The grim weather at home is sending millions of Britons abroad in search of guaranteed sunshine over the Easter break, according to travel agents and holiday firms who have reported a surge in last-minute bookings and the strongest demand for seasonal beach holidays in a decade.
Despite the prospect of travel chaos on roads and at airports as a result of the freezing weather and icy conditions – in what is predicted to be the coldest Easter since 1910 – airports are bracing themselves for the start of the busiest holiday weekend so far this year.
A threatened strike on Thursday by French workers at Calais, Dunkirk, Dieppe and Cherbourg could also delay ferries.
The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) predicts that more than 1.7 million British holidaymakers will head overseas for the Easter weekend, compared with 1.5 million last year.
Spain is the UK’s favourite foreign holiday destination, with the Canaries and the Balearics the most popular areas, and Egypt and Tunisia also top choices. Favourite city break destinations are Paris, Dublin, Amsterdam, Rome and New York, while France and Austria – where great snow conditions have allowed many resorts to extend their seasons – are the most popular for skiers.
Mark Tanzer, chief executive of Abta, said: “After two wet summers and no end in sight to the winter many Britons are desperate for some sunshine. We’ve seen a surge in last-minute bookings to warm destinations.”
The holiday company TUI Travel, which owns Thomson and First Choice, said online bookings to resorts such as Fuerteventura in the Canaries, Greece and Tunisia were up 73%, 45% and 37% respectively compared with last year.
Garry Wilson, managing director of purchasing for Thomson and First Choice, said: “With predicted highs of 24C in Fuerteventura, Canary Islands, and 20C in Hammamet, Tunisia, on Easter Sunday versus just six degrees in London and four degrees in Manchester it’s easy to see why people are heading south for the long weekend.”
Thomas Cook said almost half its 28,000 bookings for Easter were to the Canary Islands, with Mexico the top long-haul destination.
The knock-on effect is brisk business at the airports – Heathrow is preparing for its busiest seven days of the year so far, expecting to handle up to 1.2 million passengers passing through its five terminals between Thursdayand next Tuesday. Thursday will be the busiest single day, with over 116,000 people heading abroad for last-minute skiing or guaranteed sunshine.
Regional airports, ferry terminals and the Channel Tunnel are expected to be busy. But a stoppage involving members of Force Ouvriere – who help marshal traffic – could lead to delays for ferry passengers.
More than 60,000 pasengers will be taking continental Eurostar services from the UK to France and Belgium over the Easter break, the company said – with many travelling to Euro Disneyfor the ongoing 20th anniversary celebrations.The tourism agency VisitBritain said 2.7 million Britons planned to take an overnight trip during the Easter weekend. Blockbuster new London exhibitions such as Pompeii at the British Museum and David Bowie at the V&A are expected to be big draws.
The RAC expects more than seven million motorists to be heading for a getaway in the UK or Europe, preparing for a “roads rush” by scheduling an extra 10% patrol hours for the four days from Good Friday. There could be gridlock in some areas with outstanding roadworks still in place, including a section of the M1 near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire as well as part of the M4 near Reading in Berkshire.
The busiest “getaway” periods will be Thursday and Good Friday morning, extending through until Saturday. According to Trafficmaster the most congested stretches of motorway are likely to include all sections of the M25 – especially both ways around junctions 14-17 (Heathrow airport and M4, M40 interchanges) and parts of the M1. Network Rail said rail passengers were unlikely to suffer any disruption, although passengers travelling via Reading station will face diversions as a result of an ongoing £900m refurbishment.