An honest examination of the environmental ethics of train vs plane, and other types of travel.
How can a fun-loving, budget-conscious, FOMO-fired yet environmentally conscientious traveller keep up with the fossil fuel-ish jet-set Joneses while staying true to their eco convictions? Jane Cahane reviews the pros and cons of alternatives to cheap flights
Written by Jane Cahane
Photography by Jane Cahane except where specified
The Real Fear of Flying
For the past few years (Covid excepting), my social media channels have been dominated by endless ‘Look at me, I’m on an airplane’ snaps. Being a member of a ‘glamorous’ international dance community, where each weekend heralds yet another top-notch event in one European capital after another, is a peculiar kind of FOMO (fear of missing out) torture, as while I do want to be there, I am even more afraid of the emissions consequences of frequent flying – not to mention the damage to my bank balance (how do they afford it?).
So, I determined to limit travelling to only a few events each year, and concluded I could only justify travelling if I did so sustainably by rail, coach or sea (ferry).
So far in 2022, I’ve done a car + ferry trip to/from Dublin; travelled by train from London to Barcelona, returning by car + ferry from Paris via Dieppe; and travelled from Porto to London via coach with Flixbus – aka the Ryanair of coaches. I am currently researching sustainable travel options for events in 2023, some even further flung (Antalya by train + ferry, anyone?).
It’s true such sustainable options can work out more expensive than hopping on a cheap, short-haul flight, and the journey usually takes longer. But how do sustainable travel alternatives compare in terms of time, comfort, ease of use and other benefits, especially for female solo travellers? And how much does it really save in terms of CO2 emissions?
First, I’ll describe my main journeys and what I learned from each.
- Why Sustainable Tourism is Important
- Travelling Sustainably: 15 Tips For Eco Friendly Travel
- What Is Ecotourism and How to Plan Your Next Trip
- Sustainable Tourism Norway: Experience the Flora & Fauna
- Your Guide to Sustainable Travel in Milan – Visiting Italy
- Sustainable Travel Guide To The Netherlands
- A Sustainable Travel Guide to Stockholm, Sweden
Train vs Plane? The benefits of train travel
For my long weekend (five nights) trip to Barcelona for the first international CoBeatParty Live (a weekend salsa dance event celebrating the end of Covid restrictions) in September 2022, I decided to travel by train there and back from London, although my husband offered to meet me in Paris (by car – sadly not electric) to return together via ferry from Dieppe (he fancied some fresh moules frites and I was grateful for a brief romantic interlude in Paris).
Having travelled safely all over Europe on my own in my 20s, I saw this trip as a chance to relive that adventure.
Fortunately, I have never once been hassled or abused as a female solo traveller, although my polyglot Franglish (French–Spanish–English) provided a few amusing “lost in translation” moments.
For me, travelling alone, particularly by train, offers the opportunity of some stimulating – even life-changing – exchanges with fellow travellers, which is another reason to favour slower journeys (for example, I compared journalism in the UK and Spain with an El Pais journalist en route to Barcelona, and met an Austrian who was willing to act as the physical model for a character in my novel on the journey to Paris).
At the time I booked with Eurostar and Renfe/SCNF using Trainline, news and social media swelled with daily reports of endless delays on short-haul flights, as well as a ‘crisis’ of lost or mishandled luggage (up by 30% since 2019) in what was referred to as “the summer of lost luggage”.
I certainly didn’t want to arrive in Barcelona with nothing to wear and have to spend time shopping for replacements, so one immediate advantage of travelling by train is there is no weight limit for luggage – if you can lug it, you can bring it! Also, there’s no restrictions at all on liquids (apart from alcohol), so none of that messing about with trying to cram all your toiletries and perfumes into a dinky plastic bag. Result!
Considering the time it takes to get to Luton or Gatwick, plus all the wait time before the flight and occasional delays in actually taking off or landing, the actual 2.5 hours’ time in the air, then getting from the airport to the city centre – which can add up to another 4–6 hours or more, if you are particularly unlucky – the longer train journey (2.5 hours to Paris Gare du Nord via Eurostar + 6.5 hours to Barcelona Sants from Paris Gare du Lyon) seemed infinitely more relaxing and hassle-free for only a few hours’ longer actual travel time.
Barcelona Sants train station, with its nearby metro and bus stations (including the hop-on/off tourist bus), was also far more convenient – only a 3-minute walk to the hotel event venue. It was also cheaper, compared to the €8.90–€13.20 40-minute transfer shuttle from Barcelona El Prat (BCN) airport, or likely at least €35–€40 in cab fares.
While my total for the combined return train journeys at £312.50 seems higher than most cheap return flights, once you add in the costs for baggage, seats and transfers, it probably balances out!
Also, in terms of punctuality, train travel is much more efficient – not only were all the trains reliably on time (the French and Spanish train conductors didn’t have any “leaves on the tracks” issues as they do in Blighty), but they are also infinitely more comfortable, and a darned sight healthier.
