Travellers returning from France must now self-isolate for 14 days as new quarantine restrictions have come into force.
Tens of thousands of British tourists in France joined a desperate scramble to return in time to avoid 14-day self-isolation rules which took effect from 4am today.
People snapped up the last available tickets for planes, trains and ferries back to the UK, with some airlines facing heavy criticism over significant price rises.
And while many of those who did manage to find means of transport into the country had to pay increased rates, others were faced with huge online queues.
Consumer expert Rory Boland of Which? magazine condemned the “cynical behaviour” of some airlines, and urged reform of the travel industry.
The travel editor at the consumer magazine said: “We’ve seen some airlines hiking prices for people scrambling to get home from France, while also refusing to refund or offer flexibility to those in the UK who can no longer take their holiday by claiming schedules are operating as normal – despite government advice against all but essential travel.
“The cynical behaviour of certain carriers has a knock-on effect for package operators, who are struggling to refund passengers when they cannot claw back their money from the airlines.
“The impact on trust in the travel industry has been devastating.
“This reinforces why major reform of the travel sector is needed to put the travelling public first – including giving the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) the powers it needs to act swiftly and effectively against airlines playing fast and loose with the rules.”
Some airfares were more than six times as expensive as those just 24 hours later.
British Airways had tickets for sale for a flight from Paris to London Heathrow on Friday night costing £452 – compared to £66 for the same journey on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Eurotunnel Le Shuttle, the train service which carries vehicles through the Channel Tunnel, was fully booked on Friday.
A spokesman revealed 12,000 people tried to book tickets in the hour after the new rules were announced at around 10pm on Thursday, compared with just hundreds normally.
Those trying to book Eurostar tickets online logged in to find they were in virtual queues of more than 3,000 people at times.
Among them was Stephanie Thiagharajah, who cut short her trip to France to return home to Kent
“The Eurostar was full of families, scared to be quarantined, they were definitely annoyed,” she said.
The cheapest available Eurostar ticket for a train from Paris to London was £210. Those for Saturday were £165.
Stuart and Anna Buntine paid almost £1,000 on tickets home via Eurostar from Burgundy, central France.
Mr Buntine, 58, said: “We couldn’t get tickets, all the sites had crashed… we had to buy business class tickets back today so it’s cost nearly £1,000.”
Mrs Buntine added: “We left here with our eyes (open) knowing that it was a possibility, so we decided we’d take that risk.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps earlier argued the government had taken “a practical approach” to the new restrictions.
The government said the measure was imposed due to rising numbers of coronavirus cases in France.
Travellers returning to or visiting the UK from the Netherlands, Monaco, Malta, Turks & Caicos and Aruba also face the same restrictions.
A traveller who gave her name as Sonata K said she had abandoned plans to go to Paris on the Eurostar for four nights with her mother – after learning of the new rules at London’s St Pancras station on Friday morning.
The 39-year-old dentist said: “It’s not worth it to go out and have to self-isolate.
“With my work I can’t do the procedures from home. We were too late to get the news, we’re just finding out here but it’s better than on the train.”
And Dyan Crowther, chief executive of the HS1 high-speed London to Channel Tunnel rail link, said it was “heartbreaking” seeing families forced to cancel holiday plans and spend hundreds of pounds rushing home.
“People want certainty, they want to know that they can go away without having to worry about what the world will look like when they return,” she said.
A spokeswoman for travel trade organisation ABTA said the government’s quarantine policy would “result in livelihoods being lost unless it can step in with tailored support for the travel industry”.