Climate Crisis Guide Lifestyle Transport

How to Travel Without Flying in Europe (2019)

This past April, activist Greta Thunberg made headlines as she spoke at environmental events across Europe. But the hubbub wasn’t just because she’s a teenage sensation whose campaigning is inspiring figures from the Pope the Obama – it was because her international journey was done entirely by train.

But she’s not the only one opting for travel without flying. As Sweden experienced devastating forest fires and their hottest days on record last year (in 256 years of gathering data), many in the country have begun questioning the habits that contribute to climate crisis: flying first and foremost.

The sentiment is starting to spread. This year, Flight Free UK – a campaign asking people to take collective responsibility not to fly throughout 2020 – hopes to receive around 100,000 signatures. And a campaign called “A Free Ride” is pushing to introduce a frequent flyer levy, shifting the burden of compensating for air travel onto wealthy frequent flier.

All of this uproar over flying is for good reason. It’s the most environmentally negligent way to travel – if aviation were a country, it would be the seventh largest polluter in the world, with emissions at 1.83lbs per passenger mile. It gets worse: although flying makes up about 2% of current greenhouse gas emissions, it’s set to grow by 16% by 2050, making it the fastest growing source of emissions.

With the situation so dire, there’s little choice but to begin transitioning to other means of travel. When planning your next trip, consider these alternative ways to get around – and cut down your carbon footprint astronomically.

Travel without flying: Train

Environmental impact

Train is one the most environmentally friendly ways you can travel; according to American Union of Concerned Scientists, the emissions of train travel are roughly 0.41lbs per passenger mile (again, for flying, that’s 1.83lbs).

The EcoPassenger site estimates the CO2 emissions of these common routes as follows:

  • London to Paris = 14.9KG (flying = 112.1KG)
  • Paris to Barcelona = 11.1KG (flying = 137.9KG)
  • Amsterdam to Berlin = 16.9KG (flying = 122.7KG)

Prices and booking

The Man in Seat 61 is a brilliant resource: train travel guru Mark Smith has put together info on everything from buying train tickets to country specific guides (from Austria to Azerbaijan), and even a guide on getting from Europe to Australia without flying. His train travel in Europe guide is a must read.

Train travel can be expensive, but booking early can get you prices like:

  • London to Paris from €50
  • Paris to Barcelona from €66
  • Amsterdam to Berlin from €44

Eurostar, German and Austrian railways open bookings up to 180 days ahead; the majority of other European trains open 90-120 days prior. Prices are lowest mid-week, with Fridays and Sundays generally most expensive.

For timetables, Smith recommends Germany’s Bahn website; if you’d prefer to consult a printed timetable, the European Rail Timetable (published since 1873!) is your best bet. And although no one site sells tickets for every European operator, comes close, covering France, Spain, Germany and Austria and Italy.


You’ve probably heard of interrailing; the train pass that gives European citizens and residents unlimited travel on all trains run by participating operators across Europe. A global travel pass, allowing 10 days of travel over 2 months, comes in at:

  • Youth (12-27): €308
  • Adult (28+): €401
  • Senior (60+): €361

That may not seem cheap at first glance, but it averages out at €40 per day to travel anywhere in Europe (although note that you’ll still need to pay reservation fees for many trains, like the Eurostar).

Single-country Interrail passes are also an option, and Renfe (Spain’s national railway company) and Switzerland’s SBB also offer travel passes.

Train tours

Guided or organised train tours are another holiday possibility; recommended providers are:

  • Railbookers: Independent rail experts who offer pre-planned holiday packages or tailor-made trips
  • Great Rail Journeys: Worldwide guided rail tours, from Cape Cod to India
  • Planet Rail: Swanky first-class, tailor-made holidays around Europe

Travel without flying: Car

Environmental Impact

At 1.17lbs of CO2 per passenger mile, cars aren’t exactly an environmentally friendly way to travel. In fact, for one or two passengers traveling 1000+ miles, it can be more eco-friendly to fly, even first class, than to drive a typical car or SUV.

But for shorter trips, of c.100 miles, it’s still preferable to drive (even a gas guzzler).

Ecopassenger puts the CO2 emissions of driving as follows:

  • London to Paris = 48.4KG (flying = 112.1KG)
  • Paris to Barcelona = 109KG (flying = 137.9KG)
  • Amsterdam to Berlin = 75.6KG (flying = 122.7KG)

Is there any way to make driving more eco-friendly?

There are a couple of steps you can take if you want to lessen the impact of travelling by car somewhat:

  • Plan your trip to avoid traffic as much as possible! Not only is it annoying, but a bunch of cars sitting gridlocked on the motorway releases more unnecessary pollution into the atmosphere
  • Don’t go it alone – car share wherever possible. Car sharing app BlaBlaCar has 75 million users in 22 countries, and claims to have prevented 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 being released in 2018
  • Consider offsetting your trip with Clear! They provide offsets for everything from car holidays to your commute over the year
  • Consider renting an electric car for your trip; they’re available in Europe from Wattacars, amongst other vendors

Travel without flying: Bus

Environmental impact

At just .017lbs of CO2/passenger mile, buses are a super environmentally friendly way to travel!

Prices and booking

There are plenty of providers offering low-cost coach travel; Megabus and National Express are stalwart services within the UK, and Eurolines and FlixBus run extensive routes throughout Europe.

Booking a month in advance will get you prices like:

  • London to Paris = €25
  • Paris to Barcelona = €45
  • Amsterdam to Berlin = €40


Like interrailing, passes for extensive bus travel are available. The Eurolines pass, for example, allows unlimited travel to 49 countries over 15 or 30 days.