Not only do the back-supporting seats offer plenty more leg room, but you can stretch your legs by roaming around the carriages or head to the cafe for refreshments – none of that need to wear diverticulitis-preventing socks or wait until you can safely unbuckle to go to the toilet (a massive plus for someone like me who suffers from swollen ankles and interstitial cystitis [IC]). Also, there is free and generally reliable WiFi, so no need for flight mode. What’s not to like? And, compared to my female friends who’d flown, my journey definitely won in the ‘beauty rest’ stakes, too.
And did I mention the scenery? Another benefit of slower travel by train or coach means that what you lose in supposedly faster travel, you actually gain in terms of the countryside and landscape you get to see – so much better than endless clouds until you near land.
Depending on the time, season and route, TGV trains from Barcelona to Paris offer stunning views of the snowy French Alps, the majestic Pyrenees, the Mediterranean with its abundant olive groves and vineyards, and lakes studded with birds such as flame-hued flamingos. If you have no time constraints, you could even soak up more of the Pyrennees by travelling on the famed yellow train (La Petite Train Jaune) route from Villefranch-de-Conflent to Latour-de-Carol – which takes in Bolquère, the highest ski station in France.
Breaking up the train journey with a short stopover in Paris – including a stroll in the Cimitière du Père Lachaise), a leisurely lunch in beautiful late summer/early autumn weather at a cafe off the Champs-Élysées and a visit to the Versailles gardens on the way to our delightful B&B near Dieppe – was another plus.
This, with the extra time soaking up the last of the summer sunshine in Dieppe harbour before our 4-hour return via ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven (£142–£160), were highlights of my trip. It was much more relaxed and pleasanter than I recall the shorter (1.5-hour) Dover–Calais crossing being.
In general, ferries are a far more sustainable travel option, even if you have to use less-sustainable travel (a car) to reach them.
If the sea is calm, you may be fortunate enough to spot pods of playful dolphins around your boat, as I did while a foot passenger on an Irish Ferries trip from Holyhead to Dublin in June using the Dublin Swift (135 minutes). It’s great to take advantage of the opportunity to go out on the decks and enjoy the fresh sea air and multi-hued skies. The panoramic approach to a coast by sea is, to me, just as exciting as approaching a city by air, offering a seabird’s-eye view instead of an eagle’s.
A two-day coach trip for a three-day event? Nope, not joking!
Having had such a positive sustainable experience with Barcelona, I next decided to travel to Porto for the Porto Salsa Weekend event in early October – though I vowed I would only do it if I could keep my entire costs (travel, hotel, event and restaurants) under £500.
For this route, Trainline only gave options for getting to/from Porto from London via coach, either Flixbus or BlaBlaCar. It would mean a nearly two-day/overnight journey (37.5 hours) leaving at 00.35 from London Victoria Coach Station to Paris Bercy Bus Station, with a second coach leaving Paris at 10am the next day and arriving in Porto at 2pm the following day.
Flixbus cost £85.98, with a slightly cheaper return at £72.98; although this seemed higher than the cheapest flights via EasyJet (ca. £60 each way) at the time of booking, it didn’t factor in baggage fees of £45 and a shuttle (€2.45) or cab (€30) to the city centre.
The Flixbus luggage policy allows one piece of 7kg hand luggage and one piece of 20kg hold luggage per passenger; additional luggage (one extra 20kg luggage) costs £3.99 (online; £6 at the station). You can also take bikes (not e-bikes), wheelchairs, pushchairs or musical instruments for free, so was ideal for the friendly Hungarian busker I met en route. (Flixbus provides paper ID tags, though having read some horror stories on TripAdvisor about bags being stolen from the hold, I determined to keep my stuff with me.)
So, completely bonkers as it sounded to take such a long coach trip for only a weekend event, I decided to do it as: a. it did fit within my budget; b. it would undoubtedly be an interesting adventure; and c. I needed to read Wolf Hall for a discussion group, so a long journey seemed ideal.
Unfortunately, though I usually thoroughly research all the details in advance of any travel booking, in this case I stupidly booked first and researched after – mistake! After reading a few alarming reviews, I tried to ask the rude French drivers politely if the bus toilet was working before I boarded the 00.35am coach from London Victoria Coach Station (due to my IC, I absolutely cannot travel without a toilet).
Alas, they only heard the word “problem”, then refused to let me board the half-full coach, claiming my ticket was invalid; they even nearly ran me over in their hurry to get rid of ‘problem’ woman! They told my husband in French that the ticket date was wrong, so I wasn’t insured to travel, but as this was due to an administrative error on Flixbus’s part, I sent a whopping complaint and did get a full refund!
I then had no choice but to find a cheap flight out to Porto, and trust my return trip by coach would work out. I booked an EasyJet flight from Luton at the crack of dawn on Saturday for £59.99 for just a seat + carry-on; although I was disappointed to fly, EasyJet claims to use 15% more fuel-efficient aircraft.
