Driving home for Christmas?
If you are, make your journey magical – not biblical – by getting organised before you hit the road. Clean the windscreen, ready the audio books and check the weather
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Wednesday 21 December 2011
To quote Chris Rea, that criminally under-appreciated bard of the automobile, if you're "Driving Home for Christmas", then there's a jolly good chance you'll be getting there via "The Road to Hell". Tailbacks will doubtless begin on Friday evening, and, by about 5pm on Christmas Eve, the rail network will come to a near-standstill, with normal services due to lie dormant, like hibernating tortoises, until the day after Boxing Day.
Last year's "big freeze" saw millions of Britons' travel plans grind to a halt after snow caused predictable chaos at airports and on motorways. The good news is that, at the time of writing, you can expect relatively mild weather over the long Christmas weekend. Still, the Met Office warns anyone planning a trip to check the forecasts and warnings before they set out, as changeable weather will continue. More than 500 miles of works are being wrapped up this week, to clear the roads in time for those crucial Christmas journeys, but the Highways Agency recommends you avoid peak times and keep track of the travel reports nonetheless. (Alternatively, buy that helicopter you've had your eye on.) Here are some other things you can do to improve your chances of arriving on time and in one piece.
"If the weather is really bad, do you really need to make the journey?" asks Caroline Holmes, of the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM; drivingad vice.org.uk). Given that it's Christmas, and there are children/grandparents at the other end, eagerly awaiting their gifts, the answer is likely to be yes. "Then preparation is key," Holmes goes on. "Make sure your windows are clean and clear of snow, and that they're not misted over before you pull away. It's also useful to clear the roof of snow, because that could blow off as you move away, and decrease visibility." If visibility is down to 100 metres or below, then switch on your fog lights. And on packed roads in winter, it's probably best to have your dipped headlights on at all times, anyway.
To avoid accidents in snow or ice, the IAM recommends increasing your normal stopping distance by at least four times. "But while you should keep your speed down," Holmes says, "you should also try to keep moving as much as possible, because it's harder to move off on snow and ice. If you're skidding as you pull away, try starting in second gear, to help gain traction." Finally, plot a route that involves as many main roads as possible, since these are more likely to have been gritted and cleared in the event of bad weather.
Before setting out, you'd be well served to put together a Christmas car-journey survival kit. The IAM recommends taking a high-visibility jacket and a torch, just in case you break down and need to step out on to the hard shoulder to make repairs or thumb a ride from a tow truck. If you take regular medication, then you should, of course, have enough of the necessary pills with you. A de-icer and a scraper tool will come in handy, especially when you come to prepare for the return journey.
Perhaps most important of all is a charged mobile phone, with the number of your favourite breakdown emergency service saved in the contacts book. Hats, gloves and even blankets will come in useful if you have to hang around for a rescue. And then there's food and drink: if you're on a long journey, a ready supply of gingerbread men and mince pies is essential, preferably washed down with a thermos of something warm and mulled (but non-alcoholic).
It's time to dig out some nice long audiobooks to keep you interested in a traffic jam. What about Patrick Stewart reading the seasonal Dickens classic A Christmas Carol? Alternatively, you have plenty of Christmas-themed music to choose from. For the grown-ups: Carols from King's, Frank Sinatra's many Christmas LPs, Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart, Thea Gilmore's Strange Communion. For the youngsters, Christmas LPs by She & Him, Sufjan Stevens or Justin Bieber. And, naturally, every glovebox should hold a copy of "Joys of Christmas" by Chris Rea.
Of course, if you run out of CDs, you ought to have committed the rules of at least one car game to memory. Should you be driving through towns and countryside, try Pub Cricket: players spot pubs, and score runs based on the number of legs in their names: "The Intrepid Fox", for example, scores four, while "The Cricketers" (assuming it's a whole team) scores 22. If you happen to be passing through Plumstead, be sure to look out for "The Million Hare".
However, should your journey be confined mostly to pub-free motorways, try the lorry game instead: one player takes Eddie Stobart, the other takes Norbert Dentressangle. Whoever spots the most trucks belonging to their chosen haulage firm wins.
While it sounds as though last year's "big freeze" headlines won't be recycled this Christmas, it's still wise to try to pre-empt airport meltdown. Check in as early as possible online and keep an eye on airlines' websites for travel news. It's also smart to formulate a plan B, whether that's other flights on a different airline, or popping a turkey in the freezer for a worst-case scenario. Load your phone with airline phone numbers and hotel details, and iPhone owners can download the free Airport Maps app so if you are stranded in transit, you can at least find the showers.
Planning to let the trains take the strain out of a festive journey? Then check the National Rail Enquiries website to see what alterations to services and engineering works are occurring over Christmas and new year (goo.gl/QGhwC). And if you haven't already, book your tickets to prevent fraught scenes at the ticket desk. The Trainline has a great app (it's actually easier to use than thetrainline.com) through which you can book tickets as well as check times. And if you are travelling on Saturday, check with your train operator whether it offers a cheap weekend upgrade to first class.
Last year, when airports were padlocked and A-roads were gridlocked, P&O Ferries was boasting on its blog that it was shipping stranded folk hither and thither across the Channel. To check this year's sailing times and updates, go to poferries.com. Things were looking choppy for those heading to the Isle of Wight – the staff of Wightlink's Isle of Wight-to-Portsmouth service had voted to strike on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day but have decided to call off industrial action. For more information, visit wightlink.co.uk.
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