The governments of the four UK nations have agreed that up to three households will be allowed to get together between 23 and 27 December.
The decision is likely to put pressure on the UK’s transport network.
The travel team at The Independent has been assessing the impact – and the options for people wanting to make long-distance journeys.
How bad will the traffic be?
While Christmas travel patterns in the past have been fairly predictable, the coronavirus pandemic is making predictions difficult. It is likely that 23 December will be the busiest day: it will still be a normal working day for many people, and is likely to see a surge in traffic from people wanting to take maximum advantage of the “Christmas Ease” window.
Christmas Eve, particularly later in the day, is likely to be much quieter, and 25 December itself will be calm.
Because Boxing Day and 27 December fall at the weekend, there will be no significant commuter traffic. But there may be long queues for the sales, which are likely to start that weekend.
The morning of 28 December may be busy if people overstretch the definition of the Christmas window.
Where are the likely trouble spots on the roads?
If previous Christmas congestion provides an indication, the M25 orbital motorway around London is likely to be bad – all the way around from the M23 south to Gatwick and Brighton to the A12 to the north and east. The motorways through Kent won’t be busy because hardly anyone will be travelling across the Channel.
The motorway network around Birmingham could get congested, and stretches of the M6 all the way from the West Midlands to Lancashire could be problematic.
But with no comparable data, it may turn out to be very different – either with jams popping up in unexpected places, or with roads blissfully clear of traffic. And last year, the busiest day was actually a full week before Christmas.
Can I rent a car?
Yes, if you are quick to book and able to pay more than usual. Because of the rail problems, or perhaps because they don’t want to travel with other passengers, many people may opt to rent a vehicle. At Birmingham airport, Hertz rental cars normally priced at £50 are being hired out at £75 per day. In Edinburgh, small cars from Avis that are normally £44 a day are, again, 50 per cent more expensive.
What’s happening on the trains?
The 19 million British people without access to a car could find their journey plans thwarted or extremely crowded. The usual Christmas Day shutdown and almost complete closedown on Boxing Day will cut the number of days available for travel from five to three – putting a lot of pressure on the remaining “window” days.
Both 23 December and Christmas Eve are likely to be very busy, with problems exacerbated by the early closedown of rail services on 24 December – typically in the early evening. Long-distance rail operators are insisting on reservations – but most advance tickets are not available.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has advised prospective rail passengers to consider alternatives.
What about the traditional Christmas engineering work?
That's going ahead as normal. It gets really bad after Christmas. Widespread engineering works mean that journeys back after Christmas get-togethers could be fraught. London King's Cross, the hub for the flagship East Coast main line, will be closed completely – with no trains between the evening of Christmas Eve and the morning of New Year’s Eve. Disruption will continue until Sunday 3 January. Passengers travelling from London to Yorkshire, Newcastle and Edinburgh will have to find alternatives.
On CrossCountry trains, the line between Bristol Temple Meads and Bristol Parkway is closed on 27 December, which means there will be no direct trains between the southwest, the Midlands and the northeast.
And on the line linking the capital with East Anglia, passengers for Colchester and Ipswich face travelling from London Liverpool Street to Stansted Airport – from where they will need to travel onwards by bus.
How much will tickets cost?
The lack of advance tickets is a real problem – partly because inter-city operators are insisting on advance reservations to ensure social distancing, and partly because they are extremely expensive.
For long-distance journeys on Christmas Eve, only full fare tickets are available.
Glasgow to Inverness: £46.
Cardiff to Holyhead: £87.
Manchester to London: £64.
For the East Coast main line, from Edinburgh to York, passengers are told: “Tickets for this date aren't available yet because we're still finalising our timetables."
How about coaches?
Over the past few Christmases, both National Express and Megabus have substantially increased the number of services – particular on 25 and 26 December when there are no long-distance trains.
But because they’ve endured such a brutal year there won’t be too much appetite for laying on speculative services. But there are some good-value tickets around, such as Newcastle to Manchester for £23 on a choice of four different Boxing Day Megabus departures.
They will be quieter than for decades, with very few people travelling. But certainly for anyone travelling between Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England there are a good few services – and at good prices, a month ahead.
On Ryanair between Edinburgh and London Stansted, flying out on Christmas Eve and back on 28 December, is £31 return.
And easyJet between Belfast International and London Stansted, seats are still available going out from Northern Ireland on Christmas Eve and returning from the capital on 27 December for just £30.
All research conducted on the evening of 24 November