In my efforts to be a more sustainable traveler, I made a resolution last year to fly less. As a full-time traveler and digital nomad, I was always on the move. And flying was often the more convenient form of transportation.
But knowing the enormous negative environmental impact of flying, I knew that had to change. I was already making an effort in other area’s: eating plant-bases, shopping second-hand, limiting my use of plastic and water, but the impact of a single flight was enough to undo that.
Although I knew that I wouldn’t be able to give up flying completely, I could certainly make an effort to pick a more sustainable mode of transportation whenever possible. Since it’s short distance flights that have the biggest relative CO2 emissions, I vowed to only fly intercontinental and to travel over land (or water) within countries or continents.
It turned out to be a lot easier and a lot more fun than I had anticipated. Traveling over land allowed me to really enjoy the journey and see much more of the place I was visiting than just aerial views. It posed a fun challenge and I enjoyed the stress and hassle free aspect of traveling over land. No endless lines at customs, luggage restrictions or cramped economy seats. And I often ended up saving money too!
So whether you’re afraid of flying, looking for a new travel experience or want to be more sustainable, I highly recommend traveling over land. For your next trip, instead of immediately booking a flight, why not consider one of these alternative ways to travel without flying?
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Take a road trip
Ah, the classic road trip. Windows down, music up and just cruising down the highway. Free to go wherever you want, whenever you want. Road trips are perfect last-minute trips and require little planning, because all you have to do is get in and drive.
The environmental statistics of driving
Here’s the interesting thing about driving: it’s one of the least sustainable methods of transportation if you’re driving alone. But as soon as you invite a few friends to come along, you’re sharing the CO2 emissions, reducing the relative carbon footprint per passenger.
Suddenly, what was an emission of 171 gram CO2 per km, becomes 43 gram of CO2 per km. And that’s for the average diesel car. If you’re driving a hybrid or electric car, you’re even better off.
In life, if something seems to good to be true, it often is. As is the case with electric cars. They sound perfect right? No fossil fuels, no harmful exhaust fumes. But when you look a bit deeper, you see that there are still a few issues.
The raw materials used to make car batteries, like lithium, are rare and mined in horrible conditions. If you think blood diamonds are bad, go Google lithium mines. And the electricity the car drives on needs to come from somewhere. Green energy isn’t always all that green.
In the end, there is no such thing as a “green” car, but some or better than others. An option to consider is updating your current vehicle to be more environmentally friendly and fuel efficient.
The world is your oyster
But, I digress. The point I’m making is that a road trip is a great alternative to flying. And the more, the merrier! You have all the freedom in the world in choosing where and when you want to go. A road trip allows for a lot of flexibility to visit smaller towns, go out in nature and discover hidden gems at your own pace.
And it’s great for budget travelers too! Especially when you pack camping gear and use apps like iOverlander and Wikicamps to find (free) camping spots, public bathrooms and other facilities. Just remember to respect nature, follow safety guidelines and pack in what you pack out.
So, invite some friends, build a killer playlist, pack lots of snacks and let’s go!
Go on a train ride
Is there anything more romantic than train travel? For me, it conjures images of a bygone era of elegant trains like the Orient Express. Obviously, modern trains are a lot less elegant and romantic. But it’s still one of my favorite ways tot travel.
Trains are a relatively comfortable and fast way to travel. You have more leg space and room to move around than on an airplane. And you get to see the scenery roll by while you look out the window. Traveling by train is as much about the journey as it is the destination.
Not all trains are created equal
Train travel is also a lot more sustainable than flying. The average train emits about a third of the CO2 per kilometer and passenger than a flight would. For example, flying from London to Madrid produces 118 kg of CO2 per passenger, compared to 43 kg if you go by train.
There is a huge variation in the sustainability of trains. Newer trains tend to be more fuel efficient and sometimes run on biofuel or green electricity. Diesel trains can have a carbon footprint of up to 90 gram of CO2 per passenger/kilometer, but an electric train only 45 gram.
So, where traveling by train in Western Europe is often highly sustainable, it might not be somewhere else. A trip from Paris to Bordeaux accounts for 4.4 kg of CO2 per passenger, but a similar distance from Katowice to Gdansk emits 62 kg. This is because Polish trains run on 80% electricity from coals, whereas in France it’s 75% nuclear power.
