Responsible flight free vacations

When government and big energy companies ask us as individuals what we are doing about our personal carbon footprints, itís right that we should feel indignant and throw that question back in their faces. Their decisions are the ones that have accelerated us to the cliff-edge of catastrophic climate change, and they are the ones that have the power to make the significant changes needed right now.

That being said, many of us do still feel a responsibility to consider our own footprint. And while we might happily eat a vegetarian or vegan meal now and again, and probably wonít complain too strongly about the thermostat being turned down a few notches, how willing are we to fly less on vacation?

Responsible tourism isnít only concerned with how people behave when theyíre away, or how travel companies work to minimise the impact of their business on local communities and environment. Itís also about considering how we get to our destination and whether the cheapest, quickest way is actually the best way. And letís be honest: for most of us, flying isnít so much fun anymore. Going by rail might take longer, but itís much more relaxing, as well as more scenic.

The seismic growth of budget flights over the last few decades has done a sterling job of convincing people that itís impractical to go on vacation beyond France from the UK and Ireland except by air. But the reality is that not only is it more enjoyable to go over land instead, not only is it often easy and cost-effective, but it still means you have a fantastic range of destinations and types of vacation open to you. Flight free vacations are about curbing emissions, not ambitions. Letís make travel exciting again.

Flight shame or train brag?

In 2019, around 2.5 percent of global human carbon emissions came from commercial flights. But most of that was from leisure flights that are inessential. With new forms of renewable energy rapidly replacing fossil fuels and a growing take-up of electric vehicles on the roads, that percentage is going to rise. But only 11 percent of the worldís population took a flight in 2018, and just one percent of people cause half of all aviation emissions. It would only take a relatively small number of people to start rethinking the way they travel for a big difference to be made.

While we understand the reasoning behind the Swedish concept of flygskam, or flight shame, we prefer a different term: tågskryt or train bragging. You took the family to the Mediterranean by train this year for a change? Kudos.

Time, cost and the complex fragmentation of European train networks, combined with the proliferation of budget airlines, have made it seem as if there is little point in trying to get abroad by rail. Thatís not something anyone should be shamed for; itís entirely natural. However, we need to get back to a point where speed and price are not seen as the most important elements when it comes to travel.

We also need to end the belief that itís somehow a Ďrightí to be able to fly wherever, and whenever, we choose. The effects of climate change will inevitably hit the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. Many, ironically, in destinations we love to vacation in, such as the Maldives.

What can you do?

We Ė and by we, we mean people in wealthy, Western countries Ė need to face an uncomfortable truth. Whatever other efforts we might be making at home to be eco-friendly, from recycling to driving electric cars, if weíre still taking several flights every year then our carbon footprints are many times the size of most other people on the planet.
When speaking about the imbalance between wealthy frequent flyers producing half of aviationís carbon emissions in 2018, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents the worldís airlines, responded: ďThe charge of elitism may have had some foundation in the 1950s and 1960s. But today air travel is a necessity for millions.Ē
But when the vast majority of people in the world will never fly on a plane, flying remains an elite mode of travel.
Many travel companies will suggest you offset your flightís carbon emissions through schemes that will plant trees on your behalf, or something similar. But most offset schemes around the world fail to reduce emissions. They are little more than green-washing Ė a convenient way to ignore the fact that we need to drastically cut global carbon emissions instead of carrying on as normal and somehow Ďbalancing them outí. Interested to learn more? Our campaign for a Green Flying Duty is a good place to start and our guide to curbing your emissions on vacation will give you some handy pointers.

There needs to be more realism about aviation emissions from everyone involved: travel companies, destinations, businesses, governments and travelers themselves. But itís also important to be keenly aware that we can still see the world and have brilliant vacations without flying so much. Our flight free vacations guide aims to show you whatís possible with a bit of determination, a bit of knowledge, and a bit more time.

So abandon thoughts of flight shame, and think instead about train bragging. Celebrate every achievement, even if itís just taking the Eurostar to Paris. Be inspired, not intimidated, by the potential of overland travel. And letís return to the adventure, the fun, the romance of going the long way round.

