Easter travel chaos: How bad will it be?

Airports at full stretch, motorway jams predicted, rail lines closed – with train strikes to follow

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 29 March 2024 04:13 GMT
Going places: Airports across Europe will be extremely busy at Easter
Going places: Airports across Europe will be extremely busy at Easter (Simon Calder)

The great Easter getaway could see travellers caught up in delays by road, ferry, rail and air. In a normal year there would be a gap between most schools breaking up and the long weekend. But with Easter falling so early the two are combined. Term is ending at many schools on Thursday 28 March, putting extra pressure on transportation.

At least three major UK airports – Bristol, Newcastle and Edinburgh – have told The Independent this will be their busiest Easter ever. Some airlines are predicting record numbers for the spell between Good Friday and Easter Monday. Geneva routes will be extremely busy with winter sports fans, while Malaga, Alicante, Faro and Tenerife are the leading spring sunshine holiday destinations.

Among city breaks, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dublin, Paris and Rome are the most popular. Dubai, Orlando and New York are the key longer-haul destinations.

After the chaos at the Port of Dover over the corresponding weekend last year, coach passengers and holiday motorists can expect an easier journey despite the tough French border passport checks the UK requested after the vote to leave the EU.

At home, motoring experts are warning that journeys on some stretches of motorway could take twice as long as normal as families head for the coast and countryside.

Rail travel may see some passenger records broken, with Eurostar selling five per cent more tickets than last Easter – even though the London-Disneyland Paris route was scrapped last June because of Brexit.

Domestic train trips will be hampered by widespread engineering work, including on the key West Coast main line linking London Euston with the West Midlands, northwest England and southern Scotland.

Once April begins, train drivers belonging to the Aslef union will walk out with a series of further strikes on both trains and the London Underground.

These are the key pressure points through the Easter holidays, starting with airports.

When and where will airport crowds build up?

Two million British travellers are expected to fly away during the Easter weekend. Over the four-day break, departing passengers are likely to outnumber arrivals as families head abroad.

Maundy Thursday (28 March) will be busier than a normal due to business travellers completing trips and some families taking advantage of (slightly) lower prices on Thursday to escape as soon as the school holidays begin. Liverpool John Lennon airport sees the launch of Jet2’s latest base.

Good Friday (29 March) should be quieter, with fewer passengers travelling on business.

Easter Saturday (30 March) will be extra busy as the normal ski Saturday crowds are augmented by familles heading for sunny destinations.

Easter Sunday (31 March) is predicted to be the busiest of the holiday at Bristol airport, with 30,000 passengers expected.

Easter Monday (1 April) may bring long lines at passport control coming into the UK as travellers return from long weekends away. Edinburgh expects its busiest day.

Friday 5 April is the busiest day of the holiday at Luton airport, with passengers passing through at an average rate of 38 per minute.

Sunday 7 April at Gatwick is predicted to be busiest overall, and at departures from Southampton.

How are the ferries looking?

Longer crossings on the Irish Sea, English Channel and North Sea should run without any problems. Brittany Ferries, which sails from Channel ports to France and Spain, says Maundy Thursday is its busiest day, and predicts “glorious weather and happy passengers”.

The key issue is the Port of Dover, where frontier controls are “juxtaposed”. French border staff now obliged to scrutinise and stamp every British passport before passengers sail to Calais and Dunkirk. This greatly adds to the processing time.

At Easter 2023, long queues built up with coach passengers particularly affected. The port has established a Coach Processing Facility in Dover’s Western Docks that will be in use on the key high-pressure dates on Thursday 28 March and Saturday 30 March. Passengers have their travel documents examined away from the main port; when formalities are completed the coach proceeds to the Eastern Docks for a swift further passport check.

What is the outlook for motorists?

Alice Simpson of RAC Breakdown has warned of “carmageddon” for holidaymakers. Maundy Thursday will be tough, particularly between 2pm and 7pm. The western half of the M25, between the M23 for Gatwick and the M1 to the North, is the road to avoid.

Leisure traffic will peak, says the RAC, between 11am and 3pm on Good Friday. That day, 2.68 million leisure journeys are expected. The longest jams are predicted to be on the M5 southbound between Bristol and Taunton and the M3 between the M25 and the south coast.

Easter Saturday and Sunday are second busiest with 2.34 million trips each.

For holidaymakers heading home on Friday 5 April, the trouble spots to avoid are the M5 northbound between Taunton and Bristol and the M55 from Blackpool to Preston.

As always, starting a long journey either very early or waiting until evening will likely help to avoid the worst jams.

What is happening on the railways?

First, some good news: the West Highland Line in Scotland has reopened on schedule after nine days of work on Rannoch Viaduct.

But over the Easter weekend, Network Rail will close some key stretches of lines. The most disruptive is the four-day closure, from Friday to Monday, of the West Coast main line between London Euston and Milton Keynes Central. New track will be laid near Kensal Green tunnel and a busy junction just south of Milton Keynes will be replaced.

Delay reaction: Network Rail staff outside London Euston (Network Rail)

East Midlands Railway, which runs between London St Pancras and Sheffield, will be the diversionary route chosen by many travellers. The company warns its services will be “extremely busy over the Easter weekend”.

An alternative diversion line is the Chiltern route from London Marylebone to Birmingham. Caledonian Sleeper trains will run to and from London King’s Cross.

Once again, the main Greater Anglia line from London Liverpool Street to Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich is interrupted, along with the line to Southend Victoria. Rail replacement buses will run.

The main trans-Pennine route is closed at Huddersfield all the way through from Good Friday to Sunday 7 April, disrupting a wide range of lines.

By then, the latest round of industrial action by train drivers belonging to the Aslef union will be under way.

In a long and bitter dispute over pay and working arrangements, which began in the summer of 2022, they plan to halt thousands of trains on 5, 6 and 8 April. A series of “rolling strikes” is to disrupt services on the 14 rail firms in England that are controlled by the UK government and represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).

Members will also refuse to work their rest days from Thursday 4 to Saturday 6 April and from Monday 8 to Tuesday 9 April. As many rail firms depend on drivers working overtime, hundreds – possibly thousands – of trains will be cancelled.

These are the likely service patterns based on previous experience.

Friday 5 April

The four strike-hit train operators – Avanti West Coast, East Midlands Railway, West Midlands Trains and CrossCountry – say they are currently assessing the impact to their services, but past experience indicaste they will cancel all services.

Saturday 6 April

Chiltern is the first operator to confirm it will run no trains. Northern and TransPennine Express are also likely to cancel all services.

GWR and LNER will run a skeleton service on their core intercity lines between around 7am and 7pm.

Monday 8 April

C2C, Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Thameslink and Southeastern are likely to cancel all services.

Southern will run a shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport.

Greater Anglia will run to and from London Liverpool Street to Stansted airport, Southend, Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich.

South Western Railway will run between London Waterloo, Woking and Guildford, with some other suburban services likely.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in