Getting the short-haul fix
City breaks and fortnights in the sun are mainstays of our culture and treated more as a right than a privilege or a luxury. This is made all the more possible by cheap flights on budget, no frills airlines to common destinations.
It now costs less to fly from the UK to many parts of Europe than it does to get a train across England, and in some cases, much less.
If I am deciding about where to go for a short break based purely on budget, then, providing I have planned well in advance, Italy or Spain would win out over a city break in a closer location such as London or Edinburgh.
Despite knowing the environmental implications of choosing to fly, it is hard to resist the temptation to travel to somewhere with potentially better weather, with a different language and culture and with less familiar surroundings.
In praise of the staycation
There are many reasons for us to holiday at home in the UK. The island on which we live has beautiful countryside, national parks, fascinating historical sites, endless miles of coastline, museums and galleries in every major city, a booming food scene and café culture, mile upon mile of hiking and cycle trails, accommodation in every price bracket from tent pitches in impressive locations to luxury hotels in the metropolis. And the UK is getting better at shouting about its many tourist attractions, making them accessible to all, and creating richer and more streamlined visitor experiences.
Yet faced with a choice between spending a couple of hundred GBP on train fares to get my family across the country, or a similar amount, or less, to fly across Europe, the latter has usually won.
Recently, we flew return to Italy for just 120 GBP for three of us and one suitcase in the hold. As the cost of accommodation (with Airbnb) was cheaper than equivalent accommodation back home it was difficult to make the environmental argument stick.
I don’t want it to be this way. I want air travel to cost more. Airlines should pay a high environmental penalty and that should be reflected in the cost of every seat, as happened in Sweden this year. The hope would be that this would drive behavioural change. But this is punitive. Ideally, we should all take responsibility for our role in the pollution that is so fatal to our planet without being forced to reduce our carbon footprint.
I love to travel and experience other countries, cultures, new and unfamiliar environments. The best way to do this is on the buses, trains, pick-up trucks, tuk-tuks and motos that local people use. I don’t want to spend hours in sterile airport departure lounges, on aircraft with dry, recycled air, spewing out noxious gases, missing out on mile upon mile of scenery and experience as I sail in comfort above the clouds.
What usually forces my hand? Time. Conventional employment practices do not allow for the longer periods of annual leave or contractual flexibility necessary for overland travel. Employers are not generally keen on holding positions open while their staff spend a few months travelling around some of the lesser explored parts of the globe or taking trains across Russia to get to East Asia. A holiday in Australia or New Zealand is almost possible during a period of annual leave using long-haul air travel. It is completely out of reach on trains, buses and boats. But what a fascinating few months that would be?
The case for slow travel
Unfortunately, there is no cost benefit to employers to make working practices more flexible to allow their workers to make more environmentally-conscious, slow travel choices. But the educational, social and health benefits to those employees is huge, and would surely be reflected in the workplace. More knowledgeable, flexible, open-minded staff with greater empathy and better mental health and physical stamina? Surely time off for slow travel should be a necessary part of any employment contract.
Fast, no-frills tourism does not give us the time and space to really get to know our chosen destination. If we want to understand a place, what makes its residents tick, how the fabric of its society is structured, its hidden gems, its quiet corners and its dirty secrets, we have to arrange our lives more flexibly. We need to make time to travel slower and more immersively. Travel should be an education and an eye opener, not a cheap thrill.