road trip.
King suggests “water, high protein food or chocolate, warm clothes, coats and a high visibility jacket” as well as a shovel, thermos of tea, sturdy shoes, a blanket and a flashlight with spare batteries in case of a breakdown . A portable charger is another essential item.
It’s equally important to check your car before setting off, including the headlights, fuel levels or EV charge level, and tread depth, which should be at least 3mm in winter.
Checking the seat position or the “driving ergonomics” can also be beneficial before a long journey. The RAC guide to the driving position says that the hips should be as high as the knees, the headrest should be parallel to the top of the head and, if possible, the seat lumbar support should comfortably fill the arch of the back to minimize minimal lower back pain.
How to entertain children (and adults).
According to Georgina Durrant, author of 100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Play, now’s not the time to feel guilty about screens if you have kids—an iPad or tablet will really come in handy.
“A little screen time for passengers stuck in a traffic jam won’t hurt anyone,” he says. “Make sure you have pre-downloaded some programs on your tablet device so you don’t have to rely on non-existent Wi-Fi.
“Otherwise, audiobooks are a fantastic way to keep kids (and adults) entertained on long road trips; there are some subscription services, or you can borrow them from the local library.
There are also many great analog games (not just endless rounds of I-Spy). “Our favorite is Number Plate Maths,” says Durrant. “Just read the numbers on a car’s license plate and add them up. Find out who can find a car with a license plate that makes the highest number. We also like “Guess The Song” where you play the first few seconds of a song and the passengers have to guess what it is.
“I would not recommend small or complicated toys; the last thing you want to do is try to find a lost part stuck behind a car seat,” she says. “There are some great organizers that clip to the back of the front seats for kids to keep their toys inside, which can help with that.” Failing all else, a stash of snacks, sweets and chocolate will solve the tantrums of children and adults alike.
How to avoid road works
900 miles of roadworks have been removed from national highways to ease congestion over the Christmas period, meaning 98% of highways and major suburban roads will be free of roadworks from Tuesday 20 December to Tuesday 3 January. Sidley says this will make “a big difference,” as backflow of drivers and reduced speed limits during roadworks contribute to delays.
However, transport analytics firm Inrix still says the average commute time will be 14% longer. However, you can plan your journey around specific traffic points; sections of the M25, the M60 near Manchester, the M6 in the north-west and the M40 in Oxfordshire were singled out as major contributors to the traffic jams. The National Highways Traffic England website is the most reliable source for live updates.