Forecourts are destined for a busy few days as more than 16m drivers are expected to hit the roads for the first bank holiday weekend in May with traffic well above pre-COVID levels, research from the RAC and transport analytics specialists, INRIX, has revealed.

The study suggests getaway traffic will start building on Friday May 3 before peaking on Saturday 4 at 3.3m journeys. A further 2.3m and 2.6m separate getaway trips are planned on Sunday 5 and Monday 6 respectively, while another 5.6m are expected to be made at some point over the weekend by drivers still deciding which day to travel.

When asked how they’ll be spending their bank holiday weekend, the largest proportion of drivers said they’ll be using their cars to spend a day with family and friends (39%), followed by 14% who intend to go shopping and 8% who are staying with loved ones for a short break.

In addition, 8% of drivers are planning to stay at a holiday home and a further 7% are considering a trip to the coast or the beach. Just 4% are intending to travel to an airport.

Transport experts INRIX is advising drivers to avoid setting off between 1pm and 7pm on Thursday, 11am and 6pm on Friday, 9am and 2pm on Saturday, and 10am and 3pm on both the Sunday and Monday, with Friday 3 May expecting to be the worst day for hold-ups, with delays on major routes expected to take 13% longer than usual.

INRIX data also indicates that the long weekend may start as early as Thursday morning in some parts of the UK, with the M53 southbound from Liverpool to Chester hit by mid-morning delays of up to 45 minutes. The busiest route will be the M5 southbound between Bristol and Taunton on Friday afternoon where travel is expected to take nearly two hours longer than usual due to getaway and commuter traffic combining.

Most major routes across the south and south west are likely to take an average of 50% longer than usual to drive on Friday afternoon, while on bank holiday Monday itself, parts of the north west, East Anglia and south west will be hardest hit by returning traffic. Jams are predicted on the M55 eastbound between Blackpool and Preston from 11am, Cornwall to Exeter eastbound on the A30 and A38 from 11.30am and Norwich to Thetford on the A11 southbound from 12.15pm.

Since 2017, RAC figures suggest 14m drivers tend to get away for a leisure journey at some point over the bank holiday weekend. This year’s total, in line with the last two years, is well above average, showing drivers’ continued post-COVID eagerness to make the most of time spent with friends and family.

RAC Breakdown spokesperson Alice Simpson said: “With COVID travel restrictions a thing of the past, catching up with friends and family is still the first priority for nearly half of drivers making leisure trips over the bank holiday.

“Since 2022 – the first full year since mobility restrictions lifted – drivers appear to be much more eager to make the most of the May Day weekend, with the total number of getaway trips this year far exceeding the average since 2017.

“We’re anticipating a ‘crescendo of cars’ on the road over the weekend with as many as 3m motorists making leisure trips on Saturday alone. In addition to the majority of motorists planning day trips and short breaks, our data shows local routes to city and out-of-town shopping centres could see heavy traffic, so it’s best to head out early morning or evening if possible.”

She said train strikes between Tuesday 7 and Saturday 11 May would also inevitably lead to roads being busier.