Research recently conducted at Lund University, Sweden, investigated the effectiveness of various approaches to reducing personal contribution to climate change, including common approaches such as recycling and using energy efficient light bulbs, alongside more extreme life choices like having fewer children or getting rid of your car. As the diagram shows, these latter two options fall into the top three most effective means of reducing one’s carbon footprint, followed by avoiding long distance flights. These could all be perceived as somewhat restrictive life decisions, albeit on different levels.
Supposing you take the third recommendation and choose to be greener by minimising your long distance flying, a strategy might be to go on holidays closer to home, say on the European continent. Here I argue that avoiding flights and opting for rail when travelling in Europe is not only feasible, but doesn’t have to break the bank and makes for a vastly more interesting journey.
The main reason I haven’t written any blog posts in the past month or so is that I have been on a couple of holidays. Firstly, I went to Barcelona for a long weekend and then a couple of weeks later I went for a week in Portugal and a week in France. All of these trips I managed to do without flying, travelling mainly by rail, with a few bus journeys thrown in here and there. For instance, after embarking from London on the Eurostar, my journey through France, Spain and Portugal was all possible on an Interrail ticket, going from Paris to the Spanish border and then to the Algarve via Lisbon. Having given up flying in 2015, I have so far had very little issue getting to European destinations from the UK. In September I will also be attending a conference in Germany, travelling exclusively by train.
Many counter arguments to avoiding air travel are fundamentally short-termist: “I need to get to such-a-place as quickly as possible, and minimum cost and discomfort to myself”, regardless of the impacts the journey might cause. Flying may be all well and good for the traveller, but what about the effects on the environment (and future of the human race)?
The IPCC claims that air travel accounts for around 3.5% of global environmental damage, and warns that this could rise significantly if current trends continue. Numerous reports have warned that airspaces are becoming increasingly packed near major cities. London has a particularly bad problem, as is illustrated by this terrifying video (partly because of the accompanying minimalist music). This week a record 8,800 flights entered or left UK airspace. I recall earlier this year when one weekend I cycled from London to Reading, stopping near halfway in a park not far from Heathrow for a packed lunch. During the 15 minutes I sat there, I counted (and at one point lost count) at least 12 planes coming in to land on just one runway.
Rail travel poses an alternative to air because of the sheer number of people transportable by a train, and the relatively low typical carbon emissions. The carbon footprint statistics come out as significantly less than those corresponding to taking a plane. For instance, travelling from London to Paris by Eurostar is approximately 91% less carbon intensive than making the same journey through the air. The only modes of transport greener than that would be to cycle, walk or ride the distance on horseback.
GETTING TO EUROPE FROM THE UK
For a UK citizen to start a European journey without flying, there is an essential element of channel crossing. By Eurostar, this can be done pretty cheaply, if booked far enough in advance. Travelling to Paris or Brussels takes just over two hours and can cost as little as £60 for a return. That seriously rivals air travel both in terms of cost and time duration, once a couple of hours have been spent getting to the (usually) out-of-city airport, checking in, going through security and wandering aimlessly around the departure lounge. For the Eurostar there is no such faff: St. Pancras is at the heart of London’s transport network, checkin and security takes a maximum of 10 minutes and there is no problem with taking your own food or drink through. There is no first class on Eurostar, but I always feel like the whole train feels like first class: it is both spacious and aesthetically sleek.
TRAVELLING WITHIN EUROPE
Of course, time efficiency is less evident the longer the journey over land. My journey from London to Southern Portugal was admittedly rather long, taking over 24 hours because I took a sleeper train from the Pyrénées to Lisbon. However central European journeys tend to be much shorter. It is possible, for instance, to travel from Rome to Venice, Madrid to Barcelona or Vienna to Budapest in 3 hours or less. But at the end of the day, a long journey is only really an issue if you need to be somewhere quickly or if you don’t enjoy the travel experience. So perhaps it is more an issue of outlook on travel, considering it as part of the holiday, or as a component of leisure time within your business trip, rather than just the means by which to get somewhere. I certainly find train travel far more relaxing and interesting than getting a cramped, stressful flight.
Alongside considerations of travel duration, one may want to consider reliability of the transport provider to be on time. Here train travel comes out on top, too. In particular, European high speed trains and Eurostars arrive and depart on time 90-95% of the time, whilst short-haul flights often have reliability as low as 65-70%.
If you are lucky enough to be under 27, five days of unlimited European train travel (within a period of 15 days) currently costs just £188 on an Interrail Global Pass*. The standard adult ticket isn’t too much more, currently costing £243. Of course, a return flight between European cities with a budget airline like Easyjet or Ryanair is often vastly cheaper than this, on the order of £50 or so. However, as anyone who has used these providers will know, there are always further fees for seat reservation, baggage and, of course, getting to the airport. Further, when considering a trip with more and more destinations, the Interrail ticket becomes better and better value than flying. Last summer I travelled to Brussels, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Malmö, Prenzlau and Berlin on a total travel budget less than £250. Thus, to get better value out of your rail ticket, it may well be the case that you end up visiting more places and getting more out of your trip, too.
If you want to be more specific in your travels and only explore one country at a time, Interrail offer numerous single country passes. For example, a one month Italy-only pass can cost as little as £82. Reasonably priced rail tickets are also available to single destinations, with useful European online booking services provided by trainline.eu and voyages-sncf.com. Further, travel planning suggestions for a comfortable and efficient are provided enthusiastically by the Man in Seat 61. As can be quoted from the site,
“Train travel is a more rewarding, low-stress alternative to flying, which brings us closer to the countries we visit and reduces our contribution to climate change. It’s time to rediscover the pleasure, romance & adventure of travel by train or ship.”
REST OF WORLD?
I am aware some readers may not live in Europe, or may wish to travel outside of the continent without flying. I don’t claim to know too much about the possibilities in this regard and my only experience thereof is catching a sleeper train from Beijing to Xi’an in 2010. However I have been looking into possible means of travelling to Asia by rail at some point in the future. The best option is probably to go on the Trans-Siberian railway, which advertises luxury journeys, but which also offers a route from Moscow to Beijing which takes 6 days and costs around £500 each way. If you are intending to travel for over a month, this could be a good option and is within the price range of some intercontinental flights. Bear in mind that £500 does include board as well, so perhaps isn’t as expensive as it might first seem. Best of all, what a journey it would be, through vast expanses of Russia.
Again, the Man in Seat 61 comes to the rescue, suggesting various routes you might have previously thought near impossible without air travel. These include travelling from London to Australia, Southern Africa and the USA. If you are willing to integrate the journey into your holiday, it seems the possibilities are truly endless. Stop flying and start considering the alternatives, for the sake of the planet and for your own enjoyment.
*: Somewhat misleadingly, the Interrail Global Pass does not cover worldwide rail travel. It just refers to the majority of European countries which participate.