Why did this travel writer decide not to fly again

I’m a flight journalist and I stopped flying. It was probably the best thing I did – for both myself and the planet.

If I had known it would be my last trip, I would have traveled somewhere far from Mallorca.

Antarctica or Papua New Guinea, perhaps: once-in-a-lifetime destinations that require serious effort to get there. Perhaps you’ve taken a private jet to French Polynesia, sip champagne all the way and then slid down the inflatable evacuation slide by one last fun.

But the Balearic Islands? It was my sixth visit. Like the other 13.6 million tourists who make their way to Spain’s chain of temptations of the sun each year, I love this place. Quiet bays. Those golden squares. Iced beer in the warmth of an open oven for a smooth Mediterranean evening. It’s all just £4.99 away.

But in 2018, when I traveled on that trip, I hadn’t yet seen the graph, a line chart plotting average global temperatures over the past 11,000 years. It’s concerning: for thousands of years, the Earth’s temperature has fluctuated as subtly as a mountain range. From afar it’s like looking through the Alps: 0.1°C increase here, 0.2°C decrease, steep hills and hidden peaks. And then the industrial age begins. Suddenly, the streak explodes northward like a rocket, with temperatures rising by about 0.7°C in a century. I haven’t yet delved into extensive research on climate change, wandering along Port de Pollença at dusk or thinking about its urgency while cliff-jumping at Sa Calobra.

The size of the problem

Once you look at the data, it’s hard to look away. When it comes to carbon emissions, the aviation industry is responsible for 2% of all emissions worldwide, and 12% of fumes from transportation. So while their emissions aren’t as bad as, say, cruise ships (in 2019 Carnival ships caused more pollution than all European cars combined), planes are still responsible for the great burp.

One major issue is that the number is expected to increase. In the pre-pandemic period, the number of passengers was increasing in every country on the planet. Data from the World Bank showed that those in the US took nearly a billion flights in 2019. Those who took the flights tended to be frequent flyers. In the UK 15% of people took 70% of trips, a pattern that is being repeated in other countries.

The result? The Global North is responsible for 92% of the world’s excess carbon emissions. However, the Global South is where the impact of climate change is most severe. With this post, flying can be fast and convenient, and for large swathes of the planet, it can be relatively affordable. But for a holiday, they are also superfluous.

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Travel writer, down to earth

It wasn’t a difficult decision to stop flying, but it was an impractical one. As a travel writer, I often need to get to different countries quickly and easily. She has traveled to six continents and more than 45 countries, and taken more than 100 flights. Air travel is engraved in the job description: There were long weekends in China; 45-minute domestic flights across India; Short hop from Brazil to Bolivia.

I’ve taken other steps in my daily life, from carrying a reusable water bottle to doing all my gardening by hand, and not flying seemed like another quick win in terms of reducing my personal carbon footprint. It has now been nearly four years since I was isolated. Meanwhile, people smarter than me (NASA, UK Department of Transport, Harvard, UN, 99% of all climate scientists) have brought back the numbers – as the IPCC report concludes – this is the last call to save humanity.

It is important to note that traveling without flights did not prevent me from traveling. If we don’t go out and see the world, we won’t know what we’re missing out on. We need to slow down the way we travel, to allow us to experience nature, face awe, and engage with strangers. This is what makes us human. It helps us enhance understanding. And all of this is available without the need to fly.

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Sustainable travel: hiking, sailing, driving and trains
Once you decide to have sustainability in mind, there are plenty of ways to travel on ground level. Start hiking, sailing, driving and commuting by train © Studio Muti / Lonely Planet

A slower, more sustainable future

Fortunately, I’m not the only one seeing the potential of flightless travel. Look, for example, at companies like Slow Ways, an online community that connects every town and city in Great Britain via a network of walking paths. By combining unused footpaths with little-known back roads, it’s now easier to navigate carbon-neutral country.

We’re even seeing the emergence of the first flight-free travel agencies, such as Byway Travel, offering slow-travel flights to Sicily and the Cote d’Azur. Meanwhile, in Europe, plans are being made to expand the network of night trains across the continent.

It’s a fun time to travel. A new company is set to operate a bus route from London to Delhi for 70 days. Now, this is an adventure. It was also Greta Thunberg crossing the Atlantic Ocean by yacht in 2019.

It’s the comfort that kills us. We forget that humans are only a very small part of this very vast planet and we have to learn how to better pass the thing that we conserve.

So what does it mean for other travelers? That we should queue at the boarding gates to shame publicly flyers? That we should quit our jobs in order to make slow and steady three-month treks across continents on foot? This last exercise sounds nice, but it won’t work for everyone. The tourism industry is a juggernaut. He employs one in 10 of us.

Instead, we need to look at flightless travel not as a dogma but as a whole new frontier. Sure, flying less is a good place to start. Staying at longer destinations is an improvement. Commuting by public transport or your own steamer is ideal.

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But the fact of the matter is that the planet needs to end the use of fossil fuels – and fast. Traveling without flying is one way to do this. It puts our money where we are, always changing behavior, and gives me hope that we can preserve some of the world’s most cherished sights for generations to come.

Some aviation experts think improved technology may be the answer – and they may be right. Lots of brains are already working on creating carbon-neutral commercial flights at companies like Airbus and Rolls-Royce. But the new planes aren’t ready yet and we can’t simply replace the 40 million or so flights we currently take each year anytime in the near future.

So, for now, perhaps the best way forward is to remember the forgotten ways of doing things? Travel close to home. Cycling, walking and sailing. This is how I will move around the world. I take vacations that bring me into harmony with the planet and allow me to see the world in real time. When I travel on a human level and at a human pace, it helps me see the world in focus.

This summer, I took a walk through St David’s Head in Pembrokeshire, as Wales ran out of land. It was damp and rainy, a home filled with stale summers in Britain, but it was also beautiful.

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The art of hiking in the Welsh countryside
Writer, Daniel Fahey found adventure and satisfaction while hiking through the Welsh countryside © Studio Muti / Lonely Planet

From above I could see patched quilts from farmers’ fields, and various crops in green, yellow, and red. Then there was the purple bulge of St George’s Channel, the body of water that divides the United Kingdom and Ireland. He was coughing and flying down the cliffs below. It had all the drama and natural grandeur I needed to remind me of my place on this planet – and it was only a short train ride.

However, I expect to be back in Mallorca soon, taking a train from London to Paris and then to Barcelona. Then it’s an overnight ferry to Mallorca. It will take 36 hours or so in total, plenty of time to rest and recharge. It might not be Antarctica or Papua New Guinea, but I’d like to tell you about it someday.

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