THE great summer getaway has been marred by bad weather and roads misery - and industrial action over the weekend could cause more gloom.
As the school holidays began in many parts of the UK, Britons packed up the car or took to the skies, with roads and airports heaving.
But it was less of a jolly holiday and more of a travel nightmare due to “intense” rain and wind battering parts of the UK and a 5.0-magnitude earthquake near Greek islands earlier - and that is before a strike planned by Spanish Air Traffic Control services takes place at the weekend.
The quake hit near the holiday island of Kos, but authorities say there were no immediate reports of any injury or serious damage.
Meanwhile in France, angry farmers finally relented after a day of protesting against low milk and meat prices by blocking roads to Mont Saint-Michel and the Alps, but they warned that more action is on the horizon.
Air traffic controllers at Nats said today is likely to be the busiest of the year, while Heathrow Airport was expecting its “busiest day ever” with an extra 31,000 passengers taking off.
Leeds Bradford Airport predicted its busiest weekend of the year. Development Director Tony Hallwood said 100,000 passengers would pass through the airport during the coming week, with Majorca, Alicante, Algarve, Canaries, Turkey and Greece the top destinations.
City breaks to Paris, Amsterdam, Prague and Budapest were also reported to be popular.
While many head out of the county, others are making Yorkshire their destination. Sir Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, said the region was enjoying “a substantial rise in visitor numbers and visitor spend”.
He said: “The first quarter of 2015 saw a 45% rise in spend by domestic visitors compared to the same period last year. That’s thanks to the success of international cycling in the county, and now that people have seen how exceptional the rural and urban landscapes here really are, we’re anticipating visitor numbers to the coast, Dales and Moors to continue to rise throughout the summer season as people move Yorkshire to the top of their staycation wishlist.”
Steve Gill, managing director of Doncaster Sheffield Airport, said: “We’re expecting a very busy summer with more than 145,000 passengers anticipated to travel through Doncaster Sheffield Airport during the school holiday period.”
Travel association Abta estimates that 2.1 million holidaymakers will head overseas, and a spokesman said the wet weather might tempt more people to make a last-minute booking.
“With rain predicted for many parts of the UK late bookers may also be tempted to head off overseas with temperatures around the Mediterranean set to hit the mid to high 30s over the next few days with guaranteed sunshine.
“The strong pound to euro exchange rate also means that holidaymakers’ money will go much further in eurozone resorts,” he said.
With many airports predicting record numbers this weekend, holidaymakers should leave plenty of time to get to the airport as the roads will be “extremely busy” and those travelling by public transport should check for any potential engineering work, the spokesman added.
NATS has been preparing for weeks to ensure flights get away safely and with the minimum of delay, adding that routes to all the usual holiday destinations in Spain, the Canaries and southern Europe are expected to be busy.
Preparation and planning for big peaks in demand begins months in advance with NATS analysing airline schedules and airport capacity, and the plan is constantly tweaked and updated.
Juliet Kennedy, operations director at NATS’ Swanwick Control Centre in Hampshire, said: “We have been working incredibly closely with our airline and airport partners to make sure the whole system is prepared and ready to handle today’s influx of passengers and flights.
“We want to make sure everyone can get away for their well-earned break easily, efficiently and safely.”
A Heathrow spokeswoman said that on a “normal” day the airport has an average of 200,000 passengers going through - with arrivals and departures roughly divided 50:50.
Today they will have an extra 31,000 passenger departing and by 8.30am almost 29,000 passengers had gone through security, she said.
It is set to be “the busiest day ever” with 131,046 passengers flying out of the airport.
“The terminals will be staffed with extra volunteers and passenger ambassadors to advise on everything from check-in, to what gate to go to, how to entertain the kids whilst waiting for the flight, or what restaurant to eat at,” she said.
Spain remains the number one destination for the UK market and, with the pound at an eight-year high against the euro, holidaymakers are flocking to other eurozone countries including Cyprus, France and Greece. Florida remains the number one long-haul choice for families, according to Abta.
British Airways said it plans every year far in advance for the busy summer period, adding that it is “working hard” to help customers get away.
Short-haul destinations popular with BA customers include Rome, Barcelona and Edinburgh, while the top long-haul places include New York, Boston and Hong Kong.
Roads are expected to be busy too, with RAC spokesman Simon Williams predicting “road misery” and calling for drivers to stay calm.
“The combination of the remaining schools breaking up, the biggest flying day of the year and a typical British summer’s rainy day is a recipe for road misery today as around two million cars bound for holiday take on normal commuter and business traffic.
“The heavy and persistent rain will make driving conditions challenging and there is a real risk that delays may lead to frustration behind the wheel.
“It is important all drivers, but particularly those desperate to get to their summer destinations, keep their cool so that their well-earned breaks don’t begin with an accident.
“On Saturday in excess of two million motorists will be setting off on their summer holidays. In order to avoid the inevitable jams on routes to the coast, such as the M5 to Devon and Cornwall, drivers should set off as early as they possibly can.”