How to beat the bank holiday weekend traffic jams

With up to 20 million drivers making the most of bank holiday weekends to get away, the roads can be busy. Here's how to avoid the jams and enjoy days out with family and friends...

Motorway traffic

Around 20 million people are likely to hit the roads over a bank holiday weekend, with many people taking advantage of the long weekend to visit relatives or enjoy days out or short breaks at the coast and other rural locations. 

The bank holiday getaway usually starts on the Friday before the weekend, but jams are also expected throughout the weekend, with Monday also particularly busy with people returning home ready for work and school the following day. 

The result of all this is that many major routes across the south and southwest of England could take 50% longer to navigate earlier in the weekend, and the northwest, East Anglia and southwest are likely to be busiest on bank holiday Monday as motorists return home.

If you want to beat the traffic, follow the tips below to help minimise the pain of travelling at this busy time. 

1. Plan your route, and plan your time

The most important step is preparation. First, ask yourself if it’s necessary to travel at peak times. If you can travel either early in the morning or late at night, you’ll miss the worst of the traffic.

There are plenty of useful websites out there to help plan your route, with dedicated sites for Traffic England, Traffic Wales, Traffic Scotland and Traffic Northern Ireland all listing current events and incidents that might affect your route.

Most modern sat-nav systems will also be able to detect if there's traffic on your route and offer detours, but it’s also worth having a physical map in the car just in case the technology fails you.

2. Avoid the busiest roads where possible

Certain motorways and A-roads are likely to be busier than others at the start of a bank holiday weekend. The M3, M5, A303 and A30 are the most direct routes to the south west and Cornwall, and further north, the Lake District and Peak District are big tourist hot-spots, so expect the routes to both of these regions to be clogged, too. If you want to avoid the worst of the traffic in these areas, consider travelling in the evening. 

Similarly, as many people head home at the end of the weekend, major routes are also likely to be busy, so travel early or late if you can.  

Traffic jam on the M25

3. Use your radio’s traffic announcement function or an app

Once you’re on-route, either use a sat-nav system with live traffic information or the TA/TP traffic warning system on your car stereo to keep abreast of the jams. If you have a sat-nav with live traffic it will automatically suggest an alternative route if a hold-up is detected. If you don’t have this, the TA/TP function on your radio will switch to any station that is announcing traffic news, so you’ll still get the latest updates. 

There are also several smartphone apps you can download to alert you to traffic in your local area, including Inrix Traffic, Waze, Google Maps and The AA. Just make sure your phone is secured in a holder or cradle if you're planning to use these, because you could get a penalty notice and large fine for using a handheld mobile phone while at the wheel of your car. 

4. Take a break

Think about your route and how long you’re likely to be driving before you set off. Then you can plan any necessary breaks along the way. The Highway Code recommends that you take a break from driving for at least 15 minutes every two hours. Looking for places to stop in advance gives you the opportunity to find quieter and less expensive restaurants and petrol stations away from the motorway. 

English Heritage's website contains a list of scenic stop-off locations close to major transport routes.

5. Keep passengers entertained

If you have children on board, take enough drinks, snacks and games with you to keep them happy in case you get stuck in a traffic jam. A portable DVD player, tablet or laptop can help keep children occupied watching films and TV programmes, and you can also get miniature versions of board games specially designed for the car.

Children in child car seats

Children’s website Minitime also has a list of free games you can play with your children in the car, and classics like I Spy, 20 Questions and Hangman are always a safe bet.

6. Prepare your car

The last thing anyone wants is to break down in the middle of a holiday car journey, so take the time before you leave to carry out these basic vehicle checks:

  • Make sure your car's oil and coolant are topped up to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended levels
  • Check your tyre pressures and pump up the tyres – including the spare – if necessary, and check tyre tread depth
  • Clean your car's wiper blades and check them for wear; replace them if necessary
  • Turn on your car's headlights, indicators and brake lights and check that they all work

Our feature on preparing your car for a long journey has more advice.

Car broken down at the side of the road

7. And if the worst happens…

If you do end up at the side of the road with a broken-down car, you’ll want to call out a breakdown rescue service. You can eliminate a lot of the time (and cost) by signing up for breakdown cover before you travel.

You can buy national breakdown cover from as little as £24 per year, but more expensive policies will also cover your onward travel costs and cover you in Europe as well.

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Read more: Our guide to the top 10 pre-holiday car checks >>