Surviving Summer Holiday Transport Chaos

Posted on: 23 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Travelling in the congested peak periods can ruin the start or end of a holiday. We have a few helpful hints and tips on how to beat the crowds.

All the indications are that more people will be staying in Britain for their holidays this summer. That will mean more cars on the road and more passengers on the railways, and the unremitting misery of travelling in this country is likely to be worse than ever.

So how can you avoid standing in a packed and overheated railway carriage, or sitting trapped in a motorway tailback?

We have set out some strategies that might help, and some tactics for working around problems if things go wrong on the day.

On The Roads

Strategies

The first thing to do is to plan around the main school holiday exodus and homecoming.

Dates To Avoid

According to Andrea Day of Trafficlink, which supplies traffic information to many radio stations, congestion is usually worst on the Sunday evening when people are coming home. If you have school-age children you will know when these dates are. If you don't, it is worth checking.

Note that they vary from place to place but because most holiday accommodation bookings begin on a Saturday, the weekend immediately after the end of term will always be when most problems occur.

Most English and Welsh state schools break up between July 15 and July 24, so the two weekends of July 18/19 and July 25/26 will be busy. Term begins either towards the end of the first week of September, or at the beginning of the second week.

Because the late-August bank holiday is exceptionally late this year (August 31), congestion on that Monday and on the subsequent weekend is likely to be unusually bad.

In Scotland, most schools break up between June 26 and July 3, and return after the weekend of August 16 and 17. But note that the Scottish August bank holiday is on August 3.

Roads To Avoid

Among the roads that AA Roadwatch expects to be busiest are those to the West Country, especially the M5; the A30, Exeter to Penzance; the A39, through Cornwall; and the A38, Exeter to Bodmin.

 The M4 is likely to be a trial – both getting out of London and, because of roadworks, around Cardiff (junctions 28 to 30). Other routes to Pembrokeshire will be busy, especially the A48/A40, M4/J48 to Haverfordwest.

If you are heading to North Wales, the A55 Chester to Menai Straits is likely to be congested. Junction 32 of the M6 on the Lancashire/Cumbria border is often bad – especially heading south on a Sunday afternoon.

Other key pinch points are the A1, from Wetherby to Scotch Corner, the A47, Peterborough to Great Yarmouth, the A11, Newmarket Bypass to Thetford, the A34, Oxford to Winchester, and the M20, to Dover. On the M25, long-term roadworks between junctions 16-18 in Buckinghamshire will also affect the southern end of the M40.

You can view a day-by-day, hour-by-hour prediction of traffic congestion on these and other major trunk roads on the Highways Agency website. It is a useful indicator, but it doesn't seem to take into account all the cultural, sporting and other events such as music festivals, county shows and air shows which can massively increase local congestion.

Don't think, though, that travelling at off-peak times will eliminate all delays. As Andrea Day points out, late-night roadworks can also cause problems. The overnight closure of a motorway slip road, for example, might mean you have to take a very long detour via the next one. However, such closures are usually planned, and the Highways Agency website works extremely well for this sort of information.

Tactics

The best-laid travel plans can go wrong, and again it is the Highways Agency website that seems to have the most up-to-date information about delays on the day.

If the regular traffic bulletins on normal radio stations don't give you enough information, try the agency's service detailing the latest situation on motorways and major A roads, broadcasting 24 hours a day. It's only available online or as a digital service so, unless you have access to the internet, or a digital radio in your car, you can only listen to it before you leave home.

The AA's traffic and travel advice line, AA Roadwatch, is also useful immediately before leaving home. Dial 84322 or enter "the AA" on your mobile phone keypad, or call 0906 88 84322 from a landline. Calls cost up to 65p a minute; mobile phone charges vary.

Travelling By Train

Strategies

Travelling by train at the weekend can be a deeply frustrating experience, often interrupted by bus replacement services. The best way to anticipate these is to check the "service disruptions" tab on the National Rail Enquiries website.

You would do well to avoid travelling on a busy Friday, too. You will have a far quicker, less crowded and more comfortable journey if you travel midweek in the middle of the day. This is also when tickets are usually at their cheapest.

The general rule is that booking online and in advance will usually be the cheapest way of travelling – often by far. (If you book an off-peak single from Norwich to London several days in advance online, it can cost as little as £7.10; if I buy it on the day of travel, it costs at least £40.50).

The easiest to understand overview of timetables and fares is on the National Rail Enquiries website.

Tactics

The National Rail Enquiries site and the individual train operator sites are also the best sources of information on the day of travel.

National Rail also has a text alert service. A message is sent to your mobile if your train is cancelled or delayed by more than five minutes. You then have to telephone another number for details. Note that there is a 25p charge per text sent.

Travelling By Plane

A lot of domestic air services in Britain are used by business people rather than tourists and the fares are not always as competitive as on routes to, say, Spain or France. But you can pick up bargain flights, often much cheaper than rail fares, and some routes work well for holidaymakers.

Ryanair flies Stansted to Newquay, East Midlands to Inverness, and Bournemouth to Prestwick and Edinburgh; Bmibaby has several flights from England to Scotland, and to Newquay from Manchester and Birmingham; and Flybe has dozens of helpful services, including several from Exeter, Newquay, Southampton, Cardiff, and the Scottish airports. 

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