Britons brace for strikes, traffic jams and border delays as Easter exodus returns

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: freeartist/Alamy</span>
Photograph: freeartist/Alamy

Holidaymakers are heading to Europe in huge numbers this Easter, piling pressure on airlines to avoid a repeat of last year’s travel chaos.

Flight bookings from the UK to Europe have leapt by 12% compared with the 2019 Easter period, before the pandemic, according to ForwardKeys, a flight data provider, while European tourists are tending to stay at home.

But with strikes affecting airports in the UK and Europe, travellers going abroad face an uncertain weekend.

The Port of Dover said on Saturday that it was “deeply frustrated” by “significant delays” to coaches caused by lengthy French border processes and the sheer volume of traffic. A critical incident has been declared and coach passengers have been told to expect delays of several hours.

“Food and drink have been provided and we offer our sincere apologies for the prolonged delays people have endured,” a spokesman said.

Those staying behind will be able to choose from an unprecedented number of special events taking place next week, according to tourism authorities, although traffic jams are likely, with the AA predicting 15 million people will be on the road at the weekend.

A huge volume of traffic at the Port of Dover in Kent on 1 April as coach and ferry services were disrupted.
Traffic at the Port of Dover in Kent on 1 April as coach and ferry services were disrupted. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Last year at Easter, there was disruption at Heathrow and Manchester airports, caused by a combination of staff shortages affecting baggage handlers and airport security, the war in Ukraine and Covid restrictions at some destinations. Airlines made 41,000 planned cancellations in 2022, but this year say they have enough staff to avoid a repeat.

However, industrial action in the run-up to Easter has forced British Airways to cancel 300 flights so far, mostly to Europe. Security staff at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 are on strike until Easter Sunday. EasyJet warned that strikes by Italian air traffic controllers on 2 April and by the airline’s Portuguese workers until 3 April might also affect its schedules. Spanish airport ground staff working for Swissport have several weekday strikes planned until 13 April.

Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at ForwardKeys, said that for people travelling from 31 March to 16 April, bookings from UK travellers were “12% ahead of pre-pandemic levels, compared to the European average, which is 15% behind”. He added: “Looking at destinations, Turkey and Greece are set to do best from the surge in UK Easter holidaymakers, with airlines scheduling 63% more seat capacity to Turkey and 49% more to Greece.” Cyprus, Portugal and Romania were also up, he said.

“If you want me to sum up the strongest trend in European travel right now, it’s ‘Brits on the beach’.”

Ferry operators said their bookings were up, as did Eurotunnel.

David Edwards, founder of the Scattered Clouds travel consultancy said several surveys showed that people were prioritising holidays, but inflation was having an impact. “They’re conscious of their available budget, asking whether it’s worth spending an extra £30 for flexibility on a hotel room.”

The World Travel and Tourism Council, an industry forum, recently highlighted data from the online travel agency Trip.com showing that people were returning to a more “normal” pattern. Edwards added: “Flight booking lead times stood at 32 days in 2019, fell to 16 days in 2021 but rebounded to 27 days in 2022.”

UK attractions are making extra efforts to put on Easter events, according to Kathryn Davis, managing director of Visit West, which promotes the west of England.

“It’s not just the usual Easter egg hunt, although there’s some great stuff going on. We’ve got a Shaun the Sheep hide-and-seek trail with Aardman, and we’ve got Funderworld, a big theme park that pops up in Bristol, and activity trails.”

More visitor attractions require visitors to pre-book tickets, Davis added. “By having managed time-slots, they create better visitor experiences,” she said. This prevented overcrowding, and helped attractions plan events and order stock accordingly.

“One of the beauties about travel is spontaneity, and that’s still there. But people should check if they need to book tickets.”

Hayley Beer-Gamage, chief executive of Experience Oxfordshire, said people still expect the same flexibility to book at the last minute that they became used to during the pandemic.

A walking tour in Oxford, with the bridge of sighs in the background
Organisers of walking tours in Oxford are bringing in extra staff because of strong bookings. Photograph: Harry Harrison/Alamy

“We’ve got quite an extensive events platform on our website, and we can see that people are searching a lot for things to do over the Easter period – domestic search and international too. But when you’re tracking click-throughs to the booking, that’s not necessarily happening.”

Some attractions are busier, she added. “We operate official Oxford walking tours, and we are having to put on extra capacity over the Easter weekend period.”

ForwardKeys said that flight bookings for summer were also strong to European destinations, up 8% compared with 2019. Bookings to Greece are up 51% compared with before the pandemic, Turkey up 35%, and Denmark, Sweden and Cyprus are also popular.

According to Visit Britain, 72% of people expect to make an overnight stay in Britain in the next 12 months, and 51% are expecting to travel overseas.

But Barclays data shows that older people are not travelling as much as before the pandemic. While people aged between 25 and 64 spent at least 4% more on travel in 2022, those aged over 65 spent 6.6% less.