The decision to go flight-free for the sake of the climate is becoming an increasingly popular decision, encouraged by the flygskam (flight shame) movement – started in Sweden in 2018 and popularised by climate activist Greta Thunberg – and campaign groups like Stay Grounded and Flight Free UK (I wrote about my own decision to go flight-free and the benefits of train travel for the latter here). The hashtag #jagstannarpåmarken, which translates as #stayontheground, sprang up in 2019 and led to a dramatic increase in the number of Swedes – twice as many, compared to a year and a half before – opting for train travel instead of domestic flights.
But deciding not to fly purely for leisure anymore did not, and still doesn’t, feel like an easy decision for me personally. It is true that there are many, unappreciated benefits of opting for trains, ferries, and coaches instead of planes; but whatever the environmental benefits may be for going flight-free, this choice – if it’s based on the idea of going flight-free indefinitely, not just for one year – can feel like a great sacrifice. And it is in many ways.
I want to explore both the benefits and drawbacks of committing to giving up flying for climate reasons, as it’s important to be balanced and empathetic when people decide to change, or not change, their flying habits.
The Benefits of Going Flight-Free
So let’s start with some of the advantages of staying grounded, some of which I mentioned in my post for Flight Free UK. There are many benefits, most of which have nothing to do with shedding flight shame and which make not flying again appealing, irrespective of whatever carbon savings this entails or feeling that one’s transport habits are aligned with environmentalism.
The first is that you don’t have to deal with airports: not needing to get to an airport (and the costs involved), not being in the airport, none of those annoying baggage and item restrictions, no sitting on a plane (okay, the views can sometimes be impressive but often they’re not and you see nothing for most of the time), no lack of leg room and space, no turbulence, not having to get from the airport at your destination to your accommodation (which is typically far away), and no jet lag (which can cause a range of unpleasant symptoms, take away from the enjoyment of your holiday, make returning home a struggle, and may take a while to recover from).
Flying is statistically very safe (the odds that your airplane will crash is one in 1.2 million and the odds of dying in a crash is one in 11 million, while your chances of dying in a car crash are one in 5,000). However, our psychological makeup means we struggle to actually incorporate statistical facts into our lived experience; taking off, being in the air, turbulence, and landing can all set off anxieties, regardless of whether they are rationally justified. By not flying, then, many people can stave off some of their travel-related worries.
These are the benefits you can experience through giving up; but what about the gains you can enjoy from the modes of transport you replace flying with: cycling, trains, ferries, buses, and coaches? Again, the benefits are numerous.
Train travel is usually smoother and more relaxing – it is easier to get to a train station than an airport and from the train station you arrive at to your accommodation. Train journeys are typically more enjoyable than plane journeys; there is something unique about sitting by the window and watching the scenery pass by. Trains seem more conducive to spontaneous encounters with others (table seats help). The journeys will be longer, but it’s easy to stay occupied with the changing landscape, music, books, WiFi (if it’s available) and films, TV shows, and documentaries loaded onto a laptop or tablet. Of course, in some countries, the 3rd class section on trains may not have the most comfortable seats or options like mains sockets or WiFi, but if the country is affordable, you can upgrade for a reasonable price (especially if coming from a more affluent country).
When travelling by train, especially when going from country to country, you get to appreciate the changes that occur from your point of departure to your destination: the scenery, the culture, the architecture, the people, and so forth and so on. When you fly, on the other hand, you miss out on everything that connects places – and this is an overlooked aspect of travel. Train travel helps to bring into focus both the similarities and differences between villages, towns, cities, and countries. Flying bypasses this experience and so you miss out on interesting details about your destination. With train travel, the journey is a valuable part of the experience; sometimes it’s one of the most memorable aspects of the trip (I definitely felt that when travelling by train to the Scottish Highlands), whereas a flight is just an inconvenience to get out of the way.
There are many iconic and scenic train journeys all over the world – as well as many new sleeper train routes in Europe – that are worth keeping in mind. Then there are the more epic train journeys you can take, and if you decide not to fly but you’re interested in long-term travel and going to a far-flung destination, these trips can become especially appealing. No doubt, people who fly also are also interested in travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway (going from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia), but if you decide to fly for the sake of convenience, cost, and time (which is understandable), such a trip may be a lower priority. Some day I hope to do this trip when it’s possible (it isn’t running currently due to the ongoing Ukraine war and China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy).
