Exhausted holidaymakers returned to British airports today, describing their "nightmare" journeys and relief at reaching home soil.

One woman missed the birth of her grandchild because of her enforced extra week abroad, while teenagers were preparing to catch up on exams after failing to return to school when they were supposed to.

Families slept in airports while one mother said she endured "hell on earth" as she travelled through Europe on a 32-hour coach trip.

But many passengers praised staff involved in the operation to deal with the hundreds of thousands of stranded Britons.

Others said they had enjoyed an "extended holiday" in sunny resorts.

Margaret Christian, 58, from Doncaster, South Yorkshire, missed the birth of first granddaughter Daisy while she was on a Thomas Cook cruise in the Greek island of Crete.

She was only meant to be away for three weeks, but had to stay on for another seven days.

Arriving at Manchester Airport, she said: "I can't wait to see her. We have been away for a month but it was only meant to be three weeks.

"We have been looked after very well, I cannot fault it in any way.

"We spent our final week in a four-star hotel, so I can't really complain."

But Patrick Carrs, 69, from Glasgow, said he and his wife, Helen, were "abandoned" in Toronto, Canada, by Thomas Cook.

He said: "The journey back was horrendous. It was five days in a hotel until we got the plane yesterday.

"We have spent a lot of money we were not expecting to spend.

"We have had no help from anyone and we were left on our own. We are getting a bus back to Scotland now so it hasn't ended yet."

Exhausted mother-of-four Allison Sims, from Byfleet, Surrey, spoke of her "nightmare" 32-hour coach journey following a two-week holiday to Alicante.

Ms Sims, 42, was due to fly back to Gatwick Airport on Thursday but had to be put up in all-inclusive accommodation after the volcanic ash paralysed the airline network.

Eventually, holiday firm Thomson arranged for them and other travellers to be transported back to the UK on three coaches, leaving on Monday afternoon.

After arriving at Gatwick's North Terminal following their epic journey, Ms Sims said: "If I'd have known it would take so horrendously long to get back I would have chosen to stay."

She said they left on a coach out of Benidorm on Monday afternoon and were told that if they declined the offer they would not be put up in further accommodation.

"It has been a nightmare and the stops were only for literally about 20 minutes. We had one stop for about 45 minutes where we could eat some lunch," added Ms Sims as she stood beside children Alf, 15, Daizi, 16, Alisha, four and Jaz, three.

"It has been hell on earth. I have two toddlers who have been confined to a seat space for long hours screaming and shouting and wanting to get off."

Two families arriving at Heathrow's Terminal 4 on a Continental flight from Newark were looking forward to sleeping in their own beds tonight.

The Toorays, from Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, and the Panesars, from Coventry, Warwickshire, had slept at Newark Airport since Sunday.

They praised the hospitality of the Americans, who provided them with beds, blankets, books and magazines during their stay, with airport staff even offering rooms in their own homes.

Nirmala Tooray, 40, travelling with her 16-year-old daughter Supna, said: "It's just a miracle to be back. We were worried we were guinea pigs as we were on one of the first flights, but it's been really hard being away, especially as Supna has GCSEs this year."

Narinder Panesar, who had been away with husband Jasbir and their two daughters, said the British Embassy had made sure they had clean clothes and showers at the airport.

Mrs Panesar, who had been celebrating her and her husband's 40th birthdays, said: "It feels so good to be home and to be safe. We were just despairing."

Daniel Noon, 15, had missed Year 10 examinations at his school because he was stuck in Bahrain on his way home from a family holiday in Dubai - but insisted he did not mind.

His mother, Margaret, from Fareham, near Portsmouth, Hampshire, said at Heathrow: "It's been like an extended holiday. We were looked after really well in a hotel.

"It's nice to be home though. A big cheer went up as soon as we landed on British soil."

Another teenager, Jasmine Taylor-Cowgill, nearly missed her first GCSE exam, which she is due to take on Friday.

The 16-year-old, from Manchester, should have come back from Toronto on Saturday.

She said she was "really worried" she would miss the exam at Kesteven Grantham Girls School.

"It feels great to be back," she added, as she hugged her father at Manchester Airport.

Families arriving back at Stansted after an extended Thomas Cook holiday in Tenerife said they had no complaints.

School lunchtime supervisor Melanie Jordan, 50, of Ipswich, Suffolk, returned with daughter Gemma Halls, 15.

"We should have come back Thursday after a week but we stayed two weeks," said Ms Jordan, who works at Westbourne High School in Ipswich.

"Thomas Cook covered it all - they have been very good. We just had an extended holiday.

"Gemma is doing GCSEs - she'll have to see what they say when she gets back to school tomorrow."

At a near-deserted Gatwick Airport. Phyllis Tysoe, 70, from Taunton, Somerset, said her son managed to book her a seat on easyJet Flight EZS58569 from Geneva, Switzerland, after restrictions were lifted last night.

Arriving at the North Terminal, Mrs Tysoe said: "I was a little bit apprehensive at first but the flight was absolutely fine.

"We took off on time and we arrived on time, I can't fault it. The plane was virtually empty. I had three seats to myself and I wasn't the only one.

"Everyone on board was fine. I was anxious at first but I thought that all these other planes are taking off and landing so it must be all right."

Office worker Yuki Kusumi, 39, from Tokyo, Japan, said: "My colleagues were worried about me boarding the flight and I was also worried but there were no problems. There were only about 80 passengers on board."