Travel Update: Road rage alert as Britons make dash for Christmas

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For those who spend Christmas at home, it will be dark, wet and windy. Little wonder that record numbers of people - an estimated 650,000 - plan to flee to warmer climes this year.

People driving to see relatives will find the worst traffic jams today, according to the AA, which suggested that people defer their journeys until tomorrow morning. The Highways Agency is to remove major roadworks over the holiday period, but routes to the airports, such as the M4 at Heathrow, are expected to be particularly congested.

The RAC, meanwhile, has identified a new hazard: Festive Auto Tension. In-car rows are more likely than ever at this time of year, it warned, with tempers frayed as a result of over-indulgence in food and too much time spent with relatives. In such circumstances, poor map reading can be the last straw.

The airports will handle huge volumes of passengers over the coming days. Heathrow's busiest day so far was last Friday, when 180,000 passengers passed through the airport. Some 140,000 passed through the airport yesterday, and another 115,000 will join them today.

Gatwick, Britain's busiest holiday airport, will handle 900,000 passengers over the Christmas and New Year fortnight, a 30 per cent increase on the same period last year. One of its busiest days will be next Saturday, when 88,000 people are due through its departure and arrival lounges.

A 24-hour strike by customs officers at Gatwick, due to begin at 11pm last night, will not affect travellers. A spokeswoman for the airport said that the strike, over new work rotas, would cause minimal disruption.

The Association of British Travel Agents said yesterday that the high number of people leaving the country for Christmas could be a result of the building society windfalls earlier this year.

Some 400,000 have booked package holidays, with Spain, the Canary Islands and the Algarve the most popular destinations. The most favoured long- haul spots are Florida and the Caribbean, while skiers are travelling mainly to France, Austria and Italy.

On Christmas Day, only two rail services will be running - the Gatwick Express from London Victoria, and the Eurostar train to Paris and Brussels. The Gatwick Express will also run on Boxing Day, together with Connex South Eastern services and those on the LTS (London Tilbury and Southend) line. Normal rail services will resume on Saturday, but Railtrack said some cancellations were possible because of maintenance work.

The ferry company Stena will operate three round trips on the Dover to Calais route on Christmas Day. It is carrying 350,000 passengers and 75,000 cars on its ferries to Ireland and continental Europe over the holiday period.

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