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If only driving home for Christmas had the mellow, laid-back vibe of the infamous Chris Rea song. The reality is more likely to involve long, stressful journeys on unfamiliar roads, often with overexcited children in the back. And then there's always the possibility of the ultimate festive nightmare – breaking down on Christmas Day.
Peter Rodger, chief examiner for the Institute of Advanced Motorists, says the best way to avoid this is by thorough preparation before setting off. "Get your battery checked, check the fluids and tyres. Remember that if you normally drive alone but on this occasion are loading the car with two adults, two children and lots of luggage and gifts, you'll need higher tyre pressure from the ones you have normally.
"It's also important to plan for the weather you'll be driving into – it might be mild in London, but if you're heading for Dundee you'll have to make sure you've got the correct levels of antifreeze and a winter motoring kit in the boot."
A surprisingly high percentage of breakdowns happen because the driver has simply run out of fuel, so fill up before you set off – don't be tempted to save money by only adding £20 worth of fuel. 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 to the more difficult it will be to find fuel over the festive period.
It's important to keep some breakdown essentials in the car – a fully charged mobile phone, a torch, warm clothes, comfortable and waterproof shoes, hot drinks and snacks. According to AA figures, Christmas Day is the quietest day of the year for breakdowns, with 4,000 last Christmas compared with a daily average of 9,500. But if you're one of the unlucky ones, it can be a horrible experience.
"Every breakdown is stressful," says Brian Barnard, roadside patrol with Green Flag breakdown service. "But if it happens on Christmas Day it's especially difficult. People are often travelling to relatives for Christmas dinner, which tends to be at a set time and difficult to delay. Children can get very upset as they think they'll miss Santa. I was once called out to a priest whose car had broken down en route to taking a service. It wasn't possible to repair his car there and then, but I took him to the church and then got his car back to his home."
Rodger advises planning your journey in advance and not relying on your satnav. "Doing your own research will make life just that bit easier," he says. "Check online and via the radio for any traffic problems. If you're travelling with someone else then share the driving if you can. And if there's a spare adult in the car then arrange for them to be the one who keeps the children occupied so the driver isn't distracted."
Many people drive through the night at this time of year, partly to avoid heavy traffic and partly because children are more likely to sleep during the journey. But Rodger urges drivers not to travel overnight unless they absolutely have to.
"At 3am your body clock will be protesting strongly that you should be asleep and it'll be difficult to concentrate. It's vital to stop at least once every two hours and walk around."
Routes identified by motoring organisations as traffic hotspots for the festive period include the M1, A1 and A1(M) northbound, the M4 westboud to Wales and around Heathrow, the M3, A303 and M5 heading to the West Country, the M23 to Gatwick and the M11 to Stansted. The RAC points out that the M62 over the Pennines is often affected by snow, as is the A1079 between Hull and York.
Above all, don't forget to stay calm. Many people who usually only drive locally find themselves hitting the road for their annual pilgrimage to visit family. These drivers might not be as confident as more experienced ones, and are more likely to be hesitant.
"Don't let yourself get wound up by their behaviour," Rodger urges. "Give them space and let the festive spirit of peace and goodwill extend to other motorists."
Breakdown cover over the festive season
The breakdown organisations below will be operating a normal service over the festive season and on December 25. You can even join on Christmas Day. For other service providers, check before travel. Response times will vary if the weather is severe, but should average about 40 minutes.
0800 051 0636