On the plus side, getting there earlier (after a two-hour delay) meant I did have more time to sightsee in Porto – a truly beautiful (though steep!) city. And, as I now only had two nights there, my costs were well under budget.
The return coach journey from Porto–London, leaving at 9am on Monday, was surprisingly quite okay; I even had two adjacent seats to stretch out on for the entire journey.
Although the drivers did not initially unlock the onboard toilet, they stopped frequently for 30–60-minute breaks at roadside eateries/petrol stations – admittedly not always the most scenic locations, but they served their purpose. (They did eventually open the toilet, but it had no tissue or soap, so I was glad I brought my own.)
The drivers locked the bus to protect our luggage when we stopped, and counted all passengers after re-boarding. The only real drag was a group of noisy Portuguese footballers sitting behind me who yakked incessantly for hours, failing to respond to polite requests to tone it down. Thankfully, they finally got off and were replaced by a charming French-African student named Patrice, with whom I had great conversations until we reached Paris.
The bus arrived at the Paris Bercy Bus Station around 3.30pm the next day, with a 2.5-hour stopover until the connecting Flixbus coach back to London. It was another beautiful sunny day in Paris and the park with nearby views over the Seine was very pleasant, although as there were several bums hanging around begging, I was glad it was not night.
I ate a hefty steak au poivre in a nearby cafe, which was just as well, as the next coach did not stop at all, except twice at the crossing – once for the French and again for the UK border. The interior of the Paris–London coach seemed almost posh by comparison, with an open, working and fully supplied toilet, and fully functional WiFi. The only minor grudge was having to get off with all our stuff and go through security and customs twice at each border before the crossing, which took some time. Despite this, we arrived at Victoria Coach Station a full 2.5 hours earlier than stated.
Overall, in terms of sustainable and cheap travel within Europe, Flixbus is not such a bad deal, though obviously you need to be careful with ticket details and bring your own snacks, toilet tissue, etc, in case the coach doesn’t stop (and a good book, in case it does – a lot!).
So how do the actual CO2 emissions compare for various travel types?
While some sources would argue the real baddie in the CO2 department is long-haul flights, according to Robeco, due to the amount of fuel expended in take-off and landing, short-haul flights emit more CO2 per person/km than long-haul flights (251 grams per person for short-haul versus 195g/km for long-haul). So that’s certainly a compelling reason to choose more sustainable travel by train (Eurostar is “most efficient” as it is only 6g/km per person to pass through the Channel Tunnel, compared to 20x that for a flight to Amsterdam).
According to the above graphic, a diesel car emits 171g/km of CO2 per passenger, or 43g/km for four passengers – so carpooling for a short-haul trip is more sustainable, Sadly, I’ve only occasionally heard this option mooted for any of the plethora of European dance events taking place each weekend; though some have discussed chartering a plane, carpooling there and back would also allow for some extended pre- and afterparties!
A coach is even better, as of course it can take more passengers at 27g/km per passenger – even if it seems ‘unglamorous’ compared to flights, if all UK travellers were to pool together and hire a coach for an event, they could possibly even practice their dance moves onboard! Or perhaps even more fun could be had on a collective ferry crossing – at a third of the emissions of flights, it’s a sustainable option with added benefits of fresh sea air.
Considering the entire transport sector accounts for roughly 14.7% of all greenhouse gases emitted, with the worst CO2 offenders being the airline industry (1.7%) and road vehicles (10.5%), it’s high time we forsake our love affair with flights and ‘keeping up with the jetset Joneses’.
While there may be some hope rolling out hybrid-electric aircraft or using supposedly more sustainable fuel types such as hydrogen will help to decarbonise aviation as proposed in a recent report, it’s not happening fast enough to stop the runaway effect of global warming – and that, for me, is the real fear of flying.
Even greener travel dreams
I learned much about the countries I travelled through just by looking out the window. For example, France is visibly making strides in its commitment to installing wind turbines, judging by the number of turbines seen en route (see here for map); considering it has the second-largest wind potential in Europe, this is a very welcome development indeed.
I was astonished to see how abundant and seemingly pristine Portuguese forests are, particularly in the north – in fact, the country is 38.1% forest (3,456,000 hectares [ha]), 0.7%/24,000ha of which is primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-sucking kind. Alas, this European country, beloved by tourists and expatriates, is also the most affected by forest fires, with 104,000ha burned as of October 2022.
Ulimately, investment in renewable energy and transport options is crucial, but until this truly outpaces fossil fuels, we need to stop thinking of short-term (short-haul) economic and time benefits, and truly get the long-term (long-haul) destination in sight. Even if that means actually not travelling, a greener future is a far better dream.
About the author
Jane Cahane is a freelance journalist, creative writer and editor; you can read further articles on environmental, travel and other topics on her blog, www.smallwriteratlarge.com