Planes, trains & automobiles - how to get home for Christmas
This snow stuff was all very good and fun when it meant days off work and school, but now that the nation is trying to get home for Christmas, the weather has taken a much more serious edge. With just a few days to go until the big feast and little let up with the blizzards, there is a reality dawning that we’re going to have to make that trek to the turkey sooner or later and it isn’t going to be easy.
Fortunately, good old Pocket-lint is at hand to give you all the tools you need to make sure you don’t wind up on the news under a foil blanket at Heathrow or trudging down the hard shoulder some distance between your abandoned car and the Travelodge which you’re praying has got a room. So whether you're going by car, rail or air, read on to make sure you’re one of the lucky ones.
The scenes and tweets coming out of the airports are one of the biggest headlines of the big freeze and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that you’re in for a tough time if you’re looking to get abroad before the 25th. The most important thing to do is check your flight before you leave for the airport in the first place. There’s no point being stuck in a departure lounge when your own living room has considerably more creature comforts.
Your first port of calls should be both the airport website and the website of your carrier. The main BAA site is a good stop where you’ll find live departure boards and all the advice you need. For non-BAA airports, head straight to Google and find the sites for Luton, Gatwick, East Midlands, Bristol or wherever it is you’re looking to fly from. Each will offer live flight information. Once you’ve checked that, it’s well worth getting hold of the airline in question as well to see how it’s looking at their end.
Most of the airports have their own Twitter streams which are well worth following. They’ll offer news updates if there are any changes to frozen runways as well as word of how many flights in general they’re looking to get out, and how normally the service is running. As well as that you can find various online tools and ask any questions you might have. Again, the airlines themselves generally have Twitter accounts which can bring you more specific information about the flight you’re looking to catch and any advice that that’s being offered to passengers.
There’s not an awful lot in the way of hotlines to help out for flights although a call in to your carrier is advised. Queues at airport desks are going to be long and the ones on the phone possibly just as bad, but it’s worth a try to get a picture of how many flights are generally getting out and what average delay times seem to be. On top of that, make sure to find out about any plans for compensation.
A lot of the UK airports actually have their own apps which will give you an excellent overview of all the information you’re going to need. The better airlines generally have them too and, largely speaking, these things are free, so well worth a download to give you something else to play with while you wait. Another app that you might find vital in these times is Angry Birds - an excellent time killer.
Stuck at the airport?
If you’re already stuck, then you've got to make that choice that the Clash made famous. Use the apps and websites above to give yourself the best information to make that decision. As for getting yourself comfy and keeping occupied, make a beeline for your nearest power outlet and if that’s occupied, then go down to Dixons and buy a multiplug adapter so that you can share. Both your laptop and your phone are going to need lots of juice and you’ll find sockets in all sorts of hidden places where the cleaners plug in their floor polishers and hoovers. If you can sit yourself near a McDonalds or Starbucks for the Wi-Fi, then so much the better. 3G doesn’t always work too well inside big terminal buildings.
Touch wood, trains are proving one of the more reliable modes of transport for the time being. Leaves on the line might be an issue but snow, it seems, isn’t too bad. All the same, there’s far from a normal service running out there, so make sure you run your checks before leaving home.
Since the privatisation of the railways, it’s got a little more complicated to find out detailed travel information on the trains. The first place to look is the National Rail Enquiries website which brings you live service disruption news. It’s also well worth using the journey planner to check that your route is running or to see if there are any more specific delays. After you’ve check that, head to the website of the service provider from that line - be it Virgin Trains, National Express, South West Trains or whoever it happens to be.
If you’re travelling through the London area, then make sure to take a look at TFL. Again, use the journey planner to check your route and also the special winter weather live service page as well. Don’t be put off if your journey shows a problem; there are all sorts of ways of getting from A to B in the capital. Take a good look at the tube maps and keep alternatives in mind.
Last of all, Transport Direct is also a must. It offers nationwide service details for road and public transport too complete with maps of exactly where on each line the problems are.
Both TFL and National Rail Enquiries have a decent Twitter presence and, so long as you’re not stuck underground on the tube, you’ll be able to access all the same information as you can on their websites as well as bulletin-style updates and conversations based around travel in London.