The arguments against flight free

The boom in cheap flights since the mid-1990s diminished enthusiasm for long distance travel over land in Europe. Itís too complex to book a multi-country journey by rail. It takes too long. Itís too expensive. However overland travel is only too slow, expensive and complex when placed against the cheap flights that are a relatively new phenomenon, and that we know are incredibly damaging to the environment.

So letís look at the most common arguments against going over land, one by one. Firstly, the price. In the UK, traveling by train can be ludicrously expensive, but in many parts of Europe, and around the world, rail travel is nowhere near as costly. And while we might pay a bit more going by rail or boat into Europe, what are we actually paying for? More comfort and more views. No luggage restrictions. Less queuing and less stress.

As for time, the savings are not always as big as you might think. Letís start with an obvious one: it takes just over an hour to fly from London to Paris, the Eurostar takes about an hour longer. But if you go by air, you have to factor in check-in, security, embarkation and disembarkation, passport control and getting from the airport to your accommodation. But if you go by rail you just wander through security onto the platform at the right time, take your seat, and then youíre whisked from city center to city center with a lot more leg room. The same goes for flying between many European cities. When you factor in airport transfers, queues and all the other potential causes of delays when flying, youíre often not saving anywhere near as much time as you think. And youíre certainly not having as relaxing an experience as you would by rail.

As for complexity, it might at first glance appear difficult to drive through several European countries, or to book multiple legs of a rail journey Ė perhaps even including ferry. But take another look. We know stacks of responsible companies that will be more than happy to lend you a hand. Theyíll tell you precisely how to reach your vacation by road or by rail, and they may even be able to make the bookings for you. Our guide to booking international trains is also packed with helpful information.

What can you do?

Overland travel is not an option for everyone, or for every type of trip. If you have a limited amount of vacation you can take in a year, then itís understandable you wonít want to use up an extra two days or more on the journey. But for lots of people, it is achievable. And the key is to think of the journey as part of the vacation, rather than the boring part we need to get out of the way before the vacation really begins.
Weíre not saying stop flying entirely; weíre saying think about flying less often. You can easily get to a huge number of European cities by rail for not much more time and cost. And there really is no excuse now to by flying between London and Paris, or London and Amsterdam.
And what about more far-flung destinations? You canít get to Indonesia, Australia or the USA without flying, unless you want a long boat ride. But there are plenty of other ways that you can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of your vacation. For one: try to reduce the number of internal flights you take within your destination, by asking your tour providers about overland alternatives. As planes burn the most fuel at take-off and landing, short-haul flights are more environmentally damaging than long haul. And eat locally produced food. In fact, if you want a more sustainable vacation, thereís nothing better you can do than dive headlong into the local cuisine that hasnít flown in from abroad itself.

How to make a real difference

There are many communities in poorer countries around the world that depend on tourism. If we all stopped flying, they would be devastated. Similarly, there are environmental projects, such as reforestation schemes in Malaysian Borneo, that several responsible travel companies support, and that we know many travelers love getting involved with on their vacations. You canít get there without getting on a plane. And yet, these are exactly the kind of places and communities that are likely to be hit hardest by an overheating climate. Itís a difficult equation to solve.
As travelers, all we can do is pay attention to the impact of our vacations and consider how we can reduce it. That might be committing to flying less. It might be asking our travel company about environmental or community projects in the destination weíre visiting that we could support. It could mean seeking out companies that make a point of using locally run accommodation and local guides. At Responsible Travel we firmly believe that traveling well isnít just about limiting negative impacts of tourism, itís about trying to have a positive effect as well.
Ultimately, real change is out of our hands. But if we put pressure on the people who make the decisions, weíre likely to see greater movement on issues such as electric planes, progressive taxation and punishments for polluting companies. Writing to our politicians to make our opinions known, joining protests and applying pressure is how change will come. Youngsters like Greta Thunberg, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Saoi OíConnor and Leah Namugerwa are leading the charge. Letís get involved.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Kevin Schmid] [Heathrow: Basheer Tome] [Sri Lanka train: Hendrik Cornelissen] [Borneo: Budi Nusyirwan]