Taking a train journey like this, while relatively expensive compared to flying, would be highly unique and memorable. It’s seen by travellers as well worth the cost. If you simply flew from your home to Beijing, you’d miss out on all the changes that occur when travelling from Europe to East Asia. The long train journey itself – taking six days to go from Moscow to Beijing, without stopping – can also be a time to unwind and disconnect from the online world (there’s no WiFi onboard, although you can charge your devices).
A final benefit of staying grounded, perhaps deemed rational by some and unfounded by others, is not feeling guilty about how you travel. By significantly reducing your carbon emissions when travelling, your values and identity as an environmentalist may feel more intact, authentic, and consistent. The link between your values and actions is strengthened. Some travellers and environmentalists feel either guilty about flying or stressed about making the decision to fly or not; staying grounded, then, means you don’t have to deal with either. On the other hand, if individuals altering their travelling habits, even in large numbers, will not avert disaster, some may believe the guilt – the flight shame – that individuals bear is misplaced or inflated, especially since it is governments, particular industries, and a small number of companies who should be held the most accountable and responsible for both damage caused and changes that need to occur.
Nonetheless, flight shame, along with other movements that aim to restrict carbon-intensive activities, can still be a force for good. It can show the world’s leaders, in politics and business, the kind of world that people want to live in. Thus, individual change is not disconnected from systemic change. How we live also affects how we vote and public opinion influences policy change.
The Drawbacks of Staying Grounded
Now I want to address the disadvantages of staying grounded, perhaps ignored or downplayed by many climate activists and flight-free campaigners/advocates. I feel lucky – extremely lucky – that I’ve been able to travel to several countries in Asia and Latin America in my 20s. This also meant taking a lot of flights. I don’t really feel deep regret over this (despite those flights altogether emitting more greenhouse gases than a family in the global South will emit in their lifetimes). This is partly because it’s in the past and so can’t be changed but also because of how memorable and enriching those travel experiences were. And I think this speaks something to the nature of doing solo backpacking trips in countries that are extremely novel, unlike your home country in a multitude of ways. This is why it can feel difficult to expect others who’ve never travelled abroad – or who haven’t travelled very much – not to fly.
For a European, travelling throughout Europe can, of course, be incredible and meaningful, full of beautiful scenery, art, architecture, and encounters with locals and fellow travellers. But it is certainly a different experience than travelling to Japan, India, Bolivia, or Tanzania. This also applies to someone in North America who wants to visit countries that require an ocean crossing. For someone in their 20s, seeing all their friends going off to Asia or Latin America, but who is concerned about the climate crisis, it can feel more of a sacrifice to decide not to go than it would be for someone like me who has been fortunate enough to have already done those types of trips and now decided not to fly. As Helen Ritter explains in a blog post for Flight Free UK:
I know that being able to give up air travel so easily is a result of my privilege. In my 23 years, I have travelled pretty extensively on planes, to Australia, Peru, Uganda, China, Canada, and multiple European countries. It feels obnoxious and hypocritical to assure someone who is saving up to travel abroad for the first time or go on a rare and well-deserved holiday, that not flying isn’t a sacrifice. I am a different person because of the experiences I’ve had across the world.
Of course, it’s still feasible to travel to Asia overland (and I mean for Europeans here and not, say, North Americans who would have to opt for cargo ship travel to make such a trip eco-friendly). But this kind of trip is expensive, time-consuming, logistically challenging, and potentially stressful, and most people aren’t going to commit to it or be in a financial or general life situation that makes the trip possible. We have to acknowledge that the ease of going flight-free – and travelling by train and ferry instead – will inevitably vary based on income and privilege. This applies not just to long-distance journeys but shorter ones as well. Taxing aviation fuel (yes, airlines pay no tax on jet fuel) and state-subsidised train travel (which the aviation industry enjoys) could help combat this issue.
By staying grounded, then, it is likely that many people will miss out on travelling to certain countries, countries that they may be personally interested in and eager to explore for a variety of reasons: nature, wildlife, culture, food, history, architecture, art, etc. This loss of novelty and fear of missing out can feel significant, particularly for those with high novelty-seeking tendencies (a heritable personality trait, also known as neophilia). I don’t believe that deciding not to fly is as easy for many people as other carbon-saving lifestyle choices, such as going vegan or car-free, for instance. Depending on where you live, there are now many great vegan restaurants and meat/dairy alternatives; and it is often unnecessary to own a car (unless you live somewhere with limited or no public transportation).