Again, both National Rail and TFL have apps where you can pick up a more small-screen friendly version of what’s going on. However, seeing as both have decided that it’s okay to charge for a service which can be found for free online, you might want to check out some of the unpaid alternatives such as London to Go.
National Rail has had the good sense to set up a bad weather helpline which you can call on 0845 3017 641. According to Say No to 0870, the local rate version of that is 020 7068 0519.
Stuck on the train?
You’ll be pretty unlucky to actually get stuck on the train itself but, if you do, you’ll be hard pressed to find any power sockets for your laptop and phone. Get your head right under the seats for a good look around and scour the buffet car, service cupboards and carriage joins for anything you can find. If you’re in for the long haul, a warm notebook on your lap could make all the difference.
Of all the modes of transport we ask you to be careful with, it’s the roads. Please, please check that you can make your journey safe and sound all the way before you leave. The breakdown services are already dealing with more than they can cope with and there’s every chance you could end up spending the night in your car.
It’s all about maps when it comes to checking the roads and, when they’re internet connected, then so much the better. Google Maps has a basic traffic overlay which taps into the TeleAtlas data and offers a decent enough quick glance at where some of the hot spots are. However, what you’re actually getting is the speed of the vehicles on the road which only tells you so much about snow drifts.
The AA Roadwatch service - found on the company’s website - has more detail with specifics of vehicle breakdowns, information on what’s causing the delays as well as more precise speeds on the roads. Some of the alerts are crowd sourced adding a more local element to the information.
For the real granular deal about traffic, the place to head is the Highways Agency website. There’s live information about all the roads in the UK and a place where you can check your journey to find out the exact speeds and flow of traffic, where the accidents are, any road closures or road works and just about anything you can think of at all. A must.
The second important element to making sure you get to Christmas HQ okay is a weather report. The Met Office website is the place to go with more detail about forecasts than could possibly be accurate. You can look at maps or just get a minute by minute summary of whatever postcodes you’re looking to negotiate via narrow country lanes. If it says there’s going to be a blizzard, there probably will be. Of course, if you’d rather a more digestible version, then the BBC Weather website draws on the same information. On top of all that Transport Direct, which we mentioned in the trains section above, also works nicely for road travel as well.
Twitter’s not so hot for traffic advice as it’s a harder thing to pin down. That said, the Met Office has a Twitter stream and there’s also a car version of TFL on the service offering accident and emergency and road works information for those driving through the London area as well.
Again, it’s the Met Office who are best covered in the mobile phone space. There’s a free app for most platforms that will give you access to all the weather information you need. If you’d rather try something different though, Pocket-lint has put together a selection of the best weather apps for iPhone.
AA Roadwatch offers 24-hour live traffic information over the phone. Just call 84322 from your mobile phone. You get incident and congestion news, the ability to set up text alerts for anything that takes place along your route and even report any problems that you find.
TomTom Live with HD Traffic is an additional service that you have to pay for on top of your satnav device but, at times like these, it’s well worth it. It sends live traffic information direct to the SIM in your in-car device which will then automatically choose the best route for you based on both road conditions and speed. Think of it as a Christmas present to yourself or a small outlay that could actually save you a lot of time and money.
If you don’t have a TomTom, then the next best solution is Traffic Radio which you can get on DAB or over the Internet. Naturally, that’s not much good for your car stereo but you might be able to pick it up over your mobile phone connection.
Last of all, make sure you take an in-car charger to keep your phone juiced up and take your Slanket just in case.
Stuck in your car?
Calling your recovery service is the first thing to do and they’ll be able to advise you very quickly as to whether it’s worth sticking around or heading for shelter. A night out in your car is going to be far too cold unless you’ve had the sense to stick some blankets in the boot. Make sure your mobile phone is charged so that you can call the emergency services and also so you can pass the time with Angry Birds and your collection of podcasts. Do use Google Maps to see if there’s a hotel or anywhere nearby to walk to instead, do call ahead to check if they can accommodate you, do not attempt a 10 mile walk in the snow at night.
Stay safe and stay tuned to Pocket-lint over the festive season.