Slow travel: How to see the world without ever boarding a plane

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” – Mahatma Gandhi


A decade ago I went around the world without flying. A plane-free circumnavigation of the globe. An environmental odyssey. A climate change pilgrimage to explore the world in a grounded and connected way, without a planet-stewing slew of carbon emissions trailing along behind me. It was a deliciously deep immersion into the quirky vagaries and uncertainties, but also joys and pleasures, of slow.

Travel can often seem to be solely about speed. For millennia humanity’s fastest speeds would be obtained on horse or camel back. The invention of the steam engine brought trains and tracks, the internal combustion engine cars and roads, the jet engine planes and runways, all flinging us ever faster to where we wanted to be. Concorde was the apogee of this neediness for speediness. But after it’s supersonic retirement in 2003, for the first time in the two hundred years since the first locomotive took to the rails, commercial human travel got slower. Well, except for commercial space travel of course—but if Elon Musk is going to cover the 100 million miles to Mars to seed humanity elsewhere in the Solar System, he’s going to have put some wax on the tracks to get there.

For most of us, this deceleration is no bad thing. Slowing down is synonymous with sensual experience, savouring the moment, immersing oneself in the present, being mindful. Travel is not just transit, a physical transaction of one geography to another, it’s relational—the muddled transition of landscape, culture, people, language and cuisine. It’s a romantic seduction, not a behind-the-bike-sheds-knee-trembler. It’s being in the world, not passing through it like a bad oyster.

slow travelI slowed down because of climate change. Flying is the single most carbon intensive discretionary behaviour we undertake. It’s a terrible double-edged sword. On the one hand, a testament to engineering genius, drawing the distant world closer temporally, connecting disparate cultures, making exploration accessible to those who can afford it, and perhaps bringing people together through better understanding. Perhaps. On the other, it’s enabling us to buzz around the world like flies in a jar, overloading popular destinations, and pumping vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the upper atmosphere where radiative forcing increases their impact.

Forsaking the aluminium sausage was a liberation for me rather than a loss. It slashed my personal carbon footprint and put the adventure back into travel. In an era where it’s really easy to jump on a plane to the other side of the planet, there’s rather more richness to be experienced in getting there by land and sea, as I did on the trip that became my book Only Planet – A Flight-free Adventure Around the World.

One of the delights of slow travel is ‘the places in between’—the unexpected and unplanned, the strange and sometimes wonderful places you end up through a wrong turn, or a broken-down vehicle, or simply casting your net into the sea of serendipity and seeing where your catch takes you. I remember waking in a nameless motel in the Sierra Madre mountains in Chihuahua State, North West Mexico and literally not having a clue where I was, having been unceremoniously dumped there in the small hours by a decrepit bus that could bus no further. Or finding myself at the end of a beaten track on a recommendation, and having to improvise a haphazard journey to escape again, as happened to me on a remote lake in rural Guatemala, and in a semi-abandoned sanatorium in Siberia. Getting lost is almost the point.

All the best travel stories are about this sense of schadenfreude. No one wants to hear about your all-inclusive fortnight sipping cocktails next to the infinity pool in paradise. Seriously. They don’t. But offer up an anecdote about being arrested by Chinese border guards crossing from Mongolia into China on the notorious ‘smuggling train’ and suddenly people are interested. Travel is often far more fun when it goes at least a little bit ‘wrong.’

Travelling slow is also the best way to meet people. There is something inherently convivial about sharing a train, especially when you’re sat facing each other or across a table—even more so in a sleeping compartment. I’ve eaten tiny dried white Iranian strawberries with a refugee on a Dutch sleeper train, shared sweet Russian champagne with raucous retired Finns and ex-special forces soldiers on the Trans-Siberian Express, and helped hoard contraband goods under hatches in the floor of the aforementioned ‘smuggling train’ from Ulan Bator.

“That’s all fine if you have the time,” is one comment I get a lot. But the perception of time is often misleading, especially if you only consider the journey to be a means to an end, rather than part of the holiday itself. Last week, I took the train from London to Rapallo, in Liguria, Northern Italy. Eurostar, a skip across Paris from Gard du Nord to Gare du Lyon, a TGV train down through France and between the snow-capped peaks of the Alps to Turin, and a couple of local trains along the stunning Italian Riviera coastline via Genova to the sea. It was an amazing journey, and I arrived in time for dinner. By the time you’ve hauled yourself out to the airport, checked in two hours in advance, flown and made your connection from airport to final destination, flying is barely quicker, at least for most European locations.

Instead of sitting watching the scenery roll past the window or taking a stroll down the train to the bar or buffet car, in airports you’re shuffling through Duty Free, idling time in a departure lounge, sitting next to a large man eating off a plastic tray, navigating passport queues and hunting your luggage. The train is usually much more pleasant on holiday, and more productive if it’s a work trip. At Futerra, the sustainability agency I co-founded, we even give staff a ‘slow travel day’ if they holiday in Europe by train rather than plane, to ‘compensate’ for any supposed holiday time ‘lost’ on the journey.

slow travelUltimately slow travel is about a shift in mindset—appreciating that our hypermobility is a privilege, not a right, that we should exercise with a degree of awareness and sensitivity to its impacts. In doing so, we reap the deeper rewards of real connection with people and place. We become humbled by the wonders of our wild and human-made worlds, appreciative of the awesome diversity of creatures and creative cultures that inhabit them, and inspired to tread lightly on them lest we end up destroying the very things we set out to enjoy.

We grieve the threat of climate change and the tragic loss of so much of the intricate, interdependent web of life because we should, because we love the world. Not for me the almost pervertedly counter-productive ‘last chance to see’ mentality of desperate travel to destinations in danger. Instead I am drawn more to the wonder in the local and the everyday—the beauty in the mundane when we pause to notice it. Relishing the complex psychogeography and history of the familiar. Tuning my senses to consciously listen, smell, touch and taste the journey as well as eat it up with my eyes. Feeling, not just seeing.

When we do this, our perspective shifts. We start, as William Blake wrote, to see a world “in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.” We celebrate, not fear, the differences of others. We are grateful for what we have and understand why others might choose to, or not to, strive for it. We are aligned with the flow and grain of the world, not barging through it.

In uncertain times, the unpredictability of slow travel might be the antidote to the creeping need for authoritarian control. A reminder that what connects us is always greater than that which divides. And by slowing down and getting lost we might just find ourselves, and find out how to live and flourish better on our one and only planet.


Follow Ed on Twitter at @frucool.