Travellers in front of the departure board at London Waterloo on December 23rd last year / Getty

Exclusive: Research shows biggest crowds could be seen as early as Thursday

The Christmas getaway is bigger, starting earlier and set to last longer than ever before. Research by The Independent reveals that the biggest crowds of travellers at some gateways will be seen as early as Thursday - a full week before Christmas Day.

On Friday 19 December alone, 400,000 airline passengers will fly from Britain’s airports, according to data supplied by OAG - equivalent to one fully-laden Boeing 787 taking off every minute.

Many airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick, predict the busiest festive spell in their history. But the early start to the Christmas exodus should mean these record passenger numbers are spread over a week, rather than concentrated into a spike over one or two days. 

Edinburgh airport predicts its busiest day of the Christmas season will be Thursday 18 December. The top winter-sun destination is Tenerife, with Amsterdam the leading city break.

There will be another surge from the Scottish capital on 21 December, which is also when Gatwick predicts the busiest festive day in its history, with 64,000 departing passengers. Britain’s second-busiest airport expects 10 per cent more passengers than 2013 - though figures in last year were diminished by the disastrous flood on Christmas Eve, which led to chaotic scenes and thousands of passengers being stranded in Sussex for 25 December. Geneva, Barcelona and Dublin are the key destinations. 

Stansted has the latest peak of the major airports, with 37,500 departures forecast for next Monday, 22 December. The top destinations from the Essex airport are Dublin, Rome and Barcelona.

From Heathrow, New York is the star destination - followed by Dubai. The airport declined to reveal its forecast for this Christmas, but analysing last year’s data suggests that the final Friday is likely to prove the airport’s busiest.

Manchester airport is also predicting Friday to be the peak day. For the first time, Dubai is challenging Dublin as the leading destination from north-west England.

The early start to the rush is mirrored on the ferries, with DFDS reporting Thursday to be the first of its busiest days for sailings from Dover to Calais and Dunkirk. A spokesman for the company added that festive fares are likely to rise in future years: “Now is a good time to get a good deal on your ferry travel, as next year new EU legislation on sulphur emissions will be coming into play, pushing up the operating costs for all ferry operators.”

P&O Ferries echoed the relative absence of travel peaks this Christmas. “There’s nothing remarkable this year to produce startling numbers on a particular day,” said the firm’s Brian Rees. “The way it is spread means there’s plenty of capacity.”

On the railways, Eurostar’s big days to Paris and Brussels are 19, 23 and 30 December. Domestically, First Great Western predicts Monday 22 and Tuesday 23 December as “much busier than normal”. The train operator to South Wales and the West of England expects a “lunchtime peak” for departures from London Paddington, with passengers keen to arrive at their destination in late afternoon or early evening.

On East Coast Trains, the big squeeze is on Saturday 27 December, with many services already sold out. Engineering work on the West Coast line means Virgin Trains will not operate to or from London Euston from 25 to 28 December, and therefore travellers are switching to the east.