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An expert's guide to flightless travel

Travelling by land, river and sea can be a wonderful way to explore, says travel writer Emma Gregg

It’s 2022, and life has changed. You still adore travelling – the planning, the packing, the swishing about in those perfect holiday outfits. You love the feeling of waking up somewhere new, surrounded by deliciously unfamiliar flavours, scents and sounds. But there’s a catch. You’re increasingly aware that certain modes of transport have a high carbon footprint and produce pollution, noise and waste. With planes among the biggest culprits, you’re rethinking how often you take to the skies. Maybe you’ve decided to ditch flying altogether.

So what next? Is this the end of holidays as we know them?

The joys of flight-free travel

The answer, if you’ve decided to forget flying for a while and seek greener travel options instead, is likely to be yes. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in some circumstances, it’s an overwhelmingly good thing. Rather than feeling like a sacrifice, flight-free travel – by high-speed train, electric vehicle or hybrid-electric ferry, for example – can be a revelation. It makes the journey part of the adventure, and spreads the benefits of tourism way beyond the hotspots near the airports served by low-cost airlines. This is sustainable travel at its best.

Admittedly, in some (though not all) cases, you’ll need to allow longer to reach your destination. But on the plus side, you’ll get to appreciate the regions in between, making satisfying stopovers in places you’d otherwise miss. Flight-free travel can be truly serendipitous, with lunch breaks revealing hidden restaurants and boutiques, ferry trips offering glimpses of seabirds and dolphins, and unexpected friendships emerging as the miles roll by.

Weighing up the consequences

When I set about researching The Flightless Traveller, a book of ideas for those keen to travel without flying, I was both excited and apprehensive.

I loved the idea of inspiring green-thinking travellers to consider their holiday choices as carefully as they choose which clothes to buy, which food to eat and how they heat, furnish and decorate their homes. And I was eager to open people’s minds to new habits and possibilities – such as swapping a couple of carbon-intensive fly-in short breaks for a ten-day nature-positive adventure by bike, train or even horse-drawn caravan.

But I knew I didn’t have all the answers. Most of us are time-poor and, particularly for those who live closer to an airport than an international railway or ferry terminal and are heading overseas, flying can save precious hours or even days, depending on the destination. Frustratingly, due to fuel tax breaks and other factors, flights are often significantly cheaper than greener alternatives, too.

Crucially, as an ardent long-haul traveller with a passionate interest in wildlife, nature, heritage and culture, I worry that the travellers most likely to warm to flight-free travel on ethical grounds are those who already make sustainable choices. Ecotourists, for example. On remote tropical islands and wildlife reserves, ecotourism helps tackle poverty and fund conservation. If responsible travellers stop flying, the consequences for disadvantaged communities and fragile ecosystems could be disastrous. Until low-impact planes take to the skies, the only viable answer is for ecotourists to choose their trips more carefully than ever, making every flight count.

How far could a flight-free trip take you?

The last couple of years have taught many of us that there’s joy to be found in holidaying close to home, seeking novelty in new experiences such as outdoor activities we’ve never tried before. If you’re based in Britain and fancy an eco-smart city break, Bristol is a fantastic option, with handy road and rail links, a buzzing health food and craft beer scene, oodles of cultural heritage and masses of opportunities to go walking, running, cycling, climbing or boating.

What if you’re yearning for the beach? The gorgeous shores of Normandy and Brittany are just a ferry trip away from England’s southern ports. There are lovely pebble-strewn coves tucked beneath the heather-clad cliffs on Finistère’s crinkled coast, for example.

To take slow travel to the limit, why not abandon fuel-powered transport altogether and set out on foot? Long-distance routes such as the Wales Coast Path or the Camino de Santiago offer a chance to enjoy rolling scenery, the company of like-minded souls and a great sense of achievement.

If time is no object, you could even cross oceans. Tempting though cruises may seem, beware: most ships have a higher carbon footprint than planes. Instead, book a passenger berth on a wind-powered vessel or (less obviously, perhaps) a cargo ship. Your personal carbon footprint will be next to nothing as the ship will travel whether you’re on board or not – a handy workaround for intrepid intercontinental adventurers.

Emma Gregg is an award-winning travel journalist and responsible tourism expert. Her book, The Flightless Traveller, is published by Greenfinch, an imprint of Quercus Books.

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