Extremely long train journeys or travelling by cargo ship is going to be way too impractical, daunting, and expensive for the large majority of the population – although probably life-changing if you were able to take the plunge and do it – so this means many people will miss out on the personal learning and understanding that comes from being in an unfamiliar land. I think it should be underlined, though, that appreciating diversity and developing tolerance certainly does not depend on travelling far and wide. Many cities are very cosmopolitan and you can learn about and appreciate other countries and cultures in other ways while staying grounded.
It is important, too, to realise that staying grounded is a different experience for people in different parts of the world. If you live in Europe (including in the UK), going flight-free can be an easier decision because there is so much of Europe to explore, and the continent has a great network of trains. Train travel in Europe can also be affordable if you book far enough in advance and make use of rail passes like InterRail Pass (this is for Europeans only, while the Eurail Pass is for non-Europeans). It’s also fairly straightforward to travel (by ferry) from Europe to North Africa. If, on the other hand, you live in the US, travelling by train is more difficult because the train network is much smaller compared to Europe. Travelling within the country can be very time-consuming, let alone travelling to a different country (going to Mexico and Central America would be more feasible if you live in the states that border Mexico while going to Canada is easier if you live in the states close to the country).
There are also eager travellers in Latin America, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand who will be restricted in their travels if they decide to stay grounded for climate-related reasons. This variation in the convenience of overland/ferry travel means that giving up flying is a greater sacrifice for residents in one country than another. If you live in Europe, you have many options for travelling to different countries (although needing to book multiple trains for some journeys can be a bit of a headache). For those on other continents, there are more limitations.
I live in the UK, so I can benefit from Europe’s rail network. Yet, the drawbacks of going flight-free still make it a sacrifice to commit to never flying again, or at least not in the foreseeable future. There are many far-away countries I’d like to visit for the first time and others I’d like to revisit. I’m really enjoying travelling by train for a change, and that alone makes me want to avoid airports and planes. And I believe cutting down on flights or giving up flying can be impactful (this being only one aspect of pro-environmental behaviour and certainly not the most urgent and effective change that needs to happen). But I’m not sure I want to close myself off from certain corners of the world forever. The upside of this feeling is that it’s given me some motivation to plan some long-distance train travel.
Also, if you make other decisions in life that are environmentally beneficial (e.g. not owning a car, not having kids, following a vegan diet), then taking a flight to go on holiday once in a while may feel more justified. The situation is different, of course, if you have family and friends who live on the other side of the world, as going flight-free would then mean major social sacrifices. Others, meanwhile, work jobs that require long-distance travel (although sometimes – and this is becoming more common – employees and academics have the option of video conferencing and being able to choose overland travel instead of flying). Those who go flight-free also accept that flying is necessary in the case of emergencies like funerals or a loved one falling seriously ill.
Ritter, who has decided to give up flying, describes how this decision can be emotionally challenging:
There are sacrifices too though, particularly in the loss of time with friends and family that live outside Europe. I have family in Australia who I have no idea when I will next see. Saying goodbye to a friend who returned to her home in Chile at the end of university was hard, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to visit her without flying.
I plan on staying flight-free. I think I would need a pretty good reason to go on a long-haul flight again. After all, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found that each person needs to limit their personal emissions of CO2 to 2.3 tonnes per year by 2030 in order to for us to have a reasonable chance of limiting global heating to 1.5°C, thereby averting the most catastrophic consequences of global change – yet one return long-haul flight can use up this entire annual carbon allowance. In light of this, I would need to think seriously about whether taking a transatlantic flight would really be worth it. Some people may decide it is if it’s only a very rare occurrence (one long-haul flight every 5-10 years) and if going away for a long period of time and visiting several locations or countries, or if a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity arises. I can’t imagine I’ll ever book a short-haul flight again.
Ultimately, the benefits and drawbacks of going flight-free should encourage more thoughtfulness about the decision to take a flight or not. Deciding never to fly again due to climate breakdown is, while admirable, too big a change and sacrifice for many people. Conversely, not changing flying habits at all means that some people will feel intense flight shame, while others may feel no negative feelings about flying at all. Rather than focusing just on the disadvantages of not flying, it can be helpful for both already climate-conscious people and those susceptible to change to learn more about the benefits of overland travel. This is why we need to get into the habit of sharing stories of these kinds of trips and all the practicalities involved, as this can inspire others to try it for themselves.