Busabout offer a “hop-on, hop-off” service around Europe and its major cities, departing every other day from May-October: but be aware that buses are often oversubscribed!

Coach tours

Coach tours are a carbon bargain; and contrary to popular belief, they’re not just for old people! Contiki put on coach trips for 18-35 year olds that get famously rowdy, although they’re a little on the pricey side – a 13-day Berlin to Budapest trip will set you back c.€1500.

Travel without flying: Boat

Environmental impact

The carbon emissions of boat travel naturally depends upon the size and type of boat; however, you can be sure that larger ships are horrible for the environment, particularly cruise ships.

German environmental NGO NABU campaigns for the cleanup of the industry, on the grounds that cruise ships use heavy fuel oil for their engines – a fuel that, on lands, would have to be disposed of as hazardous waste, as it contains 3,500 times more sulphur than the diesel used for land traffic vehicles.

As the ships don’t have the emission abatement technologies (like diesel particulate filters or SCR-catalysts) that are a standard in passenger cars, they release huge amounts of black carbon, sulphur dioxides and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. Blown far across the world, NABU claims these substances contribute to:

  • The damage of sensitive ecosystems
  • Acidification of soil and water
  • Eutrophication (excessive richness of nutrients, causing the death of animal life) of lakes and coastal areas
  • Illnesses like cancer, asthma and cardiovascular disease
  • And, of course, global warming

Further reading: NABU cruise ship rankings 2015

That being said, smaller boats are certainly preferable to flying. Ferries (for which there’s surprisingly little environmental impact data) can be booked at Direct Ferries or Aferry; rent your own boats from Boating Europe or Le Boat.

What about this cargo ship cruise trend?

Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about cargo ship cruises – literally, taking a cabin aboard a freighter that’s transporting goods across the ocean. Wired even claimed cargo ship cruising could be “the ultimate carbon saving tip”.

It’s touted as an exciting, unique and authentic way to see the sea and the world – without all the brouhaha that comes with your standard cruise ship. With only a few others on board, passengers spend their time bonding, relaxing, reading and stargazing.

But how can cargo cruises be considered eco-friendly, when these huge ships run on the same dirty fuel as cruise liners?

Well, cargo cruisers claim that per item transported, ships are more efficient than any other mode of freight transport. According to Verband Deutscher Reeder (the German association of shipping companies), container ships emit 15g of CO2 per ton of cargo per KM, compared to:

  • Trains = 35g/tkm
  • Trucks = 50g/tkm
  • Air cargo = 540g/tkm

Cruise ships, by contrast, emit 200-400g CO2 per KM per passenger – whereas, the argument goes, the weight of one person in relation to thousands of tons of cargo, on a ship that’s going to be travelling anyway, is infinitesimal.

Prices and booking

If you’re convinced by this argument, you can browse and book through Freighter Expeditions or Maris Freighter Cruises. The former offer European cruises from, for instance:

As you can see, prices aren’t exactly cheap; and although conditions on board are pleasant, you’re not exactly travelling in the lap of luxury (the Germany to Poland route notes that your view “may be blocked by containers”).

It’s also important to note that:

  • Many ships have only 2-4 cabins – you’ll usually need to book up to 6 months in advance
  • Remember that the ships are working vessels – you’ll need to be prepared to mix with the crew!
  • You must be under 77 years old (sometimes 80!)
  • Yellow fever vaccinations, travel insurance and a valid passport are compulsory!

Travel without flying: Bike

Environmental impact

The environmental impact of cycling is, as you would expect, minimal; even making bikes is many times cleaner than making cars.

Go it alone

If you have your own bike (or rent one from somewhere like CycleEurope) you can consider plotting your own route using the EuroVelo paths managed by the European Cyclists Federation; a network of 15 long-distance routes across Europe, they’re free to be used by tourists and locals alike.


Cycling tours – where the itinerary and schedule are organised by a company for you, and you’re often provided with a guide – are also an option. The Guardian’s Top 10 include:

If you have to fly…

Sometimes, whether it’s due to money concerns or family emergencies, flying is unavoidable. In that case, there’s a couple of steps you can take to mitigate the environmental impact of your trip. To be clear: nothing can truly counterbalance the carbon cost. But something’s always better than nothing!:

  • Before you book your flight, look into which airlines are rated most carbon efficient. According to carbon offsetting company atmosfair’s 2018 Airline Index, the top 10 in Europe are:
  1. TUI (UK)
  2. TUIfly (Germany)
  3. France (France)
  4. Thomas Cook (UK)
  5. Air Europa Express (Spain)
  6. Condor Flugdienst (Germany)
  7. (UK)
  8. Air Europa (Spain)
  9. Siberia Airlines (Russia)
  10. KLM (Netherlands)
  • Although it’s less comfy, always choose to fly economy. Less leg room means you’re packing more people onto one plane, and your personal emissions will be roughly three times less than if you travel in First or Business class (according to a study by the World Bank).
  • The heavier the plane, the more fuel is needed – try to pack as light as possible!
  • Fly direct and avoid layovers – takeoff and landing account for much of the flight’s total emissions.
  • Offset your flight, if you can afford the extra expense – but do your research to make sure the programmes are really making a difference. Here’s a deep dive into the claims of 7 carbon offsetting companies.

Enjoy a holiday without flying!

Many of the increasing number of people joining the no-fly movement say that they don’t feel like they’re losing anything; instead, they’re gaining new experiences – a better appreciation of their country and their neighboring countries; more adventurous journeys; closer encounters with nature; more time spent enjoying travelling with their loved ones.

So instead of booking that trusty, cheap flight to Mallorca this year, look into some of these flying alternatives – and let us know where you end up!

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