Simon Calder: Flown from the freeze? You’re one in a million
Saturday 18 December 2010
Are you reading this on the beach or on a ski lift? At 35,000 feet or 186mph? If so, congratulations. You have already made your escape from a nation that, according to the forecasters, is set for the opposite of sun, sand and sea: expect snow, sub-zero temperatures and seizing up.
I estimate you are one in a million; from a week of phoning around the country's transport operators, that seems the likely number of Brits who have already left the country to celebrate Christmas in a location where midwinter may be a touch less bleak and where de-icing fluid constitutes a tasty-if-lurid cocktail rather than a chemical compound.
In a normal year, 18 December would represent little more than an overture, marking the start of a great getaway that builds to a travel crescendo two or three days before Christmas Day. But the fact that 25 December and New Year's Day are both Saturdays has distorted travel patterns through the festive break.
The skiing market is in some disarray due to 25 December and 1 January falling on the main "changeover day", Saturday. And it appears that many families have seized the chance to grab a pre-Christmas week away. At some of Britain's top airports, and on international trains from London St Pancras to Paris and Brussels, the biggest crush of the season ... has already happened. Friday, 17 December was the day of the greatest escape.
Where I live, the schools broke up yesterday afternoon. But judging from the figures provided from sources as diverse as BAA, Eurostar and easyJet, there must have had a good few empty desks: even allowing for yesterday's cancellations at Heathrow, 200 passengers per minute were booked to pass through Britain's busiest airport during its operating hours.
That still leaves a good three million of us who have plans to travel abroad over the festive season. Tell me which escape route you are using, and I shall predict when you are likely to leave – and return.
Unlike forecasts of road traffic and rail passengers, airlines and airports know to a high degree of certainty how many travellers are likely to fly in and out.
Today Heathrow and Gatwick will be full of Virgin Atlantic and British Airways long-haul passengers waiting anxiously for de-icing (for the aircraft, not for themselves). But other airlines have different peaks: Monarch planes are busiest on Thursday 23 December. The airline expects another surge a week later; on 30 December, people coming home from Christmas away will swap places with those resolving to start the New Year as they plan to continue, ie on holiday (well, that's my intention, at least).
Going to Gatwick tomorrow? You won't be alone, since 19 December is set to be the Sussex airport's busiest day this month.
Many other airports are available, which is a blessed relief to all of us. Edinburgh and Glasgow were expecting their maximum passengers yesterday, weather permitting – a phrase that has attached itself like a snow chain to Scotland this month. Manchester hits a peak on Wednesday 22 December, with a winter sports-related spike (or should that be a ski pole?) predicted for Boxing Day. Luton, Birmingham and Cardiff airports expect bumper bookings on 27 December.
Even Christmas Day is looking lively at Heathrow and Gatwick, which will process precisely a Wembley Stadium-full of passengers: 90,000 in total. Heathrow is the only UK location with a scheduled train service on 25 December (half-hourly from Terminals 1 and 3 to 4 and 5, free).
My tip for 25 December: enjoy the wide, open spaces of Stansted. The Essex airport anticipates only 2,000 passengers all day – on its busiest day, next Thursday, that's a mere 40 minutes' worth.
New Year's leave
Talking to airports and airlines, it seems as though an air-traffic map of Britain on 2 January will resemble a particularly scary video game, with everything converging on the UK at once. Almost every airport expects it to be their busiest day of the season.
The day after New Year looks like a hangover for everyone. Airport and airline staff will be at full stretch, while passengers expecting short lines for passport control and their bags already waiting on the carousel may be disappointed. The crush is likely to be most intense at Heathrow and Gatwick early that Sunday morning: Virgin and BA long-haul flights from the world's sunniest spots are going to be rammed.
You can't say quite the same about Britain's offices, factories and classrooms the following week. Virgin Atlantic reports that the following weekend, 7 and 8 January, is almost as busy as 2 January – suggesting many of you have cancelled the milk for a long-haul escape of two or three weeks. Good call.
The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations
- 1 Isis propaganda video shows 25 Syrian soldiers executed by teenage militants in Palmyra
- 2 Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
- 3 The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
- 4 The biggest first date turnoff has been revealed
- 5 German man found living with 300 rats in tiny apartment
Are plastic planes the future of flight? Heathrow expansion reopens debate over aviation's effects on the environment
Inside Travel: Greece 2015 Q&A - should we cancel our Greek holiday? Are our flights safe? And what will we be spending there?
The 10 Best flea markets
The most powerful passports in the world
The 10 Best lightweight luggage
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...
£33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...
£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...
£22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...