Book a bus
Buses are not the most comfortable way, but they are affordable and convenient. You can avoid the hassle of going to and from airports and don’t have to worry about those pesky liquids. For me, it’s the best alternative way to travel without flying.
In comparison to a plane, a bus is a lot more sustainable. A long distance coach bus emits roughly 27 gram of CO2 per passenger/kilometer. More than a train, but significantly less than an airplane or car. In Europe, many buses now run on green energy or electricity, Flixbus strives to be carbon-neutral in 2030.
I know that bus travel is not for everyone, but I really enjoy it. As a budget backpacker, buses are usually the most affordable option. And I have no problem passing the time on a bus. I love watching the scenery roll by, listening to music, watching a movie, reading a book or taking a nap. When I was a digital nomad, I would often work on buses. There is no such thing as lost time!
Especially when you go for night buses. You save the money you would normally spend on accommodation, just go to sleep and wake up at your destination! Sleeping on a night bus is not easy for everyone, but an eye mask, ear plugs and neck pillow do wonders.
Some of my favorite travel memories are from bus rides. I once took a local bus in Laos that took 3 hours longer than expected, because we stopped at random places to let people on and off. Women would get on the bus to sell food and drinks, there was no A/c and the speakers blasted load Lao music. But I didn’t even mind, because it was such a fun adventure.
Go on a cycling or hiking holiday
The most sustainable transport, is the kind you power yourself. Unlike motorized vehicles, bicycles emit zero CO2. So why not go for a fun, active and sustainable vacation this year? Go on an adventure and explore at your own pace. Stretch those legs and work those muscles by going on a hiking or biking trip.
Cycling holidays are very popular in the Netherlands, we are a country of bicycles after all. Cycling holidays are relatively affordable and easy to plan. You’ll need to invest in a good quality trail bike, but that’s pretty much it.
You can opt to either bring camping gear or cycle from hotel to hotel. All you have to do is pack up and start pedaling! And if you think cycling holidays are lame and only for old people, check out the documentary “Pedal the World” on Netflix, it’s amazing!
Hit the trails
Much like cycling, hiking had a bit of a nerdy, dusty image. But hiking has become increasingly popular among millennials. And why wouldn’t it? There is nothing more rewarding than a beautiful view after struggling up a mountain. Hiking allows you to connect with nature and truly appreciate the landscape. And it’s healthy!
I’m not an athletic person by any means and I detest most forms of exercise, but I love hiking. The fresh air, gorgeous scenery and the meditative aspect of walking. Not to mention the magical appeal mountains hold to me as someone from a completely flat country.
I’m pretty new to hiking and I’ve only been on a couple of multi-day hikes myself. They were grueling, but so rewarding. It’s my dream to hike a few longer trails like the West Highland Way in Scotland and the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain.
Hiking is a great way to practice slow and sustainable tourism. Just make sure that you are fit, properly trained and informed. Learn about mountain and wildlife safety, plan your route, learn to read a map, and bring plenty of food, water and warm clothes. Most hiking accidents happen because people were unprepared and overestimated themselves. Better safe than sorry!
Treat yourself to a staycation
Travel is not about distance, it is about new experiences. And you can have those without even leaving the city, state or country that you live in.
Staycations are a great way explore your own backyard. Literally! Set up an inflatable pool and create your own backyard resort. You could set up a tent and camp out in your garden. Make it pretty with string lights, bring your favorite camping snacks and sleep under the stars. It’ll be the cheapest trip you’ve ever been on.
Or book a night in a cute boutique hotel in your city. That way you can support a local business and have the perfect hotel recommendation when friends want to visit your city. It also gives you the feeling of being on vacation, without really leaving at all. Enjoy a change of scenery and treat yourself to sleeping in a fluffy hotel bed.
And during the day, try to discover your hometown through the eyes of a stranger. Go to all those tourist attractions and landmarks you mindlessly drive past every day, visit a museum or join a walking tour to learn more about the local history. And why not walk around and explore a part of town you rarely go and eat in that cool new restaurant you’ve been meaning to try out? You’ll be surprised to discover a whole new side to a place you thought you knew.
So, what is your favorite way to travel? And what do you think of these alternatives to flying? How will you go on your next vacation? Let’s chat about it in the comments.
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