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Driving home for Christmas

Maria McCarthy / 11 December 2018

Many motorists will be travelling long distances over Christmas and New Year to spend it with family and friends - here's how to stay safe on the road.

A model of a campervan on a Christmassy background to represent driving at christmas

If you're joining them, these motoring tips will help make the journey as safe and easy as possible so you arrive ready to join in the festive fun.

Before setting off

Check the levels of oil, windscreen washer and so on before you set off. It can be worth putting your car into the garage for a winter check of items such as the battery, and air con system. Halfords is offering a half-price winter check with antifreeze change and Duxback windscreen treatment.

And it's especially important to double-check that you've packed all the presents. It's surprising how often important gifts can be forgotten and the last thing you want to do is to make yet another round trip!

On the subject of presents do take special care of them in transit. Store them safely in the boot and if you do have to keep any in the car, throw a blanket over them so the wrapping doesn't attract the attention of thieves. If possible, try not to leave your vehicle unattended.

How to keep your belongings safe in a car

When to set off?

When it comes to making that long journey to see friends and relatives, one of the key questions motorists ask themselves is – when is it best to set off if you want to avoid heavy traffic?

The last Friday before the festive break is often known as 'frantic Friday' as it's when lots of people hit the road.  In 2018 it will fall on Friday 21st December and according to the AA 59% of motorists expect to be travelling on main roads and motorways then. For Saturday 22nd the figure is 53% but Sunday 23rd is quieter by comparison at 45%. 

Some people swear by the 'set off late and drive through the night' approach. However motoring experts generally advise against this as you'll be working counter to your body clock and could run the risk of 'driving tired'. If you do decide to do, this take breaks every two hours and ideally ask a passenger to talk to you to keep you awake.

How to stay safe driving at night

Going the distance

There tend to be two types of motorists hitting the road for the festive journey home. Those who regularly clock up a high mileage and those who tend to do most of their motoring  locally and for whom their annual pilgrimage to visit family is one of the few times they drive long distance.

If you're in the latter group and your trip involves motorway driving but you're feeling a bit rusty, have a practice run beforehand. Also, be gentle with yourself. If it's a choice between a route that's shorter but that you personally find more stressful and one that's longer but quieter, it can be worth choosing the easier option. The AA Route Planner allows you to explore different routes and to even choose one which avoids motorways if you prefer.

And if you're a confident driver be understanding about the fact that there will be more inexperienced and hesitant drivers on the road than usual. Give them space and extend the spirit of peace and goodwill.

Stay in touch with news about traffic jams and roadworks via your sat nav, a sat nav app and online. Tuning into the local radio stations of areas you pass through can be really useful too.

Unpredictable traffic and conditions mean that it's best not to be too specific about your expected arrival time. You don't want relatives to worry if you're delayed and you also don't want to end up rushing to make up time either – the last thing anyone wants Santa to bring them for Christmas is points on their licence for speeding.

More tips for motorway driving this Christmas

It's the same trip every year – or is it?

For many of us, the drives to see family and friends at Christmas are regular trips that we feel we could do on auto-pilot. However,  our roads are changing all the time and it's important not to be lulled into a false sense of security.

'Thousands of filling stations have closed during recent years, so don't assume the garage you remember from your last trip will still be there,' says Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart Director of Policy and Research. 'Motorway service stations are contractually obliged to be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year but the more remote the area you're driving into the more difficult it may be to find fuel. On public holidays it is wise to keep your tank topped up well in advance and this also helps you avoid motorway rip-off prices.'

Neil adds, 'Many drivers may find themselves on a smart motorway for the first time during the holidays. Take some time to find out  about them as the advice about breakdowns is different.'

How to beat the smart motorway

Don't have a nervous breakdown

The thought of your car breaking down on the festive drive home is enough to dampen anyone's Christmas cheer. Christmas Day itself is one of the quietest days of the year for both traffic and breakdowns but thankfully all the major breakdown providers - including Saga - operate on Christmas Day, so if you get into difficulties help will be at hand.

Be prepared by getting breakdown cover sorted before setting off on a long journey. It's much cheaper and less stressful to arrange it in advance than when you're stuck by the roadside.

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Let the train, coach or taxi take the strain

If the prospect of a long drive seems daunting or tiring, be open to considering other options. Train travel can work well if you book in advance so you're sure of a seat. And travelling by coach means you don't have to worry about finding space for your luggage as the driver will load it.

You might also want to consider doing your journey via a carpooling site such as BlaBlaCar or booking a long-distance taxi. The taxi option might seem expensive but obviously it works out cheaper the more people are travelling. It can be worth getting a quote from your local firm, or via minicabit, which was featured on Dragon's Den.

Cut the cost of owning a car by signing up to a car-share scheme

Driving home for Christmas – the playlist

It's impossible to even think of driving home for Christmas without the ubiquitous Chris Rea song popping into your head. It can be fun to put together a compilation of your favourite Christmas music for the journey, whether that's cheesy Christmas tunes or Christmas carols or classical music. Or you could take the car karaoke option and make your own music!  Either option will help calm you down on the journey and get you into the festive spirit.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.