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.
Whatever car you go with, here are a few tips for eco-friendly driving
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 Gdańsk emits 62 kg. This is because Polish trains run on 80% electricity from coals, whereas in France it’s 75% nuclear power.
Trains are my favorite way to travel without flying. They are fast and comfortable, and there’s a certain romance about traveling by train. Especially in Europe, where they’re expanding the night rail network to offer more connections between big cities.
Book a bus
Buses are not the most comfortable way to travel, 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. Here are a few things you should pack for a night bus
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.
I even traveled all the way from Luang Prabang to Koh Lanta by bus!
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. It’s definitely one of the most rewarding ways to travel without flying.
I’m pretty new to hiking, and I’ve only been on a couple of multi-day hikes myself. But in 2022, I hiked the Portuguese Camino and several others, like the West Highland Way, are still on my bucket-list.
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. Check out my tips for planning the best staycation
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.
When you stay in a locally owned hotel, the money stays in the community
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 without flying? And what do you think of these alternatives? How will you go on your next vacation? Let’s chat about it in the comments.
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34 thoughts on “Alternative ways to Travel Without Flying”
Great post! How do you think about climate compensation for your long haul travels?
Thank you! I talk about it a bit in my post on green travel. I think that offsetting carbon is a nice extra, but it is not a solution. Sustainability is about doing as much as possible, not just the bare minimum. And we need to be mindful about green washing as well. Offsetting carbon doesn’t magically undo the environmental harm of flights, but it helps a bit.
No I agree, but when you fly it does make a small difference. I mean best thing is not to fly of course but all small steps make a difference. Of course you need to look into how your flight is offset cause indeed there is a lot of greenwashing out there…
I think that airlines should already be donating to carbon offset initiatives, rather than leaving it up to customers. After all, it is their responsibility to become greener. And donating a few dollars or euro’s to offset carbon won’t actually undo the harm your flight does. I fear it makes people think that by clicking the little “offset carbon emmision” button, they’re in the clear when that isn’t the case. So it is a nice extra, but certainly not a solution.
Sophie, thank you for speaking about this in a well-rounded way! I’m learning to embrace staycations during this time and you’re right that it’s a more eco-friendly form of travel and can offer similar experiences to travels abroad!
Thank you! My aim for this post was to show that there are great alternatives, that don’t take away from the joy and adventure of traveling and just happen to be more eco friendly.
Probably the most honest piece on sustainable travelling from a blogger I have read ! Love that you admitted one flight can undo all the environmental efforts you do everyday ! Also how you pointed out electric cars are not necessarily more environmental friendly than fossil fuel cars ! You are also right to point out the main game changer is to share your CO2 emissions, i.e. car pooling, train, bus. Thanks for shedding a light on this ! =)
Thank you so much 🙂 It’s all information I was shocked to learn myself, so it’s important to spread that awareness to others. I wanted to show that there are lots of different ways to travel that are just as fun.
From the looks of your article here, I say you’re well-traveled. I love a good road trip and it seems that’s going to be the way to travel for the rest of 2020. That’s okay by me…and I’m off next week to camping in a tiny cabin!
Haha, I would certainly say I’m well traveled 😉 Writing this article got me really excited about all these different ways to travel. Camping in a small cabin sounds like a great vacation, enjoy!
Aah This look quite an interesting read! I love road trips in the mountains and staying at Eco friendly Places are my type of travel choices. I love trains but that I prefer for long travel days.Flights omits more Carbons than others and we should cap the usage of it for Eco friendly travel practices. Thank you for pointing out this.
Road trips are definitely a fun way to travel and potentially much more eco-friendly than flying. I love traveling long distance by train, it is so fun and relaxing
Though international travel is put on hold, we can still enjoy travel by driving locally. That’s our plan here in Australia, exploring the whole of Victoria and NSW. It will be awesome, thus supporting local tourism.
Exactly! These trips ideas are all sustainable and corona friendly. It is just as much fun to explore close to home as far away in my opinion. That sounds like a super fun trip!
Well, it seems we have contributed quite a bit by cancelling 2 overseas vacations this year and the third one will likely not happen either. Like you, I don’t like exercising, but we have started hiking on the weekends and it is fun so far.
Haha inadvertently, the corona crisis has made us all more eco-friendly. I hope we can carry some of it through
I resonate with this post and I really want to enjoy border crossing travels like I did during my trip between India, Myanmar and Thailand but I am sure that a lot of rules will be changed. I hope that traveling gets back to normal soon.
I wonder how much will change at the borders, especially in Southeast Asia where it was always quite easy to cross. I hope they won’t make it too hard!
This definitely gave me some food for thought. I agree that travelling by air has such a negative impact on the environment. I like the idea of road tripping with family and friends. Travelling with more people shares the carbon load. I have always been a fan of train travel and prefer trains to flights and buses. I find train journey more comfortable than road journey and livelier than flights.
Me too, traveling by train is such a fun adventure!
I loved this post as it really gels with my style of travelling. I prfer overland tours and driving over flying and the train journeys have a romance of their own.